Alba ’10

Preface: 1970s – 2010

St James Church ’97

I have noticed for the first time there was a Scotland sometime in my primary school days, hearing Loch Lomond sung in Czech (with lyrics resembling more My Heart’s in the Highlands). Gradually, I was learning more about it, and growing a long-distance soft spot for it. But until the ’89 collapse of the Soviet bloc, my visiting the UK was in the realm of daydreams.

 
 

In ’90, however, after a six-week summer job with five technical college mates of mine in Essex, I spent my first eight days in Scotland. The soft spot turned into love. On the last day I promised myself, in the St James Church in St Andrews, I would be back before eight years passed.

I duly returned for another eight days in ’97. It was a package tour with a then workmate of mine and fairly different from the first time. Not just the mode of travelling and living. I was returning to some of the places. I already knew as much about the country as the guide – that is to say, about those things I could learn by reading. And so on. Anyway, it was quite different but just as good. And I made myself the same promise.

I failed. Initially I was unable to find anybody who would go with me (and who I’d like to go with); later my boozing meant, among other things, not having money enough to go even if I dared to travel alone.

Nevertheless, the tide has turned and by February ’10 I was well off enough to buy another package tour. I still had no friend to go with, but by that time I finally also had guts enough to do at least a package tour without one. As importantly, the ability to read about the country and see its pictures in a totally unprecedented amount after getting online, even communicating with people there, kept rising my appetite for getting back.

Appetite is not the correct expression. I was missing it, terribly. Had I been I born there, I would say I was getting unbearably homesick.

Thus in August ’10 I enjoyed my third eight Scotland days. Again they were, for several reasons, fairly different – but again they were smashing. The following subpages attempt to describe what the trip was like. I was simultaneously writing a detailed description for myself in the book in which I had already wrote journals from the previous two trips. Here I tried to concentrate more on the highlights, moods, anecdotes and so forth, rather than just retype the string of facts.

 

Day -1: Setting off

Chronology (Thu, 12 Aug): Flat – Prague – Germany – Netherlands – Belgium.

Motorway, Germany

As usual, after not having overslept my apprehension nearly evaporated. Listening to Hats Off to the Buskers while getting ready to go might have helped. Anyway, around six in the morning I set off for the Prague train.

I must have been a bit nervy though, as I only realized I’d forgotten my cap in the train before getting on the underground to the meeting point at the Diplomat hotel. As I intended to buy a new one in Scotland anyway I let it be and went on. I was stricken by something completely different: there seemed to be many more handsome guys than I’m used to seeing where I live. Ay, Prague is more densely populated, but I mean more per capita, so to say. The same happens to me whenever I travel to Moravia. Can it be that it’s southern Bohemians, rather than Czechs generally, who as an ethnic group are somewhat unattractive?

Whatever. I got to the hotel well in time, and when the bus arrived, the Knoxplexian in me was grateful for the cap’s loss, as I was assigned seat No 2, just behind the driver. Thus it didn’t matter it wasn’t next to the window – I saw forwards, which was at least just as good. (Later, driving over Scotland and looking through the windscreen, I’d several times remark, “I could watch this film for hours on hours”.) My neighbour, let’s call him VN, because that’s what his initials were, turned out to be going by himself as well. He was sixty, reasonably intelligent, and though certainly more talkative than me, not one of those who hardly ever shut their mouths, or who don’t listen to others talking. In fact, his comparative verbosity only troubled me a bit when he was reminiscing for too long about something of absolutely no concern for me. On the whole we got along surprisingly well.

Of course, I’m running ahead of myself, but there’s nothing to be said about the time spent in Germany except that it was a drag, as for about three hours we were stuck in a traffic jam. In rain. So I may just as well add here that the other participants were generally all right as well, except for a small group which sometimes didn’t seem to realize the tour couldn’t possibly have been tweaked according to everybody’s personal preferences. The majority kept putting them down.

Which was just as well, because the guide was fairly young. Unlike most of us customers, who none the less were generally satisfied with his performance. As regards his knowledge of Scotland … well, when it comes to history and suchlike information obtainable from books &c, I could run rounds around him, but then he wasn’t only doing Scotland tours, and he did know a thing or two I didn’t about the country’s common daily life.

Ah yes, there was one thing that took me by surprise in Germany. Just after the border my mobile vibrated several times, but what I expected to be messages about leaving the area where I could use it were messages I was “in roaming zone one” with such and such tariffs. Which would happen each time we crossed a border. I used to think you needed to do something special to be able to use roaming at all, but perhaps this is one of the more pleasant aspects of globalization. After all, Vodafone’s HQ are in the UK.

 

Day 0: England

Chronology (Fri, 13 Aug): Belgium – France – Calais – The Channel – Dover – Essex – A1 – York (Minstrel – Museum Gardens – city walls, Clifford’s Tower, garden centre – MacDonald’s – railway station – National Railway Museum – city centre) – Teesside.

Micklegate Bar, York

A nasty moment before Calais. Reaching inside my jacket’s breast-pocket for my ID I found it void of my wallet and thus the ID as well. For a while I panicked, the pessimistic part of my brain began to brood about the possibility of having to return without getting to the UK at all, but a meticulous search of my jacket’s other six pockets was eventually successful.

I had already crossed the Channel via the shortest Calais-Dover line one morning back in ’90. Through all the years since then I believed you couldn’t see the French and the English coasts both from the same place. So I was astonished to see the Dover lights while the Calais lights were still visible too. Looking into my ’90 journal just now I’ve read ‘watching the going seabanks of France, fading in a mist, [then] the all-around water’, which explains the misconception. Still, finding out you were firmly convinced about something for twenty years because you’d seen it with your own eyes (or thought you had) and then discovering you’d got it wrong is pretty unsettling.

But overall I enjoyed the crossing, as well as the following journey to York, despite the fact that the drivers had the radio on and I had to reluctantly conclude that British FM radio adverts are as revoltingly stupid as Czech ones. I may have dozed off a few times, but was awake to see the ‘Welcome to the County of Essex’ road sign, and one mentioning Colchester – something I was watching for.

