I fell in love with Scotland on my first visit, in 1984, when I interviewed Scottish movie director Bill Forsyth (Gregory's Girl, Local Hero). He had invited me to his house in the Trossachs, north of Glasgow, for our chat, and I was hooked the minute I saw the beauty of the area. His life in the countryside was the antithesis of mine in New York. You could go weeks without hearing someone honk a car horn. Every road was scenic, every whiff of unpolluted air was the perfect antidote to years of city grime. Gridlock was three cars in a row, waiting for sheep to pass.
I returned to Scotland each year after that on vacation. The lure of the country—rain and all—was so strong that I was convinced I would end up there after I stopped working. Everybody who knew me well said this love affair wouldn't last. Friends worried that after my kinetic career as a journalist—in my five all-consuming years as managing editor of People magazine, I had overseen coverage of some of the most memorable news stories of the past decade, from the Columbine shootings and the deaths of Princess Diana and JFK Jr. to the Monica Lewinsky sex scandal and September 11—I would be bored silly. My family was certain that, should I retire there, the isolation would turn me into Jack Nicholson in The Shining. They couldn't understand why I would even consider trading the glamorous world of celebrity scandals, with all its perks and power, for the easy life. In truth, all those Hollywood breakups and botched Botox updates prohibited me from having any life at all, let alone the simple kind. I loved every minute of the job, but the relentless pressures grew draining. After 31 years in the news business, the appeal of a less harried existence overtook me. There was no precise Aha! moment, I just knew that at 52, it was time to get a life, easy or otherwise.
I had laid the groundwork for my decision almost a dozen years earlier. I took a week off work and bought my dream Scottish vacation cottage. I viewed seven houses and rejected them all, but the eighth was a keeper. Built of stone in 1846 five miles outside the town of Aberfeldy (population 1,895), the two-story dwelling was graced with arched leaded-glass windows, a large deck overlooking the river Lyon, and a massive stone fireplace. It needed decorating—no bathroom tiles with cat faces for me—and did not have central heating (frugal Scots just pile on eight sweaters), but there were no other major deficits. On a little-traveled single-lane road with magnificent scenery in every direction, it sat on less than a half-acre of land, though the tree-lined riverbanks that stretched on either side of the house made it seem like much more. In fact, the nearest neighbor was a quarter-mile away. A writer once called this region in the center of the country, known as Highland Perthshire, the Tuscany of Scotland, and it certainly lived up to the hype. (Well, except for the food part.) It was idyllic, with mountains and waterfalls, rolling mists, the gentle 16-mile-long Loch Tay, and majestic Glen Lyon, one of Scotland's most spectacular valleys, all within walking distance from the house. (A few years later, J. K. Rowling would also fall under the spell of Perthshire and buy an estate down the road.) Best of all, I didn't have to worry about Hollywood scandals or crime. The last murder in the area, I was told, was in the mid 1940's. Sold.
I left New York for Scotland in January 2003, with no idea when I'd be coming back, though I did keep my apartment, just in case. Even I didn't know what to expect when I gave up my frantic New York life. Would I love it, or would I be as miserable as Eva Gabor on Green Acres?I imagined myself outside my old cottage, waving to neighbors as I loaded firewood into my L.L. Bean kindling bag. I thought every day would be like those first few, when I simply put my feet up on the sofa and watched the sheep grazing across the river. Relaxation—what a concept! I took full advantage of the tepid summer months (they seldom top 70 degrees), often having breakfast on my patio next to the river, barbecuing nightly, and enjoying the long days that stayed light until 11 p.m. I ventured to the gym (Aberfeldy has a small recreation center), bought a bike, rented a boat, took long walks, hunted for antiques, or zipped to Edinburgh, 75 miles to the southeast, for a shopping fix. I took on a few freelance writing and consulting jobs, but only if they sounded like fun. It wasn't until I'd settled in for eight months that I felt the full impact of life in another culture. Turns out that having a favorite vacation hideaway is one thing; living in it is quite another. The differences could choke an elephant.
In New York, I was spoiled by the promise of getting anything rushed to my door 24/7. In Aberfeldy, I can get two things delivered: firewood and horse manure. Broadband is a pipe dream where I live. The nearest movie theater (and Chinese restaurant!) is 30 miles away, and you can't buy a good cup of coffee before 10 a.m. Microwave popcorn is not available at any store, nor is low-fat anything. Shopping is seriously limited, unless I want hunting gear or thermal underwear. And because the house is surrounded by trees, it took 12 years to find a technician who could figure out where to put the satellite dish so it would receive a signal. Natural countryside noises, like rushing rivers, rustling trees, or farm animals in heat, kept me on edge for months.