Scotland

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Hostels.  They help you save money, give you an excuse to make new friends, and introduce you to new smells.  That experience was exactly what I was heading to while on the train from Newcastle to Scotland.

Many people say they would love to travel, if only they had the money.  Truth is, even with a lot of money, most of them would never make it out of the country.  That’s what fear does to you.  It helps you create excuses so as not to do something.  For me, my fear was the exact opposite.  My fear last year was going home for the holidays.

The moment I got off the train into Scotland, I was greeted with many vibes, all at once.  The tourists were happily strolling, most of them with lovers, taking photos of… well, who knows what half the time.  There were also locals, entertainers, and some homeless people on the streets.

I found myself on a main street, looking up at a gothic style church.  What an amazing construction!  I only saw these in art history books, and fell in love the moment I took a step back into time and felt the passion that went into these.  I took out my little notebook and pen, and began drawing (or, my version of drawing, anyways).

It was always the details.  Details fascinated me.  I carefully marked each corner and found my mind creating stories for each line that went into it.  Not even stories that made sense, just little random adventures.

Suddenly, the guns started going off.  The little bird looked down, frantic and desperate, but determined.  There!  On the edge of the corner was the little music manuscript he had dropped.  He slid down the roof, then carefully plucked his beak into each crevice to balance his way down the side.  His wing was causing blinding pain and was still bleeding, but he made it.  Once he secured the manuscript in his claw, he started searching for the easiest route back to the bagpipe player.  With the booms of the guns lighting up the sky, he knew it wasn’t going to be easy… 

“Sorry, are you drawing?”  I looked up to find a woman trying to peak at what I was doing.

“Yes,” I said.  But I wasn’t drawing, not really.  I was telling a story.  Drawing implies artistic talent.  I suppose it would make sense if I were artistic, considering I was a fine arts student, but I just never quite got the hang of it.  I guess I liked being ironic in the same way that mom liked being sadistic.

Mom loved Christmas.  She loved it because that’s when the family all got together.  The family also always drove her mad every year, hence her sadism.  This particular Christmas, however, she wouldn’t be there.  She passed away within the first week of the New Year.  What was it going to be like without her?   I didn’t want to know, so I ran away—at least for the holidays.

I swore when she was on her deathbed that I would live with no regrets, and thus far, I’ve done just that.  But now I was finding myself one semester away from graduating with a degree that didn’t make sense for me.

Just walking through the streets of Edinburgh, full of history, of morbid ends and vengeful beginnings, full of stories that made listeners laugh or inspired them to try harder or just simply to be thankful that their bodies will probably never be dug up from a grave and sold off for research and money—it made me realize the mistake I made and was in denial about.  I wasn’t an artist of paints or vector lines.  I was an artist of verbal imagery.  What sense did it make for me to be following someone else’s dream instead of my own?

The thing about fear is even though you may have amazing experiences because of it, you may also miss some important things in life.

A couple of days after I got back into the states, I got a phone call.  Papaw, my mom’s dad, passed away on the same day that she did last year.  Time’s unpredictability is a hard lesson to learn.  Of all the days that went into a year, how was that even possible?

While mom was sick, she kept saying how once she got better she was going to do what she always wanted to.   No more excuses.

I grew up always saying I wanted to be an author, but was too afraid to pursue it.

No more excuses.

 

Once the shock of the most recent loss wore off, I finally sat down with a pencil and paper.  Hostels, I thought, now that’s a funny story.

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In Glasgow you climb and fall with roads that climb and fall. When I ride a bicycle up the road, I struggle – the flesh of my thighs pant and jaws clench in melodramatic effort. But at the fall of the road, I rush down with ease and descend playfully into the topography shrieking. The winds split at my face and bite at my nose. My heart sinks to my stomach but ripples with laughter. There is only the memory of an earlier struggle – the now cooling sweat. I holler, I yodel. Sometimes, I dare myself to let go of the handlebar.

 I knew this about Glasgow:

~ the city was melancholic

~ the people were cheerful

~ together, they did just great

 Glasgow became my run-away city. In the six months that I’d lived in Coventry, I had run away to Glasgow eight times. When I decided to run away the ninth time, I told myself it was for good. I wasn’t going to return. As a young writer who had lost love, met innumerable rejection letters for a novel and received caustic remarks on her writing from a dear friend, I did not dare to remain in Coventry. I did not dare to speak of love or of writing to the familiar faces who enquired of nothing else. It was certain to me that I had lost my words and the imagination of my mind somewhere.

