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Saturday, September 13, 2014

The Highlands, Scotland, UK? September 2014

Next week, on the 18th of September, residents of Scotland aged 16 and over will vote in a referendum on Scottish independence. If they choose Yes, Scotland will become an independent nation and no longer part of the United Kingdom.

The fact that many people think that British means the same thing as English, or have never heard of the UK, might tell you why Scots feel the need to have this vote.

I’ve been to Edinburgh and Glasgow many times, but this month marks my first visit out of the cities to any other part of Scotland. And it was stunningly beautiful. No sooner had we left the Glasgow airport than we were driving by beautiful lochs, up hill and down, to Portsonachan where the water is brackish and you can't drink it unboiled. 

The hotel was a rambling old thing, with a deadpan English bartender who played Simon and Garfunkel and Frank Sinatra more or less continuously. We overlooked Loch Awe so that from our window, it seemed we were on the water--so calm and clear. The first morning the mist was lying so low that we appeared to be in a cloud. It was not a bad view, watching the mist slowly lift while we ate full Scottish breakfasts in the conservatory! 

The quirky hotel also featured tables that appeared to be held up by sculpted dogs and hippos. In the lobby, such as it is, is a whole cabinet of stuffed birds and animals--not my thing, but they've probably been there forever. The library, a gloomy room stuffed with old furniture, has shelves lined with Harvard Classics and Reader's Digest Condensed Books that have probably been there forever too. The most interesting feature, though, has got to be the bathtub. You have to fill it with what appears to be loch water; the only thing the water comes out of is a shower head, but it's very low down in the tub so you can't actually use it as a shower. All the taps, as I believe the British call them, are turned around so it's anyone's guess what is cold and hot. I was strangely comforted to find that it's still possible to have such a hotel experience, that everything hasn't been homogenized down to Eurogeneric standards. "Part Waratah Lodge [Victoria]," T. summarized, "part Fawlty Towers!"

The weather, ever uncooperative on the whole island of Britain, was beautiful, which made all the difference. This is one aspect of our trip that makes me think Scotland belongs in the Union and should not separate from the UK. Obsessing with the constantly changing weather is such a British thing; it’s not just an English or a Scottish thing. Another aspect was the proliferation of campaign signs across the Scottish landscape. For every “Yes” sign we saw, there was a sign next or near to it that said “No Thanks.”

Not “No,” but “No Thanks.” How British is that? Only a British campaign would word “No” so politely.

We were not in Scotland, however, to talk politics, but to appreciate this very different landscape. It’s remote, with single lane roads and bleak stony mountains rising up towards the sky. We saw deer, and even the threatened red squirrel. I see grey squirrels every day around London, but never the native red species.

We spent time around Loch Fyne, after which some very nice ales are named. There was also a little "drive to nowhere" when we were directed just to "drive to the end of the road," the single-lane road, which turned out to be twenty miles. Since there was still nothing at the end of it, we gave up and returned to the hotel bar. I consoled myself with a 10-year-old single malt whisky called Tobermory. I rarely drink whisky, but couldn't resist one called after what is obviously a Scottish place name, but also a very nice place at the northern end of the Bruce Trail in Ontario.

Our second day we explored Argyll and further north to Glencoe. There were Scots Gaelic place names on all the signs as well as English, but I won't attempt to spell those. The most direct way to where we were going was evidently another single lane "B" road, ten miles long, in the course of which we passed I think one other car. We stopped at a place called Catnish, wondering if we would ever find a place to get off and walk; this is unspoiled country without a footpath crossing every field! A very friendly local gave us his ordnance survey map, probably thinking how silly we were to set off without one. We thence drove on to a weir and walked a mile or so into the Caledonian Forest Reserve. There was no one else on the trail the whole time we were there.

At the Bridge of Orchy, which appears to be only a hotel along the side of the road, we stopped for a drink, which we probably didn't deserve as much as the hikers who kept crossing there. T. asked a couple "Are there any walks over there?" and they kindly pointed up the hill.

"Well, that's the West Highland Way!" they said. We had, despite our map, only stumbled across the most massive hiking trail in Scotland, which runs all the way up to Inverness.

They were clearly North American, so T. asked where they were from and when they said "Canada," she told them I was from Toronto. I did not correct this!

