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The welcome completed

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The Scottish Tourist Board led me astray, I thought, as the coal fire smouldered and filled the room with damp smoke.

I stood facing a hole in the dingy green plaster, one hand groping for a bucket, the other dusting black cobwebs away from the wall. A bare lightbulb cast a circle of light on the floor.

Outside, a gale from the North Sea crashed across the countryside. The wind died down, and then rose again, surging like a plundering army through the surrounding stone barns.

No, I concluded, the Tourist Board never photographs places like this. I leaned my shoulder against the wall for a moment, shifting my weight from one foot to the other. Through the break in the plaster, I could see the outside stone wall of the cottage. There wasn't one shred of insulation.

I tried to remember the color photographs of Scotland that I'd looked at before I'd left Boston. I remembered the bagpipers, the castles, and the impeccable townhouses of Edinburgh. I remembered the heather and the manicured fairways of the St. Andrews ''Old Course.'' There were no pictures of abandoned 18th-century farm cottages. There was no dirt, or damp, or frost. There were no pictures of cold, unfurnished sitting rooms congested with coal smoke.

I stood back from the wall and leveled off the wet plaster with the lid of a cardboard box. Then I picked up my bucket of plaster and started clearing the cobwebs away from another hole.

For two long weeks, I'd been doing this. It wasn't the Scottish lark I'd imagined in my dreams. The voice of futility urged me to quit and book a flight on the first plane to New York. As I dipped my trowel into the bucket, I began to wonder. I whimsically thought of the leisurely life that I'd led in America. I could see myself browsing through bookstores, or, perhaps, sitting at home writing long, newsy letters -- content, relaxed, untroubled by the weather.

But it was no good. I'd fallen in love with the hard life of a Scottish estate. I slept in an unheated bedroom, and I periodically went without indoor plumbing. But the bedroom looked out across miles of fertile farmland, and the plumbing -- when working -- drew water from an underground stream.


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