Visiting Scotland: comforting similarities, enthralling differences
Does mediocre and jarring service matter? I could get over the pang of irritation at being kettled at Stansted Airport railway station, where, despite passengers now focusing on their journey’s next leg, over-zealous inspectors were in full steam. The queue tail lengthened, the irritability rose, as between narrow barriers, inspectors asked for tickets and railcards for a defunct journey. My attempts at a helpful suggestion to the EasyJet boarding team about how to improve their signage were regrettably rebuffed, met with a defensive, perplexed response. “No, we’re not using that sign,” the check-in lady told me, about a sign that was near enough to the check-in desk to suggest its guidance was in fact relevant. It gave the opposite information about which queue was hallowed ‘speedy boarding’ to a sign even closer to the desk. But I could move on from this. Just as I could move on from being shouted at in Co-Op north of Edinburgh for falling out of line: “It’s a queue system!” barked a till-assistant in an accent that pointedly indicated that I was north of the border now. I was only momentarily shocked by the waitress at a pub in the riverside town of Dunkeld, the ‘gateway to the Highlands’, snatching the officious COVID-19 contact details sheet that I was obliged to sign, from beneath my limp, unsuspecting forearms.
I got over all these triggers in a few minutes, maybe even 45 seconds. Life’s bigger than that. There are more stars in the universe than grains of sand on earth. As I tucked into a ‘local’ steak pie, overhearing passionate Scottish football fans cheering on their side holding their own, I sought to attain more than just a sense of perspective about the mundane. Scotland and England are going through questions of whether they are compatible. For Scottish people in particular, there is the question of whether their aspirations for themselves and their nation can be realised within the framework of the United Kingdom nation-state. By-in large I find service in the UK marvellous, yet I found the ongoing remnants of a British propensity to be pedantic, direct quibblers, shown in one day across different ends of the island, a mixture of reassuring and comforting.
As I travelled through Scotland, I noticed other similarities. In Callander, on the edge of Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park, with a high street of reddish-brown brick buildings distinct to the Highlands, I went to a brilliant coffee shop with fresh coffee and homemade brownies, all in a quirky setting that could not be emulated anywhere else. As the goods were passed over to me, I asked the barista how the shop’s custom compared to the Costa next door, offering signage and taste that could just as well be on an M4 service station going to south-west England rather than the Highlands. “Do you get more customers than them?” Surely they do, given the value, given the quality of the products I was about to tuck into! “No, they get more. People are familiar with it.” “The power of the brand,” I consoled the barista. The typical English and Scottish high street goer when faced with choice plunges for what they know — mediocre coffee but reassuringly predictable.
There is though a uniqueness to Scottish nature and culture that is a treat to experience. Having flown into Edinburgh from London in the morning, just after lunch I was on the summit of Ben Lawers, 1,215 metres high. From hot London the previous day to patches of snow adjacent to the stone cairn that marked the mountain’s top. I was glad to have the summit to myself momentarily, an unfettered panorama with Loch Lomond National Park to the west, while to the north was a crowd of further summits, and to the south-east were a lake and ridge line. But I was happy to vacate the summit to someone else. I thought I would risk oversharing and exclaimed how I’d “come from London this morning!” “Aye, did ya?!” she responded. She was from the area and was popping up for the first time. “Great day for it”.
There are 282 Munros in Scotland (mountains over 3,000 feet, which is just under 915 metres). To compare that to its vertically challenged sibling, there are a mere seven mountains in England that would qualify as being Munros. There is a delightful convention of engaging with those you walk past, either going up or down. I climbed Ben Wyvis, west of Inverness, with my English cousin and uncle, the latter whose made a home just outside the city. It is a steep last 300 meters, but it’s a fairly manageable climb and on a sunny Sunday, there were plenty giving it a go. The range of accents you said “Hello” to, or asked “How much further?”, was a gloriously diverse palette. Rich Scottish ones I could not quite understand all they were saying, to a gentler lilt, from Home Counties England to Yorkshire. There were even a couple of Spaniards who were appearing to go off-piste. Signs at the mountain’s bottom were in both English and Gaelic and further east, near Aberdeen I heard the Scottish dialect Doric being spoken. I pondered all this and more, as coming down from the peak, I picked out the cricket umpire’s hat of my near 80-year-old uncle a few hundred metres further down. I marvelled at how, with such grace, he persisted on bobbing up the path, defying the limits of what old age is supposed to do to us, and defying the welfare concerns of my cousin, who had agreed with his father that he would not go beyond 700 metres.
I drove my rental car on roads that could not possibly be in the same country as England. The Cairngorm mountains are technically a form of Arctic tundra. The Old Military Road went through the main glacial valley in Britain, with mountains of over 800 metres rising either side. “It’s a grand thing to get leave to live,” wrote nature writer and Cairngorms-goer Nan Shepherd, and driving on the winding roads, taking in the views, made you feel like you were living. The roads were a means to explore Scottish culture like the revered, proud distilleries north of the Cairngorms. Or Elgin Cathedral, now hollowed out due to man-made and natural destruction. A victim of Scotland’s Reformation which, as an attendant pointed out, was distinct but influenced by England’s own Reformation. Scotland and England’s history are separate in many ways, but their influence bleeds into each other. Elgin, once magnificent, was a monument to human capacity for creation and destruction, like Tintern Abbey in Wales, or Palmyra in Syria.
Lifting off from Inverness in the early evening summer light, I caught the last of the Scottish mountains: gentle, unblemished lumps going towards the coast. I thought perhaps to the west I could make out the Isle of Skye. Cloud cover obscured any view as the plane glided south over Britain’s spine, until Sussex was revealed as we approached Gatwick. Dark green fields were tidily fenced in atop low-lying hills. Such a contrast with what was there when we took off. I did not get much bite on the independence question when I gently probed some local Scots I encountered. I saw a multitude of ‘yes’ signs and Scottish flags in the front of a house just outside Inverness. But thinking back to that fields of Munros, the people I had met and the experiences I had had in among them, I feel it would be a great shame if we were no longer to be one country.