“Scotland looks better than England.”
Giristroula has called it early, but she seems pretty definite in her judgement as we drive past the stone cottages and small churches. A scene stretches out in front of us of fields, all half hidden by a Shy Di fringe of demure branches hung with bloom along the boughs, short-shadowed contemplating cows standing in the rich fields. Tubby Ayrshire cows rather than the thin goats over the red earth she’s used to back in Greece.
“In England the fields and the hills are all over there,” Giristroula wafts a hand airily. “But in Scotland, they’re…HERE,” she pushes her splayed hand right up in her face for maximum emphasis.
We stop for tea in Castle Douglas. “Oh hello!” sings the white-haired old woman in her pinny in the one cafe we can find open. “Do take a pew…” Giristroula stares at me and mouths “A pew?” I nod her into a seat.
The town of Castle Douglas seems to be wholly empty. A Mary Celeste of a place. The shops turning the closed sign on the door for the evening back sometime around 1981, and just simply forgetting to open up again. It’s clean and well-ordered, an authentically old-fashioned town with every shop you could need for a community…just no community seems to be here. Hardly a soul. There are many restaurants down King Street that would have been upscale once upon a time, but not now. There appears to be three identical white painted pub/hotels along the road that look like they must still keep to the old half-day opening hours set during the First World War of shutting up at two and not opening again till six. Dart board, Shove Ha’penny, hard roll sandwiches under a dirty glass dome on the bar, all waiting for nothing to happen. Two tidy, tiny old ladies – the only people out today – walk towards the church with their arms looped through each other’s, dreaming their lavender memories. I like the place. I like the place even more as there seems to be nobody round to spoil it. But, tea drunk, empty high street walked, we don’t hang around. We drive on up the A75 towards the Ayrshire coast and Castle Culzean.
Built in the 1770s, Castle Culzean looks less like a traditional castle and more a very grand country house. The place is of interest to me as I’ve been told my great-grandfather worked here sometime early in the last century. He lived in one of the workers cottages on the Castle’s estate. I’m interested to see the cottage and feel a bit of my family history here in Scotland, so far away from where I grew up and from what I know. We roll down a winding, shaded road to the Castle’s entry huts. It’s £16 to get in. Each. I’m really not sure I’m interested in my family history that much. Culzean Castle’s image is on the back of the Bank of Scotland five pound note anyway. We could just stare at one of those each and save ourselves 22 quid…
Having tried to some foolish negotiations with the inflexible male and female ginger couple in the entry booth – “But I have my family roots here!” I catch myself saying with an awful, vague attempt at a Scottish accent, quickly abandoned halfway through as a bad idea – we give up and park the car under some trees back at the top, on the main road, and walk back down. We then sneak behind the hut as the entry gate duo are reluctantly raising the barrier for someone who has obviously handed over the required lump of cash to get in. Feeling smug, Giristroula and I saunter down the long mazy drive to the castle and the sea. But the road is longer than I thought. Thinking back to our Dorset days, I start to try and thumb a lift, but understandably none of the recently mugged motorists want to pick us up. At last a van pulls over and we pile in with thanks and clamber over the back seat. We are driven down the road, pulling up right outside the castle doors, and we seem to have been driven a lot closer than any of the the other visitors.
“So have you been to many of our National Trust places then?” says the gentle-voiced Scottish driver.
Before I can stop myself, I boast “Oh no, we’re not National Trust members, we just sneaked over the fence and…” It’s only now I spot his emblazoned polo shirt: ‘Head of Culzean Estates’. He starts to speak – a sort of high-pitched, strangulated, protesting note – but it’s too late, we’re clambering out of the van, waving thanks and leaving his complaint sliced in two by the slammed door. We disappear into the crowd.
Culzean, sadly, proves not really worth all this slippery hoodwinking to get in. It’s very nice of course: the view from the ramparts out to sea, the Isle of Arran bathing beyond like the back of some huge turtle, the light glinting off the sea like a polished shield. The old castle sits happily scarved in its blanket of sun. But I imagine it would look better if you were on a boat looking back at it, a mile or so out to sea. The castle is hugely popular with polite, well-mannered families looking for things to do. Middle aged couples crunch up the gravel pathways and make complimentary sounds. It’s an incredibly pleasant way to spend a dull afternoon. My great-grandfather’s cottage has been turned into a visitor centre.
