Travel Blog -The Mature Wanderer -The Sun in Scotland
The Sun in Scotland
Not many people come to Scotland for sunshine. Today the sky has been dark in the middle of the month of May and endless amounts of rain have fallen. Bearing that in mind, you might like to try the challenge of deciding which of the above photographs is the exotically beautiful, semi-tropical landscape of Los Jasmines in Cuba and which is Scotland. One is around 8 hours by aeroplane from where I am sitting and one could be reached in about two hours by car. If I had more mastery of the technology behind websites I would offer a prize for the first correct answer as long as it also identified where in Scotland it is. Those who have been wise enough to read my book "Coffee in Cuba" may recognise features of the Cuban landscape from the descriptions there. However, since the prize would not be much more thrilling than a wooden banana or a fluffy haggis I suggest you contain your disappointment. In fact the first of them, the higher up, is the Logan Botanic Garden in Stranraer in the south west of Scotland and Cuba is the lower one.
As you can probably tell from the vegetation I was not simply fortunate in finding the Logan on a good day. That climate continues throughout the year and species native to the Canary Islands thrive in it quite happily. Those who know Scotland will be aware that there are other similar areas on the west coast so you are almost never more than two or three hours from warm, balmy sunshine in Scotland. Scotland is a small country of around 30,000 square miles but it does contain a great variety of landscapes. We even have a small version of the Sahara desert in Findhorn at the Culbin Sands, although since the Forestry Commission took it over it is being gradually converted to more stable woodland.
The Worst of Scotland
It will be obvious that I find lots of good and interesting things about Scotland to fill a blog entry. Even if nothing else ever happened in the country I could go on for a very long time. However, it would be a very unbalanced blog if I did not also talk about some aspects of the country which are not so pleasant. Some events have happened in recent days which have prompted this theme. Since many of the readers of the blog do not live in Britain I`ll explain some things which locals would already know so I beg their patience. However, one of the points I want to make is that our locals often do not know what they should know, and, worse, can be quite unforgiving of anyone trying to help them to know.
This was largely prompted by the visit this week to Edinburgh by a man named Nigel Farage. He is the leader of a political party named the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP). This is a party which has come from almost nowhere to do very well indeed in English local elections. Again, I should stress for non natives that although much of the world uses the term “England” to refer to all of the United Kingdom that is not the case here. England is by far the richest, most populous and influential of the countries of Great Britain. However, its territory lies to the south of Scotland, to the west of Wales and across the Irish Sea from Ulster ( Northern Ireland). All of these countries however are primarily governed from Westminster in London with assemblies or administrations at local level. Therefore, Scotland has a Parliament in Edinburgh and the ruling party is the Scottish National Party (SNP) under its leader Alex Salmond. The SNP would like Scotland to separate from the UK and a referendum will take place next year to establish whether the Scottish population want that. It is almost certain that the result of the referendum will reject separation. Some of the support for separation is based on credible, respectable views of economic and political possibilities. Some comes from a visceral hatred of England and a readiness which does not stand up to analysis to blame England for most of Scotland`s problems.
So, within that context Mr. Farage came to Scotland to give his support to a UKIP candidate at an impending election in Scotland. So far, UKIP has made no perceptible impact on Scotland. He came with the intention of holding a Press Conference in a pub in the centre of Edinburgh. UKIP believes Britain should not be in the European community and that we should reduce immigration drastically along with a range of economic measures which appear not to have a very sound economic base. Mr. Farage is a very eloquent and intelligent speaker with a very engaging manner. I, like, many other people in the country, could not name another member of the party and I do not believe its policies make a lot of sense. Having said that, I do think there are very sound reasons why Britain`s relationship with Europe should be changed and improved. I also think there are very good reasons for better immigration policies. Scotland, unlike England, has suffered badly for decades from emigration. We badly need to attract, bright, able young people who can be welcomed here. Exactly how that should be done is a matter for debate. Uncontrolled immigration has led to some very nasty situations.
So, when Mr. Farage arrived and tried to hold his press conference it was interrupted by students who accused him and his party of racism, sexism, homophobia and, bizarrely, transphobia. This word would appear to come from the Latin word for `across` and the Greek for `fear` giving us the meaning `fear of across` which seems a little imprecise. Perhaps the letter `i` was missing and it is a fear of locomotives which is not a political standpoint with which I am familiar. Nor,I believe, is Mr. Farage. The students illustrated their ignorance of what their own protest meant by yelling “You`re a racist. Go back to England.”
