Clachtoll, Scotland, October 2014
I’ve had a recurring dream since I was a child. In my dream I’m going north. Sometimes I’m walking on a path in the mountains, sometimes I’m flying like a bird over small islands. But always I’m heading north. There are no trees and the sun is slanted and low. I feel a pull, as if gravity has gotten knocked on its side. It feels like an imperative – I simply have to go. I’ve had this recurring dream forever.
Today I’m sitting in our cottage in Clachtoll, a tiny hamlet of stone outbuildings, caravans, and practical, stout little stucco houses on the northwest coast of Scotland. I’d been this way before, many years ago, exploring the nooks and crannies of the Scottish coast in my beloved lime green Deux Chevaux (its name was Singer, because it was just a sewing machine on wheels; it had a rollback top and a cassette tape player which, to turn it on, I had to get out of the car, lift the hood, and hook a couple wires onto the battery, oh how I loved that car!). I don’t really remember this road, I was just passing through back then; but it’s all so – familiar. “Familiar” like “family,” “family” like “kin,” “kin” like “ken” – to know.
Clachtoll is in Sutherland, the northernmost county of mainland Scotland. When Dana and I were trying to decide where to go during a rare one-week off in our UK tour, he was looking at Spain on the map while my eyes – I can’t help it – drifted north. Sutherland. The northernmost county of mainland Scotland. “Let’s go there!”
Sutherland is one of the most sparsely populated areas of Britain, with just over 13,000 people living in an area covering 2,300 square miles. Most of the area’s population left during the Highland Clearances in the 18th and 19th centuries, not by choice but by way of eviction; the aristocratic landowners realized that sheep and deer were more lucrative than the farmers tending their land, and in one fell (century-long) swoop, the cultural landscape of Scotland was forever changed. The population of people has never recovered, but the sheep – let me assure you, they’re fine.
Sutherland is the “South Land” of the early Vikings, who settled the area from further north. The landscape here is absolutely breathtaking. White sandy beaches, high sea cliffs, and the occasional fishing port along the coast, with waves the color of turquoise (though you might think twice before you jump in). Further inland, the moors stretch out from sky to sky, covered with bracken and heather and rock and lochan, startled every so often by the sudden rise of an ancient mountain. The mountains in Sutherland and Wester Ross are legendary amongst hill walkers: Suilven, Quinag, Ben More Assynt, Stac Pollaidh, An Teallach, and Ben Hope – words that make my heart pound. But Dana and I aren’t up for bagging Munros this trip; we opt instead for a gentle walk back in the moors. Well, it looked gentle on the map.
We left our cottage in the early afternoon, trekked south along the B869 for a short distance, then headed east onto the Clachtoll Peat Road, a dirt track. Within a few paces we had left the coast and were fully in the moor. We followed the track until it became a path, and followed the path until it became just a wee notion – trying to keep our feet dry by jumping from heather to heather through the bog, but there was no chance. Every time we decided we were finally lost, we would spot another trail marker, seemingly randomly placed in the middle of the bracken. The disquiet in the pit of my stomach would momentarily lift, until after a few paces we would discover ourselves lost again.
I remember walking these hills in Scotland 20 years ago. I would go out for several days by myself, with map, compass, a backpack full of food, extra clothes, raingear, flashlight, whistle, and a bivy sack – all geared up, fully prepared to get lost, or benighted by the dreaded mist. Dana rolled his eyes when I insisted several days earlier that he buy rain pants to take on our walks, and he laughed out loud that morning when he saw me pack my daypack for our short little hike. I mean really, this hike is nothing but a stroll around the block. But I never go walking in these hills without bringing the whole kit and kaboodle. I was once caught in a sudden snowstorm on Ben More, finding myself clearly off the tourist trail and inexplicably on the side of the mountain where the rock climbers were; I did once get chased down a hillside on the Isle of Mull by a fast-rolling mist; and I was once very nearly benighted, during a long walk by myself in the “wilderness” of Knoydart. But despite my Girl Scout preparedness on our short little trek from Clachtoll, with my fearless and able husband at my side, no less, I still felt butterflies in my stomach at the slightest notion of being lost.