(This rather deserves an explanation: during the unforgettable ’90 summer job we stayed in Ardleigh, so that Essex and Colchester – and Manningtree, good old Mann’tree – will always lie down memory lane for me.)

In York I naturally visited the Minster, climbed the Clifford Tower mound, stepped, after twenty years, inside a UK railway station (back in ’90, as InterRail card-holders, we travelled almost exclusively by trains, and we travelled a lot) and visited the National Railway Museum; but it was walking the city walls that I enjoyed the best. Never mind I was several times caught by a shower, once even the notorious horizontal one, and me bareheaded. I loved it as much as my only previous experience with walkable town walls twenty years ago in Conwy. It seems to me the Conwy walls went all around, without interruptions; the York ones were for free and by the look of them not all the folk I met were tourists. A few looked like locals preferring them as a means of transport to the overcrowded streets – as would I, in all probability, if I lived there.

Of course, I was also exalted from soaking in the feeling that at long last I was back to Britain once more. However, over the nine hours (demanded by some safety regulation as our drivers’ resting time) spent mostly on my feet in a constantly changing weather, and that after some 24 spent mostly in the bus, I was getting fairly tired. Possibly as a consequence of which I also began feeling a little depressed towards the end. In a manner of speaking, the ‘soaking it all in’ was replaced by realizing how much of a mere tourist, guest, in short an outsider I was.

It was a different feeling of detachment than the one I’m used to. I know enough about the country I stay in to be able to pretend I know as much as a native should – only I don’t care about it. Here it was the opposite. Here I wanted to be a part of it – and wasn’t.

Anyway, beautiful as York might be, I felt some relief when it was time to move on. Paradoxically I felt less estranged among the people in the bus, although rather indifferent towards them. Then again, I was still only in the UK, still eager to finally get to Scotland. (And I promise you that even though the feeling would reappear now and than in Scotland, it would never be so intense. Not by far.)

But when we were put up at some hostel near Hartlepool where the sheet was so large that I concluded it was meant to be used as both the bottom and the top sheets, the very “top sheet” idea being something I had never previously encountered outside English literature, I felt again more like an explorer than an outcast.

(One more remark: Never before or after during the travels I’ve seen so many handsome boys. What was strange, even unsettling, was that just about all of them seemed to belong to the ‘late teens’ age bracket – and I’ve always since my own early twenties preferred the early twenties range over any else. Odd.)

 

Day 1: Scotland at last

Chronology (Sat, 14 Aug): Teesside – Durham – Hadrian’s Wall (Chesters fort) – Scottish border – Melrose (Abbey – town) – Blairgowrie and Rattray.

Rattray church

My professional career includes a couple of years stacking shelves in the local Metro Cash & Carry subsidiary, so I was a little taken aback when seeing the hostel we slept in belonged to Metro Inns, but apparently there’s no connection.

Anyway, our first stop that day was in Durham. The cathedral is all right, but I liked St Nicholas Church more, at least until it began to repeat chiming the same melody ad nauseam. I also liked the sloping streets: I’ve spent the first twenty-four years of my life in hilly areas, and still prefer them to flat ones, even though I’ve lived in one of the latter type for almost eighteen years now. (And it was fun to think one was watching ‘a weir on Weir’ before finding out months later the name of the river was actually ‘Wear’.)

The previous two times I caught a cold by the end of my stay in Scotland. It’s a nuisance knowing your continual coughing is a nuisance to others. I was a bit apprehensive about this after the preceding day’s York showers, and there were some in Durham as well. In the end I’d stay all right this time, but for the moment I felt envious of those locals obviously quite comfortable with wearing just T-shirts outdoors. They reinforced my intention to heat less than last year come winter, in case I did find the strength to make the decision and attempt to move to Scotland for good.

I didn’t want to spend any more money than necessary in England lest I miss them in Scotland, so I opted out from visiting the Chesters Roman Fort. Consequently, the only wall I saw at Hadrian’s Wall was this. Not that I regret it. I’ve seen foundations of no longer standing Roman fortifications before, and as long as there are just the foundations, they’re all much of a muchness to me.

And then from Northumberland to Cumbria and … I’m too short-sighted to have been able to read what the sign at the first Saltire we passed said. Was it a ‘Welcome to Scotland’ sign perhaps? (It said ‘New Mills Trout Farm – Fishing – Tearoom – Tackle shop’, but I couldn’t discern this before uploading and zooming in on my laptop back here.) Only according to the road signs we still hadn’t reached Lanercost. Now I know the name as in the Lanercost Chronicles, often cited as a reference for the Wars of Independence. Pro-English reference; could the town be in Scotland today? Presently several English flags reassured me the moment was yet to come. And then, at two p.m. sharp (give or take a minute), we got to the real ‘Welcome to Scotland’ sign.

I did the obvious, i.e. slapped my upper arm with my other hand’s palm and mouthed “Hey Kenny, Jason, Kieren, Aker, Alasdair, a Sheonaidh, Fhaoileig, Fraser, A’m here!” (Rather oddly I forgot Níall, as I’d realize a few minutes later.) And then I was just sitting there, watching Scotland roll by, drinking her in with my eyes and feeling as good as I haven’t for quite some time. I was come home.

I only remembered to text Rob about my finally having made it two hours later, when after visiting the Melrose Abbey, in which I told Scotland herself I was there, I walked the town for a while. And then on over the Forth (whatever they were doing to the bridge it looked like they were painting it white) and the Tay and into Blairgowrie and Rattray.

That first evening I decided to walk to Rattray’s eastern end, which turned out to be a good idea. I discovered the Old Cross Inn with its open-air back where I could smoke while having my first pint of real beer after two and a half years. (Oh yeah, Danny boy, in Scotland I wasn’t clean either.) Tennent’s Lager, what other? Returning to the caravan park where we stayed I was on top of the world, looking forward to the coming days – which mood was, if possible, boosted even more by buying my favourite chocolate bar, namely Yorkie, which you can’t get where I live, with the ‘It’s not for girls!’ slogan I’d never seen before.

Everything has worked out to plan.

 

Day 2: Stirling & Trossachs

Chronology (Sun, 15 Aug): Stirling (Castle – city) – Loch Katrine – Luss – Falls of Dochart – Ericht (river bank) – Blairgowrie.

