Scotland blog from our recent trip. Includes Edinburgh, Glasgow, Fort William, Inverness, Culloden, Ben Nevis, the West Highland Line and a few misadventures.
“We have ten days before your next hospital appointment. We need to go away!” said Madam, “we could go on a road trip. Maybe Norfolk?”
“It’s very flat,” I replied, “and there isn’t a lot to do there. Scotland is really nice this time of year. Apart from the midges obviously.”
“I’ve always wanted to go to Norfolk. I’ve heard it’s really nice.“
“If we go to Scotland we can go on the train. I’ve always wanted to go on the West Highland Line. People say it has fabulous scenery.”
“Norfolk isn’t far to drive. We could go to Great Yarmouth.”
“I think all Scotsman wear kilts in the Highlands my sweet.”
“Kilts? Scotsmen? With nothing under their kilts?”
She went silent for a while then added “Will Billy Connolly be there?”
“Oh, almost certainly my sweet.”
I purchased two return tickets to Edinburgh for an eye-watering £225 and we passed through the ticket barrier and onto the platform. Madam immediately stopped and arranged the two suitcases next to the train for a photo. “I have to update all my public social media right away!” she said.
She is very considerate like that. She likes to give all of the local burglars plenty of notice as to our destination and how long we will be away.
Our train was on time and we were at London King’s Cross station by noon. Which is when it started to go ever so slightly downhill. Trains to Edinburgh run every thirty minutes, on the hour and half hour. Except when they don’t. The 12:30 wasn’t running so the 1:00 had all the passengers for both trains and every seat was reserved. We couldn’t get on that train so we ended up waiting for the 1:30 and the one carriage on that train with unreserved seats had no working air-conditioning. The sun streaming through the windows turned the carriage into a passable imitation of a large oven. Still, we had a seat for the five hour journey. We removed as many clothes as we could without frightening the children. Madam pulled out her knitting and I tucked my legs behind my ears (leg room was extra) and watched the view from the window.
We sped past a grim industrial area on the outskirts of London, then several estates of identical box-like houses, but were soon passing through open farmland and copses of vibrant trees. Rows of electricity pylons stretched across the fields. I read somewhere that, following privatisation of the electricity companies, had they been forced to invest a tiny percentage of their profits on putting cables underground, we wouldn’t have pylons blighting the views across the landscape by now. Everything would be underground. Still, you can’t let the beauty of the countryside stand in the way of greed.
I stared vacantly out of the window, lost in my own thoughts or indeed with no thoughts at all. I may even have nodded off once or twice. Madam continued to knit and we eventually reached Edinburgh soon after 6pm.
“Don’t mention the cricket! I mentioned it once but I think I got away with it!” I told Madam.
We had arrived later than intended, so just went down to the hotel bar for an evening snack. The bartender was from New Zealand and it was the day after the cricket world cup final where England beat New Zealand in a nail-biting finish by the narrowest margin possible.
I did mention it when I went back to the bar for a second beer – some things are just too hard to resist – but he was sanguine about the result. They were still playing highlights on the TV news such was the astonishing result. I made sure to tell him that New Zealand played really well and should have won but for a fluke, which was true, so he didn’t spit in my beer.
I knew we were in Scotland when I looked at the breakfast menu in the local Wetherspoons the following morning. In place of the normal English Breakfast was a Scottish Breakfast with two black puddings, eggs and a potato scone. You could add haggis for another pound. On the vegan breakfast you could add black pudding as an extra. Maybe blood counts as vegan in Scotland.
After breakfast we walked through Princes park, the castle towering above us. We climbed steep hills with numerous stops to admire the views. We strolled down the Royal Mile which was noisy and crowded with tourists. Almost every store was a gift shop of some sort. Bagpipe players were busking on every corner. There’s nothing finer than Amazing Grace played by a competent bagpiper but these buskers all seem to be playing the same tune. I think it was called ‘Play fast and don’t worry about the order of the notes’. I started to get a headache before we were halfway down the street.
