The Wild Lands

The departures board flickers above me. Names of faraway places – Rues, Palma, Brussels, Faro – shuffle and reshuffle as I patiently wait for our flight to appear among the destinations: Edinburgh. Not so much a faraway sky as an unexplored one. 

I, along with my cousin and sister, am only travelling to the northern stretches of the United Kingdom. A brief pause in Edinburgh, then onto the Highlands and Isle of Skye. I’ll be experiencing the same language, same currency, same food...sort of. Yet the familiar tingling’s of wanderlust are evident as the wheels of my suitcase roll towards our gate. The feeling builds as the engine of the plane rumbles, peaking as we burst through a burning sunset – sailing above Scotland’s capital, brilliant beneath a sea of frothy clouds. 

In the two days that are spent exploring the cobblestones of Edinburgh, I arrive at the conclusion that I would not survive a life in Scotland. A freezing wind buffets us the whole while as we stumble through castles and streets rich with history. Edinburgh is apparently in denial that it’s nearing July. But even my battle with the cold fails to distract from the city’s gloomy beauty. I get lost in the bustle, in the grandness and antiquity. In the feeling of adventure, of knowing that my heart is full with the unexpected and will only get fuller as we travel towards the Highlands. 

How vast the sky is here. In every direction, it extends above black and red rocked peaks, foothills of green, lochs of an indescribable blue. We have reached the wild lands. And indeed, there is something so incredibly wild about Scotland’s northern domains. A buzzard rises lazily, dipping in and out of the glen that scars the sliver-plated terrain. Deer roam through heather that will soon alight in vibrant purple. Waterfalls carve a trail through tumbling mountains, their verdant carpets a blanket draped across a sleeping body. It’s a landscape of colour almost untouched by human hands…moulded by the stars and sea and sky. 

We drive further into this wilderness, memories of concrete, fast food and congestion fading as the miles between us and Edinburgh widen. As our guide manoeuvres paths that dip and bend, she entertains us with tales of mystical sea creatures and mischievous fairies; discusses the benefits of rowan for protection and indicates enchanted doorways that lead into the Land Under the Hill. We roll our eyes and laugh at the improbability of it all, but stories of kelpies, Elvin and the wee folk are entirely plausible here. You can feel something when you stand in the shadows of the land – whispers that dance between the wind and irrational sense that the ground on which your feet tread has known a wild magic. 

Scotland is at its most beautiful under a sheet of rain clouds. Each glen dusted in a coating of silver, a darker tarnish than the sky above it. The lochs we pass are a deep teal, the surrounding vegetation like powdered raindrops. The rain strokes the windows of the bus and a steady patter drones along with the rumblings of the engine. It’s a soothing noise and I notice my cousin’s head edge closer to the seat in front of her, my sister’s blinks lasting a little longer. All around me are yawns and drooping bodies. But I’m too entranced by the view outside our trundling bus to even think of sleep.

The unexpected stop becomes a much-loved pattern in our five-day loop of the Scottish Highlands. A rest stop at Eilean Donan Castle, lunch with Falkirk’s Kelpies, a hike to the Old Man of Storr. I experience too many villages, castles, ruins and postcard-perfect views to recall the names of them all. Although memories of Glen Coe will remain. There, I begin to understand why the sound of bagpipes is said to be haunting. The music drifts across the rain-swept slopes, rising, falling, echoing in a melody that is devastatingly beautiful. The tartan-clad piper creates a striking contrast beneath the leaden sky. An intrinsically Scottish accompaniment for a walk through an intrinsically Scottish place, I think. The music follows me like a shadow, ringing in my ears when I finally close my eyes to sleep. Only then, halfway between dreams and consciousness, do I recognise the strains as the Skye Boat Song. An ancient tale of a prince who fled over the sea, and a woman with the purest heart. Or, as others may know it, the opening song of Outlander

Each morning on the Isle of Skye is dry and bright; the blue of the sea giving away to reveal the curves of islands touched by dawn light. We drive from end to end, noses pressed against windows for the duration of our travels. Mouths open, camera’s flashing. Our guide’s Gaelic playlist the perfect accessory for a journey as otherworldly as this. 

It reaches 9.04 PM and still Skye’s firmament is streaked with sherbet shades. I watch cars pass over the bridge that connects her to the mainland; it marks our journey back towards Edinburgh tomorrow. From my seat at its foot – enveloped by meadow grass dyed gold by the setting sun – the title of “sky” bridge seems fitting. The concrete wings leave a smudge of grey that stretches beyond the clouds. I observe a flock of seagulls trailing a fisherman’s boat, the sky above me dying with absolute grace. The night finally goes dark, although my soul is light with our adventures. 

I’ve tasted whiskey, experienced my first ceilidh, climbed fortresses and travelled over lochs. I’ve fed hairy coos, stood on ancient battlefields where history bleeds into myth and grief and I’ve even tried a haggis. I’ve stood at the foot of cliffs and the heart of glens and chased so many sunsets the glow has permanently stained my mind. I’ve experienced Scotland. And as the plane departs above her capital – the Forth Bridge vivacious even at this height – my final thought is that this is Scotland: wild, seductive and unapologetically beautiful.

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