4,000 Miles of Friendship
Words by Ashley Locke
Photo by Ciara Menzies
Annie F. Downs was a college student at the University of Georgia when she met Scotland for the first time. She boarded the plane for a mission trip with the Wesley Foundation, and when she got off the plane, she was home. That was in 2000. Eighteen years later, Scotland has tucked itself into Annie’s heart like a prayer that she keeps coming back to.
That first trip to Edinburgh was nothing like she expected. “The doorknobs were different and the food was different,” she says, “but when I sat down at the dinner table and talked about what was going on in my life, the community around me felt the same.”
She learned about and loved a country whose traditions are centuries older than America itself. She worked in churches with walls touched by generations of prayer and thanksgiving.
She came away itching to go back, so she did. She went back several times. She planted roots in Edinburgh, living there for six months—but it wasn’t enough for Annie to just keep visiting Scotland—she needed to share it.
Laura Bento did not know Annie at first. She stumbled across Annie’s Instagram through a friend’s, and she started following Annie as she prepped for a big event—That Sounds Fun Weekend. Annie shared her excitement each day as she was getting ready for the weekend, but then she had a bad day. Laura knew it because Annie shared it too. “I watched her talk about the bad day, just forward-facing and honest on her Instagram, and I thought yes, she needs to be a guest for the magazine.’”
Laura reached out to Annie about doing a feature, and they set up a coffee date in Annie’s city, Nashville. They met at Portland Brew in the 12 South neighborhood and immediately clicked. “We just sipped on coffee, talked about the magazine, and talked about the approachable manner that we both view spirituality,” says Laura. “I asked her if she wanted to do this, and she said yes.”
They started planning and curating the stories in the issue you now hold in your hands, but there was more than just a few stories to think about—there was also the cover. Laura asked Annie where her dream cover shoot would be. “I said the Ryman or Scotland,” Annie laughs, “and Laura said, ‘Okay, let’s go to Scotland!’”
Scotland is where Annie got baptized in Loch Ness. Scotland is where Annie decided she wasn’t just going to write—she was going to be a writer. Scotland is where Annie planted a church. It’s where she wrote the first and last words of her book, Remember God. It’s where she made a home. It’s a place that has been in her life for the last 18 years, and this was going to be the first time she would get to share it with someone—not in a blog post, not as a memory, but in-person.
“When we booked the flights, we were sitting on our couches on the phone with each other,” says Annie. “I had been in Scotland last October, and I didn’t know I would get to go back so soon. I couldn’t believe it, but it makes perfect sense for what Good Grit is, who Laura is, and where my story fits on this planet.”
The magical moments started before they landed in Scotland. “We had a layover from Amsterdam to Edinburgh,” says Annie. “As soon as we got on the plane, I couldn’t stop smiling because the whole plane smelled like Scottish detergent.”
Laura loved having a front row seat to Annie’s joy. “Annie carries a peace about her that makes people feel like they’re home,” says Laura. “The idea that someone who feels like home is taking me to a place that makes them feel at home—that’s beautiful to me. Seeing her get excited about going to this place was funny, and inspiring, and exciting.”
They stayed in an AirBnB in the same neighborhood where Annie lived years earlier. “I kept having to temper myself with Laura, because I wanted to say a thousand things to her,” Annie laughs. “It was amazing to see her in my neighborhood, experiencing my favorite shops and restaurants before my eyes.”
Even though Annie had so many places she wanted to show Laura—the Starbucks on Holy Corner where she wrote so many words of Remember God, the church she helped plant, the Red Door Gallery where she found her most-loved souvenirs—the people were more important than the place.
“I love when people feel connected, and when I can connect people,” says Annie. “I wanted to connect Laura’s heart to the heart of this place. I wanted her to laugh with Harry and Esther over dinner, to have drinks with Donna and James. I wanted her to see these people and this culture that still exists.”
They shot the cover about an hour outside of Edinburgh in a cathedral that’s first bricks were laid in the year 540. There is something special about knowing you’re in a place that has taken care of so many people before you, and it will continue to do so long after you’re gone. “Everything there is so much older than anything we have in the United States,” says Laura. “What that place represents to Annie—I felt so honored to be included in time-capsuling it.”
They spent one evening on Loch Tay with a Scottish family who carried on a culture of tradition almost as old as the buildings around them. They had fish and chips, listened to pipers in the streets, and met with Annie’s friends-turned-family. The last day, they spent a morning in a cathedral built in 1504, and that afternoon in modern Michelin Star restaurant Bow & Taggart.
“Bow & Taggart wasn’t planned,” says Laura. “It was a bucket list item for our photographer, Annie’s friend Ciara. We experienced all this history, but the trip was still marked by something new—something none of us had done before—and we got to experience it together.”
Leaving Edinburgh is always hard for Annie, but it was easier doing it with a friend. It was a short, hectic, beautiful, and messy trip. It was real, meaningful, and inspiring. “I had all these moments where I was remembering what God has done for me in Scotland, and now Laura gets to have a cathedral of memories,” says Annie.
“I will never forget the joy I saw in her because she got to share these things. She is as authentic as anyone could be,” Laura says. “Annie is a woman who hasn’t gotten all the things she hoped, dreamed, and asked for, but she lives a life of intentionality and gratitude anyway.”
“It’s really cool when anyone steps into your story and loves your story,” says Annie. “Scotland has given me everything. It’s a gift I get to open over and over. Taking Laura to Scotland and bringing the magazine to Scotland—now I have this visual I can share with my friends. There is a scripture in Ephesians that says God does more than we can ask or imagine—I couldn’t have dreamed getting to bring the beauty of this to you.”