Driving into the northernmost town on the British mainland late on a cold February night, I could not shake the feeling that we had reached the edge of the world. The Aurora Borealis would have been visible from this latitude were it not for the near-constant cloud cover. Instead, the lights of the town provided the only contrast against the massive blackness of the sky above and of the North Atlantic beyond. Against that inky backdrop, the town of nearly 8,000 residents appeared impossibly small as we descended towards it from the Highland mountains. This was Thurso, Scotland, and this was what my new friends and I had set out in search of from Edinburgh. It was not the kind of place I had envisioned when planning my study abroad experience, and after a month in Scotland’s bustling capital city it was a completely alien landscape to me. But, my weekend in Thurso would prove to be one of the highlights of my time in Scotland.
The passion and intensity of many of these groups were totally unlike the gentle weekend excursions offered by my own college’s outdoor recreation club.
My trip to this remote edge of civilization began at an extracurricular societies’ fair shortly after I arrived at the University of Edinburgh. Wandering through the student center, I felt like a freshman again, bewildered by the variety and scope of activities available just as I had been years earlier during orientation at the University of Alabama. I was especially interested in the impressive outdoor activities section of the fair, where various clubs proudly displayed ice axes, skis, crampons, and climbing ropes at their tables. The Scottish climate in winter is harsh even to someone raised in the American Midwest, but I would soon learn that the persistent cold and damp only make Scottish outdoorsmen throw themselves into their pursuits with even greater enthusiasm. The passion and intensity of many of these groups were totally unlike the gentle weekend excursions offered by my own college’s outdoor recreation club. Curiosity drew me to a table with a weatherbeaten surfboard propped against it. I had always wanted to learn how to surf, but had never thought it would be possible to do so here in Edinburgh. I signed up nevertheless, and was soon on my way to the club’s first meeting of the semester.
As one might expect, Scottish surfers are an odd and eclectic bunch. Those I met in the club were male and female, rich and poor, Scottish and English (with a few international folks thrown in as well), and represented just about every walk of life that could be found at UE. The sole common factor among them was their passion for the unique thrill that comes from throwing one’s body into icy cold waves. A few other American exchange students had signed up with me, but did not stick with it, leaving me as the only American and one of the few rookies in the club. While these circumstances made me nervous at first, I soon forgot my worries as the group accepted me warmly and numerous surfers stepped up to show me the ropes.
And so, less than a month later and with only two brief surfing lessons under my belt, I traveled to Thurso with my new friends. Thanks to a slab of rock positioned at just the right angle in its small harbor, Thurso boasts some of the biggest and best waves in Britain when winter storms stir up its waters. These waves break a good distance out in the harbor, and watching them from shore in the thick fog of our first morning in town, I could not even guess at their size. But with words of encouragement from the rest of the group, I suited up and paddled out to try my luck with the first big waves I had ever surfed. It is a surreal experience jumping into an ice-cold sea with only a thin layer of neoprene for warmth. In this snowy landscape in particular it gave me a new appreciation for the sheer power of the ocean. When we finally reached the point break where we would begin our surf, we found wind-whipped five to six foot swells – a moderate size for an experienced surfer, but fairly terrifying to me. After watching my friends navigate a few of these waves, I decided it was now or never and positioned myself to catch the next one.
Needless to say, this did not go well. Some shouted last-minute instructions were the last thing I heard before a wall of water lifted me impossibly high and then threw me head first into the surf. My board was wrenched out from under me and the force of the wave held me underwater for what felt like hours, but was in reality probably less than 30 seconds. When I did manage to scramble back onto my board and paddle back to the safety of the channel, I did so with a new-found respect for this sport and for the fearless surfers who have the tenacity to endure such wipeouts regularly. Over the course of that weekend and the many surf outings that followed, I gradually gained confidence on the water and visited other unique locales.
Ultimately, my impulse decision at that activities fair allowed me to experience the rugged beauty of the Scottish coast from a perspective that most never will. There is certainly nothing wrong with Scotland’s more traditional forms of tourism – golfing, visiting distilleries, and searching for a glimpse of the Loch Ness Monster are equally enriching ways of exploring the country. But as someone with a special love for adventure sports and coastal scenery, the EU surfing club helped me discover Scotland through an experience uniquely suited to my interests. And in terms of finding friendship abroad, I could hardly have asked for a better group to unwind and socialize with. Many friends whom I talk to about studying abroad hope to set out and explore their host country alone or with a few American friends. That is certainly a fun and worthwhile endeavor, but if I could share one piece of advice from my own experience it would be to not underestimate the value of clubs and activities offered by the host institution. As I found, they can lead to some wild adventures.
Kevin Jones is a student at the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa and studied abroad with IFSA-Butler at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland.