Editor’s note: This article was published before the coronavirus pandemic, and may not reflect the current situation on the ground.
What makes Scotland so special? After multiple trips north of the border, that’s the question travel writer Helen Ochyra decided to answer when she embarked on her first book, Scotland Beyond the Bagpipes. And this is what she uncovered.
It was back in 2005 that I first discovered Scotland. At least, I thought I did.
Like so many people who live south of the border in England, I had decided that I knew Scotland. It was part of Britain after all, a place that was more the same than it was different. I had pictures in my mind of bagpipes and tartan and shortbread, a vague notion that it was more mountainous, and wilder, than England. It was somewhere that could always wait until next year. It would, after all, always be there. On my doorstep.
[Chapter 1, Scotland Beyond the Bagpipes]
But when travel writer Helen Ochyra first visited, she found a country significantly different to her own and immediately craved more, returning numerous times for travel assignments over the years. But it was in 2017—after the sudden loss of her mother—that she embarked on a three-month journey to find out why Scotland had cast its spell.
“Why Scotland?” was always the burning question, she says. “That was the point … Why did I fall in love with it?”
That it’s part of the UK, and a separate and yet similar country, was part of the fascination. “Places that are different from, but similar to, where you consider home are interesting,” she says. “They’re not exotic—and yet they have a distinct history and culture, like Scotland’s love of whisky or the Gaelic language.”
It was when her mother died that Ochyra had this realization, that you never know when it’s too late to do something. “You don’t have all the time you think you do,” she says.
It also made her aware of national narratives. “Scotland and England joined forces as two equal partners in 1707, but that’s not how people here perceive it,” says Ochyra. “Many people have the impression that England conquered or invaded Scotland.”
The book, and trip, were about more than travel, too—it was borne out of the sudden death of her mother, aged 62, in 2016. “She was very outdoorsy, she loved hiking,” says Ochyra. “She came from Devon and we’d go on holiday to places like Dartmoor with harsh landscapes similar to Scotland.”
Holidaying in places like this as a child, she always associated her mum with hiking boots, fleeces and waterproofs. “But she never saw Scotland,” says Ochyra. “She’d have loved it. I’m sure she and I would have gone together.”
It was when her mother died that Ochyra had this realization, that you never know when it’s too late to do something. “You don’t necessarily have all the time you think you do,” she says. “As my mum died quite young, she had so many things left undone. She wasn’t ill for long either—completely fine to gone.”
Initially, Ochyra wondered if she was running away from something by taking this trip. “My dad had already passed, so after mum died, I had the family home to sell, admin, paperwork … the heaviness made me want to get away.”
But once there, that changed. “I realized I’d run towards something. Going away for months on my own and writing a book was scary, but I’d already been through the mill—so how bad could it be?”
While Ochyra had visited Scotland numerous times, she’d gone to one place or island in isolation. “I didn’t understand how they fit,” she says. “I wanted to knit it together into one long trip, to see how the landscape changed. I also wanted to do a trip that anyone could do, an accessible rather than really adventurous book.”
For many people, the islands are the big ticket. “Almost everyone will say that,” says Ochyra. “Skye really is amazing. It has so many munros (mountains over 914 meters) and it’s so dramatic, but it’s also very popular. In the light of overtourism, I’d say spend longer and go west—so many people come for the day on the coach and miss so much.”
People often overlook other islands too, such as Arran, which also has a dramatic landscape and is easy to reach from Glasgow. “The Highland boundary fault runs through it, so half is in the lowlands and half in the highlands,” explains Ochyra. “The southern half is big white-sand beaches and rolling farmland, and the north is high peaks, barren mountainsides, deer, whisky distillery, castle. The village of Lochranza is like a cliché of a Highland village!”
The Outer Hebrides, from Lewis to Harris, also remain relatively overlooked. “I really fell in love with the Outer Hebrides,” says Ochyra. “You could do a great trip from north to south by car and ferries, she says. “There’s an Outer Hebrides food trail with stops at a distillery, smokery, and small businesses like jewelers and wool shops.”
