In Notes from a Small Island, Bill Bryson writes, “I suppose everybody has a piece of landscape somewhere that he finds captivating beyond words.” For Bryson it’s the Yorkshire Dales– he can’t quite explain why they resonate with him so deeply. I know exactly what he means. Although I’ve seen more than my fair share of beautiful landscapes, there is one that might as well be in a locket around my neck: Scotland.
The geology of Scotland varies regionally, but I think my passion springs from one common phenomenon: wild, mysterious familiarity. Being from New England, I’m reminded of home whenever I visit southern Britain and parts of Ireland. I recognize the changeable weather, the rock walls and the lush ivy, can name the trees and match the uneven hills and disused farmland to scenes from my childhood. Even many of the place names are the same, thanks to homesick American colonists.
Visiting Scotland still feels a little like coming home, but to a home that’s grown wild in an alternate universe. In this alternate universe, the land put up a better fight against the forces of man and nature than in mine, where it was almost completely subdued. New England hills slope gently where Scottish ones jut, New England boulders have shaken loose or worn down while Scottish ones have remained embedded in ragged crags, New England flora stretches and encroaches only when it’s sure it will be allowed to survive, while Scottish flora runs completely amok, growing where it shouldn’t survive. The Scottish landscape is Old and New Englands’ rebellious sibling, the horse no one can break, veiled in mist and disorderly undergrowth and covered with rock formations so fiercely strange they spawned legends. Its comparatively sparse population and violent history imbue it with a somber air of abandonment and timelessness– you can’t stand on the rocky coast or in one of its foggy valleys without feeling a ghostly raising of the hair on the back of your neck.
Just as my native language feels a bit exotic and intriguing and irresistible when spoken in a different Anglophone accent, so does the basic foundation of my home landscape feel exotic and intriguing and irresistible in Scotland. It teases my imagination with its stunning weirdness and my memory with its eerie similarity to places I know so well. It is indifferent, impossible to possess, and somehow more desirable for it.