To many, I have not gone back in time, fallen in love with a Scottish warrior, or embarked on a great quest this semester: the year is 2015, I am perpetually single, and spent most of my time in my wee flat in St Andrews. Yet I beg to differ. It is my firm belief that when one travels to Scotland, they step into a world that straddles some inexplicable disjoint in time, both a part of the modern world and the last refuge for the ancient and mysterious. Furthermore, I have gone on more adventures this semester than I have in three years at St Andrews: to Brighton, the Highlands, and Northern Ireland have I thus far roamed, all for the purpose of learning about this great wide world we live in and hearing the stories people have to tell. And I most certainly have fallen in love; maybe not with a someone who can hold my hand and kiss me on the forehead, but with the gnarled trees of Highland forests, with the waves crashing thunderously upon the Fife coast, and with the crumbling ruins of days gone by. I have also fallen in love with all the weird and wonderful people that have accompanied me through it all, “kindred spirits” as Anne of Green Gables would say. And thus I begin my account of my final voyage of my third year at St Andrews: the annual cross country away trip, this year to the Isle of Skye.
I think one of the main elements that made this trip so enjoyable, and a significant leap above previous cross country away trips, was the fact that no one was in any great hurry to get to our various destinations. Every one of us had been feeling the pressure of this year, oppressed under deadlines and the simple demand of what it takes to be a St Andrews student. And as we slowly bid “The Bubble” adieu, one could see our shoulders straightening and smiles brightening at the chance to forget it all, even if only for the weekend. We were now free to explore, to play, and to do things without purpose. Not only did this attitude agree with everyone in attendance, I found it especially rewarding as it meant everyone was keen to make a stop at Eilean Donan Castle. Drenched in the whiskey sun of evening did we happen upon Eilean Donan, and with no other tourists in sight, it seemed as if a higher power orchestrated the wonderment of it all. This encounter with Eilean Donan, I think, not only served as a portent for the simple joy of the weekend to come, but also marked that we may have crossed into another world, leaving the humdrum behind for something a little wilder, and little more magical.
The deeper we plunged into the Isle, it became apparent that it is a place of contradictions: isolated, yet not desolate, quiet, yet teeming with life. Skye is a refuge for a simple way of life, in which coos and sheep roam free and everyone in the village knows everyone else’s name. I realized I had known so little about Skye before I made up my mind I had wanted to travel there, relying on a complete imaginative Romanticization of the land to inform my desire. This could be dangerous, as it can lead to disappointment. For example, I naively though Skye was completely protected land, that no one could actually live on Skye like they lived in Fife or Edinburgh. Yet the wee houses and villages seemed just as natural to the landscape as the heather and rolling hills. The more we drove, the more I became aware that the Isle of Skye is a place that you belonged to. So was I disappointed? Quite the contrary, for this realization has now made me wish I too could belong to such a wonderful way of life.
Our biggest agenda was to spend as much time outdoors as possible. Many people I told I was going to Skye for the weekend looked at me as though I had spoken in tongues, for the Isle of Skye in April is more fickle than a fussy child, so a Scot told me. Yet somehow we were given the gift of supernaturally good weather, enough to make one believe we weren’t in Scotland at all. After a sunny ten mile run through a forest path, we decided the best way to cool off was a dip in the famed Fairy Pools near Glenbrittle. The bravest of our company took “dip” to the extreme, as we leapt off a rock to plunge into the icy pools below. Never before have I swam in waters as cold as this, which may be saying a lot since I was the type of child who swam in Lake Superior for fun. Not satisfied just with the leap, though, some of us even stood under the picturesque water fall spilling into the pool. Though it was bracing, and I lost feeling in my extremities for a while, I am glad I did it, for if I were on my own I most likely would not have. Once again, the cross country team challenged me to step outside the normal realm of my behavior, to dive headfirst into the cold waters of life and try something new.
After our swim we headed to the Trotternish Peninsula to see the Old Man of Storr, another famous sight on Skye. And not an hour after literally jumping out of my comfort zone we were at it again, this time scrambling on hands and knees up the side of the Storr. Instead of leading us on the normal walking path, the “mountain man” of the group and our guide, Skylar, decided it would be better to crawl up the side of the steep hill atop loose stones and scree. Quite simply, I was terrified, but the fear of missing out on the experience is what drove me forward. That, and the lovely helping hand of my flatmate Daniel, who made sure I didn’t tumble off the side of the rock face. As we finally reached the summit, we look up to see a tiny red dot that had climbed onto one of the spiky rock formations. Living up to his name, Skylar had climbed sans ropes and any regard to safety up the jagged rock, which Daniel thought was a splendid idea. So, I watched my flatmate rush to join him as I sat back feeling my stomach drop. While I am all for trying new things, and knew my limits could be pushed beyond what I thought they were, this was definitely not in my range. Luckily, Kate and a few others had stayed behind and went with me to more level ground at the top of Trotternish Ridge.
