I am back in time, camped on the banks of a turquoise loch beside the ruins of a small castle. Never did I expect to have a place like this to myself. But, after spotting it from a remote one-lane road, I left my rental car in a pull out, hiked over and found it deserted.
Earlier today I drove down from the coast under a cloudless blue sky. The only sun I’d seen since I arrived in Scotland a week ago. My first break from the dreich. That constant gray—the perpetual damp, foggy drizzle. And even now, as the sun sets, I see mist unfurling from distant alpine valleys above and around me. Creeping back in from dark corners and ragged edges. Slowly reclaiming the ether.
Since I got here the whole country’s been socked in, as if cloud vapors seep from the rocks in this part of the world. This wet, northern landscape constantly birthing mist. The photos of Scotland I’d grown up studying were always shrouded in gray and, even in pictures, I could sense that fog’s constant, restless movement.
It’s already past 10:00 with plenty of color in the sky and another full hour before light completely drains from the western horizon. As I watch two loons dive for fish, I notice more clouds rolling in. Mist.
What makes this landscape so mysterious, so haunting? Up here fog is an illusionist, a magician, and a trickster. Driving across the landscape you might think you see a church or a lighthouse in the distance but the image is too faint to know for sure and could be only your imagination.
One of my first days in the U.K. I was traversing the Cairngorm Mountains and got turned around in the fog. A low ceiling of clouds pressed down on me and in moments, all the peaks vanished. My craggy points of reference sucked up into the grayness. A few minutes later I couldn’t see across my small meadow, then seconds after that visibility dropped to only a few feet.
I kept hiking in the direction I thought I should go. Between huge moss-covered boulders. Up a low saddle and back down again. Into a new meadow, this one bursting with blue and purple wildflowers. I remember, at one point, part of the mist rolled over for a moment and a stone circle appeared in the distance to my right. Or maybe it had just been a natural ring formed by the rocks. Wind shifted again and a crumbling granite house materialized on top of a hill before more fog blew in and swallowed it altogether.
A while later it let up. I hadn’t been too far off course and I detoured back to my tent. The next morning, I broke camp and hiked back down to where my car waited along the side of the road. By noon I was headed north, past Inverness, crossing the Highlands on my way to Durness and the northern coast. Beyond Lairg, the landscape opened up. Vast sweeping distances between towns and no sign of civilization, like Alaska’s tundra. Only short grass—not lichen—stretching for miles between distant naked ridges. Austere and lonely. Or maybe it was my mood that day.
I felt disconnected from the land and people here. Still unsure as to why I came to Scotland at all, even though it had been a life-long dream. Maybe I’d just finally outgrown this kind of solitary travel. Or was feeling the impact of the sky, which had been darkening all day. The dreich rolling over on the landscape like a sow, stretching out and laying its full crushing weight on me.
Somewhere in the late afternoon, south of Kylestrom, I came to some intermittent woodlands and pulled up to what looked like a trailhead. I’d just gotten out of the car, unpacked my sleeping bag and tent, and started strapping them to my backpack, when the downpour started. Instantly soaked, I floundered to pull my pack cover around all of my gear.
It occurred to me to take a break from camping for one night. Head back to the last town, find a liquor store, and buy some of this world-famous scotch I’d kept hearing about. Bring it back to the trailhead and, instead of setting up camp in a downpour, just sit in my car and drink myself toward a dreamless sleep. It was tempting. At least I’d be dry.
And then, out of nowhere, Roddy appeared. Tapping my shoulder. His unruly, graying hair matted to his head. Beard dripping rainwater, he stood in high leather boots, heavy wool pants and shirt. A small, muscular man with a deep scar running through his left eyebrow, “Looking for a place to stay?” he said.
“I was trying to find something up there.” I nodded toward the trail; “Is it okay to camp here?”
He frowned and shrugged. “Aye. It’s okay. If you want. Or you could sleep somewhere warm and dry. My name’s Roddy.” He offered a calloused palm and a fierce handshake.
“Iver,” I said.
“Iver.” He thought about that for a second. Then raised his eyebrows and grinned. “Iver the Viking. Follow me.”
“Where we going?”
“This way.” He nodded toward the grove; “Stay at my house.” Roddy turned and started walking toward a dense stand of trees.
“Come on, Lad,” he called without turning; “Bring the car.”
I was so wet, cold, and tired that the thought of Roddy being an axe murderer barely crossed my mind. I just needed out of the rain, “You want a ride?” I said.
“No,” he yelled, without turning; “I love this weather.” Next thing I knew I was getting in my car, shifting into first, and following Roddy down a narrow drive into the thickest woods I’d seen for hundreds of miles. Roddy never looked back as I followed him a full half mile in first, the engine barely turning fast enough to keep from stalling. On either side of me the fattest Firs I’d ever seen rose toward a dense canopy of green, their trunks disappearing in a thick blanket of ferns and white wildflowers. Finally, we arrived at a small stone house; “Bring whatever you need inside,” Roddy told me when I stepped out of the car.