Now this would simply be regrettable if it did not illustrate an aspect of Scottish life that is all too evident. This is the preference for terms of abuse over any kind of intelligent debate. The methods used by these students were the methods favoured by the Nazis in the notorious Kristallnacht, by Mussolini`s fascists and Mosely`s brown shirts. However, for some time now the standard of political debate in the Edinburgh parliament has not risen much higher. Mr. Salmond himself has a long history of simply using terms of abuse rather than clear explanations. His reluctance to inform the Scottish public of what the consequences of separation would be on our pensions, relationship with the EU or with NATO, preferring to refer to any opposition as “scaremongering” is not encouraging for those of us who want proper democracy. A typical argument for his cause arose from his reaction to two Tory MPs “"Why on earth do we allow this bunch of incompetent Lord Snootys to be in positions of authority over our country?". Personally I would prefer a higher standard of political argument from our First Minister.
The technique of simply trying to silence anyone you don`t like has a long history in Scotland. In the 18th century Scotland produced one of the greatest philosophers in history, David Hume. Hume was also a historian and political thinker of great acumen. The churches in Scotland did everything they could to frustrate Hume`s attempts to have a career in Scottish academic circles. He was a man who should have been welcomed and any institution should have been humbly grateful to have him. His writings inspired another great Scot, Adam Smith, the founder of the science of political economy. Sadly, our churches continue to blurt out unhelpful condemnations, whether of gay marriage (Christ says nothing whatever about homosexuality let alone gay marriage) or of Israel without showing any proper understanding of that most complex of issues. Many of our academics, instead of embracing the ideas of Hume and Smith, all too often act from what the great French writer Raymond Aron styled “the opiate of the academic”, an ill-digested and largely misunderstood form of Marxism that simply ignores the horrors of its history in action. They have given comfort to a Labour Party which has regularly lurched between arrogance and sinister manipulation. Its commitment to democracy has not always been evident. The Tory party hardly seems to make any effort to revive here although it could with justice claim Hume and Smith as its luminaries. It could also offer plenty of hard facts to counter the widespread view that its governments have been hostile and damaging to Scotland.
The outcome of this is that Mr. Farage has received widespread publicity as a decent, reasonable man ( which I`m sure he is although I disagree with most of what he says) and Scotland has been made to look like an intolerant, boorish society that is terrified of ideas and addicted to prejudices. If they had allowed Mr. Farage to speak I think most listeners would have concluded his party had little to offer Scotland. In England, people mocked and ignored him until they realised that his message was very welcome to many voters. Our inept, naive and bullying students may soon realise they could hardly have done more to help his cause. Or have I unwittingly been guilty of transphobia !!
The Wilderness and the Wedding
Last year brought me a series of experiences that were new to me. Most of them surrounded the decision of my son Malcolm and Gabrielle to get married. Since Gabbie was born in Canada of French parents and they both live in Australia I was uncertain where I would have to jet off to for the ceremony. In fact,they decided on Scotland. This led to a greata dventure which I had wanted but avoided for all of my life up to then. The story goes as follows:
What a start to the year. The wedding arrangements had been absorbing (of both energy and money) but the main preoccupation for much of the past fortnight was Malcolm`s stag-do. One of his friends came up with the brilliant (if frightening ) suggestion of a walk across Knoydart. In case you don`t know, Knoydart is often decribed as `the last wilderness in Britain`. It is a stretch of the Scottish mainland just across the water from Skye. It has no roads, no shops, certainly no mobile phone masts, a tiny population of humans and more midges than Berlusconi had bunga-bunga parties. The midges are also said to be more vicious and persistent than anywhere else. Also, the weather is frequently very wet and windy. Malcolm asked me if I would come along. This was flattering and alarming. He knows I`m not really much of a frontiersman. I was a scout for three weeks as a child. Although I occasionally took the children camping when young it used to take me hours to pitch the tent and I used to get bored in the evenings when there was nothing much to do.
I knew there was a certain amount of climbing involved, carrying rucksacks with a reasonable load of food, water etc. I know how fit Malcolm and some of his friends are but he assured me I would not be the eldest on the trip. With some trepidation I said I would do it and I spent more than a hundred pounds on equipment that I didn`t really know how to use. I soon discovered that the only person older than me or even within thirty years of my age was Michel, the father of Gabrielle, Mal`s fiancée. He is a few months older. However, he is a wiry, energetic man who spent years in the scouts and was then in the French air force. Since then, going out to the hills with family and friends has been a favourite pursuit.
Another reason for my hesitation was that I hurt my left leg quite badly last year. After having rejected the suggestions of various doctors and physios that it was `wear and tear`, `to be expected at my age`, ` worn cartilage that needed an operation` I found this wonderful physio who told me all I had to do was a series of stretches but that I would have to do them regularly for some months. Just as she said, my leg is now more or less repaired but I was a little concerned at giving it so much to do.
