Once upon a time in the Scottish Highlands: a queer and magical love story
10 years ago, Tilda Swinton and Mark Cousins' 'A Pilgrimage' changed my life forever — and I'm not alone
On Aug. 11, 2009, the greatest story I suspect I will ever have to tell reached its climax. I stood in the entrance of a house in the Scottish Highlands, holding hands with a man I'd met less than two weeks earlier who I was convinced I'd fallen in love with. A woman gave a rose to each of us, doing her best to give us hope by explaining that when she'd first met her partner, they thought they'd never see each other again. They were together to this day, and she had a feeling we would follow suit. It all would have been exceptionally romantic no matter who that woman with the roses was, but it certainly had an added layer given that the woman was Tilda Swinton.
Honestly, I don't know if 10 years later I'd even believe it all actually happened if it hadn't been so dramatically documented it in hundreds of pages of journaling (which I'm so, so grateful to my 25-year-old self for finding the time to do in the midst of such an awakening):
"I'd known him for 11 days. Soon, I'd be 5,000 miles away from him, confronting whatever this has meant and how I proceed from here. But at that moment in Tilda's foyer, I felt like he was everything. He held my hand tighter and tighter as I started to cry, and I knew he had already changed me. He — and this entire experience — has made me realize so many things within myself: socially, sexually, with regard to my identity, my relationship to movies and what I really want out of life. No matter what becomes of it, that's fucking powerful. Because this adventure with him has got to go down in my life's history as the most romantic thing I've ever experienced. I mean, how the fuck is this toppable?" - Aug. 11, 2009
That noted adventure was "A Pilgrimage," essentially a mobile film festival curated by Swinton and filmmaker and writer Mark Cousins. But, at the time, we all described it as something more like a cross between a summer camp, a circus and a dream. Roughly 50 people from all over the world — many of whom had never met before — travelled the Scottish Highlands alongside Swinton and Cousins, and literally pulled a mobile cinema from town to town for eight and a half days. Each night, Swinton and Cousins would offer lively introductions to a couple films all themed around the idea of journeys, and then we'd set up tents and camp before doing it all again the next day.
One of the films Swinton and Cousins programmed was the 1954 Vincente Minnelli musical Brigadoon, which is basically about two Americans on a trip in Scotland who happen upon a miraculously blessed village that rises out of the mists every hundred years for only a day. Which, as a metaphor, is probably the best way one could possibly try and succinctly describe what happened on "A Pilgrimage." All of us that witnessed it have our own versions, with our own romances and our own revelations. I tried to put my own into words 10 years ago with the article I was sent there to write and have spent chunks of the following decade trying to dig deeper into the narrative, with literally tens of thousands of words still living in Word documents across various hard drives in my apartment. But given that this week marks 10 years since "A Pilgrimage" — and moreover, because the world needs reminders of this kind of magic right now — I feel it has come time to try and truly tell the story of the greatest journey I've ever taken, with personal recollections from a dozen or so of my fellow pilgrims (as Tilda and Mark would come to call us) sprinkled throughout.
Los Angeles, California
For me, the genesis of it all came about nine months earlier. I had just finished grad school and was adjusting to a full-time gig writing for online film magazine IndieWire, which involved covering the film festival circuit. Typically, the entire IndieWire team (which back then consisted of just four people) would go, but on this particular occasion, for one reason or another, I was literally flying solo to AFI Fest in Los Angeles. One of my primary assignments was to interview Tilda Swinton, which was, frankly, a very daunting proposition at that point in my career.
This was the woman who I'd first come across randomly while watching late-night television when I was 16 years old. This Canadian cable network always played foreign and independent films on Saturday nights, which I'll admit I often just watched hoping for something with explicit gay content. But one Saturday I instead found Sally Potter's adaptation of Virginia Woolf's Orlando, which features Swinton as the titular androgynous aristocrat who — eternally youthful — lives through centuries as both man and woman. My initial disappointment that Orlando wasn't another early Pedro Almodóvar film I could tape, hide in a box and then rewatch endlessly (at least certain scenes) was quickly muted by how drawn I was to Swinton's celestial magic. She felt like this incredibly transgressive angel that fell down into my television to take me away on Orlando's journey.
Thinking about all this in the lead-up to the interview made me feel really nostalgic for a time when I had such a different relationship with movies: one defined, quite purely, by joy. Now they were my everyday — and not just watching them. I wrote about what companies sold them, what companies bought them, what film festival was screening them and how much money they made, which, don't get me wrong, I enjoyed doing on many levels. I just sometimes forgot about what they meant before all that. The notion of profiling Tilda Swinton reminded me and made me extra motivated to rise above my anxiety about being really bad at giving interviews (to be honest, I'd often end up leaving interviews convinced that I should no longer be allowed to conduct them professionally).
I knew the one thing she would be asked by every other journalist was how it felt to win the Oscar earlier that year and how winning had changed, or might change, her career. I was also fairly certain Swinton would find this question incredibly unimaginative, particularly since I got the sense from reading other interviews that winning an Oscar had never been that high on her list of life goals. So I decided I'd mention the Oscar only in an indirect way that would present it with less overall significance and also work as a potentially fabulous icebreaker. Because as it just so happened, I'd won $1,600 (CAD, but still) online by betting on Swinton's win. It had been a rare instance of sentimental gambling gone wonderfully right and made for a very joyous moment at my Oscar party as her name was read from that envelope. While surely Tilda was sick of talking about that Oscar, I couldn't imagine she wouldn't enjoy hearing it had helped a poor writer pay his rent for three months. I wasn't wrong.