It was three days to Christmas when I lugged myself to Glasgow with a bottle of port. The city spread its arms of grey buildings in quiet remorse and embraced me. Walking to the Glasgow Cathedral to which I had never been before, I noticed the Necropolis looming in the distance. It was past five thirty and quite dark to see when I walked to a bridge, which connected to the core of the Necropolis, significantly named the Bridge of Sighs. It seemed that if I crossed the bridge to the core of the Necropolis, there’d be no return for me. I stood there, cars whizzing below the bridge, committing to bury not my fears but my hopes. In the Necropolis beyond, oh little girl, you will bury your dreams of becoming a writer.

The climb to the summit of the Necropolis is daunting. Some paths end in ‘Danger’ or ‘Keep Out’ signs. Crosses, mausoleums, busts, tombs, columns, portraits, torches and urns flank my unsure path. Dark angels are ready to strike. I can barely read the words etched on these and I do not have the courage to stop and stare. I wield the bottle of port – my only weapon – at the darkness in front of me.

I was sure I was dead and walking the rings of hell. I was terrified to look beyond me – with time, the statues became too fluid to be statues – and the only goal now, was to finish my trek. I had left too many stories unfinished. I wanted to have this. As a child, I wrote away my fears. Be it fear of the dark, death or failure, I wrote through them. People came, people left but there was always writing to go back to. But fear had soon taken over my writing. At every word, I was afraid that the next wouldn’t be written. And my resilience to counter failures became limited.

After about thirty minutes, I reached the summit where a column bore the statue of John Knox. When I overlooked the orange tinge of the city below me I realised that I didn’t just have unfinished business. I had un-started business – novels I had never written for fear of never finishing them. Words that I had never spoken, for fear of being unheard.

In front of me was the Glasgow Cathedral, one of the few cathedrals which hadn’t been destroyed during the Reformation. There was Glasgow, gloomy with resilience, not promising a life without hurdles but promising a life with promise. I did not have to become a writer. I just had to continue to be a writer. The Necropolis doesn’t just hold graves. It holds monuments of men who aren’t buried there. Near John Knox, I buried my fears. I dug out old resilience. I left behind a small mound, my mausoleum, in the dark brown soil and walked back slowly to the Bridge of Sighs.

Later that night, with great exhaustion, I cycled up a road, back to my hostel. On the way down the slope as the winds kissed the remnants of my tears, I let go of the handlebar. For a few seconds. The second time I tried this stunt, I fell down. I did it again.

In Glasgow, there are sporadic moments of relief from sporadic moments of grief. Such is the character of the city.

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First Time Bed and Breakfast in Scotland

 

Well, because we’re not a hotel – and you’ve never B & B’d,

here’s some tips when you’re in Scotland that will help you to succeed.

And the first thing you must understand, no matter where you roam,

there’s a fundamental difference between a HOTEL AND A HOME.

As you’ll be dealing with the owners, not just someone on the staff,

you had best be kind and friendly or you’re OUT UPON YOUR ARSE.

And, because we’re not a hotelTAKE DEPOSITS? Answer, “yup.”

Brings us revenue in winter and ensures that you’ll turn up.

And you’re bound to know our climates wet, while yours is very warm,

so be sure to walk upon our paths and NEVER ON OUR LAWN.

And the reason you might wonder, why the Scottish really cares

It’s because our grass has sticky mud; you’ll TRAPSE ALL UP OUR STAIRS.

And, because we’re not a hotel – there’ll be shopping to be done,

so don’t turn up on our doorstep to come in at HALF PAST ONE.

As we have to change the beds and clean, to make it nice for you

And so we’re busy “making ready” and not done TILL AFTER TWO.

Instead please make the most of things and plan the day before

as we need some time to call our own – we’re yours JUST AFTER FOUR.

And, because we’re not a hotel – we might ASK THE NIGHT BEFORE

what you’d like cooked for your breakfast and the time you’d like it for.

It makes such sense and helps us, but we hate it when you sulk,

but it saves on waste, to cook it fresh – than store it hot in bulk.

And when you see our bowl of fruit, by all means have a munch,

but it’s there to be your BREAKFAST, not to SUBSIDISE YOUR LUNCH.

 

And, because we’re not a hotel – we will wave you off each day,

as we’re off to have OUR BREAKFAST, just as soon as you’re away.

That’s how we keep the prices down and pass it on to you,

by taking time to plan our day, to do what we must do.

We’ve such a lot of things to clean, once you are out the door,

so if you can, we’d like you GONE BY TEN or JUST BEFORE.

