Oh Deer

At times I wonder why it is our mind clings to memories of painful, sorrowful, or even shameful experiences in our lives. The first week I spent in Scotland as a first year St Andrews student has remained strong and coarse in my memory, like a weed you cannot seem to eradicate from an otherwise pristine garden. At the time I felt as though I had made a grave mistake to move so far from home, away from the comfort of the life I thought I should be leading. I had quietly resolved to myself that I would stick out the semester then beg my parents to let me reconsider my choice of university. Each time I saw my parents I fought back the emotion that was clawing its way up my throat: the fear and loneliness that comes with being the farthest and longest away from home I had ever been. In hindsight, I am at times ashamed that I did not appreciate this opportunity as fully as I should have.

Four years later I sat waiting at Haymarket station to surprise my parents after six solid months apart, the longest time I have ever spent away from them. The emotions coursing through my veins drew their substance from an entirely different source. While I was excited for their arrival — especially since neither had traveled to Scotland in over a year — it was an altogether bittersweet reunion. Their presence made the end to my time in Scotland a living, breathing reality. In the days following their arrival I would officially graduate from the University of St Andrews, give my closest friends a final embrace at Graduation Ball, and gaze wistfully out over the North Sea one last time. Sensing my distress about these events, my mother suggested day trips to Falkland Palace, Doune Castle, and the Highlands for their last Scottish adventures. Not only did she and my father wish to see these places, but to be amongst my favorite things — the starkly beautiful hills of the Highlands and mysterious castle ruins — one last time was a welcome distraction from what was to come.

As Scotland is peppered with castle ruins and palaces, you might find yourself asking just why Falkland Palace and Doune Castle made the cut as the last two I would visit. Lately my mother and father have become engrossed in the Outlander television series, and both the village of Falkland and Doune Castle provided locations for the show. And I will not lie, I am also rather smitten with the tales of peril, romance, and adventure found in both the Outlander novels and television series. So I could not object to my mother’s determination to visit these places, and was eager to explore these new places that were so close to me.

In Outlander, with the help of some very talented people, the village of Falkland in Fife transforms into 1940’s Inverness. Having traveled to Inverness two years ago, my father and I chuckled at the contrast. Despite the lure of both Falkland Palace and its new Outlander-bestowed fame, Falkland remains a sleepy little village at the base of the Lomond Hills, about twenty miles southwest of St Andrews. After a very Scottish lunch of salad topped with black pudding for me and my mother and a haggis panini for my father at Campbell’s Coffee House and Eatery, we wandered through the wee shops of Falkland. The rough exposed stone in the interior of the shops and Scotch wool blankets galore had my parents swooning, and more than once the words, “I could live here” escaped their lips.

For 200 years Falkland Palace served as the country residence for the Stuart Monarchy. While the rich history is initially what draws me to Scottish castles, it is the quirky, lesser known details that really capture my attention. For example, Falkland Palace is said to be the home of the oldest tennis court in Britain, built for James V in the sixteenth century. Instead of trinkets and baubles from gift shops I have begun collecting these little tidbits of knowledge, perhaps because I simply just love to learn. After touring about the palace we moseyed out into the gardens. Hidden amongst the immaculately kept flower beds were crumbling stones and depressions in the grass, ghosts of the original twelfth century hunting lodges that once stood on the property before Falkland Palace.

With the sun blushing a brilliant red on the horizon we felt that it was time to leave Falkland. As the Lomonds waned behind us I reflected how glad I was I had made this journey, since during term time I have a tendency to forget not only Fife’s deep history rooted in sites like Falkland Palace, but also its contemporary relevance as evidenced by its significance for cultural products like Outlander. And as I heard my mother and father praise Falkland endlessly, I realized on this trip how fortunate I was to live in a place like Fife, so full of quaint and unique villages as it is. Yet the true highlight of this “Graduation Tour” was still to come.

Loch Morlich

The Sunday after Graduation Ball had me up and out of the door a scant five hours after the closing fireworks winding along rough Highland roads. While my father had the opportunity to explore Loch Ness and Drumnadrochit with me two years ago, my mother had never strayed beyond the bubble of Edinburgh and Fife. Though I was keen to return once more “to the waters and the wild,” I was more excited about accompanying my mother to a place that for so long had been just a dream to her. We also had a very specific goal in mind besides simply reveling in the majesty of the Highlands: the Cairngorm Reindeer Farm. I am a lover of all animals, but I have a special tenderness for the goofy and the strange. And for many people, a reindeer may undoubtedly match that description. When I learned that there is a herd of reindeer right in the heart of Scotland, I knew I had to visit. With the banks of Loch Morlich guiding us to our destination, we wove our way through Glenmore on a quest to fulfill this “bucket list” adventure.

