My husband, Terry, and I traveled to Scotland recently, where we spent a few weeks hiking and exploring the Isle of Skye. During college, I’d fallen in love with the island, the largest of Scotland’s Inner Hebrides, and vowed I’d return someday.
From Edinburgh, Terry and I made our way by rail to Kyle of Lochalsh, our last stop on the mainland before crossing to Skye. There, a station employee helped people disembark. As each passenger stepped across the small open space between the train and the platform, she said in her lovely Highland brogue, “Mind the gap, love.”
We weren’t yet on Skye, but the magic I remember was taking hold.
Mind the gap, love: It was a cheerful, lilting echo of so many of our own American advisories. But our ‘Watch your step!” and “Caution!’ sound so much harsher and more dissonant. They reflect a litigation-crazy society where every cautionary sign is most likely based on the potential for a lawsuit rather than concern for others’ well-being.
During our time on the Isle of Skye, “Mind the gap, love,” became our catchphrase. Terry and I said it to one another often: while negotiating the ups and downs and irregularities of old hotels and quaint inns, with their nonsensical, uneven, maze-like halls and stairwells; while traversing tortuous Highland hiking trails, shingle beaches and boggy flats.
“Mind the gap” is a handy phrase. We found that it aptly covered many of our lapses — and not just the physical ones, but also lapses in memory, language and common sense. It served as an appropriate response to shop clerks at our frequent miscalculations of the unfamiliar pounds and pence.
That gentle and kindly expression is similar to so many others spoken by the locals on Skye, such as the advice given us by a friendly bus driver as we disembarked in the middle of nowhere one morning, in less-than-ideal circumstances, to begin the day’s hiking. The sky was ominously overcast, with storm clouds racing overhead. We were miles from the nearest village or shelter. The wind howled and the sea raged. Waves crashed and rolled right up to the edge of the single-lane road. All that could be seen of the trail we were to follow was a faint boulder-strewn path that soon disappeared completely into a cloud of mist.
“Mind as you go,” the bus driver said as we stepped off the bus. “The path ahead is a wee bit rough.”
His advice seemed as much a life philosophy as a warning about the hike before us.
Certainly, not all of the natives on Skye had such sunny dispositions as our kindly bus driver and the train station attendant. Murdo, the guy manning the village fish and chip shop, wordlessly scowled as he flung crispy, deep-fried bits of cod at the customers waiting in line. Patrons had to be ready to catch their orders before the fish landed with a splat on the greasy floor. Doughy batter caked Murdo’s arms all the way up to his elbows, and an unlit cigarette dangled perpetually from his tightly clenched lips. But even his dour nature couldn’t overshadow the overwhelming kindness of the majority of islanders.
All too soon, our Scottish idyll ended, and we returned home to Minnesota. We printed, framed and hung some of our favorite photos of the Skye hikes and scenery. Before long, Terry and I were once again immersed in the day-to-day routine of our real lives, and the vacation receded to the background. Every so often, though, something — a photograph, a song, or a random comment — still triggers happy recollections of those spectacular hikes and the jovial and generous people of Skye.
Maybe the folks on the Isle of Skye are no more cordial than people anywhere else. Maybe it’s just that rosy glow of vacation nostalgia that makes me look back so affectionately. Even the occasional flashback to Murdo’s culinary panache brings fond memories these days.
But even more than the photographs of those spectacular highland hikes, the souvenir T-shirts and the looming Visa bill, there is one thing that will stick with me for a very long time. Maybe forever. It’s a piece of advice that’s appropriate for nearly all occasions and translates well on any continent.
Mind the gap, love. Take it as a gentle warning, a benediction, a blessing, an apology, a philosophy of life. Remember it whenever you experience those unexpected glitches and rough patches that crop up throughout your day. Interpret it loosely and apply it often.
When not vacationing, Kathryn Sletto looks after a small flock of sheep with her husband at Shepherd’s Bay Farm in Alexandria, Minn. She is the author of “Keeping Watch,” a memoir (Minnesota Historical Society Press).