Far to the north of Scotland, past bustling Edinburgh and Glasgow, past long and brooding Loch Ness, and beyond the final outpost of Inverness lies a wide swath of undulating bald hills, boggy moorland, and windblown montane. This solemn journey through Sutherland and into far Caithness is one too seldom taken, one mostly reserved for transients en route to Wick or Orkney. Myself included. But around every perilous switchback and blind hairpin turn a hair’s breadth from head-on collisions with semi trucks, epic landscapes unveil themselves. The works of men are limited in this region to subordinate roads and, all too frequently, tiny castellated stone towers on cliffsides: Cairns. Memorials.
I pull the car off the road and gaze south across the narrow valley I had just crossed. Late morning sunlight and a brisk North Sea wind clear the air and call into detail the forlorn marker with the Moray coast just visible in the distance. Does it mark the edge of an ancient lord’s territory or the memory of a recent road victim? Could it be the monument of a displaced clan or the fleeting whim of some moneyed lordling? I return to the car and resume my trek to Orkney, but this scene represents everything that makes Scotland wonderful. Upon every hilltop the drafts of history throw wide the doors of the imagination.