"Duuude," she nearly yelled when I finished the story shortly after the interview started, leaning in to speak closer to me. "That's the best thing I've ever heard! Can I tell you something? As a proper gambling man myself, one of the first things I thought when I got off that stage was 'Why didn't I put money on myself?' Because it was the most stupid thing. I mean, I didn't put money on myself because I thought it was so impossible. I imagine the odds must have been amazing."
As I moved on to the actual questions, Swinton continued to talk to me like I was just some old friend. We talked about Derek Jarman, the queer filmmaker who she had worked with on five different films, including her first. I had watched them all as a result of discovering Orlando and briefly told Swinton about my first time watching Blue — Jarman's final film before dying of complications from AIDS and one of my all-time favorites. In the film, Jarman's life is portrayed via voice and music over a 79-minute shot of an unchanging blue screen, with Swinton one of its narrators. I told her how it had been an experience that gave me a wholly different idea of what it really meant to be an artist and what it really meant to have AIDS.
"I think everyone else in their twenties needs to see Derek Jarman's films," she responded. "His model of a self-determining film artist ... I think a lot of people are really looking for that, but have never heard of him."
We talked about her new foundation that she was setting up with her friend Mark Cousins. Named in honour of Fellini's film, the 8½ Foundation would allow children in Scotland to request a film from a menu curated by Swinton and Cousins, who would then send them a copy when they turned eight and a half. The pair had also just led their own film festival, the "Ballerina Ballroom Cinema of Dreams," which took place in an old bingo hall in the town in Northern Scotland where Swinton resides.
"It was a complete dream," she said, explaining that they had filled the bingo hall with beanbag chairs for the audience members, who paid either three British pounds or a tray of home-baked "fairy cakes" for entry. They had also covered the walls with drawings and hung Chinese lanterns from the ceilings before playing films over eight and a half days — another nod to Fellini.
It all sounded very much like a "complete dream," and it became one my mind would float to throughout the rest of my time in Los Angeles, which was much more lonely than I expected. I attended a few screenings and parties at the festival, all of which were perfectly well and good, but save for volunteers checking my badge at the movie theaters or bartenders handing me free vodka sodas at the parties, I barely spoke to another person the entire time. When I'd eavesdrop on conversations I could potentially jump into, everyone just seemed to be talking about L.A. movie-world gossip that I knew nothing about. So I'd venture my way to West Hollywood gay bars instead, though the folks I'd meet there usually felt either predatory or dismissive (even if I slept with some of them anyway). Honestly, one of the only times I felt like someone was truly engaging with me was during my interview with Ms. Swinton.
Appropriately eight and a half months later, my own opportunity to experience the "complete dream" started coming true. I was sitting in a café in Berlin, where I'd decided to spend most of my summer. Previously, I had been living in Toronto but travelling to the U.S. (where IndieWire was based) a lot for work, which eventually led to some trouble at the border since I didn't have a U.S. visa. My bosses, Eugene and Brian, had helped me begin the process of obtaining one so I could potentially move from Toronto to New York City. But while that was processing, I couldn't enter the U.S., so I asked them if I could cover a few festivals in Europe and make Berlin home in the meantime. They said yes, as long as I worked my regular nine-to-five hours from there.
Within a few weeks of being in Berlin, I'd adapted to a daily routine that seemed to align itself with the habits of most of the city's actual residents. I'd go out until 5 a.m. and then drunkenly fall asleep with my alarm set for 12 p.m. Berlin time — two hours before Eugene and Brian logged into our "cyber office," which was basically a 2009-era instant messenger group we all chatted in to decide what stories would go up. I'd slowly wake up, shower off the cigarette smoke that had penetrated my hair and skin from whatever gay bar I'd gone to the night before, and then take my laptop to a café down the street.
I was usually pretty good at frantically scouring my inbox and various websites for a half dozen worthy stories to churn out, intending to make it look like I'd been working all day. But on this particular afternoon my productivity was stalled when I came across the actual headline of my dreams: "Tilda Swinton and Mark Cousins plan mobile film festival."
The article announced that Swinton and Cousins would be following up the fairy cakes and beanbag chairs of their "Ballerina Ballroom Cinema of Dreams" by literally taking their show on the road with something called "A Pilgrimage."
"From 1–9 August, the pair are planning a festival just as quixotic," it read. "With the help, they hope, of volunteers, they will be physically pulling a mobile 80-seat cinema, decorated to resemble a Christmas tree bauble, from Kinlochleven, on Scotland's west coast, to Nairn on the east, showing films in villages along the way."
It took less than two paragraphs for my mouth to gape open in the realization that this wasn't just feasible for me to experience — it was downright convenient. I'd initially come to Europe through Scotland, and that's where my flight back to Canada was on Aug. 7, the second to last day of this festival. I'd planned on just staying in Berlin until then, but there was no fucking way I wasn't doing this instead.
