An English Idiot Abroad Part 1 – Travels in Scotland

Foreword, Leaving Rawdon & the Status Quo

I suppose you don’t really appreciate a person or place as much as when you are leaving them. This was very indicative of the way I felt after deciding to up sticks and travel the world. This was something I had often dreamed about, had been saving for, but not yet had the balls to actually go ahead and do it. The fact that I had been made redundant after seventeen years of taking the easy option of adhering to the status quo was the kick up the arse that was needed. But quite scary as well!

I had been on many walks around northern Leeds last summer and was amazed by how little time it takes to get from my front door into the countryside. The River Aire is 15 minutes away and the Billing 10 minutes, where one can get panoramic views of Leeds and Ferrybridge power station to the south and east, and Ilkley Moor and surrounding moors to the north and west.

The sunsets here were always sensational. I’m going to miss living on the side of a hill in Yorkshire – but the world awaits!

Hawick & Great Bike Racers

I started my foray into the beautiful country north of the border with a visit to my old mate Chris. He lives in Hawick, which is a handy first stop being slap bang in the centre of the Scottish borders, and Chris likes to drink lots of beer like I do!

Hawick’s most famous son of years gone by was Jimmie Guthrie. Born there in 1897 he started as a dispatch rider in France during the great war and joined Hawick Motorcycle Club on returning. They entered him into his first TT in 1923 and the rest is history, as they say.

This statue was erected in his honour in Wilton Lodge Park by the river in Hawick next to the museum where there is an exhibition featuring some of his race bikes and trophies. There is a list of his major wins in TT, Northern Island road races and countless 350 and 500cc GP`s and six titles in Europe – nearly 50 wins in all! Sadly, he fatally crashed whilst leading the European GP in Germany at the age of 40. The funeral procession in Hawick stretched for three miles. There are other memorials to Jimmie Guthrie: the Guthrie Stone at the Sachsenring, where he died, and another at the roadside spot, The Cutting, where he retired in his last Senior TT.

Another great motorcycle racer from Hawick, and one closer to my heart, was Steve Hislop. Sadly taken from his family and all bike racing fans in a freak helicopter crash, which has still not been adequately investigated in many people’s eyes. Steve was one of the fastest superbike riders in the world. When he was on the pace and riding top level machinery he was unbeatable.

He won 11 Isle of Man TT titles, 3 North West 200s and Macau GPs, the Ulster GP, Le Mans and Bol D’Or 24 hour races and was British 250cc champion and British Superbike champion twice. In 1989 Steve became the first rider to top 120 mph with a TT lap at 121.34. This record was beaten 3 years later by WSB champion Carl Fogarty, but he would still only come second to Hislop who was riding a rotary Norton in that race. Foggy’s record was to stand for 8 years until finally bettered by David Jefferies in 2000.

Steve was truly a great man who I still miss on the racetrack.

A life-sized bronze statue stands in the park at Hawick, and another identical one has been erected in the Isle of Man.

Kingussie and Dunnet Head

My only fixed destination in Scotland was the furtherest northern point of mainland Britain, Dunnet Head which lies between John O’Groats and Thurso. This was simply because I had never gone further north than the Isle of Skye before.

I decided it was time to stop when about half way to Thurso from Hawick and ended up in a nice little town on the A86 called Kingussie. It is close to Aviemore and therefore a popular place to stay for winter sports fans.

My philosophy on finding good, reasonably-priced accommodation is quite simple – find a local pub that’s open, go in and have a pint or a shot of the local brew (if possible) and, once you’ve been in there for a while, try to strike up a conversation with one of the locals or a member of the bar staff, or landlord, and ask where you can find the type of room you require.

This method has never failed for me, it beats tourist information and even the internet hands down. In Kingussie I went for a pint in the Star Hotel on the High Street and got chatting to a local customer who directed me past the more expensive hotels to The Silverfjord Hotel on Ruthven Road near the railway station. As well as the restaurant and bar, there is a small public bar at the hotel with very friendly locals where I enjoyed a couple of local brews. The room was decent, large, with en suite and TV for the princely sum of 27.50 sterling. I actually dined at the Star Hotel and the food was excellent.

The next day was nice and sunny – perfect for the 200 or so miles drive I had to the top of the country. What beautiful scenery it was too. The Cromarty Firth bridge was the highlight of the trip, being over a mile long with stopping places and fantastic views both inland and towards the sea and, as you can see (in my blog), the weather can be good in Scotland in December!

The drive to Thurso was quite long and, as I’m no early riser anyway and we’re talking about a British Winter where it goes dark in the afternoon, nightfall was approaching as I drove along the deserted headland to Dunnet Head. The only other signs of life of any kind were the Highland cattle grazing on the moorland.

There is a light house on the cliff there which is some 105 meters above the sea, yet in stormy weather water and stones still splash over the top of these cliffs!

