When I arrived in Scotland, a naive first-timer looking for adventure, I had no idea what to expect. Arriving at my Airbnb in Peebleshire, I was met by the lovely Moira. She was a 75 year-old spitfire with a sweet dog named Isla and a village full of admirers. She welcomed me into her home and, before long, we were regulars at her local pub, sharing whisky and many laughs. She knew I wanted to see the Highlands of Scotland. So she arranged for me to travel with her sons, and a few of their friends, as they set out on a camping adventure.
When they picked me up at Moira’s house, they immediately surveyed my gear. “You have walking shoes, right?” one son asked. I pointed down to the Converse on my feet, and answered, “will these do?” Moira’s sons burst out laughing. Moira shot me a glance and said, “are you daft girl?” I began to blush a bit. “Take her to the outfitters on the way up, boys, and get her some proper hiking shoes,” Moira said. I thought they were being a bit over-dramatic, but decided not to put up too much of a fight. I cringed when I realized the boots would cost me an extra $100. I was about to learn, however, that that $100 was well spent.
Scotland is a country of extremes. Extreme beauty, extreme wind, extreme green. And you don’t get all of the beauty and wind and green without extreme rain. The Scots love to refer to it as, ‘pissing down rain.’ And I soon found out why. When the rain came down, it came down without mercy. It was the middle of August, and I packed for a typical Michigan summer. I quickly realized my mistake. All seasons can be enjoyed in one day across the bens (or mountains) of the highlands: sleet, rain, sunshine and cold. My stay resulted in the buying of countless rain coats, sweatshirts and thermals. It was cold, wet and so windy at times that I feared my tent would blow away with me in it.
Camping in the rain is miserable. Usually, if I am in Michigan camping, and it starts to rain, I will pack up my things and head to the nearest hotel. Yet, something was different this time around. Yes it was cold, yes all of my gear was drenched, but the highlands of Scotland had this way of balancing out its temperamental weather with respites so glorious it was impossible to pack it up and leave.
Hiking between camping sites brought vistas of such beauty, I finally understood the phrase ‘it took my breath away.’ I was awestruck by the views. The mist and rain would cover the crags high atop the bens and you could easily convince yourself that you had gone back to the time of standing stones and the ancient rituals of the prehistoric and pagan past. The stone pathways leading you up were slick and covered in rain, so the going was slow.
Every once in a while you would come across an abandoned thatch-roofed shelter, called a blackhouse. These shelters, some built entirely from thatch and some built with stone walls, usually contained remnants of the last traveler’s fire. The hole in the top of the ceiling was meant for the smoke to escape, and as the soot would rise, the walls would become covered in black. Thus the name blackhouse. These shelters provided a much needed dry space to store damp gear and wait out the storm.
For our weary traveling group, it was the perfect time to try and produce a fire, which usually was not successful due to damp wood, matches and numb hands. But, oh the times it worked. What bliss. It would be at this time that the Scottish whisky was passed around. As hands and feet warmed by the fire, you realized you were not as miserable as you thought you might be. You realized that, as your face was warmed by the fire, your cheeks were numb from the smiling. And the more you drank, the less you cared about the rumble of thunder off in the distance.
Although it did rain, on a daily basis, the sun also did make an appearance. And it was glorious. When the sun came out, it was the perfect time to stretch out all of the wet gear and let it dry in the heat. It was a time to set up tents and hope that the moisture covering them would evaporate under the heat of an August summer’s day. It was the best time to try to wade in the ice-cold river to take a bath, the first bath in days, with the heat of the sunshine warming your skin. It was the perfect time to have more whisky and toast the swans as they floated casually by, the water still collected on their wings. It was a time to build a roaring fire and to forget all about the cold that chilled your bones only hours before.
There is no doubt that staying in one of the various inns, Airbnb’s or pubs in the highlands would be a more predictable, and much dryer, way to see the beauty of this vast land. But I have no regrets with my tenting adventure. Sure, it was cold and windy and miserable on some nights. But those moments, of finding a random pub with a roaring fire in the middle of nowhere. Of building a snug, cozy bed in the back of a dry van. Of waking to the sun bursting through the clouds. Those moments will be what bring me back to Scotland.
This time with rain jacket, hiking boots and thermal underwear.