Wow, mmmm, sigh, what a trip, what a country. John and I both fell in love with Scotland. The people there actually say "bonny" and "wee" and "aye" and "yo." Just kidding! Nobody said "yo." In fact we hardly ran into any Americans, mostly Europeans of various types, and of course the lovely lilting Scots. They seem to adore Americans, probably because we share their keen interest in making fun of the English.

The pleasures of Scotland are too many to describe - the deep blue lochs where monsters lie (Morag, a female, is said to be meaner than Nessie), the misty glens whose vertiginous walls are ribboned with silvery streams, the ruined castles and the still-splendid ones, the subtropical gardens and Caribbean-colored seas....

Most important, the rumors of bad food were erroneous, with the exception of breakfast (what do they DO to those scrambled eggs???)... we ate rawther well I must say (note: I am here making fun of the English; it's so hard to stop). We are a little fat, however, because of the Cream Element. Example: Menu Item at a hunting lodge in Achnasheen: "Death by Chocolate Gateau with Ice Cream and Double Cream or Squirty Cream." If you order something like profiterole, cheesecake, lemon brulée or some other already cream-laden extravaganza, they always ask you if you want cream with it. Similarly, at a cafe on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh I ordered a brie sandwich and they asked if I wanted butter on it. Yeah, totally disgusting, bring it on!!!! Fortunately I got 5 long runs in, sometimes with several sheep running down the road ahead of me. They are too stupid to run off to the side, so they just keep running away from you, bleating piteously.

But sheep make some of the best landscapes, if New Zealand & Scotland are any measure. You can walk anywhere across seacoasts and mountainsides nicely cropped by the woollies, and in the Outer Hebrides and West Highlands, the ground is springy from the peat and mosses and lichens (say "litchens" with great emphasis, like David Attenborough). In some places, if John walked near me, I could actually feel the ground bounce.

For a few years I've been photographing places "Beyond the Tree Line," which are open and treeless, and it turns out that my attraction to such places is in my blood. In Scotland we learned that my ruthless Viking ancestor, Magnus Barelegs, stripped the trees from the Outer Hebrides in the 12th Century and they have not grown back since! Right on Magnus my main man. Here and there throughout the islands and Highlands you see some puny efforts at reforestation; ill-advised, I say -- if you want dark woods you can go to Maine. I wonder if Magnus felled the trees for aesthetic reasons... was he pining for the fjords?

Whatever it was, I'm certainly pining for the Outer Hebrides. I grieve for the landscape as if it were a person. The only cure is to go into the darkroom and work with pictures of it, while playing the CDs of Celtic rock -- Wolfstone, Runrig, and Deaf Shepherd (get it?) -- which we purchased over there and played incessantly on the stereo of our gleaming Ford Mondeo ($75 per tank of petrol). In Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis, we'd been lured by our hosts to a Celtic Music Festival one night and were stricken with infatuation for bands with fiddles and bagpipes. We were also stricken by the flying elbows of the screaming teenage girls who came to hear Runrig; apparently they're VERY big over there. They were good but we prefer Deaf Shepherd.

On Lewis we stood in the most beautiful spot in the world. A bald statement, I know, and photographs will never do it justice so I can't prove it, but imagine a land of clover and heather, wind and mist, cerulean seas and emerald mountains, Gaelic roadsigns and Viking ruins, rakish black-faced sheep and curious seals, diving gannets and comical puffins... and not a single tree to block the sky. The one most beautiful spot was on a grassy point overlooking Uig Sands in Timsgarraidh (Timsgarry). A vast white beach, a half-mile deep from water to land, stretches out left and right for a mile and you are standing high above it in the exact center. The bay is very shallow there and comes in between rolling headlands from the North Atlantic under constantly shifting light. If you come when the tide and wind are right, the shallow waves form perfect, unbroken arcs across the entire mile, following each other neatly, breaking delicately along their crests into tiny, lacy cascades.

When the tide is high, all of Uig Sands is covered with water and the effect is lost. (There will be another, almost as mysterious, effect.) We stayed there for three days at a fantastic 18th century inn called Baile-na-Cille (Manse by the Graveyard), run by a mad Englishman named Richard and his helicopter pilot wife. They are completely obsessed with aircraft; when I called the Hebrides from Philadephia to make reservations there, Richard freaked out: "Philadelphia! There's a helicopter museum there!" No there isn't, I said. Yes, there is. No, there isn't. Yes there is. (Turns out it's in West Chester, PA; he was close enough.)

The pastures on Lewis, which we tramped over with Richard's border collies Freddy and Bertie, showed us exactly how golf was invented in Scotland: John is convinced some shepherds just started hitting sheep turds with their sticks, trying to get them to land on the many greenlike grassy plateaus by the sea, or fall into a rabbit hole. The whole world is a links fairway there...

And so we ended up at St. Andrews in the Kingdom of Fife, where the Royal & Ancient Club insists that golf was invented (the rules, anyway), to watch the brilliant Tiger Woods master the Old Course and win his first Grand Slam. We were fascinated for four days by the best golfers in the world, especially on Sunday when we sat at the nasty 17th hole hoping, like all the other blood-lusting, golf-loving fans in our grandstand, to see them screw up big time. Now, for those of you who watched this on TV, know that even from our coveted perch on the uppermost row of the stands (the better to view other holes and the open sea), that Road Bunker is so deep that we could only see David Duval's shoulders and head, and we did not even know he'd hit a third shot backwards until we read it in the papers. A wise bartender in Edinburgh, who schooled us in tasting Highland whiskies, told us that sheep had made the bunkers, burrowing in against the wind. That is why, he said, the deepest sides always face the sea.

Sandy Sorlien
August 2000

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Imagining Antarctica


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©2006 Sandy Sorlien.