I admit it: I talk a lot about Scotland and being Scottish. I can't help it, it's in my blood (seen under a microscope, my blood vessels take the shape of bagpipes). And despite having spent the better part of thirteen years living in the States, I still have a strong connection to the place of my birth.
The days of Scotland being the center of the universe are long gone, in fact it's hard to believe that such a small nation could exert so much influence on the whole world but, for a short time at least, it did. Engineers, architects, economists, scientists and writers blossomed in an age when the rest of the world was having trouble finding its feet. The Scottish Enlightenment, during the 18th century, triggered a time in Scotland where books and reason influenced and exerted great change in many fields bringing about changes which affected the entire modern world.
As a boy growing up in Scotland, I was taught and inspired by these things but no more than the country itself. I was fortunate to spend the biggest part of my life living in small villages near the water. For three years I lived off the Scottish mainland on one of the groups of Islands to the North known as Shetland. Shetland can be an inhospitable place, remote, cold and buffeted by winds but there is great beauty in its emptiness. I lived a short walk from a long, golden beach and clear blue water (too cold to swim in though). There were no busy roadways or train tracks to break the quiet, just the sounds of the sea against the cliffs, the wind in the grass and the many types of sea bird that also made Shetland their home.
At Sumburgh Head, beneath the lighthouse, Puffins with their multi-colored beaks would roost, diving from the cliffs for the fish beneath them.
Oystercatchers would pace around the shoreline with their colorful legs, dipping their long, bright beaks into the sand as they searched for food. And always, hanging in the air, is the cry of the Lapwing, known as the Peewit for the sound of its call.
Nearby, some friends and I came across a place known as Jarlshof, an archaeological site which showed the remains of a small village that once sat there.
There is a powerful Viking influence in Shetland, from the ruined village at Jarlshof to the festival of Up-Helly-Aa in Lerwick, which has been celebrated for more than a hundred years, the culmination of which is a Viking Longship being set afire with burning torches.
Ten years after I left the Islands, the oil tanker MV Braer ran aground near Quendale beach, causing a massive environmental disaster for the wildlife in the area. The disaster could have been worse were it not for Shetland's stormy weather and the nature of the oil leaking from the tanker.
From Shetland my family moved to a village about twenty-five miles North of Aberdeen called Cruden Bay. Cruden means Blood of the Danes, but it was a quiet place (while I lived there at least) known primarily for its golf course, its long beach (still too cold to swim) and the ruined Castle that sat upon the cliffs nearby. Bram Stoker, a writer, vacationed in Cruden Bay often, staying at the Kilmarnock Arms in the center of the village. He is said to have seen the castle up on the cliffs during a particularly rainy evening and used it as inspiration for his novel: Dracula.
I could take a short ride on my bike, up past the small woods to the castle to play. In truth, Slains was more a stately home than a castle, ruined when the owner couldn't pay his taxes and the roof was removed. Part of the thrill of the place though was inventing histories for it and imagining what might have gone on in my revisionist world. Looking out to the East, towards the sea, you would find yourself perched high above the water, the cliff face dropping away beneath you and the waves crashing violently below.
Scotland's history, people, and places continue to influence me to this day. As a writer, or as someone trying hard to be a writer, I look to those Scots who came before me and had such a profound influence in the field: Sir Arthur Conan Doyle creator of Sherlock Holmes; Robert Louis Stevenson author of Treasure Island and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde; J.M. Barrie who wrote Peter Pan; Sir Walter Scott, author of Ivanhoe and Robert Burns, Scotland's most beloved poet whose words are sung every year at New Year's parties the world over in the form of Auld Lang Syne.
Scotland is in my blood and I can no more apologize for talking about it than I can apologize for breathing. You want the kilt and the accent? You have to put up with the history lessons. Deal?
Now, did I ever tell you that Scots invented EVERYTHING?