We found the shop selling deep fried Mars bars – supposedly the inventors of the concept – but it was shuttered and closed with a ‘To Let’ sign above.
When we were last in Edinburgh, many years ago, I sampled this delicacy. A Mars Bar (Milky Way in the USA) is covered in a thick batter and deep fried in hot oil. I took the first bite. Not bad I thought. And a second. Quite filling but a bit greasy maybe. I took a third and realised that the first two were sitting immobile in my gullet as though my stomach was saying ‘no way is THAT coming in here.’ I managed to finish it but it just sat there, not moving, a stand-off between gravity and a reluctant stomach. Some hours later I realised that it was still there, warm and slightly unpleasant, like a small furry animal had taken up residence. I think gravity won eventually but I was still emitting toffee flavoured burps a week later.
I was secretly glad the shop was closed lest I be tempted to repeat the experience.
There was a 10-foot bronze statue of Adam Smith nearby with a seagull on his head. I tried to get a picture without the adornment but as soon as the seagull moved, a pigeon took his place.
We passed the National Library and on an impulse went in to their exhibition on the Scottish Enlightenment. It was mercifully calm and quiet after the clogged streets and a whole lot more interesting than it sounds. They had a first edition of the Encyclopaedia Brittanica as well as one of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations. One of the information displays stated the the Acts of Union in 1707 deprived Scotland of its sovereignty – an odd take on events since England and Scotland had shared a monarch, initially Scottish at that, since 1603. English history books have a different view of the union.
We walked down to the Greyfriars Bobby statue and had a look around the graveyard, larger than I expected, then on to the Scottish National Museum. The technology section of the museum is wonderful with a working cloud chamber and random parts of the hadron collider. We went up to the roof terrace for some amazing views over the city skyline and up to Arthur’s Seat. When we were considering this trip I thought it would be nice to walk up to the seat but seeing the height and rough terrain I realised that I had left it a few years too late.
It was raining as we left Glasgow Queen Street station, so we headed towards the city centre looking for shelter. The rain stopped for a while, then restarted. This proved to be the weather for the rest of the day.
“I want one!” shouted Madam as we passed a shop window, “look!, look!, it’s a print signed by Billy Connolly, it can be my anniversary present!”
Since our anniversary was some months away in either direction I was a little confused. I looked at the price tag.
“It’s £895” I told her, thinking that would end the discussion.
“But I want one!” she snapped, “you have a MacBook.”
I thought for a while but couldn’t see any connection between my laptop computer purchased last year in a fit of uncharacteristic extravagance and a £895 print.
“It’s £895 just for a print,” I repeated in case she hadn’t heard the first time.
“But It’s signed by Billy Connolly!” she said.
For that sort of money I would want it signed in blood by every monarch since Henry VIII.
“It’s £895” I said with what I hoped was a note of finality as I pulled her away from the shop, “let’s get a cup of coffee instead.”
There was a pound shop opposite the coffee bar or, since we were in Scotland, it was probably called a pooned shop. I had a quick look round to see what I could buy for a pooned but the stock was identical to the shops in England. Not even haggis flavoured crisps.
Madam was peering into her phone. “There’s a Billy Connolly mural. We have to go there right now!” she said.
I readily agreed in the hope that it wasn’t going to cost £895. The mural was in a seedy back street above a car park but Madam managed to get a selfie in front of the mural without getting mugged. Always a plus in Glasgow.
Glaswegians have a reputation for being a mix of aggression and friendliness. You never know if the one approaching you on a back street is going to smash a glass in your face and steal your wallet, or offer you a wee dram from their hip flask. The men are even worse. To be fair, everyone we encountered was far friendlier and more helpful, and generally nicer than those back home. Which just goes to show to can’t trust stereotypes, but we still tried to keep to the main streets just in case.
A short cut towards the main shopping area led us through a narrow covered alley that seemed to have been repurposed as the local toilet. And I’m not just talking urinal here. Madam kept her mouth firmly closed and clenched her fingers over her nose, stepping over discarded syringes and human waste, until we reached the main road.
“What now?” asked Madam.
