Monday, 28 December 2009
SCOTLAND HOMECOMING BY RAIL
With Scotland this year marking the 250th anniversary of the birth of poet, Robert Burns, with its ‘Homecoming Scotland 2009’ campaign, travel writer and broadcaster Mike Souter is one of many Scots who was delighted to have been lured back to the land of his birth. Especially as he was doing much of the travelling by train - his favourite mode of transport:
I can’t think of any other cities in the UK which give me such a rush of nostalgia as Glasgow. Having been brought up just eight miles outside, the memories of the city, especially its river, are deep inside the core of my being.
Sixteen floors up in the Crown Plaza Hotel, it’s amazing just how much has changed in the thirty years since I lived here. Then, my little flat on the Broomielaw, from where steamers used to set sail for the New World, was one of only six on the riverside. Now, gleaming apartment blocks are springing up all over.
The impressive Glasgow Queen Street station is just minutes away, giving fast access to the east and the north. Unusually for me, I have not planned my itinerary for today and, as there’s an imminent departure of a service for Aberdeen, I decide to join it.
I am impressed with ScotRail. All the trains I have used over the summer have been spotlessly clean, on time and with courteous and helpful onboard staff. This service is no exception.
I like Stirling and rate its’ castle well above that in Edinburgh. Apart from anything, the history in that part of Scotland, with William Wallace, Bannockburn et al, just oozes from every stone.
At Perth, I decide to continue on the coastal route towards Aberdeen. The line crosses the River Tay at Dundee, then hugs the splendidly scenic coast through Carnoustie and all the way to Aberdeen. The wetlands at Montrose call to me to get off, or ‘to alight’, as ScotRail signs and announcements rather quaintly seem to call it.
Several hotels in the area are announcing ‘high teas’. It’s an expression from my past that I had completely forgotten. But it’s lunchtime and I need a quick snack before heading south to Arbroath, where I have decided to spend the afternoon. Frosts the bakers entices me with a traditional Scotch Pie, which has as tasty a minced lamb filling as I have had in ages. Back aboard the train, dessert consists of an equally yummy rhubarb tart, washed down with ‘Scotland’s other national drink’, Irn Bru.
I’ve never been to Arbroath, but it turns out to be a lovely little town with a nice promenade and fishing harbour. It’s almost compulsory to purchase the local ‘smokies’, which cost £6.60 for two pairs. William Spink, who has been visited by Rick Stein, shows me around, while his daughter also sells me some wonderful oak smoked salmon.
I don’t think much of the town’s new visitor centre, where spending a penny now costs considerably more, but the nearby signal tower museum is not only free to enter, but has its own free loos. I want to climb up the tower, but I am told it has just been struck by lightning and ‘it’s only Norman Atkinson who can permit entry’.
Callum, an old chum from Primary School, has settled in Edinburgh and, as it’s the time of the Festival, I accept his kind invitation to visit. VisitScotland are at pains to remind me that Edinburgh has LOTS of Festivals and there’s probably one running as you read this. But THE Festival, especially the Fringe, is what attracts me and I am not disappointed.
I am guided round the City by Callum’s son, Drummond, who darts among the throngs on the Royal Mile, making me worried we will be parted. But he is never really far away and makes a close rendezvous when his tummy demands lunch to be served.
I have booked to see old favourites ‘Instant Sunshine’, making their 36th consecutive appearance. A surprise hit is a comedy show, ‘Sunken Luggage’, which we just happen upon. It’s what you do at Festival time.
It’s time to head north, this time taking the left fork at Perth to head north towards Inverness.
I am travelling with David Lang, a Canadian photographer brought up in Singapore and who is actually Scottish. At Culloden, we are both impressed by the splendid new visitor centre where we learn about the famous battle of 1746 that effectively ended Bonnie Prince Charlie’s Jacobite uprising.
While Culloden has been much improved by the stunning new visitor centre, both David and I find a visit to the nearby Bronze-Age Clava Cairns to be an even more memorable experience. Just HOW they moved all the huge rocks and standing stones is beyond comprehension.
It’s a gorgeous day, so we take a boat trip with Inverness Dolphin Cruises on to the Inner Moray and Beauly Firths. Pods of dolphin abound, the commentary is excellent and it’s just been a splendid day. The Corner Grill provides absolutely excellent sustenance, while bottles of ale from the local Black Isle Brewery wash everything down very nicely indeed.
It’s on the Black Isle that we discover the Munlochy Cloutie Well. This is a wood, where people tie bits of cloth to trees to bring them good luck. Very odd.
