THE LAST DITCH An Englishman returned after twenty years abroad blogs about liberty in Britain
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May 2014

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Speranza did not misbehave once after crossing the English border. I am not prepared to anthropomorphise enough to attribute this to her displeasure at being in Scotland, though she cannot have enjoyed some of the rougher tracks we took.  It's rather that she has been on entirely dry roads from Dumfries to London, via North Wales and Chester. Still, I don't think I will venture on my next planned trip - to Tuscany in July - without first having her checked over.

It was a great tour. I am happy enough with my photographic progress, though well aware I have much learning to squeeze into what remains of my life if I am ever actually to be proud of my work.

Scotland is simply one of the most beautiful places in the world. I have lost count of my visits over the years and felt very much at home. I don't know if I will go again if its people choose to make me a foreigner in September. They are likely, if that happens, to go through a phase we English have witnessed repeatedly in our recent history.

I predict that, for at least twenty to thirty years after independence, their leaders will use us as scapegoats for everything their people don't like about life. Salmond, like Mugabe - though I hope less completely, will impoverish his nation's economy and reduce its freedoms; all the while blaming former governments. We will be demonised for the rest of my life before Scotland finally settles down to being a reasonable neighbour with a lot of common interests.

I am not sure I will want - for all the beauty of her landscape and the rough charm of her people - to endure that. Let's hope it doesn't come to it. I would be really sad at the thought of never seeing the Highlands and Islands - and especially my beloved Skye - again.

The map of the completed tour is here.

The road south

I spent my last night in Scotland near Dumfries in a pleasant country hotel much enlivened by a Scottish wedding. I have never seen so many blue-white male legs in an evening. Everyone seemed to be having a wonderful time and it's hard not to be happy at a wedding, even if the parties are strangers.

The bonnie, bonnie banks

The journey there had been lent some dramatic tension by Speranza's electronic difficulties. She went into safe mode at one point as I was engaged in overtaking, which was as alarming as it was embarrassing. Those behind me must have been puzzled as to why I aborted the manoeuvre. Apart from that, all went well and I enjoyed watching the landscapes soften as the miles passed.

I had a pleasant stop for lunch at Martin Wishart's Michelin-starred establishment on the shores of Loch Lomond and regretted that I didn't have time to take the seaplane ride over the Loch on offer at his host hotel. I have always had a soft-spot for seaplanes, associating them with the boys' adventure books of my youth.

Indiana Jones comes to Scotland

On Sunday morning after a 'full Scottish breakfast' that was only distinguishable from the 'full English' by a potato cake of some kind, I set off for the run South to England or rather, as I am visiting my parents, to Wales. It was a beautiful sunny day and Speranza produced no error messages in over 200 miles. It seems that whichever sensor is playing up has been sensitised to moisture, which may be useful data for my guys in London when it comes to fixing her.

I will now spend a couple of days visiting family before I head on home to London. My progress to date can be tracked here.

Almost Skye

Glenfinnan 1
Mossy Young Pretender
Glenfinnan Viaduct


Glenfinnan 2
Towering treason

I kept my resolution not to visit Skye this time, but only just. I took Speranza for a last run in the Highlands along the Road to the Isles to the ferry port at Mallaig. It began pleasantly enough but after thirty miles the error messages and 'safe mode' returned.  I restarted the engine a couple of times and they went away for long enough to complete the run as planned and get home. I am convinced the problem is merely electronic and not mechanical. I will nurse Speranza home to London via North Wales, where I plan to visit my parents and have booked her in at Joe Macari's next Friday.

It was interesting to visit the Glenfinnan Monument. I managed to ease my bulk through the narrow hatch at the top of the tight spiral staircase so as to get up close with the statue of Charles Stuart. Few countries in the world are tolerant enough to permit the glorification of a traitor. I began by finding it irritating, but progressed to feeling proud that we are so forgiving.

I still find it hard to understand how anyone can admire 'Bonnie' Prince Charlie though. He cost the lives of many in an incompetent, half-hearted attempt to seize the throne. The slight setback of Sir Watkin Williams-Wynn failing to show up with the Welsh Catholics (thereby perhaps giving us the unpleasant verb 'to Welsh') was enough to make him turn tail. 

He died ignominiously, of syphilis, in France and would have been far better forgotten by history. On the positive side, his exploits gave us one of my favourite Scottish songs. Again, it does us credit as a nation that it can be enjoyed despite its treasonous sentiments!

The map of my progress can be seen here.

A cold, windy place to warm one's piety

According to Dr Johnson,

That man is little to be envied whose patriotism would not gain force upon the plains of Marathon, or whose piety would not grow warmer amid the ruins of Iona.

There is something moving about the windswept little island just over a mile off the Ross of Mull where Saint Columba and twelve companions founded Britain's first Christian community. If that movement can be seen as the first stirrings of piety is another matter.

