The final song on Time Out Of Mind is again in the form of a monologue presenting the narrator’s thoughts. Things have moved on, though, in that the narrator is no longer obsessed by his failed relationship. His former lover isn’t even mentioned. His intention now is to arrive at a state, represented by the Scottish Highlands, which will make him happy.

It’s made clear, however, that his approach is wrong. It leads him increasingly to withdraw from the world, with the result that there’s no lifting of his former depression.  It also becomes clear that the spiritual fulfilment he craves will only be achieved by his engaging more fully with those around him.

The Narrator’s Character

A number of character traits in evidence on earlier songs are just as apparent here. The narrator’s earlier indecisiveness is shown in a ludicrously exaggerated way in the restaurant. Not only can’t he decide what food to order, but he can’t even decide whether he knows he can’t decide! Furthermore his former relationship and his reaction to its break up seem to be mirrored in his rather arbitrary choice of food and his response when it isn’t available. In each case he doesn’t even consider alternatives open to him, but responds by wandering around aimlessly.

An excessive concern for material wealth also seems to be in evidence here, as it was on Million Miles and Cold Irons Bound. In this song he sees even his conscience only in terms of monetary value:

‘What would I do with it anyway? Maybe take it to a pawn shop’

There’s no recognition that spiritual fulfilment requires acting in accordance with one’s conscience.

Similarly, any impression that his declaration:

‘I don’t want nothing from anyone’

is an expression of commendable self-sufficiency immediately evaporates when he follows it up with ‘ain’t that much to take’. The highwayman of Cold Irons Bound is again in evidence.

In addition to implying he’d willingly be parasitical on others, this last comment can also be seen as an instance of his ongoing pessimism. It’s not the only one. Others include his dismissing life as a ‘rat race’ and saying he’s on ‘anything but a roll’. He says resignedly that ‘there’s less and less to say’, an impression perhaps resulting from a tendency to rely too much on himself for company. The result of his pessimism is his acting without any precise, clearly attainable objective in mind. Instead he just drifts.

In the light of all this it’s difficult to see that the narrator has made much progress. He does have the aim – albeit a misguided one in the literal sense he means it – of getting to the Highlands, but he seems to have no more idea about how to achieve this than he had about how to revive his defunct relationship. He claims to be determined to ‘figure out’ how to get there, but even so it’s notable that ‘figuring out’ doesn’t require any physical exertion. One suspects that soon the Highlands will have ceased to matter to him, in much the same way as his former lover has.

There is however some indication that he’s acquiring the self-knowledge which would be required for him to live happily. He’s clearly aware now that he thinks in monologues, something which in earlier songs had been apparent only to the listener. That might be the spur to getting him to engage again with other people. There also seems to be some cause for hope in that he’s modest enough to admit to being ‘lost’ and  to having ‘made a few bad turns’.

Finally, with respect to his character, whereas in Cold Irons Bound he’d only found it odd that he was hearing voices, there’s more indication now that he’s aware he might be on the verge of mental illness:

‘Insanity is smashing up against my soul’

The expression is ambiguous, however. It’s unclear whether it’s his soul or insanity which he thinks is being destroyed. For him to have a chance of surviving it needs to be the former; he needs to realise that insanity is close to destroying him. Even on this interpretation, though, there’s no suggestion that his realisation will result in action. By treating insanity as something external to him he can distance himself from it as if rectifying it is no concern of his.

The Waitress

The restaurant episode is important for bringing out further faults in the narrator’s character – including the song’s main concern, an unwillingness to relate positively with others. It does so by enabling us to compare him with, as well as assess the way he relates to, the waitress.

Despite a roughness of manner, compared with the narrator the picture we get of the waitress is positive. She comes across as resourceful since she’s able to supply the pencil and paper necessary for his drawing. Not only can she supply what he can’t, but this has the effect of drawing attention to a failing which might otherwise have gone unnoticed. Pencil and paper are the very things which, as an artist, one might have expected him to have.