I looked all around. All I could see was identikit chain stores and rain soaked pavements.
“Let’s walk down to the river,” I said, “I’ve never seen the Clyde.”
We headed down to the river past graffiti covered walls, tattoo parlours (monthly payments available), tanning salons, and massage parlours. I stepped over an impressively large pile of dog’s mess, kicked aside a discarded empty Irn Bru can and said “so, what do you think of Glasgow?”
“It’s a bit grim.” she said.
She thought for a while then added “But Billy is from here!”
“He moved away” I told her.
“But he comes back sometimes,” she said.
You can’t argue with Madam about Billy Connolly.
We walked along a narrow path alongside the river dodging cyclists and joggers. We found another Connolly mural by accident and Madam squealed and ran up to it for another selfie. At least this is cheaper and marginally more interesting than most royal palaces I thought as Madam posted her picture on Facebook.
Astute readers may have noticed by now that Madam has a bit of a thing for Billy Connolly.
We ended up on Buchanan Street which Madam informed me was the place to be. More chain stores and no public seating left me less than impressed. I sat on some steps leading up to a church to give my aching feet a rest while Madam peered into her phone and counted the number of likes on her selfies. I had barely sat down when Madam shouted ” Oh oh oh, we’ve got to find the other one! Oh no! It’s way out of town!”
She sat down with a slump, her thumbs working her phone.
“Fourteen minutes! It’s only a fourteen minute walk! We can get a taxi if you are tired. Come on, I need another selfie!” she said as she jumped up and starting walking. I dragged my weary feet behind trying to keep up.
The mural was next to a car park – I was getting to see something of a theme here – and we stood in the rain while Madam posted her selfie online.
She needed feeding after all the excitement so we headed back to the shops and ended up in a McDonalds in the absence of seeing anything else we fancied. Restaurants with a more demanding menu were a little thin on the ground.
The metro line ran right under our table and the vibration on the seats was oddly pleasant. Madam was smiling by the time she had finished eating. I don’t know why.
“Are you ready to go?” I asked Madam.
“No rush,” she replied, “we can sit here a while.”
The restaurant, and I’m using the word in its loosest sense here, had lots of flies buzzing around trying to settle on the food. I shooed three of them away and watched them settle on a burger at a neighbouring table.
“They probably count as a garnish in Glasgow.” I said.
Madam just nodded and smiled again.
“This is the prettiest train journey in the UK,” I told Madam as we passed dirty grey tower blocks and cluttered industrial units, “if not the world.”
She didn’t look impressed.
“There was a vote and it won for the whole world in 2009 and just about every year for the UK.” I told her.
Having had problems finding a seat on the journey from London to Edinburgh I figured I would book tickets and seats in advance for Edinburgh to Fort William. I won’t bore you with the details but I spent two hours on both the National Rail and the Scot Rail websites. I was given prices ranging from £123 down to £32. When I tried to book tickets I was told none were available. Sometimes the website just hung or got stuck in a loop. One time they tried to sell me a bus ticket to Bangladore, although I might have clicked on an ad for that one. Advertisements on a national rail ticket booking site? Seriously?
In the end I gave up and resigned myself to buying tickets at the station and standing on the train for four hours.
I did work out that it was cheaper to buy a single from Edinburgh to Glasgow, then a day return from Glasgow to Fort William. The day return was cheaper than a single. Splitting the journey also saved us £15. Tell me again why someone thought it would be smart to privatise the railways.
In the event there were plenty of seats – most potential passengers were still searching the website or on a bus to India I expect – and we both got to sit by the window. Within twenty minutes the tower blocks were a memory and the view was simply amazing. Inlets from the sea and lochs fronted a view of rolling tree covered hills with cloud topped mountains behind. It gets my vote for the prettiest train journey. You should go immediately – just make sure you set aside several days to buy your ticket.
As we climbed higher, silver birch trees gave way to pines and wildflowers to bracken and peat bogs. Granite outcrops protruded from heather covered, low scrubby hills. Sheep and wild deer scampered away in a panic as the train passed. We passed rocky streams and waterfalls pouring over the granite.
