The following article, diary extracts and photographs by Harry Rose narrates his exploration through rural Scotland, a journey made soon after the passing of his father. Read his emotive contribution to 'Stories within Our Isles', which takes him and his boyfriend, Conor, to new horizons, capturing the journey along the way through photographs full of sensitivity.
In 2011 I lost my father to prostate cancer and since then, without fully realising, I let myself fall into a deep depression as I let the grief take a hold. His loss became an anchoring point for all the negative things I felt about myself and the world around me. I was in my first year at university when I lost my father, surrounded by unfamiliar faces in a place I was a stranger to. I found the entire experience to be one of uncertainty and instability. I was still figuring out who I was as an openly queer man navigating a world built for heterosexuals. When I graduated, I threw myself into jobs and experiences to help myself become a success, determined to make something of myself to help ease the pain of what I went through in my early 20s.
Seemingly, my feet never touched the floor. From one job to another, relationship to relationship, I looked for father figures in partners, friends and bosses who simply weren’t up to the task of being what I so desperately needed, a guide through life. A male figure that could understand the feelings I was feeling. I realised that this pursuit for answers on how to live life turned back to the past and I emulated the best characteristics my father had. He was a selfless and enthusiastic man who gave so much energy, time and love to those who deserved it. He was a high school teacher at an all girls school. The impression he made on so many was only fully realised by myself when he passed away, with an outpouring of stories from current and past pupils, saying how much he made them laugh and feel like they could achieve things in life. When he was in hospital before being transferred to the hospice for end of life care, one of the nurses caring for him was a past pupil of his. She told my family it was an honour of hers to give him the care and support that he had given so many. This in itself, as I write, is enough to bring a tear to my eye on how strange, beautiful and unpredictable life can be.
My dad also lost his father to prostate cancer when he was 21 and at university. The parallels of history repeating itself in our family felt tragic and unjust. What made my fathers experience of cancer that much heartbreaking, is that he had lived through it before as a son watching his father slowly pass away. This level of knowing your own fate and the impact it would have on your children and partner whilst being helpless with an incurable disease, truly breaks my heart.
I did my best to repair this broken heart by adopting as many of my fathers positive attributes as I could. Giving my time to people, colleagues, friends and as many people as I could until there was nothing left to give myself. I inevitably filled the whole of losing my father with spending money on clothes, food and drugs. Gaining weight, pushing myself into a deeper depression without knowing what I was doing or anyone around me to tell me what was happening. With the help of friends and a new partner, I was able to address the negative things I was doing to myself, one by one dismantling them until I reached the hardest task of them all, the grief.
After talks with friends and my partner throughout lockdown, I felt I was ready to cast this weight off and let it be carried off with the tides. I wasn’t just cutting off the grief, but the suicidal thoughts and my low self esteem. A new physical horizon was needed, to help build a new one inside of myself. Nobody needs this pain I carry around with me, least of all my father. I want to be better, I want to look upon the world with a learned yet hopeful face. So we packed up our things and headed north, to live on the road as digital nomads.
It was on a walk in Perth, Scotland before our trip began where my boyfriend and I had our first deep conversations about my father and my guilt of not being able to save him. The Christmas before his last, for some reason I went to my room and cried as the rest of my family were laughing and enjoying themselves downstairs. I still, to this day, don't know why I was crying. Perhaps it was a strange understanding that this might be the last, carefree time my family would all spend together, with all members present. It's in that moment, which I guilt myself over. I knew something bad was coming, just not what. Dad had had back pains for some time, which transpired to be a symptom of his terminal prostate cancer. My boyfriend stressed how I couldn’t have known or done anything, that it wasn’t my fault. With this being the first time I felt able to open up about these feelings, we packed up our things and headed for the open road.
The photographs and words that follow are both a personal diary as well as a travel journal, as I navigate the feelings I have been harbouring and the winding roads and paths at the end of the road.
Saturday 1st May 2021
We left Perth after I insisted on going to the monthly farmers market to get baked goods, a Scottish version of a pasty and supplies for the long drive up to Wick ahead of us. Conor was driving, I can drive, but it's been 9 years since I was last behind the wheel, so the role of DJ, drink and food passer was bestowed upon me, a more important task than people give you credit as an idle passenger.
We passed through highland roads, wowing at the mountains and landscapes that we encountered. Wanting to stop off at Loch Ness, so I could try and spot the monster of the Loch, we pulled up and scrambled our way down the rocks. We stood on the shore for a short while, and my impatient mind blurted out loud “Well, where is it then!?” jokingly referring to Nessie’s clear shy nature. We joked between us about the monster not being real and I put my foot down, saying it did exist. It did exist because I wanted to. If people can have their gods and saviours, I can have my Loch serpent.
Our second stop was in Olpsie where there were some waterfalls close by for us to gaze upon and give our legs and bodies a much-needed stretch. As we pulled into the car park, we realised it was backed onto by stone masons, with rows of freshly made grave stones ready for newly passed names to be etched into them. A rather unsettling thought as I felt like we were already in the middle of nowhere as it was and with years of watching bad horror movies, my mind raced. This was only enforced by a van with an animal skull on its dashboard, looking at us as we walked by. Well, if we're going to be killed by a highland axe murderer, at least we’d have nice views.
Tuesday 4th May 2021
We take the afternoon off work, and head north to John O’Groats and then east to the stacks at Duncansby Head, we still hope to catch a glimpse of the spirits of the ocean.
Following the fence at the edge of the cliffs, taking brave glances over the edge I find a piece of highland cow fur, entwined into the metal corners. I pull the fur and roll it between my fingers, make a wish and let the howling ocean wind carry it away.
Whilst walking in this landscape, we saw countless dead birds on the ground, parts of wings and beaks all shattered against the cliff side floor. Perhaps the winds were too strong and threw the birds harshly against the ground. It was a stark reminder that nature is in control here; you’re at the mercy of Mother Nature wherever you go. It both humbled and scared me at the same time, putting my own mortality to the front of my thoughts as I clambered back up the hillside to the car park.
There's a bleakness to be found here, but there is also beauty. This place is for the hardy only, yet its rewards for your patience and bearing of the beating winds is a sense of peace, a peace I’ve not been able to find anywhere other than where father’s ashes lay. Perhaps these weeks of me cutting the cord of grief, I am able to see the beauty in things, which were always there yet I was unable to see.
Wednesday 5th May 2021
I walk on foot from our accommodation down to the coastal walk in Wick, the path leads to Old Wick Castle on the cliff side. I scramble down a man made trail to the rocky coastline to get closer to the sea and ocean spray. The wind is strong and the ocean is fierce, bashing against the rocks with the seawater being flung high up into the air and over my head. I sit on the cliff side in the sun, looking for any signs of the Orca pod. I imagine the incredible sight it will be, if I am lucky enough to be blessed by their presence.