On our way out to Skye we stopped at Eilean Donan, one of the most visited castles in Scotland. After paying the requisite fee at the visitors' center, we crossed the moat to the interior of the castle and watched the introductory video narrative told by actors from the perspective of various relevant historical personages. I thought, after hearing an English naval officer speak of blowing up the castle to rout the Jacobites and Spaniards occupying it, that for a ruins, this castle is remarkably whole. And as I walked through it, I kept thinking, There sure is a lot of wood in this stone enclosure. The castle itself, as I soon put together (or my wife soon told me), is almost entirely a rebuilt facsimile. As such, it's one of the most beautiful castles in Scotland. Many couples, in fact, have rented the space for weddings, filmmakers have used it for shoots, and shortbread and whiskey makers have used its likeness on their packaging.
As we drove from Eilean Donan into the edge of Skye, we noticed the mountains got craggier, more barren, more stone-laden, more imposing. We stopped at Cuillin Brewery outside Sligachan and had fish and chips and Black Face beer (named for a type of sheep, not a brand of racist minstrelsy) for lunch. Sipping the lukewarm (was that intentional?) brew, I thought, as my wife excused herself to use the restroom and I watched a father and his grown son play pool, that this has happened not just for decades but for centuries. Not the pool game necessarily - maybe it was dice, or other games of leisure and chance with which people have kept themselves busy and in company. This universal impulse - to drink fermented beverage and do nothing together - has sustained culture just as reliably as building fortresses, fighting wars, and sustaining family lineage. Looking out at the craggy mountains littered with the stony remains of pre-organic volcanoes, drinking made more sense to me than perhaps it ever has.
After lunch and beer, we drove past Portree to the Old Man of Storr. We didn't know it, but we saw the old man coming from miles away. "Look at that range," I told my wife, pointing to an abnormality in the rock formation. "That part of it looks like the teeth of a key." As we drove closer, we found that the "teeth" were giant volcanic rocks that did in fact look vaguely like giant people gathered at the top of a mountain, with one, the Old Man, seemingly holding forth in ancient assembly. The sign at the bottom of the trail leading up to them told us that these volcanic stones are roughly 55-60 million years old. As we made our ascent, I became more and more aware that this might be the most overwhelmingly majestic vista I would see in my life - blue sky above, blue loch below, pockets of water nestled in the crevices of the mountains, and these giant rocks whose existence began with this world's first rumblings of organic matter. Almost at the peak, I looked down at my wife sitting on a stone and looking over this expanse, her red curls flaming in contrast to the green and blue and grey, and thought she - this woman I know more intimately than any before or since her - looked almost mythic, unknowable.
After snapping shots of my wife, I looked up at the Old Man. I wanted to know him too. Without telling my wife, I began climbing on all fours up the almost-sheer rock face leading up to him. This was not my most thought-through move. About halfway up, I looked down. There was no going back, at least not the way I came. I looked at the next stone to pull myself up, and saw an orange on it. Someone had not only left this orange, but carved a smile into it seemingly in the style of that creepy How Are You Peeling? book. I smiled back at the orange, and continued up. When I could climb no further up, I found myself standing in shadow at the foot of the Old Man. I wanted to breathe that moment deep into myself, feel the wide expanse of time and space within and without me. I thought about Andy, my good friend and colleague who fell to his death from Breakneck Ridge off the Hudson a week before we'd left for Scotland, and wondered if this was the last thing he felt. When I climbed down, my wife was almost frantic. "Where did you go? I thought I lost you!" I told her about the feeling at the top, and about Andy. "I thought about Andy too," she said, glaring. "Don't do that again."
We drove back down to Portree with a sense of the world opening up to us. We had no rooms booked for the weekend, figuring we would find a room each night wherever we ended up. The first we found, Braeside B&B, had one of their three or four rooms available, as the man and woman drinking on the porch told us ("Eighty dollars if you pay in cash. Pick up the keys at the foot of the steps inside, and pay us in the morning. Wifi is rubbish, but the passcode is on the door."). We walked the town for hours to the sound of accordions from every corner as there was some sort of accordion music festival in town for the weekend. We found a hole-in-the-wall, perhaps popup seafood restaurant on the pier where the fishermen unloaded each morning and evening, got pleasantly drunk, and disputed the number of accordions playing at once in the town (my wife insisted it was impossible for ten to be playing at once in one bar). We read the municipal bulletin board and discovered a Citizens Advice Bureau, a non-profit dispensing free advice on request. We had dessert at a hotel lobby, where the teenage hostesses were too concerned with attracting the attention of some boys outside to ask us to pay. And then we slept.
I keep thinking now, looking at the maps that guided us through Scotland in the ensuing weeks afterward to remember the names and places we visited, about the opening lines of Laura Riding's "Map of Places": "The map of places passes./The reality of paper tears./Land and water where they are/Are only where they were..." In the weeks before our trip, my wife repeatedly asked me to take a look at the atlas and guidebook she'd gotten, and let her know what I wanted to do and where I wanted to see. I didn't look at the map or the guidebook until we were on the plane, and even then only cursorily. This has been my m.o. pretty much any time I've visited a place entirely new to me: wanting the thrill - or pseudo-thrill - of discovery, I shun graphic representations and brief touristy summaries of what has to be a more interesting reality. But after the trip, as my wife bugs me to give up the atlas so her mother can use it to plan her own upcoming trip to Scotland, I find myself hoarding it, looking at the highways we traversed, the names of places we saw and didn't see, the blue veins of water running through everywhere, trudging up memories and associations that deepen the experience of these Scottish places for me by mapping them. A map is a system; the terrain of the journey is the habitation of story. It is this reverse-mapping, a fairly useless skill while traveling that undoubtedly makes me a more annoying travel-mate for my wife, that makes a journey a journey, and not just a series of places.
