Of the land and of the world

In London, The Art of Travel Spring 2015, Genius loci by Kerry CandeloroLeave a Comment

I know this post is pretty late for this week, but I wanted to wait so I could post about my experiences this weekend outside of London.  Like many of my fellow travel writers here, I too feel like I’ve spent most of my time talking about one specific area and I want to branch out. So, in this post, I will be talking about someplace different: the Scottish Highlands.

NYU London partners with the HOST program to set up weekend homestays for interested students, who then are paired with British families to spend a couple of days getting to be a part of their daily lives. My trip was this weekend, and I stayed with Val and Pip, a couple living on a croft in the Highlands, between Invergordon and Alness. For those of you non-Scots, a “croft” is the Scottish term for a small farm; Val and Pip’s croft, for instance, has around ten sheep, fifteen chickens, and a bunch of fruits and vegetables (for comparison, larger Highland farms have thirty plus sheep roaming around).  So, living on a farm in the middle of the rural Scottish Highlands is not only totally different from Central London but, as a perpetual urbanite, it’s pretty much as far out of my comfort zone as I can possibly be.

There’s just something about Scotland that is so tangibly magical, as if everything around you might disappear in the blink of an eye. It doesn’t seem real- the gorgeous mountains, lochs, and forests outside the window looking like illustrations from a fairytale book. Every rock, every sheep, every tree, every hill seems to have a spirit within them, like the mists roll through the Highlands breathing life unto the land. I know this must sound completely crazy, but, whether it’s the bright blues and greens, the hidden valleys, the ancient stone castles, or the unpronounceable town names, there’s this sense of the mystical in the Highlands.

More than that, the Highland people have this dual-fold understanding of what it means to be both of the land and of the world. Saturday night, Val and Pip invited some of their fellow crofter friends over for dinner, and they mostly spoke about the upcoming lambing season (aka when all the baby lambs are born), their mutual struggles getting subsidies for their crops (something about distinguishing between acres and a unit of measurement I had never heard of called a hectare), and how the weather has been affecting their animals.  Unlike in London or New York, where pop culture and the media dominate everyday conversation, people here in the Highlands discuss what is important to their community: the land.

And life there is just simpler in general. Most of the food I ate at Val and Pip’s house came directly from their own farm (including the most delicious shepherd’s pie made from one of their sheep)- we spent a rainy afternoon playing board games in the conservatory-and most of our days were spent driving around the Highlands looking at the gorgeous landscapes (stopping along the way at a fourth century castle ruin, a lighthouse on the coast, and a manor that faced out to the North Sea)- activities right out of an episode of Downton Abbey. But, at the same time, the Highland people aren’t ignorant of what’s going on beyond their shores: they know exactly what’s going on in pop culture, modern technology, and current trends.  For instance, Val spoke a lot about how she’s loved Hunter wellies before they became fashionable with “those young hipster types”- her friend Allison made a Despicable Me minion joke during dinner- and Val has developed a knack for cooking Indian-inspired dishes, especially ones with curry.

Just because the people live simply and more isolated doesn’t mean that they close themselves off to the rest of the world, and that duality is what makes the Highlands so fascinating. As I took one last look at the scenery walking towards the plane, I found myself taking a rather long breath, hoping and wishing that I could keep the Highland spirit within me long after I leave the UK.

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  • View from the breakfast table: Kerry Candeloro

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