Iona Abbey

My last visit was more than ten years ago and something has changed since then. I am more sympathetic to the religious impulse now, but I found the place less moving. The ecumenical religious community there thrives but is less in evidence. There is more paraphernalia of 'heritage'; standardised signage badging everything in a Gaelic I have never - in all my trips to the Highlands and Islands - heard used for real, neat little buildings to collect money and nationalistic 'history'.  All womanned by neat smiling ladies pushing 'membership' of Historic Scotland - a government agency that belongs to me - as a taxpayer - already.

Iona (1)
This shrine may have been built to stand over where Saint Columba's remains may have rested. Or not.

The old stones still speak. The buildings have been so often restored as to have little physical connection with Columba. The original abbey was abandoned after Viking raids made it untenable and allowed to fall into ruin. The saint's remains were removed and divided between Ireland and Scotland as the jewelled casket containing them had been a fatal magnet for raiders. Ironically, as his mission to Scotland began as a penance for vengefully urging an Irish clan to war, the Scottish share of his bones was later carried into battle in a special reliquary.

More moving than the buildings are the gravestones, particularly those of the professional warriors for the Lords of the Isles - Scots samurai, if you will - who commissioned them during their lives in the hope of securing salvation despite their bloody profession.

Whatever your religious or historical bent, this place is special. It was a long drive to get there and back; much of it on single track roads of highly-variable quality. Still, when one considers the hardships of medieval pilgrims to reach the little shrine above Saint Columba's former grave, I have no complaints.

In fact, I thoroughly enjoyed the drive back across Mull from Fionnphort to Craignure. I pulled over to let a local van driver go by and followed him as he traversed the island at a blistering 55-65mph. His elevated viewpoint, local knowledge and conviction of immortality allowed me - by dint of staying in close convoy and trusting my ceramic brakes - to reduce the journey time by almost half. We only slowed when we encountered other cars and 'Hamish' - as I dubbed him for the duration of our odd convoy- soon intimidated them out of our way.

Iona (2)
In convoy with CalMac

Speranza's two sea voyages (her first since returning from the US) went smoothly and she was much admired by the CalMac crew members. One young guy stood by her when we docked at Oban just to hear me start her up. His big grin and thumbs up at the roar of her V8 made me laugh and forged another brief brotherhood to rival that with Hamish. I had enjoyed my time on deck trying - mostly in vain - to capture images of the grey grandeur of Scotland's seascapes.

I even enjoyed, after picking up an Indian take-away in Fort William, the final twilight drive along the tracks 'home'. I counted eight deer, including one magnificent stag, in the encroaching darkness on the final ten miles of that run. Four of them crossed my path. Had Hamish been there, my Indian meal would have been warmer but I would have missed seeing them (unless he had hit one).

I love this place so much I can understand - at an emotional level - the petty nationalism of its more narrow-minded inhabitants. It is a warped expression of that same affection and I can see that some sad loser with no personal achievements might take that path of borrowed pride. Good though Scotland's independence could be for England economically, I would still regret her departure from the United Kingdom. Tomorrow I will sleep what may be my last night here as part of my home country and that's just a sad thought.

Old Inverlochy Castle

Old Inverlochy Castle
After Tuesday's automotive excitements and having driven enough miles (more than 100) since the 'reset' to reassure me that all is well again - I decided on a quiet day. I pottered around at 'home' in rainy Achnacarry - only emerging to go shopping. I went to Morrisons in Fort William to buy the ingredients for the roast chicken dinner I was taught to prepare on my course at Ashburton Cookery School this year. It was the only meal on the course that I have not prepared since, unsupervised, so cooking it was a 'to do list' item.

On the way back, I called in at Old Inverlochy Castle. This was the surprisingly modest home of the powerful Comyn family in the late 13th and early 14th Centuries. In 1306, in full Game of Thrones mode, Robert the Bruce murdered Red Comyn before the altar of a church. His rival to the crown removed, Bruce had no use for this modest castle and it has not been lived in since.  The buildings were used as a court house and as industrial storage before falling into the picturesque decay in which Scottish Heritage currently preserves them.

I accidentally disturbed a young couple in the only dryish, partly-covered part of the structure. The man was certainly French and the woman may have been Scottish. I am not quite sure what they were up to, but as their Auld Alliance seemed to pose no threat to England, I affected not to notice them and moved on.

In the nineteenth century Old Inverlochy Castle was replaced by the current version; now a luxury hotel. I have stayed there - in a fit of excess - on a previous trip. The food was adequate and the rooms very pleasant, but to justify its rates it would need to be as much better than The Dorchester as they impertinently exceed those of the latter. It isn't.

Today I am off to Iona for - who knows - some spiritual nourishment. Speranza hasn't been on a boat since her return from the USA so it's time for her to get her sea wheels again.

Glencoe and Invergarry

Tuesday 1
Speranza back on form in Glencoe

Speranza almost spoiled yesterday. Her 'engine management system' was out of sorts and went into the Ferrari equivalent of Windows "safe mode." This switched off her automotive awesomeness so that, for a while, it was like driving a pretty Reliant Robin.

