It's hard to imagine a place more steeped in cloud and dismal days. The stunted trees and tweed and red noses suggest that the wind and mist and whisky are not new; they are known, natural, embraced. The entire landscape gives the feeling that things are as they should be: even though there are wrongs in the world at least here they are lesser, or managed, or at the very least accepted in the social order of things. However, things beyond these fair borders are intrinsically suspect, such as received pronunciation, predictable weather and spelling whiskey with an ‘e’.
Although this is demonstrated many ways, it is most evident linguistically. Here, 'up north' is a dangerous turn of phrase, as there is a fierce pride regarding what counts as 'south' and no one wants to be from anywhere except north. Only an Englishman would say that Edinburgh is north, and only when approaching Inverness could you confidently say you're not south. That's mostly due to the lack of people from John O'Groats, though, as they would almost surely correct you in very precise terms.
The language is a marvel - almost all conversations are conducted idiomatically, with the accent being less of an auditory challenge than is the re-purposed vocabulary. If you have worked out the general gist, you may still be side-swiped by a crafty Gaelic word or Scottish-English term making itself a mystery in the middle of your conversation. What's a 'har'? Or a 'scunner'? What does it mean to 'flit house' or to have lunch at the ‘larder’? More than once my husband, fully British, was taught that, 'In the UK, we say...'. No… in Scotland.
If anything, the dampness in the air is actively good: it causes a marvellous chemical reaction in the people, triggering a welcoming attitude and a keenness to make rooms comfortable. The prevalence of picture-book fire-lit parlours with window panes holding the wet night at bay, of little tea rooms with slogans about coffee stamped on the wallpaper, and of mullioned cottages, is almost overwhelming. This is what most places aim to have but fail at; effortless cosiness is not easy.
This reaction is further aided by cold and dirt which helpfully are in abundance. Even paved dual carriageways filthy cars' windscreens and no one has enough body heat to dress only for style; fashion without function is a toothless concept here. When there is a sunny day with no rain or damp, it is balanced out by more dirt and more cold. The hoar frost in the frigid, cloudless mornings is thicker than a pencil, with fields and buildings sprouting needles of ice. The dirt also ups its ante, with gritters working the roads add sand and salt where there had been only clean asphalt.
In the Highlands, the antidote is simple and readily available: whisky. Signs for distilleries, and the distilleries themselves, pepper the road side, even whilst the landscape is remote and empty. Visitors are given generous drams to make the weather more ignorable. Not for drivers though, which is one of the great conundrums for any visitor to Scotland.
In Edinburgh (the ‘south’), the remedy is found in fierce distraction, with a lively sense of modernity and dedication to generous pints and not putting gloves on small children. Crowds fill the pavements whilst the finally-finished trams skate by, and the eternal bagpiping busker pipes away at the entrance to Waverly Station. Pubs and tea rooms are more expensive and better quality, but still have an air of Scottish practicality to them with solid tables and zealous heating.
The best thing to hope for when visiting Scotland is the time and means to properly explore, as a short weekend using public transportation is insufficient. The roads, particularly the small and curvy ones, hold the key to Scotland as they link the fierce reaches of the country with the glowing villages that provide refuge and defence against the early nights and wraiths of Gaelic legends. There is no hurry here: the blue or red-stained sheep don’t fret about the time as they browse the hillsides and no whisky drinker rushes a good dram. Instead, spend the time standing under the stars while the wind freezes the roots of your hair. Listen to the gorse around you, hear the small mountain burns soaking into the peat, nose the clean air, forget everything but this – it doesn’t matter anymore.