It was inexpressibly beautiful. It would have been hard to find a spot that wasn’t worthy of a photo or a painting.
The train ran quickly around a bend giving us vertiginous views of a loch two hundred feet below. We stopped at halts in the middle of nowhere where gore-tex clad hikers with muddy boots and oversized backpacks joined the train.
Eventually the trees stopped completely and we travelled over dozens of miles of boggy ground with only the occasional abandoned and roofless crofters cottage. How anyone ever made a living from farming this desolate windswept peaty landscape is beyond me. I guess the ruins show that it wasn’t really possible.
Opposite one halt there was a small group of crosses. “Probably from the last train crash,” I told Madam, adding “not everyone on the train was killed,” by way of reassurance.
There wasn’t really a crash there, I just like to make up stuff to add a little interest to Madam’s life.
The line actually has a very good safety record considering the rough terrain and extreme weather conditions. A train was derailed in 2010 after hitting boulders following a landslip but this resulted in only minor injuries. Passengers sitting in a derailed carriage hanging fifty feet over an embankment might have needed clean underwear and a stiff drink but it could have been much worse. Apart from that I couldn’t find any major mishaps on that line.
The train started heading downhill after Corrour. We left the heather and peat bogs behind and trees reappeared along the embankment. Neat farms appeared, with pigs, sheep and cattle in square fields, as we reached the outskirts of Fort William.
As lovely as the scenery was we were glad to get off the stuffy and overheated train after four hours.
There was a fine view of Loch Eil, with steep tree-clad hills beyond, from our hotel room. Supposedly a ‘Superior Room’, we had to shuffle sideways around the beds to move from one side to the other. If we needed to turn around we shuffled sideways out into the corridor, performed an about turn manoeuvre, then back in through the door. This was fine most of the time but a little disconcerting for other guests passing in the corridor when we were clad in only a skimpy towel, post shower.
It was £350 for the two nights. That’s over a hundred pints of beer in Wetherspoons for those keeping count.
“I got us a great deal!” said Madam, “the normal rate is £360!”
There was a a splattering of dead midges on the window. I didn’t know if they were blown there by a strong wind or died in a kamikaze attempt to get at the previous occupants. “I suppose there’s a collective noun for midges” I said, really just thinking out loud.
Madam looked at her phone. “it’s a bite. The collective noun for midges is a bite” she said chuckling to herself.
That makes sense I thought.
The hotel in Fort William had a rain water shower head. Unfortunately their idea of rain was a light summer shower rather than torrential downpour. As a result I had several minutes waiting for the water to reach my feet and could do a little light reading.
The hotel supplies small bottles of shampoo and body wash. The bottles look identical. The contents look identical. I won’t bore you with the long list of ingredients (there were twenty) but they were also identical. The budget hotels have now started to add a single dispenser in the bathroom described as hair and body wash. All of which gave me an idea. Why not add, say, cat repellent, deodorant, sun block, maybe an analgesic for muscle aches and something to keep the flies and midges away to create one single product that does everything? All your daily needs taken care of in one simple application. It makes sense to me.
Breakfast was included in our room rate (I should hope so at that price) and was one of the better breakfasts we had on this trip so I forgave them for their room sizes and weedy shower.
It was raining on and off as we left the hotel. We pulled up our rain hoods and walked alongside the loch into Fort William and stood by a marker telling us that this was the official end of the West Highland Way, a ninety-six mile footpath running from just north of Glasgow to Fort William. We stood and admired the sign from several different angles and wondered what there was to to in Fort William on a rainy day. A raindrop dripped from the end of my nose. Madam sneezed.
Suddenly Madam shouted “There’s a gift shop!” and ran across the road narrowly missing a speeding cyclist.
Fort William bills itself as the outdoor capital of the UK which, in practice, means that just about the only things to do are to look round outdoor shops, drink coffee in the cafes, or buy overpriced souvenirs in the gift shops.
Madam bought a porridge stirrer.
“It’s a Spurtle! It was only £3.95!” she said.