Gord and Marg, as I'll call them, are from Saskatchewan, over here hiking the whole trail. I imagine that they've just taken retirement, perhaps early retirement, and walking the West Highland Way is something they've always wanted to do, but never could, you know, because of limited vacation time and it being so far from Canada. So the minute their pensions kicked in they were off to Scotland, to appreciate their heritage while they're still limber enough to do the whole walk. You go, Marg and Gord. As for us, we only walked enough of the West Highland Way to say we'd done it, and to see a rainbow emerge from the mist.

Our next walk was to Glencoe village. At Glencoe we saw the site of the 1698 massacre of dozens of MacDonalds, including many women and children who died of winter exposure after their homes were burned down. The MacDonalds, murdered by guests they had taken in, were being punished for their slowness in acclaiming the new monarchs of England, William and Mary.

William and Mary’s accession to the throne has been called the Bloodless Revolution. Hate to see the bloody ones.

It is hard to describe the stark beauty of Glencoe, Glen Etive, and the scenery around there, accessed via the luxury of a two lane road. Even driving aimlessly, we were not any place in Scotland for any amount of time that was not stunning. This included the bar of the 1720 George Hotel (how royalist is that?), acclaimed as "the best bar in Scotland." Just looking at the array of whiskies made my head spin, never mind drinking one. They even used whisky in the black chanterelle and cream sauce--very nice indeed with a Scottish steak, if you eat that sort of thing.

On Sunday we made our way around Loch Awe to the other side, past St. Conan's Kirk, and to Oban on the west coast. From the harborfront there you can see (or sail) across to the Hebridean isles, Mull and Iona. The summer season was over but it was still warm enough to sit on the rocky beach and eat ice cream. There is a kind of folly or art work, McCaig Tower, that is meant to resemble the Colosseum; I trudged up there to take in the view, only to find there was a parking lot at the top and barely mobile ancient people were getting around McCaig Tower just fine!

Thanks, again, to the donated map, we found an unmarked turnoff on the road back that led us to walk to Kilchurn Castle. This castle was built between the 15th and 17th centuries, and it's just open for people to climb all over--so refreshing for a European site. From the tower, we could see back to St. Conan's Kirk, which we would have gone inside and apparently seen all kinds of historical relics, except they were actually having church (it was Sunday morning after all). The same might not have been true in Bridge of Orchy, where the little church only hosts services every other Sunday, plus the post office on Tuesdays! 

The view of Loch Awe from Kilchurn Castle was one of those rare "wow" moments where I had no room in my heart for anything but appreciating the sunshine. 

It was one of the calmest, most restorative trips I can remember. An Oban-born lady who had suggested visiting there was as delighted as she could be that we'd had a nice time. When we hung out on the patio, or whatever Scots call it, the surface of the loch varied from choppy to smooth as glass. Sometimes you couldn't even hear the water lapping. 

Our last stop was Balloch, where we cruised around the more famous Loch Lomond. I recommend haddock, if you're ever up that way. Smoked haddock and poached egg for breakfast, or haddock chowder at the Samphire seafood restaurant in Inverary--probably the best soup I ever put in my mouth. It's a small place, though, and fills up quickly. Best to reserve.

I hope the voters in Scotland decide to stay in the 307-year-old union. Not only because breakups are sad, but because I like having some connection with this gorgeous country, even though I don’t live there.


Bob Haisman said...

Thanks for your insights JE....what an Issue! WOW! We have been talking about it on our trip with people from all around the US...opinion all over the MAP! Guess none of our opinions matter only the Scots!

I just love Scotland ..traveled a lot there in my misspent youth.... Edinburgh...Highlands ....Islands ...just loved those Gaelic Villages (Pubs) in the highlands!

J. E. Knowles said...

Thanks--we'll see how today's vote goes!

Bob Haisman said...

I'm on Pins and needles .... In my heart I'm a yes vote but in reality I'm a "NO, Thanks!" vote but in reality it matters not what i think!

You know J.E about 10 years ago Czechoslovakia split in two .... Czech Republic and Slovakia. Made complete cultural sense. Made NO economic sense. Economic disaster was forecast. Slovakia the poor eastern Sister took a body blow but came out of it somehow ....according to what I read and cousins I talk to stronger ...economically and psychologically... GO FIGURE!

BUT the "UK" ....The "UK" .... those bloody Scot Rebels....

J. E. Knowles said...

The economic arguments are always for union but culturally...can you imagine Canada giving up the Canadian dollar and identity to the U.S.?