And, because we’re not a hotel – and we are somebody’s home

we would like for you to feel relaxed and treat things like your own.

So straighten up your messy clothes and put your toys away

and by all means pick your towels up and snacks from yesterday.

Remember that WE LIVE HERE TOO – it’s us that drives the brush

Don’t be acting as if rock stars; screwed up beds and THINGS TO FLUSH!

And, because we’re not a hotel –  it comes naturally to most

to meet and get to know you, more like friends and not a host.

Seems we get on well with everyone, that ventures to our house

and much prefer to laugh at life, than treat you like a mouse.

We only ask two little things – RESPECT and BE YOURSELF

then relax, enjoy and make the most – no sitting on the shelf.

 

And, because we’re not a hotel – here’s the last thing we shall say.

It’s not easy playing B&B – it’s a lot more work than play.

And we hope that you’ll enjoy your stay – and it feels like a reviver

As we need for you to SAY NICE THINGS, when next on trip advisor.

We really hope this little guide has helped you hear our voice,

And that you’ll be brave in Scotland and MAKE B&B FIRST CHOICE

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Legends root deep here. It’s why, while the wind keens her Gaelic lament outside, I find myself accepting tales I might otherwise not.

“And a splash of water from this ‘Well of Age”, or Tobar na  h’oige ,” Allison stumbles over the Scotch language, “will wash away the years on one’s face, healing ailments and returning the faithful to the blessings of youth.”

“Preposterous,” James dismisses the information she’s read aloud to us.

The Englishman has already scoffed at the prediction that Christ’s second coming will begin on the battered shores of this Scottish isle. After hearing that Mary and her son, probably, traveled here prior to His crucifixion, James gasped. The questionable location of Macbeth’s gravesite received a sarcastic chortle

But I can easily picture these mythical stories, because I am lonely and heartbroken, in need of a little magic. Like me, this place has been waiting patiently for relief from the enveloping greyness. It seems natural that local imaginations – trapped indoors by tempestuous weather – would draw extraordinary events closer into the ordinary environments of cozy hearths.

Iona’s isolation helps. An island off an island off an island, the journey here is completed in soggy segments. A ferry from the mainland, a wind-lashed drive across the Isle of Mull, and a second bumpy boat ride from a nameless port to the isle’s sole community.

When St. Columba brought Christianity onto here in 563, did the landscape look any more despairing to him than it did to us, as we finally flopped onto solid ground?

“Let’s find this fountain up Dun I,” Allison suggests, closing the book.

 “Naïve Americans.” James again, mumbling into his mug of tea.

I want to tell my boyfriend about the adventure we have planned, but the weather is wrecking the internet. And, I must remember, he is no longer my boyfriend. He’s just a person I once loved. Maybe our retreat here will help me move on; or, maybe, all these stories will prove to be as easily damaged as my last relationship.

                      *            *            *

Several yards up Dun I, the footpath disappears. It doesn’t end, so much as peter out into hoof-trodden grass – as if the powers that protect this spiritual fortress mean to distract casual climbers from the well above.

Allison picks a route that looks least muddy, pointing her worn gym shoes upwards.

But our ill-chosen footwear sinks into marshy soil, making each step part of a balancing dance. Droplets spit against our woolen jackets, as a moody wind joins in guerilla warfare.

“Crap crap crap!” Allison suddenly wails behind me.

“What is it?”

“Literally, crap crap crap!” Her pupils stare down at the landslide of sheep poop she has sunk into on hands and knees.

This, too, feels like the trickery of supernatural beings.

“Look, the top is right there.” I offer Allison a glove, noting the feces streaked across her forehead.

“This better be worth it.”

I now doubt that whatever we find will be worth the misery plastered on her face.

Still, we drag ourselves the last hundred yards. And there, in the center of Dun I, is emptiness. Rock slabs, more dung; a worn stone pillar sits off to the west. Water has pooled inside its shallow basin, but nowhere is there evidence of a Fountain of Youth.

We both sigh heavily.  “I need a shower,” Allison whispers.

I am glowering at my reflection in the disappointing puddle, Allison is dabbing at her stained jacket, when a shadow lifts behind me. The blue eyes in the pool are blinded by sunlight.

What would James say, if he could see the vision below us? Miles of green grass, where raindrops glisten like jadestones. A rainbow bridge, its colored footpath carrying all of Iona’s rumors and truths up to heaven. There is such optimism in this vein of clear sky that a chuckle catches in my throat; were we fools to believe in fairytales, or is this break in the clouds a different sort of reward for our faithfulness?

