Exhausted from a broken night’s sleep in our van due to the relentless hum of an adjacent building, the morning sun lifts our spirits gently as we stroll down towards the Rio Tejo.
As we near the water there is a beautiful garden in bloom; bright orange flowers to the backdrop of higgledy-piggledy aged-terracotta tiles atop a crumbling white-washed cottage, and another, and another… all staggered downwards toward this magnificent body of water. We peer over the wall of the garden and spy neat rows of vegetables, trees laden with fruit and flowers bursting from pots and crevices.
The owner of the garden – his shirt front soaked with sweat, strong arms pulling an aged wheelbarrow behind – wanders slowly around the corner. He smiles at our admiration, lowers his barrow, removes his grubby straw hat and wipes his tanned forearm against a glistening brow.
He is slow, methodical, his soft voice like balm. “Falar Português?” he questions… and so we speak. With small sentences broken by actions he tells us how he has lived here for 24 years, at peace, happy. I envy his love for – his utter comfort with – being here now, perhaps forever. He talks about rain coming and how water from the mountains passes by his house like a torrent down to the river providing plenty of nourishment for his abundant garden. Mimicking rowing a boat down to the bank, we all laugh.
I could have stood with him for hours: his patience with our Portuguese, the mesmerising softness of his manner, the happiness that comes from standing in the glow of someone in love, and as I walked away I wondered if I might ever be lucky enough to find a place I love that much, a place to make me stay.
We look up to see the morning mist settled atop the valley as steep-sided pine, eucalyptus and oak-covered hills draw us downwards ~ we feel cocooned, underneath the world ~ we pass the shepherd and his goats, his dog Karillio gambols around with our two ~ we laugh and exchange pleasantries ~ turning a corner in the track, down and down we go until all we can hear is the rushing river ~ the ground is damp, the smell green ~ in the distance we begin to hear children laughing outside the white house with a turquoise-painted balcony ~ our daughter waves goodbye, joining the group for a day of learning together and as we make our way back upwards the sun begins to poke through and the sleepy morning valley opens up to blue skies and endless possibilities.
Sitting outside my caravan I hear the familiar undulating song of the skylark soaring high above. For me this is the sound of summer that always alights joyousness within my heart, yet this year there is also a stab of disappointment that summer has come and gone, grasped - it seems - in just a few fragmented moments.
I have heard them a handful of times: above fields as I have walked to catch my breath, high over Stonehenge on a hot day of travelling and of course, near to my caravan as I have washed clothes and cooked outside, and each time I have felt myself lost in a kind of melancholy. Our Highland spring - that feeling of quiet measured belonging - seems a lifetime ago in a world that is jumbled and fast.
But the skylarks… their intermittent song keeps me grounded for I am sure they sing with knowingness. They sing to remind us that even when there has been loss, there is always a chance to gain. They sing when spirits are low, pushing us towards a summit that is there behind the mist, no matter what private hill we are climbing. They sing to show us that we are just a part of nature; that there is no grand plan to life, no points system that brings you more or less. For me, the skylark sings to remind that life is arbitrary and that we must stop, listen, breathe, and simply try to be at peace with just having this moment.
So now, as I find my wheels turning through the golden light of rural France, I do my best to think on that song and simply enjoy the journey I am on.
There is laughter and conversation between people from near, from far, both in physical and also in years. For a while I am silently absorbed in the moment, soaking up every smile, every line of face, every sentence, my face contentedly gleaming in the iridescent late evening light that is of the Highlands at this time of year.
I look around this wooden house with golden windows on every octagonal side and remember other tables we have sat at; other people we have nurtured a connection with, and feel a deep sense of comfort to know that there are pockets of people and place all over who still yearn for the traditional ways of communication; of spending time in a solid kind of honesty, together.
This table of larch – thick and sturdy – has ensured our acceptance into the fold and I run my hand over its smooth surface with gratitude. During the past two months we have shared meals and long conversations about both the trivialities as well as the deeper issues of life. Last night we sat mesmerised as we were introduced to the true meaning of a Ceilidh… not the group dances that take place in halls throughout Scotland, but the smaller, intimate gatherings lit up by song and story.
As we listened intently to the soft tones of Highland voice, my daughter rested on my knee, eyes glistening, bodies stationary – all of us in that deep state of rest that comes with the complete absorption of something magical – I thought: could we stay?
The connections we are making here, the joy we feel from community – of working through the difficulties and learning to accept difference – and the sense of achievement felt from splitting wood or turning compost; I find myself, in many ways, afraid to leave.
I walk through the landscape on a bright morning and soak up the tumbling bird song, babbling brook, brightest gorse, that silent shift of a deer in the undergrowth and trees that have cascaded into spring above the bluebells without my even being able to keep up. I marvel at the four seasons felt in one day and for a moment I think, ‘Alice, please stay’.
But then, as I turn the well-thumbed pages of an old copy of ‘A Croft in the Hills’, Katharine Stewart’s words about an impromptu camping trip to the West coast, to cook on a driftwood fire and sleep in their van, ring out in my heart:
“We loved our small house, every stick and stone of it … yet here we were, completely happy as nomads! We had unearthed an even deeper level of existence.”
and I know that soon we will move on again… to both return to those other people and landscapes we have fallen in love with, as well as to discover more. For we have gypsy blood and for every table we sit around, for every person who captures a piece of our heart, there is still a deep hunger for movement, to be free of all shackles and yet be tied to every . single . place . we come to land with an intensity that can only be achieved by passing through because these moments are held tighter, the experiences kept closer: never taken for granted.
But this Highland place, this glen, these people: I know they have weaved their way into our very beings and I know that this has become another stopping place on our wandering path: a root to our route, and somehow that thought brings me great comfort.
And so we come to rest again… for a while… and I feel a deep sigh within; a contentment that we have come to a standstill in a place that takes my breath away. If there is anything I have learned in this past year of attempting to explore the idea of roots in the UK, it is that no matter the sentiment behind the desire, it is not possible to rest – however briefly – if a place does not take your breath away. For how can we grow an appreciation for life if our breath is not momentarily paused?
Here the colours draw me in… for hours I could lose myself within the purple, pink, brown, green and yellow hues of this diverse Highland landscape, and I know that within its embrace I am taking another step on my journey: I am absorbing, I am learning and I am figuring out the path step-by-step because I have come to realise that we can only do that.
Not one single person can know the destination at their beginning, for how can we predict what will happen during the in-between?
So as a family we are enjoying the rests along our many-stepped journey and learning to say, ‘right now, we are here’: here where birds of prey float effortlessly through the sky, where deer roam the woodland and pine martins run fleetingly across moonlit bridges; where silence is, at times, unsettling but also nourishing and where our dreams can be turned over and explored slowly, without pressure.
Oh, Scotland… thank you for allowing us to walk your lands, whether it be for a month or twelve.