Loch Ness monstrous
PREVIOUSLY, on my Scottish tour, I visited Edinburgh, St Andrews, Stirling, Callander and Pitlochry. With 48 hours to go, I am in Aviemore, home to Scotland's snowsports. But it's May. It may sound painfully obvious, but there's no snow. There's wind, drizzle and plenty of 1960s architecture, but nothing, I could say with any integrity, one might "do".
This is not without its good points. A brief scan of the Lonely Planet implies I should "avoid the kitsch that reigns through summer by heading for the hills". But I'm a firm believer in the power of local knowledge and, try as I might, I can't see any Highlanders roaming the barren peaks. They're far too busy inebriating themselves. And it seems rude not to join them.
The Old Bridge Inn, behind the train station, is a bloody good pub. With its oak beams and open fire, it provides the warmth so lacking from the rest of this dismal town, which is, I presume, why every local has set up camp there. After a superb pub dinner of Orcadian broth and smoked mackerel salad, I'm invited into the cheerful company of three publicans who mourn our national failure at welcoming lone tourists. Given a fellow drinker has just greeted his wife saying "how are you my old bat", it strikes me work may need to begin at home.
Mid-evening, Gilly, the one-man band, strikes up to relive his 1960s heyday, much to the gaiety of the entire place. But hurry, this gem of an entertainer is not long for this town. He's huge in Hungary.
The next morning, after a perfectly acceptable stay in the Cairngorm, I board the train to Inverness. Eventually. Arriving at the station, I'm informed there will be a ten- minute delay. Twenty minutes later Marilyn Manson's backing singer and I are still waiting, but at least we're kept in the loop by a real-life announcer and not the common or garden computerised variety, that stalwart of impersonal customer service.
I resist the temptation to join a bickering couple inside the Down Under Dining Experience and wait for the GNER buffet car for my Elevenses. This is stupid. It's raining, I'm damp to the skin, and long for a cup of something warm. "No can do, I'm afraid," says the glum catering assistant. "We've nothing hot today." Tepid squash, however, they have aplenty.
Wandering through Inverness on my way to the TIC, I receive bemused looks from the locals. Fortunately, the TIC clerk extends a far warmer welcome. Loch Ness tours, he tells me, are a dime a dozen, but it's past 9am, so I'd have to wait until the next tour at 2pm, which wouldn't return until 6pm. Then I would have to wait until the 7:15pm Citylink service to Fort Augustus, where I have booked a night at the Caledonian Hotel, at which the landlady insists on serving dinner no later than 7:30pm. So, it's either Nessie and bed without dinner, or sustenance tonight and Nessie tomorrow. The monster will have to wait.
One beautiful, if cramped, bus ride later and I'm in Fort Augustus, an enchanting village at the foot of Loch Ness. I rush to the Lock Inn presuming they will be similarly stringent about serving times, but find they offer their fantastic fish chowder throughout the afternoon, and spend the rest of the day ambling around the town.
The Caledonian Hotel, two minutes out of town, has a distinctly hostel feel, and positioned as it is at the crest of a hill, bears unfortunate resemblance to the Bates Motel. Fortunately, the landlady could not be more accommodating and cheerfully shows me to my room. It's bare but adequate, which sums up the appeal of this two-star residence, if not the eight French hillwalkers staying in the room next door. They're just loud.
Next morning, I have a monster to find. The Citylink driver could be more supportive. When he arrives, I ask if I can buy a single ticket to Inverness, breaking the journey halfway up to visit Nessie and her exhibition. No, he says, as that would involve two different buses. Instead, he charges me 5.20 for the trip to Drumnadrochit, which when added to the fare from there to Inverness, comes to 2.30 more than the fare I paid for the outward leg.
My quest doesn't get easier. The Loch Ness 2000 Exhibition - which every guide recommends over the neighbouring Monster centre - begins with an introductory lecture about how daft one would have to be to believe the legend: "Science," the voiceover booms, "has proved it could not be," and goes on to give a detailed analysis of the loch's marine biology. One presumes, after expensive, extensive market research, they found tourists have no interest in the mystery of the monster. Far better to give them plankton.
Shocked at the failure to capitalise on Scotland's most intriguing legend - except, of course in the oversized gift shop - I board the Deepscan cruise for one last shot. Turns out this is a one-man operation: Dick, Nessie-hunter extraordinaire, has been searching the loch since 1967, and despite having found no monster, is keen to share the fruits of his labour, namely a ringbinder of self-penned pamphlets and sub-aqua sonar displays. After the morning's cynicism, he individually lifts the entire experience.
This, I conclude on my final Citylink sojourn, is surely the key to Scottish tourism. Yes, the Inverness bus is late, and yes there is nowhere adequate to endure the delay. There is a bench where I could rest my weary bones, or there is a shelter ten yards from it, where I could escape the rain. And never the twain shall meet.
But Scotland is greater than the sum of these parts, and her appeal requires no hyperbole. It's the landlady who gave me a cuddly toy and the waitress who brought me that extra scone. It's Dick.
Scots have hospitality in abundance. Learn from them and the industry will take care of itself.
AS THE FERRY pitches and rolls towards Skye, a CalMac supervisor is checking his e-mails. I have not encountered a single internet cafe in 500 miles of travelling, yet this man can surf the world wide web while crossing the Sound of Sleat. Not fair!
