It had seemed like a good idea when I booked it. I’d done the Caledonian Sleeper before from London, so this time I thought I would just meander across to Preston on a Northern Rail service over the Pennines on a Sunday evening, catching the Caledonian Sleeper at its last English joining point just after midnight.
It was a balmy summer’s evening. Hours were whiled away in a pub close to Preston station watching Spain hammer Italy in the European Championship final. Still hours left before my train would arrive and the finally the wrong side of a locked pub door, I stumbled upon a curious sculpture outside the Preston Corn Exchange that still resonates with me to this day.
In 1842 Preston cotton mill workers went on strike in protest at huge wage cuts. The resulting stand-off and civil unrest resulted in the mayor ordering the military to fire on the protestors. In a scene reminiscent of the Peterloo Massacre, John Mercer, William Lancaster, George Sowerbutts and Bernard McNamara, the youngest at 17 years of age, were killed. The Preston Martyrs Memorial now stands on Lune Street outside the Corn Exchange, where the men were shot. It’s a rare reminder of how the freedom and rights we now take for granted were won at great cost by our ancestors. People’s history and the battle for suffrage in this country, which in turn shaped our society, are generally ignored by our history books and so monuments such as the Lune Street Memorial deserve to be cherished.
The Sleeper finally arrived in Preston, I boarded and before I knew it I was in Pitlochry in the early morning. I picked up a car and headed west. After a night in Oban, the hotel for the second night would be near Duror between Oban and Fort William, whose very keen new owner had been badgering me for business. The drive along Loch Tay from Kenmore to Killin was jaw-droppingly gorgeous. Next stop Crianlarich, then Tyndrum, Dalmally and Oban, with varying success hotel-wise. Mum looms large whenever I’m north of the border and I managed a little time for thought at Connel Beach, where we had scattered her ashes amongst the pebbles few years earlier in a place she loved. I finally made my way to Duror for my strangest night in a hotel and one that still haunts me to this day.
It was in the middle of nowhere, on the road between Oban and Fort William, as previously mentioned, but with nothing else of note around it. The drive led up to the hotel through pleasant gardens. All good so far. Parking up, I noticed peacocks loose in the grounds. A little unusual, but endearingly so. I pushed the door into Reception. And pushed. And pushed. The brand new carpet clearly hadn’t been fitted to allow the main door customers would use to enter the hotel to pass over it. I put my shoulder to work and got through, centimetre by centimetre. A little unusual, though not quite so endearing. My room had a door that had been stripped to the grain, then painted over haphazardly with a thin layer of brown paint. Brown. Was this shabby chic? The sign on the bedroom door was one of those plastic oblongs you would have seen on my childhood bedroom door back in the 1970s with “Robert” written on it and maybe a picture of a car. Whilst my name wasn’t on this one, just a number, I recall there was a picture of a car! Was this retro? The room itself was….well, I just mentioned shabby chic….it was one of those words but not the other.
This was the only time in a hotel when I’ve considered escape. Escape from the middle of nowhere, escape from my childhood bedroom but without the comforting Rotherham United poster, escape from the peacocks and the hotel door that required the assistance of the Scotland rugby forwards to break into reception. But I didn’t leave. Where else would I go? Travelling alone can occasionally, only occasionally, feel like a lonely existence. I missed mum. I missed my wife and I missed my daughters. I like my own company, but for once this isolation was anything but splendid. I braced myself and headed for the dining room.
The dining room was rammed with a German coach party. The staff consisted of a small group of Bangladeshi guys, totally rushed off their feet, but incredibly polite and willing to please. The food was a hearty version of meat and two veg. The desert was buffet style and one of the choices was a little pot of yoghurt from Aldi with the price tag still on it. 13p. Crikey, I felt special.
I retired to my childhood bedroom ready for the following day’s meeting with the hotelier, a businessman new to the hotel trade, having already formed my opinion that I would nod politely, spout some platitudes, then run for the hills at the first opportunity.
A wake-up call wasn’t necessary. At 4am there was a peacock screeching outside my window, the bright sunshine of midsummer in Scotland streaming through the wafer-thin curtains of my childhood bedroom. Breakfast was hearty full-Scottish, served by the same extremely polite, willing and hard-working Bangladeshi lads who had checked me in, served me dinner, tended the bar until late, etc.
The hotelier arrived and beckoned me into his office. A charming man, he told me that he only employed people from back home in Bangladesh because the locals were, in his words, lazy. He was quite desperate for business, so I nodded, spouted platitudes, then made haste back down the drive as soon as I could, dodging the peacocks, heading back to civilisation.
