Photo by C Wilkens (Pexels)

To the Man in Slippers and a Whiskey Salesman — Northward Bound!

Sarah Das Gupta

This adventure began in a coffee shop in Tottenham Court Road, London. It was a perfect spring day with the sky an intense blue. The prospect of spending the afternoon in a lecture on the Economics of Medieval England was not inviting. Amit, my Bengali boyfriend, had always had an ambition to go North to Scotland! This was unsurprising as he had lived in McCloud Street in Kolkata, then Calcutta. There had also been a long trading link between the city and the Scottish city of Dundee through the jute industry.

“It’s a perfect day to go North!”

“Scotland is not just down the road. It must be over 300 km to the border.”

“Well, we could go a few miles up the M1. Just a reconnoitring jaunt!”

Later that afternoon found us at the beginning of the road north. Waving our bright blue and yellow university scarves, we were hoping to get a lift from a car or lorry. Hitchhiking was then the accepted mode of travel for college students. A black saloon drew up with a screech of brakes. As the middle-aged driver opened the door, I noticed he was wearing slippers! He explained he was just testing his car after a winter break.

“The wife’s expecting me back for tea. I’m still wearing my slippers.”

Nearly three hours and over 3OO kilometres later, we arrived at Scotch Corner, a major junction for the road north. Our driver had been carried away by a lively discussion about India’s colonial past. They were still arguing about the British legacy after Partition in 1947, when the motorway lights were switched on. It was dark before the driver turned south to London and his wife! We decided to continue North in the morning.

After three lifts from well-disposed lorry drivers, we reached Inverness, the capital of the Scottish Highlands. Amit had been euphoric as we crossed the border earlier that morning.

“We’ve made it! This is actually Scotland.” That coffee shop, history lectures, London itself seemed a world away. We decided to press further North.

This time standing on the road into the Highlands, the sun and fortune shone on us. A car drew up. A man with dark hair and intense blue eyes introduced himself as ‘Donald’.  He explained he was a whiskey salesman who toured the highland villages in the course of his work. We chatted as the car continued climbing steeply up a road with granite cliffs on one side and the smooth, blue water of a loch on the other. Donald was making for a hotel in Glencoe, site of the infamous seventeenth century massacre of over thirty of the MacDonald Clan.

We stopped half way through the glen. Dark clouds had covered the sun. On either side huge rocks towered above. A mist added to a growing feeling of menace. Memories of old battles, old feuds still hung in the air. Silence was broken only by the sound of a small burn while ghosts walked the purple heather. This was the living North. We felt small, insignificant in its ancient power. The mist thickened, the rocky sides of the glen seemed to lean on us out of the gloom. We could almost hear the clash of swords and the screams of the dying.

It was a relief to sit in the hotel lounge with a ‘wee dram’ of Donald’s whiskey, a warm fire blazing and hear the tales of old quarrels and feuds among the local clansmen. Donald’s work had led him into some surprising situations. One winter with snow drifts blocking the roads, he had abandoned his car and tried to walk to the nearest farmhouse. He had fallen into deep snow and was dug out by a farmer searching for lost sheep! He had been very lucky not to have been frozen alive.

Donald had business in Fort William, the major town of the Highland area. It is said all roads in the region will lead you back to this place, named after William of Orange who rebuilt the Fort, in an attempt to deal with successive Highland risings. Duke William Augustus of Cumberland, was commander of the English forces at the Battle of Culloden of 1746 in which the supporters of ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’ were defeated and cruelly pursued; it has often been proposed that the name of the town be changed. This is understandable when you learn of Cumberland’s reputation in the Highlands. It is said the flower, the ‘Sweet William’, was named as a tribute to ‘butcher’ Cumberland in England but in Scotland is referred to as ‘stinking Billy’! 

We walked to the shores of Loch Linnhe from which we could see the dramatic, snow-covered peak of Ben Nevis. Rising to 1345 metres, this is the highest mountain in Britain. As we stood looking at its impressive silhouette towering up from sea level by the side of the loch, it is amazing to realise this is the highest peak before you reach the Scandinavian summits far away to the east. The mountain rises straight from the loch side which dramatizes the steep climb even more.

Luckily, Donald had to visit a number of small hotels in the vicinity of the famous or rather, infamous, Loch Ness, known worldwide for its Monster! We were as anxious to catch a glimpse of ‘Nessie’ as all the other tourists.

We first saw Loch Ness In the early evening with whisps of mist hanging mysteriously over this vast stretch of freshwater. It is 56 kms in area, holding more water than all the lakes in England and Wales combined! With the sun setting across the loch and the lengthening shadows on the water, it was easy to believe in a prehistoric creature lurking in the depths. The iconic photograph, taken in 1934, has been proved a hoax. A head of wood and metal was floated above the water, mounted on a toy submarine. Nevertheless, Nessie is estimated to contribute over 25 million pounds sterling to the local economy every year.

Shadow of Loch Ness Monster (1934)

Source: National Gallery of Art

The west coast of Scotland boasts hundreds of islands, the majority uninhabited. Donald had business meetings on the Isle of Skye which offered us the chance of taking the ‘road’ or ferry to the Isles’.  Since 1996 and the construction of the bridge, you can drive to the legendary island which is the largest in the Inner Hebrides.  Fifty miles long, its name in Old Norse appropriately means ‘island of clouds’. The landscape is magical with jagged peaks, misty, mysterious moors and sea lochs. We visited the small town of Portree which is the island’s capital. Its natural harbour and rows of brightly coloured houses add to its charm. One of the most enchanting landscapes is the Fairy Glen with its strange grassy hills, drifting clouds and a pervading dampness in the air. 

Perhaps our most exciting experience in Scotland was the sight of a golden eagle! Skye is a bird watcher’s paradise. The greatest sight must be that of the eagle flying majestically over this unique landscape. We were driving along a narrow road, miles from anywhere, when Donald suddenly braked. Pointing at the sky, he opened the car doors. For over ten minutes we watched this regal bird, floating effortlessly above the characteristically jagged peaks.  It almost seemed conscious of these mere mortals watching a flawless air display.

It had been a wonderful tour of the Highlands with Donald the best possible guide. He insisted on taking us back to meet his family near Faslane, the base for the British nuclear submarines which was an experience in itself. As we stood at the start of the motorway south, for the first time in two glorious weeks, we thought of the history lecture we had missed and no doubt many others too. Yet as a lorry pulled up and the driver opened the passenger door, our thoughts turned back again to Glen Coe, Loch Ness, Ben Nevis, the magical ‘island of clouds’, our special eagle and of course our friend Donald who had made it all possible.

Sarah Das Gupta is a retired teacher now living near Cambridge, UK. She taught and lived in Kolkata for a number of years. She started writing after an accident last year when she was bored in hospital. Her work has been published in magazines from UK, India, US, Canada, Mauritius and Croatia.