I examined it carefully from several angles.
“It’s a wooden stick” I replied.
“No, it’s a special stirrer. You have to stir clockwise or your porridge will be ruined.”
And to think I’ve been cooking porridge for fifty years with a metal spoon and stirring whichever way my fancy took me.
“My porridge will never be the same again!” she announced triumphantly.
It still looks like a wooden stick I thought.
I dutifully visited every outdoor shop and Madam every gift shop but even by adding a couple of charity shops into the mix we had our fill of shopping by 11am. “What now?” I asked Madam.
“There’s a gondola up the mountain.” she said.
The mountain in this case being Aonach Mor in the Nevis range, right next door to Ben Nevis, the UK’s highest mountain.
“A gondola?” I said.
She took this as acquiescence and rushed into the nearest outdoor store to ask for directions. Being Fort William this wasn’t far away. “Number 41 bus” she said a few minutes later. “Come on, let’s find the bus stop.”
The rain stopped and the sun came out as the bus climbed the foothills up to the Nevis range. It dropped us right by the gondola entrance where a pleasant young woman cheerfully relieved us of £36 for the gondola ride. “You can ride it all day for that,” she said by way of consolation.
A 12 minute ride on the gondola took us 650 metres up Aonach Mòr, the UK’s 8th highest mountain, conveniently situated next to Ben Nevis. The woman on the ticket desk told us there were two trails from the top for the best views. The shortest would take twenty minutes each way. “It’s a bit steep,” she said, looking at me like I was old or something.
Madam shook her head, “he can’t do hills,” she said.
“I’ll be fine,” I said. I wasn’t going to be defeated by a silly Scottish hill.
I did stop a few times on the walk – only to admire the view you understand – and it was certainly worth the climb. There were spectacular views over Loch Lochy (yes, I think it’s a silly name too), Loch Linnhe and Lock Eil. In the distance were other peaks in the Nevis Range including Geal Charn, Glas Bheinn, Beinn, Bhan Gairich and many more that I struggled to pronounce let alone spell.
The air was thinner and fresher far away from car exhausts and factory emissions. A breeze tugged at our jackets. Lots of people were sitting on the rocks admiring the view or maybe just having a rest from the climb.
“Which one is Ben Nevis?” asked Madam.
“I think it’s that one,” I said pointing at a likely suspect behind us.
“Or maybe that one,” I said pointing to another.
“It could be that one,” I said with less certainty, pointing to a third. They all seemed to look alike.
“I’ll look at Google maps” said Madam.
It turned out to be the first one I pointed out. It isn’t a lot higher than surrounding mountains. In fact it isn’t that high at all as mountains go, it tops at 1345 metres (4411 feet) and would probably would be an insignificant unnamed hill in the Rockies or Alps. I had expected something high and craggy. Something difficult to climb and maybe even snow capped but it looked more like a big grassy hill with one slightly rocky face. It was still lovely to see but more hill walking than mountain climbing.
When we got to the bus stop forty-five minutes before the scheduled departure for Inverness there was already a small knot of people smoking, their rucksacks leaning against the wall. The bus was there but the driver refused to acknowledge anybody. Madam gave him a cheery good morning and he snapped back ‘not loading yet’ and closed the door.
She pushed her nose against the door and said “I have to have a seat at the front! I have to!”
Madam doesn’t like buses. She would really like to squash up next to the driver and help with the steering. The driver, unfortunately, continued to be surly and unhelpful and wouldn’t let Madam touch any of the controls.
We did get to sit in the front seat directly behind the driver so that she could give him helpful instructions and guidance should his driving not be up to her exacting standards. In the old school bus days, from this pole position, you could amuse yourself by counting freckles on the drivers bald head or maybe tweaking his ear during a sharp bend in the road to add a certain frisson to the journey. Unfortunately they now have a heavy grey steel bulkhead directly behind the driver so my only visual stimulation for the two hour journey was by reading a poster four inches from the end of my nose, announcing fare changes from March 31st. It was late July. This became a little dull after the fifth reading. The poster expanded at length about revisions and changes. It never used the word increase.