After getting yet another milchkaffee, I frantically started doing whatever I could to make that dream come true. First, I emailed the publicist who had set up my interview with Swinton in Los Angeles, asking her if she knew anything about "A Pilgrimage" and how to volunteer. She didn't, but she kindly forwarded my email around to various other people who might, until finally someone responded with: "I have sent her an email — but I think she is on vacay."
Next, I waited for my bosses to come online to ask them if I could go, which resulted in a quick and enthusiastic "YES!" They said IndieWire wouldn't have any money to help pay for it, but I wasn't expecting that anyway. All I wanted was for them to be OK with the idea of me spending an entire week off the grid if all of this came together. They said that was more than reasonable, as long as I wrote a story for them about the festival when it was over. I responded with a simple "I love you guys," which was the absolute truth — still is.
The next morning (or probably afternoon) the deal was sealed when I woke up to this email sitting in my inbox:
We would love it if you came and joined in on our cinema journey in the Highlands.
We can promise you fun, for sure - and some beautiful films about journeys. As for the Scottish Highlands…
You're a wise man.
See you there,
We corresponded back and forth a bit, and Tilda explained that while they didn't need any more volunteers, I could be a "fellow traveller." Without hesitation or further inquiry into what exactly this entailed, I shot back a three-word email within seconds: "Sign me up."
Bridge of Orchy, Scotland
Bridge of Orchy is a very tiny village in the central Scottish Highlands, around 100 kilometres northwest of Glasgow. I suspected there were a few motivations for Cousins and Swinton choosing it as the starting point of "A Pilgrimage." Most obviously, it made for easy logistics. Despite its size (it had a population of roughly 150 people), trains and buses from both Glasgow and Edinburgh made stops in Bridge of Orchy, so folks coming in from just about anywhere would have had easy access. The village itself also had a history that fell very much in line with the mission of "A Pilgrimage." Like the narratives in the films Cousins and Swinton had programmed, the story of Bridge of Orchy is one of travellers and travelling.
Besides the church and the bridge, there's an impressive array of establishments for such a tiny place: a train station, a handful of bed and breakfasts, and a nearly grand hotel that sort of looks like a small white castle and also doubles as the village's bus station, restaurant and bar. And it was at that hotel that all "fellow travellers" were instructed to meet by 12:45 p.m. on Aug. 1, 2009.
I was immensely anxious on my bus ride from Glasgow Airport, checking the time as two hours became less than one, increasingly questioning what I was getting myself into. The only person I had technically ever met that was going to be there was Tilda herself, who certainly didn't have the time or reason to aid me in a quest to make a fast friend. What for two weeks of build-up had sounded like a momentous adventure all of a sudden sounded like a terrifying test of my fragile social skills when it came to group settings.
"Next stop, Bridge of Orchy," was announced on the speaker via a thick Scottish accent, and I had a choice. I could continue on to Aberdeen, or wherever it was this bus was ending up, spending a week awaiting my flight home isolated in an unfamiliar city, much like I had planned to do in Berlin. Or I could step into whatever awaited, embracing an opportunity that I had tried to keep reminding myself was a ridiculously advantaged one. There was nothing I feared more than regret, so I got off the bus.
I felt like an idiot dragging all my luggage out of the hold and onto the parking lot. I'd been in Europe for nearly two months at that point, and I hadn't exactly been backpacking. I had a laptop and a gigantic suitcase full of clothes, toiletries and souvenirs. Six other people got off the bus as well, though their luggage was much more suitable for eight and a half days in the Scottish Highlands, which I assumed they were also there for. In my first failure of social adequacy, I avoided eye contact with any of them and wheeled my bag into the hotel's restaurant, stashing it quietly in a corner.
Eventually, a group of what appeared to be my "fellow travellers" walked in and sat around a table, and I nervously inched over to introduce myself and ask if they were here for "A Pilgrimage." They were, and two of them were also fellow Canadians. Everyone was extremely friendly, all immediately exuding a free-spirited, carefree nature I'd kinda expected from anyone who'd travelled to the middle of Scotland to pull a mobile movie theatre with 50 strangers.
But before we had much of a chance to expand beyond basic introductions, a slew of new people entered the restaurant. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a flash of platinum blonde hair and realized that one of them was Ms. Swinton. She was wearing a bright red t-shirt with various words printed on it: Faith, Independence, Worship, Determination, Resistance.
"The train with the rest of the fellow travellers will be arriving in 15 minutes," she announced.
Everyone started congregating, catching up like old friends (a lot of the folks had attended last year's "Ballerina Ballroom Cinema of Dreams," it seemed). Then we were all instructed to follow Swinton and her crew, so I started dragging my giant diva bag up a hill to the station. Once we were all there, Tilda and Mark handed out dozens of placards with quotes from people involved in films that would be shown on the journey (like "Make visible what, without you, might never have been seen," from Robert Bresson) or simply their names, like Mohammad-Ali Talebi and Werner Herzog.
We all stood awaiting the train with our signs held high (mine read "Lillian Gish," a lead actor in Charles Laughton's only film, The Night of the Hunter), making quite a ruckus of cheers and jeers as it started making its way into the station. The faces of the people on the train were priceless. Here we were, an eclectic mix of merrily dressed, enthusiastic folks — children, teenagers, seniors, Tilda Swinton — jumping up and down and screaming with signs quoting people I'm sure most of them had never heard of as their train arrived in this tiny Scottish village.
