Scotland always seemed so damned romantic to me. I used to daydream about honeymooning in some deserted Scottish castle with my fantasy Scottish husband, who would inevitably look like Sting, Bono, or Val Kilmer.
The castle rooms would be lit with beeswax candles on huge carved candelabras, heated only by our passion and the roaring open fireplaces. My fantasy Scotsman would wear a ridiculously sexy kilt as he rescued me from my oh-so-dull life in the United States, sweeping me across the castle’s decadent threshold as I swooned like a virgin. We would run off into dewy fields of heather, making zealous love overlooking Loch Ness. I would soon be baking meat pies.
I bought my ticket to Scotland and packed my best lingerie, along with a cosmetic bag filled with high expectations. I was bound for the land of my dreams!
Still fighting jet lag, I enter a pub in Glasgow, my last stop before I leave civilization. My final destination lies in the depths of Scotland, the wild country. I want to go to Loch Ness to see a monster that might satisfy my monstrous need for love and adventure.
The pub crowd consists of a rag-tag group of unemployed factory workers and a few scraggly travelers. Sadly, there are no Bravehearts here. I eat my gristly Shepard’s pie and chips at the counter, where I meet Sally, the bartender. She is a heavy-set woman, with stringy, artificially enhanced red hair, and big blue eyes that sag with loneliness at the edges. Sally has been at this pub for thirteen years and loves sharing her story with anyone willing to hear it: “After my bloody soft-cock of a husband left me and my daughter for a tart in Edinburgh, I had to get a real job. So I took this one at the pub and I’ve been here ever since.”
We dive into the topic of love headfirst, like two best friends getting together after a long time apart. It’s easier for me to open up and make friends when I travel. I can listen to Sally’s stories and share my traumas without guilt or fear—it’s not like anyone in Glasgow really cares about me enough to reveal my sins to the world. I tell Sally about the end of my first marriage, my fears about relationships, and all the men who’ve hurt me in some way. She keeps filling up my beer glass for free as we commiserate about the stream of bloody losers and dickheads we have entertained throughout our lives.
After a few beers, I am ready to go off and find my Scottish hero. Too bad for Sally that she married a loser; the guys up north will be true gentlemen. And I need to get on the road to find them. I thank Sally for the beers and leave her a nice tip. In our short time together, never once did we give each other advice—so I am happily surprised when she shares a bit of wisdom with me: “Darling, the only person you’re guaranteed to wake up with is yourself, so you make sure to take good care of you.”
Outside the pub, the crisp Scottish air chills the hairs on my neck like an unexpected kiss. It energizes me and I shiver. I justify this journey, telling myself that it won’t take too much time to get up to Loch Ness. (Just like dating—always justifying my actions without checking with others. No wonder I’m single.) I get in the car and hit the road. I’ve got less than an hour of sunlight left and I really don’t like driving in the dark—plus, I have no clue where I’m going. My mantra is “Loch Ness or bust!” The truth is, I really don’t know how to get to Loch Ness. The map I’m using doesn’t show a direct route to the infamous home of Nessy. I have to fumble my way through an area called the Loch District.
As my tiny two-door compact chugs up the passages into the Loch District, my hopes of finding a place to rest dim. I’m in a rural area, scattered with a few homes and no side streets. The drive north has gone from lush, green, rolling hills to eerie, monochromatic scenery of lifeless trees and frozen ground. The road narrows and the turns tighten. With each turn of my steering wheel I continue my optimistic chant, “There will be a place to stop around the next corner.”
Wrapping around the small bodies of water below, I turn up the defrost and turn off the music; I need to concentrate. Ominous specs of white begin sticking to my windshield. Shit, it’s snowing! My thoughts return to the petrol station where I filled up that morning. I told the guy I was heading to Loch Ness. In his deep Scottish accent he warned, “Oh, love, I wouldn’t recommend that. It’s bound to snow soon and this car you’re driving doesn’t look like it can handle the weather.” I brushed off his comment like I brush off lint. Because come hell or high water, I was going to Loch Ness.
By now, I’ve been driving for two hours and I’ve climbed 3,000 feet. A few miles back, the black asphalt and white divider line were visible. Not now. The ground is lost in the whiteness of everything and I can’t see where I’m supposed to be driving. “Why didn’t I listen to the man at the petrol station?” Because the Scotland I fell in love with when safely tucked in my dreamtime was gentle, kind, and rolled with hills of sage grass and heather. My Scotland was not icy cold, frightening, or dangerous.
