A cabin on a loch, with a view of dusky mountains, off in the distance. Water lapped at the feet of the structure, bouncing light in to the room. We sipped whisky and ate smoked duck as the sun set. We raised our glasses and saluted the day: we had spent it well, and we were back safely. Fed by Oban and watered by Fort William, we sat in Kentallan perfectly pleased with our good selves.
In the highlands the mountains are so gigantic they take up most of any given view. We rounded corners only to be confronted by sheer walls of beautiful rock. The scale warped the mind and took over the perceptions. It was only when we came back down to earth, and in to the Trossachs, that we began to realise how the huge the mountains had been. And the Trossachs are hardly tiny.
We were on holiday in the highlands, and we had planned it well. The only issue was that the place is absolutely enormous, and that meant driving. A lot. I can’t drive, but my partner can. That meant she was left with no choice but to spend miles behind the wheel, from Appin to Arisaig, from Inverary to Invermoriston, from Ballachulish to Rest-and-be-Thankful. We drove all the way up the Great Glen (and back again), marvelling at the bright black waters, and the constant flow of tourist traffic.
We knew roughly where it was – it was on the next loch along from ours – it was the finding of it which posed the problem. We argued about which turning we needed; we should never argue about directions: as much as she argues with every map, she does tend to get it right. In the end, we were so panicked about getting there on time we got there early. We played by Loch Leven until we could be sure that the restaurant had opened, and entered tentatively when it did. For our patience we were rewarded with the biggest and best platter of seafood I have ever seen. Mostly coming from the loch the restaurant stood on, the food was fresh, tasty and abundant. Hand dived scallops, a crab hewn in two, more clams and mussels than I have ever seen. If you’re passing, get a table.
Eventually we reached Glencoe. It was like we had been stuck in a tunnel, the mountains were stacked so close to us. The sky drew down, almost to the road, and the air was thick and grey. We could see that there were enormous mountains reaching up to the heavens, but the sheer amount of water in our view merged cloud and rock in to one. And with that, when we pulled in to Glencoe Village itself, everything cleared. The sky may not have cleared, but at least it had stopped raining.
The hotel restaurant had the eerie doom of a working men’s’ club, but the panelling and stately fittings of a gentlemen’s’ club of fine repute. It jarred as much as it reassured. Even though several tables were crowded with heavily drinking patrons, there was no one behind the bar, and no sign that there ever would be. I was thirsty, so I stood my ground. All of a sudden, one of the patrons pushed past me and took up position behind the pumps. With a shrug it was explained that the proprietors were crap, and that she’d serve; I placed my order: what else did you expect me to do?
A cable car on the Nevis Range, and no sign of panic. She kept her face well that day. Neither of us could tell quite how scared she was of being inside a flimsy metal and Perspex box, dangling from a wire, scudding up a mountain side. From gravelled car park to welcoming tourist centre; miles of mountain between the two. As we climbed the view below became hairier, and the view without widened and widened until it felt like all of Scotland was in our gaze. We were hoping that the car would take us to the very top of the mountain, but our laziness was thwarted; instead we were set down in a tourist centre, with networks of rocky paths leading out through the upper atmosphere.
The liver was as hard as a book. I knew that it was a risk, but I took it gladly. Any time I see liver on a restaurant menu I feel compelled to order it, but I am rarely satisfied with what I am served. Once in a blue moon I will find myself sitting behind a plate of blushing pink liver, crusty on the outside, with a sauce worth drinking. Today was not going to be that day; today was a day for shoe leather, chips and gravy. I took a long draught of my pint and soldiered on, the offal turning to dust in my mouth.
We piled up the car for a long day away from the lodge. We were travelling with a tiny miscreant, so preparations had to be made. It was a holiday of long drives, and minimal entertainment for a newly toddling toddler. She made many tentative steps in Mallaig and around the base of the Glenfinnan monument, at the head of Loch Shiel. That kind of outing with that kind of child requires a lot of equipment: backpacks for carrying waterproofs and food; backpacks for carrying a child; shopping bags for bringing home dinner. We probably shouldn’t have unloaded the car in the first place.
Driving through Fort Augustus was a mistake in retrospect. As lovely as the town undoubtedly is, with its myriad locks – as opposed to its famous loch – the tourists do have a knack of spoiling it.
If you’re going to Doune, I suggest you visit the castle; it’s the best bit. We were breaking up our journey to the highlands and needed a stopping off point: I insisted upon Doune. The castle was the home of much of the filming for Monty Python and the Holy Grail – one of my favourite films – and I was desperate to see where it was filmed. And so, with my young daughter on my back, I looked out of the window of Swamp Castle and told her that, one day, all of this would be hers. No reply.
The drive to Fort William became a familiar one as we chased a boat tour with no beginning. We plodded around the town while we waited; we picked up some shopping. To many people it would be the gateway to the highlands, but to us it was a means without an end. The staff were surly, and the welcome was poor, but still we tried with no avail. Little were we to know that we would spend many years chasing boat tours, all across Europe, and that this would simply be the first of them.
The views were spectacular, and the air crisp and clear. Every drop of water looked as pure and clean as the driven snow. The sun almost burned my head. The highlands were as spectacular as we had hoped they would be, and as irritating as anywhere favoured by tourists. We shall return.