My Husband Proposed to Me in Scotland — and Planned a Surprise Wedding the Next Day

Here's how a trip to Scotland turned into an impromptu destination wedding for me.

Golden hour before sunset cast a orange light on the green hills dotted with homes along a curved road on the Isle of Skye in Scotland

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After our car careened into a shallow ditch to avoid an oncoming truck on the narrow roads of the Scottish Highlands, my boyfriend, Jack, wandered across the street toward the only building we’d seen in miles — a thatched-roof inn. He was seeking cell reception to call the rental company whose contract had promised roadside assistance within 45 minutes.  

“What do you mean three hours?” I heard him roar. “I’m on my honeymoon!”

This was news to me.

“Not a cool lie!” I yelled through the passenger seat window as I searched for a tube of Dramamine in the glove box — the long and winding road through Glencoe, an otherworldly valley carved from an ancient volcano, had been beautiful, but left me nauseated. My boyfriend flashed me a worried look. He’d forgotten about my bionic hearing, which easily picked up his tantrum from across the road. 

Turns out, I was on my honeymoon. But while my hearing is perfect, my romantic radar isn’t, so it didn’t click, and Jack could breathe a sigh of relief that he hadn't, in fact, just blown four months of secret, intricate planning.

While Jack and I live in Cape May, at the tip of the Jersey Shore, he hails from Paisley, Scotland. His family still lives there, so we visited at least once a year. I said "I love you" for the first time in an apartment designated for visitors at his parents’ retirement complex. Bracing from the cold and exhausted after a red-eye flight, we huddled under a purple nylon comforter. True to his gritty Scottish nature, Jack responded, "I love you, too, but we’re not going to be one of those couples who say it five times a day." 

Throughout our relationship, dewy-eyed tenderness had never been Jack’s thing. In the lowlands of the west — where he grew up in public housing and delivered milk six days a week at 3:30 in the morning — no one coddled, gushed, or said "I love you." Instead, love came in the form of well-intentioned mocking — over a soccer game gone awry, a failed driving test. 

This was — in every way — thousands of miles from the upbringing I would have 20 years later in Philadelphia. My mediocre drawings of trees and dolphins were hung on the fridge, my poetry read aloud at the Thanksgiving table. Love was not implied — it was the period to every goodbye: "I’m going to the store, love you." "I’m heading to bed, love you." "I’m picking up Chinese food, love you." Sometimes, I’d daydream about the partner who would one day punctuate his sentences this way for me. But for Jack, I’d been willing to forgo the flowers and sonnets in exchange for his hilariously inappropriate jokes, his uncanny Sean Connery impression, and his sense of adventure that left me dazzled. 

This particular trip to Scotland, I thought, would be much like the previous one — a chance for Jack to get his annual dose of home, and for me to point out every Highland coo in the Hebrides. We invited my sister and her husband for the tail end of the adventure, and my brother-in-law suggested we book a fancy dinner at an estate he’d spotted in a magazine. So, before we left New Jersey, Donna, my sister, and I went shopping. "We should go all-out for a fancy double date," she said, handing me a long, Champagne-colored dress. “Let’s really surprise the boys." 

Jack and I kicked off the trip with a 24-hour layover in Iceland — specifically, at the Blue Lagoon. He had signed us up for in-the-water massages, but I figured the ongoing hailstorm would torpedo our plans. As I learned, however, Iceland doesn't cancel plans for weather. Later, Jack and I spread silicon mud on our faces and laughed at the red welts across our foreheads and cheeks. 

The next few days were a haggis-fueled blur. We played pool with Jack’s buddies from his time as a Scottish newspaper editor. We ate fried fish and got tipsy on sherry with Jack’s parents. And we took off for road trips through misty, towering mountain ranges, home to golden eagles, Harry Potter film sets and, according to some, Camelot. On the afternoon the car veered off the road, we’d been making our way to Skye, a magical island dotted with medieval castles and sheep. The three-hour setback meant we arrived just as the clouds turned pink over ancient cliffs that, from a certain angle, resembled a pleated kilt. That evening, we enjoyed dinner at The Three Chimneys, which Jack had booked four months previously. (And, no, it still didn’t click.)

Early one morning, Jack proposed on the stoop of his brother’s house in Paisley. I thought I was being pranked, but when I spotted the sweat on his forehead, I realized this wasn’t a joke. "Of course!" I stammered. But Jack wasn’t done asking questions: "Will you marry me tomorrow?" Then, he opened the door to reveal my entire family and some close friends — he’d flown them in on a red-eye. We celebrated with Champagne — and a feast of Chinese takeout.  

The ceremony Jack had planned for the next day was set for Ardanaiseig, the Downton Abbey-like estate built in the 1830s and appointed with antique oil paintings and lush gold couches. On the way to this gabled mansion, he veered (again) off a dirt road to accommodate a lone cyclist, and we found ourselves stuck in a shallow ditch for the second time. I was already more than an hour late for my own wedding — the GPS hadn’t accounted for those twisty one-way roads — so, a quarter-mile from the venue, my sister and I took off running in the Scottish drizzle. We pushed through an ornate front door to find the hairstylist Donna had booked, looking at my rain-soaked head as if to say, "Surely you’re not the bride."

Exterior of mansion at Ardanaiseig Estate in Kilchrenan, Argyll, Scotland,

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We said our vows against a backdrop of wild, vividly green gardens, mountains, and a misty lake, my accomplice brother-in-law serving as the officiant. A cousin filmed the event on a handheld camcorder while music played on someone’s cell phone. I wore the beige dress my sister helped pick — a little more snug after a week of tattie scones and whisky. Afterward, all 18 guests filed into a private dining room for dinner. 

My father gave a teary speech extolling even my junior high school accomplishments, while my mother-in-law, naturally, teased Jack about the fit of his kilt and the tiny wedding cake he’d selected. Then, in lieu of a speech — to the astonishment-turned-laughter of my mom — she sang the 1955 country song "You’re Free to Go," which is about breaking the ties that bind when love inevitably goes astray. (When asked why, she said, "It’s the only song I know the words to.") 

Bride walks down aisle with older man at a wedding

Courtesy of Diana Stoprya

A group of wedding guests stand along the water for a group picture after a wedding

Courtesy of Diana Stoprya

Her rendition inspired 14 other guests to stand and break into songs that had little to do with our union — or even love in general. Then, under cover of dark, Jack and other whisky-infused members of the wedding party jumped into Loch Awe, which, legend has it, was once a magic well guarded by a mystical nymph. 

The day after the wedding, everyone awoke and boarded a bus to the coastal town of Oban. We feasted on seafood, toured a 19th-century distillery and — though we didn’t know it then — picked up some inspiration. Twenty-two months ago, Jack and I had a baby boy we named Oban (it translates to Little Bay). He’s already been to Scotland, where he was regularly and routinely gushed over by even the most non-gushing Scot. 

And we, too, tell him how much we love him — sometimes as much as five times a day.

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