In the grounds of Armadale Castle is the excellent, inspiring Museum of the Isles, part of the Clan Donald centre. There is a comprehensive history of the clan deftly woven with the wider historical context of Scotland's land ownership struggles. The neighbouring restaurant looks promising but turns out to be a mediocre cafeteria where I pay 10.70 for a small glass of wine and a salmon salad that inexplicably comes with a giant boiled egg, filling the air with a faecal stench.
The Rapsons bus driver tells me a secret: a 5 rover gives unlimited travel and works out cheaper than a Portree single. Skye has excellent buses, despite the forbidding appearance of its shelters.
There are only two passengers as the bus rattles northwards - me and an American tourist. We are in the middle of nowhere: no houses, no cars... just wilderness, wind and rain. Suddenly, the driver gasps and slams on the brakes. At a deserted shelter near Sligachan are 19 bus-spotters taking pictures. As they pile on, multiplying the number of passengers by ten, it emerges we are on a rare example of a Leyland Lynx (please: no letters). "You don't see them very often because they're crap," explains one of the enthusiasts, who have gathered from across Britain for this experience. Now there's a niche marketing slogan for VisitScotland: come to Scotland, it's got crap buses.
At Portree, the tourist information centre (TIC) is already closed. Most visitors touring Scotland arrive late in the day to discover the local TIC is closed. Time to rethink opening hours? The Bosville Hotel is an oasis of luxury after my grim B&Bs and the bistro menu includes game terrine, local oysters, venison and halibut. It looks and tastes delicious. The service from the young staff is woefully inept but the Bosville strives for excellence and the net effect is pleasant. Breakfast is a vast affair including whisky porridge, fruit platters, cereal and chunky toast - a fantastic offering to match any five-star hotel. The TIC turns out to be outstanding. There's even a blackboard where visitors can report sightings of whales or basking sharks.
Still no internet cafe, so everyone must use the free computers at the public library and fill out a Highland Council "consent, waiver and indemnification" form which asks for an address and passport number. As I send an important e-mail, there's a power cut. "It could be off for hours," says the librarian, who cannot conceal her delight at my misfortune.
In Trotternish, the poignant Skye Museum of Island Life provides an authentic experience with windswept crofts. There isn't another bus for four hours, so I walk past the Flora Macdonald memorial and onwards the eight miles to Uig.
After the long walk I have earned a good dinner but the chippy on Portree harbour sells Scotland's worst fish supper, for 4.50. The fish is awful, and the vinegar is sprayed over the chips using the sort of plastic container usually reserved for weedkiller or disinfectant.
I have mixed impressions of my B&B, the Coolin View. There are huge black damp patches up the curtains of my room and the bedside table is filthy. But this is forgiveable: the town is busy with an accordion music festival and this is the last available room - an absolute bargain at only 20, and overlooking the pretty harbour. The lovely lady in charge is also rushed off her feet. Later, she is serving dinners at the convivial Isles Inn. Perhaps she needs an assistant?
The accordion festival has a cracking atmosphere and the bar in the Tongadale Hotel is jumping. The tourists have an unforgettable experience and, by midnight, there is dancing in the streets.
I hope to visit Raasay but torrential rain takes me instead to Dunvegan Castle, where the clan chief of the Clan MacLeod is attempting to pay for restoration of his ancestral home by charging 6.80 for entry plus 2 for a guide book. At the Dunvegan village fun run there is a barbecue (in the rain) which has delicious burgers for 1.50.
On the outskirts of Portree is Aros, Skye's one-stop cultural exhibition centre. It may be a great arts venue but the visitor experience is limited to a laudable but cluttered display of live bird-nest cameras and aerial footage without any commentary - both accessible through a tacky souvenir shop.
In search of a more genuine experience I watch Skye Camanachd beat Ballachulish 3-2 at shinty.
My run of luck with public transport ends at Broadford. In the pouring rain, the thoughtful Rapsons driver pauses for the late connecting bus to Kyle. We have a show of hands: press on to Armadale to catch the ferry or wait and keep the Kyle passengers dry? I am outnumbered. After half an hour it is clear the next bus isn't coming and the roofless shelter is no defence against the passive-aggressive Hebridean rain so I get a cab to Kyle. There's an hour until the Inverness train, according to National Rail Enquiries. But when I reach the station a train is already waiting. In the seconds it takes me to locate the inquiries office, the doors close and the last service of the day pulls away on time, at 5:18pm. Bugger.
A taxi agrees to race the train in a white-knuckle ride along the A890 - the most fun you can have in a people-carrier. We beat the train to Strathcarron by eight minutes. "You looked as if you weren't catching the train," explains the conductor. ScotRail provides a miserable experience. There is no catering on the two-hour journey and my seat is broken. But as I approach Inverness for a reunion with Anna, the waters of the Beauly Firth reflect the misty grey sky to form a fairytale picture in the train window. After a week of rigid gastronomic deadlines, our 9:30pm dinner reservation seems decadent. The food at Mustard Seed is excellent and the staff let us chat until midnight. Good service in a Highland restaurant? You read it here first.
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Weather for Edinburgh
Saturday 18 May 2013
Temperature: 9 C to 13 C
Wind Speed: 18 mph
Wind direction: North east
Temperature: 9 C to 18 C
Wind Speed: 8 mph
Wind direction: North east