Getting to know Scotland again
Quitting a job is not always a positive, but Rob McWilliams made it so.
Fed up with corporate politics and looking to redirect his life, McWilliams decided when he left his position in 2011 he would fulfill a lifelong dream, hiking the length of his native country, Scotland.
His experiences along the 400-plus-mile journey are recounted in his engaging book, The Kiss of Sweet Scottish Rain, which he will discuss on Thursday, Sept. 6, 7 p.m., at Wilton Library. Copies of the book will be available for sale and signing. Registration is highly recommended by calling 203-762-6334 or visiting wiltonlibrary.org.
McWilliams began his journey at Cape Wrath at the northwestern tip of Scotland and for six weeks made his way steadily south to Solway Firth, the boundary with England. With a 40-pound pack on his back and walking sticks in hand, he made his way over all sorts of terrain in a land where walkers are welcome but the way forward can be challenging.
With his appealing narrative, McWilliams keeps the reader moving forward with him, wondering, as likely he did himself, if he would make it to his appointed destination — battling fierce rainstorms, facing down cantankerous sheep, sometimes limping along — in time for dinner or at all.
This is more than a book about a really long walk. McWilliams intersperses commentary about the many small towns he visited, Scotland’s history and culture, and also makes reference to locations that appear in books, particularly Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic, Kidnapped.
Cape Wrath, for instance, is not named for the weather or a turbulent sea. The Vikings used the cape’s high cliffs for navigating when sailing and Wrath, he tells us, is derived from the Viking word hvarf, which means turning point.
Readers get a brief tutorial on the evolution of language over the centuries in Scotland. A thousand years ago, Gaelic was spoken almost everywhere spreading from the western shores facing Ireland, blotting out Norse, Pictish, British (the ancestor of Welsh), and Latin. It eventually gave way to English.
McWilliams also makes note of some of Scotland’s major historic events — repression after the defeat of the clans at Culloden in 1746 and the Clearances that began about 30 years later. During the Clearances, people were evicted from fertile land by landlords who wanted it for sheep farming, the result being many immigrated to Canada or moved to the cities.
“They are remembered with bitterness,” McWilliams said, “and that’s why there are so many abandoned places” in the Highlands.
The Highlands made up two-thirds of his walk and it is the part he liked best “because of the scenery and emptiness and small villages,” he told The Bulletin. In the north McWilliams trekked across the moors, past lochs, and up and down hills, while the south was mostly farmland.
Asked to compare hiking in Scotland with hiking in the northeastern U.S., he said, “Scotland is much more open. You’re not getting that deep woods experience. There are bits of Scotland that are very empty compared to much of the Northeast, but for Maine.”
While parts of Scotland are very empty, it’s open expanse decreases the likelihood of getting seriously lost. It’s also “a little gentler” in that the weather — although exceedingly rainy and blustery while he was there in September and early October — is not so extreme as it can be here and there are no dangerous wild animals, wolves having gone extinct there 300 years ago.
Being alone in nature is something McWilliams cherishes. “It’s just a great feeling to be by yourself, with no one to help you, feeling self-reliant. It puts things in perspective. It’s easy to get carried away with the small things in life. Out there, it can’t happen. The feeling of being alone in a magnificent place, it’s a great privilege … We are a small animal on a large planet.”
Although he was born in Scotland and did most of his growing up in England, McWilliams has lived in numerous countries and here in the U.S. for about 25 years. An avid hiker, he enjoys the northwest corner of Connecticut as well as local destinations like Devil’s Den in Weston.
He’s hiked Baxter State Park in Maine, the White Mountains of New Hampshire, the Adirondacks and Catskills in New York, as well as Yellowstone and Glacier national parks out west.
“Scotland is full of natural beauty but it’s about the size of Maine,” he said. “Here you could live 100 years and not walk all the places you want to.”
While he did not have much opportunity to do the big thinking he had hoped to do about his career and balancing that with family life, he did so when he got back. In addition to writing the book, he now works as a consultant on data privacy from an office above his garage.
“It’s worked out pretty well,” he said. He also has time to volunteer with the Norwalk River Valley Trail and Appalachian Mountain Club and he writes the Taking a Hike column for The Bulletin’s Arts & Leisure section.
His love affair with Scotland is not over, however. Next month he is returning for more walking over hill and dale.