HUDDLED over a lukewarm bowl of soup with my Puffa jacket still fastened to keep out the cold in an empty restaurant that smelt vaguely of wee was not quite what I had in mind when we had stopped for a bite to eat.
Earlier, we had been marvelling at the spectacularly gushing Falls of Dochart in Killin, near Stirling, then decided a restaurant looked perfect for a spot of lunch. From the outside the place looked good – low ceilings and a smoking chimney which promised a roaring fire.
However, when we stooped in through the low door, the greeting from the girls behind the bar was almost as cold and lacklustre as the dying flames in the hearth.
“Um, do you serve food?” we politely enquired, battling to be heard over the traditional Scottish tunes blasting out from an overhead speaker. “Yer,” the girl replied. “Well, how do we order? Is there a menu?” we pressed her. “You have to ask me,” she replied with a grimace.
Maybe this should have been our cue to turn about but we persevered and were shown to a table for two by a draughty window and ended up ordering some watery Cullen Skink. Which is why we ended up slurping away in our heavy winter jackets then racing out as fast as our furry boots would carry us to continue with the rest of our honeymoon.
Yes, you read right. This time last week my husband and I were heading off for a Highland Fling after finally getting hitched. And rather than opt for the warmer climes of Dubai, I had decided that my idea of a romantic few days away was to explore the west of Scotland and enjoy some of the famously welcoming hospitality I had read about in a tour guide.
Earlier this year VisitScotland had trumpeted about Scots being the perfect hosts because a survey showed that 80 per cent of visitors said they were made to feel welcome by the locals. On top of this, last week, travel guide Lonely Planet named Scotland as one of the top countries in the world to visit in 2014 because of all the high-profile events taking place – the Commonwealth Games, the Ryder Cup and the Year of Homecoming.
So on reading this stuff, visitors might be hopeful of some service with a warm Scottish smile – and so was I. However, our first port of call scored a big fat zero on the welcoming front – but I was holding out for some friendlier faces so as we headed further west.
Next stop on our romantic tour was the beautiful Isle of Mull and a hotel in Tobermory. Walking into the eerily quiet reception, we asked if we could have some food. “We’re not serving tonight,” chirped the receptionist. “Okay, well, can we have a drink?” we smiled. “Not unless you’re local,” she replied.
As we headed back on to the rain-lashed streets we laughed in disbelief at the “warm welcome” for which the Scots are so famous.
Luckily, after that we turned a corner on the “It Cannae Be” attitude, and experienced some of the glowing warmth that these tourist books write about – a B&B run by a wonderful woman called Helen who warmed our beds with hot water bottles and sent us off on hikes with a flask of tea and homemade cakes.
There was another pub in on Mull which harnessed the best of Scottish cheer – with a roaring fire, friendly staff, fine wines and a folk band which had the entire room raising their voices, and glasses, to familiar tunes. Then there was a magical trip to Iona then the misty Isle of Eriska and a fantastically old-fashioned hotel with oak panels, huge fires and a team of energetic staff.
So as we rounded off our romantic road trip, we decided on balance that the fine folk we had met far outweighed the surly, sulky staff we had suffered.
But we also discovered that being a tourist in Scotland at the end of October is not easy. While the autumn trees are a riot of breathtaking colour, the mists rise from the lochs and the mellow fruitfulness does its stuff, most of the country is in shutdown – closed until spring.
But as we headed homewards, we counted scores of tour buses heading for the Highlands and Islands – presumably all carrying visitors with money to burn but, it seemed to us, very few places to spend it. And of those establishments still open, some were manned by staff with as much warmth in their smiles as there was in the chilly October sun.
With the eyes of the world on Scotland next year, let’s hope the tourist industry rises to the challenge and makes sure that, whatever the season, staff greet each and every visitor with a warm welcome – and watch the money roll in. Surely that would be something to smile about.