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?