Allison is a sunflower, her face tilted toward the golden light. Opening my mouth, I let the laugh out.

Maybe I’m not ready for a full smile – after all, there is no real healing well – but I can try for a grin. The start of something better.

On a rare afternoon just like this, when the world was lit as if by spotlight, the newly-converted Picts showed their gratitude to St. Columba by sharing with him their island home. Or, so I hear, the legend goes.

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zzz_IMG_3624As I look back at my life
To measure the losses and gains
Some moments were a boon,some a bane
But for the time that i spent in Edinburgh
I have just one thing to say…
That i’d give anything in this world
To stroll along those streets again..

If i were given the luxury to spend 24 hours of my life at a destination of my choice,it will have to be-Edinburgh,Scotland and here’s why:

Shrill notes of the Bagpiper cutting through the air interspersed occasionally with ringing of the bells from St. Giles cathedral,aroma of the Haggis wafting out of the pubs as you stroll by the Royal Mile,a predominance of that red and black Tartan pattern wherever you cast your eye and you know you are somewhere on the streets of Edinburgh-the national capital of Scotland.

My day begins with a steaming hot cuppa and a massive shortbread from the Elephant’s house,the same cafe where JK Rowling over numerous cups of coffee bore that legendary world of witchcraft.Breathtaking views of the Edinburgh castle from the cafe room with soft music playing in the backdrop,ideas are bound to spring one may think.They sure did for Ms. Rowling whose pictures and newspaper clippings now adorn the cafe walls.’Birth place of Harry Potter’ beams the cafe entrance and as i step inside,i notice a very visible presence of lifesize Elephant statues with their trunks raised as if in a customary welcome greeting to every visitor here.

After relishing my breakfast in the warm cafe surroundings,i head towards my next destination,the National Museum of Scotland. Soaking in the scottish sun,which i hear is a rare phenomenon here,given the incessant rain showers the country sees all year through,i walk the short distance from the cafe to the museum.The museum is home to various arts and artefacts from ancient civilizations and diverse cultures all over the world.With so much to look around,one can easily spend days here soaking in the plethora of information the museum houses.I particularly fancied the scottish section which at first drew me to it with the soulful Bagpiper notes playing in the background.Even though a glimpse around town may provide ample opportunities to bask in the scottish experience,but to be able to read and understand the rich history and culture behind it all,a visit to the museum is a must.After having amassed my fair share of knowledge,i decide to get some air.The Royal Mile is my next stop.The busiest street of the old town of Edinburgh,Royal Mile has very aptly earned the distinction of being the most popular and finest of walkways here.The mile long street is your one stop shop to take in the scottish experience in all its glory.The street is lined up with numerous cashmere and souvenir shops,eateries,pubs and cafe with a very visible presence of the famous scottish shortbread on every cafe’s rack.Scotland is very well known for its toffees and fudges and one is often allured into buying this stuff not only for their divine taste but also for the charming tinned boxes that contain them.Not the one to be left behind when it comes to shopping,i did my fair share of indulgence ,specially when it came to cashmere and shortbreads.Another feast for the eyes here is the sight of scottish men dressed in traditional kilts ,proudly portraying their story telling skills or serenading the tourists with awe inspiring bagpiper notes.As the music begins to echo in the air ,it renders a very upbeat mood to the whole atmosphere and all you want to do is just keep listening and strolling along here.Years after,when you run down the memory lane reminiscing your scottish experience,a walk down the Royal Mile will definitely be one of the high points of your memories.

After having thoroughly enjoyed myself in the warm locales of Edinburgh,the next day i take a bus tour to the Scottish Highlands.Famous the world over for their breathtaking beauty,intriguing history and the very fascinating glens and lochs,the highlands took me to a completely different world.As we drove past snow clad mountain ranges,fairy tale like scottish villages and the mystical countryside replete with medieval castles,i felt like being transported to some magical world of sorts.And to add to that magical touch was our Scottish bus driver who had an enchanting story to tell for every sight in view.From stories about scottish battles and battlefields,the famous massacres in history to the long held traditional scottish myths our bus driver had us all captivated with his story narration.But the bit that intrigued me the most was the Hogwarts express railway line that was accompanying us all along as we drove through.This is the same railway line that takes Harry Potter and his mates to Hogwarts school of witchcraft proclaimed our driver in a spooky tone.No wonder then i was feeling a bit like Hermione Granger myself!

