Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Lads in Scotland

Apologies, regular readers! This is Henry, Sarah’s husband, guest-blogging about the rail trip to Scotland I just made with our 13-year old son. Don’t expect the usual standards of writing, photography or insight, but please bear with me, I’ll do my best!

The West Highlands Railway from Glasgow to Mallaig is simply spectacular. Past Ben Nevis, along the banks of Loch Lomond, through stunning mountain passes until you reach the sea, with the Western Isles of Skye and Mull just across the Sound of Sleat. You might recognise the beaches from Local Hero and the mighty Glenfinnan Viaduct from the Harry Potter movies: this is the view you get from the viaduct. Truly magical.

Mallaig is great, a small, hard-working fishing port and ferry terminus.

We stayed at the Western Highland Hotel. That’s it in the center of the photo above, with Skye in the background. It’s warm, clean and unpretentious with good food, genuinely friendly staff and fantastic views from our bedroom. This is the Isle of Rum.

There are great walks around Mallaig - we circled Loch an Nostarie and the surrounding hills in about 3 hours. As usual, the Lad marched on ahead while I grumbled behind, demanding snacks and constantly asking if we were nearly there yet.

Reward for our climbing was absolutely superb seafood at the Cornerstone Restaurant. Fresh straight from the sea, and then simply prepared, as it should be. Highlights were the the half-pint of steamed prawns and the pan-fried Scallops. We asked where the scallops came from, and were surprised to hear that the chef didn’t know. She’d been onto a lot of the boats that afternoon, she apologised, and forgotten which of the divers had sold her that particular batch.

Next, a daytrip to the tiny village of Inverie on the isolated Knoydart peninsula (silent “k” as in ‘knob’).

The mailboat takes about 45 minutes, then returns 4 hours later to pick you up. We saw a couple of seals (or maybe one energetic seal twice) and a few birds. Slim pickings on the wildlife front.

The locals meet the boat to pick up mail, supplies and, by the looks of things, strangers. (That handsome, rugged-looking dude is me, by the way)

Landed, we hiked through the mist and pouring rain to this centuries-old Christian monument, meeting only deer.

You haven’t lived until you’ve sat in The Old Forge Pub eating a home-made venision burger, drying-out after a soaking hike, and watching the rain lash down outside. It boasts of being Britain’s Most Remote Pub (motto: “Up a Mountain, Down a Beer”), but the homemade veggie soup and hot chocolate were out-of-this-world as well as out-of-the-way. Not to mention the 80-Shilling Ale, which I was obliged to neck by way of pure research. Sorted!

Back then to Edinburgh, where, boys that we are, we headed to the Castle for some History and plenty of Violent Death.

Near the main gate is a plaque commemorating the AD 600 exploits of King Mynyddog’s men as they headed out to defend Din Eidyn (now Edinburgh) from the Angle invaders:

“Buoyed by strong drink, they pledged themselves to die for their lord. And die most of them did...”

Yup, that seems to sum up an awful lot of Scottish history.

My favourite exhibit, though, is this model of Private McBain of the Royal Scots Regiment in action at the Battle of Malplaquet in 1709. His wife, not unreasonably, had left France for Scotland on the eve of the battle, leaving him with their baby. Childcare facilities not being all that they could be in the British Army back then, he stuck the kid in his knapsack and proceeded with the bayoneting. Happily, both survived this early “Take Your Daughter to Work” day.

With us to add cultural and literary insight was my great friend Peter Coviello, professor of English at Bowdoin College and keen ice-fisherman.

The three of us explored Edinburgh’s vibrant artistic heritage, (by way, Pete explained, of antidote to all the slaughtering) which took us to The King’s Theatre to see Alan Bennett’s “Single Spies” starring Nigel Havers. (You might remember him as the champagne-quaffing hurdler in Chariots of Fire.) The two one-act plays explore Britishness through the perspective of the Cambridge-educated, pillars-of-the-establishment aristocrats who were unveiled as soviet spies in the 1960s.

“Britishness” is a tricky and topical subject these days, especially in Scotland. Prime Minister Gordon Brown, from nearby Kilcady, declares himself “Proud to be Scottish and British” but many Scots are calling for independence. Scottish history, like that of any nation, is a confused tangle of conflicts, not only with England but also amongst themselves. Our travels had taken us past many landmarks in that complicated history.

The Act of Union in 1707 merged the two independent countries, soon to be ruled by a German King, and we arrived in Edinburgh 301 years to the day after Scotland’s Parliament dissolved itself. It reconvened in 1999 - picking up exactly where it had left off - in this notoriously expensive building, designed not by a Scot but a Spaniard and looking, to my admittedly untrained eyes, like a cross between a car-park and a cheap beach-resort bar.