Stirling Castle barracks

The morning was chilly but clear, yet no sooner have we left Blairgowrie than we plunged into fog which still wasn’t fully gone by the time we arrived at the Stirling Castle. I had already been inside, but it still didn’t fail to fascinate me by its irregularity. I mean, you can’t simply slice it by horizontal sections to get individual floor plans as you could do with more modern complexes.

Having only changed trains in Stirling in ’90 and visited the castle in ’97, I was glad that finally there was time to walk the city itself. I wasn’t disappointed. The architecture was quite to my liking, whether it was a church, something just looking like one at first glance, a war memorial (no Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s “angel in a night-gown”) or even a former jail. As regards memory lane, I came across the railway station, had a Cornish pasty for lunch and bought the first newspapers (West Highland Free Press and Observer). Just like in York, thanks to my so-called sense of direction I often unexpectedly found myself somewhere I’d already been, but why not? For me, that’s one of the pleasures of strolling around a city you don’t know.

Ben Venue from Loch Katrine

At half past twelve we left for Loch Katrine. (Driving through some reasonably-sized town I was surprised to find out it was Callander, which for some reason I had thought to be much smaller.) Back in ’97 there had been a steady smirr, so I hadn’t walked far. This time I soon passed the point to which I had got then and continued as far as Eilean Molach. I had no idea how far in relation to the loch’s entire length it was – looking at GoogleEarth now I find it pretty little, but enough to see interesting things on the way. Apparently there really was a draught, because at one point the water surface was interrupted by a belt of mud running from one bank to the opposite one. I had never seen a deer grid before but easily made out how it worked and concluded it was a clever invention. There was the Glen Finglas waterfall. Most importantly though, I kind of fell in love with Ben Venue and promised myself I’d try to walk to its top one day. (Actually I didn’t find out it was Ben Venue, rather than Ben A’an, before I was almost back at the car park, but that was no reason to change my mind.)

Then a curious thing happened. Having some time left before our departure I opened the WHFP copy to see how much Gaelic there was. Not much in fact. One ‘opinion’ article, (unexpectedly for me) the latest Litir do Luchd-ionnsachaidh and a section’s title (only the title) Criomagan. Nevertheless … It occurred to me to try and read the first paragraph of the article (by Aoghas Pàdraig Caimbeul – thus I found out who FnaG’s Gràisg’s APC was) to see whether I would understand at least a bit of it. To my great astonishment – this was the first time I tried to read a Gaelic text that wasn’t primarily meant for learners without having a dictionary close to hand – I easily not only understood the gist of it: I got it all. Which made me chuffed no end.

Two rather perfunctory half-hour stops followed before we returned. The first one at Luss, presumably so that the tour’s participants could claim they were to Loch Lomond. That was all right with me – I preferred moving through and watching the countryside to the crowded beach. The second stop was at the Falls of Dochart at Killin, which seem to be, for whatever reason, considered the Scottish waterfalls by Czech tourist agencies. Anyway, I was glad to be able to check upon the number of streams before and after they run as one under the bridge. (From ’97 I remembered 3>1>3. The correct answer is 4>1>2.)

River Ericht

The surprises of the day weren’t at their end. Seeing some obelisk on a hill behind Comrie (which only came out of sight beyond Quoig) that neither GoogleEarth, Ordnance Survey nor Wikipedia made me later able to identify, we returned and I decided to see Rattray’s other end. Going back by a parallel street I then noticed a wooden footbridge on my right. I had an unexplainable unpleasant feeling that crossing it might constitute trespassing, but resolved to try anyway unless there was an actual sign to that effect. Which there wasn’t; in fact I found an ‘educational board‘ or whatever it’s called on the footbridge. Thus I discovered the path on the other bank of the Ericht – and for that matter, the river’s name itself.

I hadn’t had such a pleasant walk by a river for years. The icing on the cake was a pint at the Victoria Hotel lounge bar, reading the rest of A P Caimbeul’s article and pretty much understanding it – except for the bàrdachd. But then, I often fail to understand poetry in Czech, and I’ve been studying that language for some four decades.

 

Day 3: Great Glen

Chronology (Mon, 16 Aug): Inverness – Drumnadrochit – Urquhart – Fort Augustus – Commando Memorial – Glen Coe – Rannoch Moor – Loch Tulla.

Inverness Cathedral

Inverness is one of Scotland’s ‘Memory Lane places’ for me. My first steps went to the place at the back of the EastGate where back in ’90 we slept the night. I did move somewhere over the two decades though, and next I meant to find the building with CLÌ offices. (On the way I passed a ‘men only’ barber shop – I doubt I’d ever seen a real one in my life and don’t know whether there is one at all in the country where I live.) Via Sràid Inglis (comparatively fresh memories) and after a wee bit wandering I found it just next to the railway station – more ’90 memories … Funny thing is I wanted to see it on account of my being a subscriber to their Cothrom magazine (and its close association with Ruairidh MacIlleathain). It only occurred to me weeks later that technically speaking I was a member of the organization …

Back in Memory Lane I found out that the cemetery I visited in ’90 and grew uncertain as to next to which of the churches it laid was actually situated in between the two. The Catholic church on the other bank had its door painted red again as it did in ’90 (when they let us store our luggage there while sightseeing the city), not blue as in ’97. Uncertain whether the St Adrews church in which I had already promised myself to get back to Scotland twice would be open (it wouldn’t) I reiterated this promise in the Inverness Cathedral, seated in the hindermost pew while somebody was playing the organ. I went on down the Ness Walk, crossed the footbridge in the direction opposite from ’97, sat for a while smoking on the bench nearest the Bridge St as I had in both ’90 and ’97, watching the river and the cathedral, and before returning to the car park and my bus did one more ML thing – bought me, after 13 years, a JPS packet (they don’t sell the brand here). Its blue colour and price took me slightly aback, but the first fag tasted none the worse for either.