Throughout my parents’ stay in Scotland I kept remarking how lucky they were to be welcomed by only brilliant sunshine and warm breezes, despite the weather channel warning otherwise. True to form, however, Scotland decided to show its true rainy self on the one day we would spend entirely outdoors. So, we found ourselves hiking through a verdant Highland forest under a thick blanket of ashy mist, yet this did nothing to dampen our determination to meet these reindeer. At the top of the small hill our guide suddenly let out a rolling bellow from deep within her stomach. Dozens of reindeer with all manner of colors, antler patterns, and sizes began to emerge from a hidden valley in the distance, and my heart soared.

Reindeer are surprisingly lazy and greedy animals, their sole passion in life being for food. The herders heaped large portions of special reindeer feed into our cupped palms so that we would instantly make our way into the reindeer’s good graces. I had no problem with the multitude of small, fuzzy bodies crowding around me and could not help but giggle as frenzied lips tickled my outstretched hands. And while I have spent most of my life around horses, which are much larger than reindeer, I was a tad nervous about the number of large antlers swaying and swinging right into my face. Once a majority of the food in my hand had been lapped up many of the reindeer surrounding me quickly lost interest. However, the wee black fellow pictured above proved to be a tender soul, as he stayed to lick every last fleck of grain from my hands. He even began to follow me around, and at one point when my back was turned, gently tugged on my backpack to get my attention. I was completely smitten.

Thoroughly soaked through by the needling summer rain, my parents tried coaxing me to come back down from the hill. I think they were concerned that once I befriended a reindeer I would leap on its back and gallop deep into the Highlands, never to be seen again. And I will admit, there were moments in my growing bond with the little black reindeer that I considered becoming the Wild Scottish Reindeer Hermit. Looking back, I sometimes wonder whether I imagined the whole experience, as frolicking through the Scottish heather and mist with such majestic creatures seems to belong in one of my vivid fantasies. The very existence of this little herd has only strengthened my belief that Scotland truly is another world, a place where magic comes to life and waits to be discovered by those who dare to go looking.

Our final wee day trip, and one of my last full days in Scotland, was spent exploring Doune Castle. When most people are asked to picture a Scottish castle, the picturesque Eilean Donan usually comes to mind, and I do not exempt myself from that. To my surprise, Doune Castle is arguably as recognizeable as Eilean Donan, Urquhart, or Edinburgh… if you ken your pop culture, that is. Similar to “that actor or actress” who seems to appear in every film or television show despite never knowing their name, Doune Castle has quite the resume in the film and television industry. Doune Castle serves as Winterfell, the stronghold of the stoic House Stark in Game of Thrones; Castle Leoch, the seat of Clan Mackenzie in Outlander, and appears in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. If truth be told, though I am a self-proclaimed epic-fantasy buff I was completely oblivious to all this activity unfolding at Doune.

Initially I was a bit off-put by the Outlander and Monty Python paraphernalia cluttering the ticket office. While we were admittedly visiting Doune because of it’s appearance in Outlander, I think the urge to be commercially brazen about it’s association detracts from what intrinsically makes the place. For example, I found the grounds of Doune Castle to be one of its most fascinating qualities. After growing accustomed to the pristine gardens of Loseley Park and Falkland Palace, the overgrown and unkempt grounds was a stark contrast. Yet I was mesmerized by it all: the moss-bidden stone wall hidden deep in the forest, the wee grass footpaths dotting the land, the river burbling away under a canopy of emerald leaves. While sitting pensively on a boulder in the river I half expected the ethereal women from the “Dance of the Druids” scene in Outlander to pass silently amongst the trees beside me, a treasure from Scotland’s enigmatic past. These delights proved that despite its fame, Doune still had a bit of wildness to it, preserving that untamable and magical spirit I feel is coursing through the veins of Scotland.   

Perhaps the most special thing about all of these trips is not how grand in scale or adventurous in spirit they were. Rather, I think what I have come to love most about my time in Scotland is the chance to show this land I have fallen so in love with to the people that are important to me. The chance to share the magic and sheer wonderment I feel about Scotland each and every day with my parents, in particular, is something that I treasure, mostly because they encouraged me to embark on this adventure in the first place.

And though with each day that passed my sadness about leaving Scotland grew, seeing the joy that I constantly feel bloom in my parents’ eyes as they took in these sights eased my sorrow. I know that years in the future these last moments spent in Scotland with my parents will still be kept close in my heart. Not only for the sense of wonderment we shared, but also because they finally got to witness the transformation this journey has wrought in me: that Scotland is well and truly the place I belong.

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