My Scottish Journey ~ by Olivia Winslow
“Why are you going there?” My mother asked.
Various friends and colleagues wondered the same thing, their brows slightly furrowed in question.
“There” is Scotland, a country I visited this summer, in what was only my second trip across “The Pond,” as they say. It was not my first international sojourn, however. I’ve vacationed in the Caribbean many times, Canada twice (most recently last year when I drove to Niagara Falls) and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, once. I don’t have world traveler status—at least not yet—but I’m getting around a bit.
Just let me say no one ever asked me why I chose to vacation in Paris in 2011. It’s kind of understood I guess that Paris is, well Paris; and that almost anyone would want to go there if they had the money.
But, an African American woman visiting Scotland seemed puzzling to many.
Honestly, I may have been a little defensive about it. And to be sure, my summer vacations have more often been to tropical locales. Even my Paris trip was Afrocentric, focusing on African-Americans who lived in Paris for a time, like the writers Richard Wright and James Baldwin, and the legendary chanteuse and World War II French resistance fighter, Josephine Baker who made Paris her home. I also learned about the black American soldiers from the 369th Infantry Regiment, known as the Harlem Hellfighters, who were assigned to, and wholeheartedly accepted by, the French Army during World War I.
So, why Scotland?
The long answer is: I’d been mulling over a visit ever since the bid for Scottish independence reached a fever pitch a few years ago. It has flared anew with the Brexit decision – the United Kingdom’s controversial vote to leave the European Union.
But really, the short answer – and the real answer is . . . Outlander!
What is it about Diana Gabaldon’s book series and the Starz television show that captivates me and so many others?
For me, I suppose it comes down to the chemistry between the two lead actors, Caitriona Balfe as Claire Elizabeth Beauchamp Randall Fraser and Sam Heughan as Jamie, that is, James Alexander Malcolm MacKenzie Fraser. Their attractiveness individually and as a couple is seductive. And, despite being in the fantasy/science fiction genre, there’s a believability to it, a realness, if you will, that is anchored by the relationship that unfolds in a bewitching manner between Claire and Jamie.
I didn’t know anything about Gabaldon’s eight-book series of major novels (number nine, Go Tell the Bees that I am Gone, is on the way – soon I hope) when Outlander first debuted on Starz in the summer of 2014.
I’m a regular reader of The New York Times Book Review and I vaguely recall seeing the first Outlander book on the best-seller list maybe three or four years ago. But at the time, the one sentence description – something along the lines of “A World War II-era British nurse goes through magic standing stones and lands in Scotland 200 years in the past” – just didn’t attract my interest. British nurse goes back in time to 18th Century Scotland? “Nah, I think I’ll pass,” I thought at the time.
I know. I know.
I can hear those of you in Outlander land laughing your heads off, especially those who first began reading the books some 25 years ago. I have found out that once you get a taste of what Outlander has to offer, you get hooked. You come back for more.
And now, I am hooked. I’ve read all eight of the main Outlander series books, those massive tomes that transport you back in time filled with lush descriptions of everything from the landscape to the food, to the weaponry, to the mores, to the speech, to the historical figures interwoven with the fictional characters. There’s palace intrigue, murder and all manner of mayhem. And of course, great sex! Gabaldon’s writing is filled with wit, great humanity and a deep wellspring of love. That’s what keeps me coming back for more. And for me, the television show has been true to that spirit.
That brings me to my journey through Scotland this summer.
For 10 days in July, I got to see firsthand the thick, verdant forests of the Highlands, the mist surrounding the Nevis mountain range—Ben Nevis in the Highlands, is the highest mountain in the British Isles. We looked upon the Black and Red Cuillin Mountains on the Isle of Skye. I cruised the waters of Loch Ness (and no, I didn’t see Nessie).
As I toured the Isle of Skye, I couldn’t get enough of breathtaking vistas.
A favorite for me was Neist Point on the western edge of Skye. Standing atop a bluff, I looked out on what seemed like an unending stretch of deep blue water.
A friend, admiring my photos of Neist Point asked, “Is the water really that blue?” Yes it is.
I even saw a Highland cow.
But perhaps even more beautiful – and a favorite picture from my trip – was the wedding I got to witness, albeit from afar. It was a small wedding party: the bride and groom, a minister, what I assumed were the parents of the bride and groom and the family dog on a leash.
Now note, there were quite a few tourists hiking through this area. I had seen the bride and groom, accompanied by their wedding photographer, walk to various points. I suppose they were looking for just the right backdrop for photos, or perhaps, to scout the best spot for the ceremony.
The young bride wore a simple, but elegant, form-fitting white gown with a short train and a lace overlay on the bodice – and black hiking boots. As one woman in my tour group noted, “She knows where she is.” (Lots of boggy soil, not to mention sheep droppings, which Google describes as dark pellets looking like “chocolate covered peanuts.” All I can tell you was I was intent on not stepping in any of it and I was successful).
At Skye, we toured one side of the Isle to another over the course of two days. Another highlight was Eilean Donan Castle in the Highlands, where the movie Highlander – starring Sean Connery and Christopher Lambert, was filmed. We were able to go inside and see how they restored the rooms to depict how it was three centuries ago. During our visit, a castle guide told us a wedding would be held in the ceremonial dining room later that evening after the tourists cleared out.
