I’m reliably informed some folk like to read these. Here’s another & it’s a long un.
Two years ago this very week we in familiar territory once more.
September ‘07. Another trip up North….
We both finished work earlier than expected on the Friday afternoon so decided to cut down our journey time and head for a bed and breakfast in the Borders. For the third time this year Scotland was our destination of choice for a holiday. The Highlands, especially are like a drug to both of us and we needed another fix. This time I’d invested in a pair of moderately expensive binoculars to enhance our experience. Much to Wallet’s chagrin – ‘waste of money’ she opined. I was undeterred.
After a meal on the northern edge of England we arrived in the small Scottish border village of Ecclefechan. It was already almost dark. Our digs were right opposite the birthplace of one Thomas Carlyle. Until the night before his name was only familiar to me from signposts. I had no idea he was an ‘essayist and social thinker.’ Much like myself but probably of much higher regard. Because he was good at it.
There is a stone statue of him on the edge of Ecclefechan, and I can’t see that happening here.
He had apparently hardened his views as he approached old age – he lived until 86 – and from being an enlightened Calvinist turned toward feudalism. My path has been similar , though I’d not use those labels. He apparently ‘walked’ to Edinburgh – some ninety miles to attend University. He must have arrived home very late, and set off early.
Carlyle’s father was a stonemason, and had in fact built the house in which we soundly slept – in a four poster bed !The proprietor of our ‘guest house’ warned us off the local pub and recommended a walk to the ‘country hotel’ just outside the village. We took his advice but the place looked far too grand for a pair of casually dressed travellers to quaffe a couple of pints before bedtime. We ‘one-eighte’d’ and headed for the Ecclefechan Hotel. There was no ’Abandon Hope’ sign above the doors and as we approached the only sound was the sound of silence. It was almost deserted, save for two workmen in the kind of grubby hi-viz gear I’d happily left in the cab of my lorry only hours earlier. It transpired they were ‘mackems’ – a colloquial term for gadgeys from Sunderland, that new city in the north-east . They were there to wire up a wind farm, under construction in the nearby hills . We conversed a little but they were plainly tired and soon headed for bed. Not before they had presented Sue with an unwanted pint. So there we were, in a deserted bar at ten ‘o clock on a Friday night.
As we contemplated our own repose the pubs owner came down to say hello. News of our arrival had travelled. . A biggish man of pugilistic appearance. Ageing somewhat and into his sixties but still not the kind of landlord one might mess with, I surmised. He told us of his plans for expansion and investment and we wished him good luck – I fear he’ll need it in the task ahead.
Breakfast was excellent, if a little niggardly in portion, the splendid taste of the sausage and bacon (one apiece) left me yearning for more. I contented myself with extra toast.
Our objective: Mallaig, was still some five hours away. The former ‘second city of Empire’ was soon behind us though and the familiar sights of Loch Lomond and Glencoe followed as the Audi ate up the 370 miles to what we consider to be our Nirvana.
Our home for the week was really a former ‘granny flat’ generous in size and tacked into a large bungalow on the edge of town. Our hostess Jean, was welcoming and friendly and as the place was being painted externally promptly gave us a twenty per cent reduction of the already bargain price !
‘Runival’ was a revelation. We had an un-interrupted view of the small isles of Eigg and Rhum, and a small patio area on which to sit and gawp at the offshore lumps and bumps which hold us in such thrall.
Mallaig was a half mile away , a taxing and undulating hike. The hills were a challenge but we took them up on it several times in those first few days, when the car was somewhat neglected. I didn’t realise I was quite so unfit but the walk definitely got easier as the week went by. How my pulse pumped and my heart raced, I can remember when this was a joy, yet after a few billion beats more one cherishes the muscle and realises it has more past than future.
downhill to Mallaig
The weather we experienced was typically Scottish, and frankly all over the place. A couple of really wet, somewhat dismal days with no sign of those islands – they may as well not have been there. They lie about ten miles offshore. Most of the time it was dry though, and hardly ever cold. The two glorious days of sunshine compensated us well though and we made the most of them.
Come Monday we took an eight hour non-landing ‘cruise to ‘Canna’ another of the small isles, not visible from Mallaig. Calling at Eigg, and Rhum, Caledonian MacBrayne’s ‘Lochnevis’ car ferry is a regular sight, plying her trade in these waters.
