We — my uncles Jim and Larry, my cousin Lindsay, and I — went to Scotland on the sort of family business that is not business at all but is, rather, an excuse for a vacation. We are Scottish by an unremarkable fraction, but because that branch of family history is well documented, because we have things like a plaid and a crest, our unremarkable fraction can feel an awful lot like half.
No matter how Scottish we felt, there was a lot we didn’t know. For example, how to pronounce things. Our ten-day trip started with a visit to the Isle of Arran: Jim said Ah-RAN; Larry, AIR-en. On Arran we stayed at the a hotel called the Kilmichael House: Jim said KILL-mick-ahl; Larry, Kill-MIKE-ahl. The house had been in the Fullerton family in the seventeenth century. That’s us, the Fullertons. And at least we all agreed on how to pronounce that name.
To tell you the truth, nobody argued about pronunciation. The general understanding was that Larry, who planned the trip, pronounced things correctly, that Jim pronounced things his own way, and that Lindsay and I were free to choose. It would make sense to copy Larry, but Jim has this enviable, wry drawl that makes him sound right even when you know that he’s saying things wrong. So we said Ah-RAN. We said KILL-mick-ahl.
After Arran, we hiked the West Highland Way, which runs 96 miles from Milngavie to Fort Williams. High-altitude hiking it is not: the Devil’s Staircase, which is the highest point on the Way, is a mere 1,800 feet. Yet no beauty is sacrificed for the relative stubbiness of the mountains. The Way passes alongside flower-strewn hills next to Loch Lomond; through dense pine forests; over wide, barren brown moors; through green valleys dotted with brown grasses, rocks, and sheep. They are the sorts of landscapes I used to doodle in class — more serene than majestic, more like a daydream than a fantasy.
Our itinerary had us average thirteen miles a day: a moderate, but not ambitious pace. Every morning a luggage service took our suitcases to our next guesthouse, and every evening we took long showers, drank Tennent’s Best, ordered fajitas, haggis, and goat cheese salads, and chatted with the people we knew from the trail.
It was Jim who knew these people best. Jim is famous in the way that all families (but especially large ones) have famous members, which is not to say more or less accomplished, or even more or less favored, but simply the most fun to talk about. What Jim is famous for is making friends. He has a saying: my new best friends. If he tells you he’s going to a show tonight and you ask him who he’s going with, he’ll say, twenty of my new best friends. And he’ll be telling the truth.
Jim wasted no time in finding friends on the Way. The night before we began our hike, he made friends at the bar with three Scotsmen: Keith, Gary, and a tall guy. Keith offered to buy Lindsay a drink, and Jim said if he did that he’d have to marry her. Keith’s laughter was a barely controlled bellow.
By our third day on the trail, the trip had begun to feel less like a family hiking trip and more like a very small migration. Because almost everyone hikes from South to North, and only a handful of towns dot the Way, we shared guest houses, dining rooms, and bar stools with the same rotating cast of people. The ones we saw most often were Keith, Gary, and the tall guy (Lindsay and I started referring to him as “the good-looking one,” though Keith was also handsome). They were, respectively, a plumber, a butcher, and a painter. They were also shining examples of good cheer: when Keith and the good-looking one found out that the Kingshouse Hotel was full, and that the nearest available room was twelve miles away, they swore happily, like kids who still found novelty in the words.
Jim didn’t worry so much about names, instead referring to many of his new best friends as “that German couple” or “the English guys.” It was the English guys we ran into on top of the Devil’s Staircase. This was our fourth day on the trail, and we had a particularly rugged view of the Highlands: close, craggy peaks and distant, hazy hills. Down in the valley the highway looked like a careful pencil line. It was still morning and already the sun had made us tired. We reapplied sun block while Jim brokered a deal with the English guys: a few handfuls of trail mix for a few sips of their whiskey.
As we were eating our lunch, Keith, Gary, and the good-looking one trundled by and called out their hellos. Even though they started each day’s walk later than us on account of their hangovers, they always passed us by midday on account of the fact that they didn’t take breaks. Gary — red-faced, pot-bellied, with baggy cargo shorts that grazed the tops of his boots — didn’t even carry a backpack. Just a water bottle, which he refilled at streams by bending awkwardly.
“That’s the way to do it,” said Jim through a mouthful of pita and brie.
“Power on through.”
An hour or so later Jim asked Larry, “What’s this place we’re staying at tonight?”
“Allt-na-Leven,” said Larry. “In Kinlochleven.”
“Allt-na-Leven, huh?” said Jim, as if he had expected as much. He said, “I think I’m going to set off on my own.”
That afternoon, as we descended into Kinlochleven — a colorful town surrounded by steep green hills — he was well out of sight. He wasn’t at our hotel when we checked in, and he was still missing after we’d showered and changed. We went out to look for him, but weren’t on the street five minutes before one of the English guys approached us.
“Your friend’s in there,” he said, pointing at a pub.
We found Jim sitting at the near edge of a circular table, leading a group of men, including Keith and company, in a round of laughter. Jim’s backpack was tipped on its side beneath his chair; the sleeves of his stained gray hiking shirt were pushed up almost to his elbows. He looked pleased but unsurprised to see us, like we were a package arrived just on time.
“We figured you forgot the name of our hotel,” Larry said.
“I don’t even know the name of this here town!” said Jim.
Our laughter was not because any of us thought Jim foolish. You can’t laugh at a man who is, somehow, exactly where he’s supposed to be.
Melinda Misener is from Portland, Maine and Northampton, MA. She currently lives in Ann Arbor, where she is an MFA student at the University of Michigan.