I wanted to feel the winds of the sea. Ever since catching a glimpse of the North Sea atop Arthur’s Seat, I’ve needed to feel the salty air soak into my skin. Even if that meant freezing my fingers and toes on the coast of St. Andrews.
But I didn’t care where I ended up. St. Andrews meant nothing more to me than a dot on a map. I needed the ocean and its vastness, its quiet sublimity.
My boyfriend, Chris, and I set off on a seaside road trip, equipped with water bottles, M&S sandwiches, fruit, and cookies. We were prepared.
Not too far after leaving Edinburgh, one of us pointed to a sign, and another one of us responded, and soon enough, Chris had parked the car, the call of nearby coffee shops and castle ruins too alluring to ignore.
I don’t recall the name of the town. I don’t remember any notable markers. I do remember strolling by a confused house with blue German timber framing and traditional Scottish stonework – as if someone moved in years after the original house was built and decided it needed a little flavour to spruce up the street. And I remember Chris walking straight into a pole. For a moment, I couldn’t understand: the house was bizarre but not walk-into-a-pole worthy. But no. No, a nearby game of shinty had distracted him. He reminded me of a cartoon character, so consumed with the Scottish pickup game he slammed his face into an obtrusive metal pole. Granted, shinty sounds more interesting than baseball, but I’ve never been consumed enough with sports to walk over my own feet, let alone into a pole.
But Chris would just tell you that if you learned more about shinty, you’d understand.
While he rubbed his bright red nose, I noticed a sign – castle ruins to the left. Our haven.
The ruins should have meant something. But unlike the Kirkstall Abbey, I found it difficult to see past the overgrown grass and wildflowers. Nature had taken back its stone, so we took our obligatory pictures and left.
And yet, I love castle ruins, no matter how meaningful. I love the ancient stone structures dotting the Scottish landscape, and these unexpected towns that house them.
At one point, Chris and I sat at the edge of a secluded wood, sipping coffee, looking out towards a rather unsightly, grimy port. It reeked. The bench, wet with a recent rainfall, soaked into my skin, and the wayward brambles poked holes in my new tights. Nearby seagulls screeched and soared through the cold air and the leafless branches felt austere and unwelcoming in the bleak backdrop of March. But we sipped our coffee and I remember smiling a lot. I had reached the sea.
But Chris had more in store for me. We would continue driving to St. Andrews, where I could dig my numb toes into the sand.
St. Andrews, home to the university where Prince William and Kate met, retains a wealthy beauty that the tourism industry has printed on glossy postcards all over Scotland. The cobbled streets are meant to charm and impress, which they do with success and efficiency.
But if you peel back the glimmering veneer, you’ll discover a town with a fading Scottish culture. It still exists, somewhere beneath the surface, but like a receding hairline, you can watch it slowly disappear.
It didn’t matter though. We ignored some of the overpriced touristy shops, indulged in others, and meandered through the seemingly perfect town towards the infamous golf course.
If you take this route, be wary of wayward golf balls. Nobody wants to admit they’ve been injured by a wayward flying golf ball – it’s almost as embarrassing as running into a pole. After dipping and ducking our way across the heather, we reached the shoreline.
Deep lochs and rugged moors – mountaintops capped with snow – they define the Scottish landscape. The sea, however, is much more accessible. The universality of the ocean could potentially diminish the effect of the St. Andrews beach. And yet there’s something foreboding about the North Sea. Something that beckons yet warns. It’s a reminder of something, someone, churning deep in my subconscious.
I could almost sense it.
The salty air soaked into my skin, just as I had hoped for. And the skyline of St. Andrews illuminated a darkening sky.
“What do you value most in friendship?” Chris asked me, guiding me towards the incoming waves.
“An effort to understand each other,” I responded.
“I understand that,” he replied. He probably winked as well, the goof. The nearby seashells distracted me, with their blue tint brightening the greyish sand. I followed a trail of empty clam shells, oblivious to Chris, until he hoisted me over his shoulders.
“Put me down!” I shrieked.
“Right, let’s walk across the beach,” he decided, so nonchalant I ever so briefly wondered if he noticed I still balanced precariously on his back.
“Fine,” I surrendered. “But then you’ll have to pick up the seashells for me.”
We left one trail of footprints in the sand, which the salty water then washed away, as it has washed away thousands of others. For a brief moment, I almost felt it again: that stirring of a memory belonging to generations before me. Almost a non-memory, a fleeting feeling of connection. But then I landed on the sand, next to a set of algae-covered slippery rocks that bordered the edge of the beach.
“You ready to go?”
I looked out to sea once more. Fumbled for my camera with frozen fingers.
Perhaps it was my love of Scottish history that stilled me. Perhaps it was selfish, and the Scottish waters served as a subtle reminder of my ancestors sailing towards Northern Ireland, or America. And maybe those recollections, or reminders, are why the ocean isn’t so universal after all. Each port retains a different meaning to different people. The turquoise waters of the Caribbean have witnessed a different set of storms, different wars and bloodshed, different marrying couples and children playing in the waves – worlds away from the Scottish coast. These beaches, and ports, describe a way of life for various cultures around the world, and withhold their own set of traditions and pieces of history.
I could almost sense it.
And then we left.
And when I remember my road trip along the rugged coastline, I feel the cold bench beneath my shivering legs, and the sensation of being flipped over a set of shoulders, a salty wind in my tangled hair, and pinpoints of blue light scattered across the vast grey beach.
I still have the blue-tinted seashells in my pocket.