a sanctuary of books

Leakey's Bookshop

I confess: I love books. Even if I don’t read as voraciously now as I once used to, I still love the smell, the feel, and the presence of books. A house is not a home if it does not have books in it! And so it comes as no surprise that one of my favourite places in Scotland is a used bookstore in Inverness.

Felicity and I had found Leakey’s Bookshop quite by accident. We had gotten somewhat lost in Inverness and while finding our way again, came across a couple of shop windows filled with books and large lettering spelling out the name. “Like Harry Potter!” we exclaimed. The shop was closed for the day, but we took note of where to find it and came back the next day.

Inside it is, literally, a sanctuary of books. The building is a repurposed church and the former sanctuary has been converted into the bookstore. There are few better ways to repurpose a disused church than to fill it to the brim with books. In the upper gallery is a café that serves delicious soups and sandwiches and the large room is heated with a wood stove. Part of me is slightly terrified at the thought of a wood burning stove in the presence of so many books — but that risk adds to the appeal.

I visited Inverness again over the years, and I took whomever I was traveling with to Leakey’s. There we would have lunch and spend the afternoon perusing the shelves, finding treasure after treasure. They might have wanted to go to Inverness to spy for Nessie in Loch Ness, but I would go to Inverness for Leakey’s.

Photo: Leakey’s Bookshop and Café in Inverness, Scotland.

like liquid silver

Loch Ness 17

At the turn of the year (a few years ago) I stood on a boat on a loch in the north of Scotland. The fog hung low over the water; it had frozen crystal on the branches and the leaves. It was barely mid-afternoon and yet it was already turning to dusk, turning the trees that came down to the water’s edge into dark shadows. A castle looked out over the loch. It was the kind of afternoon to make its ghosts wander the deserted grounds. The water, thick and dark with peat, reflected the silver sky as though it was itself made of mercury. One could believe the stories of creatures living deep beneath the surface, staring up at the world from the other side of a mirror. I had never seen anything like it. I would visit this loch again three more times over the years, but never again did I see the waters of Loch Ness move like liquid silver in the twilight.

(And to think, my camera had run out of battery earlier in the day. My mother let me use hers, which had, inexplicably, refused to focus. All of the photos I took are as blurry as I see the world without my glasses. The only photo from that afternoon that came out clear is this one, and it best captured the experience we had on the loch.)

Photo: Loch Ness in Scotland.

here, now: a snow day

On weekends I will post a “here, now” post that will feature where I live now. These posts might feature thoughts on repatriating to the U.S. (as this one does), or about teaching, what I’m reading, knitting, or life in general.


Ever since I moved back to America, I have felt claustrophobic. I am always inside: inside my flat, my office, my classrooms, my car. There is nowhere I can go to see the unbroken horizon, to go where I can’t hear any cars or see any buildings. Even from my eleventh-storey office the horizon comprises buildings and interstate-highways.

In Scotland, I lived in a town by the sea. Sometimes I would walk home “the long way,” which meant along one of the beaches until I reached my street at the other end. The openness of the air, the unending sky, the regular hushing of the waves would calm and quiet my thoughts after a long day. Here, in Texas, I end up standing in the car park texting a friend also recently repatriated from Scotland, “Are there some days you just wish you could walk down the pier or East Sands?

Yes,” she answered. “All the time.”

It snowed this weekend, and I had to get out of the flat. I love snow; I’m used to snow; I needed to be outside in the snow. But not here, in my flat near the university, surrounded by buildings and car parks.

So I braved the icy, slushy roads and drove north, to a nature reserve outside of the city. I had only been there once before. My car was the only one in the lot; I had the entire park to myself. The park had been transformed: snow hid the brown grass, frosted the bare trees. I chose a path at random, across the plain and into the forest.

There, finally, I could stop and drink in the silence. Snow, gently tapping my jacket, the trees. A dove, a jay. The creaking of branches. A noisy quiet, the forest, with no human sound nearby except my own. A flash of red swooped across my path; if I had blinked, I’d have missed it. Another cardinal followed. Back across the plain, I watched a flock of swallows fly overhead, a contrast of black on the white sky. Out there in the cold, warm enough with all my layers, my face wet with melted snow, I felt a little less “out of place.” The cold, the falling snow, being outside, the smell of damp wool from my scarf–this is what is familiar. I was reluctant to return to my car and thus return to the city, with even more cars and streets and buildings. But, I didn’t want to drive back in the dark, and I did have to go back eventually.

My brief sojourn did center me, for a little while. In Scotland, I was out of doors daily and naturally because I did not have a car–I walked or cycled anywhere I had to go. Here, I have to be intentional about finding refuge outside of the city. I have the nature reserve for now and I hope to find other places like it, especially places with water, to fulfill my need for trees and the open air.

Photo: Clear Creek Natural Heritage Center.