If I craned my neck I had an oblique view from the side window but anything worth looking at had long flashed by before I had a chance to focus. Madam assured me there were lovely views of lochs, rolling hills, stone cottages and herds of wild deer.
And so passed two hours in the Scottish highlands.
We had a brief look around Inverness and liked the look of it so much were went back down to the hotel reception and told them we would be staying a third night. We looked on the Google to decide what to do during our two full days here. Inverness Castle? Culloden Battlefield? A cruise on Lock Ness including Urquhart Castle? A bus to Urquhart? A walk along the river? A whisky distillery? So many choices, so little time.
“Let’s find somewhere to eat while we think about it,” I suggested.
I looked on Trip Advisor. “One of the top rated restaurants is just down the road. It has views of the castle.” I told her.
It was only 5pm but, being old, we like to have dinner early.
We walked in and the young waiter told us that they were having a staff meeting but could seat us in a minute. As soon as he turned his back the manager walked up and slowly looked us up and down. He raised his nose in the air and said “I can probably squeeze you in at 9:15, there may be a table by the toilets by then.”
“I have a coupon for a £1.99 meal at McDonald’s” I told Madam but she was already heading for another restaurant by the river where we had a nice dinner and a multi-coloured rainbow cocktail for a mere £67.50.
A post-dinner stroll along the river front took us past the brown stone cathedral, not much bigger than a parish church. I walked up to the entrance with a view to seeing how badly we would be shafted for entrance charges tomorrow.
I could hear singing. Maybe the choir was rehearsing. It turned out to be a free concert by an orchestra and choir from Switzerland playing pieces from Mozart and Beethoven. We found a seat on a pew near the back and enjoyed it so much we ended up staying for the rest of the concert. Their final number was Auld Lang Syne sang in English with a German accent. And it’s not often you get to hear that in a cathedral. The small but enthusiastic audience numbered less than the performers. I felt bad thinking they would be charging for entrance and here they were offering free concerts. In fact, I felt so bad I was tempted to toss a coin in the collection tin but I managed to resist. You can’t let temptation win all the time.
A furious knocking followed by a young woman shouting, and I mean shouting here, “Natasha! It’s Rebecca! Let me in! I can hardly wait to get in my bed!” at 3am isn’t something you want to hear under normal circumstances.
We had seen several scantily clad young women, their secrets all on view so to speak, heading out from the hotel the previous evening for a 21st birthday celebration. I would have liked to give you a more detailed description of the young ladies but Madam only allowed me the tiniest and briefest of glances before she snapped “stop staring! I think they are in the room opposite ours.”
And she was right.
Coupled with what sounded like a motorcycle doing wheelies in the lane outside our room several times during the night and a ghostly creaking from the floorboards of the room above, neither of us slept well. Mustn’t grumble though, we had a lovely big room in a river front hotel with a massive bed and a fine view of a row of dustbins.
We had the hotel book us a guided minibus trip on Monday to some local attractions including Urquart Castle and Culloden. I looked at the price of taxis to the outlying attractions and it would have come to far more than the cost of an organised tour.
“Make sure the guide is wearing a kilt!” said Madam as she booked the tour.
With Sunday to ourselves, we walked along the river towards the Botanic gardens, stopping frequently to admire views of the river and take photographs. The River Ness is shallow but fast flowing as it passes through the city. A cool breeze blew up from the river.
“Brrr” said Madam, as she looked out over the water.
A man was sitting motionless in the river, submerged up to his neck.
“It’s part of the Highland Games”, I told her, “it’s the final of the How Long Can You Sit Naked in the Freezing River Ness” challenge.
“A naked Scotsman? Really?”
She started to walk down the bank.
“It will be a while before he comes out my sweet. He’s been in there since last Friday.”
