I was excited to get to Scotland. The loch, the och and the single malt. I couldn’t put my finger on exactly why I was so eager to get there, but I had a feeling.
My great grandfather was a Presbyterian Minister at a church in a wee village called Greenloaning, Perthshire. After Edinburgh this was our first stop – to find the church and the manse in which my grandfathers father lived and worked from 1886 to 1902, when he uprooted his family and migrated to Tasmania. Tassy was where my great grandfather was born, but I was interested to see where my Scottish blood had lived and toiled in this land that is foreign to me.
It seemed the church had been converted to a residence, so I walked up the driveway and knocked on the door.
It was a Sunday and the elderly woman who opened the door ushered me in quickly to keep out the cold wind. She immediately brought out some photos of the church from before she and her husband had done the conversion in the mid 1970’s. There was a black and white postcard of the building taken a few years after my great grandfather left, probably as it would have been when he lived there with his wife and 5 children. It was moving, in a strange way, to imagine them there and to know the unfolded story of the minister and his descendants, of which I am one. The owner of the church/house informed me with a chuckle that the family who now lived in The Old Manse next door was also from Melbourne. Funny.
But I don’t think this historical connection was the explanation for my eagerness to get deeper into Scotland.
Our need to travel cheaper was going to be more easily realised in Scotland. There is an ancient ‘Right to Roam’ law here that in these modern times allows people to camp anywhere they can find a place. And we did. We found campsites with the most spectacular views over the water from the Isle of Syke to the Western Isles, parked next to rivers with rapids to wash away the days’ walk, stopped under immense old trees by the beach and the absolute pinnacle – a night chasing dolphins and seals with binoculars from our camp at the light house at Stoer. The bed couch came into it’s own in this spot, when the girls slept in the tent for the first time and Matt and I made the most of it; back doors open, warm under the doona with the breeze chill on our faces and the open ocean beneath us. All for the cost of the petrol we used to get there. So generous Scotland, thank you.
Scotland allows and encourages free wild camping, so people can get away from home and enjoy being anywhere else in the country for next to nothing. We loved this and took advantage of it, but even the wonderful wild campsites were not at the root of what became for me a real love for Scotland.
It must have started in Edinburgh with the busking bag pipers and the armed forces parade we stumbled upon. The men were all wearing kilts or tartan trousers and were supported by pipe bands. I remember going to see the touring Royal Edinburgh Tattoo when I was a child and even now when I hear a pipe band I get an inexplicable lump in my throat.
Things really started to kick in though, after our trek up Ben Wyvis, a 3000ft plus hill in the Higlands up north. Making it to the summit after a very solid climb requiring lots of encouraging and chocolate, I was speechless. The view out over the hills was breathtaking – literally took my breath away. We could see for miles in every direction, out over the mountains that looked like hills because of their rounded tops but dropped away to deeply gouged valleys gushing with water. Snow still dotted the peaks, including ours, although to call them peaks seems wrong. There was nothing peaky about this landscape. The girls put in a champion effort to get to the top and were rewarded with a walk on the snow drift. My old bones got me to the top too, and I felt gifted with so much more than snow.
Driving through the Scottish Highlands and along the West and North coasts over the next week I felt as though my mouth was more often gaping open than it was closed. My eyes rarely strayed away from the scenes passing by my window and we stopped at many a roadside pull-in to have a slower look with a cup of tea. I have run out of adjectives to describe the magnificence of a land by which I felt physically affected.
Many years ago I went hiking along the Alpine Track in the Victorian and New South Wales high country with my sister and some friends, one of whom was my oldest friend who, needless to say, knew me very well. One day she looked at me, hot and sweaty with my thumbs hooked under my backpack straps and she said, “You look different out here.” When I asked her what she meant she said, “You just look so calm and at home in the bush.” She’s right, and as we drove though the Highlands of Scotland I felt my face relax and my chest swell with something that I don’t quite understand but know to be very good for me.
Not many people live on the west coast of Scotland, nor in the Highlands north of Loch Ness. In fact if you look at a road map, the lines almost disappear in the north. A few million years ago Scotland was connected to Gondwana so in fact, according to our Smee Cave tour guide, Scotland has more in common with Australia than it does with England. Maybe that goes some way to explaining why I fell in love with it so wholly.
Or maybe it’s just a beautiful and generous country that allows and encourages experiences in it’s magnificent rolling wilderness. Just like my own country.