After an unforgettable evening in Fortrose it was time to meander South. Our only daughter, Kate, was to be wed in May and we had much to do, including tarrying awhile with more friends and incorporating a Viking Reunion.
There has been quite a time gap due to weddings and other activities and it was becoming increasingly difficult to gird my loins to recall the final chapter of this adventure. However, once again serendipity came to the fore with a couple of confluent occurrences.
While we had been staring across the Moray Firth from the Black Isle it had been apparent that we needed to visit the Culloden battlefield to try to align some of the pieces of our jigsaw.
But two years later this brain fog had set in and I was struggling for a starting point for the last episode in our Scottish adventure.
And so it was that Viking Craig came to the rescue with the first of these occurrences. A neighbour of his, Carolynn, was contemplating her own reminiscences on the Irish borders and had reached a similar stumbling block. During a Zoom call with the two of them, in which I was attempting to dispense advice, it rapidly became clear that I should eat my own dogfood.
The other occurrence was the arrival of our Spring edition of the National Trust for Scotland members magazine. Starting on page 54 is a perfect refresher course, a four-page spread on the Culloden site. Coincidentally, the subject of my only picture taken at the site was also featured in the article, the caption being: "Last One standing: Built in the early 18th century, Leach Cottage possibly served as a field hospital for government troops as the battle raged."
Travelling as we were in our behemoth (occasionally fondly referred to as Campy), we had no appetite for cities and took the Inverness bypass. It wasn't long before we were straightening up in a car park that actually welcomed our four-wheeled pariah. The Culloden monument clearly welcomed visitors.
We had previously gravitated to Glencoe in search of some understanding of the seemingly interminable Scottish conflict but the more we delved, the less clear it became. Why, in 2021, are the Scots so split between leaving and staying in the Union? There had been familiar patterns in Ireland and in South Africa, amongst others, where English hegemony has left such lasting division. The binary division I can sort of understand but it's the subdivisions that remain baffling to this day. Which Scots were/are in favour with union with England and why? Even the Jacobites had their subdivisions, not to mention fellow "rebels" going back to William Wallace in the late 13th Century.
But, don't be concerned, I am not about to embark on a history of Scotland from 1297-1746. I wouldn't dare and, besides, millions, perhaps even billions, of lines have already been written from a multitude of perspectives.
I suppose we were hoping to advance our own understanding of these 450 years of Scottish history but from my point of view, I cannot make that claim. Apart from the battlefield itself, which is ecologically maintained by hairy Shetland cattle and feral goats, the centrepiece of the installation is a magnificent museum that sets out to provide a balanced account of the conflict from the beginning and culminating in the Battle of Culloden itself. There is a long corridor that zigs and zags chronologically through the building with the government version on one side and the Jacobite version on the other. There is a huge amount of information and one is largely left to form one's own understanding.
Personally, I would have to visit quite a few times more before I could even start to develop a clearer picture. The outcome, it seems, rested on a knife edge of bungling and some duplicitous allies by both sides, right up to the Jacobites' final denouement on this battlefield.
Go there yourselves. Join the National Trust for Scotland before you do because you'll want to return if you can and also visit some of the surrounding sites where preparations were being made for the battle. We rounded our day off with a visit to the 16th Century Brodie Castle where some of the government officers had been billeted prior to the battle.
The first picture below shows Shan in a reflective mood, digesting and distilling the information from an emotive day. The next day's travel involved a spectacular drive South to Loch Morlich (below) with a detour up the River Findhorn and down to Grantown on Spey. We could've taken a week on those 55 miles alone.
Loch Morlich was a peaceful interlude before progressing South. We cycled the 13-mile round trip into Aviemore and kind of wished we hadn't bothered. Actually, the Old Logging Way trail was worth it for the tree above but we could have settled on the beach for an ice cream and later into the Pine Marten Bar for aperitifs. There was Black Isle Organic Beer there, too, which I hadn't been able to sample on the Black Isle.
Our next stop would be to visit Peter and Jenny in Blairgowrie but first we had to revisit Tomintoul, which meant retracing a few steps. This was only Shan's second visit to Scotland. The first one had been part of a 1983 (almost) dare, leaving Lake Windermere after breakfast, quick check on Ben Nevis stopping in Inverness to post a postcard, spending the night in Tomintoul before a brief visit to Edinburgh and a short walk on Hadrian's Wall en route to York. More than 700 miles in two days. In a Ford Fiesta. And it rained 99% of the time. Pushed the boat out in Tomintoul, though and stayed in the Richmond Arms Hotel where we couldn't afford dinner but met some of the diners in the bar afterwards. They recommended that we enjoy the route South.
"Some of the best views in Scotland on the A939 between here and Cock Bridge," a new-found friend asserted.
We set off early all those years ago and were soon shrouded in mist. There were points where we could barely see the edge of the road. We were young and foolhardy and pressed on, giggling nervously as the Lecht ski centre suddenly loomed from the gloom.
