My invitation to visit Scotland wasn’t delivered by mail. It didn’t come via phone, text or Tweet. Instead, it was passed on to me over the course of many years – courteously extended by the fictional tales of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Peter Pan, Sherlock Holmes, and even Harry Potter.
Does that sound far-fetched? Each of those characters sprung from the mind of a writer who lived in Scotland during a period of explosive creativity. The place just seems to breathe stories; they filter up from the inky peat bogs, drift along the craggy hillsides and whisper through each crack in the slowly crumbling castles. So I went, eager to admire the landscapes that inspired so many wondrous imaginations and, I hoped, to gather a few tales of my own.
Edinburgh is a fitting place to start tracing Scotland’s storytellers. The city is full of gothic charm, and every morning seems to begin with at least a few smoky tendrils of fog twining their way uphill toward the imposing Edinburgh Castle. The true allure of a medieval city is not where past and present collide, it’s where history flat-out refused to cede ground to modernity. So it goes with Edinburgh.
Nowhere is this quite so evident as the “closes” of the old town. Along the Royal Mile, the main artery of Edinburgh’s historic district, tight alleyways wedged between towering stone facades open into wide courtyards. By following one of these narrow paths, a hidden world is revealed – apartments, pubs and restaurants. As I stepped below the low stone archway of James Court, I immediately thought of J.K. Rowling’s Diagon Alley – the hidden business sector for wizards tucked inside Harry Potter’s London. Rowling lived in Edinburgh when she wrote Harry Potter; could James Court be the very spot where she drew her inspiration?
I ducked into a pub called The Jolly Judge to ponder the question over a pint, then headed to the nearby Writer’s Museum. In the Robert Louis Stevenson room, I fixated on a tortoise shell ring with the word “Tusitala” inlaid in silver. It was given to the author as a gift from a Samoan chief.
“It means teller of tales,” came a voice from behind me. I turned to see an elderly volunteer smiling in my direction. Could this possibly be another sign for me?
Outside, the rain began to patter down on the cobblestones and I hustled toward the castle to find the Scotch Whiskey Experience. I didn’t expect my visit to have much to do with storytelling. But in Edinburgh, the storyteller’s flair for the dramatic permeates everything. In this case, it translated into an entire distillery tour given by a mustachioed hologram.
This ethereal gentleman shared jokes and spun bits of apocrypha as I curled along a metal track in a side-cut barrel. Later, in the tasting room, I downed highland and lowland, midland and island whiskeys, and had my nostrils scorched by the peaty varieties. Each whiskey came with its own tale, and the more questions I asked, the more bottles came out to try. Scottish hospitality, I quickly learned, is often accompanied with a drink and a yarn. I didn’t object to either.
The next day, I visited the Scottish Storytelling Center, near Edinburgh University. Massive card catalogs lined the walls. Thousands of oral history entries collected across Scotland filled each drawer – hundreds of versions of Cinderella and Snow White, along with rare and lesser-known pieces of folklore. At the center, I was introduced to award-winning poet and storyteller Ian Stephen, who left me spellbound with tales from the Isle of Lewis.
“You should visit Lewis,” he told me later, at a pub called The Conan Doyle, with a statue of Sherlock Holmes looming out front. “You’ll understand these stories I’m telling in a whole new way.”
Stephen didn’t have to work hard to convince me. Two pints later, I told him I’d leave for the neighboring Isles of Lewis and Harris (part of the Outer Hebrides) first thing in the morning.
I’d barely taken a single step in Lewis’s main town of Stornoway, when a smiling woman, who introduced herself as Chrisella Ross, introduced herself to me.
“I suppose you’re Steve then?” she asked, eyes crinkling at the corners. “Ian told me you were coming and said you liked to hear stories.”
As I got over my surprise at being so easily recognized, Chrisella insisted that I follow her on a drive across the island to see the Callanish Standing Stones. Sitting on a grassy berm beside the towering arrangement, Chrisella told me a tale of how they’d been set in place by giants who refused to convert to Christianity. Before we left, she insisted that I share a story of my own with her to even the trade. Not wanting to offend the souls of the giants, or my host, I gladly obliged.
