Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Places of the Heart

I first visited the Scottish Highlands in 1985 in my mid-twenties on what I thought was a whirlwind tour of Britain just before I flew back to Australia. I'd been away about six months and had hit a point where I was sick of unfamiliar things and people and tired of dealing with all the annoyances created by living out of a suitcase for that amount of time. I'd tried to be a housekeeper in London and lasted all of a week. The experience was so awful (incontinent dogs were the least of the problems!) that I decided I'd spend two weeks seeing what I could of the UK by train and then I'd go home (I'd spent the six months travelling in Europe).

I did a day tour on a coach out of Edinburgh which was billed as a taste of the Highlands. It sure was that - as you can imagine, the amount of territory covered in just a day wasn't huge. And it rained! As it regularly rains in Scotland. We went to a couple of rather cheesy woollen mills, I remember, where you could buy stuffed toy Scotty dogs (shades of the incontinent London beast, a Highland terrier!) and silly Loch Ness souvenirs. Nessy in a bright red tartan tamoshanter, anyone? For a lot of the day, the weather was so misty and cold and wet, you couldn't even see outside the bus windows.

Anyway, after a very ordinary lunch and an encounter with some Highland cattle and a lot of Highland mud, the bus went over the hills from Loch Long, past a lookout called Rest and Be Thankful, which given the steepness of the terrain, made perfect sense to me, and down to Oban on the west coast.

And I literally fell in love at first sight.

The water, the islands, the light (the weather had cleared marginally by now), the people, the rising hills in the background. This was literally the most beautiful place I'd ever seen in my life. The wildness and the grandeur of this landscape spoke to me in a way nowhere else ever has.

I've been back several times since, both on that particular trip, which ended up lasting another 18 months, on a shorter trip in 1995 and I had a couple of months wandering the isles and the coast in 2004. And the magic has never failed me. The west coast of Scotland and the Hebrides are literally the places that live in my heart.

What's weird is that this is Argyll where my Campbell ancestors came from, although whether they came from the mainland or the isles is long lost in family history. It makes you wonder about race memory. The area is so beautiful, I think most people are overcome with wonder when they strike it, so perhaps I'm just a victim of magnificent landscape and not a throwback to my Scottish ancestors after all.

I always said I'd never write about this area because I wouldn't do it justice. But then it came time to recount the tale of a certain Scottish duke and his troublesome mistress. Almost against my will, most of the story of CLAIMING THE COURTESAN takes place in an isolated glen north of Oban. It's a fictional place but the descriptions are grounded in the reality of that glorious part of the world.

What are the places of your heart? Have you included them in your writing? How important is setting for you when you're writing?


jo lewis-robertson said...

Anna, beautiful post. It stirred up memories of our trip to Scotland last August. My husband, who is also of Scottish descent, stared out at the loch from the edge of the castle and said, "I feel like I've come home."

I can't describe the serenity and grandeur of the place, but I understood in an instant why so many historical writers used Scotland as their settings. jo

Aunty Cindy said...

How important is setting in your writing?

Thanks for asking, because I try to make the setting a character unto itself! I think (hope) I've succeeded in my three attempts thus far.

And interesting you bring up 'genetic memory', because I do believe there is such a thing. My DH's grandmother came from Ireland in 1912. His mother always talked of going there, but never did. When we visited there in the late 1990s, we were lucky enough to find some of his family members and to visit the house his grandmother had been born and grew up in. At one point, before we had located his relatives, we were in the ruins of an ancient castle and he told me how all his life his mother had gone on and on about County Fermanagh. Nowhere in the world was as wonderful as County Fermanagh. Then he looked out across the green, green field toward Lough Erne and said, "She was right." :-)

Now you would THINK that with Irish ancestors on both sides of my family tree, I would feel the same way. Wrong. I did LOVE Ireland, the people and the land, but the place that stirred that elemental recognition in me was Italy! Specifically Rome. As far as I know, I don't have a drop of Italian blood in me, but from my first trip to Italy, I was hooked! I'd always wanted to see Venice, and I did like it. Everyone I knew who had been there, told me I was going to LOVE Florence. But I really didn't. It was Rome that stirred my heart, and has on every subsequent visit. I don't know how, or why, but it does.

Thanks for sharing, Anna, and for letting me blather on.

Anna Campbell said...

Cindy, you and I are definitely sisters! Florence was a real disappointment to me. Yeah, I loved the art and the architecture but I didn't get that marvellous feeling of life infusing every stone that you get in Rome. In fact, shock, horror, I'm not a fan of Paris either. Give me Rome instead any day! I'm a water baby from way back so Venice was dream come true to me. And it made me realise how much ancilliary noise we get from traffic. Nights in Venice are magical - all you can hear is the lap of the water and the occasional boat.

Jo, your husband's comment gave me goosebumps!

Inara said...

Lovely post, Anna! I wish I had such a stirring tale to share. Setting, I am ashamed to say, has never been a strong presence in my stories. Maybe because as a reader, I tend to skim over descriptions to get to (what I consider!) the good parts--dialogue and sex. ;-)

I know, slow down and smell the roses, right? I've always been an impatient sort.

Oddly enough, as a former outdoor guide and wilderness leader, this has nothing to do with my own deep connection to place. I have strong memories of waterfalls, deserts, and forests so beautiful they make me cry. I always find it important when I move (and for a while, I seemed to do that every year) to make a connection to my new environment. I've become attached, in different ways to the Minnesota prairie, the Colorado mountains, the rolling hills of Maryland, the thick rhododendron forests of North Carolina, and now the wonderfully soggy greenery of Oregon. They just don't end up in my stories. :-)


Joan said...

Oh, Anna. I know exactly what you're talking about.

My reaction exactly on my first trip to Ireland. We landed in Shannon on a chilly, overcast, rainy day. We got in the rental car and I thought "Dear God. I just spent 3,000 dolloars for THIS!" (I treated my best friend and my goddaughter)

Anyway, we no sooner had left the airport proper than it hit me. I truly, deeply, undeniably felt I'd come home. The essence of that beautiful place just soaked right into me. I thrived on every green blade of grass, every vista, every garden blooming with a riot of colors.

I had not a whit of trouble understanding anyone we ran into (my friends kept saying "huh?") but the lilt felt as natural to me as if I were fluent in Gaelic. (I have tried to teach myself on the computer...hard unless you have someone to practice with).

My heroine of book one and her brother are from Iron Age Ireland and once my Rome series is finished (Never been to Rome but also feel a deep connection. Maybe in a previous life I was conqured there lol) there's a paranormal centered completely in Eire.

So yes, it will fit into my writing.