Now, 36 years later, we were in Campy and hoping to retrace our footsteps with 95 miles to travel instead of 333. We had a lovely drive from Glenmore to Tomintoul. The Richmond Arms was still there, looking much the same. Shan popped in for a quick nostalgia trip. Chatted up the landlady, commenting that the carpet on the stairs was the same one that had been there in 1983 (seen below in a snap of an album "collage"). The sun was shining. We drove out of the town with some optimism.
Guess what? We were soon shrouded in mist. There were points where we could barely see the edge of the road. We were old and foolhardy and pressed on, giggling nervously as the Lecht ski centre suddenly loomed from the gloom. Yes, the second picture above was taken from Campy's window in 2019. There should have been sunlit mountain peaks.
We got to Cock Bridge, guiltily reflecting that two dead parents in a motorhome at the bottom of a valley in the Cairngorms would be a bit of a downer for Kate's wedding.
Thankfully, from that moment on the visibility improved markedly and we arrived at the Dee at Braemar without too much further ado, as the next two pictures will testify.
Before we arrived at Jenny's and Peter's dream home in Blairgowrie (last picture above) we were treated to what must be one of the most gorgeous drives in the whole of the UK. From Braemar to the descent into Blairgowrie it just gets better and better, with the possible exception of the Glenshee Ski Centre, although at least it didn't leap out at us from the gloom. I suspect we recognised a few stretches of road along the Black Water that have featured in the odd movie, which is no surprise given the scenery.
It was wonderful fun to see Jenny and Peter again and sad that we won't be able to visit them there again as they announced that they were moving (and subsequently have moved) back to East Anglia. Peter and I worked in IT together and, in his case, it was evident in all the automation and eco-sensitive technology requiring its own computer room humming away in the background.
It was sad to wish them farewell, wondering when we might meet again.
Shelley-ann (nee Deale) and Craig Eriksen had not seen each other for near on 40 years. That would have been in Durban in South Africa where they had shared a Norwegian grandfather, Thoralf Eriksen. Both of them ended up in the UK decades ago. We were in Oxfordshire and the Eriksens in Scotland. There had been a few communications over the years via social media but, as is the way when bringing up children, they had been intermittent. In more recent years, however, Craig had moved to Stanley Mills on the bank of the Tay and conversations had turned to "if you're ever in Scotland/Oxfordshire ...".
And so it was that we waved Jenny and Peter goodbye and embarked on a half-hour journey to the edge of the Tay and what I'd dubbed the "Viking Reunion", partly as a bit of fun and partly to diffuse Shan's nervousness at seeing her older cousin after all those years.
As is often the case, any nervousness was dispelled as soon as we arrived. Craig came striding out to where we had parked in the visitor parking, a small distance from the rather imposing mill conversion peering over the Tay. He had given much thought to our short stay and was eager to explain his proposed itinerary.
"Bring your van in and park in front of the house," he insisted. People living in Scotland are apparently not only universally hospitable but also friendly to nomads. When she returned from work, I immediately apologised to Craig's wife, Ann, for the monstrosity at their front door.
"Don't be silly," she dismissed my protestations, "My parents have a camper, too, and they park it there when they drop by."
Before Ann's return we had devoured a substantial piece of Craig's itinerary, starting with a long walk along the Tay.
It's an idyll, really, and deserves a passage of its own in a future story. Craig is the common denominator in the two photos above.
I did wonder what Max and Otto would have thought of us going on the walk without them but Craig assured us that he would fetch them and they would accompany us for lunch.
"Just a light bite," he reasoned, "I have plans for some fish tonight, but there is a great deli in Dunkeld I think we should visit."
We did. It was, and Dunkeld has a Cathedral that Shan and Craig investigated. "Da Boyz" did not qualify as guide dogs so I waited at the gate and entertained their female admirers.
With Ann returned from work, wine, accompanied by the fish and conversation, ensued in abundance and once again we were sad that it had been so brief. Suffice to say that the Eriksens have substantially added to the residual draw to return to Scotland.
We had been so intent on catching up during our time in Perthshire that even I forgot to do it photographic justice. Filled with remorse, I stopped the van on another spectacular route not too far North of the Tweed to click the shutter on some wind turbines (below). It seemed fitting that the wind was providing relief to the earth in today's constant quest for fuel.
Returning home to England
I really didn't wish to feel like this, because we love England and much of what it has to offer, but there was a distinct shift in Campy karma almost the moment we approached Berwick-upon-Tweed. I had been there before, and not been desperately impressed then, but that had been 20 years earlier and I'd hoped that recent reports of its prettiness would be worth a second look (a first one for Shan). We couldn't find a good enough reason to find somewhere to stop and headed on for Lindisfarne.
