Looking back on my family’s trip to Scotland, it’s not the places I necessarily remember, but rather the memories that we made at them. I don’t remember the hotel room or what specific food we ate, but I do remember every morning asking the front desk for bread to go feed the ducks that lived in the pond out front. I don’t remember what specific astronomical events the stone circle at Balnuaran of Clava was aligned with, but I do remember running through the stones as our mother tried desperately to take pictures of our weaving, giggling selves. Looking back, I enjoyed the trip so much because of how it brought together the interests of everyone in my family.
My nine-year old brother headed the beginning of the trip. After watching numerous documentaries and reading various books on the subject, he was a self-proclaimed expert on the Loch Ness Monster. The obvious next step was to see the creature itself. Thus, we headed over to Urquhart castle, set high above Loch Ness, and peered through the provided binoculars, trying desperately to catch a glimpse of the creature. After passing an hour without any indication of Nessie other than a few false alarms that turned out to be oddly-shaped ripples, we ultimately came to the conclusion that she was sleeping and it was time to head over to Culloden Battlefield.
After catching some tea and scones, we wandered around the now-sparse battlefields, empty except for the occasional stone marking the location of a fallen commander. However, the place was brought alive by Ray Owens, a historical guide and interpreter. Dressed in the traditional garb of kilt and dirk, he told us of the battle between the Jacobites and Loyalists, making the now empty fields come alive with the mental image of clan members ripping off their kilts to come barreling down the hillside at their enemies.
This part was as much for my brother’s interest in warfare as it was my mother’s interest in storytelling and the arts. She was the reason why we all came back with half a dozen handmade scarves. I can remember countless times when we would be driving through the winding, narrow roads when I would suddenly hear, “Stop!” Then my mother would get out, maybe to take a picture of the sun setting behind the hilly Scottish landscape or perhaps to check out an artisan shop with knit sweaters and carved picture frames. She would then spend a good ten to twenty minutes chatting with the owner about anything from the best place to find sheep skin to a good place for lunch.
She was also how we ended up going to a fireside storytelling of local legends while on the island of Orkney. Set at night in the pub of the Stromness Hotel, the atmosphere was cultivated by the peat smoke that filled the air and the music streaming from the fiddle. It was there we heard the local legends about the Stoor Worm and the Selkie bride of the sea, our imaginations running wild as we nursed cups of tea and hot chocolate.
For my father, it was the natural wonders that caught his attention more than anything else. With him, we could easily spend hours hopping over the rocks of the craggily coast line, searching for chalky shells and wave-smoothed rock in the crystal clear water of the ocean. Thus, he was intrigued by the very nature of the Brough of Birsay off the coast of Orkney. The tidal island can only be reached during low tide during which you are able to walk across an uncovered land bridge to visit the fort inhabited separately by Christian Missionaries, the Picts, and Norsemen. However, his favorite by far was when we went to Westry Island in order to see the Puffins.
There are numerous places to see Puffins in Scotland, but few offer such a spectacular view. By nature, puffins and guillemots are high-nesting birds, resting on the cliff face when not dive bombing into the waves. Westry gave us a bird’s-eye view, allowing us to peer down upon the thousands of birds from above. My father took full advantage of this, laying on his belly and stretching out his arm to get that much closer with his video camera. Unfortunately, neither my brother nor I were allowed to join him on account of it being too close to the edge of the cliff for our mother’s liking.
At the time of the trip, I was 14-years old with little idea what I wanted in life. All I knew was that I had an interest in history, prompting some of the archaeological visits and sure enough, it was the archaeological sites that were my favorite by far.
On mainland Scotland, we stopped at Balnuaran of Clava, a Neolithic cemetery with standing stones and mysterious cup markings that I would spend successive trips stalking in a vain effort to understand what they were for. Over on Orkney was Maes Howe, a chambered Neolithic tomb, which is not only lit on winter and summer solstice by the sun, but contains thousands of year old Viking graffiti. The runes scratched into the wall amused us to no end by their time-less sounding phrases such as, “Olaf wrote this way high up.”
Finally, we stopped at my favorite, the Ness of Brogdar. At the time we visited, it was an on-going excavation into what appeared to be household structures and walled precincts. At the time, I knew little about it other than it was an active archaeological site with red-nosed, wind-swept archaeologists uncovering gray stone under the rainy, Orcadian sky. One of the archaeologists at the time gave us a tour of the site, walking us around and telling us about how they’d found evidence of red paint on the 5,000 year old stones. I was enamored by the site and it would become the catalyst for what I now study.
We continue to return, not just to Scotland, but specifically to Orkney and later to Skye, Islands we found to match our personalities in their folklore, histories, and natural wonders. As a result, they continue to surprise and delight us all because no matter what we see, from fluffy highland cows to weird rock formations on the island of Staffa, it is something that one of us will enjoy and will continue to remember in the years to come.
Asia Alsgaard is a student at Boston University currently studying Archaeology and Anthropology. When not hidden away in a library, she enjoys exploring, hiking, and writing. To contact her or learn more, go to @AsiaAlsgaard