MICHAEL PALIN has personal reasons for choosing to write about the Falls of Dochart for a collection on ‘favourite places’ that will launch the first Book Week Scotland.
It’s hard to know where to begin. Scotland is so richly endowed with great landscapes, breathtaking views and fine cities that picking out a favourite place seems unfair to all the others. But if I had to narrow my focus and forget the Forth-Clyde canal walk in Glasgow, the Bruichladdich Distillery on Islay and the King’s House Hotel in Glencoe, I’d settle for the Falls of Dochart in Killin. They’re dramatic without being fierce and the way the water twists and tumbles over the rocks is pleasing rather than awesome. They’re accessible too. You can get close to them. Thrilling for a child, I should think, and not intimidating to an oldie like me. I’d call them the friendly falls.
So much of what is beautiful about Scotland has water at the heart of it, whether it’s the rivers and streams, or the lochs and Sounds and Firths into which they flow. One of the great delights of a visit to the Falls of Dochart is their location. From whichever direction you approach the landscape is magnificent. From the west the valley of the Dochart leads you towards the Falls, with Ben More the sentinel to the south, rising over 1,100 metres. Coming at them from the east the road runs, for 14 glorious miles, beside the silver finger of Loch Tay with the dark flanks of the Ben Lawers range rising over 1,200 metres on the far side. Powerful, mysterious, hugely impressive highland scenery.
I think though that a favourite place has to be something more than just an aesthetic choice. There have to be personal elements. And so there are with me and the Falls of Dochart. In my mid-teens I’d met a girl on holiday in Suffolk, and we’d got on very well and the next year we’d met up again by the chilly grey North Sea and our holiday romance blossomed again. The year after that she wasn’t there and I was, for a while, very sad, as I never expected to see her again. Two years later, through the letter-box, came one of those significant communications that can change the course of a lifetime, like unexpectedly good exam results or a successful job application. In my case it was a postcard with a picture of the Falls of Dochart on the front.
On the back was a message from the girl I’d never expected to see again. She was on holiday up in the Highlands and had heard via a friend that I had got into Oxford University. This was followed by some snide reference to the fact that they must have lowered their standards, which, as humour had always been at the heart of our relationship, I found deeply reassuring. Reunited by the Falls of Dochart, we later met up and the holiday romance has developed into a 46- year marriage.
Was it predestination or just plain good fortune that led me to another relationship that was to shape my life, and which was to bring me to see the Falls of Dochart for myself? Whilst at Oxford I met and started to write with a Welshman from Esher in Surrey called Terry Jones. A few years later, by way of The Frost Report and Do Not Adjust Your Set, he and I teamed up with three fellow writers and performers from Cambridge, called Idle, Cleese and Chapman. Joined by an American animator named Gilliam, we became Monty Python’s Flying Circus. After a few years of television we wrote and produced our first film, Monty Python and The Holy Grail. Among many other things it featured a killer rabbit that lived in the terrifying Cave of Caerbannog.
The film was almost entirely shot in Scotland and the home of the killer rabbit was on the hillside overlooking Loch Tay. Which is how, on 6 May 1974, on an afternoon free of filming, I first saw the Falls Of Dochart for myself. I was with John Cleese and we sat on the rocks with the water spilling around us and talked about the future of Python and John’s urge to be free of his obligations to the group. When the time came to go, my hired car wouldn’t start and John helped me push it up the hill to Killin’s only garage.
In 2005, Terry Jones and myself returned to Scotland to film a short video of our search for the Holy Grail locations which was to be included in a new DVD release. By now, just over 30 years after John had expressed his frustrations with the group, the Holy Grail had been a huge international success and transformed the outlook for Python. We had stayed together, on and off, for two more films, the Life of Brian and The Meaning of Life.
Before Terry and I went on our quest to rediscover the location of the Cave of Caerbannog I insisted that we stop at the Falls. I stepped carefully out onto a rock in the middle of the river, sat down, took my shoes off and dangled my feet in the cool fast-flowing waters of the Dochart. I thought about my life and how this place had come to mean so much to me.
Seven years has gone by since then. John Cleese has just got married, for the fourth time, Terry Jones and I are meeting for a drink tomorrow and my wife has just rung to check on our three-year -old grandson who has come down with what he calls chicken pops. And a few hundred miles north the river will be bubbling and swirling down the Falls of Dochart.
© Michael Palin from My Favourite Place, which is being distributed throughout Scotland as part of Book Week Scotland