So, I picked up Michel from his train in Glasgow on Thursday evening. We drove up past Loch Lomond through the mountains and mists of Glencoe to reach Fort William where we stayed in an excellent B&B. It caused me some concern as we put stuff in the car that my rucksack weighed about twice as much as Michel`s. However, I concluded,wrongly, that this would be of little importance. Then we met the 12 others and went by taxi for two hours down impossible roads through mountain passes, past silent, deep blue lochs until we reached the start of Knoydart at Kinlochhourn. The road ends and there is only a narrow path from there. It reminded me of books I had read as a child like King Solomon`s Mines, entering a path into an uncharted wilderness where dragons might lurk.
Astonishingly, the weather was Mediterranean with blue skies and hot sunshine. I soon realised I was wearing too much and was getting dehydrated. I stopped to repack my bag and remove some clothes. Two of Mal`s friends waited for me which was very nice, but it is dangerous to be left alone in Knoydart. If something happens there is no way to communicate. When we set off I felt obliged to speed up so we could all catch the leading group. The path twisted around hillsides, opening to breathtaking views of the great, still, silent loch. The sense of peace from such panoramas is unearthly as if another more serene world is calling to you. At times we paused for refreshments and I could appreciate these views once I had conquered the oxygen debt. Then we set off again when I had barely recovered. This was lunacy and I soon began to struggle. By the time we had gone over several hills and reached the camp after six miles I was a zombie. Every part of me complained including a headache that seemed to begin in my knees and explore the full range of human discomfort from dull ache to searing pain as it spread through my sorry body. . Exhausted as I was, I worried I might be too tired to sleep. My serenity was further threatened when Mal and Michel looked at the map and told us we had almost twice as far to go the following day (Saturday) and it would be much tougher. We had climbed to 90 metres on Friday but would need to do 450 on Saturday. Despite all this I fell asleep quickly in my tent, hoping I may actually be dead, and the following morning I felt not too bad, aching a bit but surprisingly OK. I dreaded the climb but there was no choice. There were no busses. Michel and I were up before the others and realised they were more interested in playing their guitars than make an early start and we decided to set off ahead of them. I wore less, made sure I had eaten well and decided to establish a pace I could manage and stay with it. The 450 metre climb was at the beginning of the ten miles we were to cover so there was no chance to gather steam. Again it was a beautiful day and the views of craggy mountains with mist on top and lochs in the distance with a kind of unearthly sunlight on them were breathtaking. To my surprise, I actually had some breath to be taken. I was astonished when after an hour Michel said we had done half of the climb. I was hardly out of breath and felt fine. We continued at the same pace and triumphantly reached the high point of the path. Ahead of us the trail wound down the mountain to a small loch. Beyond that in the distance was the tiny village of Inverie on the shores of Loch Hourn, our destination where we could sleep in the bunkhouse and have beer and a meal in the inn.
Coming down the slope was a little bit hard on the knees but I now felt triumphant and it was well into the afternoon before any of the young athletes caught us. Eventually we reached Inverie, tired but exhilirated. One of the young athletes had poured us a beer each. It was the most delicious drink in the universe.
We then sat outside the pub at wooden tables beside the loch. Between the light, the temperature, the colour of the sea and the high mountains we could well have been on a Greek island. It was a wonderful experience and I was very glad to have done it. I got to know some of Malcolm`s friends better and they are a very nice, intelligent, talented bunch of people. In the evening we had dinner in the same bar/restaurant, partly because it was very good and partly because it was the only one in Knoydart.
I was exhiirated after the walk and amazed that my system which had been announcing in a clarion voice that it could go no further had actually gone quite a lot further. Perhaps it was this rush of endorphins that encouraged me to chat to a small, grim looking man standing at the bar. He placed a flattened beer can on the counter and looked at the barman. I said to him “ I`d ask for my money back on that”. He looked at me as if I had spoken Russian. Then it occurred to me that a number of Russian fishermen did operate in the local waters. I don`t know much Russian but I tried it and the blank stare continued. I tried French and German. He continued to watch me as he might have eyed a creature in an aquarium. Then it struck me that he was quite possibly a Gaelic speaker. I tried that and finally got a reaction. However, it was a halting one and he finally said to me: “Do ye no speak English?”I restrained the impulse to point out that that was where we had begun and wished him a good evening. I had mixed feelings on leaving Knoydart with Michel the following day. I looked forward to returning to my normal life, but I had conquered something on Knoydart, something important.