Caledonia Dreaming Part One
Updated: Jul 5
This is about Scotland. Where do I begin? I’ve started this chapter several times, but scrapped each and every one. My favourite destination of all is also the hardest one to write
I grew up in the north of England. That’s not very far from Scotland. Considering the miles of track I’ve ridden and the miles of road I’ve driven searching for your next holiday, can someone please explain to me why I reached the age of 36 before finally venturing north of the border for the first time?
I love music. I’ve put music tours together. Classical Music tours to central Europe. Blues, Jazz & Rock ‘n’ Roll tours to the Deep South USA. Beatles tours as well. But Glasgow is my favourite music city bar none. “What about Liverpool?” shrieks my parents’ generation. “What about Manchester?” shrieks my own generation. People of various generations in the States may, with reason, insert Memphis or Nashville or New Orleans or Chicago or Detroit or Seattle or San Francisco. But for this ageing indie-kid the Glasgow sound prevails. I won’t bore you with the detail. But if I were to name my top 20 bands ten of them would be from Glasgow and its surrounding new towns. It’s a city crackling with atmosphere and sublime architecture that hopefully recent tragic fires won’t destroy. And on the subject of music, Monorail Music is not connected to this blog, but its record shop is well worth a visit and is co-founded by one of those ten bands in my top 20. But I didn’t make it there until my late 30s. So what took me so long?
My parents spread their wings ever so slightly when my sister and I fled the nest. A second-hand touring caravan was purchased and off they went to join the legion of slow moving and slightly precarious looking vehicles blocking the road to those of us hopelessly stuck behind and already late for our next meeting with a disgruntled hotelier. Fairly soon they made it to Scotland and the scene was set for many wonderful holidays, just dad, mum and the dog. Mum would stock up the van with military precision and off they would go. The route was well worn. The A1 through North Yorkshire, then get your snail-paced caravan-towing kicks on Route 66 (that’ll be the A66 with a bit of poetic license), the M6 past the Lake District and across the border for the first night’s stopover in the village that sounds like a half-heard expletive at Scottish pub closing time, Ecclefechan. The following day would see them clogging up the narrow road skirting the bonnie banks of Loch Lomond, then continuing their never-ending crawl through majestic Glencoe (the greatest road journey on this island?) or through the lochs and glens to the coast at Oban, a town that became my mum’s favourite on this planet. When mum gained an interest in something she would pursue it with vigour and over the years she became a fount of all knowledge for all things Scottish, so deep was her love.
Me? Well, I was busy discovering exciting new places in the name of work. They could keep their Scotland, my old folks, because I was ticking off places way more interesting. Or so I thought. That was due to change and with an almighty bang. I was working for a rail tour company that specialised in holidays all over Europe and the world, yet had never attempted a tour in the UK. Finally, we had devised our first domestic itinerary, a circular tour of Scotland (that still exists all these years later!), and I had two trips booked to recce the routes and hotels. A break from the norm and exciting times ahead.
Then the phone rang in the middle of the night. A phone call at that time is never going to bear good news. My parents had set off with their touring caravan on the first day of their latest jaunt around Scotland. They had broken their journey, as usual, in Ecclefechan. I may have mentioned already that its name sounds like a collection of profanities and I’ve passed it many times since, usually profaning loudly myself, cursing the place where my mum died suddenly that night in early June 2007. My first trip to Scotland was to bring my dad home. I swear it felt like the longest journey of my life, trying to hold it together for him.
Two weeks later, still overcome with grief, I was in Inverness. The following months and years of covering every piece of tarmac, and every iron road too, brought me a connection with my mum that has helped heal her loss, as I discovered bit by bit exactly why she was so smitten with Scotland, then set out to fill holiday brochures with my new darling with almost evangelical fervour.
To get to Inverness I had experienced for the first time the delights of the East Coast Mainline northbound from York. If you have never done it, it is arguably the best mainline journey in the country from York northwards. The friendly Northeast greets you with a great aerial view of historic Durham, before the Tyne Bridges come into view as you enter handsome Newcastle. What follows are long stretches of unspoilt sandy beaches, the criminally uncredited coastline of Northumberland with the mysterious and spiritual Farne Islands in the distance offshore. I’ve only ever passed through Berwick-upon-Tweed, but every time I look down at the town from the track I remind myself that I must stop there some time. A quick jaunt inland and you arrive at Edinburgh Waverley, the station sprawled across the bed splitting the tourist heartthrob of the Royal Mile from the bustling retail queen of Princes Street.
