Fluffy sheep grazed on green pastures, surrounded by arresting mountain ranges with snowcapped peaks. A stream flowed through the field and came to the foot of a wooden fence where a stone opening jutted out, capturing the water and letting it flow underneath this concrete rest area. The air was fresh and clean.
“Take the selfie stick out!” a woman screamed.
She set down her bag, stuffed with “I HEART SCOTLAND” T-shirts, and grabbed her daughter’s phone. Scowling, she assembled the now ubiquitous stick, pulled her daughter close to her, and photographed the surrounding countryside. They smiled and twirled 180 degrees, trying to get snapshots of every angle that didn’t include tour buses, dingy bathrooms, and the gift shop of the first rest stop on a tour of the Scottish Highlands.
When they had enough, they put their equipment away. They took a quick look at the scenery before getting back on their tour bus.
A knowledgeable Scot named Jamie led my own tour.
“Well, I’ve been on the tour bus for a number o’ years, and before that I worked as a DJ for a while, so I know the perfect tunes to set the mood for our tour,” he said.
As Jamie drove us through the Highlands, I took some pictures and marveled at the natural scenery we passed by, but other people did not. Even hearing Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On”, with a nature-filled backdrop, wasn’t enough to grab people’s attention. A French woman, draped in a white faux-fur robe that passed her knees, had her phone plastered to the window, recording the mountains and lochs as she yawned.
“I wonder when we ztop for zome beers,” she said, in a raspy French accent.
A girl in front of me was sleeping, while another played a game on her smartphone. They were not witnessing rising and falling mountains, rolling grassy meadows, and serene lochs, all surrounded by leafy wilderness. The girl who sat next to me, snoring softly, held her hand on her cellphone, but only opened her eyes when Jamie would announce an upcoming landmark.
At every rest stop, people took multiple pictures, barely looking at the actual sights. I caught myself doing it, as I retook a picture of a loch because I didn’t like how my hair looked. Everyone was more interested in taking a perfect picture than appreciating the view.
According to a study by the department of Psychology at Fairfield University, taking pictures leads to a “photo-taking impairment effect,” which leads to tourists remembering fewer details of the objects they saw. Although this study was done with a museum tour group, it wouldn’t be a stretch to include these types of tours as well. Stanley Milgram, the renowned social psychologist, proposed that with cameras, the value of our vacation is now not only judged by our experience, but by the picture(s) we take as well.
“Now here’s a treat for you James Bond fans!” Jamie said, “The road we’re on now was used for filming Bond as he drove to his childhood home in one of the most recent films, Skyfall.”
Right on cue, the Skyfall theme, sung by Adele, poured through the stereo system providing some epic background music to one of the most unique stretches of road in Scotland, which is saying something. Sky blue water surrounded both sides of the bus, and little patches of land seemed to spring up throughout it. We all relished a rest stop here, especially the Bond fans.
Back on the bus, when the entire group was tired out from taking selfies, Jamie really stepped up to the plate and took his duties to heart.
“Now, we’ll be heading into Glencoe, a beautiful sight of nature, aye, but a place of terrible tragedy as well,” he said, “During a great winter storm the Clan MacDonald allowed the Clan Campbell rest and respite from the bitter cold.”
His story enveloped the countryside around the bus, which passed by small lochs, greenery, and lazy cattle that were chewing on verdant grass, which draped the hills outside the bus. It was like we were all there, hundreds of years ago.
“The Clan MacDonald gave the Campbells supplies and allowed them to rest in their homes,” he said, “and then, as the Clan MacDonald slept…”
An alarm blared from somebody’s phone, as the bus came back into reality. The group across from me woke up from their naps and started to talk loudly again.
“Now for a traditional Scottish song about the Glencoe Massacre, aptly named, The Massacre at Glencoe,” he said.
Driving through Glencoe, with those lyrics playing in the background, created quite the melancholic experience. But, as is the case with most of Europe, death and destruction can touch even the most beautiful locales.
Jamie also spoke about the Scottish Highlands and clans, his voice quivering with pride.
“Most Scots can trace their ancestral name to a clan and it’s a huge part of our history,” he said, “Our culture is rooted in clans, spirituality, and fairytales, and that’s just how we like it!”
After a little while, the bus went quiet again. Jamie told us that we were heading towards one of the largest mountains in Scotland.
“The Scottish are very proud of their history of oral tradition,” he said, “and, if you couldn’t tell already, we’re very proud of the beauty of our country.”
He spoke of rivalries between Scottish countrymen, saying, “If you’re from the north, the biggest Loch is Loch Ness, but of course, if you’re from the south, the biggest will be Loch Lomond. It’s all a matter of pride.”
As he spoke, the landscape seemed to reflect his nationalism. The mountains started to rise even higher, and the lochs started to look deeper, reflecting the sunshine. Everyone stopped to listen as we drove closer to Loch Ness, which was dark and glassy, possibly hiding the fabled monster herself.
“Oh look, some Scottish red deer are grazing on the right!” Jamie pointed out.
I instinctively reached for my phone and tried, unsuccessfully, to open its camera. I strained my head and looked out the window, but before I could see the deer, we passed them.
“The next stop is the castle and Loch Ness. Make sure to take it all in,” Jamie said.
I walked out of the bus, hanging onto my phone, and I took a few more pictures. But there was no way that a camera phone could capture what I saw. The most vivid moments from the tour will not be remembered by the photos I took, but by the stories and scenery that gave a real “picture” of what the Scottish Highlands are all about.
Photos and story by Adam Poplawski