Drumnadrochit car park

Drumnadrochit disappointed me, amazed me and fascinated me. Disappointed, because back in ’97 I liked a lot the back of the museum but couldn’t get it inside one snap. I wanted to film it now; unluckily, they had attached something nasty to it. Amazed, because following a loo sign I entered some Las Vegas club which turned out to really be just a corridor leading to the loo. And fascinated, because the car park was managed by a traffic warden who could hardly have been more than 18. This set me thinking. I realized that I had also seen several supermarket cashiers of both sexes just as young. I don’t think anybody would give this kind of responsibility to someone so young in this nannyish country where I stay. Not without a supervisor present within a five-metre distance at all times. Nobody would dare to entrust the youngster with as much money as supermarket cashiers regularly handle – and I’m afraid no driver would respect them as wardens. They probably wouldn’t even realize they were wardens and take them for some visiting kids whose parents go a bit over the top when it comes to child security.

Fort Augustus

The next stop (save for a short perfunctory one at Urquhart Castle) was in Fort Augustus. I have a bit of an issue with the town’s still being named after Cumberland (in English, Gaelic keeps the old name Cille Chuimein), but I enjoyed the locks. Finding out the halves of a shut sluice gate don’t form a straight angle (although admittedly it wasn’t until December that I realized the reason for this was the same as with a Gothic pointed arch); discovering boats are being towed, rathe than motored, in the chambers; watching the swing bridge move to let other boats pass by; last (chronologically, first) but not least noticing the barn (or whatever) with the brown roof on the picture to the left – because I recognized it, with some astonisment, as the building on this picture, which had for quite some time been a hot candidate for becoming one of my laptop wallpapers.

Then to the Commando Memorial, where I noticed the Garden of Rememberance; it was strangely disconcerting to see dates of deaths as recent as last year … Unlike last time though I saw Ben Nevis, which I like more for having climbed it in ’90 than for being the highest; my best snap of it I took when we were already on the move again. Through Fort William and by Ballachullish to Glencoe: despite the rain we had one “Japanese tourists’ stop” (the guide’s words, not mine) for taking snaps, which I mostly spent smoking and ‘tasting the rain’ with my mouth open to the sky – a half-forgotten dibhearsan of my adolescent years. The guide also mentioned midges here, but in fact, despite my fears I never noticed any throughout my whole time in Scotland. And then on via A82 through the Rannoch Moor to another stop at Loch Tulla, to change to A85 at Tyndrum and A93 in Perth – and to Blairgowrie.

I had a Guinness stout at the Old Cross that night; as they only had it canned though I returned to Tennent’s for the rest of the trip. Still, I also visited the Cross each night after that. It was near, with a place for smokers – and the staff was great, considering I was neither a regular nor a big spender.

 

Day 4: Perthshire

Chronology (Tue, 17 Aug): Edradour – Pitlochry – Scone Palace – Blairgowrie (town – Old Cross).

Edradour condenser

Going from Rattray to Edradour via Bridge of Cally and Kirkmichael two things happened: First, a thought from the previous day recurred to me – of all the various Scottish kinds of landscapes, it was not the Highland but the Perthshire one I loved the best. Then an additional one followed: did it mean I was getting softer? Second, we had a wee bit collision with a Royal Mail van – just a paint scratch, but the driver was understandably pissed off, being also the owner of the bus and the fault obviously on the other side. Now for decades I was always keen to correct anybody who said ‘English’ when I knew they actually meant ‘British’, but this once I kept mute when I later heard some muttered complaints about a ‘moronic English postman’ from behind the steering wheel.

Anyway, we went to the Edradour distillery, which prides itself in being the smallest in Scotland. For some reason, this was the one included in my ’97 package tour as well. Back then its additional merit for me was the guide – one of the very few guys I’ve ever seen whom a kilt became. This year it wasn’t so much the presence of the current owner, Andrew Symington, as the guide again, though a different one and for a different reason. At the end of the sightseeing I asked him about the pronunciation of the place’s Gaelic name, Eadar Dhà Dhobhar, and during the following conversation it turned out I had most Gaelic of all the people then present at the shop, the six employees included. More importantly though, it must have lasted about five minutes, thus becoming the longest spoken conversation in English with a native speaker I had since February – and the longest such happening ‘face to face’ since … I believe since those with Tod Hammond way back in my fifth Tech year. I was chuffed. Yet more importantly though, he asked me why I didn’t move there and gave some examples why it would be a good idea, thus pushing me further towards the Dunkeld Vow. (The immediate effect was buying two bottles of Caledonia – one for Rob and one for myself.)

Having already visited Pitlochry in ’97, I’d have gone to see the fish ladder this time, had I understood it was within walking distance. As it was, I just went up and down the Atholl Road and only found out about the ladder later. Still, after the Edradour conversation there was hardly anything could dampen my mood. At least I was amused by the ‘Rockstar Holiday Club’ baptist church and found out what I hadn’t the last time round, namely that Pitlochry too had a nice railway station.

Scone Pinetum

Initially I thought the two and a half hours we were allotted before the bus’ departure at the Scone Palace was too long. As expected, I was through with the palace’s interiors quite soon. To be sure, there was a tiny ‘tea alcove’ or whatever they call it which must have been great for reading (and/or smoking), some pictures of Scottish kings, attempting to evoke the atmosphere of their times and not doing half bad at it, and beds as short as in Holyrood bringing back the question whether people were really so small in centuries past. I can still remember those. All the same, generally I’m preconditioned by several teenage holidays with my parents, each involving about a score visits of castles and palaces within less than a fortnight. Since then, their interiors are all much of a muchness to me.

There was no reason to spend too much time about the chapel or the Stone of Destiny replica either. However, I then began to leisurely stroll the grounds, discovered the Pinetum – and in the end regretted I didn’t have more time to spend in the latest. I felt as if I could just go on serenely perambulating around for hours and never tire of it. Perhaps, if I lived near some such place, I wouldn’t be spending all my leisure hours in my gaff.

