It’s been a very, very strange six months to be a Brit. Especially after the EU referendum in June 2016, my thoughts were scattered, anxious, furious; but one positive which emerged was a sense of fervent solidarity with fellow remainers – including dear Londoners, city-dwellers, the young, passionate older folk, the Northern Irish, the Scots. A surprise side-effect has been a lasting excitement about my near neighbours and a refocusing of my attentions on the discoveries to be found just within the British Isles and Europe.
My emerging interest in Scotland was then fuelled further by reading the wonderful book The Outrun by Amy Liptrot, recommended to me by a good friend, in which the author autobiographically recounts her experiences of childhood and recovery from alcoholism on the remote Orkney Islands. Throw in the BBC’s recent series on Orkney’s little-known but rich archaeological history, and a feeling of connection and curiosity about this country has become a fixture in my life.
Scotland feels familiar and foreign at the same time; comfortable, yet unexplored. Like my beloved Wales, it is part of the United Kingdom, yet is demonstrably and recognisably its own country. The politeness, the pub culture, the weather, feel comfortingly familiar, but I am intrigued by quirks, idioms and accent, as well as differences in social attitudes, friendliness, and landscapes.
Our long weekend in Scotland began in the majestic Edinburgh. The weather was eerily warm for a Scottish winter, and remained so throughout our trip – almost 10 degrees some days, and mostly clear and sunny. It was an amazing stroke of luck. We took a lovely train journey from Edinburgh Waverley to Aberdeen, which took about 2.5 hours.
Once we’d settled into our Airbnb apartment, we took a walk around the city. The discovery which really charmed me was a tiny fishing village which goes by the local name Footdee, or “Fittee”, tucked away at the east end of Aberdeen harbour. People still live in the miniature houses, originally built for fishermen, and which provide squat shelter against the wind. There are rows of tiny gardens, some inhabited by an array of gnomes and decorated with nautical symbols. When we came upon Footdee, the wind was raging down the harbour-front and the sun was setting. It was with a sudden hush that we found ourselves walking alongside this delightful settlement.
On another day, we took a bus to Loch Ness from Inverness – just eight miles away. From the medieval Urquhart Castle on the Loch’s shores, we looked out across dazzling clear skies and took in the tranquillity.
We learned about the castle’s history from a friendly tour guide named Graham. He told us about clashes over the site between different clans, including the Picts. Interestingly, the old Picts language was a Celtic language similar to Welsh. The extant words aber and inver mean the same thing – “mouth of” – hence such cities as Aberdeen, Inverness (“mouth of” the river Ness) in Scotland, and Aberystwyth, Aberavon, and Abergavenny in Wales.
Overall, the trip filled me with a lightness and internal calm that I haven’t really felt since the EU referendum. The low-level background anxiety that hums within me almost constantly about the future of the UK and Europe was quieted by the peace of the landscapes and the convivial familiarity of the Scots. Inverness is the furthest north I’ve ever been, and while it didn’t feel too different to any other British town of its size (around 50,000 people), there is something to be said for how one’s mentality changes with the awareness of being so “remote”. The sense of distance is palpable, somehow – and in a good way. I’m definitely not finished with Scotland just yet.