“We live in a wonderful world that is full of beauty, charm and adventure. There is no end to the adventures we can have if only we seek them with our eyes open.” – Jawaharial Nehru
Venturing across the Minch and driving across the Highlands through Glen Shiel and Glencoe in the February may not be for the faint hearted but it hardly ranks among one of the “great journeys” that the world has to offer the intrepid traveller. Although taking the ferry has become as routine as catching a bus (and about as reliable as any rural bus service) and we have travelled this road many times, the landscape never fails to delight and the weather to surprise. Perceptions of Scotland in winter are bound by myth and cliché; but if you are prepared to risk the fickleness of the weather, the colour of birch twigs in a shaft of sunlight, a waterfall frozen into icy daggers or a rainbow framing the gateway to a rainy glen can turn myth into reality.
Organising something as mundane as having the car serviced is a routine chore for many, but for those of us who enjoy living in rural isolation it can require the logistic precision of a military operation and getting the car to the garage can cost more than the service. Although I am never enthusiastic about leaving the island, there are times when it is necessary, and the prospect of a little self-indulgence helps make the chore more palatable. The opportunity to visit friends, discover a new garden, nursery or bookshop and explore some less familiar regions of Scotland are good enough reasons to muster a little enthusiasm.
On recent trips to the mainland we have been exploring the borders from Berwick in the east to Stranraer in the west. The landscape is much softer and richer than the austere windswept islands which are now my home. The verdant valleys, woodland and rolling farmland are comfortable within the shelter of the hills and moorland of the ancient kingdom of Northumbria and the Scottish southern uplands. It is as if a mantle of settled, affluent middle age has descended on the shoulders of rebellious, turbulent youth, turning reivers into yeoman farmers as times rolls on.
The border between England and Scotland is not a precise line drawn by modern cartographers following UN peace negotiations. It meanders from coast to coast, an ancient demarcation drawn by centuries of conflict, changing allegiances, internecine feuds and treachery. This is the land where as a boy Walter Scott was first introduced to the Border Ballads and it is just a short step to Waverley novels and the creation of the romantic myth of Scotland. Whether you like your history with a sugar-coating of romance or prefer the darker under tones of harsh reality the Scottish Marches like their Welsh counterpart do not carry their history lightly.
There are no border posts, wire fences or police patrols and the bands of reivers have been banished by time, but in other parts of the world borders are still areas of conflict and despair. The Berlin Wall and Checkpoint Charlie now belong to film noir, the le Carré genre of cold war espionage fiction and Trip Advisor, as the focus of history has now moved once again to the borders of Greece, Turkey, Syria and beyond. As we meandered along these now quiet Scottish border lands, admiring carpets of snowdrops in the rain and misty vistas of distant hills, it was difficult not to be aware of the darker side of the history and the despair which seems to drift like a miasma over lines on a map. As for the Scottish Snowdrop Festival, we never did manage to find any of the gardens advertised as open – perhaps another border myth.