Celebrating 21 in the Scottish Highlands

Erica Salowe University of Aberdeen, Scotland


February 16, 2017

I’ve wanted to study abroad in Scotland since I was about sixteen years old. To fuel my insatiable curiosity about the terrain, I remember poring over countless images on Google and being shell-shocked at the sheer beauty of the rugged mountains and sweeping glens. Reaching this majestic place filled with tall stags and shaggy-haired cows seemed like a far-fetched dream at the time, right alongside the prospects of going away to college and growing out of my awkward teenage years. Thankfully, all three of these things eventually came to pass, and before I knew it I was about to explore the Scottish Highlands firsthand the day before my twenty-first birthday.

I and twelve other members of the Highland Frontier Society drove an hour and a half to Lochnagar, located in the Cairngorms. With everyone packed into three cars, we made our way down narrow, winding roads that left me feeling a bit car sick (a warning to potential U.S. visitors: pretty much all the cars here are stick shift, and the constant switching of gears paired with the perpetual swiveling of the vehicle can get quite nauseating—I still haven’t gotten used to it). When we finally got to the national park, I spotted a massive stag at the top of a hill about a hundred feet away from us. His antlers branched out into thick offshoots high above his head; when he spotted us he grew very still, seeming hyperaware and ready to run off in an instant. Not wanting to disturb him, we kept to the confines of the parking lot, changing shoes and jackets in preparation to climb.

From the very start, the hike was intense. We covered ground as quickly as we could. First we treaded through a wooded area, and once we emerged, we hopped across a babbling brook to begin our ascent on a very rocky trail. Maintaining balance on the fist-sized rocks was difficult, but manageable. I was thankful I wore proper hiking boots, which protected my feet from both the elements and uneven ground (which would no doubt cause bruising if I had poorer soles). While it was easier for the experienced hikers to simultaneously walk, maintain conversation, and enjoy the nature around them, I found it strenuous to do more than focus on anything other than my two feet. Drenched in sweat, I puffed out two or three word answers whenever someone asked me a question. Seeing I was struggling, one of my friends graciously lent me her trekking poles, which helped keep my footing secure.

Once we had hit an altitude high enough for snowfall, I caught a second wind. The cold air was rejuvenating, like a breath of fresh air, and my mood instantly skyrocketed. We stopped for drinks and pictures, and I managed to get a few amazing shots of the landscape. All around us were snowcapped mountains smattered with outcroppings of black rock. In the far distance, we could see rolling hills fading from hunter green to coffee brown. Looking back to the frosty path before us, I gaped at just how high the mountains reached—so high that the summits were obscured by slate grey clouds. As we continued onward, the snow piled up around us, and my trekking poles became a necessity in identifying what was solid ground and what was a gap between rocks. Feeling energized, I began to pass some members of our group, and while they were catching up I decided to take more photos (including a snowy selfie, pictured above). I found it fascinating that as we continued to ascend, the rocks seemed to form a sort of stairway. My friend Mark explained to me that someone took the time to construct a path here, after joking that “on the seventh day, God decided to make mountain paths for us to climb.”

After walking for what seemed like hours, we finally reached the peak of our journey. We decided that it was too risky to climb higher to the summit, as the clouds above were looking somewhat ominous. For a few moments, though, we remained where we were and appreciated the scenery: mountains draped in blankets of snow, light flakes falling from the sky, and fog nearly obscuring everything in the distance. I found it remarkable that even in the snow and wind, I wasn’t cold; I had generated enough body heat during our hike that I felt perfectly content, even warm. Once we had our fill of the view, we turned around and readied ourselves for another few hours of hiking. The descent was way easier than the climb up, so I actually got to look around and appreciate the nature surrounding us. Right before my eyes, heavy snowfall melted into boggy, mildly chilly weather that epitomized Scottish winters. My hair, which was nearly frozen high up in the mountains, was now thawed and dripping wet. All the snow in my boots absorbed into my many layers of socks, causing a sloshing sensation with every step. One of my friends joked about getting trench foot in our sopping condition.

Once we reached the small parking lot, we set down our things and ate lunch ravenously, unwilling to break away from our meals for too long to make conversation. I was feeling tired, achy, and absolutely fulfilled. Judging by our pedometers, we had hiked for roughly twelve miles—probably the longest distance I’ve ever walked in one go. It was so great to finally accomplish a goal I had set for myself as a “study abroad must,” and I know it won’t be my last hiking experience. After leaving Lochnagar that day, I promised myself I would continue to pursue adventure at every juncture. I planned to become well-acquainted with the Highlands and many other natural wonders within Scotland, and between my upcoming society expeditions and excursions with Arcadia, there will be plenty of opportunity to do just that. I am eager to log every moment of my escapades in this blog to share with all of you…until next time!