I probably should have titled this blog post “Plans Change: The Singular Scottish Isle Instead of the Plural Scottish Isles”.
From the beginning, my plan for this Fellowship was to travel throughout Ireland, with one side trip to Scotland to go isle-hopping in the North. As I mentioned in the last blog, I lived in Glasgow in 2010, but weather conditions and a busy school schedule prevented me from traveling much in the highlands or making it out to the isles. Of the isles that border the north and west coasts of Scotland, I was most interested in the landscape sites of Skye, the largest isle. From there, I hoped to make it to the Isle of Iona, among others.
First rule of travel: plans change. Early on in my travel planning, it became clear that getting around the isles was going to be difficult without a car, since bus transit is fairly limited even on Skye. Second, an opportunity came up to couple my trip to Scotland with another side trip to Oxford, England, an important literary site for me as a lover of all things Tolkien. Lastly, my time on Skye was not a good time weather-wise, and further travel within the isles would have been difficult and unpleasant given the torrential rains and winds. However, Skye and Oxford were interesting counterpoints to one another, and both fantastic experiences that yielded a unique body of poetry. In both cases, I ended up exactly where I needed to be.
On the bus ride northward, a stratified landscape passes by. Stone is layered beneath sheets of moss that have settled along the crags. The repeating slope of a mountain is like an alternating, widening mirror. Each summit has a slight alteration in slope, obscured by distance and multi-hued fog, leaning down and breaking into the line of water. I see a stone archway under the sharp angle of a stairwell. An ancient bridge over a stream, the only break in unadulterated greenery. Water sliding down the sides of mountains in pencil-thin, uneven streaks, their sheen bright as lead in the sun. In all the places I’ve seen– Ireland, Scotland, elsewhere –this is some of the most stunning and atmospheric landscape I’ve encountered.
Our first day in Portree is characterized by weariness and light rain. We quickly become frustrated by our limited transit options and opt for an easy, close, and yet incredibly scenic walk just outside of the town. The short loop offers a range of landscape, from rural fields to rock-ridden coasts, wells and ruins, a view of the ocean and the colored line of Portree houses. It’s a time for E and I to talk, for us to take in a view of landscape similar to and yet distinct from what we’ve seen in Ireland. At one point, I break away to explore some boulders that litter a hillside sloping down to the sea. I press my body against one of the boulders before I climb it, and am reminded of similar moments pre-ascension in the outdoor climbing and bouldering I did back home. The moment of a body pressed flat against stone, only wind-sound behind me. When I look forward, I can see only shadow; to the left and right, my own handholds, fitted into the white clefts along the crag. If I turn my head further, I have the slightest vision of land and sea.
Tomorrow E and I will take a bus out to the Old Man of Storr, a well-known trek along Trotternish Ridge. Several concerned parties (at the hostel and visitor’s center) have already warned us that the weather will be terrible.
In choosing a poem for this post, I found myself thinking of the “twin perspective” that Scottish poet Niall Campbell refers to in this poem. The central image of “The Tear in the Sack” is simple: a bird with its cocked head, seeing one image in one eye, one image in the other. And yet the two visions capture the dichotomy between simple signs of rural life and the stunning backdrop of landscape that I see in Scotland as I make my way north. In a way, any travel experience for me acts as a dual vision, one of people (their culture, the way they leave, the ruins and artifacts they leave behind) and one of unfamiliar landscapes.
The Tear in the Sack
A nocturnal bird, say a nightjar, cocking its head in the silence of a few deflowering trees, witnesses more than we do the parallels. Its twin perspective: seeing with one eye the sack- grain spilt on the roadway dirt, and with the other, the scattered stars, their chance positioning in the dark.