Spring Travel Issue: Scotland

Taking the High Road

By Jennifer Moses
Sunday, March 9, 2003

The guidebook assures us that the walk we're on, over the rolling summertime moors just northwest of Glasgow, will not only give us a "back door" view of Scotland's biggest city but also lead us straight into a breathtaking wilderness of steeply banked rocks, which are said to have been made by a visiting devil who lashed his tail in a fit of fury. Unfortunately, we're lost. True, the views are lovely -- there, as promised, is Glasgow, lying as if in a bowl in front of us, and sprawling on both sides of the River Clyde -- but the view doesn't do us much good if it turns out that we're going to have to walk all the way back to Glasgow. Plus, there's a gale of hurricane strength that is practically blowing us -- my husband, our three kids and me -- off the top of this barren, muddy hillside. But my husband, a former Eagle Scout, is not to be deterred.

"This way!" he commands, gesturing for the rest of us to follow.

"I'm sure this is the way," he continues, as the kids make grumbling noises. "The guidebook is very clear that you go straight on from the crest of the hill. This is straight-on, isn't it?"

I'm sure it's not, but the question is: What is? There are half a dozen not very well defined trails to choose from, all heading off into the heather. In the meantime, though, we seem to have hit a bog. "Watch out, kids," my husband yells. "It's kind of wet!" He's the only one of us who's wearing hiking boots. My own shoes -- 10-year-old running shoes -- sink into the muck, but I'm able to maneuver my way out and scramble onto some dry-enough-looking reeds before I'm completely overtaken. My 9-year-old daughter, Rosie, however, isn't so lucky. There's a sucking sound, and then a sound more like swallowing, and then Rosie is crying: "Mom! I'm covered in mud!" Just then, another hiker sails by -- a young woman, with half a dozen earrings in each ear and a couple more for good luck in her eyebrows, wearing nothing but shorts, a T-shirt and sandals. "Oh dear," she says. "Is it help you want, then?"

What this apparition is doing out on the windswept moors on a cold, damp day in early August wearing clothes that would be more suitable for a romp in Rehoboth Beach is anyone's guess, but she duly directs us to turn right, and then left, and then right again when we see the big rock, and in 10 minutes we have found our way to our destination -- the "Whangie" -- a deep cleft in the rock face extending some 100 yards. The kids are transfixed, delighted, enraptured. Even Rosie is running back and forth, talking excitedly, and begging her father to take her picture. And there are all three of them, mugging for the camera, pretending that they're explorers. If only I, too, were so easily transported.

We landed in Glasgow a month ago, but ever since I got the last of the socks put away in the sock drawer, I've been fighting profound, and unexpected, homesickness. Despite frequent attempts -- the trip to the Whangie being the most recent -- to lose myself in history and culture, I feel mired in a kind of abyss of the spirit, a collapsing of fortitude and total absence of what I once considered my sense of adventure. It's true that Glasgow is beautiful -- a veritable treasure trove of Victorian architecture -- that I'm surrounded by my own family, and that there are art galleries, museums and cafes within walking distance of our rented house. Even so, I feel bereft. My husband, on a sabbatical year from his regular duties as a professor of law, is in hog heaven, sitting in his office up at the ancient, neo-Gothic University of Glasgow, surrounded by like-minded, owlish souls. "It's for the whole family, not just for me," he had argued. Eventually, I came around to his way of thinking, and even began to envision how great it would be to live abroad for a while -- to shop at the cheesemongers and the fresh-fruit stalls, to browse through secondhand bookshops, to meet our mates down at the pubs and, most of all, to travel.

In the past decade or so, I've become a stay-at-home, a lover-of-routine, an armchair. But once upon a time, before I started having children, I loved to travel. I hitchhiked across Ireland, skinny-dipped in glacier lakes in the Rockies, parasailed over the wide, warm azure Pacific off the coast of Mexico, got lost in Rome. But even before I was old enough to drive, what I loved to do more than anything in the world was wander. In the woods around our house in McLean, in the early 1960s, there were trails that led to a small pond that froze in winter, making our own private skating rink, and other trails that led down to the stream, over the hill and up to a pig farm. How thrilling it was to follow the paths to where they led, and how brave, how alone, I felt in the middle of the woods. As a teenager, I practically lived in the woods that surrounded our house and covered the hills all the way to the Potomac, as well as in nearby Burling Park, where the trails zigzagged splendidly up and down steep banks overlooking the river, and over cliffs, leading, finally, to a perch above a waterfall. My mother wanted to know what I was doing in the woods. Doing?

But before I knew it, I was off to college, and then moving to New York, and I forgot all about my beloved woods. My urge to travel, my once-prominent sense of adventure, simply vanished.

It's late summer, and the rains have suddenly, almost miraculously, dried up. It's a clear, warm Saturday -- a perfect day, in other words, to head into the nearby Highland hills. You take the high road and I'll take the low road, my kids are singing in the back seat as I navigate the car west, on very winding, very narrow lanes, banked by stone walls or hedges.

"You're listing, Jennifer, you're listing," my husband says from the copilot's seat.

Even through my irritation, I can see how the land is changing. One minute we are driving past the Safeway and the Wee Chip Shop, and then we are in an almost ridiculously idyllic suburb, complete with stone cottages and church steeples, and then, just past a roundabout, we are in the bona fide countryside of fields, woods, and just over there -- on the right -- the beginning of the Highlands: dramatically green, rolling, rounded hills, with the characteristic bald appearance of much of this part of the world (the result of centuries of overgrazing). There are flowers, too. Heather as far as the eye can see, meadowsweet, maiden pink. We're just half an hour from Glasgow.

The lines on the map don't seem to have any great correspondence to the narrow roads we're on, but the way is well marked, and, despite the line of cars growing behind me, the loch -- Loch Lomond -- is just ahead of us, a shining blue jewel, 24 miles long, and five miles at its widest, a vast tranquil body of inland water, the largest in Britain. It's what Queen Victoria saw when she first came to Scotland (and subsequently declared Scotland her heart's home). The Queen's View is actually the name of a popular walk not far from here -- but we aren't going to walk the Queen's View today, or any of the other dozens of well-known rambles in the area. Instead, we are headed for Conic Hill, on the loch's lightly traveled eastern shore.

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