I love to assume there’ll be an extra room for me in any hotel I might happen to find, so I don’t make reservations. I believe that the weather will be fabulous wherever I go, so I pack light. I’m sure the next guy I meet is going to be Mr. Perfect, so I prepare myself to fall head-over-heals in love. My first relationship turned out just like this trip—alone, scared, and lost. I had wanted him to be employed, responsible, and thoughtful, but no matter how long I fantasized about whom he could be, he remained unemployed and inconsiderate. My friends would warn me, “Do you know what you’re getting yourself into?” And I would smugly shoo their comments away with a resentful “Kiss my ass!”
Now instead of being stuck in a bad relationship, I’m stuck in a bad situation. I want this trip to be weather-free, safe, and easy. If I had heeded the man’s warning at the petrol station, I would be resting safely in a pub in Glasgow right now, finishing my fifth glass of beer with Sally and getting friendly with the locals—snug as a bug in a pub. But instead, I’m freaking out on a lonely, snow-covered road. If anything happens to me now (like falling off the edge of the ledge into a lake below), I’ll die. Great.
Three hours into this misery and I see lights. I wonder if I’m dead and on my way through the tunnel, but then I see a carload of men with their skis piled on their SUV, filling up at a petrol station. I keep calm (barely) and remove my knotted body from the car. I’m about to burst into tears, but I don’t. There, in front of me, is a flurry of six tall Scottish men. Two are running around the car pelting snowballs at each other, and two are checking the ski rack; one is sitting in the driver’s seat, bobbing his head to some unknown rhythm, while the last guy is pumping petrol.
These beautiful men were sent from heaven to help me—I know this. I can almost see their angel wings and halos. I lost my voice from fear somewhere on the road behind me, but I manage to squeak out, “Hi, I’m kinda lost and I was hoping you would know of a place I could stay the night.” They all stop, turn to face me, and in unison say, “Yes, follow us.” Definitely sent from heaven, I conclude. I follow them.
If I hadn’t asked these guys for help, I’d be frozen in a lake by now, but instead, I’m on my way up a winding road to a warm pub and a cold beverage. They jump into their SUV and I follow them up a very steep one-lane road that has been cleared of snow. My heart slows down as we head up, and I wish I had asked one of the guys in the car to drive with me. I’m feeling needy.
We reach the pub, and the parking lot is packed. Where did all these cars come from? I never saw any on the road. Once we park, I question the guys about how all these cars got here, because I didn’t see any of them during my frightening drive. My darling angels inform me with astonished looks that only residents of the Loch District use the road I took. There happens to be another road that is wider, safer, and shorter, and that’s the road they drove up on from Glasgow. (Damn, I could have ridden with them.)
The guys saunter into the pub and I take a moment to catch my breath while standing under the big, dark sky. The air is laced with rugged masculinity. Smoke, cedar, and earth swirl up my nose as I inhale a great, deep breath. Exhaling feels so freeing—like a big release, and I shake off the past few hours. In the pub, my Scottish skiers head to the front desk and I follow them like a lost puppy. I didn’t know they had skiing in this country—I didn’t know it snowed here. I assumed this country was all about rolling green hills for golfing. There I go, assuming again. Stepping into the front lobby is like entering paradise; it’s a warm, welcoming place.
The skiers, all fabulously good-looking gentlemen from Glasgow, introduce me to the pub owner, an older lady named Mary, who was born and raised in the pub. She’s short and round, her head topped with tight ringlets of ghost-colored hair, and she sports a banana-slug-yellow hand-knitted sweater that looks like she has lost a few pub fights while wearing it.
“Oh, Mary, darling,” chime one of my heroes in a deep Scottish accent. “Can you help out this poor Yank? We found her on the side of the road lost and hungry and she needs a place to stay.” I swoon with delight: at last some rest. If I wasn’t so desperate, I might have taken offense to the Yank comment.
Mary bellows in a voice that seems bigger than her tiny body, “Sorry love, but the place is packed, I’d help her out if I could, but we ain’t got no rooms left.” I’m about to be sick with this unexpected and disappointing news. I am a specter, listening in on someone else’s conversation, “So this is what an out-of-body experience feels like,” I think. I snap back into my body and say, “I’ll share a room, I’ll sleep on the couch in the lobby, I’ll pay full price. I just need a place to rest before sunrise. I can’t drive in this weather.” Okay, I admitted it, there are some things I can’t do—no matter how hard I try.
