Scotland - A Dear Green Place
Coming from Ontario, it’s easy to call some of the countries I visit ‘small’. But the more time I spend in Scotland, the more I realize that nothing about this country can be contained in such a label. In fact, the landscapes are vast, the people proud and the culture larger-than-life.
I am discovering that my year won’t be enough to discover the beauty of Scotland - or Alba, as I slowly come to know the land’s rich Gaelic history.
I have been living in Scotland for about 5 months thus far, studying for my Masters degree in the capital city of Edinburgh, known across the United Kingdom and the European Union for its museums, fashion, shopping, clubs, coffee shops, concert venues, hills and of course, storytelling. Within the first few days of landing in my new academic home, I was greeted by welcoming faces and lively bagpipe music - my initial glances into Scottish culture. Edinburgh/Dùn Èideann, I was told, is best visited for a minimum of 3 days - but I have been exploring the city often since arriving approximately 150 days ago, and have yet to see everything.
My flat is located near Edinburgh Castle, ancient cemeteries/kirkyards and countless cashmere shops. I find myself gazing upwards at the architecture of the (free!) galleries and museums. I enter pubs promising warm meals and ale and feel connected to 17th century philosophy, art and thought. Even though I told myself I would try to be more of a local than a tourist, I find myself going on a Scotch Whiskey tour and learning about the importance of this liquid gold to the local economy, trying out 6 types from 6 regions in Scotland.
My first impression of the country is that it felt like a home away from home. The main reason being that it is engulfed by nature and a peaceful environment. My first hike was up Arthur’s Seat, an extinct volcano whose long ago eruption helped shape the landscape you see in the Highlands. Everything is a 15 minute walk away - the hills, the beach, the forest and the Botanic Gardens. It was easy to think about the resemblance to Canada, and am quickly making friends who enjoy nature as much as I do and this has become key to exploring other parts of the country. It also helped that nature-lovers like us can indulge in European-style coffee bars after a long day sojourning in the hills.
One of my side trips is to Glasgow/Glaschu - the music and arts city of Scotland just an hour train ride away. Most recently the city has achieved international significance as host of the COP26 Climate Change conference. It is here that I enjoyed my first traditional ceilidh (pronounced Kay-lee) dance involving a large local gathering to listen to lively Scottish music, swirl with a rotating assembly of partners - and get to know many quickly. The definition of the word ‘Glasgow’ from Gaelic to English is ‘Dear Green Place’ - there are over 80 green spaces to explore. I managed to see a handful before I headed up north to find more dramatic scenery.
Visitors from all over the world drive or ride the rails to the Highlands (a' Ghàidhealtachd - the place of the Gaels) and marvel it’s harsh but serene beauty. Being up in the Highlands means being in a state of constant mindfulness, and we are inclined to put our phones away to remain present. I was grateful to be able to reach the Highlands for multiple weekend adventures with friends, visiting countryside villages and towns filled with bakeshops and distilleries. I am invigorated by hiking up sheep and cow-studded green hills with sprinklings of heather. Scottish hikers (called hillwalkers here) aim to ‘collect’ hills as part of their dream hiker goals. The most famous collectable: the Cairn Gorm itself - a summit of 4,084ft looking over rich forestland, and one that we were able to summit (of course, in total fog!). Before embarking on hikes here, I often check the fog levels in addition to the days weather report.
Some of the most exciting adventures are to Scotland’s Islands. The Isle of Skye can be reached in 3-4 hours from Edinburgh. Getting there is also filled with discoveries. We discovered amazing whisky distilleries and kind connoisseurs amidst rich Scottish-English battle history and iconic Harry-Potter-esque locations. Here, in Glencoe, Fort William and Glenfinnan…..The Isle of Skye offered an unforgettable landscape along the marine shoreline of Scotland and the archipelago of Northern Islands. If you love traditional storytelling and legends - heading here is for you. The spirit of Scotland rests on a rich backbone of storytelling and folklore. Visiting the Fairy Pools at Glenbrittle was among my favourite memories. A series of cold turquoise pools of spring water invited us to take a dip - and enough to convince us to believe in magic.
I am still here for half a year, and know that I will yearn to come back when (if) I leave.
Tips for Traveling Scotland!
- Listen to the words of the locals. Spark up conversation with a stranger and you will be pleasantly surprised (or not!) to find that they are always willing to indulge you in a hearty story along with great suggestions for local pubs and grubs.
- Go off the beaten path - seriously! The 2003 Land Reform Act and the Scottish Outdoor Access Code means that you can wild camp anywhere legally (within certain guidelines, of course).
- Don’t forget the castles! There are over 1500 castles and ruins to explore and acquaint yourself with the pride and passion of historic Scottish armies and villages.
- Make sure one of your nights out are at a ceilidh - traditionally live folk music with hours of energetic dancing and whirling in group dances!
- Bring a camera, if you can manage a Gore-Tex rain jacket and rain pants, a pair of waterproof hikers, and room in your luggage to take home some Highland whiskey!
When you subscribe to the blog, we will send you an e-mail when there are new updates on the site so you wouldn't miss them.