As we wait to change trains at Waverley this seems like a timely interlude to discuss the merits of the so-called “Central Belt”. I’ve already expressed why I love Glasgow, but Edinburgh is probably the greatest city on this island. It has it all. A place rammed with tourists is usually rammed with tourists for a reason, yet in all my visits there since I’ve never felt the crowds to be intrusive. It’s walkable (if hilly), young, jam-packed with life and culture. And it has a great record shop for vinyl lovers too, “Unknown Pleasures” down High Street, just about doable if you have an hour between trains.
You have two choices of route. The first is to continue with the East Coast Mainline operator on an inter-city train via Stirling, but I would recommend a second option. Scotrail runs a regular, more commuter-style service between the two cities, but their route takes you over the Firth of Forth across the UNESCO World Heritage masterpiece Forth Bridge. The Highland Line from Perth roughly follows the A9, but why keep your eyes on the road ahead when you can gaze at the Grampians from a train? The names now trip off my tongue like old friends. Dunkeld & Birnam, Pitlochry, Blair Atholl, Newtonmore, Dalwhinnie, Kingussie, Aviemore, Carrbridge and Inverness.
After the following day visiting Inverness hotels, we took a train back to Aviemore for dinner, where my German companion chose a Yorkshire Pudding filled with haggis. A taxi transported us to Boat of Garten on the Strathspey Steam Railway line to join the Royal Scotsman, half-way through its 4 day rail cruise, mooring for the night with after dinner drinks in the ornate bar. There seemed to be more staff on board the train than guests and, although their service was undoubtedly attentive and incredibly professional, this boy from Rotherham was slightly unnerved at their forelock-tugging.
When we met our fellow guests we understood. The high ticket price of this 4 day trip (around £4,000 per person back then, if my memory serves me correctly) attracted a customer from a different planet to Rotherham. And I don’t mean Barnsley. There was the nouveau riche Russian family who kept themselves to themselves because of the language barrier. A diminutive but stout middle-aged Texan millionaire with side-parting, seemingly transported directly from a 1980s Dallas film set, was talking about himself loudly by the bar. Sadly, his wife didn’t get to speak. Three middle-aged female New Yorkers, who had been dropped off in Edinburgh for a few days by their golfer husbands, were also talking loudly about themselves and about being “cougars”. Amidst the spectacle of self-aggrandisement on rails stood poor Claudia and I, plus a lovely couple from Lancashire, wide-eyed with their taster of how the other half live, whose children had bought this special experience as a gift for their 25th wedding anniversary. Come to think of it, thank heavens for that lovely couple from Lancashire!
My bedroom was superb, as was the train itself, the crew’s service and the food too, rustled up in a tiny train galley. At breakfast we were quizzed by the “cougars”. Just who is this mysterious duo who stepped aboard last night? Unfussed by the speculation, my teutonic travelling companion tucked into her breakfast haggis (haggis number two, Claudia!) and later we set off southwards through the Cairngorms towards Perth. You know the score – Aviemore, Kingussie, Dalwhinnie – and the malt was flowing in the bar car. The Texan millionaire was talking loudly about himself at the bar, the “cougars” were talking loudly about their forthcoming hotel stay in Edinburgh (“at the Bal-mo-rahhhhhl”) and the lovely Lancashire couple were ensconced in their well-earned luxury trip of a lifetime. And inside of me a silent but volatile rage simmered perilously close to the surface, threatening to scream, “STOP TALKING ABOUT YOURSELVES AND LOOK OUT OF THE BLOODY WINDOW. YOU ARE MISSING SOME OF THE BEST BLOODY SCENERY ON THIS ISLAND!”
But I didn’t say it. Of course I didn’t. I’m way too polite. Instead, we moored for the night in a siding at Perth station, had dinner (haggis number 3 within 24 hours, Claudia!) listening to the droning sounds of the self-obsessed, after which I escaped the confines of the train and pounded the proud streets of Perth in the mid-evening drizzle.
Two weeks later I was back again, back to reconnect with my mum, this time in the western Highlands and it was there that I really fell in love with Scotland, just as she had done. Glencoe, the West Highland Line, Oban and the islands, white sands, lochs and glens, and deep forested ravines where you could close your eyes, open them again and swear you were in the Canadian Rockies. The sound of nothing but nature in the raw. But that’s another chapter. As they say up there, “Haste ye back.”