“Well, love, the only option is the room where the band is staying, I think they might have some room for you. Let me check with them and see if they’d be willing to share. Plus, you’re quite lovely and I don’t think they’ll mind the company.” Great. The band. Well, a beggar I am, and I have no choice. I’m going to sleep with the band.
My mind races back to those VH1 Moments in Rock and Roll where groupies seduce their way to bed with rock stars, just to say they did it with someone famous. Did Scotland have any famous bands I would be interested in copulating with? I think those twins who sang that song about walking a thousand miles were Scottish. But they weren’t very cute. While Mary lets the band know about their new roommate, I contemplate my fate as a groupie for the night. I see an interesting sign on the front desk. It reads: “No Campbells or Hawkers.” Mary returns, grinning from ear to ear, and I know my fate is decided. I wonder what she said to seal the deal.
“Love, you’re all set, the band is happy to have you.” Brilliant, I’m free to drink. There’s no doubt I’m getting wasted tonight—just like on VH1. After we settle my share of the room (which happens to be full price, but I wasn’t going to squawk about that) I ask Mary about the sign.
“Darling, you’re in Glencoe, and in the 1600s this land was home to the MacDonald clan. On February 13, 1692, the Campbell clan massacred the MacDonalds in a government-sponsored genocide. Such cold-hearted barbarians. And dear, today was the anniversary of this treacherous crime. So have a drink for the dead MacDonalds tonight.”
“Interesting,” I think to myself. “My, these people know how to hold a grudge.” Then I ask aloud, “But what about the Hawkers? Who were they and what did they do wrong?”
“Oh love, Hawkers are Jews.”
It’s been a long, ugly day, and I don’t want to discuss religion or history this late at night, so I just nod my head. I thank Mary for the room and ask for directions to the main bar. I really need a drink after this history lesson. Forget beer, I’m ordering Scotch on the rocks.
The place is packed, just like Mary said. Low, cavernous ceilings make me feel slightly claustrophobic when I first walk in. But that quickly subsides once I witness all the happy, drunk patrons talking loudly with one another. The large room is filled with long tables and heavy benches stacked with people. In the corner is the band’s equipment—a bagpipe, a flute, and a fiddle. Interesting band—seems a bit safer than I first suspected, but the night is young and the band members are nowhere to be found.
I spot my skiers and thank them for saving me from the harsh and painful death I would have experienced without their kind assistance. I had left them in the lobby over an hour ago and most of them were well on their way to intoxication. I set off towards the bar for some liquid sunshine, hoping to catch up to my drunken friends.
On my way to the bar, I start plotting how I’m going to score a few free drinks from these kind Scotsmen. I found it odd that when I told my ski angels that I was heading to the bar for a drink, none of them offered to get one for me. I guess they felt that saving my life was enough assistance for one night. Fair. But, you see, I’m suffering from a slight problem. I miscalculated the conversion rate between dollars and Pounds. So, what I thought was plenty of money before I embarked on my ill-planned adventure was half what I expected it to be. This means that every drink I consume costs me twice what I initially budgeted. But, with my confidence and charm, I am certain to find a few nice Scotsmen honored to buy me a drink or two, or three.
“Have you ever introduced a Californian girl to your fine Scotch whiskeys?” I say with full confidence that in thirty seconds, I’ll have a free drink in my hot little hands.
“No Yank, and I don’t plan to,” is the reply. Damn! Is it my approach? Should I have showered before I hit the bar? Do I look like I feel? After numerous failed attempts of libation persuasion, I surrender and buy myself a beer. “What cheap Scottish bastards!” I whisper as I pay for my drink. No Scotch for this girl, she’s on a budget.
While waiting for my drink, I ask the obnoxiously wiry bartender Ted—who’s got a proclivity of spilling Scotch into his own shot glass between bar orders—how long it will take to get to Loch Ness, then down to Edinburgh. He informs me that if I want to drive to Loch Ness from Glencoe, then down to Edinburgh, I need to leave by seven a.m. Great, not only do I have to pay for my own drinks, I have to get up at the crack of dawn.