Blairgowrie town centre

As we got back by five in the afternoon, some people got off the bus at the Royal Hotel to visit the local Tesco, and I to stroll around Blairgowrie a bit at last. Having returned to the beginning of the town I then walked, with several detours, digressions and retracings both up and down, to the camping site. Waiting for VN outside our caravan I tasted for the first time in my life the famous Irn-Bru, a 2-litre bottle of which I’d bought on the way. Quite a surprise – I would never have expected the taste of one of favourite Czech sweets, the ‘gelatine bears‘, but that’s what it was. Still, I liked the two pints of Tennent’s I then had with VN at good Old Cross to celebrate my next day’s birthday even more. In fact, I would have happily bought a third round had my companion accepted the offer …

 

Day 5: St Andrews & Glamis

Chronology (Wed, 18 Aug): St Andrews (The Scores – Cathedral – Kinburn Park – Hope Church – links) – Dundee – Glamis (village) – Ericht (river bank).

St James Church ’11

One of the problems of long-distance love of a country is not knowing some quite basic facts. You only know what you read about, so you may have a better knowledge of, say, the country’s history than its average high-school graduate while at the same time missing knowledge about some common matters every primary-school pupil takes for granted. I have mentioned it elsewhere and now I’m returning to the theme to explain that I was not half surprised to find out, on the morning of 18 August, that the school year had already begun in Scotland, rather than waiting for the first day of September. (I only learned on which day it actually began two months later in a Caledonian Mercury article.)

It didn’t occupy my mind for too long. We were heading for St Andrews, which has a special place in my heart ever since it became, back in ’90, the first place not just in Scotland or the UK but the whole world that I went to ‘discover’ all on my own. Inevitably, my first steps led to St James Church, where I had twice before promised myself I’d be back. Just as I feared, it was closed, but that didn’t stop me walking The Scores with Same Jeans in my mind – and in fact on my lips too (earlier in the bus I had realized I actually “had the same jeans on for eight days now” – 8 being my favourite/lucky number). Then by the university to the cathedral, to climb St Rule’s tower again – and take an all-around video from its top this time. Then it was South Street – and the theme recurs. Having never heard about Pagan Osborne, seeing their office almost made me guffaw, as I thought the name an unconscious (perhaps conscious) pun at the expense of a different Osborne.

Kinburn Park entrance

And then through the West Port to Kinburn Park, where I had back then in ’90 for the very first time in my life slept alone in a place I didn’t know. Or slept alone in the open, for that matter. I admit it’s a shame that (despite revisiting the park in ’97) it was only now that I eventually found out the building I had seen the first thing on the following morning was the St Andrews museum. Memory lane then insisted I go to the Hope Church to find out whether the benches in front of it remained one of the two places in Scotland I knew to be pestered by wasps (it did) and whether it was really attached without a gap to the the neighbouring terrace of houses (it was). Before we left I still had time to just stroll the streets a while, buying a Guardian copy in the Tesco (“I went to the Tesco in the middle of the town” – all right, I know), making sure St James hadn’t in the meantime been opened and even coming across the links and that bridge which features on just about every other picture Google provides you with when you search “St Andrews links”.

Glamis church

We then went back across the Tay Road Bridge into Dundee. It was the sixth time I was driving through the city (twice by train, four times by bus) and the sixth time I regretted not having time to stop for a while. Well, one can’t have everything. We proceeded to Glamis; having already visited the castle in ’97 I decided to see what the village was like instead. I wasn’t disappointed. I have a weakness for picturesque stone buildings used for ordinary life or work like the local school (no wet-blanket remarks about the cost of heating them please, I understand that, but …); small unpretending village churches usually attract me more than large pompous urban ones; and I also spent some pleasant calm time at the war memorial and at the sundial in the ‘square’.

Via New Alyth we then returned to Blairgowrie. Buying bread for my next day’s packed lunch in the Tesco I came across haggis tins so I bought one as well and walked along the river back to the camp. Now throughout the day I now and then remembered I was 42 already, but it was only after washing my hands and face in the river (it was fairly hot and I with a leather jacket) that I eventually felt it, realized it, it came over me or however I should best call it. So I took a little weird video at the very place where it happened and later on celebrated it by two pints of Tennent’s in the Old Cross Inn.

 

Day 6: Skye

Chronology (Thu, 19 Aug): way there – Eilean Donan – through Skye – Dunvegan (seal boat trip – Castle – gardens) – way back.

Morvich bay

Inevitably, this was a day spent mostly on the road. We set off in nippy (8C) foggy morning air as early as six o’clock. Got on the A9 in Dunkeld and went through Pitlochry, out of the fog at around seven, off the A9 beyond the white-painted Dalwhinnie distillery, met a bit more fog just before Laggan, continued by Loch Laggan, past the Laggan Dam, via Roybridge and Spean Bridge and (a different Laggan’s) Laggan Locks, by the famous Glengarry viewpoint (with most of the glen still in fog), with the River Shiel meandering by the side of the road to the nice bay of Morvich and before half past nine we eventually stopped at the Eilean Donan Castle.

I know this was rather dull but just typing the names while checking the route on Google Earth was making me feel pleasantly reminiscent.

At Eilean Donan I was amused to see a hexalingual road sign missing Gaelic and another coach – after a second or two I concluded the words meant something like ‘our “haggis adventures” are irresistible’, rather than what first occurred to me, that is, ‘adventures of irresistible haggis’. Then on again, catching sight of a road sign pointing to Glaick, across the Skye Bridge (unexpectedly for me no toll), past a Sabhal Mòr Ostaig branch road sign and through Broadford and Sconser (but not Portree like thirteen years ago), past a lighthouse to our left before Balgown and a wind farm to our right between rivers Ose and Roskill, and finally before half eleven and with the temperature up to 18C into the village of Dunvegan.

Dunvegan seal colony

Having joined the half of our group to go for the seal boat trip first, I did take a few snaps of the seals – after all, I had never been so close to any before, except maybe in some zoo as a child. Mostly I was just sitting at the prow of the boat, intrigued by what I then called a ‘table-top hill‘ (apparently the name is Healabhal Mhòr) and enjoying the feeling of travelling in an engine-driven boat on a water surface rippled by waves, however small, for the first time in my life. Feeling quite chuffed I added into the RNLI donation box a pound coin to the 10p I put there before the trip, remembering this Ruairidh’s Litir (not being overly miserly would make me happy the following year reading this), took a very quick tour of the castle (which was, by the way, covered in some white sheets – my companions later expressed the idea that this was meant to prevent tourists from taking snaps of it and make them buy picture postcards instead), a stroll towards the bay and another in the castle’s gardens – and it was time to leave.

