The Land That Begat Me

In the moments between sleeping and waking, petal-thin and fragile, I hear the whisper of the sea. With eyes closed I am treading across the beach of West Sands, bare feet memorizing the grooves etched into the sand. I am content. Yet when I open my eyes gossamer curtains drift lazily into view, and the damp, earthy aroma of slightly burnt coffee fills my senses. For the past month I have begun each day this way, confused, momentarily unable to recognize where I am or recall what has happened. And as more days pass, the more my time in Scotland really does seem like just a dream.

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Before I packed my suitcases and made that voyage across the sea for the first time, envisioning myself at St Andrews was indeed just that: a dream. Like many teenaged girls, I was uncertain of myself and what course my life would take, so much so that I was well-known for being very timid and shy in nature. And while this is difficult to admit on a forum such as this, there was little that I took pride in or even liked about myself. By my final year of high school I was so desperately unhappy that I almost could not face each day. What made this experience more painful were the constant reminders of the person that I was, the person I had lost. Gone was my love of storytelling, the simple pleasure of cold wind caressing the skin, and the feeling of always being on the verge of discovering some other world. I had lost the joy that was once so intrinsically a part of me. The summer before my final year of school I saw myself turning down a path that I knew I could not escape if I chose to follow it: attending university close to home, perhaps even living at home with my parents, never seeing the places and accomplishing the dreams I once treasured, and thus growing up to be but the hollow shell of Maggie. Yet despite this, still waters do indeed run deep as the saying goes, and I felt the irrepressible impulse to take drastic action. It was then that my mother sent me photos of St Andrews, and warmth slowly began returning to my heart.

I distinctly remember an incident with my high school guidance counselor that cast a shroud of doubt over this secret ambition I nurtured. Final year students were expected to attend three meetings with their guidance counselors throughout the year to discuss what universities they had applied to, where they had been accepted or rejected, and which university they at last decided to attend. When I revealed to this woman, someone I had had no relationship with throughout my four years of high school, that I desired above all else to attend St Andrews she had the audacity to scoff at me. She then suggested that I “do myself and my family a favor” and pursue a “more realistic” course of action, stating that attending university abroad would waste my parents’ money, that literature was a worthless pursuit, and that I would only get rejected by St Andrews and be crushed by that outcome. Even when my acceptance arrived one chilly November morning, indelible proof that I had earned a place at such a university, her harsh words infected what little self-confidence I possessed.

As my heart is not only worn on my sleeve, but welded there, her denial of my academic abilities continued to plague me throughout my first year at St Andrews as well. Each time I sat completely dumb in a tutorial and each mere “pass” I received on my coursework had convinced me that not only my guidance counselor, but the many other naysayers I accrued, were right: that St Andrews would devour me whole.

However, on June 23rd, 2016 I proved them wrong. On that day I graduated from the University of St Andrews with a high 2:1 in Comparative Literature and English, even earning a place on the Dean’s List for my work during the 2015-2016 academic year. Yet what surprisingly pleases me more than these results are the commendations I received for my dissertation, a piece of work I had convinced myself was in no way academic or even worthwhile. Hearing my supervisor — a woman who intimidated me significantly with both her intellect and her sheer presence — praise my work with genuine enthusiasm brought tears welling in my eyes. While revealing these details could be construed as a slight boast, those who know me well are familiar with my utter aversion to speaking positively about myself or what I am capable of. However, I believe that it is important to voice these accomplishments in words, and indeed recognizing them as such: achievements. In hindsight, what this recognition has made me realize is that perhaps the most powerful critic that I had to overcome was myself.

My time at St Andrews and in Scotland means so much more to me than academic achievement, though. In a strange way, I had not really factored in the people I would meet and the friends I would make prior to starting university. The beauty of Scotland and the opportunity to carve my own path was what drove me to this place; friends, if they came at all, would simply be a ripple effect. This strange mentality is the very vicious offspring of the self-doubt that has troubled me all these years. I simply wondered why anyone would actively seek my company, for what positive thing could I possibly contribute to a friendship? I remember dissolving into tears during Fresher’s Week because I wholeheartedly believed that I would spend the next four years completely alone in a foreign country, and I lamented the choice I had made. My mother assured me that I would find “my tribe,” as she put it: a raucous band of quirky individuals who shared my passions and my off-color sense of humor, and would most importantly accept me for all that I am. Four years later, I sat in the same restaurant celebrating my graduation and felt a similar rise of emotion. This time, though, it was because I did not want to leave “my tribe” behind.

