A Journey into Scotland … part 28
This is a great outdoors part of the world. I’d crossed the western edge of Rannoch Moor, I’d followed General Wade’s military road and I’d cycled into Glencoe. It was also a rather good indoors sort of place, if indoors meant the characterful hotels of the west coast. Gradually, as I got used to the demands of a long distance ride, and came to realise just what good Scottish hospitality was, I started taking tea in these places. On the early stages of my travels though, I was in the habit of having a glass of beer. Not wanting to be the only fellow in the bar sipping a half pint, I often ordered a larger measure. It was all too easy to be drawn into having more.
They were the most convivial bars I’d ever been in. Always a mix of locals and climbers. (Fell walkers tend to cluster in the beer gardens of hotels and think there is nothing wrong with using the hotel’s picnic tables to eat their own sandwiches off). Climbers tend to take up the corner of a bar and drink pint after pint of strong beer. In 1987 modern climbers were beginning to emerge; athletic, almost gymnasts, whose slender frames belied enormous strength. These were already at their campsites doing an extra hundred press ups or looking for a suitable door frame from which to suspend themselves. I was among traditional climbers here. Their idea of taking exercise was to drink the first four pints standing up.
The King’s House was worth the extra mile or two of moorland track. The open fire burned bright and the pint of Belhaven went down nicely.
Half way down the glen I met a cyclist from Manchester who was doing Scotland as far north as Inverness and was doing it the opposite way round. This gave both of us the chance to find out, from the other, what to look forward to over the next few days, and to enjoy telling our pedalling tales. We found a spot near a waterfall and drummed up tea. As the kettle boiled we both simultaneously busied ourselves in panniers and emerged with a bag of cakes. You soon learn as a cyclist that there is nothing better than a slice of cake to prepare you for the next ten miles.
This drum-up (as Scottish cyclists since Robert Millar often call it) was the first of several I was to have with people, I had never met before, and every time we both brought out a bag of cakes. It was invariably with someone going the other way. I did meet cyclists going in the same direction but I like to go a mile an hour slower. I’m happy at my own pace. I may not be in quite the hurry of others but I seem to have gone just as far by the end of the day.
I can’t remember my Manchester friend’s name but I can remember thinking about making changes to my planned route. He spoke so well of Bealach-na-ba (the pass of the cattle) and the tiny remote village of Applecross. The road is one of the highest in Britain and perhaps the most spectacular. It was a fabulous picnic. The company, the location and the conversation were just right and tea and cake has rarely tasted so good. We weren’t in the least competitive but we compared daily milage and raced each other to see who could bring a pan of water to the boil the quickest. At the end of an hour he continued up the glen while I freewheeled between the mountains and into the village of Glencoe where I actually resisted the temptation of another glass of Scottish beer.
I liked the Scottish beer. I liked the names. In England the names of Scottish breweries are held in some contempt and this is largely because they send tanker loads of poor beer over the border and keep the good stuff for themselves. I’d never touch a drop of McEwans or Tennants in an English pub but in Scotland they went down nicely. In the old days they used to tax beer on it’s specific gravity and in Scotland this was measured in shillings. Anything above 60 shillings was a powerful drink. It was considerably thicker than water and consequently became known as “heavy”. You can still find Scottish ales that incorporate these shilling measurements into their names. At least this is what I was told in an Argyle pub. I’ve never felt the need to question it.
The glen opens out as you reach Loch Leven. This is a richer, more elegant beauty. Not as powerfully awe inspiring as further up into the mountains. This equates more to the romantic notion of beauty as opposed to the sublime beauty of the peaks. Late afternoon sun lights the loch from the west. I want to find a campsite but I’ve got a call to make. In my bag I have a letter from my father to one of his ex merchant navy colleagues who had retired to a hotel nearby. I’d been given the wrong name and have to try two hotels before I’m directed to the right one. The staff are most helpful and insist I have a glass of beer while they ask around. By the time I present myself at the correct place I’m already gently lubricated. I’m planning on maybe one more drink, to pass on my father’s best wishes and to ask the way to the nearest campsite. Instead I’m told that the man is away on holiday but could I wait in the bar hill while they find his son-in-law.
I’m enjoying pint number four of the day when a cheerful fellow arrives and settles down next to me. He won’t hear of me spending a night in a tent.
“The hotel is full but I’m sure we can find you a bed in the staff quarters. It’s not quite as nice but you’d be more than welcome.” He notices that my glass has reached a convenient depth and insists on topping it up.
The evening is delightful. I’m installed in a simple room and once showered and changed I’m presented to the rest of the family and staff. Beer flows in generous quantities and as the evening moves into dark night, an elderly man takes a seat at a drum set and my host enters with an accordion. Other instruments appear and soon I’m being put through my paces on the Gay Gordons and the Valeta. I dance with family and I dance with other guests and even dance with the barmaids from the two hotels I’d visited earlier in the evening. This hotel seemed to be the place where everyone ended up in at the end of he night. I danced more that night than I had in years. “If you keep dancing you won’t get a hangover.” I was informed by one of my partners. We certainly put the theory to the test. By midnight I was finding serious problems in remembering steps and keeping proper time so I retired to my room and slept spark out and happy.
With the morning sun creeping through a window, I had never seen before in daylight, I awoke and lay quietly contemplating how I had arrived to say hello to a friend of my fathers and to find a camp site. I felt I may have over-stayed my welcome and I rather sheepishly went to find my hosts to thank them for their kindness. He greeted me with a friendly slap on the back and ushered me into a large kitchen where his wife was taking charge of the breakfasts.
“Sit down over there. We’ll see you well fed before you go.”
The plate was full and fine. Rashers of Ayrshire bacon, sausage, oatcake, toast and two of the most perfect eggs I have ever tasted. A scruffy, bearded cyclist had arrived out of the blue and had been given the best hospitality of his life. They came out to wave me off and posed for a photograph. It would be unthinkable to be so well treated in an English hotel but talking to other travellers into the west of Scotland, my story is by no means unique. This is a truly wonderful country.
As I pedal along the shores of Loch Linnhe I notice that having consumed a foolish quantity of beer the night before there is not even the slightest sign of a hangover. My dancing partner had been right. I’d kept dancing all night long. I was dancing still.