David heads off to Forth Augustus while I explore Cromarty. The court house is very disappointing, while the next door ‘Hugh Miller’s House’ is much more interesting. The sculpture in the garden is especially impressive. I have never heard of the bloke, but he made his mark in the 19th century as a geologist and evangelical Christian.
Driving back to Inverness, I stop to marvel at the incredible views across to Invergordon and Nigg Bay, where giant oil rigs far below look like dinky toys.
Dinner is at the Rocpool Reserve, the Roux Brothers first restaurant in Scotland, but the theme of ‘French country cooking with a Scottish twist’ doesn’t work for me. The restaurant just seems to be muddled about what it is trying to do.
Next morning, Jacobite Cruises has kindly invited me to sail with them on Loch Ness. The boat is mostly full of Italians, all wrapped up against some pretty incessant rain. But Captain Robin, who spends the end of the year as Santa Claus (he’s the spitting image), has a wealth of tales to keep me entertained as we peer through the steamed up windows towards Urquhart Castle.
At Drumnadrochit, I find a drowned rat by the side of the road. This
turns out to be Johannes, a very wet and cold German scout, whose
clothes literally steam as the car heating system puts some warmth back
into his body.
It’s slow going along the Great Glen, but outside Fort William the weather clears sufficiently for it to be worth taking the Nevis Range cable car. Loads of folk are taking up mountain bikes; there’s a VERY scary looking track back down.
We are given a tour of the Ben Nevis Distillery, now owned by a Japanese company, the highlight of which is when the manager takes us to the boardroom which Mel Gibson used as his changing room during the filming of Braveheart. Johannes is thrilled when he is given the opportunity to try on a kilt.
But there’s not a moment to linger, because we have to be at Fort William station to meet the Mallaig entry in the ‘World Cloutie Dumpling Championship’. This is being delivered by the Lancashire Fusilier steam train, which runs trips on what must be the most scenic rail route in Britain.
There’s nearly 40 entries this year, with the proud winner being named at the evening’s well-attended ceilidh at Lochaber College, the University of the Highlands and Islands (UHI). Since the college was opened in 1998, youngsters from the area no longer have to leave the Highlands to continue with their further and higher education.
The ceilidh is great fun, the Cloutie Dumplings are enjoyed by all and the College has pulled out all the stops to give a truly Scottish welcome.
Next morning, I catch the train south, enjoying the wonderful scenery through Rannoch, Bridge of Orchy and Crianlarich as I reach the end of my circuit by train. Since leaving school, I have travelled to many far flung corners of the world. But, despite the uncertainty of its weather, Scotland will always be home.
Homecoming Scotland 2009 is a year-long programme of events and activity celebrating many of Scotland's great contributions to the world and providing a platform for Scotland to re-connect with the many millions of people around the globe who have Scottish ancestry or affinity with the country. This is a Scottish Government initiative being delivered by EventScotland in partnership with VisitScotland www.homecomingscotland2009.com/
For more information on visiting Inverness and Fort William this autumn, log on to www.visitscotland.com/autumn
For more information on Highland Homecoming part of the Homecoming Scotland 2009 celebrations, log onto www.highlandeventsandfestivals.com
ScotRail is the largest regional operator in the UK, operating more than 340 stations and running more than 2,100 services every day. Its Strathclyde services cover the largest commuter network outside of London. ScotRail also serves famous rural and scenic lines such as the Far North and West Highland routes and runs the Caledonian Sleepers to and from London.
For details, visit www.scotrail.co.uk
Hugh Miller Birthplace
T: 0844 493 2158
Inverness Dolphin Cruises
T: 01463 717900
T: 01397 705825
T: 01463 790607
Crowne Plaza Hotel, Glasgow
Advance purchase including breakfast is £81.
00800 8222 8222
Glenmoriston Town House, Inverness
01463 223 777
All photos: Mike Souter, SouterMedia.Com
The lovely Lunan Bay, south of Montrose
William Spink sorting out freshly cooked Arbroath smokies
View of the wetlands at Montrose station
Dolphin pictured in the Inner Moray Firth
One of the re-enactment staff at Culloden poses as a French soldier
The River Ness just upriver from the town
The winning entry in the 'World Cloutie Dumpling' championships
A masque-seller on Edinburgh's Royal Mile
The view from my room at the Crowne Plaza, Glasgow
You can see all the photographs from this feature and much more of Mike Souter’s travel photography at: http://picasaweb.google.com/MDSouter