I return defeated to the table with my even-drunker ski pals while I scan the room for my future roommates. Then, from the smoke, emerge the three mysterious band members.
The bagpipe player, with his strawberry-brown, shoulder-length mullet, looks tough. His green eyes are set far back in his head, and his grin is lopsided.
The kilt he wears doesn’t look like what I expected, either. It’s made of heavy brown wool, folded into thick sections and held together with a big, black leather belt. Off the belt hangs a silver knife, about eight-inches long. It’s all so manly. But between the hemline of his kilt and the end of his sagging, red socks, are his exposed knees. They’re pale, knobby, and flaky. Not what I expect in a tough Scotsman.
The fiddler is bland in comparison to the rugged bagpiper. He’s wearing a sweater that might have been made by Mary; it has that same erratic knitting pattern as hers. The poor man’s face is littered with deep acne scars. I decide he’s not an option for the night. Then comes the flutist. What an odd creature. Nothing seems to fit him, and he appears out of place in the pub. All his body parts look rubbery: his hands, fingers, hair, face, legs, arms—everything. And his skin is scaly and pale. I imagine his parents were members of the circus—the lizard lady marries the human knot. I secretly name him Scumby, and after my analysis of the group, I decide the bagpipe player is who wins the honor of sharing his bed with me.
The guys are setting up, and I introduce myself. “Hi guys, I’m Teresa, and I just wanted to thank you for sharing your room with me. I really appreciate it.”
“No worries matey”, says the fiddler in an oddly high-pitched voice. I smile and nod to each of them awkwardly, and say, “Thanks again! I’ll be in the audience rooting for ya!” They all look at me strangely, (I later learn that root means “having sex”).
The band finishes their first upbeat set and steps out for a cigarette break. It’s too cold for me to follow them, so I stay inside where I notice another group of rogue musicians starting up around a table in the center of the room. It’s Scotland’s version of Harley Davidson rebels, but instead of leather jackets, they wear wool kilts. These guys in full Braveheart regalia, with long unwashed hair, scraggy beards, beer bellies, earrings, and bad attitudes begin playing music that sounds much like traditional Native American music, with deep resounding beats and repetitive chants.
Ted, the cheap bartender, has taken a quick break to listen to this band and tells me that they’re playing Highland music, and many of the men who live in this area think of themselves as warriors whose role is to protect the Highlands. (From what, I never found out.) I didn’t want another history lesson that night, but I was about to get one. Basically, the Scots hate the English. This was witnessed when one of the Highland Harley guys proceeded to torment a Londoner who said, “God save the Queen,” while toasting his English buddies. The verbal retaliation from the kilt-wearing thug was, “Fuck the queen,” followed by an assertive suggestion to take the conversation outside, “So they could all see who rules this part of the world.”
The place is still buzzing with Scottish skiers and Highlanders when I decide to retire to bed. My intoxicated ski angels are scattered throughout the room, and I have no energy to say goodnight to each one of them. I head back to my room, not worrying about the impending band encounter. I climb the rickety staircase and barge into the band’s room. I flip on the light bulb hanging from the ceiling. Against the far wall are four single beds. I feel like Snow White! Only my men are hardly dwarves. I’m so happy to learn I don’t have to share a bed with anyone. I get to choose my bed and fall into a drunken coma until morning. Hopefully, none of them will “catch a snog” (I learned that’s a euphemism for getting laid) tonight and wake me up with thumps and groans from a band member and the lucky lady. So, with my bags packed, I roll into my cozy single bed, set my small alarm clock for six thirty a.m., and place it under my pillow. I quickly drop into a deep sleep.
I wake up before the alarm clock goes off. I sit up in bed slowly, and wait for my vision to catch up with my mind. The room is empty. For the first time on this trip, I feel lonely. I have been abandoned. I spent the night worrying about how these guys were going to ruin my night, but instead I find myself disappointed that they are not here now snoring, farting, and grinding.
Because I paid-in-full the night before, I’m free to leave the pub without any formalities. I just need to slip my key through the slot in the locked door, in front of the Campbells and Hawkers sign. I leave the pub lonely and with an uncomfortable sense of loss. I didn’t make a love connection with any Scotsman, nor did I quench my thirst with any free drinks. The band never showed up to the room, and I lost my six skiing saviors. A quarter to seven and the sun is brimming over the snowcapped mountains that I couldn’t see the night before. The icy hillside magically winks fiery specs of light at me, and I want to capture this splendor and bring it home.