Instead of keyboarding again the placenames, as we were naturally returning by the same route, I’ll mention here some of the notes I put down in my jotter on the backward journey. Of the Isle of Skye in general they say I found it mostly covered with a yellow-green grass, with few trees but lots of streams running down the braes. After crossing the bridge again I did manage to get a snap of a A’ Ghlac/Glaick road sign, my neighbour dozed off and I wrote down in the jotter ‘this is guid – jist ridin [on the breeze] takin no snaps watchin the hills’. I couldn’t take a thousandth of what I would have liked to take anyway.

And much as I hate to admit it, I also wrote something which can probably be only interpreted as not finding Scotland all that different from England this time. As long as I saw and heard English or Scots around me, rather than Czech all the time, I was sitting on top of the world.

 

Day 7: Atholl

Chronology (Fri, 20 Aug): Dunkeld (town – Cathedral) – Blair Atholl (village – Mill Tearoom & museum) – Killiecrankie – Queen’s View – Blairgowrie & Rattray.

Dunkeld Cathedral

Starting at nine by the same route as on the previous day, with Lochs Drumellie and Clunie on our left (only I think I took them for being the same one at the time) we got half an hour later in a morning smirr to Dunkeld. As the others headed first to the Cathedral, I took a walk from the Atholl Park gate to and over the Dunkeld Bridge and back. At a newsagent’s on Atholl St I bought The Guardian again and for the first time this year The Scotsman (as I would later find out, with news of Edwin Morgan‘s death and US combat troops’ withdrawal from Iraq), and crossing the triangular square at about ten entered the Cathedral, lucky to be soon left there for a while on my own, sitting at the hindmost left pew. There I finally made the decision and promised myself … but what I since began to call ‘The Dunkeld Vow’ is treated in detail in the afterword. I spent some more time on the lush lawn outside the Cathedral and returned to the car park, whence we presently left, while it was beginning to really bucket down.

Blair Atholl signal box

It still rained when we arrived in Blair Atholl. Which didn’t stop me from doing what I had done in Glamis, that is, getting off before the bus passed the castle’s ticket office and strolling the village instead. (As did a few others.) I looked – unsuccessfully – for a cap at a clothing sale in what I later found out to be the ‘town hall’; went across the railway line, past the Mill Tearoom to the cul-de-sac at the river Garry; back and across the railway station footbridge; past the church and over the Bridge of Tilt to the village’s other end. Returning I sat with The Guardian in a bus-stop shelter to escape the rain for a while – only of course I couldn’t smoke there so presently went on, resolving to read on over a coffee at the Tearoom. Which turned out to be a good idea. Not only was the waiter the bonniest lad I’d seen in Scotland up till then (and possibly as old as twenty). Some of the others ‘skipping’ the castle were there and advised me the mill was also a sort of a museum. Free entry; I found it interesting enough to put a coin in the donation box but. (My cynicism suggests I wouldn’t if it weren’t in Scotland and/or if not for the waiter.) Anyway, after some more waiting in the rain sheltered at another bus stop and unsheltered at the castle’s gate the bus came to pick us up and continue to Killiecrankie.

Queen’s View tearoom

At a Killiecrankie information centre, despite the continuing rain and the shortness of our stop, I went looking for and even found the so-called Soldier’s Leap. The next stop was at a bridge over the river Garry – as it turned out, the one from which my favourite ’97 Pass of Killiecrankie postcard had been photographed. So I took a snap myself. By that time the sun was out and it was decided that we would continue up to the Queen’s View after all. If the truth be told, I wasn’t all that impressed by the view itself (unlike in ’97, the platform (was it there at all back then?) was totally crowded and I have seen the westward view a thousand times on the Web in between, in any possible season and weather) as by the fact that this was as near ‘our’ ’97 holiday park at Tummel Bridge as we would get. And near the tearoom I finally solved the mystery of what time is 12.45pm. Obviously it’s plain 24-hour 1245, rather than 0045.

Back at Blairgowrie the bus stopped at the Tesco, where I bought a 2-litre Irn-Bru bottle to carry with me back to the CR and had a last walk along the bank of the Ericht back to the holiday park, followed by the last three Tennent’s pints at the good Old Cross. At the beginning reading the newspaper but since the end of the second pint just contemplating. And then back for our last night at the caravan.

 

Day 8: Edinburgh

Chronology (Sat, 21 Aug): Blairgowrie & Rattray – Rosslyn Chapel – Edinburgh (Calton Hill – Castle – Royal Mile – Parliament – New Town) – English border.

Forth Road Bridge

And so we packed, tidied the caravan and at eight in the morning left the holiday park for good, once more crossing the Isla bridge and going past the strawberry fields. Just skirting Perth we went across the Firth of Forth to the Rosslyn Chapel. Its stonework was elaborate indeed and worth seeing, but my suspicion that the chapel’s fame was based more on The Da Vinci Code movie than on its actual history was confirmed by the older driver who claimed that a few years earlier there had been no visitor centre, “there was but the chapel”.

I parted from the others as soon as we got off the bus in Edinburgh. Incredibly, it looked for a while as though I had lost my way, as I couldn’t make out which side of the Castle I was, but when I finally saw Arthur’s Seat I knew I was on the right way (in fact I was already walking Princess Street). I headed up Calton Hill, whence I saw a familiar looking island; a noticeboard proved it was Inchkeith, my laptop wallpaper at the time. In keeping with tradition, I did a somersault on the lawn (during my first time in Scotland, as my ’90 journal says, ‘”[coming onto Calton Hill]  I was in such an eufory that I had to made a somersault on its grass and lie a while”, and I repeated this in ’97), had a smoke watching Arthur’s Seat and the Parliament building roofs (to think that the last time round I was leaving the country five days before the devolution referendum!) and eventually found out that ‘the tall thing’ was a Nelson’s Monument and which of the buildings was the observatory. (I liked a different building better, but only discovered when back from the trip it was the old one.)

