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. There’s an unbounded view of the deep loch slowly waking in colour. The sun ray’s fingers groping over the mountain tops. Scotland’s nature all around us 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 in the back, 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, checked 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 sort of withering look. I think of telling him that actually Giristroula does all the driving, but feel this would unnecessarily complicate matters. With a final look of contempt from this fancy-dressed tubby man and a wave from his ever-so American wife (“Take care now,” she waggles manicured fingers at us from the passenger 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 Giristroula looks at me. “Well I’ve got to say…Scottish people seem very friendly…”
The van ferries us along the side of the loch. With every mile north Scotland becomes just that bit wilder, just that bit higher, just that bit more Scottish. Yesterday, as we had travelled through Ayrshire in the old car we’d pulled off the road for an unplanned stop. A sign: ‘Alloway – the birthplace of Robert Burns’.
“Oh Rabbie Burns was born here…” I reaffirmed, knowingly.
“Who’s he then?” said Giristroula.
“Well, he’s Scotland’s national poet,” I said, not really expecting or wanting any questions on the matter.
“What did he write?”
“Um…well he wrote the words to Auld Lang Syne. The song the Brits 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. Only re-emerging, with volume, on the “For Auld Lang Syne” bit. Foggily repeating just that line over and over again. Another cultural test failed.
We parked up the car and walked in hot early summer sun to a pretty bridge over a running river where, stood on the top, quite unbelievably, was 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 so anyway. I’m sure it’s in one of his poems… 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 more if we were in some scholastically important area of Greece, as 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 seemed a perfect Scottish experience and we all looked very happy to have stumbled on it. I had noticed, and tried to ignore, the few rivulets of sweat that had starting to flow down the back of the piper’s neck, the feather in his Tam O’Shanter slightly wilting. It came as a jarring shock however when suddenly the piper broke off in mid tune, snatching the bagpipe reed out from his mouth, and barked out loud in scabrous Scots “I’m fucking frying up here!” He then stared at us at us all for a moment. Looking from face to face, before seemingly realising the futility of his playing here, in the untypical Scottish heat for a few non-paying gawpers and ripping off his huge bear hat and stalking down to the bank. One of the crowd made some weak complaint. This was a mistake. The piper answered, not looking back “You try standing up here in 4 pounds of Scottish wool, you great free-loading 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 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 piper as we drove down through pebbled-dashed suburban Alloway, looking to find our way to some sort of highroad or lowroad to Glasgow 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 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. They stand around on the edges, 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 instead ignores me and pulls over to the side of the road and the two young Germans with tents, boots, clanking billy cans and mess tins tied to their rucksacks clamber in the back. I grumble silently, 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 they have four 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 plan like clockwork. The British have been great at picking them up, far more amenable than they thought. Giristroula isn’t helping them much today though: 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 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 talking to each other in the back.
“We will get out of your van here, if that is quite satisfactory with you…”
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 and continue on our own into the Glen Coe Pass. There are huge folded mountains walled up on either side of us now, casting shadows over the road. The slopes deep green and grey and 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, but then the climb becomes more difficult and rocky. Waterfalls and falling ravines have to be negotiated. Once through though, we emerge into a high, huge, open expanse of grass and stone that, due to rock falls and the 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’ve done nothing. You’ve only farted on my balls!’ We still say it today…” But I was wrong, it was not the home of Rob Roy, it was 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 quickly enough to the new King and Queen of England – William III and Mary. And, worse, slain by disguised English army men who had been brought in and given typical Highland hospitality, living with the McDonalds for a fortnight. Treachery and tragedy sat in this silent valley. We stand under a moodily grey sky.
Then the scramble back down. Emerging out from the thick green beneath the Three Sisters – the three dominant mountains of the Glen, clustered as if gossiping together – with dirt under fingernails, moss in mouth, leaves in hair. We drive further on and park the camper van down a lane behind a good-looking 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 miles and miles of glens and braes surrounding it, and is loomed over by spectacular peaks, bursting red and orange in the end-of-the-day light. It must be the best beer garden in the country. I yelp at Giristroula to get a move on buying the drinks: “Someone’s going to get the seats before us! Someone will get the seats..!” I 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. The fools. Then, just for a moment, the sun seems to dim, and a thousand midges cloud around us.
We stay in the pub until late – trying the haggis, neeps and tatties. The heavy, thick, meaty, bloated testicle-like haggis lie there, broken in bits on the plate in front of Giristroula, as she stares at them charily from her slumped position. 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, but 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 at home now in the camper van, and – as we sleep under this thin eiderdown sky – we starting to feel at home here in Scotland too.