I'd also been there before and was unprepared for the passage of time and the massive car park, far enough from the attraction to substantially increase the risk of being stuck on the island for the duration of high tide. We had to remove Campy and head, via Bamburgh, to the site we'd pre-booked.
Bamburgh (Castle in pic above) is one place we would care to return to, provided that there was somewhere to park our motorhome within walking distance and stroll around this rather pretty town.
We did have a place booked that night at Dunstan Hill that was a bit remote but served its purpose as an overnight stop on the last leg of our journey. We had planned to travel down the middle of the country to the East of the Yorkshire Dales having explored the West side on the way up.
"You must drive down the B6160. Absolutely gorgeous," a number of people had advised us. It seemed to make sense. We'd been to Bolton Abbey on our bicycles from Ilkley during the British stages of the Tour de France a few years earlier and it seemed fitting to emerge there from a scenic journey through central Northumberland and Yorkshire.
Given the seeming scarcity of motorhome berths in April 2019 I did a bit of phoning around. My last call was to a site in Aysgarth. A lovely, sympathetic person answered the phone.
"I'm afraid we're full," she sympathised. She sensed the disappointment in my voice, continuing after a brief pause: "The local pub allows self-sufficient vehicles to stay overnight in their parking."
Are you sure?" I checked, "It would be long way to travel only to find the car park full."
"They'll be fine," she reassured me. "I'll ring them and tell them you're coming.""
"Thank you, thank you, thank you ...".
"It's the George and Dragon," my benefactor confirmed.
We set off with a warm feeling. It was going to be a long journey but genuine hospitality awaited us.
Arriving in Aysgarth a little travel-weary we found the pub easily enough. I parked at the furthest end of the car park while I went to announce myself to the publicans.
The only person around seemed to be a young man behind the bar. I approached and before I reached the counter I got that chin forward head flick, the universal interrogator widely understood by the receiver to mean "What do you want?"
Not to be put off I explained: "The kind lady from the campsite said she'd phone you and tell you I was coming. My motorhome's at the other end of the car park."
He made no acknowledgement that there'd been such a call but indicated that it would probably be allowed if I didn't block any other patrons.
"Thank you," I replied. "I'll just go and tell my wife and then I'll be back for a pint."
By the time Shan and I had had pre-dinner libations and what was a pretty decent meal served to us by the person who was clearly the mother of my original interlocutor, Shan was feeling tired and emotional and announced that she was repairing to bed.
"You know how I enjoy a nightcap amongst the locals, I'll be along a little later," I announced.
In April 2019 in that kind of community the one subject I was determined to steer clear of was Brexit. But I wasn't from around those parts and they seemed to sense blood. For a moment I thought I'd been transported to Royston Vasey. Our landlady joined her husband behind the bar and summoned the son. He sidled in. The few locals formed a quorum. They'd decided, despite my never having mentioned anything remotely related to Brexit, they had me for a "Remoaner". I'd spent close to £100 in the establishment and couldn't wait to finish my nightcap so I could pay and leave.
A good friend of mine claims that people either have a hospitality gene or they don't ...
The next morning we were relieved and excited to get on to the B6160 and continue Southwards. At first it was wonderful. Achingly beautiful and properly wide enough for two lanes. Then the road started to narrow until it was inconceivable that two vehicles could pass each other in opposite directions. Especially if one of them was a motorhome. We're both very conscious of this and try to be considerate at every turn. With some people that's not enough. Very often it's those driving shiny Chelsea Tractors. Their sense of entitlement rivals no other. The middle pic below illustrates a tiny opportunity to get off the roads so that a Range Rover can get past. One guy parked his on the tarmac while he got out to "help" me squeeze a quart into a pint pot. He then leapt into his Range Rover and sped away. I think I might at least have driven through and then helped my fellow travellers extricate themselves from what had been a shared predicament. To make matters worse, a few other cars had been backed up behind us and also took the opportunity to blithely go on their way. No assistance offered.
As I've said. Scenery 100%. Empathy for fellow taxpayers 0%. I'd like to do it again. On a bicycle. And believe me, that bicycle will be placed in its proper place on the road, 1.5 metres from the edge of the tarmac.
The last black and white photo below was almost my undoing. Who knows how far back I would have had to reverse. Campy stands at around 3.1 metres. Ten feet nine inches is around 3.27. On the outside edges or the middle? Who knows? Only one thing for it: approach inch by inch while Shan minded the gap. D'you think any of the people getting impatient having to wait offered to help?
Chapeau to Shan, who spent most of the journey outside of Campy, directing traffic while grinning appealingly.
And breathe ... and out into the sunshine at Bolton Priory. Cheeks regain their colour. That's it for our 2019 Scottish Serendipity.
We had a wedding to catch.
Coming soon: Back to the main BLOGS for the time being, I suspect. We still have to complete our tribute to Solange and explore the von Thomann saga to wherever it takes us before returning to more straightforward memoirs.