A few others had made the considerable commitment to this all-day voyage . One couple in particular caught our eye. Americans, possibly in their early seventies. I’d sat beside them and realised he was resting his head on her bosom, and she was picking at a myriad of small sores on his bald head. Rather reminiscent of the way a monkey combs it’s mates coat, looking for salt, and bugs. Like myself, several passers by seemed to find this rather off putting, judging by their facial expressions anyway. I sidled away and thought no more of it.
Later the couple appeared on my radar once more, as we approached the landing stage at Canna. The sprightly septuagenarian had grabbed hold of the ships rail and was performing a kind of squat thrust routine for all to see. I’ll give her due she was more nimble than I. Her husband later enquired of myself ‘Are we going to Muck now?’
I resisted any stab at lavatorial humour and merely answered in the negative. ‘Muck is Thursday’s, mate’
a beaming Wallet
A leisurely week gave us a chance to find out more of Mallaig. We ate in the ‘Fishermen’s Mission’ for the first time. A fine institution staffed by friendly, jovial ladies which seems to have a permanent book sale in progress. I bought ‘The King’ an autobiography by Denis Law, a football hero I have long respected, both in sky blue, dark blue and even red shirt. He was an icon before the word became fashionable, and played in an era which I still hold dear. A real bargain read at just two quid. Those wet days didn’t daunt. I merely dallied with Denis, as his life unfolded. From humble beginnings which made my own childhood seem like that of a Prince !
We also visited the ‘Mallaig Heritage Centre’ to learn about the places past. Only a viable port since the 1850’s the centre celebrates everything Mallaigish – which inevitably involves fish. One memorable old black and white photo of the travelling army of girls who would gut the fish and throw them into large barrels was captioned ‘although not a few of the girls were comely and attractive, after only a few minutes at the work their faces, necks, and busts took on a ghastly appearance – covered in gill, gut and bone’ Nice work if you can get it eh ! I bet those old inns of Mallaig can tell a few stories.
We braved Arisaig under greying skies. Seeking solace at the Rhu Café and we were once more disappointed as the first three items we asked for were all ‘off the menu’ . I’m afraid this place is now off our own menu. Trendy it might be but the owner carries an air of indifferent incompetence as fare as I’m concerned. Exasperated we just drank frothy coffee before walking into ancient woodland for a wander. As we crossed the quiet main road I spotted the biggest, hairiest caterpillar I’d seen in my life crossing with us at a speed of about two miles per day ! I managed to assist the creature to safety thanks to a little leaflet I had in my pocket – I’d not – unless pressed – have been able to pick it up in my hand. I briefly contemplated the irony of being hit by the mobile Butchers van as I bent down in the road, fortunately it appeared seconds later. Caterpillar, and I were spared.
a seafaring place
The earthy ‘Marine Bar’ was our choice of watering hole. One of the boozers in Mallaig has closed down – soon to be turned into and Indian restaurant it seems – BLOODY SACRILEGE – are there no frontiers to this remorseless advance? There is now just ‘The Clacchain’ along with the ‘Marine’, which boasts an inner wall of sheer rock – a quite remarkable sight just off the bar itself.
A range of staff served us well, from a native of Perth-shire, a helpful Scotsman past retirement age to a sweet young South African lass called Gladys. She was tiny, and her head was just visible over the beer pumps. Wallet suggested she might be in her gap-year? I stifled a mild chuckle as to my knowledge this custom has not yet established itself in the townships from whence Gladys came.
Indeed it was a cosmopolitan crowd in in the pub. Accents from all over the world as behoves the best of seafaring places.
The week was passing by far too quickly. We chose another couple of restaurants for meals. Excellent they were too. The nights were often spent back in the granny-flat watching a dvd or two on the tiny telly. ‘Borat’ the Kazakhstan character’s ‘cultural learnings of USA for make benefit glorious peoples of Kazakhstan’ spoof for instance. Funny in parts, but uncomfortable in others. I did laugh at times but this movie marks another downward notch on our scale of moral decline if I’m honest. I felt somewhat sorry for some of his American ‘victims’ however those evangelical Christians were every bit as scary as Al-Qaeda in my opinion. Watch it, only if you’ve now’t better to do. ‘Children of Men’ also flopped in my eyes, although perhaps it merits another viewing on a bigger screen.
