My time in Inverness, Scotland had begun auspiciously. Enjoying a cream tea on the top level of Leakey’s bookstore, set in an old Gaelic church that dates from around 1793 while looking down at the infinite amount of books stored there, tumbled piles of old hardbacks and towering bookshelves stocked to burst of classic pieces of literature, atlases and any title or author that one could possibly fathom. Motorbike riding through the forests of Aberfeldy, where green fields were filled with highland cattle with calf, blinking their long bovine eyes at us as we flew past. Reading my book from the top of a high hill in the centre of the ancient city, the April sun gently warming the back of my neck as I squinted into the white light reflecting off the surface of the River Ness like a million pieces of shattered glass.
One fateful evening, myself and another Australian girl made a visit to one of the local pubs, where we indulged in a pint or three of the local tipple, finding ourselves dancing with the locals to Jumping Jack Flash at midnight before skipping back to the hostel together, falling into our respective bed with aching feet and goofy smiles unfurling across our faces. Inverness is home to the River Ness, which leads into the infamous Loch Ness and her mythical monster of the deep. Where the streets are lined with sugary Scottish ‘tablet’ fudge and cheese scones as thick as the local accent. Inverness, where the bedroom I was sleeping in one night caught alight and nearly killed me.
I was woken at 5am by a scream from a fellow traveller, sleeping above me in the hostel bunk bed. Wrenched from sleep by the piercing sound, I drowsily looked about the room, looking for the source of the sound. The wall to my left was alight, flames heating my face and jump starting my heart. I grew aware of the smoke. The smoke was the most rancid, foul smell that I had ever encountered; a vile, plastic, burning stench that got down deep into my lungs and hastened my breath as I rushed past the flames licking at the walls. The room was on fire.
Apparently a faulty wire in the kitchen next to my room started a spark, leading to a blaze which eventually destroyed the building. I had time to grab my boots, passport, wallet and glasses but abandoned my backpack and charging iPhone, choosing to spend vital seconds on exiting the burning building instead of gathering up material possessions. Any chance of nipping back into the hostel crumbled, along with the roof and the walls, as I stood down on the ground in my underpants and a jacket watching the entire top floor of the building collapse in on itself, an impartial bystander watching a room in which I had only just been occupying, become consumed by flames.
I received radiant heat burns to the right side of my face, and discovered the severity of my smoke inhalation the next day when, determined to put my brush with death behind me, I rented a bicycle and attempted to ride to the next village. I never made it to that village. Instead, I pulled over on the side of the road, lungs aching, and parked the bike, clambering for 20 minutes up the slippery side of a waterfall. Determination ached in my thighs as I dragged my burnt body up to the top. I made it. I sat there, at the top of the waterfall, and took stock of my surroundings.
Sitting from my post at the top of the waterfall, I felt that I had reached the end of the Earth, and if I were to wander too close to the edge of the cliff I may tumble off into the infinity of time and be lost forever. Turning to the left, I saw the next village sat on top of a hill on the horizon; a smattering of white buildings like loose teeth on the yellowed grass. Turning my face to the right, and the wind which had been blowing in my face stopped.
I looked down at the expanse of ocean foaming and crashing against the craggy cliffs, spread out like a sheet of royal blue satin. I held a book up to the sky, and saw the earth bending away from it’s straight edge, following the curvature of the Earth. And the silence. That silence. The silence that impressed itself so loudly upon my ears as I turned my head away from the wind, away from the village and out into the expanse of ocean stretching far from my vision and out to the very edge of the horizon was like nothing I had ever heard.
Despite my close brush with death, or perhaps because of it, I had never been more in touch with the brutality and the beauty of the natural world, never felt closer to the fragility of human life. The fire ripped through my room and destroyed a vast quantity of my material possessions, but the Highlands of Scotland returned to me something that I had lost a long time ago, something that saw me as a human being reborn and rising like a phoenix from the ashes.
Scotland gave me back the gift of life.