She recalls visiting a whisky distillery on Lewis. “The tasting room was essentially a shack run by a woman in her mid-20s, who told me almost all her school friends had left due to lack of work,” Ochyra says. “It’s still quite a harsh life and there are communities with mainly elderly people who need people to move there—immigration is often viewed as a positive thing in Scotland.”
“… honestly, it was like being in Australia—I’m not sure anyone has ever likened Dundee to an Australian city before!”
Helen Ochyra, author
Another island that grabbed her was Barra, the most southerly inhabited island in the Outer Hebrides. “My husband Doug joined me for two weeks and we loved it—we were almost tempted by a house for sale!” she recalls. “It was clearly a place of consequence in the past when we were more sea-faring—the harbor would have been a real hub with its sheltered bay and anchorage.”
There’s something ‘unassuming’ about Scotland, Ochyra tells me, no matter how spectacular. “On the North Coast 500, there’s a village called Durness with this epic, amazing 15-meter-high sea cave,” she says. “It’s the largest coastal cave in the UK, but no-one has really heard of it.”
This extends to the food—better than people may give Scotland credit for. “The seafood is incredible, even if much is exported,” says Ochyra. “There’s a culture of hyper-local seafood and you can sit in little shacks by the water and feast on just-caught lobster for the price of a London burger.”
Some places outright surprised her, such as Dundee. She visited before the new V&A museum opened, an indicator of the city’s rising star. “I loved Dundee,” she says. “It was a beautiful sunny day, I was walking by the river, twinkly water on one side, botanical gardens on the other, and honestly, it was like being in Australia—I’m not sure anyone has ever likened Dundee to an Australian city before!”
There were unexpected treats too. “On Harris, we were staying in these self-catered houses, run by an amazing couple in their 70s—he made tweed and she’d learnt dry-stone walling. The day we left, the owner said to check the local beach. We’d already seen amazing ones like Luskentyre Sands on the west coast, so we thought, ‘Really?’”
“We walked out down some sand dunes and suddenly we were on this enormous stretch of white sand,” she recalls. “It was gorgeous, Caribbean-esque, on our doorstep. I feel Scotland’s weather has saved its beaches because otherwise this would be full of hotels …”
Given the circumstances of her trip, did Scotland help her heal? “To have lost both parents at 34 is unusual,” she says. “I’ve also been with my husband since I was 19 so I haven’t done a huge amount on my own and needed to know I could.”
There were times when she felt she’d overcome a hurdle, for example, after climbing Schiehallion (Fairy Mountain in Gaelic), in Perth and Kinross. “I’d never climbed a munro on my own,” she says. “The climb itself was like going through grief—there were times when I could see the summit, but then realized, ‘Oh there’s another bit’—like how you think you’ll feel better after the funeral, or selling the house, but you’re not quite there. It was cathartic reaching the summit, standing before this huge landscape.”
She experienced something similar at the RSPB reserve at Dunnet Head, the northernmost point of British soil (“It’s not John O’Groats!” says Ochyra). “I walked to the edge of these epic cliffs where you’re literally looking out over the edge of Britain. And I screamed. Scotland does lend itself to these magical, lyrical moments. It’s no coincidence that their folk music and tales are so poetic.”
And did she answer her question: Why Scotland? “Yes, what I struggled with most was, how I do end my narrative? But I think it’s partly because it’s incredible and yet so unassuming and unpretentious.”
She recalls reading that the first electrically operated light was invented in Dundee so while there, she searched for a plaque, a stone, something. “I thought, ‘Surely this is memorialized somewhere?’ But it’s not—you’d never know they had this seminal moment here.”
Scots tend not to big themselves up, Ochyra says, citing other modern inventions, such as penicillin, tarmac, television, flushing toilets, radar technology, that hail from here. But this low-key approach is just part of the charm. “People are generally open and friendly, they let each other get on with things,” she says. “But ultimately Scotland endures for so many reasons … the landscapes, cities, communities, seafood. And the whisky.”
Scotland Beyond the Bagpipes by Helen Ochyra was published on March 28th, 2020. You can find more about the author and where you can buy the book at helenochyra.com.