Meanwhile Glenfinnan (pictured above) was where Charles Edward Stuart - “Bonny Prince Charlie” - raised his battle-standard in an attempt to reinstate the Stuart monarchy over England, Scotland and Ireland in 1745. But the Divine Right of Kings was no longer a winning campaign platform, and the idea of a Catholic monarchy backed by the French King (Louis XV) was vehemently opposed by Scottish Presbyterians as well as English Protestants.

The Prince’s invasion of England ended in retreat and ultimately disaster. He fled towards Mallaig and was borne “Over the Sea to Skye” and thence to safety. Many of his captured Jacobite supporters were taken to London and executed, “taking the low road” back to the bonnie banks of Loch Lomond.

The songs, happily, are still beautiful today, long after the bloody politics are (largely) forgotten. And we were cheered to note that there is now a bridge over Loch Alsh, so it is now possible to drive "Over the A87 Bridge to Skye." Not quite so romantic though, eh?

Lest I end on a downer, here are a couple of photos of the garden of my wonderful Scottish brother-in-law’s equally wonderful parents (what’s that: my in-law-in-laws? I never know) with whom we stayed in Edinburgh. They live in a gorgeous A-listed 1850 house, now turned to flats, and their garden is a sunspot formerly used for drying laundry. The yellow Lenten Roses are blooming right now, and the Red Camilia tree is about to burst. Absolutely lovely.

Thanks for reading, and normal service with Sarah will be resumed next week.


John Kelly said...

Speaking of Take Your Daughter to Work Day, did you see this story from the Onion?

And I like how contentedly Private McBain's daughter is sleeping. Nothing like a crying baby to put you off your bayoneting.

rpkelly said...

Henry! An admirable posting. A few comments: what's an 80 "shilling" pint? Is that the same as 80 pence? Looks like a great trip. Did you watch Gregory's Girl as well as Local Hero to get ready? Hopefully not Trainspotting

Anonymous said...

That bit in Trainspotting when they get off the train in the middle of nowhere for a hike is on that West Coast line. A station in the middle of nowhere.

Thank you, Henry, for making me thoroughly miserable to be sitting at a formica desk in West London, styrofoam cup of cold tea on my right, a view of the Westway (elevated urban freeway) to my left.

Anonymous said...

John - you're absolutely right about sleeping babies - I find the worst is when they insist on having a go with the bayoneting themselves.
Ruth - many thanks. I think 80-shilling refers to how heavy, dark and strong it is, a throwback to the old money system, and the method of taxing beers by alcohol content. 80 shilling is aka "heavy". But, of course, I don't know very much about beer. I'm pretty sure I had Caledonian 80 Shilling.
R - thanks for the reference, and I'm sorry for your sorry-sounding plight. Look on the bright side, the Westway was good enough for The Clash. As for Trainspotting, the closest we got was Pete insisting "Thish should preshent no shignificant difficultishes: is the beasht in shight?" at every turn. He also points out that on the boat, I look as if I've come on holiday by mistake, like in "Withnail and I".

Anonymous said...

Excellent blog of an inspiring trip. One day I'll tell you about when my Dad brought me to work at the lab to see him shoot rabbits

Charlotte Agell said...

My step-dad's Scottish. I've sent him the link to this wonderful tour. As a Swede/Mainer, I feel great kinship with bleak beauty!

kate smudges said...

This was an unexpected treat - a trip through Scotland with Sarah's family. The scenery was amazing - the hiking must have been wonderful (or perhaps I should say, the after-hiking food and drink).

Funny how just before I sat at the computer, I was practising a 1730 Scottish fiddle tune, The Lass O'Pettie's Mill.

I'd rather be in Scotland than here!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for all the comments! According to The Boy, the rocky mountains of Scotland are geologically a continuation of Northern America(or vice-versa) so a similar feel to Maine and Canada is not coincidental. There's something similar in the people, too, indefinably, possibly because of the great Scottish diaspora to both places. And in 1718 Sweden seriously considered backing the Jacobites and sending an army to invade England via Scotland, but gave it up after King Charles XII was killed invading Norway. (prompting the random thought: had that bullet or whatever it was missed him, then everyone in England, Scotland, the US and Candada might now be speaking Swedish...)

Tony: I was desperate to use the line "We have a wounded rabbit also" when checking into Scottish hotels, but sadly the opportunity never arose. Sounds like you may have more luck.

Sarah Laurence said...

Please do not leave comments with links to commercial sites. I screen first and will not publish them.