I reset the system. The error message recurred but without the safe mode. I called Joe Macari in London from the National Trust Scotland Glencoe Visitor Centre, where there was some approximation of a mobile phone signal. My guy there suggested she be recovered to the nearest dealer - in Edinburgh. I could continue the week in a courtesy car while technicians work out which of more than 100 sensors is signalling (probably falsely) a fault.

I continued my planned run through Glencoe as a shakedown exercise to flush out the various error messages and note them more carefully before calling for a recovery truck. Mechanically everything was fine and the drive was exhilarating. The Scottish weather, unusually, was pleasant enough to put the roof down. The error message returned as expected, promptly followed by a new one - "System not programmed". Then everything electronic reset (including the trip computer) and we were back to normal. I had a wonderful run through Glencoe, took some photos and turned around to head to my next destination.

Long-time readers may recall that in past years I have spent (most would say wasted) some time in Second Life - a virtual world where users create their own environments. My 'home' there is a reconstruction (by a far cleverer SL builder than me) of a Scottish castle. In real life it's in ruins. In Second Life it's intact. My final destination for the day was the real life original.

Tuesday 2
Your blogger stands before the real life ruins of his Second Life home

It is in the beautiful grounds of a charming hotel, where - after viewing the ruins - I dined on my first nouvelle cuisine Scottish meal; pleasant but frugal.

More pictures can be seen here. The map of the tour can be seen here.

From Lamesly to Achnacarry via Roman Britain

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Today we motored from Lamesly to my base for this week on the shores of Loch Lochy, not far from the Commando Memorial at Spean Bridge. My apartment is in the grounds of Achnacarry Castle, seat of the Cameron of that ilk. From here (and very tentatively for the first mile each day, as the road to the Castle is not very noble) Speranza and I will explore our surroundings in more leisurely style than the World War II commandos and rangers of the Allied nations who were based here for their training.

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I may even break my resolution and slog over to Skye to take a look at my favourite Scottish Castle and the only one whose owner I envy. For now, I am glad to rest in comfort in the heart of Scotland's natural beauty.

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The first stop today was at Heddon-on-the-Wall in England to look at one of the longest remaining stretches of Hadrian's Wall. There were also brief (and rather sodden) photographic breaks at Laggan Dam and the Commando Memorial.

(click to enlarge the pictures, as usual). My progress on the tour so far can be followed here.

Taking the high road

Screen Shot 2014-05-12 at 08.37.03Yesterday Speranza bore me from London to Lamesley near Gateshead where I rested my head in a Goatshed. It's actually a rather smart B&B on a farm, but the name was part of the attraction.

On the way we visited the Major Oak in Sherwood Forest - a regular weekend walk when I was an articled clerk in Nottingham, but a place I haven't seen for decades. The old tree has had some surgery since those days and looked - if anything - in better shape, despite its crutches.

Watching little boys' transform themselves into Merrie Men with no aids more than a stick or two, I was struck by the enduring power of the Robin Hood legend. It may be no more than a folk memory of a long-ago plea in mitigation by the creative lawyer of some woodland rogue, but it will not die.

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I was also reminded of an old Peter Cook gag about a book of myths he had - "a very detailed account of things that never happened". From there we sped north to Gateshead through pleasant English countryside to visit a more modern myth - the Angel of the North. It's known to the locals as "the Gateshead Flasher" apparently. I like modern art. I even enjoy the fun of distinguishing the genuine article from the "works" of people like Tracy Emin. Her only real "art form", in my view, is to see how far she can go in taking the p**s without the Art Establishment crying foul. I am sure it has provided her with as much amusement as money.

I have to say - suspicious though I am of state-funded art - that I buy the Angel. It has presence. It also has popular appeal. The little car park was full and - as I tried to find an angle for my photograph - many visitors came and went. 

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My angle on his angel

Today there is another long road ahead, through some of my favourite landscapes. My destination is Achnacarry, where I propose to vary my usual approach to visiting Scotland by setting up a permanent base for exploration.

Next trip in planning stage

HighlandsOnce the final match of the Premier League season has been played at Craven Cottage, I shall be off to the Scottish Highlands for a week. I have no agenda but to drive on wonderful empty, winding roads and - in photographic terms - to "stand in front of more interesting stuff.

I shall aim to get as far north of Edinburgh as I can on Day #1 and will need to start heading south on Day #6. That leaves four days to explore the Highlands and Islands at such speeds as the polis permits; stopping wherever excessive natural beauty (or local eccentricity) demands the attention of my lens.

Any advice on sights to see and distilleries to tour (bearing in mind that I've already been to all the biggies and won't be taking Speranza on Islay's peatily three-dimensional roads) would be most appreciated. Most of all - as my only complaint about my favourite motor circuit is the catering - please speak up if you know good places to eat!

My Scottish tours in recent years have been disorted by a tendency to gravitate to my favourite spot in Scotland, Dunvegan Castle. I confess that I hate the idea of being close and not visiting, but for variety's sake I may try to stay on the opposite coast to Skye this time. I have so much Talisker in stock anyway that I shall be lucky to live long enough to finish it!

If any of you gentles live or work on my route, I would be honoured to buy you a dram, a wee cup of tea or an Irn-Bru.