The Botanic gardens were wonderful. Far better than any naked Scotsman. The outside area had borders planted to demonstrate a wide variety of growing conditions, almost all had an explosion of colour. A tropical glasshouse mimicked the hot, humid regions and was packed with tropical plants from around the world. The adjoining arid glasshouse had hundreds of species of cacti planted amongst 75 tonnes of rock. It’s free to visit, relying on volunteers, plant sales and the attached cafe for support. I liked it so much I even put 20p in the donations box and bought a drink in the cafe.
“There’s a midge in your hair!” said Madam as we left the Botanic Gardens.
“Really? I haven’t noticed any here.”
She picked through my hair like a monkey looking for fleas.
“Well, at least one,” she said, looking at the end of her finger.
Before our trip everyone had warned us that the midges were bad this year and we would need a strong insect repellent and probably netting face guards. Madam researched the internets for the most effective midge repellent and ordered the recommended Smidge online after a fruitless search of local stores. I fully expected the last words I would hear would be ‘fe fi fo fum I smell the blood of an Englishman’ before a million midges descended on me and stripped the flesh from my bones while I rolled screaming on the ground.
Before we left the hotel on our first day in Fort William, Madam stripped naked and sprayed herself liberally from head to toe with Smidge. I have pictures which can be posted online for a suitably large consideration. We walked through Fort William and trekked the hills around Ben Nevis for most of the day and only saw a single insect. Since then we were outside in four different areas of Scotland and were never bothered by midges. We didn’t use the repellent after the first day. I’m beginning to think the whole midge thing is an invention by the Scots to keep the English away.
We crossed the river on one of the swaying metal pedestrian bridges and walked through the town past the museum (closed on Sundays) and the Victorian Market (mostly closed) to Inverness Castle (closed to visitors). There are fabulous views from the castle grounds over the river and city.
Just below the castle walls there is a rectangular grey building all along one side. Try and think of the ugliest building you can. Now double the ugly factor. I suppose there are worse buildings in the world but this is beside the river, right next to the castle of one of the most attractive cities in the UK. How could this ever have happened? An architect must have though it would look in keeping with the surroundings. A town planner must have agreed. Even the builder could have looked at the plans and thrown them in the river. The sad fact is that somebody probably got an award.
The guided tour conveniently started right next door to the hotel at 9am and the guide, wearing a kilt of course, shook everyone’s hand as we boarded the minibus. There were only six of us on the tour which took us to Loch Ness, Urquhart Castle, Culloden Battlefield, Clava Cairns, Beauly Priory and to see some Highland Cattle, all in eight hours. It sounds a lot to see all in one day and it was. Probably too much. Everything was a bit of a rush and I would have been happy to see just two or three things and get to spend some time at each. Two of the visits were very obviously just to garner commission which left something of a sour taste.
Our kilted guide was great though and he did linger longer at the Culloden Battlefield which, for me, was the highlight of the trip. There can’t be many people who have stood in the middle of Culloden and heard a Scotsman recite word-perfect Robert Burns’ ‘Address to a Haggis.’
The Battle of Culloden was the final confrontation of the Jacobite rising of 1745 where the forces of Charles Stuart (Bonnie Prince Charlie) were decisively defeated by the government forces commanded by the Duke of Cumberland. The battle lasted only an hour, with the Jacobites suffering a bloody defeat. Between 1,500 and 2,000 Jacobites were killed or wounded in the brief battle. In contrast, only about 300 government soldiers were killed or wounded. The conflict was the last pitched battle fought on British soil. Stone markers to each Scottish clan of those killed sit, weathered and fading, alongside the paths through the battlefield.
The Duke of Cumberland earned the sobriquet ‘Butcher’ following his orders to kill the wounded and captured Jacobites. The following year the duke was given an honorary doctorate from the University of Glasgow. Make of that what you will.
“We can do this! We can push through! We can make it!” said Madam.
We weren’t running a marathon or climbing a mountain but travelling from Inverness to Eastbourne by train all in one day.
“As long as we don’t have to use the Tube. It’s far too hot for the Tube” she added as an afterthought.
“It’s over eleven hours my sweet” I said.
“I want to sleep in my own bed tonight! We can do this!” She replied.
She was silent for a while, then looked at me and then added “remember, no Tube. I can’t do the Tube in this heat.”