By the time I grabbed my pack, he was already in, leaving the door wide open. I had to stoop to squeeze through the short, arched doorway.
“Dinner’s good and cold now,” a woman with wavy black hair said from the kitchen; “Did you walk all the way to Glasgow?”
“I made a friend,” Roddy said, “This is—” He turned back to me; “What’s your name again?”
“Right,” he said; “Iver the Viking.”
I walked over and shook her hand.
“A friend?” She looked me up and down and raised an eyebrow. Up close, I realized this woman was much younger than Roddy, and quite a bit taller.
“Yeah, he was soaking wet and trying to camp. I told him to stay with us. He’s quite harmless, I think.”
This was all too weird, as if I’d walked into a movie about my own life. Only I felt like part of the audience more than the main character and I was totally clueless as to what might happen next.
“I’m Mairi.” She shook her head as if these sorts of surprises were normal.
“Well, sit down,” Roddy said.
I was still shocked to be in a strange couple’s house, about to eat dinner with them and, presumably, sleep in their home. But I’d already committed and decided to just go with it. So, I pulled a chair next to Roddy. Mairi ladled out some stew for us and set a big loaf of bread on the table. I hadn’t realized how hungry I was till I dug in, “So,” Roddy said, “Where in America are you from?”
“Ah!” He raised his eyebrows, “The Last Frontier?”
He scratched his thick salt and pepper beard. “Aye,” he said; “It’s meant to be beautiful there.”
I nodded, “Very much so. Like Scotland. Everywhere I go in this country it’s stunning.”
Roddy tore a piece of bread from the loaf and dipped it in his stew, “Aye,” he said; “Stunning all right. Used to be much more so. When there were trees here.”
“Oh, here we go,” Mairi cried; “You and your trees.”
Roddy lapped up the stew with his bread, gravy dripping from his beard, “The whole country used to be covered in ‘em,” he said; “From the East Coast to the West. Till the English chopped them all down. The Caledonian Forests once covered all of the Highlands. A primeval wilderness. Two million hectares, or more. In places, they burned our forests just to kill wolves. Can you imagine? The big bad wolf!” He turned his head and pretended to spit. “Those bastards. They cleared whole mountain sides to make deer hunting easier for the wealthy estate holders. Then came the Clearances. They evicted all the Crofters—our ancestors—so they could turn the whole country into a sheep pasture. Huge sheep farms for their precious wool industry. This is the only corner of Scotland where there’s any woods left, Lad. Old Growth at that.”
He grew quiet. Mairi took a bite of her stew, but Roddy just stared down into his bowl. I cleared my throat, “I thought I’d been driving across tundra the last few days. Or that maybe it was too rocky for trees.”
Roddy looked back up, “Nope,” he said; “Sheep. We’re about the last to live like the old Scots. In the forest and off the land. That’s venison in your stew and potatoes from the garden.” He shook his head, “There was a day when bears and lynx roamed the woods of Scotland. And wolves,” he said; “Can you imagine the sight? A wolf in the Highlands?”
I’d never thought about it. The wolves of Scotland. They’d been extinct from the U.K. for centuries. In the past week I’d been to Dunnottar, Balmoral, Eilean Donan, and other famous sites on the drive up from London. But I’d rather see the crumbling remains of a remote castle, like the one I’d later find, than the popular destinations with their crowds.
In fact, I’d never really known what drew me to Scotland besides the landscape. I just knew there was a connection that had to be made. I wanted to care about castles and monarchies—kings and queens—but it was the common people that interested me. Like Roddy and Mairi and the Crofters before them. And way before that, the Ancients.
Maybe the Scotland I’d come for was one that didn’t exist anymore, except in artifact and relic. Maybe what drew me here was an older history, one of clans and tribes and the native people. The animals that fed and clothed them. The predators they feared. I would return later for that history. Not Buckingham Palace, Big Ben, or Loch Ness. But for those who first inhabited the rugged Northern Coast. Or the Cairngorms. For the beauty of Skye. The Highlands and the Islands.
“Aye,” Roddy went on, still chewing his food. “The Clearances. They kicked us off our land. Out of our longhouses.” He sighed and scratched at the scar above his left eye. “The government’s ruined everything. They just won’t leave you alone. When all you want is to carve out a simple life.”
“Oh, Roddy,” Mairi sighed. “I’d say we’re doin’ all right.”
He looked to Mairi and his face softened. Roddy smiled and placed his hand on top of hers. “Aye, we are, I’d say.” He took a deep breath then and sighed. “Right. Well. On to better things.” Roddy looked down and nodded to himself. Then, after a long pause, he turned to me and grinned. “So,” he said. “Iver the Viking. Fancy some whiskey?”
