Reindeer, Riding, and Real Identity

Yesterday was our first day in the Scottish highlands. Driving up in our passenger vans the surrounding landscape shifted gradually from the rolling plains surrounding Edinburgh to craggy snow covered mountains and marshy glens. Here in the highlands the weather was much colder than down south, averaging around 44 degrees Fahrenheit. But the weather didn’t stop us from doing some frozen activities. First we visited a reindeer ranch and hand fed some of the reindeer that littered the hillside. Prof. Knutson and I were having a blast feeding and petting the reindeer out in the field; Prof. Lindner was less enthusiastic to say the least. After spending about an hour with the reindeer we trekked back to civilization (to Prof. Lindner’s relief) and ate at a nearby café. After eating we traveled over to Mike’s Bikes, a local bike rental shop where about half of us adorned helmets to brave the trails surrounding the loch. This was my highlight of the day. We rode through some of the most beautiful terrain that I have ever seen. We were surrounded by snow covered mountain peaks, traveling through dense coniferous forests and open fields of purple hued brush. Even though many of our days in Scotland have been dreary and rain soaked yesterday was a treat. It was warm and sunny, but not enough to dry the mud and puddles from the rains the day before; by the end of our 14.3 mile ride most of us had our backsides coated in a layer of muck.

While yesterday was a charming day in the highlands I couldn’t shake what Dr. Rosie said when we visited the University of Edinburgh. He told us about how what many people think about the Scottish highlands we tend to think about a romanticized version of history, when in reality the people of southern Scotland saw the highlanders as savages that needed to be subjugated. On the ride up I wondered if the identity that the highlanders had of themselves would match the constructed identity of the typical highlander that we experienced in Edinburgh. I got my answers in two different ways. The first was through observing the people of Abiemore, the town were staying, here people don’t paint their faces blue or wield great battle axes. The people here are normal. They wear jeans, t-shirts, and don’t have flowing beards nor long unruly hair. So in that way the people here don’t fit the stereotypical idea of who a highlander is. The second answer was given to me by the first restaurant that we ate at the Cairgorm Hotel. Looking around the dining room where we were seated it was obvious that the constructed identity of the highlands was something that was embraced. The walls had tartan wallpaper, tartan drapes, and tartan carpet. The walls were adorned with the skulls and antlers of deer and the molding around the ceiling was made out of the skulls and antlers of a smaller species of deer. In the entryway there were suits of armor and great broadswords on the walls. I felt as though we had stepped into the movie Braveheart.

Today we move further north to the Isle of Skye. I’m looking forward to the activities that we will be able to do there and to experience a different part of the Scottish north. Even though my primary focus will be to enjoy the different places that we will visit, these questions of identity will still be with me as we travel.

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