The air was crisp and thin as I joined my friends sixty-seven meters above ground at the top of the William Wallace monument—though after hiking a steep incline to get to the monument and then climbing more than 250 stairs, I may have just been out of breath. Nonetheless, the vista from the tower was striking. We had a clear view of Stirling, a small city outlined by clusters of homes and the River Forth. I gaped at the sweeping expanse of land surrounding Stirling, divvied up into rectangular patches of green varying from olive to emerald. Coming from a densely populated suburban area in New Jersey, I had never seen so much open and perfectly preserved land. Turning around, my breath caught in my throat at the sight of craggy mountains that looked at least a thousand feet high. I later discovered these were the Ochil Hills, which spanned twenty-five miles from Firth of Tay to Stirling. Without a doubt, the nature surrounding me was stunning, and I had a giddy feeling even more astonishing landmarks awaited farther north in the highlands.
Needless to say, the William Wallace monument was one of my favorite attractions during my homestay in Stirling. A close second was the Smith Art Gallery and Museum, where I snagged a selfie with Bonnie Prince Charlie. My friends and I spent three nights with our host mother, Kim, and her four fluffy huskies: Diesel, Cruise, Indie, and Haggis. In addition to hosting homestays, Kim also looked after other dogs; we got to spend time with a variety of puppies, including a quirky Chihuahua and a boisterous French bulldog.
I quickly came to admire our host mother. She spoke her mind, had a great sense of humor, and was attentive to all our needs. I grew accustomed to the daily routine of sharing meals together, cleaning up, and watching television with a furry husky head in each of our laps while an electric fireplace emanated cozy heat. It felt like home in every sense, and was the perfect way to begin our new lives in Scotland.
Our group (which we dubbed “The Aberdonians,” even though we hadn’t yet stepped foot in Aberdeen) traversed Stirling high and low. We wandered the main streets of the city, snapping photos while receiving perplexed looks from locals (we surmised tourists were not common in these parts). To my delight, we found an antique store, where I procured a couple of porcelain tchotchkes depicting Scottish emblems and painted scenery. We also stumbled upon a Highlandwear shop, where I discovered how expensive kilts were; I subsequently plotted how to renege on my promise of sending home kilts to a bunch of friends and family. Sorry, guys!
Up by the Stirling Castle, we explored a graveyard filled with ornate gravestones dating back to the 1500s. It was surreal to see so much history packed into one stretch of land, and read each person’s life story summarized in a few nondescript words and dates. Some stones were so worn by time that they were illegible and leaning haphazardly. As I padded through the spongy grass, I ventured life was hard for these people who lived hundreds of years ago. If the headstone descriptions were any indication, many people died young, and likely weren’t afforded the comforts we have in this day and age. Still, the romantic in me pondered if perhaps there was a greater appreciation and connection to life all those years ago that is lacking now with our increased addiction to technology. I ran my hand over a sandstone grave with faint, unreadable markings, and shivered.
A thick fog rolled into the graveyard as we made our way back to the cobblestone streets of Stirling. On our way to the city center, we passed an aquamarine archway with steps leading up to a wooden door embellished in iron. On each step, part of a poem was etched with different colored chalk, reading: “The future lies before you like a field of fallen snow. Be careful how you tread it, for every step will show.” I thought about many of the graves I had seen; the faint carvings on sandstone and marble were like tracks covered by the snow of time. For the residents of the Old Town Cemetery, the time for treading was long gone.
Though it might sound strange, I found enlightenment in this line of thought. I believed chancing upon this message directly after leaving the graveyard, on the day marking one month until my twenty-first birthday, was an extraordinary coincidence. I decided to see it as serendipitous—an encouragement to live, and a sign that my time in Scotland was like untrodden ground. Every decision I make here will be like a fresh imprint, digging deeper with each step I take. I can only hope that if I choose the right path, I can look back on the field I’ve traveled with pride.
I suppose if there’s anything to glean from this bizarre extended metaphor, it is that my time in Stirling will surely resonate throughout this journey. It is truly a city to remember. I also have to say thanks to Collin, our awesome program coordinator who guided us around Stirling and seemed ready with a quip at every opportune moment. At the end of our trip, he told us we were always welcome back in Stirling, and graciously offered to help find us accommodation if we ever decided to visit again.