After long hours of running, swimming, climbing, and hiking, we decided to end our day driving along the coast of Skye to Portree for a fish and chips supper. On the way we visited the Kilt Rock, another of Skye’s main sights.
I have this fantasy, born perhaps from reading The Voyage of the Dawn Treader too many times, that the world is actually flat, and lying at its edge is just a great waterfall off into the cosmos. The desire that one could reach the ends of the earth is a naive and absolutely absurd notion, yet somehow I find it enticing that one really could sail it all. When I looked at the Kilt Rock, I really felt for a moment that I was standing on the edge of the world, as its falls looked exactly like this strange, otherworldly place I had been picturing in my head for so long. The sheer cliffs and sunlight glinting on the horizon added to this feeling that we had reached some border place, an access point to something else. Again, perhaps it is just me being fanciful, but having the chance to see things in real time, in reality, that seem born of my imagination do something to make me feel as though I am not as “crazy” as many would have me believe, that our world truly is a magical place if one cares to go looking.
On Sunday, after a leisurely morning run, it was unfortunately time to make our way back to St. Andrews. As I mentioned earlier, everyone in our company was in no great rush to go anywhere, which made the whole weekend a truly pleasant experience. So, as per Skylar’s suggestion, we packed up and went to the Spar Cave in order to see as much as Skye as we possibly could, for when would the chance next present itself? The water trickling down jagged cross slabs and small, vividly green shoots between the cracks of rock made the cave look something prehistoric. The braver bunch crawled deep within the cave, however, the threat of rising tide kept myself and Molly away from its depths, as if we were caught inside the cave when the tide was in, we could be stranded for twelve hours. This was alright by me, as I enjoyed myself picturing mermaids peeking out from the wee cave pools and chatting to Molly about how wonderful the trip had been.
Pleasantly wearied after a weekend of adventure and merriment, we all decided to take a rest on the cliff that presided over the Spar Cave, basking in both the warm glow of the waning sun and the pleasure of each other’s company. Conversation was intermittent, allowing mostly for the whispers of dry grass and gurgle of the sea to do the talking for us. As mentioned in an earlier post, I have a sort of “basket” of memories within my heart that I revisit from time to time to remind me of what I love most about life, particularly my life in Scotland. This moment, in the company of the weird and wonderful people that make up the cross country team, is one more piece of my experiences in Scotland that has made its way into this basket. If you were to ask me where I want to be right at this moment, it would be to be back on this cliff, amongst the peace of the Isle of Skye, and bereft of cares.
While a majority of the experiences I have at university remind me of how fortunate I am to be able to complete my undergraduate degree abroad, the simplest and purest form of the reason why I decided to embark on this journey in the first place was never as clear to me as it was on that cliff. This time three years ago I decided I wanted to study in Scotland, not really knowing that would mean in terms of the person I would grow to be. All I knew was that I had an insatiable desire to explore and to be free, to “sound my barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world” and know what it was like to truly live. This moment on the Isle of Skye reaffirmed for me that basic, almost primal instinct that drove me to Scotland in the first place, as I was surrounded by one of the most peaceful and magical slices of the world. Not only that, but having the chance to share the experience with people who, despite varying interests, senses of humor, hopes, dreams, at their core share this same love of adventure and living as I do.
This weekend trip to the Isle of Skye was perhaps one of, if not the best, times of my life. While that may be a silly statement considering I am only twenty-one years old, there is something truly remarkable in seeing the things you only once thought were dreams or fantasies unfold before your very eyes, and being able to share that with people who are dreamers at heart, just like you.
As the theme song of Outlander trills, “Sing me a song of a lass that is gone. Say, could that lass be I? Merry of soul she sailed on a day over the sea to Skye…” While I may not have met a brawny Scottish warrior or gone back in time this semester, I have embarked on many a great adventure. As this year is drawing to a close, it is safe to say that the lass is indeed gone. My heart is now tucked safely within the streams and hills of Skye, and I shall find it difficult to reclaim it.
Originally written 2 May 2015