Guest blogger Keith Savage writes about his passion for Scotland.
Keith: I remember walking into the Flattie Bar across from the docks in Orkney’s second city, Stromness. It was a cozy, dark place, little more than a green shack attached to the much larger and more stately Stromness Hotel. Silence and turned backs greeted us as my wife and I entered. Everyone watched a small TV mounted in the corner. There, in the fuzzy technicolor, was Mel Gibson in his blue face paint, riding up and down the lines of his Scottish warriors, shouting his convictions. The entire bar was captivated by Braveheart. We looked at each other and grinned.
I, too, was caught up in Mel Gibson’s spell, but for me it happened 12 years earlier as a 15-year-old eating popcorn in a dark movie theater with my dad and brother. The story of the unflinching William Wallace as he sought revenge for his murdered wife – and by extension, Scotland – oozed with pulpy heroism and self-sacrifice. The story struck all the right nerves, as I was a child reared on countless fantasy tales. But this was actual history! I’m a little wiser now. I recognize it as actual Hollywood history, but the effect on me remains unchanged: I was (and am) enamored of Scotland’s heroic past.
Perhaps this early love of Scotland was primed by my ancestry. Both of my dad’s parents are of Scottish heritage – my grandma, in fact, was born in Arbroath – and growing up I often heard colourful anecdotes that breathed some life into the image of Scotland I had created in my mind. By the time I’d graduated from college, Scotland had secured top spot for the place in Europe I most wanted to visit.
First trip to Scotland
That first trip to Scotland didn’t turn out well. I managed to snag a cold the night before I made my first trans-Atlantic flight. Two weeks later, alone and with a persistent and unidentifiable illness that drained me of any motivation to leave the hostel in Inverness, I called it quits and booked a ticket home. I spent the next two weeks recovering and beating up myself for cutting short the trip. I mean, William Wallace was disemboweled and he still defied that toady English executioner. I couldn’t get over a sinus infection?
In between these episodes of chastisement, I recognized several moments burning in my memory despite the meddlesome illness and horrid January weather: a hart with a branching rack posing on a hill outside my train-car window, looking like it’d been peeled off a Glenfiddich bottle; staring up the Royal Mile at the mystical Edinburgh Castle wreathed in low-hanging cloud; rain running off the eaves in spooky closes throughout Edinburgh’s Old Town. These snapshots were like squirts of lighter fluid on the flame of my imagination.
My Return to Scotland
Of course I returned. In 2006 my then-girlfriend (she’s my wife now) and I spent three weeks driving around Scotland, from Kirkcudbright to Orkney and Portree to Aberdeen. I discovered that I liked traditional Scottish music (my dad always listened to it when I was a kid, but you know how it is with dad’s music), traditional Scottish food (neeps and tatties? Yes please!), and traditional Scottish weather (gasp!). My appreciation for Scottish history grew with each castle, abbey, and Iron Age broch I visited. By the end of week three I felt that no country could match Scotland for its natural beauty, and I’d taken a dangerous shine to Scotch whisky.
Back home in Wisconsin, absence made my heart grow fonder. When we planned our honeymoon, Scotland was the only destination we gave any serious consideration even though we’d be there in the cooler autumn. In 2009, we spearheaded a trip to Scotland with my family – finally, my parents would cross the sea and my dad would get to visit the home of his ancestors. Whenever my thoughts drifted to travel, they inevitably landed in Scotland.
Underlying my fascination with Scotland was the growing awareness that I loved to travel. This knowledge, coupled with stifled creativity and dissatisfaction with a job I’d held for more than seven years, led me to clean out my office and pursue a travel writing career. In my mind, half my face was painted blue and I was screaming “FREEEEEEDOM!”
I spent the past year seeing as much of Scotland as I could lay my eyes on. I haven’t been everywhere in the world, not even close, but I recognize true beauty when I see it. The loch- and munro-studded passage through Wester Ross to Skye along Glen Carron, the forbidding and lonesome beauty of Mull’s Glen More, the snow-white sand beaches of Shetland, and the sun-streaked Craigvinean Forest and River Braan outside Dunkeld – these are but the smallest fraction of holy sites for the travelling aesthete who appreciates natural beauty. So much of Scotland feels unexplored and preserved of its history. Whether by accident or careful stewardship matters little; what matters is that no amount of reading books or looking at pictures can compare to the experience of being there in the flesh.
Passion can compel others to action. Just look at Mel on his horse, imploring his troops to beat back the English. So I entreat my readers to visit Scotland. I hope they’ll listen as intently as those patrons at the Flattie Bar.
You can read more from Keith on his highly interesting Traveling Savage Blog