Waking up to a soundless dawn breaking over the high hills, I peer out of the tartan curtains of the van, and see we’ve parked right next to the huge expanse of Loch Lomand.
The view couldn’t be better. The sun ray’s fingers grope over the mountain tops. There’s an unbounded view of the deep loch slowly waking in colour, and Scotland’s nature all around shaking a morning head.
Purely by chance, last night, we struck complete panoramic gold this morning.
We take a long time over porridge breakfast and tea drunk from the van’s tartan mugs. When we come to start the camper van though, reluctantly tearing ourselves from the view of the Loch, it gives just a few coughs and then nothing.
Panicking that we’ve drained the battery boiling the kettle, we flag down a passing motorist: a short, fat, cigar smoking brash American, dressed in the most ridiculous Scottish costume – tartan flat cap with pom-pom, patterned Pringle jumper, tartan plus-fours, argyle socks.
He takes his time walking round the van, gets in, turns the key and, keeping eye contact with me the whole while, steps on the gas.
The van brightly – treacherously – bursts into life for him. He says nothing but hands the key to me back to me with a cutting look. I think of telling him the actually Giristroula does all the driving, but feel this would unnecessarily complicate matters.
With a final look of contempt from the fancy-dressed tubby and a wave from his ever-so American wife (“Take care y’all,” she waggles her manicured fingers at us from the passngers seat) their car roars off in the direction of Glasgow – newly applied stickers in their back window: ‘Braveheart on Board’ and ‘Nessie – I Believe’.
As we set off on our opposite way, a happy Giristroula seems not to have twigged the pikestaff-plain nationality of our helpers at all.
“Well I must say…Scottish people seem very friendly…”
The van ferries us along the side of the Loch and, with every mile north, Scotland becomes just that bit wilder, just that bit higher and just that bit more… well.. just a bit more Scottish.
And Giristroula has already had a good taste of Caledonia.
Yesterday, as we travelled through Ayrshire in the old car we’d pulled off the road for an unplanned stop, as I was in search of more tins of Irn Bru.
A sign: ‘Alloway – the birthplace of Robert Burns’.
“Oh Rabbie Burns was born here…” I reaffirmed, knowingly.
“Who’s he then?”
“Well, he’s Scotland’s national poet,” I said, not really expecting or wanting any questions on the matter.
“What did he write?”
“Um, ok…well he wrote the words to Auld Lang Syne. The song we sing at midnight on New Year’s Eve.”
“How does it go?”
Wishing I hadn’t started this conversation in the first place but keeping firm, I kicked off loudly with a rendition of the “Should old acquaintance be forgot…” first line.
But then tailed away into a low maundering mumble for the rest… re-emerging, with volume, only on the “For Auld Lang Syne” bit. And then left foggily repeating that line again and again.
Another cultural test failed.
We parked up the car and walked in hot early summer sun to a pretty bridge over a running stream where, stood on the top, almost fantastically, quite unbelievably, is a kilted, sporran-ed, bearstalker-ed lone piper, playing his bagpipes.
I saw a sign telling me that the bridge was the Brig o‘ Doon.
“Oh this is Rabbie Burns too,” I told Giristroula. Then, less certain “I think anyway. I’m sure it’s in one of his poems… I think a witch pulled off his horse’s tail as he rode over this bridge… Something like that anyway.”
I dwelt inwardly on how Giristoula would know far more if we were in some scholastically important area of Greece.
Feeling slightly ashamed at my lack of Scottish knowledge, we walked up to the solitary Scotsman playing on top of the bridge.
We stood and stared at the kitted-out piper. He seemed content enough to play us a few tunes as we bathed in a rare hot pool of Scottish sun together.
Soon a few others joined us to watch. It was a perfect Scottish experience and we all looked very happy to have stumbled on it.
I had noticed, and tried to ignore, a few rivulets of sweat starting to flow down the back of the piper’s neck. The feather in his Tam O’Shanter wilting.
We were all pretty shocked however when suddenly the piper broke off in mid tune, removed the bagpipe reed from his mouth, and barked at us in scabrous Scots
“I’m fuckin’ frying up here!”
He stared at us at us for a moment. Looking from face to face. And then, seemingly realising the futility of his playing here, in the untypical Scottish heat for a few non-paying gawpers, the piper ripped off the huge bear hat and stalked off down to the bank.
One of the crowd made some weak complaint. The piper answered, not looking back
“You try standing up here in 4 pounds of Scottish wool, you great selfish bawbag…”
More curse words followed away with him, floating along the riverside bank.
We all stood for a while, looking at our boots, embarrassed, not really knowing how to break the silence that had been filled by wailing bagpipes a few minutes earlier.
Then, with a snap we broke off in our different directions. Giristroula and I back to the car, and back to the search for more Scotland.
We passed a still cursing bagpiper as we drove down through pebbled-dashed suburban Alloway, looking to find our way to the highroad or lowroad to pick up the tartan camper van.
He was still shaking his head, mumbling his swear words into the early evening light.
Driving along now in the tartan van, leaving Loch Lomond’s park and passing into Argyll and Bute, the countryside has gone crazy.
The mountains are getting higher and higher.
