Sunday marked our second wedding anniversary so we decided to leave the city and travel up to Loch Lomond, the southernmost tip being only half an hours’ drive north from our particular corner of Glasgow. Growing up, the beautiful song Loch Lomond was one of my Glaswegian Dad’s favourites to sing to us. It seemed inevitable we should aim for “the bonnie banks” before too long. In only a few minutes we were out of the city and into rural Scotland for the first time.
Our first impressions? We’ve found a rift in time and space and we’ve driven back to New Zealand! The first part of our journey up the western shore of the Loch was evocative of the Cardrona Valley in Central Otago, complete with ski lifts, barren hills, harsh winds coming down the valley, sheep stations and foreboding mountains. While it’s true that Scottish mountains are more like ‘significant hills’ by New Zealand’s tectonically youthful standards, their lack of foothills or distance from each other makes them feel just as dramatic and threatening. At no point was this comparison more striking than when we went to the Drovers’ Inn on the (excellent) recommendation of Wendy English, a good friend of my former supervisor. Her ambiguous words were “just stop there and you’ll know why”.
I’m not sure still if she was referring to the taxidermy (always a favourite with museum geeks such as ourselves)
Or perhaps she meant the range of children’s encyclopedias from the pre-war era, such as those Scottish poet Edwin Morgan was so fascinated by. The kind that are so lyrical they can make the potato seem like a fascinating treasure…
Maybe it was the ghost stories we heard from the barman, or the fact it was 300 years old and felt as such, the delicious home brew, the fact Rob Roy was involved in a stand off there, or the way it felt like a close cousin of the Cardrona Hotel back home…
What she probably didn’t know was that the barman would be a Kiwi wearing a kilt identical to my old school uniform. It was brilliant to hear the accent for the first time in a while, especially in that setting. He enthusiastically told us the ghost stories, the way room 6 was haunted by the ghost of a six year old girl who drowned in the Loch, and gave us chips and gravy, marveling with us at how people in the UK are happy to put all sorts of things beyond tomato sauce on their chips. Vinegar? I’ll never understand it.
We hit the road and traveled the rest of the length of the Highlands as the rain swept over us in waves broken by gloriously sunny patches.
Since we’ve arrived many Scots have told us we must head to the nearby Highlands at some point because of the amazing vistas. They then quite often backtrack and say something like “Not as amazing as New Zealand of course”. But Scotland, have faith in your own scenery! It has its own magic and its own, much longer, history which alters the way you look at it. Past the top of Loch Lomond we reached Glencoe, a place I’d heard of only because of the infamous massacre that took place there on government orders in 1692. At the visitors centre there is a small museum explaining more about the history of the place, as well as the geology, wildlife and mountain climbing scene that characterises it today. For a small museum it’s a large price to pay the extremely grumpy attendant, but worth it when you consider it as a donation to the National Trust for Scotland which acts as caretaker of the place. One artist’s quote on the wall struck us both. She said she wasn’t sure if it was her knowledge of the massacre, the thought of a clan decimated and the rest driven into the snowstorms to die, or the valley itself, but there was a sense of threat pervading the place. Before we went there neither of us knew much about the massacre other than that it had taken place there, but we had felt that as well. Perhaps you can’t separate what you know of the history of a place and its scenery. Just as the dry heat or barren cold of the Cardrona Valley forces images of desperate gold miners with their snow-chapped lips, so the valley of Glencoe forces you to feel that some unknown danger is just over your shoulder.
The area around Loch Lomond is full of Jacobite history, places rebels hid or attacked from, military roads built as part of efforts to keep them in check, caves where outlaws sheltered. It turns out that Glencoe is infamous not so much because of the slaughter but because of the way in which it was carried out. It pre-dates the majority of the Jacobite era but is connected with the royal succession at the heart of it, so according to my infinitely knowledgeable office mate , Ian, it still counts.
To cut a long and depressing story short, the MacDonalds were singled out to be an example by the King, William of Orange, in London, and the Scottish Government which still existed in 1692 as the Treaty of Union we are currently trying to get out of didn’t happen until 1707. (So maybe us Yes voters should keep quiet about Glencoe for a bit, it’s not the best example of an independent Scottish government). Anyway, the government sent soldiers to be quartered in Glencoe with the MacDonalds where they experienced the famous Highland hospitality, a central tenet of Highland culture. A couple of weeks later the soldiers were ordered to eradicate the clan. 38 of them were murdered and the rest escaped to the hills during the snowstorm where many more were killed by the elements.
Today it’s a popular place to go mountaineering and watch for birds of prey. Much more innocent! (unless you’re a small woodland animal I guess).
After we’d had a good explore of Glencoe, we drove back down the western shore of the Loch and up the east to where we were staying in a former classroom of The Old School House in Gartocharn.
From there we went for a walk by the Loch (never call it a lake by the way, they get offended). Even though it was after 6pm it was still light and sunny when the clouds parted, but the wind coming off the loch and the close woodland again brought that odd sense of threatening beauty to the place.
The next morning we had a full Scottish breakfast (or attempted to – the blood pudding defeated me), and planned what we might do on the eastern shore with our friendly host. She gave us a map and a bunch of different suggestions, sending us on our way with a doubtful look at the darkening sky.
Without the aid of Google maps because this part of Scotland has no reception of any kind, despite its proximity to Glasgow, we managed to find the nearby Glengoyne distillery. It’s a remarkable place, peaceful and calm with the motto: “Unhurried since 1833”. I guess you can never hurry making whisky, a drink which takes a minimum of ten years to mature properly, but Glengoyne prides itself on taking things even slower than any other whisky distillery.
Due to old tax reasons, the distillery is divided by a road with one half in the highlands and one in the lowlands, the only whisky which belongs to more than one of the 4 Scottish whisky regions I believe. Needless to say we bought a bottle!
We then made our way to Balmaha where we attempted to get over to a little island, but after knocking at every conceivable opening to the ferryman’s shed without success went for a forest walk instead. It was blowing a freezing gale and raining, but that was all part of the fun, especially when we got to enjoy small mountains of haggis (a haggis burger in Bernie’s case) in the deservedly popular Oak Tree Inn.
The weather just got windier and wetter, but we persevered up to Ben Lomond where the eastern road runs out and went for one last walk before making our way back to the city. We found the foot of Ben Lomond through the mist, a great spot for sunbathing and a sculpture with absolutely no stated purpose or explanation.
Loch Lomond is certainly a beautiful part of the world, within running distance of our new home in Maryhill, and you can certainly understand why it attracted the romantics in the 19th century. We’ll probably go back there in summer to attempt the walks we couldn’t do this time and hopefully get out on the Loch itself. It will be interesting to see if it feels as haunting under the sunlight.
Sarah and Bernie
P.S. Don’t worry Patersons, we sang the song!