Tuesday, July 12, 2011


On a visit last month to some old friends who are living now in London, my wife and I ventured up to Scotland and stayed for a couple of days on the far northwest coast, near the little fishing village of Lochinver. Suddenly all those poetic celebrations of the beauty of the Highlands, all the heartbreaking ballads, the romance of the clans, even the music of the bagpipes made sense. (Well, maybe not the bagpipes. They still give me the creeps, although I'm trying to like them.) The country has a way of sweeping you off your feet.

Scotland is so different from any other place I've ever seen that it's not even possible to say that it's the most beautiful place I've ever seen -- much as I want to say that -- because comparisons just don't make any sense. Unless you're a better photographer than I am, taking pictures doesn't make a whole lot of sense either, but that's about all you can do to preserve the memories. Here are a few that at least help me remember.

Given the British Isles' meteorological reputation, we were afraid our whole stay was going to look like this:

but as you'll see, the weather cooperated magnificently.

Arguing the subject of their countries' respective scenic attractions, the Englishman Samuel Johnson once said to a Scotsman: "Your country consists of two things -- stone and water. There is, indeed, a little earth above the stone in some places, but a very little; and the stone is always appearing. It is like a man in rags -- the naked skin is still peeping out." It's dangerous ever to contradict Dr. Johnson, but it's also possible to say that there are those who can look good even in rags.

Water is everywhere in Scotland -- a feature that really gets the attention of a Texan, especially this summer.

Next time I'll bring my fishing tackle.

And then there's the ocean. On our last day in the Highlands, the sun came out -- there was literally not a cloud in the sky at one point -- and the drive back along the coast offered the kinds of views that the Scottish Tourism Board only dreams about most of the year.

Here's the picture I'm using as my computer desktop at the moment. It's Ardvreck Tower, the 16th-century ancestral home of the MacLeod Clan, destroyed when Clan MacKenzie wiped out the MacLeods in 1672, took over that region of the Highlands, and built a larger, more elegant house nearby. (That MacKenzie residence, Calda House, burned mysteriously in 1737 and its stone remnants stand nearby. Say what you want about the lawless Scottish clans, they were good at making picturesque ruins.)

The area of the Highlands that we visited is called Assynt and it is famous for its weird terrain, with large isolated mountains rising up steeply off the moors. Lochinver, the village where we stayed, is dominated by one such mountain, Suilven. Its distinctive shape is hard to forget. Here's how it looked from the walking path above our hotel.

And here's a nice picture postcard shot (not by me).

Believe it or not, the summit of Suilven is reachable as a kind of walk-up, without any technical climbing, from an approach along the ridge. One of Scotland's best modern poets, Norman MacCaig, loved the Assynt region and wrote several poems about it, including a nice one about this mountain. It's an eloquent expression of how simply the feeling of being in nature changes man's perception of himself. I probably would never have paid any attention to this little poem if I had never seen Suilven, but now it's one of my favorites. An example, perhaps, of what Chesterton meant when he referred to travel (paradoxically, duh) as a "narrowing experience."

Climbing Suilven

I nod and nod to my own shadow and thrust
A mountain down and down.
Between my feet a loch shines in the brown,
Its silver paper crinkled and edged with rust.
My lungs say No;
But down and down this treadmill hill must go.

Parishes dwindle. But my parish is
This stone, that tuft, this stone
And the cramped quarters of my flesh and bone.
I claw that tall horizon down to this;
And suddenly
My shadow jumps huge miles away from me.

Even if you've never thought you wanted to go to Scotland, believe me, you do.

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