We’re told too that she ‘studies’ him ‘closely’, and from this we can assume her impression of him is going to be accurate. That this is so is corroborated by her being able to tell he’s an artist. He, by contrast, comes to an immediate and highly superficial impression of her:

‘She got a pretty face and long white shiny legs’.

It addition to being superficial, this observation shows him to be sexist. Although she doesn’t hear the above description as the listener does, she’s alive to this. Her later remarks

‘…”You don’t read women authors, do you?” ‘


‘… “you just don’t seem like you do”‘

clearly imply she sees it. The simplistic and unflattering drawing, and his adding insult to injury by insisting it’s a true likeness, are enough for her to have come to a judgement. That she’s right to see him as sexist is further corroborated by his later dismissively referring to ‘fake’ blondes, when he admits he ‘can’t tell a real blonde from a fake’, and by his reference to the young men in the park as being with ‘their young women’.

In the light of the narrator’s ongoing sexism it’s ironic that the one woman author he is able to admit to having read is a feminist.

The narrator is, then, both unresourceful and sexist.  Instead of engaging positively with the waitress, he ridicules her. His rudeness continues right up to his departure, for when she has to leave him briefly (for ‘a minute’) he impolitely just gets up and goes. It is this unwillingness to engage with others which threatens to be his undoing.

The Highlands As Unreal

It’s made quite clear that the narrator is wrong in assuming that life in the Scottish Highlands will more than make up for his failure to engage with other people in his present surroundings. This marks a difference between the song and Burns’ short poem My Heart’s In The Highlands, the wording of whose title is borrowed by Dylan. Burns, like Dylan’s narrator, presents the Highlands nostalgically:

‘My heart’s in the highlands, my heart is not here,
My heart’s in the Highlands, a-chasing the deer,
Chasing the wild-deer, and following the roe,
My heart’s in the Highlands, wherever I go’

The difference is that there’s no indication in the Burns poem that the Highlands are far from ideal. In Dylan’s song there is.

The narrator’s romanticism fools him into thinking that life in the Highlands would be significantly different from life in America. This comes across in a number of ways. The fire which we learnt took hold of his house in Till I Fell In Love With You is still present in the Highlands’ capriciously ‘blazing’ bluebells. And because they blaze despite the presence of ‘Aberdeen waters’, it seems that being on fire is likely to be no less of a problem in the Highlands than elsewhere.

That the narrator has misjudged the Highlands also comes across in his description of:

‘Big white clouds like chariots that swing down low’

While these are not rain clouds, they are still clouds, and so can be seen as representing imperfection. Furthermore, they are presumably not dissimilar to the clouds at home which failed to produce rain at the time of his house fire. And if their whiteness is the attraction, perhaps because it symbolises good, there are white things where he is anyway – notably the waitress’ ‘long white, shiny legs’.

Even if white were to symbolise good, it’s clear that there’s less white than one might expect. The lake is called the Black Swan – and black often serves to represent bad. It cannot be auspicious if the swan, the one thing one would expect to be white, is black.

Another reason for thinking he has a too rosy view of the Highlands is that it seems to conflict with what he really likes. He yearns for the wind which:

‘… whispers to the buckeyed trees in rhyme’

but his longing for the soft sounds of whispers seems to conflict with his liking loud music so much he’ll risk angering others by turning the sound up.

Similarly his romanticising the ‘horses and hounds’ seems to conflict with a readiness to avoid a dog in Boston on the dubious ground that it’s mangy.

His delusion that life in the Highlands would be perfect is also made apparent in his yearning for:

‘… the twang of the arrow and a snap of the bow’

His romantic outlook prevents his associating bows and arrows with death. As far as animal welfare is concerned, things are no better in the Highlands than in Boston where one might buy a ‘full length leather coat’ without pausing to consider where the leather comes from.

