Twice during the trip, my buddy asked if I would go back to Scotland. Both times I was pensive but hesitant, unsure what hadn’t been sitting right in the few days I had been there so far. It wasn’t until my penultimate night, watching the sun set en route to my overnight on Islay, that the reason for my unease began to dawn on me.
The last full day my friend and I were on Isle of Skye was supposed to have the best weather of our entire time in Scotland. We started off by heading to Dunvegan to tour the UK’s oldest continuously-inhabited castle, now property of the MacLeod clan. It wasn’t as pretty as Eilean Donan on the road to Skye, and that the morning wasn’t meeting the forecasted weather conditions did the facade no favors.
But in the early afternoon, the mood began to change. First the clouds began to shift eastward, resulting in patches of sunlight warming spots on the roads, and then the roads themselves began to bob and weave as they wound their way from the small town of Talisker toward Glenbrittle. Near Glenbrittle is a relatively unknown trail toward and along the Fairy Pools, and it was there, alongside bone-chilling water streaming down from the Black Cuillin mountains riding alongside, that the full spectacle of Skye began to unfold.
Pool after pool, the foreground just kept evolving. My jaw kept dropping, and, after a few sheepish moments of gawking, closing. The stoic mountains became a trope for time: what sat at the horizon remained steadfast while what unfurled at our feet morphed every blink of the eye.
In hindsight, this was perhaps the first time I returned to my 2007 stage of glee: then, on my first sunrise drive ever, I was so excited to see a reflection of Mt. Rainier over Green River while using my car’s roof for a tripod that I didn’t realize for several hours that the reflection I saw was actually the mountain on my car’s roof, not the mountain on the river. This time, I couldn’t figure out whether I was composing well or composing poorly, while all the while not particularly caring. I let my eyes wander to the hills beyond and ran the camera in autopilot.
I think I speak for my friend and for me when I say that we could have stayed at the pools for hours. Sunrises and sunsets last for minutes but the individual pockets of cold joy could have taken up the span of a full day. We never made it to the source of the Fairy Pools, which were still hours away from where we turned around, and I’d estimate that for the two hours were were on the trail we probably covered a mile and a half, such was the grandeur of the place. Ironically, our next landscape destination was for sunset at the well-known lighthouse of Neist Point, which seems to disappear into the cliffs around it.
Before the sun sank, the clouds looked promising for a quick blotch of color. Equally impressive were the sheer dropoffs into the white waters below, unprotected by fences or warnings as in true European fashion. Also impressive was the team of maybe twenty assistants and directors and make-up crew dedicated to the one model who was doing a sunset photoshoot. They spoke French, but I didn’t chime in; they seemed on a mission.
As the sun tended toward the horizon, the colors never quite caught, but it didn’t dull what had been a tremendous day. The sunset by itself was hard enough to beat!
The next morning, we headed off Skye and back toward Inverness. We intentionally added miles to the trip by rerouting toward Invergarry and Loch Garry, but the early morning sun hadn’t burnt off the clouds yet, leaving us staring at cows instead of the loch. It was uncertain what they were looking at.
After dropping my friend off at the train station, I headed south, toward the port and its ferry that would take me to Islay. The clouds from the morning had begun to clear, enough even to see Ben Nevis, the highest mountain on Scotland. I think we had driven by this exact spot three times without seeing it previously; now, on my way out, it revealed itself in full.
The clouds continued to wisp as the day wore on, even as any traces of a breeze also vanished. Once aboard the MV Finlaggan, steaming toward the second nice sunset in two days, I began to think about what it had been that so unnerved me the first few days but that disappeared the day prior.
This was actually the second colorful sunset I missed while on Scotland due to being on the road and unable to stop. This time, I took the late ferry into Port Ellen, meaning I had twenty minutes to get to my hotel before its kitchen closed. I ate a delicious fresh monkfish filet and asked for suggestions for sunrise, thinking it’d be as nice as the sunset the night before. The next morning, not in the mood to awaken in the dark, I slept in another hour and went to Machir Beach, one of the prettiest beaches on all of Islay. It’s ironic at first: that a northern Atlantic island would have nice beaches, given the temperature of the water lapping upon them, but it is nevertheless true: Islay simply has beautiful beaches with dark turquoise, even emerald, water completely unpleasant for swimming. This morning, I was more focused on staying warm on land as winds gusted around me, blowing whitecaps on the small waves of Machir Bay.
The tide was receding and with the help of wind and water left three distinct patterns on the beach.
It was here, being blown through by nonstop gales, that it dawned on me that my earlier unease was due to the raw beauty of Scotland that until then had been impossible to tame. Every single trip to Switzerland has been with great weather, largely because I had the luxury to wait for a Wednesday or Thursday before a weekend to decide if I wanted to make a weekend trip of the Alps. But it wasn’t just Switzerland. Norway, Seoul, Barcelona, Seattle, San Francisco… these all had terrific weather. But in Scotland, driving around a remote countryside I knew to be beautiful, I couldn’t find a clearing long enough to figure out what lay behind the clouds and how to take a decent photograph of it. It was a mix of inexperience with split-second photography, anxiety over planning a trip and not having the conditions work out, and not wanting to settle for “taking it easy” on vacation. I was terrified that I wasn’t good enough to appreciate what Scotland had to offer while cloaked in mist.
Yet here on Islay, alone on one of its western-most beaches and remote from the rest of Europe, an island so small and friendly that locals wave to one another while driving, while bracing myself against the wind and blowing sand, I realized with a lump in my throat that I did, in fact, long to return and to embrace the challenge. The uncertainly, the clouds, the rain, the greyness, they no longer mattered; what was significant was the pureness, the crispness, the individuality. This was the essence of the freedom of the hills I pursue so often in Switzerland, but condensed into an island with weather so volatile a forecast is valid but only in one-second intervals.
And yes, coincidentally, I discovered another astonishing place whose name begins with “S.”