Running through the thicket of Lade Braes with Daniel, iced lattes and scones at Gorgeous with Miranda, sitting at the top of the world with Molly and Kate on the Isle of Skye, and wandering aimlessly along the looking-glass waters of West Sands with Catriona: moments such as these fill me to the brim, and are truly what make my time in Scotland worthwhile. Sitting here back in Michigan, safely tucked in my armchair and amongst my books once more, I feel very much like Bilbo Baggins when he returns at last to Bagend, to the quiet and the solitude. There was a time when this was all I wanted, to be home again. But now I find it lacking, as though a piece of my soul has gone missing. There is nothing I would not give to experience one of the aforementioned memories one more time, to be amongst those weird and wonderful people feeling so welcomed and loved.

At times I think back to the girl I once was, all corn-silk hair and bruised knees, who loved nothing more than to be covered in dirt from chasing fairies through the forest. To an extent I believe that who we were as children is the essence of ourselves, that the one defining characteristic we had then will follow us through the rest of our lives. While we may experience circumstances that harden us, that make us drift apart from who we once were, I think that everyone needs a moment in their lives to reclaim that essential part of themselves. And I do believe that I have grown significantly since childhood, and indeed since I first began university; I am a bit wiser, more responsible, and more attuned to how the world at times does not live up to our rose-tinted expectations. However, since coming to Scotland I do feel closer to that little girl, in the sense that I have rediscovered what it means to be enchanted with life. Whenever I would set foot on Scottish land, I always sensed this subtle feeling, a kind of pulse coursing through the rough grey stone underfoot. Teeming, I call it. It is as if I could take a hammer and chisel to the jagged seaside cliffs, chipping away the stone to reveal an incandescent world underneath. While such thoughts may be inspired by the fairy tales I once read, the memory of the frigid winds caressing my skin and sea-brined air in my lungs has me feeling this teeming in the marrow of my soul.

On a jaunt to Edinburgh with Molly one day I discovered a poem by Sir Alexander Gray engraved in the stone of the Parliament Building. One stanza in particular resonated deep within my bones:

 

“This is my country,
The land that begat me.
These windy spaces
Are surely my own.
And those who here toil
In the sweat of their faces
Are flesh of my flesh,
And bone of my bone.”

It is important to recognize how throughout this post I have not referred to Michigan as “home.” Never before have I felt more at home than in the years I spent in Scotland, for it is the place that I truly belong. While in Scotland I was able to learn how to take pride in myself and rediscover all of the qualities that are intrinsically Maggie: I am a bit more whimsical, a little reckless, and altogether wilder than I have ever been. Yet that is who I am, and more than anything I am grateful for the time I had amongst the lochs and glens, hills and seas of Scotland to help me find that part of myself. More than anything, though, I am truly awed and humbled by those whom I had the pleasure to call friend over the last four years, for they have indeed become “flesh of my flesh, and bone of my bone.”

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While I am beyond words to express my gratitude to have had this experience and for all the people I came to know, the pain of leaving it all behind is still visceral and raw. To put it simply, I am devastated to no longer live in Scotland. And try as I might to assure myself that my departure was not my last goodbye, a small part of me still worries that I may never return. However, I believe that the most crucial lesson my time at St Andrews has taught me is to keep pursuing adventure and to find the joy in each and every experience I have, no matter the circumstance. While my last glimpse of Scottish soil was misted by the hot tears I could not quell, there is a positive to the situation. My wanderlust is now more insatiable than it has ever been before, as I have had this single delicious drop of adventure. The direction of my next horizon as yet remains a mystery, however, I am confident that I will never stop exploring; something Tookish has awoken in me indeed.

Yet in the words of Robbie Burns, “Wherever I wander, wherever I rove, the hills of the Highlands for ever I love.” If anyone so wishes to go looking, my heart and soul are forever in Scotland.

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