Dana and I fell into silence as we slowly picked our way through the bracken. It was so very quiet. I could hear Dana humming the tune he wrote that morning. I could hear the wind, and the sound of our boots on mud and heather. And above all that, the clatter of my thoughts. Darn them! I remember when I used to take my long walks, the chatter in my head would be so loud the first couple of days it would make me crazy. The chatter would grow more and more incessant until finally, after a day or two, the thoughts would start to give way to silence, the chatter would settle down, and I’d be left with – just myself. What a relief.
But today, the thoughts in my head were several decibels louder than the wind. I was thinking – I don’t like not knowing where I’m going. I look over the moor to the west: Just a mile in that direction is the ocean. If I just keep walking in that direction, I will hit the coast road. I am not lost. But we’re going north before we go west, and I’m not sure how to get there.
There’s a difference between being lost and not knowing where you’re going, I realize. I’ve been in that state of not knowing for quite some time now, and it’s uncomfortable. My day job is in flux, my future work uncertain, and Dana and I have had our house on the market, and our mental bags packed, since last March. Honestly we don’t know whether we’re staying or we’re going. One year from now, who knows where we’ll be living, what work I’ll be doing, or whether I’ll even be employed. The only thing I can be sure of at this moment is – my inner compass is pointing north.
On the night that Dana and I met, we made a tacit pact to settle down one day in Vermont. I was living in California at the time and thinking about a move back to Vermont; but my encounter with Dana that night brought me instead to North Carolina. And how fortuitous! Over the past ten years I’ve sunk my roots into our small but spirited town of Marshall, into our home, and into our community of friends. It will break my heart to leave this place and these people that I have come to love. But I’ve been having that old dream of late and there’s the pull. It’s time to go north.
Dana and I have fallen in love with an old schoolhouse in northern Vermont. We saw photos online and went to see it back in October, a year ago. As soon as I walked through the front door I felt I was home. We’ve had our sights set on buying that old schoolhouse since then, but you know, the market is slow. My parents are the first to point out the irony of me wanting to live in a schoolhouse, given the extraordinary number of years I had spent in school. They find this absolutely hilarious. The schoolhouse is located pretty far north, north of Montpelier. My parents live in southern Vermont, and Mom says that’s just too far north. I remind her that there is a whole country north of there, an entire people who seem to manage the winter just fine. To them Vermont is Sutherland, I say. But I might as well be talking about the Vikings, as far as Mom is concerned.
Meanwhile, back in the bog, I was remembering how the Appalachian Mountains in Vermont actually have a geological connection with the mountains in Scotland. They were once all part of the Central Pangean Mountains, a mountain chain formed by a series of continental plate collisions, which ultimately resulted in the ancient supercontinent Pangaea some four-hundred-something million years ago. I’m sure the magnetic ore deep in the core of those mountains has worn off over the millennia, but I’ve felt the same pull to these Scottish hills as I have to the Green Mountains of Vermont. It’s that old pull to the north.
Dana and I continued to play our game of lost and found through the moor for quite some time, until the wet soggy bottom gave way to dirt path, and dirt path to dirt track, and dirt track eventually to the coast road. We arrived at Taigh an Àilean, our warm little cottage, with the sense that it had been waiting all day for us to return. We started the tub and poured some whisky.
It’s our last day at Taigh an Àilean and we’re packing up to leave. The wind has been blowing a gale, and it’s coming from the south. Earlier this afternoon I took a short walk along the cliffs by the coast. I walked into the wind, leaning my entire body forward to push through. The wind was so strong it was hard to breathe. After an hour or so I turned around and started heading back toward the cottage. With the wind at my back, I felt I could almost fly – like I do in those dreams. We’ll be heading back home soon, home to Marshall for now. I’m not sure where the path will lead from here, but somehow I feel more at peace with the not knowing.
Though – I hope the schoolhouse will wait for us.