About two dozen people got off, all of whom were clearly part of our little circus, and I immediately fixated on one person in particular. Tall, platinum blonde and gorgeous, he looked like he could be a male model nephew of Tilda's, and he rushed off the train and into her arms. I couldn't take my eyes off him as we headed back down the hill to a vintage double-decker bus that had, at some point, been used in the London public transit system. It was parked in an empty lot, a shock of red amidst the foggy green Scottish Highlands that surrounded it. It was, thankfully, going to be our primary method of transportation on the journey. Only once a day — for about an hour — would we get off and pull the mobile cinema.
After struggling to stuff my luggage into the hold, I boarded the bus, fantasizing about there being only one seat left next to the blonde boy from the train. Instead, I found one seat left next to … no one. I tried to breathe through how self-conscious it made me feel to be the only person on the bus without a seatmate as Tilda and Mark took the reins and enthusiastically proclaimed that "A Pilgrimage" had begun. They warned us that that this was obviously not something they (or anyone) had attempted before and that there might be a few bumps along the road, before explaining that the mobile movie theater was waiting for us just over 30 kilometres away. It didn't seem too far, though I hadn't anticipated that a decades-old double-decker bus wouldn't exactly be speedy. As we got on our way, I peered out the back window to see we were holding up miles of traffic on a two-lane highway.
Somewhere in between Bridge of Orchy and Kinlochleven, Scotland
We reached our first "pull point" after an hour or so of driving. It felt like we were in the middle of nowhere as we all got off the bus to find the Screen Machine sitting alongside the endless Scottish countryside — a giant blue truck that would somehow unfold into an 80-seat movie theater at each of our nightly stops. Tilda and Mark tied two thick, 15-metre-long ropes to the front of it and instructed us to line up alongside one of the two ropes, find a grip and get ready to pull. I was fairly certain my lack of any upper-body strength would lend no real contribution to all of it, but I found a spot and gripped on to the rope anyway.
All of a sudden, there was a voice behind me that felt loud enough and close enough to suggest it was being directed at me: "You ready?"
I turned around to find the boy from the train station standing directly behind me, which, rather promisingly, hadn't been the case a minute or so earlier.
I stood up as straight as I could and sarcastically flexed my non-existent muscles. "Do I look like I'm ready?"
We were instructed to start pulling, and I was pretty impressed when, somehow, the arms of 50 or so people — very few of whom seemed particularly athletic — actually started to move this motherload of a truck. Though, as remarkable an act as this was to witness, I was more interested in how it occasionally brought me in light physical contact with the boy, who I began chatting with as I did my best not to look tired pulling that rope. I learned he was a film academic and writer living in Berlin who had attended the "Ballerina Ballroom Cinema of Dreams." I told him how, oddly enough, I'd just spent the summer in Berlin.
"Well, it's a shame we didn't meet," the boy said, to which I just responded with a wide and uncontrollable smile.
As we continued to pull the truck, he continued to pull at my disbelief that this beautiful man was flirting with me by asking whether I'd be camping or staying at bed and breakfasts. I told him that since I had come unexpectedly from Berlin, I didn't have any camping gear, so I had somewhat desperately — it was the middle of summer and I was offering barely a week's notice, after all — booked whatever B&Bs I could get, even if that meant booking places with extraordinarily negative reviews on the internet ("the couple running this B&B belong in an insane asylum," was one of the more exciting ones).
"Oh, you can't do that," he said. "Tilda brought a tent and sleeping bag for me to have. We can share."
Our first night would be spent in Kinlochleven, which was nicknamed "The Electric Village" because it was the first village in the world to have every house connected to electricity. Though there couldn't have been too many houses to connect given that its population even now is just over 1,000.
Nestled in a series of green mountains, it felt a little bit like a Scottish Twin Peaks as we pulled in. It was pouring rain, and Tilda and Mark asked if anyone needed lifts to their B&Bs as everyone shuffled off the bus. I found the boy, just to be absolutely certain his tent proposal was the real deal, and he insisted. Though, as we walked to an essentially flooded grassy area where people were tragically trying to pitch their tents, I wondered whether I'd made the wrong decision. Soon, we discovered the tent Tilda had given him had a sizeable hole in it, but he simply shrugged it off without any stress.
"Maybe we'll just sleep on the bus," he said.
The town had a little bar, and we had a bit of time to kill before the first movie, so the two of us went to have a beer beforehand. Not before long, most of our "fellow travellers" had joined us, and I felt none of the anxiety I had experienced less than seven hours earlier at the hotel at the Bridge of Orchy, in large part because the boy seemed as extroverted as they came. By his side, that rubbed off on me, and that night he never left my side. We went back and forth between the Screen Machine and the bar, occasionally escaping to smoke one of his rolled cigarettes.