The previous night in Kingussie I had been recommended to stay in Wick rather than the more obvious choice of Thurso. Using the trusted “Johnny” method of finding accommodation, I found somewhere to park near the harbour and then went into the nearest pub – Sinclairs on The Shore. It was a little on the rough side, but the staff were friendly and sent me to a cheap B&B overlooking the sea. Unfortunately the place was full but the lady there directed me to another place just above. This was true British Bed and Breakfast as it was just a room in somebody’s house – felt a bit strange really but I was on a budget and just wanted to get something to eat and drink lots of beer! I ended up having a “curry and a drink” special at the JD Wetherspoon pub in the market square. I don’t usually go for chain pub food, but this was very nice actually (although they are prepared surprisingly quickly…). After several more drinks I ended up in a bar in the early hours where, as nearly everywhere in Scotland, I was warmly welcomed as a foreigner. I asked if there was a good local malt and was given an enormous measure which would have put a Spanish barman to shame! They wouldn’t let me put water or ice in it though. After a couple of these the next thing I remember is waking up in somebody’s house (my B&B) – hope I didn’t make too much noise when I staggered back in!

After forcing the obligatory breakfast down the next day I headed south towards my only other fixed destination which was Ballachullish where my Mum had spent two summers in the 1940’s when a schoolgirl with my uncle Ken and auntie Maureen, as he was working there as a scientist, I think at a plastics place in Kinlochleven. I also planned to stop somewhere else, probably Loch Lomond on the way back to England.As I drove down the north-east coast I decided to stop for a walk in an area called Skelbo Wood near Durnoch just off the A9. There is a path which runs dow n to Skelbo Burn with some fine old trees as well as the more common young broadleaves planted by the Scottish Forestry Commission to be their successors. The only wildlife I saw, though, were the carved wooden animals designed by local children which are dotted around the path! After following a sort of circular path round the woods, I came to a crossroads with no markings. Thinking I knew roughly what direction my car was I decided to turn left at the crossroads. This must have been the wrong way as I got totally lost and ended up veering off the track to take a “short cut” through the trees in the direction I thought the car park would be. Eventually I came to a fence, so had to re-trace my steps to return to the track I had been on. It was quite bad underfoot with big clumps of grass – sometimes with previously fallen trees underneath, so I had to be very careful as breaking my ankle “off the beaten track” like this could have been very dodgy – especially as I had no signal on my mobile. Boy, was I relieved when I eventually saw my car!

Drumnadrochit & Glencoe

After a longer than expected walk at Skelbo and driving many miles heading towards Loch Leven, I decided it would be a good idea to stop when I got to Loch Ness. This is the longest and (I think) deepest loch in Scotland, so a good place to explore. Whilst driving along the north edge of the loch I came across the village of Drumnadrochit which looked O.K. – apart from the jokey, Flintstones-like, “Nessie” signs for monster tours! The large hotels looked a bit expensive at the road junction in the centre though, and none of the bars there were open mid-afternoon, so I drove around for a while looking for an open pub. After looking down a few roads I saw a sign by the side of a junction for a sports bar. The good old Johnny method came good again as I asked the locals at the bar for a hotel there, and a local guy actually drove ahead of me to show me the way to a nearby hotel – and what a find it was tucked away where you wouldn’t really find it yourself. The Benleva Hotel was an excellent place to stay and very cheap at 25 pounds sterling for a nice room en suite with a cracking hearty breakfast of full Scottish or cereals and, of course, porridge.

The bar stocks excellent real ales from the highlands, usually with at least one Isle of Skye brew which is lovely stuff. The Benleva was voted the CAMRA Highlands & Islands Pub of the Year 2005, for the second time in three years. The owners started having an annual beer festival a few years ago and this is now the largest in the Highlands, boasting over 50 cask conditioned ales and ciders last year. The next one is 22 to 30 September 2006 and I hope to be there if I’m in the UK then. The bar meals are delicious as well, ranging from traditional Scots fayre to more fancy stuff. You get a very friendly welcome from the hotel owners Allan, Steve and James. Brothers Allan and Steve are normally behind the bar and James, the chef, creating culinary delights in the kitchen. I enjoyed my stay here more than any other hotel I can remember.

Drumnadrochit has some great walks nearby and I ended up on top of the rocky crag where legend says that the viking prince Monie retreated after a nearby battle. There are supposed to be remains of an iron age fort as well, but they must have been too subtle for me! There are three ‘proper’ pubs in the village including The Benleva and they are collectively known locally as “The Triangle”. The other two are the Smiddy Bar and the Blarmor Sports Bar. The Sports Bar generally opens later and has a disco at weekends. It was at this disco that I met an Australian guy called Paul who works in Edinburgh. He was partying at Loch Ness for a holiday with his mates and we had a right good laugh – G’day Mondzy!

I actually saw the Loch Ness Monster whilst driving along the loch one day, but it had just gone back under the water by the time I could stop and take a picture – darn it! I enjoyed my time here so much that I decided to stay for the rest of my Scottish trip and not stay in Ballachullish or at Loch Lomond as I had intended to do. I did drive past the invisible Ben Nevis (hidden in the clouds for 9 days out of 10 at this time of year) and had a look where Mum used to stay in Ballachullish and parked up at Kinlochleven to go for a walk in the mountains. The walk starts on part of the West Highland Way and quickly climbs up the north side of Loch Leven.

I had to stop a few times on the way up to look after the old ‘ticker’ as I wasn’t very fit – and look what happened to Robin Cook! After climbing about 2,000 feet I saw ‘Am Bodach’ up ahead which rises to 1,005 meters. I decided at this point that the distance I had already climbed was enough!

Next article – part 1 of my travels around Spain

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