After a longer stay than usual in the ‘Marine’ one dampish evening we bought fish and chips – of high renown, and ate them as we climbed the hill back home. Seldom has battered Haddock tasted better. Complimented by my aperitif – three pints of Guinness . May Heaven hold such treats – simple pleasures are the best. Although the price tag is becoming ever heftier – ten quid for two fish suppers! No cheap pleasures, these simple ones. Perhaps I need to re-evaluate ‘simplicity.’
we love this place
We explored the Morar estuary as the ebb tide receded, leaving a massive expanse of pristine sand. Pondering the prime position of a small house we almost bought two years ago. It needed much work but for somebody with twice as much money as us it would have been ideal. I can’t think of many finer locations for a holiday home. We strolled the sand alone, only the hoot of the passing ‘Jacobite’ steam train disturbed our reverie. A passing Heron glided across the now narrow river to stand regal in the shallow water, wading and searching out morsels.
Friday soon dawned, and for the first time in a while the islands were clearly visible. We headed out for Arisaig ‘Rhu’ (a gaelic word meaning peninsula) which is an arm of land extending southward. Seals were cavorting, splashing and basking on temporary islands of rock . The binoculars I’d invested in proved invaluable – when I could prise them from Wallet’s grasp.
At the very end of the Rhu road I took a photograph of our old car, more out of appreciation than anything else, and I do enjoy it’s fine, Teutonic form . On examining the results I noticed a deer, to which I’d been completely oblivious peering down at us from a higher rock. Closer examination revealed four of the beauties munching on the vegetation. A sign on a nearby gate warned us that ‘culling and stalking’ was in progress. Given the number of dead beasts at the roadside a cull is needed.
Their numbers are growing, and a well aimed bullet is much better then bouncing off a bonnet, not to mention the risk to human life. In most cases, still more precious than mere deer.
Again the place (the Rhu) was deserted, save for a couple of Oxfordians who were walking the Rhu for the first time. In their sixties they enquired of the area and like a gushing , enthusing chatterbox I filled them in. She was walking with the aid of a stick, in a way which suggested much difficulty. I counted my blessings – I’d wanted to buy a walking cane myself this holiday but somehow the sight of this lady put me off the idea. I’ll probably need one soon enough, temporarily I hope.
I explained how the island of Rhum so often had a topping of cloud. Male Oxford compared it to the pall of smoke over Didcot Power Station. I sensed our conversation might be short at this point and was proved correct. We exchanged ‘Meldrew-vian’ notes on the drawbacks of the ‘real world’ a few hundred miles south, and then we were gone.
One final walk on Camusdarach beach confirmed what we already knew. For us this place is beyond compare. Especially under predominantly blue skies. The tide was out and we discovered a further stretch of sand unbeknown to us we’d spotted it from the ‘Lochnevis’ out on the sound earlier and were delighted to walk upon it. We’d also gleaned that in the war years the dunes were used as a firing range for the Commando’s and shell cases still turn up on a regular basis. Perhaps I might ‘waste’ some more money on a metal detector before long.
Returning to Runival we at last managed an hour on the patio in warm sunshine. Twenty four hours earlier it had been battered by winds – the furniture scattered asunder. The contrast as welcome as it was stark. An evening walk on the quayside. ’The Delta Dawn’ was landing her catch. A seal was malingering in the hope of a treat of fish. It was a big ’un too. Large eyes looking disdainfully at a Boxer dog, barking wildly from the deck, obviously infuriated by the marine mammals cheek. To our surprise the Polynesian (I think) deck hand threw several large fish to seal Sue had called ‘Sammy’ and this only irked the hound even more. It’s bark detracted from what should have been an idyllic scene .I half hoped it might fall into the water and receive a good thrashing from said Sammy.
We had cappuccino’s in bucket sized cups at the ‘Garden Tearooms’ – served by another South-African lass – a white one this time so she may well have been on her ‘gap-year’ I didn’t catch her name. Merely leaving her the thirty pence from balance from a fiver for two coffee’s.
A last drink in the Marine Bar , where we were now on nodding terms with a few locals , a final meal in ‘The Cabin’ restaurant and we were headed back up those hills for the final time. Easier now , not because our bodies had been honed over the week – far from it, we’d taken the car !
Up at five on the Saturday for the long drive home. We came via the Real Food Café’ at Tyndrum, and the best bacon butty’s I’d ever tasted – at four quid apiece – more simple pleasure inflation eh?
Work beckons now, and like the silver darlings (Herrings) that provided Mallaig with wealth
in decades past I’m also gutted. However, there are more holidays to pay for and you might have gleaned they ain’t gerrin’ any cheaper !
…but here’s to the next one, and the next
down the hatch & cheerio