On the road to Oban I noticed that I seem to have a semi-permanent taste of whiskey in my mouth. I imagine this to be the permanent state of many Scots. Also on the road to Oban, I noticed a few thickets by a loch with trees so big they seemed to be ecosystems within themselves, with ferns growing through the bark of their trunks and flowers growing out of the stumps where trees and branches had been cut. This seemed to reaffirm my notion of Scotland as a place where the years compound the life they've produced.
We stopped on our way into Oban at the pleasantly under-curated Dunstaffnage Castle. My iPhone's memory was full and I was having technical difficulties making memory space, so I only got an initial shot of the castle's facade, which actually reiterated the, well, everyday feel of the castle. Quite a few locals - workers on lunch, locals walking their dogs and taking advantage of the generously blue skies - were sauntering about the grounds, looking relatively unconcerned with the historical significance of this monument, leaning instead into the sensory experience of this evanescent moment. Unlike most of my other memories of Scotland, I see this one as pure, unadulterated by frozen images, only translated through words into this experience I now share.
To summarize Oban: It is an oceanside town composed mostly of tight angles and steep inclines. It has a distillery named after it which I was not terribly fond of, and lots of townie bars I enjoyed much more. Most of the B&B's and guesthouses look out onto the city from the tops of its many bluffs, including the Greencourt Guesthouse where we stayed. We ate languostines, crabs, and salmon at Ee-Usk (Gaelic for "fish") one night and the Waterfront Fishhouse the next. It is easily accessible via mass transit, with both a train station and a ferry hub in the town center. One of its most prominent street signs warns against "Fouling," with a symbol of a dog defecating that's specific enough to include steam rising from its symbolic shit. On the street leading up the hill from the town center to the guesthouse district is an activist coffeehouse built into an incline so steep that the downhill side of the storefront is roughly three feet shorter than the uphill side. It is a city of tourists, but also a city replete with private gardens, and friendly cats with bells around their necks.
Unlike Skye, Dr. Johnson quite liked Iona, the small island we took two ferries to reach on our second day in Oban that is known as the birthplace of Christianity in Scotland. I could see why he liked it, though perhaps I felt a little underwhelmed simply because, after Skye, it was more of the same. It was just a very high level of the same.
One of my favorite things to do is to sit and ponder the passage of time. From the seconds passing as the wind ripples a field of buttercup daisies to centuries-thick slabs of stone arranged into temples, the isle of Iona is well-suited to this activity. Centuries are glanced over in historical markers, but I imagine the slow passage of time in the tiny prison cells, the punctuated sessions passed in the little reading nooks with slivers in the stone that look out onto the beautiful, menacing ocean. Sitting in a dark, tiny reading room at the top of a tight spiral stone stairway at Iona Abbey and looking out one such sliver onto the blue water surrounding the island, I imagine years and years of monks, nuns, and abbots reading and writing here, in this place founded at the advent of Scottish Christian history by St Columba in A.D. 563, interrupted periodically by colonizing kings and invading Vikings, some perhaps thrown from their reading nooks into the prison cells just meters away, eventually settling with the rise of Scots democracy into a hippyish enclave surrounded by livestock, a small children’s nursery, broken down boats, and cerulean water. I imagine looking up from my book, perhaps swearing forced allegiance to yet another reformation, then getting on with the important business of getting on with it.
Sitting and looking at the photos I've taken so far, I'm reading from Knausgaard's My Struggle (Book II, p433): "When I was outdoors walking, like now, what I saw gave me nothing. Snow was snow, trees were trees. It was only when I saw a picture of snow or of trees that they were endowed with meaning." Even here, as I've been temporally in this country, this mythology, this restricted code, I've felt myself becoming attached to the photos I've taken, the pieces into which I'm cutting up and preserving the landscape, to the ways I'm entering into an ancient (by human standards) culture by cutting it into these pieces I can digest. Before I even got home I ordered Johnson's account of his journeys through this same land centuries earlier - in this small way I feel like I know him, through this shared bit of land and sea, caught in words.
If the passage of time was a theoretical consideration while on Iona, it was a practical consideration—nay, a sword of Damocles—once we left it by ferry and drove across the Isle of Mull to the Oban ferry. Scotland’s highways, for all their one-lane, sheep-ridden charm, are not a place to drive in a hurry. Never was this more readily apparent than when traversing the 36-mile length of the Isle of Mull to and from Iona. After spending the day on Iona and eating a smoked venison plate at The Keel Row, we thought an hour and a half would be sufficient to reach the last ferry. It was, by less than five minutes. We were especially surprised at how many tour buses not only use these one-laners, but don’t use the passing places; they simple roll along, and god help the poor mortal driver who doesn’t get out of their way.
In the handful of minutes waiting to load onto the ferry back to Oban, I looked down at the solid stone beach. The cracks were what most drew my attention - out of every one, and even in some of the shallow pockets worn into them by centuries of water lapping upon them, were small, bonsai-like hedges capped by purple flowers. I thought of the thicket I'd seen from the car on the way into Oban. This moment was already gone, but the stone would remain. And so would the flowers.
In almost every public space in Oban, including the pubs, were posters laying out the pros and cons of the upcoming European Union secession referendum, or Brexit as I heard it dubbed on my return home. This was my first real experience with the revolt that has now come to pass. To a man (and woman), every Scot in every tavern and every public place was for staying in the EU. Even I, with my going-on-a-week's education in Scottish history, could see why: The EU had been much kinder to Scotland in its fifty-plus years than England had been to Scotland in the thousand or so years previous. I was tempted to compare the referendum to the U.S. voting cycle, the xenophobia that seemed to drive British voters to the xenophobia and racism that drives Trump voters here. But then I thought, People don't talk about these things in American bars. Official political discourse like all these posters is not allowed in public places, and some misguided sense of personal privacy allows Americans to think it their right to vote on uncritiqued prejudice without revealing it. Unlike the UK and the rest of Europe, we don't have millions of refugees fleeing a brutal dictator knocking at our borders; in fact, we whine and cry when our President allows 10,000 - 10,000! - of them into our borders. I thought then about my tendency to despise the line of thought that clings to cultural purity, and yet one of the primary reasons for my attraction to Scotland is its cultural singularity, its purity.
Both nights in Oban we watched UK game show The Chase at a bar while drinking Caledonia Best ale, neither of us knowing there is actually a U.S. version of the show. We followed along with the leadup to the EU referendum, and also as the verdict was handed down in a horrific child murder case involving a two-year-old boy who was beaten to death by his mother and her girlfriend. This was during the same couple of days when U.S. social media exploded after a gorilla was shot while possibly trying to protect a boy who'd fallen into its cage at the zoo. No one in Oban had yet heard of this gorilla, and when I told the bartender about it, she laughed. I laughed too. She told me this two-year-old boy had fallen off the social radar after his daycare workers had noticed signs of abuse, and had spent months thereafter in a cage in their home. He died in their bathroom of a ruptured heart caused by blows to his body. Everyone in the bar stared at the TV, in shared horror at the crime that had not receded in the months of the trial. I saw no relief on any of their faces at the just verdict. For the rest of my trip, continuing to observe the ruins of empires and the lives and deaths of important, historic, abstract visages while hearing and seeing about the latest battle for sovereignty, I thought most about that boy and his tiny, destroyed heart.