And then I went on the Outlander Tour; I was back in the Highlands. After a brief respite in Glasgow, then a short train ride to Edinburgh, I joined the Outlander Tour group.
A somber highlight was Culloden Moor – The Battlefield of 1746 – where the Scottish Jacobites were defeated by the British, as the Outlander books and TV show outline in great detail. At Culloden, I saw the single stone markers of the various clans who fell in battle (e.g., the real Clan Fraser) where on the day I visited, flowers had been laid in tribute, as well as at a few other markers.
I also saw stones marking the field where British soldiers died.
Fittingly, the day my tour group visited, the skies were gloomy and a steady rain drenched the field that had swallowed the remains of the dead. Signs request that you be respectful, since you are visiting a war grave—a request no one can argue against. The enormity of the loss is palpable.
Our guide suggested we watch a re-enactment video of the fateful battle, which was unveiled on large screens that cover all four walls of the Culloden Museum’s movie theater. You stand in the middle of the room and watch a black and white video/film as the Jacobites, wielding broadswords and shields, get overpowered by the better-armed British soldiers.
Next, we traveled to Culross, which stands in for the fictional Crainesmuir in Outlander, where Geillis Duncan lived. We saw her house, as well as the village center where the young boy’s ear was nailed to the pillory, his punishment for theft. He’s later rescued by Jamie, at Claire’s behest. (You’ll recall Claire creates a diversion by pretending to faint, enabling Jamie to pull the nail out of the boy’s ear). This is a community where modern people still live and work. It’s fascinating to see how these centuries-old buildings are repurposed in modern times.
Pocket Jamie even came along for the trip.
Then it was on to Falkland, which stands in for 1945 Inverness in the TV show. Later our tour group would stay for a couple of days in the real Inverness, known as the Capital of the Highlands. My lovely hotel overlooked the River Ness, separate and distinct from Loch Ness, I was told.
Next was Doune Castle, used by the TV show to depict Castle Leoch, home of the Clan MacKenzie. We got to go inside to see how 18th Century inhabitants ate, slept, and learned the details of their toileting activities. (You really don’t want to know.)
We saw the burial ground of the real “Old Fox,” aka Lord Lovat, and his family and descendants in a place called Kirkhill. In the television show, the fictional Lord Lovat is Jamie’s grandfather, a real rogue.
There’s much more I could tell you, but I won’t go on for too much longer. I can’t finish without relating the outstanding highlight of the Outlander Tour, though, and that was getting to see Lallybroch, Jamie’s home in the Outlander books and TV show.
We got there towards the end of the day, about 5 p.m. Mind you, every day these tours start at 9 a.m., when the guide picks you up. We hiked through forests, or mountain foothills, or tramped through pastures, climbed up some narrow staircase in several castles. In other words, we were constantly on the move, exploring Scottish history and culture—oohing and aahing at all the wondrous sights.
So then on the last day of a four-day tour, our guide Craig (you can check out his photos on Instagram, Clancraigy) said we might be able to see Lallybroch. But had to hurry to get to a place to buy the permit before it closes. Thankfully he got the permit, (we had to pay a nominal fee), and we headed to Lallybroch – real name is Midhope Castle.
Our 15-person group of Outlander fans was VERY excited: me, a middle-aged woman from Long Island, New York; three mothers from Connecticut who left their husbands and teen-aged kids at home; a group of five from Canada (two wives brought their husbands along, and a female friend, a grandmother); a mother from Indianapolis (who has read not only the main novels, but all of Gabaldon’s Outlander-related novellas, often testing us on Outlander trivia) and her 30-something daughter from Astoria, Queens, New York; two 30-something sisters—one’s a lawyer, the other a teacher–from Norman, Oklahoma; a middle-aged woman from Germany and a young woman from Belgium.
The tour minibus pulls into a nearby parking lot and immediately we see the iconic arch through which you enter Lallybroch, a pivotal location shot in the TV show. Jamie and Claire come through that archway when Jamie returns with his bride after many years away from his home.
Remember when Claire, who has been back in the 20th Century for two decades after Jamie sent her back through the stones to save her from Culloden, and where she believes he has perished, visits Lallybroch to make her peace with Jamie’s death, or so she thinks? She sits on the stoop of the now abandoned Lallybroch of the 20th Century (1968), and looks at the archway, envisioning her long-dead beloved husband standing there, picturing him as she knew and loved him, a man then still in his prime.
You can’t go inside Midhope Castle/Lallybroch, though. It’s boarded up. But the exterior is as you’ve seen it on television.
At our entreaties, our guide, who is wearing a kilt, stands in that archway as Jamie might have to our delight. We all take turns taking pictures, respectful of everyone’s desire to get an iconic shot that will be a lasting memory.
So this brings me to the end of my story.
While I might’ve been one of only a handful of black and brown visitors to the Highlands, it really doesn’t matter. I saw a beautiful country; learned something about its history and culture; met interesting people from the country as well as tourists like me from other parts of the world who shared a passion. I had adventures I will cherish and many stories to tell. What more could you want?
~ Olivia Winslow, a journalist living on Long Island, NY
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