On this day in 2013, I was in Scotland. Last fall I studied abroad at the University of St. Andrews, and I couldn’t have been more delighted. Aside from the natural thrill of traveling to a foreign country, I was especially excited to see the United Kingdom. It was my first visit, and as an avid reader of British literature, I’d dreamed of going there for as long as I can remember. Reading stories set in Britain was intrinsically tied to my desire to be there in person – whether because of my fondness of the books that took place there, or because the authors made it sound so appealing. Which exactly I couldn’t say, but both probably played a large part.
I do know that some of my excitement to see Scotland in particular came from a novel I’d recently read – Outlander by Diana Gabaldon, a historical romance set in Scotland (now a series on Starz). I would have fallen in love with Scotland without any outside help, but visiting specific places I’d already read about and envisioned certainly heightened my anticipation and enjoyment.
Now that I’m home again, I’m experiencing the flip side of that kind of enjoyment by reading a book set in a place I know well: St. Andrews, Scotland. One of my professors at St. Andrews had told me that there was a medieval murder mystery series set in town, and as I love mysteries, my interest was piqued. I hunted down the first book in the series, Hue and Cry by Shirley McKay, at the local bookstore, absurdly pleased that the price printed on the back cover was listed in pounds, not dollars.
I never got around to reading the novel while I was at St. Andrews – I was too busy doing coursework and exploring Scotland – but now that I’m back in the States, I’ve picked it up again. I’m enjoying the story of Hue and Cry, but I’m primarily reading it because of its setting, which I’ve never done before. When I read it, I almost feel like I’m back in St. Andrews. Granted, it’s set in the sixteenth century, so it’s not an exact recreation of the town I know. But I read about the protagonist walking the town’s three main streets (North, Market, and South) with pleasure, and I can even recognize the names of smaller lanes and wynds. It shows the cathedral now in ruins at the beginning of its decline, and although the seaside it describes is bustling with fishermen, it makes me recall my own peaceful walks along the chilly beach. Reading Hue and Cry takes me back to the place I called home for four months. It’s bittersweet as nostalgia always is, and can make me miss Scotland all the more.
Never before have I read literature as a way to revisit a place where I’ve lived and left. For me, it’s been much more common to learn about and envision places I’ve never been from authors’ descriptions, although I don’t always want to go there. I know I’m in the South now, and I’m sorry, Southerners, but reading Faulkner and O’Connor didn’t make the South especially appealing. But I imagine Southerners can appreciate the sense of place in those works best for the same reason I’m enjoying Hue and Cry, though I’m no Scottish native, and McKay is no O’Connor. The familiarity and truth in the writer’s description of place adds a whole other dimension to their work, which I’m only now beginning to appreciate.
For me, Hue and Cry has a kind of escapism I’ve never encountered before – one founded on real experiences. Instead of picturing somewhere I’ve never been but where I want to go, I’m remembering a well-loved place where I once lived. It’s a new way of reading for me, though I’m sure it’s familiar for many others. In time, as I continue to travel and explore new places, I expect I’ll come across it more and more. Maybe in the years to come I’ll search for literature set in Lexington, longing to recall those good old college days. But for now, I’ll be in St. Andrews.