On Isle of Mull, Loch na Keal Renews a Lost Sense of Awe

Easy to Understand Why the Word 'Wow' Was invented in Scotland

On a twisted ribbon of road running alongside Loch na Keal on the Isle of Mull, I witnessed a wall of weather that seemed to explode upwards from the horizon line. As I jumped out of the car and ran toward the water, my sneakers sunk into the spongy peat moss and the sheep scattered. I felt a jolt of electricity surge through my body, sending me upward and I let out a primordial howl.

 An ever changing light show on the Isle of Mull. Photos: Meg Pier

An ever changing light show on the Isle of Mull. Photos: Meg Pier

The powerful blast of energy that coursed through me was an intense sensation of awe, and the cry that erupted from deep within me was a heartfelt “Woooooow!”

That I should experience such a high voltage moment of amazement in Scotland is only fitting. Perhaps not surprisingly, the word ‘Wow’ is Scottish in origin. It appears in Robert Burns 1791 poem ‘Tam o’ Shanter’ in the line “And, wow! Tam saw an unco sight!” It’s believed the word is probably a contraction of the interjection ‘I vow!’

The exhilarating sensation of profound wonder brought tears to my eyes. And while I often well up in my brushes with the Divine, this was different. This time, the tears were not only an instinctive appreciation for an electric encounter with raw, wild, magnificent nature. This time, the tears that seeped up from my deepest core were a prayer of bottomless gratitude and a sense of relief vaster than the sky. I had become very afraid that I had lost forever my capacity for a connection with the spontaneous joy that fills my God-shaped hole. Here along Loch na Keal on the Isle of Mull,  I had never been so happy to be wrong.

I turned to wave to my guide Johanna, who was enjoying the show from the dry warmth of our four-wheel drive vehicle. She smiled broadly and pointed past me. I turned back around and a grin spread across my face at the sight of a shimmering rainbow beginning to take form above the waters of the loch.

Rainbows are more common in Scotland than in Massachusetts. I was starved for anything that remotely smacked of serendipity and during my two-week visit, I enjoyed a steady diet of a phenomenon that I consider to be a wink and a nod from the Universe.  Eyes ever skyward, I marveled at Mother Nature’s fast-changing moods and the ongoing lightshow at this latitude. As I travelled across the Highlands and islands with Johanna and her husband Gilbert, they became inured to my sudden shouts about another rainbow or cloud formation and good-naturedly pulled over for a photograph.

On our last day together, we enjoyed particularly spectacular scenery in the Trossachs. On the final leg of our journey, the car was quiet as we reached the outskirts of Glasgow. I can’t say what their thoughts were but I was saddened by parting company with this lovely couple who had become friends, and leaving behind a part of the world to which I had become very attached.

“Hey, we haven’t seen a rainbow today!” I blurted out, half-kiddingly. “Where the heck is our daily rainbow?”

 The daily rainbow from beyond the hills. Photo: Meg Pier

The daily rainbow from beyond the hills. Photo: Meg Pier

We enjoyed a laugh and then there was silence. Suddenly Johanna exclaimed “Meg, look out the rear window!” As I turned around in my seat, she pulled the car off the road to let me take a picture of the rainbow that streamed down behind us.

That night, I had an email from Gilbert.

That’s us back, Meg……the stove is on, the dogs are staring at us to make us feel guilty, and there are a heckofa lot of memories to download.

Thanks for everything. Thanks for laughing a lot. It’s quiet here without you…..

Hope you sleep well in your last night in Scotland, till the next time.

We look forward to hearing the next ‘waaaooow’.

Not for the first time on the trip, I felt an odd combination of elation and ache. But the tinge of sadness touching me was not borne of the black despair I had been immersed in during the last couple of years, as I watched my mother suffering with cancer. Rather, it was a bittersweet poignancy that was reassuring, that told me that the heavy grief and anger that had been suffocating my other emotions was lifting. Those twangs of something beyond only bitterness meant my senses were alive, and I could feel again.

******

A few weeks later, on a Saturday morning, I sat with my brother Andy and husband Tom in the first row at Our Lady of the Cross church in Holyoke. We watched Father Alex slowly move down from the pulpit to approach the congregation.  The priest rested his hand on wooden railing, looked me in the eye and nodded. Then he turned to face the fifty or so people seated behind us and began to speak.

He told those of us gathered that he had a fellow cleric who was a scholar in biblical languages and regularly read the scriptures in Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, and Latin. But, Father Alex said, despite his love of linguistics, his colleague told him that whenever he read the story of creation and reached the line “And it was good,” he couldn’t help but think a better way to put it, in any language, was “Wow!”

Father Alex went on to say “Over the past few weeks, I’ve had several conversations with Janet’s daughter Meg, in which she described her mother’s spirit of exuberance and zest for life.”

“I never met Janet, but all I could think is that she was a ‘wow’ kind of woman,” the priest said.

My mother was indeed a “wow” kind of woman, a force of nature who had such a presence I could often be overwhelmed. Only in the peace brought on by her passing was I able to see that our conflicts were the inevitable struggle between two strong-willed women. Just as the fierce atmospheric collision along Loch na Keal unleashed the luminescent energy of a rainbow, so a mother’s death gives birth to wide ripples of love and a renewed sense of faith.