We leave the tracts of beautifully tendered gardens and the swan ponds and the deer parks and have a long climb back up just to sneak back out past the entry huts once more – like two bungling thieves who’ve tunnelled too short for the bank, come up in the police station next door, and sheepishly have to tunnel back out again.
Once past the entry hut and back into the car, we run up the west coast on the small A719 and come across the mysterious phenomenon of the Electric Brae – a stone marker in the layby letting us know we’re here. The Electric Brae a notorious bit of road on the hillside where, although it looks like it’s heading downhill, the road is actually heading up. You drive along – thinking you’re going down the hill – start to freewheel and come to a stop. Then turn the car round and go in the other direction…and coast up what seems to be a rising gradient, feet off the pedals. At least this is the idea. We try it a few times but can’t work out which bit of the road is meant to be the down bit and which is the up bit, the optical illusion not working for us, and we lose patience. There is a Citroen though, that we saw from a long distance back as we drove up towards the Brae going back and forth. It continues its manoeuvres along the road as we get closer. As we pass it stops and a whole French family get out of the car: determined father, bored children, angry wife, comatose grandmother. “It is just not apparent!” the father calls desperately to us as we sail by. We can’t stop though. We have an appointment to keep and are heading back towards Glasgow to keep it.
We pull up at a family-run camper van hire company on the outskirts of the city and are pleased to be able to swap the hatchback we’ve been travelling round southern Scotland in so far for an old VW van. Painted tartan, hundreds of thousands of miles on the clock, bumper held on with black tape and a soft Scottish warning that the “old boy won’t be able to get up to much more than 10mph on some of the Highland slopes ahead you know…” It’s just what we want. Giristroula does well just getting this old beast started. Cranking the ancient gears, shifting the stick, negotiating the turns. Giristroula is not a tall woman though – so it looks as if she will see life on the Scottish roads through the spokes of the steering wheel, her eyes slightly over the bottom edge of the windscreen. Oncoming motorists blench and swerve as we bounce up and down in the cabin of the put-put-put-ing machine making our way out of town. It feels good to be in the van – our home for however many days it takes for us to go round Scotland. This is travelling. But we stare too long at a beautifully violent sunset breaking out over Sauchihall Street and Govan and Hillhead and the Glasgow high-rises of the city as we drive up along the raised motorway that, quite inexplicably, passes straight through Glasgow centre. We find we’ve missed our turn for Loch Lomond. After long backs and forths, reversings down dead side streets, U-turns in empty business car parks where self-important men have put their names up on walls above tiny parking spaces, the van finally finds the right road to get us to the vast Loch Lomond and The Trossachs Park.
We enter the park in the rapidly falling dark – having passed over the River Clyde and having looked down the glade of cranes sat there, heading out towards the Tail of the Bank. Although, of course, the golden shipbuilding days are all long gone now and all we see are just the ghosts of the great industry sitting there, rusting and fading away. Over the Clyde we had then joined the A82, arrowing straight through the park – a road which we’ll stay on through Scotland till Ben Nevis and beyond. But we now need to find somewhere to stop and put up for the night with some urgency, to park the van and sort out the cooking and sleeping facilities still an undiscovered mystery in the back. Luss Camping Site would appear to be the perfectly place. However, it seems Luss Camping site want nothing whatsoever to do with us.
“Are you members?” comes the voice from a dark hut behind the thin barrier.
“No. Can we join? We can pay…”
A diminutive man with a fury duster mullet of hair emerges. He thinks desperately of a reason to say no.
“Aye. You can…” he lingers. Then suddenly “Ah but you’ll have to be members for 24 hours before I can let you come in…” He smiles to himself, rocking back on his heels, relieved at his brainwave. He must have felt for an awful moment there that he would have to let us in to his campsite, but we leave, muttering to ourselves, and the three caravans in his huge site are left untroubled.
We have no other option but to park the camper on a small slip road. It’s hard to make out exactly where we are but in the strange Scottish twilight that seems to last longer than anywhere else – like a match that just won’t go out no matter how hard you shake it – with an odd phosphorescence glow low down on the edge of the sky even now at some time between eleven and midnight, I can see trees darkly swayed next to us. Something also seems to vaguely shimmer in the inkiness as we bed down for our very first night in the tartan van.