Tranquility in Scotland
Published: May 2009
By Carol Wallace
A wild ride as a journalist left <b>Carol Wallace</b> yearning for a quiet existence. She found it—along with a few unexpected challenges—in the Scottish countryside.
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.
Now that I'm nearly a full-time Scot, I'm adapting, even though I never anticipated chasing bats in my living room with an industrial-sized broom or watching helplessly as moles invaded my yard, leaving behind dirt mounds as big as pumpkins. I've tried the patience of many with my troubles using the metric system. "I'll have five hundred kilos of minced beef," I once told the butcher, proudly. He stared at me, then smiled and said: "Are you sure you want half a cow?" Understanding the accent hasn't been a picnic, either. Once, a competitive game of Scattergories got ugly when my friend from Glasgow had to think of illnesses beginning with the letter H. The conversation went something like this:
Me: "What do you mean?!"
Friend (firmly): "Hairpiece!"
Me (voice rising): "Having a hairpiece isn't a disease! What are you trying to pull?"
Friend (exasperated): "I'm not trying to pull anything. You must have hairpiece in America."
Me: "Spell it."
Friend (shouting): "H-E-R-P-E-S!"
That learning curve was minor compared with the hard work of building a new life abroad, especially for someone single. I've seen those TV shows where people go tra-la-laing off to Italy or France to meet Mr. Right and live happily ever after. But this move was all about me. The point of relocating was to slow down, to meet new people, and to venture out of my comfort zone, where a support system of friends and family was always on alert. Scotland, it should be noted, is not a Sex and the City place where single women go solo to the movies or dine alone. I would have to forge new relationships from scratch. So I resorted to the same tactics I had used in my twenties, when I moved from city to city for my career. I joined a women's networking group in Edinburgh, where I met dozens of interesting professionals. I signed on with a speakers' bureau and regaled assorted audiences with tales from my reporting days and the cultural differences between Manhattan and Aberfeldy. It helped that I was a U.K. media It Girl for a spell; the press were fascinated that a magazine editor would leave New York at the top of her game to move to rural Scotland. Those newspaper stories led to more telephone calls and invites, and a minor celebrity status. My 70-year-old mole catcher even asked me out for an evening of country dancing. I politely declined, having not yet attempted those jigs and reels.
When I bought my place I didn't know what to expect of my neighbors. But soon after I arrived, a farmer knocked on my door and presented me with a homegrown cauliflower as a welcoming gesture. Once referred to suspiciously as "that American lady," I am now on a first-name basis with shopkeepers, bank clerks, and the local policeman. Two years on, I'm greeted by locals as if I were a native. (It doesn't hurt that my last name is the same as Sir William Wallace's, the national hero whose life was depicted in Braveheart, though I am not of Scottish ancestry.) When I leave my door unlocked, I am no longer afraid when I hear it opening; it's only the postman dropping off the mail on my kitchen table. And I'm still shocked by people's willingness to help. After I had a minor road accident, the first person to stop was a doctor who gave me a quick neurological exam; seconds later another stranger offered me a lift to a telephone. When friends come over from the States, one Aberfeldy acquaintance always hosts a lively barbecue to welcome them. To this day I remain touched by the calls I received from neighbors checking on my welfare after an operation I had in New York last winter.
I'm always asked if I miss my chaotic life in the big city. No one believes me, but I really don't. I loved doing my job, and I love not doing it. I miss the office camaraderie, and there are times when I wonder how I would have chosen to play out a big story in the magazine, but those moments are fleeting. To remind myself why I turned my life inside out, all I have to do is glance at the hills and riverbanks outside my window and look at next year's to-do list:
1. Go white-water rafting.
2. Learn ceilidh dancing.
3. Memorize the constellations.
4. Check condition of industrial-sized bat-chasing broom.