“Tell me why you’ve always wanted to go to Scotland,” Tim says. We are fresh out of Edinburgh, heading north into the Highlands. Tim has spent the last three months on business in the UK, so driving on the left side of the road doesn’t faze him, though it is still strange for me to glance to my right and see him driving. We have three days of driving and exploration ahead of us—plenty of time for deep conversations and silly car games, self-reflection and stares out the window.
The natural view out the window is largely the reason I wanted to come to Scotland. Edinburgh as a city never ranked so high on my list. The appreciation I did have Scotland for before I came (which amplified significantly since our arrival last Monday), is ironically tied to a landscape. I remember standing in the hallway of a friend’s apartment in California. We were getting ready to leave, and she was telling me about her recent trip to Edinburgh—how much she loves the city and the vibe. I was tugging on a shoe, starting at a set design sketch she’d made for Waiting for Godot while I listened. (To give some context, the setting in Waiting for Godot is described as: “A country road. A tree.” Her sketch was of a black tree against a strange orange background. The image, and the association with Scotland, stuck.
But Edinburgh, of course, is much more than a country road and a tree. It’s bustling and impressive, with old buildings in thick sandstone rising up all around you. Edinburgh Castle crowns one towering hill, the buildings of the University crowd another. There’s a nice tension of heaviness and refinement throughout the city; you get a sense that things are solidly built, but also of a delicateness—an appreciation for finer detail. And in between tea rooms and elegant hotels, there’s a strong sense of Scottish pride.
We arrived on October 31. The clocks here in Europe had already changed back an hour, so by the time we landed it was getting dark. We had booked a night at the Ibis Hotel by St. Andrew’s Square, and were greeted with Halloween treats upon checkin. Jack-o-lanterns grinned from the hotel bar as we headed back out into the night for our dinner reservation at Whiski Rooms, a whiskey lounge meets bistro that serves a modern-take on Scottish cuisine. Our table wasn’t quite ready for us, so we started the evening with what would become the first of many whiskey samples—a flight featuring drams from Glen Moray, Glen Grant, Aberlour, and Craggenmore. The whiskey made us adventurous: for dinner, Tim had the beef and bone marrow pie, paired with a Talisker. I ordered the haggis (paired with a Laphraoig whiskey) and was more than surprised to find it delicious.
We stepped back into the drizzle in search of the city’s Samhuinn celebration. Lucky for us, all we had to do was turn left and listen for the drums. The rain increased steadily as a parade of painted dancers writhed towards Parliament Square, dancing and waving gigantic flaming torches. The official writeup from the Beltane Fire Society sums it up nicely:
“The story follows the ideas of the overthrowing of Summer by Winter, with a stand-off between the Summer and Winter Kings. This is overseen by the Cailleach, a Celtic representation of the Goddess, or Divine Hag. The transformation from Summer to Winter is supported by the energies and interactions of the Summer and Winter courts – through performance, music and dance. The narrative focuses on this conflict and its resolution, but also focuses on the transition that many aspects of life take during the changing of the seasons.”
Watching the celebration was a culmination of exactly what fascinates me about Scotland—this sense of wildness, spookiness, unapologetic brashness. If Edinburgh and the Lowlands were Scotland on “good behavior”, I was looking forward to getting out of the city and seeing the untamed sides of the country: the Scottish Highlands.