In my mind, Scotland is a magical place. Ancient craggy beaches and lochs, majestic hills shrouded in mist. Aquatic monsters, Druid priests, Aleister Crowley and Jimmy Page and the Boleskine House, all that jazz. The alchemy involved in turning water and grain into whisky, turning a mess of air, cloth, and pipes into music, turning simple images and meter into “O were my Love yon Lilac fair.” David Hume, Adam Smith, Andrew Carnegie, Ewan McGregor.
I’ve romanticized Scotland in a way only a young, travel-starved American student with vague Scottish heritage can. Maybe I hope to find some red-bearded long-lost cousin in Stirling, the “Gateway to the Highlands,” the bridge between lower urban Scotland and the wild, mystical, timeless high country.
Despite my fantasies, I know my reasons for deciding to study abroad are just as pragmatic as they are idealistic. Going into my fourth year at Temple, I realized that I only had one semester’s worth of classes left to take before I could graduate. Rather than begin “real life” a semester early, I felt that studying abroad while I still had the chance would be the right choice. Everyone I know who has made that choice describes the experience as nothing short of life-changing. No one ever advises against studying abroad. So, following a brief conversation with my dad and a read-through of some literature I picked up at the Education Abroad office, I set my sights toward Stirling.
These beginning stages were all excitement. In my head I planned out different aspects of my prospective first trip to Europe. I pictured myself camping out under the stars in the Highlands and boarding ferries to cities like Dublin and Oslo. Visions of Ron Swanson reading Burns on a viridian hill overlooking the water at Islay, while in the distance a grand wooden warehouse sits like a church or a lighthouse, the word “Lagavulin” neatly printed on its side. I longed to immerse myself in that magic.
I cloaked my brain with pictures of everything I thought I knew to be true about Scotland, until I realized that I actually know nothing about the place. Ron Swanson is a fictional character, traveling throughout Europe is not cheap, and, according to an article published by CNN last week, the Loch Ness Monster may in fact be a very large catfish. Idealism is overrated. I had envisioned a scenario wherein Scotland would become my doormat to the rest of the world, and that by going abroad I would be taking the first step toward discovering who I am, but I realize now that I need to narrow my focus a bit. Who I am is changing all the time and is never truly available to me, but Scotland, on the other hand, is waiting for me, ripe for discovery.
I want to get to know Scotland, whatever that entails. I want to reconcile my fantasies with the reality of a richly historical and complex place while I have the opportunity to do so. I no longer seek context for my heritage; rather, I want my heritage to be shaped by my own experiences. There is nothing I may come across in Scotland that could alter the way I see myself. There is only what I choose to do and not to do. Right now I choose to discover Scotland, magic or no magic, with as open a mind as possible.