A Journey into Scotland … Part 35
And so fate and the loveliness of the late September* morning determined that it was to be a day off. It has to be said, and probably has been, that one of the great pleasures of a travelling holiday is the day when you decide not to travel. I was very happy that I was seeing the places I was travelling to but I was also seeing (and feeling and hearing) the places in between. There is something almost perfect about travelling on a bicycle. You see more than by any other mode of transport. You possibly see more than even walkers see. You have the height advantage. Walkers usually can’t see over hedges. Cyclists can. It makes a big difference.
But there is a difference between passing through and stopping. I don’t pretend that staying for thirty six hours gave me any stupendous insight into the village of Plockton but it was long enough for Plockton to make a huge impression on me. My mind was made up before I emerged from the tent. I was going to stay for two nights. That would give me time to rest the ankle and to make a proper assessment of whether it was up to the rest of the journey. I was comfortable, and having ended up in a place as delightful as Plockton, I would go so far as to say that I was happy.
In nearly thirty years, the first time I’ve had serious regrets about having to abandon the island hopping part of my journey has been in writing these posts. My regret there is tempered. I don’t regret changing plans to minister to a swollen ankle. I do regret that in the intervening years I have never been back. I did once apply for a teaching job on Harris but never got onto the shortlist. (It is possible that I only applied to get all expenses paid travel up to the island. I’m not saying that that was the case. But it is possible.)
I can remember wandering down to the local stores for a box of corn flakes, a pint of milk and a paper. Back on the camp site I enjoyed the delight of cereal and the real pleasure of fresh rather than dried milk in my tea. I can’t remember what was in the newspapers. Looking back the main events of October 1987 were the “Black Monday” stock market crash and the great Hurricane that devastated parts of southern Britain. These were on the 19th and 15th. I was back home for both of them.
I lazed most of the morning. I imagine I’d read the paper from cover to cover. I’d have had a book in my bag if I wanted to read some more. Afterwards I wandered down and watched the world go by. I quite fancied chilling my ankle with a soak in the loch, but I never saw anyone go near the water’s edge who wasn’t wearing waders. I felt a bit shy about being the first to paddle.
“Do you know” asked a voice next to me, “that Plockton is one of the few places in Britain where you can arrive by road, rail, sea or air?”
I didn’t. The elderly man spent some time adjusting his dentures without opening his mouth.
“Oh, yes. We’ve got the airstrip.”
It seemed that that was all he wanted to tell me and we fell quiet for quite some time. Every now and then we felt the need to smile inanely at each other and after half an hour he announced that he couldn’t sit chatting with me all afternoon. “Delightful as it is.” but he had things to do. I didn’t.
It was the end of the tourist season. It didn’t seem like the sort of place that would be packed to the rafters. It was delightfully unspoilt with a high percentage of people who actually seemed to live and work in the town. The occasional traveller stood out by means of costume. We may dress up to go out to dinner with our beloved and we may dress up to sit in the dark of the theatre or cinema. We most certainly don’t dress up to travel the world. I was in a well worn (and due to my tumble, newly torn in multiple places ) pair of tracksuit trousers and a blue checked shirt. I was one of the better dressed and probably the only traveller not bedecked in nylon.
The Haven Hotel was doing a steady trade in delighting visitors from three continents with the haggis, tatties and neeps it had served me the day before. I had a fancy for some seafood but ended up drinking a pint of malt beer. Again I’m engaged in conversation but this time my companion is a garrulous fellow and an amiable one. If I was being unkind I would say he was a suitable case study for a character in detective fiction. He constantly checked if anyone else in the bar was listening. He reminded me more than somewhat of Private Walker from Dad’s Army. He would have done well on the wartime black market.
Plockton gained international fame eight years later when BBC Scotland dramatised the Hamish MacBeth books of MC Beaton and set the fictional town of Lochdubh (pronounced Loch Doo) in Plockton. The original books are delightful (though it took me until the second one to catch the tone). The way of life is idealised and the central character is a man who hasn’t quite got the deference for his betters that he might have. The programme ran to three series. It was a huge hit with dog lovers for the little West Highland Terrrier (Wee Jock) who accompanied Hamish on all his investigations. It was a huge hit with a certain sub-culture who were convinced that the roll your own cigarettes smoked by the policeman were not entirely legal. And it was a hit with the many for the fabulous views of lochs and moors and mountains. Unconventional police techniques, a subversive attitude to authority and a cast of minor scoundrels filling the village made it perfect tea time television. Oh, and it starred Robert Carlyle. To my mind the best screen actor to come out of Scotland.
All that was still to come but my interlocutor often came back to mind as I watched the series. He was very good on maps though and assured me that the road to Achnasheen, while doing very little other than going uphill for twenty five miles, didn’t ever get steep. He’d solved my plans for tomorrow and was keen to plan the rest of today. I wasn’t planning on doing very much more than quietly drinking a pint or two so I did it in his company. His company and the company of the back room bar that was reached (as a very clear memory tells me) down a narrow passage with no outward sign that there was a pub at the end.
I’d given him the greatest hits from my journey so far and he regaled these on to the jolly bunch, who seemed to be on a round robin of playing pool, propping up the bar and sitting around the biggest table. I was welcomed as part of the party and even allowed into the pool knockout where I won one and lost one. There was talk of a lock-in and I felt guilty as I excused myself. Three pints was enough for me. They were only getting started. I can’t remember my fellow’s name but have quite a clear memory that he didn’t give me one. Not a regular name anyway. This fellow was known to all, and happy to be known to all by the name of a common brassica. I’m beginning to doubt the veracity of the memory. Maybe I had more than three pints.
* I have earlier said that the trip was made in October. It certainly finished in October but as I was definitely back home by the 15th of that month and I still have over a fortnight of the journey to go, I have had to re-think the calendar.