Edinburgh Festival Hub

Walking up the Royal Mile to the Castle I couldn’t help remembering a cartoon in The Guardian I had seen a few days earlier (on the other hand I have passed the bonniest guy I have seen throughout the whole trip – apparently working and thus Scottish too). The crowd was such that standing for a half-hour at the ticket office I not only missed the new One O’Clock Gun firing – I didn’t even hear it fire. Instead of that I enjoyed for some time facing the fairly strong wind blowing against me at the West View; visited Margaret’s Chapel (with Mons Meg currently in front of it); in the crown jewels room saw that the Stone of Destiny, whose replica at the Scone Palace looked too short to me, really was shorter than I remembered it – but at the War Memorial failed to find the list of civilians that Tom Steel claims to be there.

Starting to walk back down the Royal Mile at a more leisurely pace now I noticed a church building I knew nothing about. Approaching it I was amazed to discover it was ‘The Hub’, currently used as the centre of the Edinburgh Festivals which, needless to say, were greatly responsible for all those crowds. (My previous two times in the city were after the festival season and though there were many tourists, not nearly as many.) Being an agnostic, but a ritual-ridden one, I lighted a candle in St Giles’ Cathedral “tae confirm Dunkeld promise & for people I like deid or alive”, as I recorded it in my jotter. I then discovered a bookshop-cum-café at the John Knox House. I’m learning only now it was the almost brand-new Scottish Storytelling Centre. Anyway, this is one of the things I like about Britain: historical buildings are used for modern purposes and new ones built next to them without appearing obtrusive – unlike the Parliament Building, which I entered next. At least they have a bilingual sign at the door. I wanted to get into the debating chamber, having watched several FMQs on the BBC, but the still ongoing Festival of Politics prevented that. (I guess not everybody can claim they took a leak in a parliament though.)

Back to one more ‘old place’, the Waverley railway station, whence back in ’90 my first exploration of the capital had begun, and then somewhere I had never been before. Having read in an Ian Rankin novel that the area between Leith Walk and Broughton Street was called the ‘pink triangle’, I decided to stroll about for a while. If I hoped to see a couple of guys holding hands, I was disappointed (my neighbour in the bus later mentioned he saw one, though); but I was amused by an obvious unconscious pun, and a fairly extraordinary thing happened: without intending to or (despite the flags) noticing it before already drinking my pint for a while, I found out I was for the first time in my life a visitor of a gay bar.

Having still a few hours left before the departure time I traversed St Andrew Sq, Rose St, George St and so on, seeing among other things the infamous tram line. Having lost my cap in Prague underground, I eventually bought at a shop (not such a commonplace one, I found the other day – it’s also funny that it’s owned by the Edinburgh Woollen Mill, which in turn is based in Langholm, the first Scottish town we went through eight days previously) on Princess St a new one with a thistle emblem – I’d prefer its not also having the word Scotland on it, but the others were shouting ‘tourist souvenir’ in your face even more loudly. In a beginning rain I returned to the Mile and the Parliament where, according to said rain’s changing intensity, I was alternately reading the quotations inscribed on the Canongate Wall and hiding under the roof of a staircase belonging to a house near the Holyrood Palace.

Somewhere before Eye Water

At half past eight we all gathered there, walked to our bus at the foot of Calton Hill and, myself savouring the last few raindrops of the Scottish rain just before getting on, left. Over the River Esk, the Tyne Water (puzzling me for a while as I mistook it for Newcastle’s Tyne) and the Eye Water and some five minutes later past two Saltire flags and a ‘Welcome to Scotland’ stone to our right, quite possibly the one where we had stopped back at the beginning of my ’97 trip. So I showed it my left-hand palm in a salutatory gesture, and when we stopped at some petrol station after a quarter past ten I was already smoking my fag in England.

 

Day +1: London

Liverpool Street Station entrance

Chronology (Sun, 22 Aug): London (Westminster – St Paul’s Cathedral – Liverpool Street station – Charing Cross Rd – Soho – Trafalgar Sq – Greenwich) – A2 – The Channel – France – Belgium.

We took two short stops on our way to London, at the first of which, somewhere before Leeds, I was amused to see a personnel-free gambling alcove with half as many fruit machines as my best friend’s gambling bar, only to find a few paces further one with about as many. We took off at Leicester Square, where I went into the Tube station just to see the scheme again (it looked to me, wrongly it seems, more complex than in ’90), and after a half-hour the group began touring the city. For once I went along with the rest, being too para to walk the streets of London alone at a quarter past seven in the morning. Via the Mall, by the Buckingham Palace, across St James’s Park Lake (whence I for the first time saw the London Eye with my own pair) and by Tothill Street we got to the Westminster Abbey. By that time I decided it was late enough for me to continue on my own without risking being muged.

I went past the Houses of Parliament to and across the Westminster Bridge (singing to myself about a different bridge though, one I’ve never crossed and probably never will), back and by the Victoria Embankment to St Paul’s Cathedral. Surprisingly, unlike twenty years previously I liked its interior more than the exterior. And then to the London destination I wanted to see the most – the Liverpool Street station. As stated above, back in ’90 we worked in Essex and travelled a lot by train, so that ‘the LS’ was quite probably the place I had visited most often in London. Back then its inside was under some kind of repair or reconstruction and I wanted to see it in its full glory. Sure, there’s nothing special about it, it’s just a railway station, but I did recognize ‘our’ platform (which had looked more like a pavement next to a building site then) and was pushed down memory lane just by reading the departure board. Spell them out again: Witham … Kelvedon … Marks Tey … Colchester … Manningtree … Ipswich …

That was that, however. I couldn’t help grinning when I realized that, while nominally a road building Bachelor of Engineering, I probably saw this for the first time in my life. (Just as I’d grin later on to find out on the Net that the “HSBV or some such abbrev”, as I put it down in my jotter, actually read BVSH as in Bush House, London – a phrase I’d heard so often on BBC World Service.) But … John Steinbeck writes towards the end of his Travels with Charley about the moment when his journey suddenly “went away”. For me this happened on the Strand. I suddenly realized I was at last looking forward to being online again (although I didn’t sit down to either of the two cybercafés I later walked past). All right, Steinbeck claimed he didn’t even remember the rest of the journey, which wasn’t my case: I can still visualize Trafalgar Square with the ship in the bottle, the G-A-Y club entrance in Soho, the second-hand bookshop on Charing Cross Road where I bought a Simenon short stories collection – but the very fact that I then spent some time just sitting on a bench in the square reading that book is eloquent in itself.