But then the ranges suddenly break and we pass through open plains of turmeric coloured moorland grasses, with boggy lakes catching the sun.
The mountains are only hovering on the sidelines, however, like drunks at a provincial disco. I can see them all around us, just waiting to get in on the action again.
Two hitch-hikers are on the road. “Put your foot down,” I advise out the corner of my mouth to Giristroula – gratuitously uncharitable given all our free lifts on this trip.
Giristroula ignores me though and the two young Germans with tents, boots, clanking billy cans and mess tins tied to their rucksacks clamber in the back as I grumble, arms folded in the front.
“We’ve been waiting a long time,” they tell us “But we knew you would stop. Your van. It looks…friendly.”
It transpires they’ve hitch-hiked all the way round England, Wales and Ireland – but not all the way from Germany (“no one hitch-hikes in Germany. No one stops.”) and now have 4 days to get all the way round Scotland before they have to be back at work. Which they say they will manage, if everything goes to clockwork.
The British have been great at picking them up, far more amenable than they thought. But Giristroula isn’t helping them much today, stopping the van every 500 meters or so to take a photo or stare out at the vista, her hands on her hips, breathing out noisily.
The two Teuton travellers also seem rather over-critical of Giristroula’s driving.
“Handbrake!” one of them commands as we pull to the side briefly to let another van pass.
A weak quip by me that we should all take note here how a Greek is helping the Germans, and another stop by Giristroula to take a photo of more rolling Scottish banks and hillsides, and I see in the mirror the two of them quietly conflabbing in the back.
“We will get out of your van here, if that is quite satisfactory with you…” one of them announces.
We’ve only taken them a few miles and we seem to be leaving them, truly, in the middle of nowhere.
But it seems trudging through the peaty bogs under the rancorous gaze of the Black Mount (not actually black – every peak around here looking terracotta in the light today) is more appealing than the endless stop-start journey we’ve offered them.
We leave them on the side of the empty road, wrestle with a few feelings of guilt, but continue onwards, on our own into the incredible Glen Coe Pass.
There are mountains walled up on either side of us here. Casting shadows over the road. The slopes now deep green and grey. Overpowering.
At the bottom of Glen Coe Mountain we park, and set off up to find the Lost Valley.
The first part is laid out for us with steps and a wooden walk-way.
Then the climb becomes difficult and rocky. Waterfalls, and falling ravines to be negotiated. Once through though, we emerge into a high, huge, open expanse of grass and stone that, due to rock falls and a coliseum of mountains ringing this valley, lies completely hidden from the road far below.
I thought I had read that it was here that Rob Roy, the famous outlaw and plunderer, hid and fought.
“Oh, like Yagoulas” Giristroula tells me.
“He was this famous bandit who lived on Mount Olympus and terrorised Greece. When the police finally caught him and shot him and celebrated, he called from his dying position ‘You only farted on my balls!’ We still say it today…”
But I was wrong. It is not the home of Rob Roy. It is another scene of morbidity that I have unwittingly taken the Greek.
It was here that the McDonald clan were ruthlessly massacred for failing to swearing allegiance to the new King and Queen of England – William III and Mary – quickly enough. And, worse, slain by disguised English army men who had been brought in and given typical Highland hospitality and had lived with the McDonalds for a fortnight.
Treachery and tragedy sits in this silent valley.
We stand under a moodily grey sky.
After the, at times, treacherous scramble back down, we emerge out from the green umbrage beneath the Three Sisters – the three dominant mountains of the Glen, clustered as if gossiping together.
We then take the camper van and park it down a lane behind a characterful, good-looking, climbers favourite, pub – the Clachaig Inn. And call in for a drink.
Spotting that the seats in the large garden out front are free, I can’t believe our luck.
The pub garden flows into, and is pretty indistinct really, from the verdurous miles and miles of glens and braes surrounding it, and is loomed over by some spectacular peaks, bursting red and orange in the end-of-the-day light.
I yelp at Giristroula to get a move on getting the drinks: “Someone’s going to get the seats before us! Someone will get the seats..!”
We bustle hurridly outside and sit there, happy, panting, basking in the late sun, wondering why no one else would want to have their drinks with THIS view.
Then, for a moment, the sun seems to dim.
We’re suddenly dive-bombed by a thousand ravenous midges.
Fleeing back in doors, swatting, spilling, swearing, it becomes quite apparent why none of the, now amused, drinkers chose to sit in what surely must be the most beautiful, unused, beer garden in Britain.
We stay until late – trying haggis, neeps and tatties (Giristroula battles gamely, but the heavy, thick, meaty, bloated testicle-like haggis’ beats her in the end. They lie broken on the plate as she stares at them from her slumped position, charily). And the local whiskies.
On leaving we find the evening light outside has been snuffed out like a candle. It’s an uneasy route back to the van, parked down by darkened hedgerows.
Luckily a bright moon has turned the thin lane into a winding runnel of milk for us to follow, and roughly a million stars illuminate each of my groping clambers out of the camper bed for a piss during the night: the mountains standing in the dark like a wardrobe, the Glen’s cropland like a bedroom carpet.
We feel happily at home, here, in the camper van. And – as we sleep under a thin eiderdown sky – here in Scotland.