Everday Life As Positive

It’s clear that the picture the narrator presents of the Highlands is of a place far more fault-ridden than his yearning suggests should be the case. Conversely it’s also clear that the narrator’s everyday environment has positive qualities which don’t appear in his picture of the Highlands. In Boston he sees:

‘… people in the park forgetting their troubles and woes’

It’s significant that they’re ‘in the park’ since it implies it’s not necessary to go ‘way up in the border country’ in order to forget ones troubles. That they’re succeeding in doing so suggests that their approach to life is one the narrator would do well to adopt.

Similarly whereas the only colours mentioned in connection with the Highlands (other than the blue in the bluebells) are black and white, it’s significant that in Boston people are:

‘… drinking and dancing, wearing bright coloured clothes’

The bright colours in particular are clearly an attraction the Highlands lack.

It’s not the case, then, that ‘the party’s over’, as the narrator puts it. On the contrary, everyday life seems to have at least as much to recommend it as life in the Highlands.

Religious  Imagery

The narrator’s misguided attempt to achieve spiritual fulfilment in the Highlands is reflected in the song by the use of traditional religious images. On one level the Highlands represent a better existence which the narrator thinks is achievable by turning his back on his present surroundings. On another, they represent an ideal state – Eden before the fall, or heaven perhaps.

The heaven interpretation is supported by the narrator’s announcement that he’ll go there when he feels ‘good enough’ to do so. It’s also supported by the Highlands, like the traditional heaven, being high up.  The narrator has an affinity with things which are ‘up’ and an aversion to those that are ‘down’.  He wants the music turned ‘up‘ and he slides ‘up‘ out of his chair. Conversely he’s told to turn the music ‘down’ and sits ‘down’ in the restaurant. ‘Down’ here represents the misery he associates with engaging with others – authority figures, perhaps, and the waitress.  Nevertheless, despite their being presented as a sort of heaven, the Highlands – at least as he envisages them – are illusory. What the narrator craves is more likely to be found in ordinary, everyday, social existence.

Eggs are another religious image. Often they’re taken to symbolise new life, and particularly new spiritual life. But spiritual life is not a commodity to be obtained directly by paying for it. Accordingly their unavailability in the restaurant can be seen as representing the narrator’s inept approach to spirituality. The sun too can be seen as representing this:

‘The sun is beginning to shine on me
But it’s not like the sun that used to be’

If ‘sun’, in the first line, is read ‘Son’, the suggestion now is that the narrator’s future happiness will depend on living in accordance with Christian precepts (such as ‘love your neighbour as yourself’) which can be done only by engaging with others.

Earlier, on getting up to leave the restaurant he’d relinquished the opportunity to engage with humanity as represented by the waitress. Far from emulating Christ, he became the snake in the Garden of Eden – slithery:

‘I slide up out of my chair’

Eternity And The Present

What the narrator hasn’t realised is that if he engages fully with the people and things of this life, he will in the process be experiencing eternal life. Eternal life, so understood, is to be seen not as an escape from time into some sort of eternal realm, but as life which is lived fully in the present.

Instead of his seeing his life as eternal, in this sense, it’s clear that the narrator sees the world in purely temporal terms – past, present and future. Yet he has some intimation that such a view is impoverished. He says, for example:

‘I wish someone would come
And push back the clock for me’

thereby showing a desire to escape from the present into the past. This desire to escape the present is misguided since it’s only in the present that he can find eternal value (a fact perhaps reflected in the song’s being written entirely in the present tense). What matters is what he does now.  Instead he tries to avoid the present. He even seems to try to convince himself that he’s not actually in the present, but either in the past or the future. So, he seems to be in the past when he says:

‘I’m listening to Neil Young, I gotta turn up the sound
Someone’s always yelling “Turn it down!”‘

Judging by the frustrated, somewhat intolerant response, ‘Turn it down,’ he seems to have regressed to his time as a (possibly annoying) teenager. The opposite is the case in the restaurant where he speaks as if he’s in the future:

‘I don’t do sketches from memory’

As the waitress points out, there cannot possibly be any reason to consult his memory. Memory is only ever of use in looking back from the future. Ironically his illusion that he’s in the future does actually show a need the clock to be pushed back. He has, as the waitress puts it, ‘chosen the wrong time to come’.