Heading Down the Coast
After a breakfast of black pudding and toast, I headed south from Stornoway. Because most of the roads on Lewis and Harris are single-lane, with strategically placed turnouts for passing, no one drives very fast. But considering the nature of my trip, I moved even slower than traffic laws dictated, often pulling off the road just to gaze into the distance. As the flatlands of Lewis gave way to the more varied landscape of Harris, I stared out at the rolling hills, which grew darker, shade by shade, the further away they sat. To the south, the hills were darker still – just dull outlines now – with heavy clouds looming above them. Each hillside featured black scars, revealing where peat had been cut and dragged away in thick slabs. Later it would be dried and used as fuel, heating the homes that dotted the road.
It took me until dinner to reach the town of Tarbert – quite an accomplishment considering Tarbert is only 36 miles from Stornoway. While checking in, I asked the innkeeper if there were any interesting snippets of storytelling lore connected to the area. Without a word, he turned his back, slid his chair near a towering bookcase, climbed onto it and selected a thick, blue-backed notebook. He brought the volume down and started flipping pages before directing me to a ninety-year-old entry signed in distinctive cursive. The penman? J.M. Barrie, author of Peter Pan. As if Barrie’s signature weren’t enough, the playwright had also etched his initials into a plate-glass window in the hotel dining room. After dinner, I strolled through the gardens, envisioning Barrie doing the same thing, back when he first conjured Neverland.
The next morning, I headed further south by ferry, to the even less populated Uist Islands. The sun was shining, skipping shards of gold across the ocean’s surface, and as I rounded a curve in the road, I realized that Scotland has some of the finest beaches on the planet. It was the perfect twist to my story – pure white sand, cornflower blue sea – beaches that rivaled the Caribbean, hidden in the Outer Hebrides. Inspired by the beauty surrounding me, I decided to take a swim. To my surprise, the water in mid-June was no colder than the local waters in Orange County. I bobbed and bodysurfed alone in the vast, aquamarine ocean. When I returned to the beach, I found a young woman in a red dress, sitting on the sand, playing the bagpipes. She told me that the bagpipes’ air bladder was once made from sheep’s stomach and I noted that something of the sheep seems to remain in the instrument; the cry is plaintive, always seeking, but ever hopeful. Each song the woman played told a story of its own.
Two days later, I was back in Edinburgh, savoring the ultimate splurge: room 652 of the Balmoral Hotel. Oddly, for a hotel steeped in history, the room is most famous for a piece of modern graffiti. At the base of a bust of Hermes, J.K. Rowling scrawled: “JK Rowling finished writing Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows in this room (652) on 11th Jan, 2007.” As I took a bath in Ms. Rowling’s tub, I got to thinking about how my entire journey seemed to have a sense of serendipitous enchantment. Maybe it was something about the morning fog of Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, or the mysterious history of the Callanish Standing Stones. Maybe it was the ever-friendly locals, always quick with a pint and a yarn. Whatever the case, Scotland enchanted me.
As I sat down at my computer, and began to type, I hoped that my words might capture the magic that Scotland and its celebrated storytellers seem to hold in endless reserve.
Steve’s Best of Scotland
Best Hotel :: The Balmoral, where J.K. Rowling famously finished her Harry Potter series
Best Festival :: The Edinburgh Fringe Fest is widely considered the best arts festival in the world. It’s full of storytellers of all varieties.
Best Plate :: 11 Hour Slow Roasted Pork Belly at Restaurant Mark Greenaway
Best Coffee :: Another Rowling haunt, The Elephant House, is great for a coffee or tea.
Best Mystery :: From 2010-2011, 10 incredible paper sculptures, made from books, were anonymously left at museums that support storytelling and reading throughout Scotland (including one at the Scottish Storytelling Center). Many are still on display.
Come Home with Stories