A country at the end of the world, a land packed with stories and secrets: From a traveller’s perspective, Scotland is a combination of unfulfillable dreams and an almost painful place of longing. This exposed location in the heart of all wanderlust junkies is by and large due to Scotland’s perceived and real distance to every other place in the world. Almost everywhere on our planet you find yourself between two points, between home and the unknown, between near and far – Scotland, however, lies on the road to nowhere. North Atlantic, end. Scotland isn’t even a stopover en route to Iceland or North America, the country is a cul-de-sac. After that there’s simply nothing, hence Scotland alone has to be the destination. Grey, barren, windswept and inhabited by people who are regarded as tight-fisted, belligerent and headstrong. The food is supposed to be dreadful, the lochs abysmal, the monsters huge, the weather miserable. So why Scotland?
Perhaps that’s exactly the reason: Because people very deliberately sidestep this country but then decide to risk it, because you can’t just pop in, and this makes Scotland a travel destination for the advanced. And if this bourgeois-philosophical approach doesn’t tickle the fancy, then perhaps the adventure, the something else, the authentic, the unexplainable, just might. Even if this sentimental gushing for a legend-shrouded country in the north may have little to do with the reality of Scotland.
An attempt to explain: We all live in a world that is imbued with the spirit of the Roman Empire, our language, our science, our units of measurement, our technology, our law and order, our politics, our military, our civilisation, our religion – in short, our entire way of thinking, around 1,500 years of it is still influenced to a shocking degree by a good millennium of Roman rule over Europe and the Mediterranean realm. In this subconscious coordinate system, Scotland is still this mysterious territory beyond the familiar. What happened north of the Hadrian’s Wall has fed myths and cultivated prejudices for centuries without ever having a chance of clarification. Our idea of Scotland is distorted because the glasses through which we view the north of Great Britain have been warped.
The naive child in us overlays the image of Scotland with an icing of longing for ruggedness, authenticity and paganism, it wants to see the wild country at one with the Celt’s (who we like to make the Scots in our dreams) tenacious desire for independence, the child wants to believe and hold dear a certain something that our hard-nosed civilisation seems to have lost long ago, and blithely ignores the real Scotland. When travelling through the north of the British Isles it pays to spend a few minutes investing in the history of Scotland. Clan feuds, William Wallace, Maria Stuart and so on. A classic reality check. Do you want to know how it all ends? We’ll give you this much: Scotsmen of today prefer to wear boxers under their kilts...
What’s left is the land. Almost 80,000 square kilometres that, from a purely geological point of view, has it tough with England: As a geological continental drift, the lump of rock that we call Scotland today flailed its way from somewhere in North America umpteen million years ago and headed for (what is now) Europe and accidentally rammed into England. Love stories go somewhat differently. All that geological stress, however, gave Scotland its Highlands – a mountain range, which at one point had hoisted itself up to 8,000 metres, that is still incredibly rugged today, but ice age glaciers have taken the edges off. At 1,345 metres, Ben Nevis is Scotland’s highest mountain, the highest in all of Great Britain, in fact. The appeal of the Scottish Highlands, however, is not due to height but texture: Deep and long valleys, forcing all traffic to adhere to their growth pattern, a humid climate from the Atlantic and the Gulf Stream which cultivates lush vegetation and water-filled moors – and of course lochs. Lakes of all sizes, from wee ponds to giant fjords. The Highlands is a region of perceived endlessness and great timelessness. Those who spend hours for just a few kilometres while meandering over the tiny streets with their origins in ancient clan trails, feel completely consumed by this mighty landscape under a turbulent sky.
And the roads are no different. And there it is again, our Romanisation: The great roads of Europe still follow the old marked-out routes of the Romans. We’ve become accustomed to the distance-defying audacity with which they cut through the land as efficient instruments of a detached administration on routes as functional as possible. There’s none of that in the land of the barbarians. Scotland’s roads are local. They hug the mountain slopes very naturally and snake through valleys, it’s easy to see that they have not been planned on a drawing board by engineers but are tromped into the countryside by feet and hooves. As soon as you become accustomed to the small-scale rhythm, how they flow from bridge to bridge, from hill to hill, from loch to loch, you’ll fall completely in love with them. In their implicitness lies a wondrous beauty, compelling you to also think in manageable legs: massive daily distances, as is possible on US highways or German autobahns, are simply unrealistic and unnecessary in Scotland. For all of a sudden the country begins to tell stories that enthral one and all.
So, why Scotland? Because we can travel excellently through most regions of the world, but the momentum of the journey rarely allows you to “arrive”. In Scotland it’s the other way round. Here, the destination is everywhere.