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Changing Places: Jenna McGuiggan on the Scottish Highlands

Loch Ness


New Year's, 1999. Four Americans living in the U.K. We gathered in Edinburgh, celebrated Hogmanay, and headed north.

Night drops early there in winter. From the backseat of the car I peered out the cold glass at dark-on-dark. Sections of the horizon deepened like giant, mounded cutouts into another realm. We had reached the high land. I listened to what I could not see: an ancient song thrumming in the octaves below my breath.

The light of day revealed the sky as a blank white question. The ground: an ancient, craggy moonscape undulating in brown and grey. A sort of shaggy moss covered the valley, the faintest cast of yellowing green shimmering under downy white frost. In the summer, this land would be spongy with loam, bogs, and marshes. But in January, the frozen earth appeared to have been chewed up and spit out by the jagged mountain teeth surrounding it. Fissures and frozen rivulets channeled the land into segments like the thick, cracked skin of a man’s feet in winter. No trees here, save some strong evergreens I fancied marching across the moor like MacBeth's Birnam Wood. We drove for miles on deserted roads twisting through uninhabited terrain. The mountains engulfed the valleys, ridges rising up, snowtopped and unyielding, a raging sea of whitecapped rock.

We stepped out into the naked wind and weak daylight for photos. I stood apart from my friends, transfixed, trying to catch the tune humming beneath the wind. I recognized it as the voice of God. It wasn’t the still, small voice that the Bible describes, but a deep, sonorous tone resonating through every thing. Mountains had never spoken to me before. The rhythm of my heart is the beat of ocean surf. Water is my holy ground, but Scotland baptized me into the sanctity of earth. In that valley everything became elemental, the land a thin space, a wafer between worlds visible and invisible.

I imagined the valleys carpeted with green, the hillsides draped in lush heather. The believer in me wanted to see that hard, empty land filled with color, but as I stood in its bleakness, I encountered a version of the Divine so raw and immediate that no amount of yellow sunshine or purple heather could ever compare.

I carry this experience with me like a clod of that frozen earth. I return to it when I need to feel rooted, when I need something sacred. In that hard land, I felt a pull like a tide in my soul, calling me to something greater.



Jennifer (Jenna) McGuiggan is a writer, editor, and writing coach who lives in the rolling hills of Pennsylvania and longs for the sea. To soothe her wanderlust and make sense of her spiritual journey, she is at work on a collection of essays set at seashores and thin places around the world. Visit her in The Word Cellar.

Changing Places is a guest post series about the power of place to change us.  You can read other stories in the series here.  If you’d like to share your story, please contact me for submission details.

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Reader Comments (1)

This was LOVELY! And Jenna comes from my home state, Pennsylvania! :o) Happy Day, Helen ((HUGS))

June 6, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterTracy

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