Scotland Decides

Today I announced in class, “Today is a very important day.” My students first guessed that it was my birthday — which it is not — and eventually told them that Scotland was having it’s long-awaited referendum on independence. The last few minutes of my class became a miniature civics lesson as I explained the difference between an election and a referendum.

“What do you think it’s going to be?” one of my students asked.

“It doesn’t matter. I’m not in Scotland,” I answered.

Now they all think I’m Scottish.

Photo on 9-18-14 at 11.14 PM

I don’t have a say in Scotland’s future, but I do care about it. I understand, to an extent — the extent that an empathetic ex-pat historian can have — why Scotland wants to be independent. I also understand the concerns of the Better Together campaign. So here I am, staying up past my bedtime, waiting on tenterhooks as the results for each county are announced, messaging with Lola back and forth, like we did for the last two American presidential elections. I wave my Scottish flag not in support of the Yes campaign, but in support of Scotland herself, whatever she decides.

Edit, 19 Sept 2014, 15 min past midnight: Scotland has voted no, to stay in the United Kingdom. I now breathe a sigh of relief, will toast Scotland’s future with a sip of whisky, and then go to bed.



I am leaving St Andrews today, and the UK tomorrow. I don’t know when I will be back. My time here was, of course, too short – but it is better to leave a place wishing you had stayed longer rather than feeling that you stayed too long. Someday, St Andrews, I will be back. Even though I have lived here for nearly six years, I know that I have yet to discover in this Kingdom of Fife. There are hills I’ve yet to walk, paths I’ve yet to cycle, castles I have yet to visit, cafés I have yet to sample, people I have yet to catch up with, moods of the North Sea I have yet to learn. I am going to miss this auld toun by the sea.

True voyage is return. I will come back someday.

Until then, farewell.

Ceilidh in the Castle

Every year there has been a ceilidh in the castle and every year I’ve missed it — except this year.


And it was such a beautiful spring day! It was so much fun. Usually ceilidhs feature a lot of dances where you keep changing partners during the dance but this one only had two dances like that, which meant that F. and I actually got to spend most of the evening dancing together.

A video of ‘The Dashing White Sergeant’, one of my favourites, but one we had to sit out because we couldn’t find another group of three.

This was by far the best, most fun ceilidh I’ve been to. I’m so glad I went, at last!

Craigowl Hill

For our adventure this past week, F. and I went hunting for snow. Although the whole country has been covered with snow the past couple of weeks, most of it hasn’t stuck in the coastal areas like where our Town is. Fortunately, we didn’t have very far to go: just a short bus ride north to Dundee and a bit farther to Tealing, and suddenly there was SNOW. We stepped out into thick snowfall, catching snow flakes on our tongues and laughing in disbelief at just how much snow there was.

We spent the afternoon tramping through knee-deep snow, sometimes falling into even deeper drifts, and going up to Craigowl Hill. Sadly, we didn’t make it to the top, but we had lots of fun besides.

IMG_7929  IMG_7928IMG_7943

I hope we have another chance to go out in the snow… I still haven’t made a snowman this winter!

Favourite things

Light on sea:


Tips to survive a Scottish winter: Take Vitamin D supplements. Drink lots of tea. Wear layers. Eat spicy food. Wear bright colours. And take a walk in the sunshine every chance you can: invent an errand for yourself, go out for lunch, meet up with your favourite person and walk by the sea. You need to store up those brief moments of sunshine for days like today, when it stays dark all day, when the wind howls and rain lashes against your face, when you seriously think you should wear goggles whilst cycling.

Favourite things

Winter light:

Sunlight is a precious thing during a Scottish winter. The sun rises at 8.30 AM and sets at 3.30 PM. When it’s overcast, as it has been for most of the last week or so, it never gets fully light. The clear sky, the sunlight, we had on Wednesday was simply glorious.

Ben Cleuch

This past week F. and I took Wednesday off instead of the usual Monday. Taking a 7am bus, we went to Tillicoultry to go hillwalking in the Ochils of Clackmannanshire. It was a misty, drizzly, windy day. We climbed The Law (638m) and Ben Cleuch (721m) whilst walking the Ben Cleuch Circular. As we walked through the glen and climbed up the hills, we saw the clouds drift between the hills, quickly obscuring the town from view. We met only three other people the whole day. We really had escaped civilization.

I borrowed hillwalking gear from my friend Joanna, and so hiked with walking sticks for the first time. We used all the light available to us on these short winter days, so we were out hiking for 8 hours. I’m very proud of myself for keeping up: it was only seven years ago I was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. None of my joints were sore afterward (though quite a few muscles were). I’m so glad to learn that I can do this: be outdoors and enjoy myself without worrying about my arthritis.

Here are a few pictures, and they are evidence enough of what a beautiful, stunning place Scotland is.


It was a long, wonderful day.