The Highland beauty left me completely mesmerized.Be it the charming highland sheep ‘Hamish and Honey’ with whom i went berserk clicking pictures,the picturesque landscapes with gushing rivers and centuries old bridges or the gracious people with warm and genuine smiles on their faces,this was one trip that will remain etched in my memory forever.

After around 14 hours of a heavenly experience in the Highlands,we returned back to Edinburgh which bore as buoyant a look at night time.The bells from St. Giles cathedral were ringing and the city seemed to be bathed in a vibrant array of colors,breathing life from its every nook and corner.I looked outside the window of my inn and saw the diminishing Sun rays engulf the old town.The sky bore a deep blue aptly complemented by the dep blue waters of the sea just besides the town.It felt beautiful,it felt like a painter’s imagination that could only be pictured,it felt surreal.

About the Author:
Name: Neha Sharma
Occupation:IT Infrastructure Specialist

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391707678_d5aeb3b2e1_oIt was January and it had been raining for five days. As I walked down the street, shivering in my permanently damp coat, I considered my situation. I had moved from New York to Glasgow, Scotland without a job lined up or a place to live. My boyfriend and I were staying in a dirty hostel and had almost no money.

I feared that I had made a terrible mistake.

I had completed a postgraduate course in publishing at the University of Stirling that summer, and I enjoyed it so much that I decided I wanted to spend more time in Scotland. When I met with my supervisor before graduation, I told him that I was planning to come back to Scotland to pursue a publishing career after a brief visit home. He was silent for a moment.

“You’re going to leave New York, the home of English-language publishing, and try to find work in Scotland?” he asked.

I nodded.

“I would rethink that if I were you,” he said.

I didn’t. A few months after returning to New York, I packed up my suitcases again and moved to Glasgow.

My boyfriend and I chose Glasgow because it’s Scotland’s biggest city and the place we were most likely to find jobs, not because of any great desire to live there. I quickly realised that it’s the kind of place that takes some getting used to. Just when I would start to appreciate Glasgow’s Victorian architecture and free museums, I would encounter a group of drunken teenagers singing football songs and start to lose faith in the city again.

Glasgow is a city of contradictions – friendly yet frightening, cultured yet deprived, beautiful yet grimy. Glaswegians take it in stride, employing a great sense of humour and a slew of colourful slang words to make sense of their city’s incongruity. One of the first Glaswegian words that I learned is ‘geezeabrek’, which means ‘give me a break’. I decided that’s what I needed to do – give Glasgow a break. It was never going to be like New York or the peaceful village of Bridge of Allan where I’d lived as a postgraduate student. It could only be its wet, loud, graffiti-covered self, and I had to try to accept that.

While I struggled to get used to Glasgow, it did its best to turn me away. It gave me drug-addicted neighbours who stole my mail and regularly smashed the building’s windows. The only job opportunity it offered me was as a minimum wage temp in an area of the city called Maryhill, which is more commonly known as ‘Scaryhill’. It rained so I often that I forgot what the sun looked like. The dampness invaded my flat and mould bloomed on the bathroom ceiling and under my bed.

And yet I refused to give up.

I bought a waterproof jacket and sensible shoes and I walked all over the city, taking in Glasgow’s unique type of gritty charm. I grew to admire its soot-stained cathedral, red sandstone tenements and industrial bridges soaring over the River Clyde. Whenever the sun made a rare appearance, I rushed into the park with the rest of the Glaswegians, none of us wearing enough clothing or sunscreen. We drank beers all afternoon, leaving pink-skinned and tipsy.

I made friends with Glaswegians who swore creatively and often. I loved to listen to their banter, an easy back and forth of one-liners that rolled off their tongues in a series of long vowels and dropped consonants. Learning the dialect was like unlocking the heart of the city. I could speak Glasgow’s language, albeit with a New York accent. We could finally understand each other.

I knew my feelings about Glasgow had come full circle when a terrorist tried to drive a jeep full of explosives into Glasgow Airport in 2007. Baggage handler John Smeaton ran to the scene and kicked the driver, who was on fire, in the crotch. When asked about the incident, he said, “Glasgow doesn’t accept this. This is Glasgow; we’ll set aboot ye.” Smeaton became an instant folk hero, and fans set up a tribute site where people could donate money to buy him a pint.

To me, this was Glasgow in a nutshell – a fiery spirit, well-meaning toughness and the belief that a friendly pint can make everything better. Glasgow made international news and I swelled with pride in my adopted city. Aye, ye cannae mess wi’ Glesga, I thought.

I no longer live in Glasgow, but it remains the most important place I’ve ever been because it taught me that sometimes it pays to take a chance. When you have an open mind and a bit of patience, you can fall in love with the unlikeliest of places.