As for that night's film screenings — which included Preston Struges's Sullivan's Travels and Les Blank's documentary Burden of Dreams (itself about another film, as it profiles the chaotic production of Werner Herzog's Fitzcarraldo) — the experience was as enchanting as you'd think. As they would go on to do throughout "A Pilgrimage," Cousins and Swinton took to the front of the cinema (which, just an hour earlier, had been a transport truck) and knelt down. Then they played a song programmed to match the film itself (that night, it was Gnarls Barkley's "Crazy" for Burden of Dreams) and we rose to our feet and danced around the theatre. After we took our seats again, Cousins and Swinton held up a giant banner, supported by broomsticks, that read "The State of Cinema," before Cousins expressed his encyclopedic knowledge of film with various anecdotes about what we were about to watch. Swinton followed with a dedication, which that first night was to a woman who had passed away in a car accident, shortly after she had attended the previous year's "Ballerina Ballroom Cinema of Dreams." Swinton had received an email from the woman's daughters expressing their gratitude that their mother had passed away shortly after "having the time of her life."
It was probably the best night I've ever had in a cinema, in part because, I mean, the context was pretty otherworldly. But also because there was immediately such a glorious sense of community inside the Screen Machine — and a complete lack of pretension. Up until that point, I'd felt quite insecure about my cinematic intellectualism, particularly with my new designation as a "full-time film journalist." Yet on "A Pilgrimage," your knowledge of cinema didn't matter … all that mattered was that you were enjoying cinema. And, of course, the entire scenario was elevated even further given that the boy was holding my hand the entire time.
After the screenings, we went back to the bar for one last beer before heading to the bus. He took my hand and guided me up to the second deck, and we made a makeshift bed in the aisle with his sleeping bag. He started to strip down to his underwear, and I followed suit as he mercilessly stared at me with his big hazel eyes. There was barely enough room for our bodies in the aisle, so we entangled ourselves together, rotating between making out and napping every half hour or so. The rain — might I add — was still pouring down on the roof of the bus, which essentially made for one of the most cinematic and almost unbearably romantic makeout sessions (and that's truly all that went down) mankind has perhaps ever experienced.
I woke up before him in the morning and felt a little more vulnerability than I expected as I watched him sleep. I still didn't really know him, and who knew if this was just a one-night thing as far as he was concerned. It wouldn't be the first time I'd experienced that situation after assuming so much more. But from the second he woke up, that intense feeling of partnership — despite it still being a few hours away from our 24-hour anniversary — was more than present. We held hands as we made our way off the bus, where we found Mark holding a placard that read "Campers, sorry you got wet," and handing out cups of coffee and hot chocolate. Everyone was soaked except us.
Besides (almost) everyone getting drenched, Cousins and Swinton's foreshadowing that "there might be a few bumps along the road" was doubled down by the fact that the double-decker bus wouldn't start, and they needed to send a replacement. While we waited, we headed back into the Screen Machine to watch Mohammad-Ali Talebi's Bag of Rice. The precious film follows a senior woman and a young girl making their way across Tehran to buy a bag of rice. There's one lovely scene where the woman's giant bag of rice leaks on a city bus, and her fellow passengers join together in a line to place the spilled rice in any bags that they can. And in an iconic moment from "A Pilgrimage," life imitated art shortly thereafter as all of us pilgrims lined up to move the luggage from the broken double-decker bus to our new one, passing each bag to the person beside us.
The boy and I boarded the new bus, but were among the last to do so, so we couldn't sit together. The insecure schoolgirl in me felt a little anxious about this, but as I sat in the very front of the bus chatting up one of the lovely women I'd met at the Bridge of Orchy, somehow just a day earlier, I knew this was probably for the best. He seemed to know everyone here, and I really only knew him. Getting clingy after one special night was not a good look, and the explosion of confidence he'd given me had, all of a sudden, made me very up for making some more new friends.
Fort Augustus, Scotland
We spent our third night in Fort Augustus, a village at the southwest end of Loch Ness. By this point, I'd reached a whole new level of intimacy with the boy. He'd clean my sleep out of my eyes in the morning, and then we'd shower together. We split the cost of everything, and shared food, cigarettes and alcohol. At one point, in a little grocery shop, he said what I couldn't stop thinking: "How do we feel so much like a married couple if we've only known each other for three days?"
It was in Fort Augustus that we'd finally consummate that pseudo-marriage (in a real bed, no less) when I convinced him to stay at one of the B&Bs I'd booked instead the soggy tent we'd managed to put together the night before. We were welcomed by a plump Scottish woman, who seemed a little put off by the fact that we were holding hands when she answered the door — or perhaps in complete denial.
"Are you two … brothers?" she asked nervously.
"Yes, ma'am," he told her, before using finger quotes. "We're 'brothers.'"
The boy tried to kiss me, but I pushed back. She then tensely led us to our room, where we had our first near-argument.
"I don't feel comfortable doing that just to provoke," I told him.
"I wasn't just provoking," he said. "We should be able to do exactly what straight people do. If a straight couple showed up at her door holding hands, she sure as fuck wouldn't ask them if they were brother and sister."
He was right, but I wasn't quite as brave as him. And part of me felt bad for a woman who ran a B&B in a village with fewer than 700 people and had maybe never met a queer person before, and whose homophobia wasn't entirely her fault.
