Alan Riach has been following the Czech writer Karel Capek on his excursions through the nations of Europe. Most recently, we saw him arriving in England in 1924. Now he’s heading north.

LAST week, we were with Capek as he arrived in Folkestone. We heard how he was overwhelmed and deeply shocked by London and encountered other parts of England as if they were intended as a park, a showpiece for the rich. But he is determined to see the other nations of the territory otherwise known as “Britain” and take them into account. His first stop is Scotland.

Capek heads straight to Edinburgh: “An English friend of mine was almost right when he described Edinburgh to be the finest city in the world. It is a fine place, stonily grey and strange of aspect.

“Where in other cities a river flows, there a railway runs; on one side is the old town, on the other side the new one, with streets wider than anywhere else, every vista showing a statue or a church; and in the old town the houses are appallingly high, a thing which exists nowhere in England, and the washing is flaunted upon clothes-lines above the streets like the flags of all nations – and this also does not exist in England; and there are dirty, red-headed children in the streets – and this does not exist down in England …”

READ MORE: Karel Capek: What the writer's Dutch travels can show us about a future Scotland

In fact, Edinburgh is a startling contrast to London and anything else in England. It also seems closer to Europe and to some of the cities we’ve visited with Capek on other travels. There are “strange little streets, wynds or closes, these also do not exist in England. Here people begin to be as in Naples or in Czechoslovakia”.

And “the city is situated on hills; you are hurrying along somewhere or other, and all at once beneath your feet you have a deep green chasm with a fine river below; you are taking a walk and all of a sudden there is another street located on a bridge above your head, as at Genoa; you are taking a walk, and you reach a perfectly circular open space, as at Paris. The whole time there is something for you to be surprised at.”

He visits the castle, on “a vertical rock” and witnesses “a strange and savage dance” in which the pipers “lift themselves, as if with the impatience of a stallion they were dancing into battle”.

All in all, it is: “Another land and other people.”

And he’s only just beginning, for, imagining the north, Stirling and further, he wonders: “You hold in your hand the key to the Scottish mountains; suppose we went there and had a look at them?” And that’s what he does.

There are places and people to note on the way: “For the most part the Scots are sturdy, with florid faces and powerful necks; they have many children and attractive, ancient clan-names” although the “Scottish Sunday is even worse than the English one”. But there is “another Scotland beneath grey skies; bare and straggling glens with ruined stone huts, stone walls ranging along the hill-sides, for miles and miles scarcely a single stone cottage, and even that seemingly uninhabited, here and there fields of oats with a finger-high crop – all the rest only bracken and stones and tough grass like moss; sometimes a sheep without a shepherd will bleat as it crawls over the slope; sometimes a bird will utter a cry of lament; below, among gnarled oaks roars the black river Dochart foaming into a tinge of yellow. A strange, hard, almost prehistoric land.”

He reaches Inverness, “a small town containing trout and Highlanders” which is “built entirely of pink granite” and from there he goes further, “to the mountains, to the interior of the country, to the region of the Gaelic language.”

Over “oozing black peat” and “yellow gorse and heather” and “wisps of bog-cotton,” he makes his way across “the grey baldness of the hills” and through “a spatter of cold rain,” where “mists rise above the black rocks, and a dark glen is revealed, mournful as the howling of a dog. For miles and miles neither dwelling nor man”.

There’s a lake with no fisherman, streams without a miller. And only in the more fertile valleys graze “shaggy Scottish steers; they stand in the rain and lie down in the damp; perhaps this is why they are so overgrown with prickly tufts, as I have drawn them for you.”

Capek balances carefully between the Candide-like disingenuous faux naivety of the innocent abroad and the clear-eyed inquisitor’s probing of a current condition for its hidden meanings, in both the country’s history and its ineffable depth of character. The “native huts have such a prehistoric look that they might have been built by the late Picts, concerning whom, as is known, there is nothing known”. Caledonian Gaels, Vikings from somewhere in Norway, all these dwellers came to Skye but did not change the island’s character, “wild, forlorn and rugged, damp and sublime, terrible and winsome”.

READ MORE: The dark heart of an aged empire: Karel Capek visits England

Here, having crossed at Kyleakin, Capek declares Skye an “island among islands,” a place where the mountains have strange and ancient names, Beinn na-Caillich and Sgurr na-Banachdich and Leacan Nighean an-i-Siosalaich, or Druim nan Cleochd, while those bald domes yonder are called merely Blaven, quite simply Blaven.” And all the names and places speak of both “beauty and strangeness”.

NOW something else begins to happen: “Once a week the sun shines, and then the mountain peaks are revealed in all the inexpressible tints of blue; and there is blueness which is azure, mother-of-pearl, foggy or indigo, clouded like vapours, a hint or mere reminder of something beautifully blue.

“All these, and countless other shades of blueness I saw on the blue summits of Cuillin, but there, added to everything else, can be seen the blue sky and the blue bay, and this simply cannot be narrated; I tell you, unknown and divine virtues arose within me at the sight of this unbounded blueness.”

Capek quotes the words, “tha tighan fodham eirig”. They are given without translation but their meaning is significant: “It comes upon me to rise up!” More than simply lifting one’s eyes to the mountain-tops and the heavens above, this suggests Hugh MacDiarmid’s injunction in his poem On a Raised Beach: “To rise from the grave – to get a life worth having!”

Capek’s meaning is attuned to the colours and clarity he has described, the prehistoric strengths and residual meanings he has seen and felt in Scotland, and the sense he delivers when he’s on the very edge of the country, on the very edge of Europe, of a more profound resource and renewing potential that is still there, still with us: “And the livid, splashing sea beneath one’s feet, and the open road to the north …”

Even through the desolation, strength and resistance arise, their presence sings in the air.