On our way to the fairy pools we took a wrong turn off B8009, toward the Talisker Distillery. I'm so glad we did. As we looked over the grey-blue water of a small loch whose name I can't recall or find, we saw a small mountain plateau with twin tips, one reaching toward the sky and one reflected in the water. I thought of Calvino's Invisible Cities, particularly the city of Valdrada, built on the shores of a lake perhaps like this one, where "the traveler, arriving, sees two cities: one erect above the lake, and the other reflected, upside down." Much like the invisible city of Valdrada, this mountain and its evanescent twin undergirding it "live for each other, their eyes interlocked; but there is no love between them." Later in the day, after we'd finished at the fairy pools and were on our way back to Talisker, the wind had picked up a bit and the second, invisible mountain was gone.
I'm glad we did the Old Man of Storr and the fairy pools in back-to-back days; in many ways they are inverses of each other. Whereas the Old Man leans upward with all-encompassing majesty, one must fix one's gaze downward to catch eternity in the the cerulean water of the fairy pools. Whereas my wife's frustration with me at the Old Man was mostly in my losing her while going upward without my consent or knowledge, her annoyance with me at the fairy pools was more that I stopped at every little myriad pool, so that she always seemed to be at least a hundred steps ahead of me. The path along the pools leads to the foot of an imposing range, one whose sheer bluffs and cloud-tipped crags made me jealous of the people passing by us with climbing equipment. But the pools were enough; they were plenty. Looking at the diminutive stream containing them from the top of the trail had me wondering, though: Where are the pools? Unlike the Old Man, they were not looming over the road for miles, or even any distance, in any direction. They only reveal themselves when you are upon them.
Before lunch we visited the Talisker distillery, one of the few whose name I recognized before coming to Scotland (the others, Glenlivit and Glenfiddich, we didn't visit). Maybe it was the linguistic familiarity, but this was my favorite distillery. I loved the industrial exterior - the entire distillery was rebuilt in 1960 after being destroyed by a still fire - and the whiskey itself was second in my book only to Blair Athol (keeping in mind that we only bought bottles under forty pounds in price). I'm sipping a little of the Talisker Skye right now at home while writing my remembrances from notes. I was shocked and dismayed, however, to find in the distillery's given history how badly Samuel Johnson thought of the isle of Skye. "...a dry day was hardly known"...I wish he'd been here when I was. I would have happily shared with him the langoustines I bought at the oyster shed up the hill from the distillery.
Our next stop was Fort William. We decided to take time getting there, riding the ferry across Armadale Bay from Ardvasar to Mallaig, then listening to BCC Scotland in the car as we drove the hour or so the rest of the way. On coming into Fort William around five or six, we wondered if we should have dinner or find a hotel first. Seeing some No Vacancy signs on the first B&B's on the edge of town, we figured it might be a good idea to find a place first. We checked the bigger hotels downtown, thinking we might just walk around what looked like a bustling downtown and then to our room afterward. No Vacancy. We got back in the car and drove to the south end of town, where we'd been told were a ton of B&B's. There were, and all of them had big No Vacancy signs out front. We spent the next three hours driving down the eastern shore of Loch Linnhe almost to Oban, meeting either No Vacancy signs or confused proprietors who'd forgotten to change them. One of them told me that it was a banking holiday, which meant all the Brits were flooding the West Coast of Scotland for the weekend. Every B&B and small hotel was loaded with merry people, and every person there looked at us with pity and/or revulsion, as if to say "You didn't make reservations on a banking holiday?" and/or "Dumb fucking Americans." As it became more and more possible that we had no place to stay - no place to stop even, as every small town, hotel, or B&B had a manager, cook, or self-designated watchman letting us know we should keep moving - we became more and more desperate and more daring, venturing far into backroads in search of unreserved accommodations and even begging a few places to find us a room, any room, it didn't matter, we just wanted to stop driving, eat, and sleep. We drove through the tourist village of Glencoe slowly, dodging children riding bikes while examining every place we saw for any sign of a possible opening. We stopped at the Glencoe Hotel, which like everywhere else offered no vacancy but unlike everywhere else had a friendly manager who wanted to help us. This lovely person - her name was either Shana or Shannon - called place after place, accepting rejection after rejection on our behalf. "Would you be willing to go further inland?" she asked. "Perthshire, perhaps? It's a three-hour drive, but far enough away from either coast that touristers would be uninterested." Sure, we said, looking at the hotel clock. Almost 10:00pm. More rejection, until finally Shana or Shannon brightened up while chatting on the phone. "Ok," she said. "Kinloch House has one room left. It's a bit pricey and out of the way..." "We'll take it," I said. After making the reservation via phone, we thanked her and asked if she knew where to eat on the way out of town. "I'm afraid everything's closed but the Cooperative. They might have some fruit and a pre-made sandwich. Good luck."