It’s not just that the narrator has chosen the wrong time (the temporal as represented by the past and future, rather than the eternal as represented by the present) in his search for a better life. He’s also chosen the wrong place – the Highlands rather than his present surroundings.

Despite these confusions, the narrator makes a curious statement which might show that he has at least some understanding of the mindset he needs to adopt. Referring to the Highlands, he says:

‘That’s where I’ll be when I get called home’

At first glance this seems nonsensical. He seems to be saying he’ll already be there when he gets called there! But in a sense this is true. If the Highlands represent eternal existence then he is already there, at least in the sense that his present surroundings can provide that eternal existence. Accordingly, in saying he’ll be there when he gets called there, the narrator seems to have a glimmering of the truth that he doesn’t need to go anywhere to find the sort of eternal life he craves.

Failure To Engage

Despite this, the narrator shows little recognition that the Highlands as he tends to envisage them are a poor substitute for the eternal existence already available to him. In the restaurant he fails to properly notice to the waitress. As she puts it, ‘I’m right here in front of you, or haven’t you looked!’ He hasn’t looked. And he doesn’t look. If he looked, it wouldn’t be the case that he couldn’t see ‘any other way to go’ than that represented by the Highlands.

It’s not just the waitress he doesn’t see. He thinks ‘there’s nobody in the place’, ‘there’s nobody around’ and, once he leaves,  there’s ‘nobody going anywhere’.  Whether or not there actually is ‘nobody’ is unclear, but he’s so detached from the world it wouldn’t be surprising if this were an illusion.  Up to a point he recognises this detachment, when he tells us he feels:

‘… further away than ever before’

and that to him:

‘Everything looks far away’

Such recognition is of little value, however, if it’s not a precursor to doing something about it, and for that he shows little inclination. If only he realised it, his seeing what he mistakes for eternal life as ‘over the hills and far away‘ is another case of seeing as distant something in fact present to him.

While on leaving the restaurant he forgoes one chance of engaging with humanity, and so acquiring eternal life, there’s a suggestion that he’ll soon have another such chance:

‘I step outside …’

Since he’s already recognised that he can achieve eternal life ‘one step at a time’, his stepping outside indicates that he’s doing something towards that end. That there is such an opportunity becomes apparent when he sees examples of happiness which one feels could provide a model for his own spiritual wellbeing:

‘I see people in the park forgetting their troubles and woes
They’re drinking and dancing, wearing bright coloured clothes’

He also notices:

‘All the young men with their young women looking so good’

If they’re to be a model, it’s pertinent that they’re ‘looking so good‘ because he’s already recognised he can only acquire eternal life – what he mistakes for life in the Highlands – when he’s ‘good enough to go’. It’s also pertinent that he says he’d be willing to become like them ‘in a minute, if I could’. We’re reminded that it was ‘a minute’ which cost him his previous opportunity to acquire spiritual fulfilment –  when the waitress left him for that amount of time.

There are two reasons one feels he won’t seize the new opportunity. First, he’d like merely to ‘trade places’ with the people in the park – that is impose his misery on them in exchange for their happiness, rather than simply become like them. He’s seeing happiness, like his conscience earlier, merely as a commodity to be traded rather than as something of spiritual value. Secondly, as if anticipating criticism for not being more outgoing, he pompously declares:

‘Some things in life, it gets too late to learn’

– which he’s only too willing, it seems, to believe.


The last verse of the song, and of the album, holds out some hope for the narrator. Whereas in earlier songs the emphasis was on night, now it’s on dawn with its suggestion of a new start:

‘Well, my heart’s in the Highlands at the break of day’

As the album has progressed there have been a few signs of improvement in the narrator’s outlook – notably on Can’t Wait where the possibility of adopting a new eternal outlook seemed to have been glimpsed. However, while this song continues the trend, it’s clear that the turnaround is far from complete. He expresses some new found optimism in thinking he’s some way towards getting the life he covets – ‘I’m already there in my mind‘ – but even this level of optimism is unfounded. The hope offered by the Highlands – taken literally as he does -is a false hope. Rather than working out how to get there physically he needs to see that physically, in the only sense that matters, he’s already there. What’s lacking is being there in his mind – in the sense that he hasn’t yet realised the importance of engaging with the people and things around him.


