It’s highland time.
One of the perks of the semester has been the abundance of friends who are also abroad across Europe. There have been couches and open arms waiting for me in Galway, Aix en Provence, Florence, Rome, London, and many more. Making memories with my best friends has been my favorite part of every trip and it absolutely priceless. Last weekend, one of my best friends from Fairfield U, Rachel, flew over from Galway to visit Edinburgh for a long weekend. I visited her and another friend, Sarah, back in March and now it was Rachel’s turn to see my new home.
We ventured up to the highlands border on a rainy Scotland day in a short orange bus bursting with European tourists and American undergrads. Russel, our twenty-something tour guide, wore a green and blue kilt and studied Scottish History and Politics at Uni. As a result, he knew a lot about, well, everything.
I’m very embarrassed to admit that this was my first time going anywhere close to the ‘highlands,’ which is the uppermost region of Scotland. Edinburgh and the rest of the Lothians rests in ‘lowland’ Scotland along with St. Andrews, Fife, and other places that I have traveled to. Back in January I spent the day in Aberdeen, which is technically the highlands, but I wouldn’t have known it from the granite buildings and traffic lights that dominate this NYC-esque place. So, finally, it was about time to head up to the [real] loch. What better time than to do it with a best friend?
First stop: The William Wallace Monument. I’ve never seen Braveheart but apparently this dude is pretty popular, thanks to Mel Gibson and a heck of a lot of blue face paint. What most people don’t know about Wallace is what a complete psychopath he was. Let’s just say I was cringing in the back of the bus as our tour guide explained the ways that Wallace executed and tortured his enemies and former friends. In true highlands fashion, it was a short walk up a mountain to get to his monument.
Then it was time for a pit stop at the base of Stirling Castle, arguably the most important castle in Scotland. Most Scottish kings and queens have been crowned here, including Mary Queen of Scots. (Who, our tour guide vehemently, was an awful queen and does not deserve the recognition that she has). It’s a beautiful castle and the gardens below it, once a royal place of entertainment and relaxation, is now a dog park.
A hop, skip, and a jump over the border, and we were in the highlands. Through the mist and rain, nothing looked much different. All you can see is green, green, green. From movies like Brave and Skyfall, I didn’t imagine the highlands to have as many forests as it does. It is actually predominantly forest and lochs, making it look eerily similar to Vermont.
Our orange bus stopped often for quick hikes or waterfall searches, especially once we reached the Trossachs National Park. My friend Anna from CT is originally from England, and her family owns a cottage in Aberfoyle, which is right next to the Trossachs. I was so excited to eat lunch in her second home at a wonderful cafe called Lizzie MacGregor’s. At this point, it was pouring, Rachel and I didn’t mind taking shelter from the rain with some tea and scones.
The most anticipated moment of the day arrived when our orange bus rambled down a dirt road to a small farm encircled with muddy fences. Inside the fences? Just some wee heeland coos. In other words, just some massive, hairy, highland cows. These babies are absolutely famous and adored for their hairy orange coats, big horns, and cuddly faces. Our tour guide told us about an American girl who got her teeth knocked out by the coos’ horns when she tried to take a picture of herself with it, and about an Asian man who walked away from the farm with a broken nose.
If I could do anything in Scotland, it would be to a) find the Loch Ness monster, b) like haggis & whiskey, and c) get up close and personal with a ‘Hairy Coo.’ Since the first two haven’t necessarily worked out yet, I knew I had to take advantage of these super-friendly cows, especially Fiona, whose short stubby little legs couldn’t bring her to the fence fast enough when she saw our orange bus round the corner. Let’s just say that she’s at the top of the Christmas list.
Despite the title of this blog, I also saw my first loch on this trip. Loch Katrine has been the muse of Scottish poets and writers for centuries, and when I laid eyes on her, I could see why. The funny thing about Scotland is that things actually look nicer in the rain than they do the sun, so Loch Katrine was a stunning black loch surrounded by dark green forest. Rachel and I enjoyed strolling around the loch as best we could with soaking jackets and wet hair. Several cranes and swans floated on the surface under the overcast skies, occasionally finding dry land under a mossy rock on the islands that dotted the center of the loch.
Last stop was Doune Castle, home to Monty Python & The Holy Grail and, most recently, Game of Thrones. After nearly five months of living five minutes from a castle, the awe-factor has certainly lessened. Rachel, whose semester has sent her frolicking among Irish ruins in the burren, agreed with me.
I had a special treat waiting for me back in Edinburgh–the Cotalings were in town! Jason, who studies at St. Andrews as a full-time student, was traveling the U.K. with Connor and Caroline for several days and they stopped in Edinburgh for a few nights. It was great to catch up with them and have a piece of home close to me!
I’ve saved most of my highland travels for my VIP’s arrival, which as of today is now Friday. *Freak out.* Now that I’ve seen the small bit of Scotland’s highlands, I have the itch to see more. I’ll be honest–when I first arrived in January to a 2:30 pm sunset and bitter cold, and my Facebook news feed was filled with pictures of a tan Megan sunbathing and drinking wine with her Spanish mama, I had doubts whether I would feel about my country as she did hers. I cried when my plane landed because it was so beautiful, and Edinburgh caught my heart immediately, but I wasn’t sure how I felt about the country as a whole. Once winter lessened and spring poked its head through the clouds, all my doubts disappeared and I allowed myself to fall completely, madly in love with this place.
Standing alongside Loch Katrine, with rain pounding on my face and cranes whistling in the trees around me, I thought back to that first week, when everything seemed cold, dark, and gloomy. How far away that all seems now! Who was that girl? Was that even me?
I’ve said it already, but I’ve started feeling homesick for a place that I haven’t even left yet. Standing beneath a waterfall in the Trossachs, kissing a hairy coo on an Aberfoyle farm, getting drenched on a mountaintop and breathing in the sweet, sweet smell of a rainy loch; these things have made me fall even more in love with this place that has been home for the past five months.