About the Author: Katie Lee is an American digital content developer based in England. She writes about Cheshire, Scotland and all the stuff in between at.

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scotlandOff the mainland of Scotland is an island called Orkney, itself a mainland for the cluster of islands that migrate north into the Atlantic. A friend had told me about a solstice celebration taking place in Egilsay, one of these islands. Seven of us left the concrete mass of London and did our own migration north towards the sun. After a nine hour coach ride, two hour hitchhike, ferry and then fishing boat ride we made it to this island of 5 farms and a Viking church.

A local fisherman with steel blue eyes and leather skin ran the fishing boat across when the weather was too bad for the public ferry. We passed green slithers of land just visible between the sea and sky, the backdrop for Arctic terns as they sliced and swooped for fish. Our bags were mounded high in the middle of the small boat to keep them from the invading grasps of sea water. Wearing only sandals my feet lost all feeling. Thankfully someone handed round a flask of single malt and this warmed the core. It was late now yet the sun still sent its peach light over the horizon, glowing warm somewhere else.

We climbed out of the fishing boat and up a dirt track, our feet negotiating the stones and mud underfoot. Dark clouds pulled in over the island obscuring the lighter night sky beyond and rain began to horizontally peck at our cheeks and ears. We trudged head first into the blue cold night of a nowhere island. No lights and no sound- except the rain. It felt like we could walk to the North Pole.

A white strip hovered in front of us and as we drew nearer we could make out figures huddled around a bonfire. We had crossed the breadth of the island and reached the beach. Between the sloping banks of sand, the dune grass and the bone-like driftwood more and more figures emerged. The chatting groups of people transformed what had been a journey towards isolation into a pilgrimage of celebration.

We entered a small marquee and a young girl handed us a bowl of steaming soup. Behind her was a rota of shifts for helping out: cooking; washing; gardening.

“Does anyone live here all year round?” I asked the girl. “I stayed here by myself for most of the winter. People would come and go, it got quite hard, no heating, just fires you build yourself, as little as four hours of daylight and the wind, but now it’s worth it, everybody here and eating the veg from the garden…think hard before you commit to somewhere like this.” She replied through the whirls of steam.

It was past midnight and the last flickers of sun had extinguished. “Try and stay up and see the sunrise,” said the girl, “it will only be in a few hours.” We lay down in the sand forming perfect bum shaped seats and listened to the sigh of the sea up and down the bay. As the cold morning sun re-emerged so the ashen sea stained through into turquoise and the sky brought forth a crystalline blue. Hearing the chat and music from onshore, seals nudged their heads out of the water and watched, dipping back under momentarily. With the prickling icy breeze I took off my clothes and picked my way into the numbing sea. As I swam and looked across to the opposite island and back to Egilsay they became two dimensional slits of land dissipated by the air and sea light; hardly there in the vast northern blueness of it all.

Back on land groups of people hauled fagots across the beach towards the skeleton of a 60 foot wicker man. Unlike the swimming perspective, the island was oozing out of itself with laughter and singing as lines of people heaved and tugged at hunks of driftwood. That evening the music got louder and swirling confluences of people circled the wicker man. In a moment of silence the girl we had spoken to walked out of the darkness and set the wicker man ablaze with a torch of dancing flames. Fisherman saw the roaring beacon of light and rowed over with mounds of fresh scallops.

Out of this dark elemental island had grown a celebration of sun, sea, sky and community spirit. I can only take the little flames that kept it going through the desolate winter as reason to work and cultivate through the darkness in order to get to light.

About the Author: Samantha Weaver likes to explore paths, way-faring and pilgrimage, and their significance in what it is to be human. Coming from the Welsh-English borders she tends towards landscapes that are on the edge and in between.

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In the distance the late morning mist embraced the tip of Ben Nevis like a lover. The sun tried feebly to break through the dark clouds and the rain came down in a lazy drizzle, oblivious to the fact that it was my birthday and the sun should have been given a chance. I refused to pull up the hood of my raincoat. If the weather could be obstinate, so could I! Fat, wet drops clung to my eyelashes and blurred my vision for a moment. I closed my eyes and breathed in the scent of the moist earth. When I opened them again I saw a stray ray of light seeping through and touching the side of the mountain. Then the mist lifted and the jagged tip of Ben Nevis presented itself in its quiet and unassuming beauty. Its stillness drew me in and once again I listened to the song of the wild that brought me back to the Highlands time and time again.

