Today I found myself recalling one of the first times I traveled alone. It was 2002, and I was twenty and studying art in London. I was also head over heels in love with Scotland. I think my obsession with it had partly to do with connection and identity (some of my great greats a long way back were Scottish), and partly to do with literary romance. Scotland feels as though it’s on the edge of the world – windswept, remote and magical. It’s the kind of place where if you were trekking through the highlands and came upon a faerie or the gateway to Narnia, you wouldn’t be surprised in the least. For me, Scotland was brimming with inspiration for a thousand epic stories.
When I packed up my backpack and hopped on the train from London King’s Cross in early March, I had already been to Scotland once before in January on a tour of the highlands with the other students in my program. Even though I typically loathe traveling in large groups, and even though the frigid January sky had been alternating between spitting sharp shards of ice at us in Glencoe, snowing at the William Wallace monument and drizzling incessantly at the Old Man of Storr in Skye, we still all managed to have a great time. I mean, who can possibly resist liking a place with sea monsters, abandoned castles, ‘airy coos, faerie bridges, pubs named after saucy ladies who liked to flash their goods at sailors, and friendly mountains that are all named “Ben”? The ominous winter sky had somehow only heightened the sense of magic and mystery.
Ever since that week in January, I had been planning another trip back to Scotland – but this time alone. I hadn’t really ever traveled alone – not like this anyway. And for me it was a bit of a personal challenge – I was excited and nervous, but feeling very alive. Could I remember where the best hostel was in the old city in Edinburgh? Could I interpret all the complicated train and bus schedules? Could I survive for a few days with only what I had managed to stuff into my small backpack: a change of clothes, a journal, a student train pass and a bit of soap and shampoo?
There is nothing quite like the feeling of staring out of the window at the misty fields and blue-gray clouds of northern England all afternoon and then pulling into the station in Edinburgh under the cover of night and seeing the castle lights glittering high above you with the old city lit up all around it like a medieval fortress. It’s truly like pulling up to Hogwarts (although at the time, I hadn’t read any of those books).
I spent the better part of the next day wandering up and down the pedestrian closes and stairways, peeking into castles and old doorways, listening to the haunting whine of bagpipers and sitting inside cozy bakeries drinking warm tea and staring out the window with my journal open to blank pages that I wanted to fill with ideas and stories. I wrote a lot of nonsense, but it really didn’t matter. I had full pages and a full heart. When it got dark I wandered back to the hostel where I was staying and ended up meeting a troupe of friendly, raucous kiwis in the pub downstairs.
The next morning it was time to venture further north, so I caught the train to Inverness. One of my goals for that weekend was to find the town that my ancestors had lived in before emigrating to Michigan. I had been entirely unsuccessful in finding out much of anything about the Ross clan on my previous trip. Our moody and somewhat slovenly tour guide Dougie (pronounced Doo-gie) had given me a look like he wanted to shank me when I had asked him about the Rosses. He only scowled and called them traitors before walking away grumpily. So I kept my mouth shut after that.
When I arrived at the train station in Inverness, I made a beeline for the bus station. It was already mid-day and I didn’t have any time to waste. My dad had told me that his ancestors were from Jemimaville, which I had located on the map as being north of Inverness. (And yes, I know what you’re thinking, and no I couldn’t say the town’s name without thinking about pancakes and maple syrup. It’s wrong, I know… but it is what it is.)
After scouring the bus timetables, I hopped on the bus bound for the Black Isle, which coincidentally is a peninsula and not an island at all. (But Scots sure do know how to come up with good names for places, am I right?) Speaking of Scots, I found them to be incredibly friendly everywhere, but especially up north where their thick accents turned every sentence into a kind of song. On the bus ride I found myself in a chatty conversation with the gangly young bus driver and a sweet elderly lady who told me where she lived and invited me in for tea if I was ever in the neighborhood.
But I was a woman on a mission, and I could not be distracted by endearing bus drivers or kindly old ladies with interesting accents. And so I said farewell to my newfound friends and got off to change busses in the tiny, quiet hamlet town of Rosemarkie.
There’s something incredibly striking about the spring sky in the north of Scotland. The clouds move fast and loose, much faster than usual, as if you’re viewing them through a time-lapse camera. At one moment the sky can be incredibly bright and clearing into bright patches of sunny blue, and the next moment churning with dark gray rainclouds. Over the course of the 15 minutes I spent at that bus stop in Rosemarkie, I am fairly certain that it rained, snowed, and splashed me with sunshine simultaneously. The town was incredibly quiet. I saw one or two other people from afar while I was waiting there, but mostly, it was just me, the sky, the bus stop, and the ancient celtic stone crosses in the cemetery across the street.
Back on the bus again and headed even further north, I studied my timetables again and realized with a shock that this was the only bus that went through Jemimaville until the following day. Having no idea what I would find there and whether the town was even big enough to have a bed and breakfast, I decided that I would be content with snapping a photo from the bus window instead. That ended up being a very good decision – I blinked and almost missed the tiny town of Jemimaville where my distant relatives came from. So much for family history. However, I figured that the next best thing I could do would be to get off the bus just north of there at a slightly larger town at the tip of the Black Isle called Cromarty.
Cromarty turned out to be well worth the effort. It was a fishing village that was big enough to wander in, with picturesque stone lined lanes, old churches, a tiny little lighthouse, and a view of the firth. It even had a few shops and places where you could buy a cup of tea. In an old bookshop I bought a paperback history of the Ross clan and the Black Isle. The cemeteries were chock full of Rosses – everybody in Cromarty seemed to be a Ross. And I didn’t think they seemed like traitors that needed to be shanked. Thankfully, they were all rather nice.
I caught the bus back to Inverness that afternoon quite satisfied with my adventure in the highlands, and pleased that I had found some of my people. Or at least a tiny piece of my people that existed a very long time ago.
I read an article the other day about why you should invest in experiences, and not things. I don’t really remember what shoes I was wearing or what camera I was using to take these pictures, but I do remember the feeling of being there. I remember the way the clouds moved and the feeling of the cold wind as it nipped your hands, and the feeling in the pit of your stomach when you realize that you are really alone and almost (but not quite) lost. That weekend in Scotland on my own is an experience that probably influenced the future me even more than I know.
Travel has a way of getting inside you and changing you, whether you like it or not. If you travel – I mean really travel – when you observe more than you see – it is impossible to remain the same person. It’s the most exhilarating kind of drug – one that pushes you to keep on going – to keep on uncovering, discovering, learning. There are an endless number of things to find in this beautiful and complex world. New corners await!