I went in search of adventure. Moments. Memories that would stick, like thick Scottish porridge to ribs, in my head and heart for long years ahead. I longed to befriend silvery lochs, wet heather by the sea, rolling mossy hills, misty crags named after old men, castle ruins where stories linger so thick they almost rub off on fingers brushed across stone, and warm people who called the cold island home. I dreamt of nostalgia I could tuck into my suitcase and lose myself in on the days that feel too new, shiny, cluttered, and sharp around the edges. I feel more alive with my hair whipping in my face, red hands burrowed in pockets, wool scarf staving off the wind, eyes watering, toes nestled in shearling-lined boots.
Scotland filled my soul like a sip of whiskey after a long day in the snow.
Its ancient soul feels much like Iceland's to me--a stern, wise, weathered, humorous great-grandparent. As my feet stepped lightly on country lanes, rocky trails, sheep tracks, grassy moors, and what I dubbed "the Highland Squish" (a deep heather/grass/moss/mud cocktail found nearly everywhere), I felt both the weight of many other boots before mine, and the land reaching up to me. My ancestors walked in such places, and I felt their presence, too.
We began our journey in Manchester, three photographers with suitcases, maps, water, and snacks (always snacks—thank you, Sarah) piled around us. We reached Loch Leven in the dark, and woke up the next morning to thick, magical mist sitting comfortably in the Glencoe. From there, winding roads, a couple of missed turns, many stops to make our very own postcards, and long conversations lead us to The Isle of Skye.
Oh, Skye. Skye. I'd set my heart on visiting after hearing it described lovingly by one of my favorite authors, Neil Gaiman, and less-lovingly by his wife, Amanda Palmer. White stone houses, seemingly-impossible landscapes, furry Highland cows and sheep, smiling people, weird rocky towers, and a dark, chilly sense of humor. Our white cottage was sensible yet darling, and we made fires in the evenings as we discussed photographs and photography, and re-connected with the world as much as we had to. We ventured into the Quiraing, a strange and fairytale-ish bit of mountain scenery, and it felt more like a Tolkien story than any landscape I saw in New Zealand. Sarah and I walked a mossy trail at sunrise, both lost in a sense of wonder. No photograph can do it justice.
We wandered all over the Isle, stopping at fields and towns and castles closed for the winter. We met kind people out painting their fences, thatching roofs, walking their dogs, and running tiny shops in the middle of what felt like nowhere. We pedaled on a Harris Tweed loom and saw the painstaking work that goes into making heirloom tweed. We stopped at a graveyard and walked amongst the MacLeods and MacDonalds.
Everything on The Isle of Skye feels old and storied and at least a little bit uncomfortable, yet somehow so utterly beckoning and irresistible.
From Skye, we sailed to the Outer Hebrides on the Caledonian MacBrayne. I spent most of the hour-and-a-half voyage getting merrily blustered about on the deck, watching Skye and eventually the Isle of Lewis and Harris fade in and out, begging my brain to soak in as much of the feeling of being there as possible. A rainbow arrived, dancing over Skye's white cottages on the shoreline. How many people before me had taken this same journey, on how many different types of vessels, the landscape only slowly changing as the years wandered on?
On Lewis and Harris, we wound through a compact Highland landscape of mountains, lowlands, tiny lochs, fields, rocky ridges, red phone booths in the middle of nowhere, and eventually, the itty bitty island of Great Bernera--our home for four days. I'd found the Valasay Crofthouse on a Google search I'd almost been unable to re-create, and I couldn't wait to see it in person. This was the northwestern edge of the last outpost before a sea of blue ocean eventually leading to Iceland, roughly 700 miles out.
Anne, the owner of the crofthouse, welcomed us and spoke briefly about Great Bernera and the land she took care of. The next night, I found myself in her entryway for over an hour, clutching the towels I'd come to fetch, thoroughly wrapped up in the longer version of the tale. Great Bernera had been owned by a Count who corresponded with Ian Flemming, the author of the James Bond novels. Apparently, the Count had influenced the Bond family motto, "The World is Not Enough", and a couple of the characters in "On Her Majesty's Secret Service". When he died, he left the island to his grandson, and the people of Great Bernera are now in complex negotiations to buy the land so it can be community-owned. She told me of the Gaelic language, of young people leaving the island, of an aging population, of trying to keep heritage alive.
We city folk tend to be quick and succinct with our storytelling. In Scotland, tales take their time. They wander from subject to subject, old to new and back again. I came home resenting the quick and succinct, remembering those wandering, lush tales I'd been told. I want more. I want to be more like that. I want to understand the bones of things.
Another ferry sailing took us back to Skye, Loch Lommond, the Glencoe (which slammed a rose, gold and blue sunset down on us as we passed through the peaks), and eventually to Glasgow on a very long day. We bid Sarah a reluctant farewell, and Gaz and I continued on to Oban.
Our next lodging was a wing of the Bonawe House just outside Taynuilt. At the end of a quiet lane, we pulled up in front of the beautiful white house, found a key dangling from the right lock, and walked inside. After staring around in wonder, I let out a few euphoric giggles. I swear I walked into "Pride and Prejudice", my jeans and hoodie desperately needing to be replaced by an empire-waisted dress. It was an exquisite bit of time travel, and we comfortably tucked in for three days of exploration.
We chased after castles, sunsets, boats sitting tranquilly in lochs, side-roads used in Harry Potter and James Bond movies, and rows of boots lined comfortably next to doorways. Our last day, we took an impromptu drive to Aviemore, the Caledonian forest, a famous camera store near Inverness, and Culloden Moor so I could touch my toes on the moss and pay my respects.
I asked much of my Hasselblad and D850 this trip, and was rewarded (much later, in the case of the film) with images that largely felt... right. I feel I always have so far to go, and so much more I could see and capture, but the honest truth of it is I'm happy that we must actually GO somewhere in order to feel the soul of a place. A photo is a postcard of a specific moment through one pair of eyes, yet so many moments fly by before and after, and so many different things can be seen with different eyes. I am so grateful to have the company of two other artists on these adventures--I have learned so much from both of them, sometimes in the quiet moments where they see something I don't, or delight in something I might find normal. Gaz and Sarah feel like siblings, sensible mornings of porridge and coffee and laundry and exercise leading us through the days, and their smiles and joy and teasing and conversation and love adding to my journey more than I can ever express.
Here are some of my favorite postcards. I hope they convey my love of this beautiful place, and invite you to journey there yourself one day. I have a feeling I’ll be back there, sooner rather than later, begging for a little more of that uncomfortable magic that will stick to my ribs, heart, and soul.
And a few of us: