When we first came to Scotland on our way to Africa in 2017, it was a quick three week ‘grand tour’ trying to see everything while still setting aside more than a week for walking the West Highland Way. We barely scratched the surface on that trip, but all of us said that if we were ever to come live in a place for a while to see what that kind of travel was like, it would be somewhere in Scotland.
Now, after spending more than a month living in Scotland, I have a confession to make – our family is having a love affair – with Scotland. And, much like falling in love with a person, there is not one thing we can pinpoint as a cause of this infatuation.
Maybe it is the environment – cool, often cloudy, with varied and rugged terrain, there is always something interesting to see. There are vast open spaces, the moors and glens and wind-swept islands, which seem to feed our soul. But it is not just the beauty that we love, for that kind of love is more of a fleeting fancy than lasting attraction. We love all of Scotland, not just its beauty.
Maybe it is the people, for they are unfailingly fiery, kind and funny. Despite sharing a common language, the Glaswegian (native of Glasgow) accent still perplexes us and our accent perplexes them. Several times each day, people would ask us a question or make a comment but we had no idea what they were saying so didn’t know to respond. Similarly, we would ask a question but the person we were speaking to did not understand our American accent so they didn’t know to respond and simply looked at us quizzically. Despite speaking the same language, the barrier exists and yet we loved the challenge.
The Scottish people, especially the men, are far more expansive in demonstrating not only their strength but also their tenderness. Our apartment was overlooking the Glasgow Green, a large central park on the banks of the River Clyde, so we had a bird’s eye view on the daily happenings in the park.
It was not at all uncommon to see solo men taking their baby out for a walk in a buggy or front carrier, cooing and interacting with the young child with great love and affection. At first, it was a noticeable difference worthy of comment, but then we realized that it is a typical behavior maybe not universal yet, but far more common than we have seen in any other country including our own.
The second aspect of male tenderness that we noticed was the many male, especially young male, caregivers for people with severe disabilities. Not only were the people with disabilities visible, out visiting the People’s Palace, walking through the park, getting groceries, etc., but the people caring for them were almost universally male. Again, this is in sharp contrast to our own culture where caregivers are, with few exceptions, female. As a teacher of nursing, I know that in the US many male students/nurses face significant bias for choosing such a “womanly” profession, even more so for less educated “caregivers”. The gender stereotypes to which we are inculcated in the US seem to be missing in Scotland.
Another thing we love about Scotland is that dogs are part of everyday life, out and about with their humans in all sorts of places – on off-leash walks in urban spaces, patiently riding the train, and even in the pubs. While not allowed in all pubs, many are particularly doggo-friendly with stacks of clean water bowls filled with fresh water and dog rugs to insulate from cold stone floors readily available. The dogs are all very well behaved. When we were biking, every dog/human combination we came across moved off to the side of the path and had the dog at attention so that they did not run in front of us while we were moving. One dog was about 100 meters from his human when we came around the corner – the human gave a verbal command and the dog immediately jumped up off the path on to the hillside so he was not in our way. The dogs are respected, included, and part of life, not simply relegated to the confines of being a pet in a home. The expectation for public dog behavior is high but so are the rewards – dogs are part of everyday life.
And then there is the bicycling infrastructure which exists throughout the country. From the time we left the Edinborough Airport, we had dedicated cycle paths for nearly the entire time, with maybe less than 2o% not on a cycle route. There are special bicycle traffic lights, two-direction bicycle lanes, special bicycle parking areas, etc. Like with dogs, bicycling is part of everyday life in Scotland.
In Scotland, the history and culture run deep and infuses many aspects of life today; from the continued wearing of kilts to an enduring reverence for William Wallace (the subject of the movie Braveheart) to the persistence of traditional languages under the overwhelming crush of more than 700 years of being dominated by the English language.
The sense of time is immense, far beyond what we can comprehend coming from the US. In the little town of Cairnryan, we stayed in a 350-year-old merchant house. It was built just 40 years after the pilgrims landed in Massachusetts when the US was still forming the colonies. The home has been in continuous operation for longer than the entire history of our country but is young by Scottish standards.
We visited the Orkney Islands to see the Neolithic stone architecture and monuments which have stood for more than 5,000 years. This makes these structures older than both the pyramids of Egypt and Stonehenge.
The village of Skara Brae was hidden under a sand dune for millennia, only to be uncovered by a fierce storm in the late 1800s but quickly forgotten. It wasn’t until the 1910’s that anyone else came to see it. Much like Pompeii, the dunes covering the village preserved the site on an intimate level so that when you walk through it is like traveling through time. Skara Brae, however, is only one of a handful of sites of a similar age, each preserved to an amazing degree. Our favorite was Brouch of Gurness with its curving pathways, layers of homes, and a beautiful view over the water.
Perhaps Anthony Bourdain said it best:
“It’s an irritating reality that many places and events defy description. Angkor Wat and Machu Picchu, for instance, seem to demand silence, like a love affair you can never talk about. For a while after, you fumble for words, trying vainly to assemble a private narrative, an explanation, a comfortable way to frame where you’ve been and what’s happened. In the end, you’re just happy you were there — with your eyes open — and lived to see it.”