The mission for the day was simple: find Nessie, capture her on camera, sell the photos, make a fortune and retire to a life of luxury. I’d been living in Edinburgh for almost seven years and had never made it to the shores of Loch Ness, but today was my day. Then barrels of hay appeared right in the middle of the road. It wasn’t a good sign. A few yards further up was the culprit: an overturned lorry had spilled its load of hay and blocked the road to Loch Ness. The police arrived in bursts of blazing lights. My boyfriend and I got out of the car having convinced each other that it was our civic duty to make sure that no one was hurt. We tried to hide our disappointment at the lack of causalities and the obvious fact that our CPR skills would probably never come in handy unless we moved to a war zone. We decided to wait it out on the side of the Hay Highway and in the shadow of a mountain whose presence reminded me of how small and insignificant I was.

The sun was losing its battle against the thick clouds and the infamous Scottish wind had become strong enough to make the clusters of heather at my feet sway in a gentle, rhythmic dance. It was then that we decided that the Loch Ness Monster would have to wait. Back in the car, we took the road which led to Loch Lomond, that of the numerous songs and poems. The Highlands spread themselves before us like an elaborate banquet. The West Highland Way was a winding and weaving path in the distant hills and the backpackers strewn along its narrow trail were like ants laden with indeterminable bounty. The mountains were giants reaching up to the sky to defy the gods. Their tops were painted white with late autumn snows and the small streams which would be gushing in summer were frozen into a solid stillness on the side of gagged slopes. It was easy to see why the bards of old had been so enthralled with Scotland. There was a mystical quality about it, the juxtaposition of the Highlands and the Lowlands, of dark and light, of the fire in the hearts of the people and cold of the land. The silence was so sharp it cut into the inner noise that had became a part of me from years of living in the city.

The Trossachs National Park encompasses Loch Lomond and the trees, deep in autumnal bloom, were awash with the stunning oranges and reds that only nature can paint. The road was steep and at the top was a clearing with a bench. The grass in the valley below was a deep green and the hills were like guards standing watch over the perfect beauty and stillness. We walked to the stone which was on the side of the road and read the inscription: Rest and be Thankful. The Drovers’ Road had originally been constructed as a military route during the Jacobite uprisings in the Eighteenth Century. Tradition had it that travellers, having reached the top after trekking up the steep slope, were grateful for finally getting to rest. I sat down and closed my eyes. Up here, nothing mattered and nothing remained. It was just me, the man I loved, and the land which I had grown to love. The sweetness of the silence was like a drug and the peace I felt elicited in me a gratitude for life that I had never felt before. I was especially grateful for the stray barrels of hay which had led me there. Fate was truly a funny thing.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Colette Kemigisha: Writing has never been a choice for Colette, more like a calling. She studied Creative Writing at university and spends her time writing poetry, short stories and hopes to complete her novel in this century, as soon as they invent a medical cure for procrastination. Follow her on Twitter.

Mt KeenA pile of travel diaries sits on my desk. Most are mine, two are not. My grandfather’s 1937 and my mother’s 1951 diaries augment my stack. All New Zealanders of Scottish descent, it is 150 years since our ancestors emigrated but we have all felt the pull to Scotland. The cat jumps on my desk and knocks the pile. My diary from 2009 falls open …

The land rover bumps and lurches over the uneven ground as we grunt up the hill. Mike the ranger turns to make sure we’re not getting too battered and bruised and in his soft Scottish burr assures us that we’re almost there – he thinks – he hasn’t been to this area of the estate before. While he stops to consult his photocopy of a Victorian map we gaze around at the hills of Glen Tanar.

It’s spring in the heart of Deeside, Queen Victoria’s favourite holiday destination, not far from Balmoral. We’ve seen daffodils and crocuses on our trip up the valley from Banchory but there’s a nip in the air; it is the Highlands after all. ‘Over there’ my sister calls excitedly and we see above us on the hill the remains of a small hamlet. Pulling up we get out and wander around. The Highland air blows crisp and cool. The ruins feel abandoned and sad, but there is beauty in the lichened grey stone. The walls around the perimeter remind us of those in Central Otago.

These are the remains of Walternaldie the birthplace of our great great grandfather, his father and how many before him? Huddled in our thick coats we gaze over the fields, down the valley to the river Dee below. The wind gently whips and whistles as we feel the isolation of this place and meet the family ghosts. We imagine what life here was like and can almost smell the peat fires and oatcakes cooking. The black faced sheep which were the livelihood of so many highlanders after the Clearances are everywhere, hardy but scrawny. They watch us as we nibble the buttery homemade shortbread and drink the flask of coffee provided by the estate’s cook.