“Not the whiskey,” Mairi moaned. “You’ll be up all night and have yourself a sore head in the mornin.’” But Roddy was already standing. He grabbed three glasses, a bottle from above the sink, and she didn’t protest when he filled them all to the top.
Roddy raised his drink. “Sláinte,” he said.
“Sláinte.” We all took healthy swigs.
Mairi started clearing the dishes and when I asked if I could help, she dismissed me with a wave of her hand. “Thanks, though for offering.”
After she’d finished, Roddy stood up with his glass. “Let’s show Iver the grove. It’s hardly raining anymore.” The three of us moved toward the door and, when they didn’t grab jackets, I didn’t either. Outside it was only sprinkling anyway. Mairi and Roddy showed me the garden first, where the herbs and cabbage had already been planted and where the tomatoes would go this year. Next, we came to a path leading deeper into the woods. White flowers covered the entire forest floor.
“What are these?” I asked. “I saw them driving in.”
“Wild garlic.” Mairi pulled one of the broad leaves from under a flower and handed it to me. “Try it.”
“We have more than we can eat,” Roddy said. “They grow like weeds here.” Further down the path a patch of fiddlehead ferns stood in the shade of a Spruce stand and we gathered some for morning. I told Roddy and Mairi all about the incredible places I’d seen so far in the U.K. Avebury, Skye, the Cairngorms. And how, in a week, I was driving back down to London to catch my flight home.
After twenty minutes, our path had gradually looped back to the house where Roddy held the door open for Mairi and me. Inside I helped them build a fire in the stove and we all sat around telling stories and drinking whiskey. Roddy and Mairi were both quick witted, but conversation always circled back to our common love of the land. Mairi’s voice filled with pride as she described how her ancestors brought their livestock into the longhouses on cold nights, “Warmth for the animals,” she said. “And warmth for the Crofters.”
Sometime around midnight they made up a bed for me in the corner and disappeared down the hall toward their own room. The rain had picked up by then and as I laid down I could hear its music on the roof. Wind stirred the Fir trees outside and it didn’t take long to fall asleep. As I drifted off that night, I dreamt about the old camps of the early tribes, the longhouses of the Crofters. And the wolves of Scotland.
* * *
I open my eyes to the ceiling of my tent. It’s been two days since leaving Roddy and Mairi. I hear the waves of Loch Assynt lapping against the shore just a few feet away and, when I step out, I see Ardvreck—beaten down by time and weather—but still standing tall a hundred yards to the north. Rugged mountains rise to the west and mist is already rolling in thick, but at least it’s not raining. Yet. I’m excited as ever to blaze trail and it only takes ten minutes to break camp and shoulder my pack.
It’s a half hour traverse along the rocky southern end of the loch to the base of the mountains where I start my climb. A steep ascent toward the ridgeline but I summit in a couple of hours, racing the low ceiling of clouds already pressing down above me. From the top the view is expansive. A wide, empty valley stretches to where another range of mountains rise up in the distance.
This visibility is fleeting. I don’t take long to enjoy the view before starting my descent down the other side, to eventually cross the basin and head up the next ridge. Swirling tendrils of mist, like long ghostly fingers, already reach down from distant slopes on either side of me. Soon that next range will disappear altogether but I keep heading in its direction. I’m sure I’ll get disoriented, maybe even lost.
But I don’t care. My circle of sight shrinks as I hike, fog thickens, and the mist starts playing its games again. The trickster is back and it’s not long before nothing is what it seems anymore. An opening appears in the vapors and, in the far distance, I think I see a burial cairn. From here it’s too far to know for sure and I only have seconds before the fog takes it again. Another panel of mist slides open and before it closes, I see an old longhouse hundreds of yards away with stone walls and a thatched roof. Could there be one so complete—so intact—way out here? It’s impossible to make sense of it all, so I stop trying. And decide to just go with it. Disregard what’s real or imagined. Maybe I’m still asleep in my tent and this is all illusion, or maybe everything leading up till now was fantasy. Even Roddy and Mairi.
It doesn’t matter. I decide this is all my dreamscape now, so anything’s possible. The fog opens once more and I see that range again. It looks like some kind of herd animals graze up top. But when I focus a second time, I see it’s a wolf pack. Maybe stalking a herd of deer on the other side. Somewhere down in the next valley. Something only they can see. I watch as the wolves start forming into rank, following the alpha’s lead. I’ve seen this behavior before. It looks playful, but it’s the serious ritual of animals who must kill to eat.
I quicken my pace and head in their direction for a closer look. But fog is already rolling back in—two clouds converging, like curtains, in front of the distant pack. This is my chance, so I stop. And before it’s too late I take a long last look at the wolves. Then the mist closes in front of them, and they disappear back into the past.
Iver Arnegard’s work has appeared in River Teeth, Gulf Coast, the Missouri Review, the North American Review, and elsewhere. My first book, Whip & Spur, won the 2014 Gold Line Press Award. I am currently Head of Creative Writing at Colorado State University-Pueblo.