Somehow, it was this discussion that served as foreplay for the first time he and I ever had sex, in that fateful bed and breakfast run by a woman who wanted us to be brothers. At first, I tried to request that he be as quiet as possible. But by the end, I suspect if that woman could hear us, it was me she was hearing more than him.
We cleaned ourselves up and headed down to the Screen Machine, where Tilda would warm us up with a dance to Marilyn Manson's cover of "Personal Jesus," before we all watched Robert Bresson's masterpiece Au hasard Balthazar, a brutally emotional film that's technically about a mistreated donkey but, in so many ways, is a metaphor for the world. I walked out of it feeling as if I'd had an almost spiritual experience (as I suppose Tilda's curated song had suggested I would). I turned to him and said: "I think we need to just to go have a little mindless fun after that, OK?" He agreed, and we gathered up some pilgrims, bought some bottles of whiskey and set ourselves up at a picnic table along the River Oich, which spills out from Loch Ness and runs through the center of town.
One of the pilgrims that joined us was Matt, who I had met at one point on the ride to Fort Augustus when we stopped the bus for a breather. Everyone had got out, and someone started blasting Kate Bush and soon, a group of pilgrims — including both the boy and Tilda — went into the middle of the road to dance. The boy motioned for me to join, but it just was too much outside of my comfort zone. I never danced. So I just sat back and watched with a smile on my face, eating from a bag of goji berries I'd bought in Berlin (it was 2009, don't judge).
"Are those goji berries?" Matt asked coyly, walking over to me. "You're such a lesbian, aren't you?"
I smiled, but we got back on the bus shortly after, and it wouldn't be until that night by the river that I really got to know him. That evening at the picnic table, I learned that Matt was an aspiring filmmaker from London, and we quickly hit it off, chugging back whiskey and digging into our shared interest in one of the more superficial elements of movies: the Oscars. I had dared not mention to the boy that this was essentially my most popular "beat" at IndieWire, fearing judgment and that it went against everything "A Pilgrimage" stood for. But Matt got me going, and soon enough I was sharing my most popular party trick: name any Oscar category in any year after 1970, and I could probably name most of the nominees and the winner. The entire picnic table got into it, shouting out categories and years. And as I mastered the best original screenplay nominees of 1986, I could see him out of the corner of my eye, smoking a rolled cigarette and looking … impressed.
The boy and I left the picnic table around 3 a.m., hand-in-hand and both quite drunk.
"You were really cute back there," he said.
"Why, because I memorized a bunch of Oscar stats?"
"No … because you were being yourself."
He kissed me on the entirely dead streets of Fort Augustus, and we slowly made our way to the B&B, stopping intermittently to make out. When we finally reached our destination, we found our not-so-friendly host waiting up for us. We had tried to quietly open the door, but she was sitting at the kitchen table with the light on as if she had been doing so for hours.
"Curfew is 11!" she yelled at us.
"Oh my god, I didn't know there was a curfew," I said, my words definitely a little slurry.
"Where were you?" she asked. "I thought something had happened. And don't take the Lord's name in vain!"
"We're really sorry," he said. "We're just going to go to bed now, OK?"
"Fine!" she nearly screamed. "But you had better just be going to bed."
In the morning, we made sure to get up before the 11 a.m. checkout time to try and make up for any stress we had caused her. But as we came downstairs, blurry-eyed and hungover, it was like meeting an entirely different person. The woman had prepared little care packages for each of us with apples, bananas and granola bars inside, and wished us well on the rest of our journeys. I wondered if she was somehow the remaining half of the couple that internet review had suggested belonged in an insane asylum.
I suspect we reached peak Pilgrimage on a beach in Dores, on the opposite side of Loch Ness, where perfect weather greeted us on our fourth afternoon. By that point, all 50 of us seemed to know everyone's names and personalities. We were like one giant family. A family that ranged in age from seven to 70, from 16 different countries ... with an Oscar-winning matriarch.
Me, the boy and Matt had formed a bit of a crew by this point, which also included a precocious 16-year-old from nearby Inverness who we dubbed "Rainbow Hat Boy" and an uncommonly sweet 20-year-old girl from Cologne named Anna who taught me how to sing "Puff the Magic Dragon" in German. We all spent hours on the beach that day, singing and dancing and drinking and swimming. And while it all felt entirely euphoric, there was a dark cloud looming over my mind: I had to get on the train to Edinburgh two days later and would miss the one-and-a-half-day finale of "A Pilgrimage."
At one point, I had to take a minute to step outside the magic bubble and just consider the logistics of my exit. I hadn't planned any of it in advance save for that return flight that had been booked months ago, having assumed I'd have a spare minute at a B&B that had Wi-Fi to arrange the train and a place to spend the night in Edinburgh. But I hadn't opened my laptop once since I arrived, and my cell phone hadn't gotten service since the Bridge of Orchy. Truly, the only contact I'd had with the outside world was occasionally reading the headlines of newspapers when we went into shops.
Just as I decided I should probably go get my laptop out of the bus and see if Dores had any Wi-Fi anywhere, Tilda and her partner Sandro approached me. They adored the boy as much as I did, and I knew they were aware of our little whirlwind romance. I don't know if he told them to do this or not (he swears he did not), but they invited me to extend my visit so that he and I could stay a few days as their houseguests and not have to say goodbye so soon. If there was ever an offer I couldn't refuse, it was this one.
