A Journey into Scotland Part 59
The Road to Perth
There are so many wonderful routes to get from Inverness to Perth that I feel almost embarrassed that I chose to come thundering down the A9. As far as main roads go it’s one of the best in Britain. But it’s a main road. A trunk road. Hundreds of acres of tarmac cutting the fastest possible route from north to south and complete (even in 1987) with cars and trucks and coaches seeming to care more for getting there than the journey itself. And I was the same.
I had a deadline to meet for writing music and lyrics (call it a score and a libretto if you wish but it was really a selection of songs) for Proper Job Theatre’s forthcoming production of Don Quixote:
“Need a name for the master,
A name that must sound right
Need a name for the morning after,
We need a name for the Knight.”
You’d be amazed what can be done with this in Yorkshire accented three part harmony and a clog dance. Proper Job were way ahead of the likes of Northern Broadsides in those days!
The head teacher of a school where I’d done some of my teaching practice wanted me to come in for a chat to check out my availability and I was missing my family very badly. It was the first time, since becoming a father, that I’d been away from home for more than a day or two and there were some faces that I longed to see very much indeed. I was a man in a hurry.
I’m sure it’s a fair pull over Slochd Summit to Carbridge and down to Kingussie but it didn’t seem that way. When you’ve spent three weeks pedalling up and down the hills of the Atlantic coast of Scotland, Skye, Wester Ross and Sutherland, the gently angled slopes of a mini-motorway don’t prove too demanding. Carbridge; with it’s famous pack bridge proving that intact ruins are far more redolent of the past than fully renovated structures; was the first place to draw me from my headlong pursuit. I absorbed it in its true Highland splendour by brewing up a pint of tea and heating a can of beans to pour over a Scotch pie. Food doesn’t have to be gourmet to taste wonderful if you get the surroundings right. Scotch pies are like a lot of “traditional” Scottish fare; high fat, low taste, lots of preservatives; but they fill a hole and fuel a cyclist. Can’t imagine them being handed out in musettes to the lycra boys. The E numbers are altogether the wrong chemicals for those fellows.I spent the night in Kingussie (pronounced kin goosey approximately) in a hostel that doesn’t appear to exist any more. It was here that I decided to take the bike out for a tour of the town in the evening and discovered that, without the bags, it was almost impossible to ride. I was as wobbly as a toddler and more than one local looked disapprovingly at the apparent drunkard. The dormitory was large and I was the only sleeper. I slept well.
The next day was more of the same. Holding the thin strip of road between the painted white line and the rumbling pantechnicons of the highland highways. This would be fine except the seldom disturbed edge gathers all the little stones and chippings. I may have avoided a puncture but lost the advantage of a smooth road surface.
This is mountaineering country but you’ll see a lot of strangely clean gaiters and unscuffed boots at the end of the day. The very road that was spiriting a sprinting cyclist back to the lowlands brings tourists into the heart of the Cairngorms with the ease of a visit to Whipsnade. According to Muriel Gray in her delightful book, ‘The First Fifty’, the true climbers and munro baggers are to be found in the west and the north. She was a regular on the television at one time, lighting up political and arty programmes with quick-witted sense delivered in a manner as individual as her spiky, post-punk appearance. (I know she’s now very busy at Glasgow University but it would be nice to see her on our screens again…though I fear she might be considered a little too controversial (and intelligent) for modern broadcasting). She has a less than flattering view of the Cairngorms and the people you are likely to find there.***Here are the tourists rather than the purists. Maybe a stroll up an easy route but preferably with a ski lift, just to say you’ve been up one. Then, perhaps a distillery visit before loading up with an Arran sweater or two and tins of shortbread and back home to Surrey. I associate the area with Aviemore and Britain’s attempt to establish a ski culture. I have never had much affection for skis or skiers who don’t actually come from the mountains. I’m happy to pass through. It doesn’t much feel like a real Scotland.
Blair Castle has stood as a major fortress in this pass since the twelfth century. It’s a fine sight from the main road and the guided tour of house and gardens adds to the local tourist trade. A little further down the River Garry the valley narrows at the Pass of Killiekrankie. There’s history here, both Jacobite and Family. A battle was fought in the first Jacobite Rebellion of 1689. With hindsight it’s hard to know which cause to sympathise with. Those loyal to an unpleasant and arrogant deposed king or those loyal to an unpleasant and arrogant replacement king. Impossible to decide from the principals, there is more to choose between the principles. I err towards the rebels who actually won this battle handsomely though they lost one of their potentially great leaders in John Graham of Claverhouse (Bonnie Dundee of Walter Scott fame). National and family history connect at the sight of a legend of that battle.
On the way down south in 1964 the family stopped for a picnic and a play in the woods. It was lunchtime of day two of our move from Thurso to Barrow in Furness. We gathered for photographs at Soldier’s Leap; the place where one Donald MacBean is said to have cleared the river while running away from his rebellious pursuers. If he did, it makes Bob Beamon’s efforts in Mexico City count for little. I know adrenalin can give you an extra boost; the old flight or fight reflex. I’m un-sure if it can actually sprout the wings you’d need to clear the pass. It’s a wonderful place to be and I linger awhile and it feels familiar. Strange, because I never found out until later that we’d stopped there and that this is where these photographs were taken. I’m second from the left on the top photo and seem to have been pushed over the edge in the second picture. In 1964 it was considered elder brothers’ prerogative to see if younger brothers could fly.
By the time I got to Pitlochry the Highlands were behind me. It’s an attractive town but another that seemed to me to be catering more for an English and American than a local trade. There was more than a desire to get home spinning my wheels. I’d been spoilt on the way up. I’d been spoilt as far as Culloden. This part of Scotland is visually stunning and, I”m sure, absolutely fabulous if you get off the main drag and away from the tourist haunts. To me in 1987 it was a disappointing parade of fake tartans and sheepskin rugs in shops that had accordion music playing in the background and fine Highlanders on tins of cake and place-mats to take home, put away and eventually give to a charity shop. If I had to sprint through part of Scotland then this was a decent place to start.
Things have changed. If you go to Killiekrankie now you can go the the “Highland Fling Bungee Experience.” God preserve us! Almost makes you want to join a rebellion.
*Thanks to Andrew Hardacre for allowing me to share his blog title for this post.
** List of words Robert Burns gets to rhyme with Killiekrankie
brankie, auntie, clankie, shank ye, and brankie again
***“They just didn’t seem very exciting. Why would I want to go and wander around these featureless big sods at the weekend, when I could be rollicking along a precipice on a terrifying, groggy west-coast mountain? It would be like choosing to go and spend all Sunday afternoon discussing skin diseases with your 75-year-old deaf aunty in Coatbridge, instead of taking up your boyfriend’s offer of a day in bed at an expensive country house hotel, drinking champagne while he gives you a bit of a seeing to.”
Muriel Gray comparing the Cairngorms with the west coast mountains in The First Fifty (Corgi Books)