The first time I visited Glencoe
Throughout the centuries, much has been written about the natural beauty of the Scottish Highlands. Just thinking about them, and what they mean to me, conjures up such overwhelming feelings that I don’t think I could ever properly put it all into coherent words. But July marks three years since I first did a trip around this part of Scotland, and I want to write about how this landscape monumentally impacted upon my own soul.
This is not a travel log, but an attempt at making sense of these complicated feelings I experienced when I first visited the Highlands.
A landscape full of contrasts
I’m an atheist, but I’ve always been a romantic, finding great spiritual fulfillment in the sight of a crescent moon, throwing skipping stones on the calm waters of a loch, or hiking up a hill and basking in the extraordinary landscapes around me. The thing about the Highlands of Scotland is that you end up experiencing all of these awe-inspiring emotions on an perpetual basis, soaking your brain in some special soup of endorphins that are not quite like anything else.
The Highlands are a landscape of vivid contrasts, all packed with a punch. You can lose yourself in the Black Wood of Rannoch, one of the largest areas of the ancient pine forest that covered much of Scotland, but you can also be presented with barren stretches of land that have been spoiled of all trees, and yet they are not dead at all if you look close enough, and have a beauty of their own.
Worst of all is to gaze upon the old remnants of cleared Straths, places where families and whole communities once thrived in their own unique and rich culture, but which now bear only the scars of what was nothing short of ethnic cleansing. These landscapes are haunted by the injustices inflicted on humans by those of their own kind, for the sake of some twisted notion of progress. I have no Scottish family that I know of, and yet my throat clenched at the sight of cleared Straths in Sutherland. My blood boiled when I first set my eyes upon the Mannie on the Hill and picked up my phone to read about what it represented. No adjective other than scunnered can quite describe that feeling.
Where there is dark, there is light
And yet, despite the darkness that makes up an undeniable part of the Highlands’ history, it is also a land that inspires good. Standing in Glencoe and looking upon the Three Sisters, it was a relief to feel so meaningless in this world, for how does our fleeting human life matter when you gaze upon the natural beauty that has stood eternally?
The Highlands humble you. They teach you that where there is beauty, there is hardship. They epitomise the fact that nature can be perfectly balanced in how generous and cruel it is, how it can be bountiful and merciless, how its breathtaking allure can be the end of you.
The Highlands allow you to revel in the enjoyment of seeing wild deer, but also contemplate the fact that these majestic animals must be culled, for all their natural predators have long been driven extinct. They let you marvel in the sight of beautifully fat salmons making their way up the rivers, whilst appreciating that these fishes have brought incredible sustenance to many communities. They show you your place in the world, as but a link in a great chain, and remind you of the threats that we face if we don’t fight back against the impending ecological catastrophe.
Finding our place in the world
As individuals, we’re all living a life where we try to figure our place in the world. Some of us like to inflate that place and imagine it to be much bigger than it is. Others don’t value themselves highly enough, living a life under the shadow of the Cù Sìth, the Black Dog.
In the Highlands, I’m reminded of the things that matter in life. We can let ourselves get lost in so many things that, once we’re gone, won’t matter in the slightest. I’m not immune to that, particularly with my issues around anxiety. But I look upon the white sands and crystalline blue waters of Achmelvich beach, the streams of water running down from the hills of Bealach na Bà, the ruins of once-mighty castles littered across the landscape, and I feel nothing but a tidal wave of serenity.
I don’t know exactly what magical means, but would I use it to describe the Scottish Highlands? Probably. When I’m there, I feel something reaching deeper into my soul, something I’ve never felt anywhere else, and it feels like I am finally in tune with the rhythm of life. More importantly, I feel like I’m exactly where I belong. It feels like home, feels like love. It feels all of this and so much more, and I know that many of the people reading this will know exactly what I mean.
I will never know why a Portuguese-born lad feels so incredibly comforted in a place as remote to him as the Highlands of Scotland. Some people have told me that I may simply have a Scottish soul, although I don’t know what that means. What I know is that Scotland is a country with incredible landscapes, and that these landscapes have shaped her people for centuries.
Scotland is every wean born in the most deprived parts of Glasgow, Scotland is every song and poem written here, Scotland is the water of every stream and every stream is Scotland. Scotland is the blood-soaked memory of those cleared Straths and Glens, and Scotland is the promise of what we can do with our future in our hands. No matter where life ends up taking me, no matter what is to come, I may not have been born in Scotland, but that doesn’t mean Scotland hasn’t taken root in me. I feel just as connected to this country and its people as those born here, and I will always consider myself the luckiest man in the world to have found this fulfillment, which many spend a lifetime searching for without success.
Thank you, Scotland, for being so uniquely, profoundly, and beautifully Scottish. Thank you for the lessons you’ve taught me, and for those yet to come. Thank you allowing me to be myself, for the first time in my life, and to know what contentment means. I will never wish to be anywhere else, with no other people, other than in Scotland with my fellow Scots, auld and new.