Scotland gave me a right punch to the head.
And I don’t mean metaphorically. I expected to be awed by its rugged coasts and Iron Age forts. I just didn’t anticipate the real, knock-you-down physicalness of it.
On the first day of my Scotland’s Wild Highlands and Islands tour, I met my fellow Natural Habitat Adventures travelers in Glasgow. We traveled by van to Oban, where we were to board our boat—a converted Russian research vessel—that would take us on explorations all around the North Atlantic. Our Scottish guide met us on the dock and asked if we were excited and prepared for our voyage. “When you hit the sea, she sometimes hits you back!” he joked. But we knew the intention and meaning of his words, and once in our cabins, many of us scrambed in our suitcases for the Scopolamine seasickness patches we’d brought along—just in case.
I assumed our guide was speaking figuratively when he warned us about what rough seas were capable of doing. That is, until I woke up at about 3:00 a.m. The desk chair in my cabin had slid up against the top of my bed, lifted off its legs and then had promptly landed on my head. We were in the midst of an Atlantic storm.
The next swell had the opposite effect, and I was tipped down to the bottom of my bunk. On this other end, my toes got bruised as my body was compressed—like an accordion loosing air—from the top of my head down into my heels.
A banged head and black-and-blue toes. And I hadn’t even left my cabin.
Four days later, on St. Kilda, we had the chance to step inside an old black house.
Traditional black houses were built with double, dry-stone walls packed with earth. The roofs were thatched with turf, straw or reeds. Floors were made of flagstones or dirt, and central hearths kept the houses warm. With no chimney to escape through, the smoke from the fires made its way through the roofs. Such dwellings were used to accommodate livestock as well as people. Humans lived at one end, and animals lived at the other, all in close community.
In Scotland, people lived in black houses throughout the 17th, 18th, 19th and even the 20th centuries. As someone who has always felt a kinship with the other species of animals on Earth and who has lived with a passel of pets over the years, I find the idea of a black house appealing.
As I stepped inside the ruins of one of these black houses on St. Kilda, I found John, our tour historian, talking about how the people brought their cows inside for some added warmth. I stood with my back up against the far wall. Just a few paces would have taken me outside. While the black house was small, the view of the ocean was gigantic and tremendous. “Life was lived out there,” John said, pointing to the expanisve view. “Not in here.”
What caused this seismic change? Today, we want our houses to be as big and as comfortable as they can be; some, even, have ballooned to include movie theaters, lap pools, bowling alleys or four bathrooms. Today, it seems, we desire an inside life.
I thought about the people who once stood where I was standing, what they must have thought about when looking at the view “out there.” What truly makes a home? Is it a contained structure with roof and walls and where nature is, for the most part, kept out? Could it be a canoe, as it once was in New Zealand for the Maori; or the wide, open plains of an estancia, as it sometimes is in Patagonia? Could it be a canyon or a lake? Or is home a stack of rocks in Scotland, where animals inhabit the same domicile as people?
On Mainland, the largest of the Orkney Islands, we visited the Stones of Stenness, which may be the United Kingdom’s most ancient stone circle. Constructed during the Stone Age at the northern tip of modern-day Scotland, the stones likely formed part of a larger complex linked by religious ritual.
We stopped to wander among and take photos of these vertical stones, structures that are centuries older than even the earliest phases of Stonehenge.
This is a hard-rock monument to humanity.
Just before I left Scotland, I bought a small, plastic, pentagonal box containing pewter figures of five Scottish heroes: Macbeth; Mary, Queen of Scots; Rob Roy, Robert the Bruce and William Wallace. People of words and of swords. One in the same, I guess, since the pen, as the old saying goes, is a type of steely weapon and can be even mightier than rapiers and sabers.
I purchased this heroes-in-a-box set because I see northern Scotland as a place for the brave and courageous. Scotland is battling seas and standing stones. It’s people who lived in rock residences, not afraid to mix it up with the other animals who shared their environment. It’s champions cast in pewter.
I left wild, northern Scotland with a new determination to live strong like this land. Next time, Scotland, I said to myself at the dock, as I got into the taxi that would take me to the airport in Aberdeen, it’s just you and me. In the ring—of Brodgar or any other of your choosing.
Just you and me, mano a mano.
Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,