“My heart's in the Highlands, my heart is not here, My heart's in the Highlands a chasing the deer; Chasing the wild deer, and following the roe; My heart's in the Highlands, wherever I go.” -Robert Burns
The wind whispers through my hair and nips at my ear. The clouds rumble in the distance but I don’t fear the circling rain. The muddy, soggy earth sticks to the bottom of my boots but a few feet away the rocks crunch with each trudge of my step. The towering Munros flank me; on one side the Shetland Ponies free in an emerald field; on the other side, the Scottish Blackface shaggy with wool. In between are the Highland Cows, black and brown, pudgy with horns and carpets for fur. The roads dance in between the mountains, swaying with the grooves of the valleys.
These are the Highlands.
Through my API program I had a scheduled weekend excursion two weeks ago. It was a two-day, one-night trip to the northern part of Scotland, known as the Highlands. I wasn’t sure what to expect but one thing is sure, the journey was more than I ever could have imagined. It really began in my Literature class when my professor had us read ‘The Cheviot, The Stag, and The Black, Black Oil’ by John McGrath. The story leads you through an important part of Scottish history that affects locals to this day, The Clearances.
Perhaps it was the way the sunlight glistened across the lochs or maybe it was the way the wind howled through the forests. But this was the moment I fell in love with Scotland. I didn’t need the excessive tartanry or the melodic sounds of bagpipes and I didn’t need the romanticized notion expressed through film. It was this raw version of landscape, stripped from the labels of society, that wooed me. The Highlands were gushing waterfalls, rugged mountains and hills, and lush forests, ripe with the history of the people who loved, who laughed, who cried on these lands for the past thousand years.
Our trip began with a quick visit to Doune Castle, a medieval stronghold, which dates back to the 13th century. Behind it, a quiet river flows and amongst the trees, you can spot wild deer frolicking about. There were stops along the way to gaze upon the distant views of peaks and valleys as we continued our trip north. Lunch was at Glencoe Lochan where the ducks and ducklings swam harmoniously and the midges swarmed. We were surprised by a trip to Glenfinnan in the afternoon where a steam train chugged along the viaduct. The importance of this particular spot is acknowledged by J.K. Rowling whose inspiration for the Hogwarts Express lies in this very location.
The night ended at a cozy youth hostel on the shores of the Isle of Skye where the six of us cooked our very own traditional Scottish meal: haggis, neeps, and tatties. The next morning our tour guide took us to Stromeferry, a small town with a big surprise for us. We boarded a wee boat and set off into Loch Carron which trickles into the Atlantic Ocean. Our steadfast fisherman was determined to have us get our hands dirty. The net was launched into the water and we set off. A few minutes later, on the wooden deck, there were urchins, starfish, sea slugs, and of course scallops. We learned to shuck scallops and had a taste, both raw and cooked.
The gloomy day had only begun but my biggest adventure was yet to come. As we made our way to Fort Augustus, home to Loch Ness Ness, tales were told of the mysterious monster who’s been spotted throughout the years. The murky water was an icy 5 degrees Celsius. But four of us changed into our swimsuits and braved the loch. I was first to jump in. I felt darkness surround me, falling into a frigid pit. I was told it took me a while to reach the surface, it felt like it. I couldn’t think, I could barely breathe, the water was freezing. But I did it. I can say that I swam with Nessie. Would I do it again? Probably.
Our trip was almost over. There were a few more views and a hike through The Hermitage to Ossian’s Hall of Mirrors, where a lustrous waterfall awaited. I felt saddened that we were making our way back to the university. The Highlands had immensely changed my perspective on everything; how I felt and how I should live my life. Sometimes what you read in a book can only be understood if you’re actually there. Sometimes you have to get your hands dirty. Sometimes you have to stop over thinking things and just jump in. And sometimes, you just have to LIVE.
Read more about how Jacqueline Gonzalez-Cuba is living her life while studying abroad in Scotland by following her student blog right here.