In September of 2003, I took a trip to Scotland with Commonweal’s longtime contributor and movie critic Rand Cooper. As it happens, Rand and I are good friends, having known each other since we were both teachers in a private country-day school in New London, Connecticut, in the early 1980s. It is remarkable how little we have changed physically since those days, or at least that is what we keep telling each other. Actually, that is true only for one of us. The other guy looks like something from the Stone Age.
At the time of our trip, Rand was on assignment for Bon Appétit, where he served as a contributing writer for many years. As a travel and food writer, he was sent to glamorous spots around the globe, from Portugal and Berlin to the Caribbean as well as all over the United States. On our travels we first visited the lush Isle of Skye on the western edge of Scotland, then drove many hours north to the Orkneys before returning south to Edinburgh. I got to tag along with Bon Appétit’s most fearless eater because Molly, Rand’s wife, was teaching school.
The Orkneys were the most memorable part of the trip, at least as far as I was concerned. The islands—there are seventy, most of them uninhabited—possess what is usually called a “stark” beauty, and if you are drawn to wind-swept and somewhat desolate landscapes, where the moods of the ocean and the sky seem to mirror one another, then this far northern archipelago can’t be recommended strongly enough. The islands are low-lying, and thanks to the Gulf Stream, the climate is mild. The fertile soil provides ample grazing for sheep and cattle. Perhaps most intriguing, the Orkneys are honeycombed with Neolithic ruins, evidence of the sometimes unsurprising contours and preoccupations of human society as much as five thousand years ago. On the Orkneys you literally step into the distant past when you visit Skara Brae, on the island known as the “Mainland,” an excavated village replete with an unexpectedly familiar domestic floorplan, from kitchens to bedrooms. Not far from Skara Brae is the Ring of Brodgar, a circular monument of twenty-seven monoliths set between two lochs, a kind of miniature Stonehenge. Legend has it that to circle the ring three times increases the chances of successfully conceiving a child. Heathen that he is, Rand jogged the required distance. Evidently there is something efficacious to the ritual, since the Coopers’ daughter is now twelve years old and has the blond hair, rosy complexion, and fearless disposition of the Vikings who invaded the Orkneys in the 800s.