Had we had some insight as to how our day would turn out we might well have booked another night in the hotel, pulled the covers over our head and refused to leave our room.
We caught the 9.44 train from Inverness to Edinburgh, found a seat and sat back to enjoy the scenery.
A steam train was sitting, belching black smoke, as we pulled into Aviemore station. This was the starting point for the steam heritage Strathspey Railway which runs from Aviemore along the Speyside Way to Broomhill, some ten miles away. For a mere £23.75 I could travel ten miles each way in a rickety carriage on hard seats, which made my £30 for 150 miles in an air-conditioned carriage something of a bargain.
The regular rail line skirts the edge of the Cairngorm National Park. Although the West Highland line is billed as the most picturesque, this line isn’t too shabby. Rocky streams meander through fields along the line. In the distance are the craggy peaks of the Cairngorm mountain range. Open heathland and pine forests line much of the route through the park. An osprey flew low over the treetops. Occasionally the road would run parallel with the rail line giving us a glimpse of a slow moving line of cars and camper vans. An elderly man was standing by a parked van and waved as the train went by. You take your excitement where you can at our age.
As we neared Edinburgh the land became flatter. We ran alongside vast sandy beaches, the tide in the far distance. There were small towns and villages every couple of miles. They all looked so attractive that I wanted to stop at every one, explore the streets, sit on the beach for a while. Maybe stay a day or two. But it wasn’t to be, the train hurtled past every village and we had a connection to make at Edinburgh.
The train was scheduled to arrive in Edinburgh at 13:20. It was seven minutes late, not so bad considering it was a three and a half hour journey, but enough to make us miss our 13:30 connection to London. No problem, there’s another train at 14:00 we thought.
We found a seat on the 14:00, always a plus on this busy service, and settled back for a four and a half hour journey. We pulled into Newcastle right on time and sat. And sat. Thirty minutes later there was an announcement that there were problems with the overhead cables further down the line and that this electric train was cancelled and we needed to move to a diesel train on platform four. We waited, watching the information board. No train appeared. Another announcement. The diesel would now be from platform two. We ran over a bridge to the new platform struggling with heavy suitcases and, by some miracle, managed to get two seats. Several people were forced to stand in any available space.
After a few minutes the diesel train lurched forward and we travelled slowly to York, where we stopped and even more people boarded the train.
We waited. And waited. Eventually an announcement told us that the train was overcrowded and some people would have to get off. A couple of people did but most refused to move. This turned out just to be an excuse as commuter train are normally even more crowded. We sat there for over an hour. Every member of staff seemed clueless as to the problem. Eventually they all ran away and hid. Finally another announcement told us that the train would be continuing to London but would have to divert via Lincoln due to the line blocked as they were repairing the power cables at Grantham. This was going to take an extra hour and we should arrive in London at 22:10.
We had at least another three and a half hours before we would reach London. The train was crowded. We were hemmed in by suitcases. It was hot and stuffy. The toilets were blocked or didn’t flush. There was no water to the washbasins. A Scotsman at a neighbouring table had drunk five cans of Stella Artois and was becoming louder and more raucous with every passing mile. To even get to the buffet car for a coffee would have meant wading through dozens of sweaty bodies apologising to every person you trod on or elbowed on the bucking and swaying train. I tried to think of worse place to spend the next three hours. Maybe at a Barry Manilow concert but even then it was close.
Madam became increasing unhappy and kept muttering that we wouldn’t have this problem if we had driven. She was even less happy when I told her we would have less than thirty minutes to make the last train out of London at 22:46 and the only hope we had was to go via Tube. We ended up running with our suitcases in a panic across half of London and a mercifully short Tube journey and managed to make the train with a single minute to spare.
Just when we thought it couldn’t possible get worse, they announced that there was a replacement bus service from Lewes to Eastbourne. We arrived home hot, sweaty, exhausted and just a little grumpy a little before 2am.
“So how was your day?” I asked Madam as I got into bed.
The only reply was a soft snoring.
Pictures from the trip can be found here