SCOTLAND, BUT NOT AS WE KNOW I T

On our journey to Scotland a few weeks ago, we stopped for the night as we usually do at the Westmorland Hotel at Tebay services. We were having a pre-prandial drink in the bar when a tour group of Americans began to congregate. A woman called Patricia began to talk to me. “I’m so pleased we’re in Scotland,” she told me, “I’ve always wanted to see it.” I told her she wasn’t there yet, and she looked extremely confused and referred to a higher authority (her husband ) as if I didn’t know what I was talking about. He came from Idaho so he only knew about wheat and had no idea. “We’re having a lecture on how to build stone walls.” she volunteered. “I think it must be a hobby.” I left her to it.

After our horrendous experience in Skye coping with the influx of mostly American tourists from a gigantic cruise ship, I thought I could design a tour of Scotland that would appeal to most of them.

Cross the Border and visit Floors Castle (Downton Abbey). Proceed to Edinburgh by way of Rosslyn Chapel (the Da Vinci Code)and visit Edinburgh Castle, Princes Street and Holyrood Palace to see where Rizio was murdered in Mary Queen of Scots room. Through Stirling visiting the Wallace Monument (Braveheart). Drive through Glencoe, (Skyfall) hearing the tale of how the Campbells broke the laws of hospitality and murdered their hosts. Over the sea to Skye, visiting Dunvegan Castle and Flora Macdonald’s cottage (it’s amazing how many cottages she lived in), then back across the new bridge at Kyle of Lochalsh, popping down to see what we heard one visitor refer to as Elaine Donan’s castle (Eilean Donan) (iconic Scottish castle though in fact it is a fake, built in the 1930s). Over to Loch Ness (Nessie). I read that Loch Ness ‘contains more water than all the other lakes in the British Isles put together’ and wondered who had measured that and how. Finally across to Deeside to see Balmoral.

It is Scotland, Jim, but not as we know it.

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ISLAND HOP

In the last few weeks, we’ve undertaken a tour of the Western Isles in celebration of our upcoming 40th wedding anniversary. We went to Skye on our honeymoon 40 years ago and after one day, fled from the man-eating midgies, and we’ve never been back since.

We were on the road for five weeks. It was interesting and enjoyable. When we arrived in Oban to commence our tour, it was engulfed in a ‘happening’. I hate happenings, but was slightly mollified as a pipe band was playing’ Raglan Road’. I never did establish what exactly the happening was.

Our first island was Coll (of the inner Hebrides) which was very lovely. We had a charming room with a magnificent view in the delightful Coll Hotel, where the food was superb. The island was beautiful with magnificent flora and fauna. The macher (flower filled meadow) was unusually rich this year, they told us. We saw swallows, herons, heard the cuckoo, seabirds, and we actually both saw that elusive rasping bird, the corncrake, with one chick. I would return to this island for the simple pleasure of it – its only downside is that its beaches, which are apparently lovely, are largely inaccessible.

It’s neighbour, Tiree, is flat and featureless with neither trees nor rocks nor sand-dunes and therefore its glorious white sand beaches are largely useless because there is no shelter. (An Atlantic wind blows most days.)

Barra was an attractive island with particularly beautiful stones and our room had a view of Kishmul Castle, which is a tiny island in a salt water bay which has a spring of fresh water. (Here’s red wine and feast for heroes, and harping too…) You can fly to Barra but the plane lands on the beach so you have to go when the tide is out. (Nothing would induce me to attempt this…)

Then on to the Uists, South and North and with Benbecula sandwiched in between. These islands are linked by causeways. There were some lovely fresh water lochans with shining rocks and white waterlilies. (‘Like the white lily floating on the peathag’s dark waters…’ ) We came out from having a coffee in a small hotel and standing right beside us on a promontory was a magnificent stag with his 12 pointed antlers silhouetted against the sky. He was standing so still that I thought he was a statue (like a Spanish bull) but his eye was very bright, and with a toss of his antlers he bounded away and disappeared into the landscape. We had decided to visit Benbecula when visiting a museum in New Zealand where a shipload of people from the islands had (eventually) settled. We were singing the words to the tunes they were playing, and we signed their book and spoke to them, and realised the ladies running the museum called the island BenbecULa. We were not going to be so impolite as to correct their pronunciation, but in our reply to them we pronounced the place name after the Scottish fashion, with equal emphasis throughout the syllables. As we left, we could hear the ladies practising their newly learned island name. John said to me, Maybe we’d better go there, and check that we’re right. Well, we were.

And so to Lewis and Harris. Whereas the south of this island archipelago is aggressively catholic, icons of Mary every few miles, the North is uncompromisingly protestant. Everything – I mean EVERYTHING – is shut on Sundays. Shops are shut, golf course is closed, no public transport, public monuments are locked. I don’t know how they get away with it. This island was aggressive in its history with rebellions and political action. It could not truly be said to be welcoming to tourists. Yet if I stated my credentials – my grandfather built a house in the village of Sandwick – we were welcomed with open arms as one of their own; but I won’t do it. The owner of an eccentric shop where we bought Harris tweed some two years ago remembered me and asked after my cousin.

We travelled across Skye which unfortunately had a monstrous cruise ship skulking in the bay outside Portree. This vessel held almost 2000 people who were vomited out onto the island and utterly over ran it so that everywhere was infested with mannerless voyagers.

We sailed back to Mallaig and that ended the island part of our holiday. I enjoyed it. Not a midgie to be seen. If you’re thinking of going on an adventure there, off you go. But book early, and don’t plan on spending Sunday in Stornoway!