Back down the glen to Correyvrach which sits at the foot of Mt Keen on the old drovers’ route from Paisley to Aberdeen. Here our forebear moved not long before seeking his fortune in Aberdeen and then emigrating. Mt Keen is popular with today’s adventurers, the most easterly of the 282 Munros to be ascended and ticked off the list by the keenest climbers. There are still patches of snow on its lower slopes; it looks bleak and barren. The Scottish palette of colours – browned heather, yellow green tussock with the blue sky and grey stones gives the area a haunting beauty.

Further along the Dee River, clear and cold, flows merrily with a stone bridge leading to the last remaining portion of an ancient Caledonian pine forest. The sun is out and the water twinkles as Mike tells us of the efforts being made to preserve what is the only one of its kind in the UK.

He drives us back to the Glen Tanar homestead and modern day Scotland. We are entranced by the 19th century ball room, popular for weddings we are told. It has tartan curtains and a parquet floor as well as stags’ heads on the walls and over 600 antlers decorating the ceiling. There are masses of books, a grand piano and cosy armchairs. It exudes an air of comfortable, almost homely elegance. This is a far cry from the ruins we have just visited.

We climb into our car and head off back down the glen, feeling grateful to those ghosts. Grateful that they could leave this beautiful place, their home and their family. Grateful they did leave. Grateful we could return and experience it.

I push the cat down, close the diary and step out into the bright New Zealand sun.

About the Author: Clare Gleeson is a New Zealand historian, librarian and travel writer who enjoys exploring her own country as well as those further afield. She has a travel blog so you can read more.

conic hill 4New Year on Conic Hill

New Year’s Eve in a Scottish new town, and it was strangely subdued – the lull before the storm of celebrations. Then as midnight approached, tall, dark-stroke-red and (allegedly) handsome men (for these are the necessary credentials of the first-footer) crept out onto the streets armed with whiskey, a tumbler, shortbread, and a piece of coal. All along the street, the first-footers huddled up against doors like stray cats waiting to escape the cold.

As I stood in the hallway, I heard the muffled rumble of low voices outside, then laughter, the ‘glug, glug’ of whiskey being poured, and the clink of glasses. Neighbours caught up with a year of news, visiting family members sometimes decades. As the celebrations sprang into action, our household slipped off to bed; we had other plans.

Snatching a few hours of sleep, we were up again come six. While the town dropped off into an exhausted slumber, we stumbled bleary-eyed to our car and headed northwest. The streets were deserted except for a lone figure weaving a drunken path.

We curved round the shadowy base of the Campsies, black humpbacks in an inky sea of sky. Finally we arrived at the shores of Loch Lomond. It was almost seven, and Scotland still slept.

Silently, we ducked into dark woods. I breathed in the sweet smell of peat and pine. This is where I wanted to be. Ahead the ice-covered path rose up, a guiding strip of pale neon in the darkness.

“I’m glad we’re not in America,” my son whispered as we slid through the trees.
“Why America?” I whispered back.
“If there was a bear right in front of us, we wouldn’t see it!”

The sky changed from black to ink-blue to powder-grey. Dark silhouettes slowly took on texture and colour. We reached the gate that would take us up Conic Hill. Soon we were climbing steeply upwards. Down below us, orange lights scattered across the valley like marigolds on the Ganges.

Light was seeping through the sky now like a pale dye spreading through fabric. We were close to the summit. It was a hands and knees job as we scrambled ever upwards; nothing between our feet and Loch Lomond and the tens of islands strewn across it.

Then we were on top. Giddily, I texted: ‘Happy New Year from Conic Hill’. You would think I’d just conquered Everest – and so I had in my mind.

We followed a wide runway of green grass down off the hill. Ahead, the ridge and the Loch islands cut a straight line to the hill on the other side – the Highland boundary fault line. I felt I could take off with a hop and skip across the islands, over Greenock, the Isle of Bute and the world beyond. I felt anything was possible. The world was mine.

But instead we dropped down to the shore of Lomond. Father and son skimmed stones over the ice. The dull thud-thud-thud of the bouncing stones echoed around the loch and the snow-marbled mountains.

It was an hour, and a million light years, from the grey concrete town.

About the Author: Helen Moat spent her childhood squished between siblings in her Dad’s Morris Minor, travelling the length and breadth of Ireland. She’s still wandering. She blogs at: http://moathouse-moathouseblogspotcom.blogspot.co.uk/