One man’s 500 miles journey around Scotland in search of love stories

Matt Hopwood travelled 500 miles on foot through Scotland. Picture: submitted
Matt Hopwood travelled 500 miles on foot through Scotland. Picture: submitted
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I had previously made a journey from Wiltshire to Lindisfarne on the Northumberland coast, which had connected sacred places in the landscape of Britain, so it seemed natural to set off for Scotland from Lindisfarne and head for Callanish on the Isle of Lewis as a route through the land from the North Sea to the Atlantic.

I wanted to cross a frontier, to experience the cultural shift from one perceived nation to another. I wanted to tell the stories of folk from both sides of that imagined border and see how the stories morphed and changed as I made my way westwards and then north.

Picture: submitted

Picture: submitted

Along the way I sought hospitality, a bed for the night, food, shelter, a welcome. I moved as a stranger through the land looking for connection, searching out the narratives that shape this part of the world. As ever, I sought to connect with people through the stories of their heart. I met with folk on the path, in the pub, by the shore, in the city and in the villages.

I found Scotland to be the place I had longed for it to be – a place of passion and colour, of people and landscapes that cascade the senses and move the spirit. Earth, sky and sea shaped my movements through the land, and Scotland stays in my memory now as a place of sacred union, where the hard lines dissolve a little and the beauty and spirit of 
the earth finds an essential space.

The human love stories heard and shared on this journey are not perfect: but they are perfect. They do not resolve, begin or end as fictional stories might. They meander and sometimes end abruptly. Each story reflects an experience of love and connection. To hear someone deeply is one of the greatest gifts you can offer a person. It is the essential act of love. In that exchange, you allow a person to be recognised, to be noticed, to be seen. It is an act of profound compassion. It is a love story in itself.

I have meandered through the veins of the countryside, gently progressing along canal towpaths and bridleways, unobtrusively heading west towards a murmuring sun. The door shuts and my world contracts into an interior of smiles and laughter, comfort, tea and biscuits.

Picture: submitted

Picture: submitted

I’ve never said to my mum, ‘I love you,’ and my mum has never said it to me. I know she loves me but I’ve never heard those words. My mum’s 83 now so, you know, I don’t know how much longer I’ll have her. I mean, every time I leave her I give her a big cuddle, but I can’t say those words.

I lost my dad six years ago. My dad was very much... he didn’t show emotion – he was brought up that way, you know. But I’ve always felt my mum wanted to show her feelings more. Our relationship has changed, I think. It’s like my mum is being more herself now that he’s not there, much as she’d love still to have him there – but she is different. And my relationship with my mum is different, and we have a cuddle every time I leave her. But I just can’t say these words. I don’t know how she would react. I’ve heard her saying to my grandchildren, ‘I love you,’ and I was quite taken aback when I heard it. But I think that’s more because they openly say, ‘I love you.’ I mean, I tell my grandchildren all the time, ‘I love you.’ I don’t know – is that a generation thing, maybe?’

Last night I slept high up in the hills, amongst the clouds that streamed across Loch Awe, with just the sky and the sheep for company: a would-be-shepherd shivering in the cooling breeze. Now I am back to earth and hungry. There you are, smiling, shy. The local store is safe in your hands.

We met when he was dancing to Right Said Fred, ‘I’m Too Sexy’, and he decided to take his top off when he was dancing! How many years have we been together now? About 24 years, and we’ve had two children. But it doesn’t feel like 24 years – oh my God no! I know everything about him. I know what he’s going to say before he says it. It’s good because I know what he’s going to do before he does it, because he’s very cheeky. He’s good fun.’

Picture: submitted

Picture: submitted

Lying back in the grass I feel the wild North Atlantic spread out before me. Not a soul interrupts this perfect vision. The showers come and go and I remain sheltered here, embraced and embracing, consumed by the air and the waves and the light.

A lot of young people, when they reach 17 and 18, put their heads down and go to Glasgow and become part of that scene. But almost all of them still look to the islands as home. And people may be away for 16 or 17 years or even 30 years, but the islands are still their home.

It’s a cord that people feel they are attached to. I came back from Glasgow to stay here because I felt it was my home. There’s something about the sea and the sky and the place itself that is in you. And you belong. You have a sense of belonging to something. And being part of something. I come down here and walk on the beach with my dog, and I’m usually the only one here. We never see anyone down here, but this place is where I am – my place to be.’

The final steps trodden – Callanish. For the briefest moment, I pause to feel that sense of place – to breathe, to commune. Crowds of tourists descend and the shutters of countless cameras whir. I take shelter. Then finally the body relaxes and then lets go. Its work is done for now. Thoughts turn to tea and cake and the removal of boots and socks. A bath perhaps. Stillness. We sigh out the day and welcome the night, and remember one more story, folded into its deepness.

Picture: submitted

Picture: submitted

I didn’t believe in love. I was very driven – a career woman – and I’d been let down so many times in the past. I was completely cynical about it. I didn’t believe that it would ever come through for me. I didn’t believe that it would ever mean more to me than myself and earning money and fame and fortune. But the truth of the fact is that I met him and now that’s all that there is. And it’s all I can see and it’s all that I feel, and it’s the rest of the world that doesn’t make sense now. The most difficult, the most powerful thing I have ever had to do is learn how to love. It’s a continual reflection of who you are, how you’re behaving and what your thoughts are.

So it’s been a completely catastrophic and tortuous breakdown of the image of the self that I thought I was. And as you go through those layers, of who it is you think you are and who it is other people think you are, you finally start to come close to the essence of yourself. And when you connect with that other person’s essence, when you find it is the essence of your beings that is connected, you realise the essence of your beings is connected to the essence of all the other beings around you – animals, trees, water, the sky. And you’re not alone any more and you feel whole somehow. And life, although it is a lot harder to manage, isn’t as hard any more because you realise there is something beyond yourself.’

A Human Love Story: Journeys to the Heart by Matt Hopwood is published today by Birlinn (£9.99, paperback). Listen to the stories at www.ahuman lovestory.com