Last revision 4.10.2016

5 thoughts on “Highlands

  1. Pingback: concert news Hamburg » Blog Archiv » Zeit-Los

  2. This is one of my very favourite Dylan songs, but I think it is about Dylan himself, rather than some unidentified narrator.Not Dylan all the time, of course, but Dylan in a particular frame of mind, at this particular stage of his life. Another day, another week, and he might feel quite differently!
    I also think the song is somewhat simpler than you make it. In my interpretation, this is Dylan feeling his age. The everyday world in its lively, brightly coloured mode has become strangely unconnected to him –
    slipping away and distant: “I’ve got new eyes, everything seems far away” as if through the wrong end of a telescope! He feels like a bit of a ghost, looking on, unseen and unnoticed, at the world around him – the young men with their girlfriends, for example – with an envy of the life and vitality he can no longer
    share. A key line for me in this respect (and a faintly chilling one) is when, in reply to the waitress’s request for a picture, he says that he doesn’t “do sketches from memory” She might be standing there in front of him, yet for him she is not wholly, sharply there at all. But it is not her who is the ghost, but him. As with the young men outside, he is aware of her life and vitality – even sexuality – but only in an impressionistic, almost childlike way. The “pretty face” and the “long white shiny legs” hardly add up to a whole. real person! The strange restaurant episode also serves to bring out what he feels (in this present mood) to be the aimlessness of his existence. The desultory, drawn out conversation fills some time, after all. As for the food, he doesn’t really care what he eats, or whether he eats at all. Later on he tells us he might fill some more time by buying himself a new coat, or then again he might not, In this shadow world, does anything really matter or have any real point or purpose anyway?
    And so to the Highlands! The place of dreams and escape from the shadowy half-life. There are some lovely, evocative lines describing this idyllic, hoped for destination. It could be Heaven, but it could just as easily be the real place in Scotland where he feels life could be better for him, full of the beauty, and colour. vitality and meaning that he lacks. And he is half there now. He is there in his mind. And his heart is there. One day perhaps he’ll get there for real and for whole! If he can imagine it then it just might be possible to make it real, At least he can hope. and on that hint of hope this rather bleak,rather self-pitying, but also rather beautiful album, comes to an end.


  3. Thanks for the comment!

    It seems safer to me to use the expression ‘narrator’ since there’s no way of telling for sure that the narrator of a song is Dylan himself. Also, I’m not sure what a narrator’s being Dylan would amount to. It seems to me that all authors, Dylan included, draw on their own experiences when writing. But what would it mean to say Catherine Morland, for example, is Jane Austen, or even the seventeen-year-old Jane Austen? She stays in Bath and reads gothic fiction, just as Austen did, but does that make her the same person as Austen? I doubt it because there are differences too. Far better to say that Catherine’s character is based on Austen’s own character at a certain point in her life (assuming that to be true). But even if I’m wrong, I don’t see there’s anything to gain by identifying a narrator with an author or songwriter.

    I think I would agree with much of what you say about the narrator’s frame of mind – in particular the shadowy, ghost-likeness of his outlook, when in fact it’s he who is the ghost. But while we can empathise with him in that his experience of ageing is likely to be ours, I don’t see the song as being particularly sympathetic to his point of view. There are too many signs that he’s wrong. It’s no use looking for some utopian Highlands to end up in. Rather than putting his faith in the grass in the other field, he needs to engage properly with the environment he’s in. There’ll be no need to yearn for the unreachable Highlands if he does that.


  4. And I would love you all the day
    Every night would kiss and play
    If with me you’d fondly stray
    Over the hills and far away
    (John Gay: Beggar’s Opera)


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