Leaving Dover

And I still remember, having joined the others for a cruise on the Millenium Dawn boat, seeing the Tower Bridge, the Gherkin skyscraper, HMS Belfast and the Isle of Dogs, but as my jotter says, “I grew so indifferent I’m still listening to the [boat’s] guide but don’t even care to find out whether there’s a smokin area”. I remember the Greenwich shop where I was getting rid of coins, the atomic clock and the zero meridian, but the journey was over – and at a quarter past five, on the A2 to Dover, I noted down that I was already missing the previous bus rides and that England almost seemed more like France than like Scotland to me. Less than twenty-four hours after leaving the country I was already feeling homesick for it again. But there was nothing I could do except arrive in Dover, board another P&O ship, tell the island my g’byes and see-yas, watch the cliffs fade away in the distance, read the Scotsman before reaching Calais, get on the bus and after crossing the Belgian border fall asleep.

 

Day +2: Coming back

Chronology (Mon, 23 Aug): Germany – Czech Republic border – Prague – town of residence – flat.

My new cap

There’s little to tell about the rest of the journey. Except for two more stops mostly dozing through Germany; another stop just behind the Czech border; the guide closing up the trip before getting off in Pilsen while the rest of us went on to Prague. I said goodbye to the drivers, together with my neighbour took the underground to the capital’s main railway station, despite initially not finding my way to the correct platform mysteriously got on a train going to my destination with seconds to spare, was surprised by a bus shelter opposite the station which hadn’t been there when I was leaving less than a fortnight earlier and walked to my gaff.

Where I unpacked while listening to the View, Glasvegas, Waterboys and Runrig, at the same time downloading and installing Windows updates and uploading the photographs onto the hard drive (the latest took 55 minutes as I was doing it with cable, not knowing I could put the memory card directly into the laptop), read the 21 emails in my inboxes, went the messages and then was, to quote my jotter for the last time, “reading/updating homepages & the like” until I think some half past midnight – and my third trip to Scotland, one of the most enjoyable experiences I have had in all my life, was definitively over.

 

Afterword: The Dunkeld Vow

The preceding chapters were originally posted from August ’10 to June ’11, more or less at a pace of a chapter a month, on my own (no longer extant) website. I then also wrote the following postscript about the ‘Dunkeld Vow’, but wasn’t as yet ready to publish it. On the Vow’s  first anniversary I posted a blog explaining what it was about and why I kept it secret for so long. Finally, here goes the detailed description (like the rest of this account, only slightly edited from the original version):

Dunkeld Cathedral

As mentioned in the preface, before the fall of the Iron Curtain I had a soft spot for Scotland, while visiting the country was in the realm of daydreams. In 1990 I did get there and the soft spot turned into love. In fact, within a few years I began to identify with the country and the nation, instead of with those in and among which I had spent nearly all my life. The daydream was emigration now; like the previous, it was a castle-in-the-air one.

I had never seriously considered the idea of actually emigrating. Whatever reasons or excuses I gave people when they hinted at the possibility, the truth was that the notion was scaring me shitless. I was born timid; all my upbringing was exacerbating, rather than diminishing, this trait. By the age of eighteen my cowardness was almost pathological, and although I strove to reverse this since then, it wasn’t (isn’t) easy with such a late start. This is not meant as a justification, just as an explanation.

During my November ’08 post-cure visit to the Reid Yaird I mentioned I would prefer to live in Scotland in front of one of the therapists, Mr Čermák. He asked me in a tone I had never heard used with this proposal “Why not move there?” and never pursued the matter. It wasn’t the usual “Come on, you’re mad, if I were you with your knowledge of the language …“; it was “Perhaps you might like to consider the option?” So for the first time in my life I really did.

I concluded I was still much too cowardly to make it. Mind you, at the time I wasn’t even certain I had the guts to apply for a holiday package tour there without a companion known beforehand. Added to which the economic crisis was in full sway. Still, it kept bugging my subconscious. At the same time, spending almost all my leisure time on websites related to Scotland (or, short of that, at least the Anglophone world), I grew from ‘not too interested’ to ‘rather uninterested’ in this country and nation (and language); I was yearning to move country more and more.

As you know by now, I did go on this holiday tour and it was smashing. Which didn’t quench my yearning; quite the opposite. The more one gets, the more one wants. Another single push was the Edradour guide who implied my chances to get a job likely wouldn’t be totally futile. And of course, all the time I had the feeling that perhaps I was a stranger, but much less so than I am a stranger here.

So alone for a while inside the Dunkeld Cathedral, sitting in the hindmost left pew at ten in the morning on Friday, the twentieth of August two thousand and ten, I eventually made the decision, the promise, the vow to come to live in Scotland forever in two or three years’ time, or die in the effort. Which is what I since began to refer to as ‘The Dunkeld Vow’.

Dunkeld Bridge

Of course, there were other people, fictional and real, before and after the Vow, giving me hope and determination.  My old hero, the anti-hero of H. G. Wells’ The History of Mr. Polly. Rents from Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting. Mike Perham and his book with its motto “You’re only as big as the dreams you dare to live”. Akerbeltz who obtained UK citizenship and GunChleoc who changed her FnaG location from ‘Hamburg’ to ‘Dùthaich mo chridhe’. Authors like Steinbeck, Chesterton and Vonnegut who, to quote the first, were not willing to trade quality for quantity. Quite a few verses from The View’s first album, Hats Off to the Buskers. A lot of quotations I have known and believed in for years but was so far unable to live up to. Rob who asked me, when I was laid off, in the same tone as the therapist whether I would look for a new job in Scotland. And so forth.

Anyway, I won’t back down. Just as the trip had been my primary goal to which most of my thoughts and efforts had been concentrating for some six months before it happened, the Vow is my primary middle-term goal now. What next? Well, if and when I succeed, I can start thinking about British/Scottish citizenship and a change of name, but first things first …

 

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