The pickled landlord of the William Wallace pub pours out an unsteadily large whisky. I raise it to the similarly lined, scrotum-faced, regulars in this old dark pub, underneath the large, murderous looking, crossed claymore swords. And an advert for Tuesday’s pub quiz.
I talk to an old man on his stool next to me: long wedge of a nose, cotton-wool hair under his cap, ancient dog cross-pawed at his feet.
“Stirling’s Old Town seems very nice” I say.
“So I guess it’s a nice place to live?”
“Oh. But you come from here?”
Slowing rising up, offended “Naw way lad,” tapping at his chest “I’m from Fife!”
“Oh. And is that nice?”
Thinks for a moment before returning back to his pint “Naw.”
With a flight booked to take us away to a new life in Greece in just 3 days’ time and with us still perched 420 miles north of Heathrow, we decide that our night here in Stirling will really have to be our very last night on this leisurely final stroll of Britain. Tomorrow we would head back to Glasgow, return the van, and then take the usual quick, unseeing route, back home by plane.
We parked up on Abbey Craig hilltop, having found nowhere else to go but the deserted car park at the bottom of the William Wallace Monument, above Stirling town.
Our closing night is spent under municipal council trees, the branches like tips of paintbrushes touching the sky dark blue, watched down on by the formidable glare of Wallace.
This was where he stood and watched the English armies gather on Stirling Bridge before his famous victory over my countrymen, so it seems an entirely appropriate way to be sent off from Scotland.
We’ll miss out on Edinburgh entirely – the Athens of the North, of course – but then Edinburgh is one of those few places in Britain that Giristroula has visited, as have I, and pretty much everyone else too, so a city too well known to admit description anyway, as Dr Johnstone thought in his book on Scotland too.
12 of our 28 days touring Britain have been spent rounding Scotland. The scenery and the mood of the country has been something completely unique for both of us.
Churchill once said, so I read, that “Of all the small nations of this earth, perhaps only the ancient Greeks surpass the Scots in their contribution to mankind”.
Our last morning dawns with the car park – previously silent, alone, dark and deserted of anyone but us and Wallace – suddenly full of early morning coach-loads. A group of curious Chinese stand outside, trying to peer into our van.
A final glower from Braveheart up on his plinth and that’s it.
The end of Scotland. The end of Britain.
We’ll have to return of course. We still have the whole of the east side of England to explore.
Before we even board the Aegean Airlines plane we’re making plans to return to pick up the trail again in the North East to journey down the back of England. The impetus to really live the new life in Greece perhaps remanded until we fully complete the old one in England.
But what did we learn anyway on this trip my Greek companion was so adamant we took before we left, and that I’ve written down here like some Doomsday Book of memories?
Did I discover a connection to my home country? Can Giristroula attest when she goes home that Britain really is full of those rose-growing, dog-loving, window-washing, grumpy, fussy, inflexible people?
Well, this tour only allowed glimpses really. But then, I guess glimpses are all you get in life.
Scotland certainly had its shadows. The meadows and lanes were there in Devon and we saw the carved choirs in the Anglican cathedral in Liverpool. Swansea has its impressive Guildhall, and also its split-level shopping and concrete and tyres.
And while I struggled to find specific reference points to my history here – identity, like the Electric Brae, perhaps just a perspective trick anyway – I was pleased to be showing off my people, my land, to the Greek and felt strangely proud at points all along the journey.
But why? Is maybe that the British trait I was looking for? Is it only the British who would do this? Do the Greeks when travelling round their country go misty-eyed, getting emotional and feeling a nostalgia for something that is really, actually, quite intangible?
Well, I shall find out.
Giristroula tells me that the British know what they’ve got. That nothing in the country is not exploited. And this isn’t always a bad thing. “You don’t let it go to waste,” she observes.
“And it’s a very beautiful country,” she tells me as we travel back on the plane to London, gazing out at the top of grey-streaked clouds. “When it’s sunny.”
I personally wouldn’t have regretted this journey if it had afforded nothing but just that one final glimpse of Britain before we left. But to be assured that there’s a country here – much more beautiful than I’d ever imagined – that will be waiting for me to return, has me smiling as our later Aegean Airlines plane pulls away into the sky.
Let it always be there.