Something wasn’t right there and I wasn’t hanging around to find out what it was. The reality is sobering. The hotelier was jailed in 2015 for three years on the charge of human trafficking. The reports I’ve read describe how he had exploited four men, charging them a huge amount of money to travel to Britain for work, paying them lower salaries than expected and making them work excessive hours. The tale of the Bangladeshi lads I had met is now a harrowing one; expecting a new life and a job in a hotel in a British city, they were stuck miles away from anywhere, unable to speak to anyone about their plight, working sometimes eighteen hours a day, sleeping on hotel room floors, gardening, cooking, cleaning, waiting. Four guys. It was ironic that this trip had begun with Chartist rebellions in Preston, yet it later transpired that I had witnessed first-hand what the press has reported as “modern day slavery”. I had driven away from Duror in relief that I would never have to go back again to the worst hotel in which I had ever stayed. Hindsight has revealed that it was far worse than I could ever have imagined.
Next stop Fort William, then the wonderful drive parallel to the West Highland Line through Glenfinnan to Mallaig, detouring around Loch Morar, Scotland’s fifth largest loch and the deepest freshwater body in the British Isles. On this sunny July afternoon there wasn’t a ripple to be seen; it was a picture of serenity, perfect peace, splendid isolation. Holed up in nearby Mallaig for the night in a less challenging hotel, I dined whilst gazing out to the following day’s adventure. Skye.
Mallaig is the end of the line for the West Highland Railway northern branch. It’s a place to arrive hungry, as the fish and chips and legendary. Whilst the fishing boats still search for their catch, Caledonian MacBrayne operates a couple of services out of Mallaig’s ferry harbour. The Small Isles of Rhum, Eigg and Muck can be reached for those with time to spare. But as my day would end in Beauly I had to make do with the short crossing to Armadale on the southern tip of Skye. Driving across the island to the Skye Bridge, I rejoined the mainland, then chugged across the mountains, occasionally criss-crossing the Kyle Line, that other great railway journey of Scotland.
The Kyle Line is a true coast-to-coast experience. Leaving behind the magnificent views of Skye from Kyle of Lochalsh, you are quickly met with another highlight, the picturebook village of Plockton, set in a sheltered bay, complete with palm trees. If it seems familiar, the tv series Hamish Macbeth and the film The Wicker Man were filmed here. From Plockton Loch Carron dominates the next leg of the journey on the left side as the train heads for the wild mountains and forests, with views of the great Torridon Peaks in the distance. Next up is Loch Luichart before we reach Dingwall, with mighty Ben Wyvis in the distance to the north. The train then glides along the southern shore of the Beauly Firth to approach Inverness, some 80 miles from its starting point.
But my day ended in Beauly with a visit to its two hotels and the ruined priory. It is said that Mary Queen of Scots dubbed it “beau lieu” (beautiful place) during a visit. Whilst it is a pleasant enough town, and I would stay there again, it doesn’t work for rail groups as the station platform isn’t big enough. I was there searching for an alternative to Inverness, but every day of the itinerary would have begun and ended with pointless coach transfers to and from Inverness anyway. That said, I enjoyed my stay at the coaching inn owned by the Frasers of Lovat and serving produce grown and reared on their estate. This being Thursday and high summer, the added spectacle of the Beauly Pipers marching down the High Street to the Main Square was a real bonus. There is something about pipe bands that stirs me and I can feel the goosebumps as I write this.
The A9 took me back through the Grampians, roughly following the railway track. Aviemore, Dalwhinnie, Kingussie and down to Pitlochry. I took in Queen’s View on the outskirts of Pitlochry, the fantastic vista across the lochs to distant Rannoch. Up in the hills above Pitlochry is the Edradour Distllery, at that time, before the resurgence of small artisan distillers, the self-styled “smallest distillery” with a crisp single malt hand-made by three men in the peaceful pretty haven. Not for the first time my tour ended without a dram, just a pleasant but annoyingly soft drink before I got back behind the wheel, back down to town. Base for the final night was the Atholl Palace, one of those wonderful Victorian era Scottish hydropathic spa hotels, a grand baronial style building so steeped in history that it has its own museum in the former staff quarters in the basement.
I’ve been back many times and will continue to do so. I haven’t even mentioned the coastal views from the train heading over the Tay Bridge and onwards past links courses to Aberdeen. Or the golden October of autumn colours in the Galloway Forest, just off the Burns Country Line. Or Ardnamurchan Point, the wild western tip of Scotland. Or the stunning Isle of Mull, where the charming chieftain of the Clan MacLean, Lachy, showed us around his home, Duart Castle. And there are surely more Caledonian adventures still to come, so be sure to watch this space for the next chapter. Haste ye back.