I was 21, fresh out of college. I longed for Europe, Scotland in particular. Probably due to certain wide release films (Braveheart, Rob Roy, I blush to confess it), I had Scotland on the brain. And bad. Really bad. I abhorred the Oklahoma sun as much as a McLeod set down in Alice Springs might curse the burning light of the Outback. I have always done my best thinking, my most creative writing, on overcast or rainy days. Sunlight bleaches it all out of me, suns me dry, until my thoughts and words and feelings lack for color and life. I vowed to myself that I’d leave and never look back.
In my ground-floor office, I worked out my travel plans on a whiteboard with colored markers, tracing routes, starring destinations, on my freehand map. The middle-aged woman who shared the office with me stared, gaping. What in the world are you doing? I’d love to go to Europe to see how they lee-ive in huts.
Wrong continent, Linda! I’ll go here, I’ll do this, I’ll do that. I had friends in almost every continental port of call who urged me to use their guest room, I’d be welcome, mothers from Ireland to Spain and all over Germany would cook for me and do my laundry (the gender politics of this statement now jar). My planned per diem was laughable (somewhere in the neighborhood of twenty-five dollars a day, offset by all the free lodging and meals). I had a three-month Eurail pass and some cash scholarship money, plus a planned student loan to keep me over for a year. But I was most excited about Scotland.
I bought a one-way ticket to Edinburgh on British Airways and landed in the city in early August. Scotland in late summer meant long days and short nights, midges and pints, scenery and laughter. I made friends quickly as I traveled around with a friend from home, whom I’d known half my life but now felt impossibly mopey as he cast longing looks in the direction of a beautiful Australian. His anxiety was a burden. I had said I would accompany him, not be his personal tour guide in a country I looked forward to discovering for myself.
I wanted to steep in Scotland, to breathe its air, to travel with my eyes down the spine of her mountains. I wanted to drink her stout pints and milky tea, I wanted to revel in the dry humor and their fetching brogue. I wanted to take the train along the coast to Culrain, the ferry to Skye, set out in a small boat on Loch Ness. I wanted to eat every toastie and bowl of scotch broth I could find on a menu. An old man in tweed, drunk at noon, shouted Christ but you’re a cheesemuffin. I laughed. Perhaps the films had prepped me, but deep down I’d always had an affinity for the culture, the music. The people.
Edinburgh’s damp morning streets led to Perth and Pitlochry, Aberdeen and Inverness. I went full American on my itinerary, seeing the breadth of Caledonia in three weeks. I lugged my backpack in and out of hostels and castles turned hostels. I met half of Scotland, it seemed. In Edinburgh a drunk man tried to tell me he was Pictish. I told him to get lost. Not one for mullets or acid wash.
On the plus side, my compatriot was a musician, and found us no end of traditional pubs hosting folk music. Fiddles, drums and harps, flutes and voice weave the soundtrack of those weeks.
Outside of Pitlochry, we hiked a few miles on a path to a whisky distillery, the sweet mash perfuming the air. It was sunny. I have a picture of myself there, with short hair and a childish face, frowning into the lens.
The Edradour distillery was small and inviting. Logs blazed in the hearth, even in mid-August. The sun could not completely chase away the Scottish chill. I loved it. We looked with mild interest down on the copper vats of mash from a mash man’s catwalk, heard about this or that step, and x amount of time. Yawning, bored. But down in the hall, by the hearth, a man in a kilt sat me down and poured me a dram in a shot glass with a pleasing heft. An Italian tour group was busy getting all the information interpreted for them. I sat on the masoned flagstones and sipped the whisky, the fire warm at my back. What was this, the whisky was sweet? And suddenly in a flash I understood, I understood so much! Why Scotland is cold, the sweetness of whisky, the comforting embrace of the heath’s gentle heat, how pleasant it is to take a rest after a long walk. This moment was a reset button for me on many levels. In my heart I felt I had come to my proper home.
I recently learned that, in 1685, my eighth great-grandfather – one William Sharpe of Aberdeen – emigrated from the east coast of Scotland to East New Jersey. About my same age, similar life circumstances, opposite direction. A flicker of recognition brushed my heart as I remembered my own youthful one-way journey, the prodigal salmon. I had no idea then what my family connection was to Scotland, only that I loved it and wanted to go there. Knowing what I know now, after hours of digging through archives and piecing together fragments and comparing lost stories, I understand so much more. It all makes sense. I’d love to return to Scotland now, with this knowledge full in my heart, in my mind.