Before even telling the boy what had happened, I ran to Dores's only payphone to make the call that would allow me to take Tilda and Sandro up on their offer.
"Mom," I said after she accepted my collect call.
"Oh my god, Peter, are you okay? You haven't answered your phone or returned any of my emails."
"I told you I'd be off the grid," I said.
"I know, but I wouldn't have minded a little message just to know you're alive," she said.
"I'm alive, Mom," I said, manically. "I'm so, so fucking alive. And I need you to do me the biggest favour I promise I'll ever ask you."
"I need you to lend me probably about $1,000 so I can change my flight and go spend a week living at Tilda Swinton's house with a man I think I've fallen in love with."
On the final full day of "A Pilgrimage," the boy and I decided to dress up for the screening of Brigadoon. Tilda had given us access to her closet of gowns from premieres and awards shows, which for him meant donning a stunning Italian dress she'd worn to the Los Angeles premiere of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. I was considerably shorter than both him and her, so I ended up with an Asian-inspired floral dress I couldn't imagine Tilda ever wearing. Though, as you can probably imagine, I wasn't exactly complaining. We had truly died and gone to gay heaven.
We decided to walk hand-in-hand in Tilda-drag the mile or so to the Screen Machine through downtown Nairn, which, with a population of nearly 10,000, felt like a metropolis compared to anywhere we'd been for a week. We stopped at a shop to buy a bottle of whiskey, and I felt more fearlessly queer than I ever had before as person after person — in the shop or on the street — turned to stop and stare, occasionally with visible disgust. But I felt so indestructible in that dress, next to him. Nothing could touch me.
When we finally arrived at the screening, our fellow travellers were in awe of our glamour. Well, mostly his. I felt a bit like his ugly little sister as people would run up to him and gasp "Oh my god, you look incredible!" (which he did) and then realize I was also standing there and give me an "Oh, and you look great, too!" (I mean, I looked OK).
After the movie, we changed out of the gowns, and I made my way to Nairn's seaside beach for the eighth and final official night of festivities. He stayed behind so that Sandro — a talented painter — could take his portrait. It felt very strange going without him, if only because it was a reminder of a much greater separation looming in just a few days time. But I reminded myself how I could have been on a plane to Toronto at that moment.
I found Matt, Anna, RHB and a bunch of others, and we sat around a campfire. The mood was much more melancholic than it had been when we did the same thing a few nights earlier in Dores. Matt and Anna would be leaving the next morning, RHB the morning after that. This was the beginning of the goodbyes.
We passed around a bottle of whiskey and reminisced about the previous eight days, and we all got quite drunk … particularly me. This led to a tearful — and, I can only imagine, mildly unbearable — monologue about how I had never felt like I fit in as much as I had during this experience, and how much of that had to do with the boy.
"I think I'm in love with him," I proclaimed, loud enough for the entire beach of pilgrims to hear.
Matt cautioned me to ease back on the whiskey so I wouldn't find myself on the verge of proposing by the time the boy got to the beach, a suggestion I was quite grateful for when he finally did. I felt a wee bit embarrassed upon his arrival, as everyone was looking at me, expecting me to burst into tears again. But I held it together, even if I probably held his hand a little tighter than was necessary.
Five of us — me, the boy, Matt, Anna and RHB — decided we needed one last adventure, so we wandered into Nairn and found this wild retro arcade and dance hall, which was filled mostly with Scottish tweens. We were told it was going to close shortly, but we went in anyway and found ourselves on the dance floor for the night's final song, which was — I kid you not — Cher's "Believe." All five of us just went for it, and I can sincerely say that I have never danced with such a complete lack of unease as I stared at the boy staring at me, both of us belting out the same ominous lyrics: "Do you believe in life after love?"
After getting kicked out of the arcade, it was time for us to say goodnight, and in the case of Matt and Anna, goodbye. We all hugged and promised to keep in touch, and Rainbow Hat Boy — who I believe was quite tipsy — decided that we needed "a name."
"A name?" someone asked.
"Yeah, like for the five of us," he said, and then paused for a minute before proclaiming: "The Famous Five!"
It was too cute a moment for any of us to argue against it (even though I didn't quite get how we were famous), so from that point on, that's what we were. The Famous Five.
The next day, the remaining pilgrims were summoned to the Screen Machine a half hour before the final screening of "A Pilgrimage," which would be Lloyd Bacon and Busby Berkeley's Footlight Parade. Tilda and Mark had a bright idea: we pilgrims should dress up like the swimmers in the film's famously choreographed "By a Waterfall" production number. We all put on tin-foil bathing caps, bras and dresses, and did our best with what time we had to work out some not-so-famous choreography. Shortly thereafter, we surprised the audience in the Screen Machine by dancing our little number. Our tin-foil outfits all started to fall off, and most of us (including myself) forgot half of the moves, but we got some considerable laughs from the audience as a result.
After the film ended, Tilda and Mark brought out the same placards from the train station and handed them all out before leading us through one final dance around the cinema to Vera Lynn's "We'll Meet Again." I randomly was handed "Lillian Gish" again, which I took as a literal sign as I proudly held her up, following the boy around the cinema one last time.
