When I was two, my grandparents traveled to England to visit my grandmother’s pen pal. They also visited Scotland, and they brought back a doll for me. This doll had golden ringlets topped with a plaid beret, and she wore a matching kilt with white knee socks and little black mary janes. She stood upright, held by a doll stand. She was not a doll to play with, they explained – she was to look at. She was special.
Even better, my grandparents also gave me my very own kilt with all the accoutrements. I was hooked.
That may seem like a superficial beginning to a life-long love, but Scotland seemed so special. It was far away, you had to dress up to live there, and they had really classy dolls. The summer I turned 14, my parents let me pick our vacation destination (or, at least, they let me think I picked it). After a family agreement to skip spring break to save up, we were Scotland bound.
My grandmother, in her kind way, is fond of saying “aye, but the rain falls soft on Scotland.” I’m sure it comes from a song, or maybe it’s an old saying, but when you’re there, it just feels like the truth. The hills of the Highlands, edges rounded by the centuries, are green like you can’t believe, dotted with scrubby yellow gorse and purple heather and crossed by crumbling stone walls.
We rented a minivan and drove around the country, my dad stopping at each gas station in sight so we could sample every variety of Cadbury in existence. I’ve never been oriented, but the Scottish roads and maps instantly made sense to me, and I was promoted to shotgun seat navigator, happily pointing out roundabout exits while eating a giant candy bar.
In our tennis shoes and new London Fog rain jackets, we found footing on slick cobblestones in old castles – the well-preserved and much-visited in Edinburgh, the majestic perch of Urquhart Castle above Loch Ness, and the quiet old ruins in Invergarry.
I stood solemnly in front of stones on the battlefield at Culloden, reading clan names and feeling the weight of injustices against my adopted people as only a young teenager can. I imagined how fierce those wild men must have been, wielding six-foot claymores in defense of their right to be.
Scottish parliament opened in Edinburgh while we stayed in Fort William. My brother and I laid on our stomachs in our parents’ room watching news reports while I begged my parents to drive back to Edinburgh so we could be there to celebrate. Very reasonably, we continued to the Isle of Skye.
Six years later, I sat on the floor of my bedroom, terrified and overwhelmed, while my family helped me pack for a semester in Aberdeen, Scotland. It was the most transformative half-year of my life. I continued my father’s quest to try all of the Cadbury (and Kinder, Ritter Sport, and Milka…), and I felt the sharp, hollow sadness of returning to Edinburgh Castle after he had died, bursting one of the last spaces where he still existed whole and vibrant in my memories.
I drank my first beer (a half pint of Stella) in the old man pub in town, where the old men taught me songs in the local Scots dialect and how to properly insult someone from Glasgow (Weegie bastards). One of the guys in the tennis club was actually named Magnus. Every Scot I met complained about how gray and depressing it was in Aberdeen and then bragged about some Scottish invention, all in the same sentence. I learned to appreciate late-night kebabs and never figured out how the young Scottish women walked across the cobblestones so effortlessly, invariably drunk and wearing sky-high stilettos and very short skirts.
I learned to be independent while surrounded by fiercely proud and resilient people. Tenacity, strength, and endurance are qualities I admire so much I had them inked on my shoulder blade a few years ago in the form of a thistle: a hardy weed and Scotland’s national flower.
While their historic vote for independence plays out tomorrow, I’ll be raising a glass of Laphroaig to Scotland. Whatever happens, Scotland will be the same beautiful, wild, fierce, proud, and self-effacing country it is today. As an outsider, I can’t claim an opinion in the debate. I can only be grateful for my short time there and look forward to visiting my soul place again soon.