The drive to Loch Ness is spectacular. It’s the iconic Scotland I dreamt about, with the rolling hills and old castles, Tudor homes, and serene countryside. The snow is gone, and sheep roam the green pastures. “Now, this is more like it!” I proclaim in joy. This is the scenery that I envisioned before my departure: a kind, rolling Scotland with lush greenery and gentle breezes. I’m falling in love once again.
A few hours on the road, and many cheesy Scottish radio talk shows later, I see the sign to Loch Ness and I burst with happiness. Since I was a young girl, I’ve been fascinated with the legend of the Loch Ness Monster. Now I get to meet her in person! I drive into the gravel parking lot at the Loch Ness Museum, which is surprisingly empty. Next to the museum is a small teahouse and I rush in and get myself something to eat for the first time in almost twenty-four hours. The toasty shop, lit with very bright florescent lights, reeks of bacon, and I can’t help but order a bacon sandwich and a hot cup of tea with two sugars and milk. But, instead of enjoying my meal warm, I get impatient and leave my hot tea, wrap up my bacon sandwich, and skip over to the Loch Ness Museum. I’m too excited to eat. I want to meet Nessy!
I spend my last five pounds in cash on a tour of the Loch Ness Monster Visitor Centre. After an hour of shuffling through the Tudor Visitor Centre, full of fuzzy images of Nessy, accounts of sightings, and plastic monster souvenirs, I learn that Nessy is not real. She was never real. Nessy was created as an attraction—or was it a distraction? This news devastates me. I have waited my whole life for this moment, and it’s all a sham. In my disappointment, I fight off my tears; I amble to the edge of the Loch, unwrap my cold bacon sandwich, and sit on a hard, damp rock. Its coldness moves up my spine. The Loch is narrow and long, with rugged edges and still water reflecting the calm scene of the land and sky. Above, a murder of crows rides the sky like bits of black confetti in a windstorm. I close my eyes from the glare of it all. How many times have I fallen for this? “Too good to be true.” Hope for the best, but be prepared for the worst.
I drove through a snowstorm to reach Loch Ness, and then I find out it’s all fake. Nessy isn’t real and this bacon sandwich is cold and the heaviness of disillusionment falls on my shoulders like a boulder. Why didn’t anyone tell me she was a sham? Why was I led to believe she could possibly be real? How could I believe this lie so much that I was willing to risk my life to get to this place? I can’t even look at my bacon sandwich now, so I take it apart, deconstructing my thoughts at the same time. Once again, I’m alone and heartbroken. A wave of disappointment crashes over me, and I hang my head and sob without shame. “First love, now Nessy.” Nothing is what is seems, and for the next half hour I let myself cry. I cry about my drive through the Loch District, I cry about my failed relationships, I cry about how uncomfortable I’ve felt on this trip, and I cry for all the times I’ve been let down. It’s usually by people, but this time it was by a place.
During the sixteen-hour drive back to London, a feeling of defeat seeped through my being, like a love-struck date left without a goodbye kiss. Scotland and I didn’t make a very good couple. I set my expectations too high and I hadn’t asked for anyone’s advice or insight about my plans, so I didn’t have a realistic understanding of the country or its people. I didn’t know Scotland’s moods or idiosyncrasies. I never connected to the rhythm of the Scottish Highland beat. I was always off by a measure, awkwardly moving my way through the countryside like a pubescent teen at a high school dance.
Scotland is not to blame. Scotland was being Scotland—rugged, cold, but talkative and passionate. And I was being the ‘me’ I was at the time—impulsive, headstrong, a little self-absorbed and immature. Timing is everything. I thought I was invincible, fearless, and smart. Little did I know it was my responsibility to take precautionary steps, like checking the weather, mapping out my route, reserving rooms for the night, and being prepared for roadside emergencies. My preoccupations with all that went wrong distracted me from seeing Scotland’s true beauty and historical relevance. I wasn’t savoring all that Scotland had to offer because I was worried about driving off a cliff or successfully finding the Loch Ness Monster. Sometimes we get overwhelmed by situations that have nothing to do with our relationships, but we blame the other person—or place—for our disappointments. That’s what I did. I hope that one day I can return to Scotland, preferably in the summer. I don’t expect Scotland to have changed, but I have.