We all sat back down, and Tilda and Mark took a final bow. Instead of getting overly sentimental, they officially closed "A Pilgrimage" by holding up "The State of Cinema" banner once again, with Tilda simply quoting The Smiths.
"There is a light that never goes out," she said.
And yet, as we all said goodbye in the parking lot, and me and the boy headed back to Tilda and Sandro's house — both very grateful for the three nights we had left — I was fairly certain the light would, at the very least, dim.
Those last few days, although exceptionally more quiet and restful, were perhaps the most surreal. The boy and I made a little love nest on the top floor with the most comfortable bed I'd ever slept in, and each morning we'd wake up and make our way downstairs to find Tilda in her pajamas, asking us if we wanted coffee or sausages. It genuinely felt like I'd married him and we were on a summer holiday visiting his parents. But there was one thing standing in the way of it all being complete paradise: I also needed to work.
On my last day in Nairn, I got up early, brought some coffee to the backyard, and finally and fearfully opened my laptop. I really had no choice, given that I was supposed to start back working for IndieWire from Toronto that day, and Eugene and Brian still didn't know I had decided to stay the extra days. I had over 5,000 unread emails, most from people who surely rolled their eyes at my automated away message, which in retrospect should have been much more subtle: "I'm on a mystical journey in a far-off land and will not be responding to emails until Aug. 8." It was now Aug. 10, and I had about six hours to at least greet a reasonably annoyed Eugene and Brian with a draft of my piece on "A Pilgrimage." An hour later, I had written one sentence.
The boy came out to check on me and pour me more coffee, and I couldn't hide how frustrated I was. I didn't want to be writing an article about what had happened yet, because it was still sort of happening. And I was missing out on some pretty fucking precious hours of him-time.
"I don't know how to do this right now," I said.
He kissed me on the cheek, and gave me a handful of rolled cigarettes and a lighter.
"Yes you do," he said. "Just focus … and chain smoke."
So I did, and by 9 a.m. New York time, I thought I had a respectable draft to show Eugene and Brian, who ended up being less annoyed than I expected and highly curious about my news that I was still in Scotland.
"I'll tell you the whole story when I'm back," I messaged them. "But, for now, I just need you to read this so I can maybe get back to all this? I know I've already asked a lot, but I just really want to enjoy this before it all disappears."
They angelically agreed that once the story was published, I could have the rest of my time in Scotland offline, including the 36-hour layover I had with the boy in Edinburgh starting the next day. Although it wasn't going to start then. A half hour after I had started to sift through the hellscape of my inbox, Eugene came back online with some notes.
"Peter, you need to put more of yourself into this," he messaged. "What you have is good, but I think, in this case especially, I know you can do so much better. Remember that this is your contribution to the legacy of what you just experienced."
It was hard to be annoyed with someone so kind, so I took another stab. I asked the boy for more reinforcements, and this time in addition to a kiss and a handful of rolled cigarettes, he brought a glass and a bottle of prosecco. A few hours and a few refills later, I ended up with something I was genuinely quite proud of, and Eugene and Brian both thankfully agreed. But they weren't the only ones whose approval I wanted. The boy had made me promise to let him be the first one to read the story once it went online, and as anxious as that made me, I did. When he finally said he was done, and I allowed myself to look at him again, he was crying.
"I think I love you," he said, and I instantly started crying too.
"I think love you too."
We got up and hugged each other for probably 20 minutes. And then he pushed back and wiped my tears, before wiping his own.
"Now, let's celebrate."
We had one final night in the utopia, drinking prosecco, jumping on (or just making out on) Tilda and Sandro's outdoor trampoline, listening to some of the most sensational stories from a gaggle of tremendously inspiring folks who came to visit that night (including Simon Fisher Turner, who had scored most of Derek Jarman's films). And then, in the morning, we were met with the roses and sent on our way.
Edinburgh was an uneventful and somewhat dreary end to all of this, as it rained the whole time, and I mostly felt exhausted and sick. It was as if my body had been willing to offer me a free pass to live off fish and chips, alcohol and rolled-up cigarettes for two weeks because it knew how much of a good time I was having. But the second we got on that train in Nairn, it decided to revolt.
The boy and I spent our last night watching a DVD of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, which I fell asleep about 20 minutes into. I woke up with my head on his lap as the credits rolled, and the only thing we had the energy left to do was smoke one last rolled cigarette together before just holding each other in bed. We didn't even have sex, the first night this had been the case since our B&B stay in Fort Augustus.
In the morning, my chest heavy and eyes ready for tears that never really came, I got up and the boy walked me outside. He had a few more hours before he had to leave.
"How do you feel?" he asked as he hugged me outside the car.
"Like shit," I said. "And … scared."
"That nothing is ever going to compare to this, and that it's going to fuck me up."
"You can't think like that," the boy said. "It's selfish."
"How do you mean?"
"Do you know what Tilda told me our last morning in Nairn, when you were still packing? We have to take what we saw here and put it forth into the world."
He kissed me one last time, and I got into the car. And from the moment I got to the airport to the moment I landed in Toronto, I wrote furiously in my journal, nearly filling an entire Moleskine. The final sentence, some 225 pages in, read: "I never want the spirit of these 12 days to disappear from me."