The pickled landlord of the William Wallace pub pours out an unsteadily large whisky and hands it over to me. I raise it in a toast to the similarly lined, scrotum-faced, regulars in this old dark pub, underneath the large, murderous looking, crossed claymore swords hanging on the wall. And an advert for Tuesday night’s pub quiz. A dim burble of resentful acknowledgment come back from the old crowd sat at the bar. I turn and talk to an old man on his stool next to me: long red wedge of a nose, white cotton-wool hair under his cap, ancient black 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 “No 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 three 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 on this protracted final stroll of Britain. Tomorrow we will 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. There are no shops open for us to buy anything for our last supper in the camper van. But, as always, we are pleased for the prodigious range of crisps that Britain has. Maybe it’s the country’s greatest strength. Greece just don’t get close to the spread and scope, with their aseptic, over-large, dull packets sat in the supermarkets. Plain or Oregano. That’s your choice.
There are none of the light and airy cheese Quavers; or the plasticky, spindly, forlorn French Fries; the rough and ready stout packs of Frazzles; packets of Wotsits looking like an open bag of earplugs ready to give the eater nuclear-fallout orange fingers; the bowls of Hula Hoops crushed under foot into the carpet at a kid’s party; the cheap dusty packet of Space Invaders languishing in boxes in dark corner shops; the loud and over-bold pickled onion Monster Munch; Prawn Cocktail; Worcester Sauce; Flamin’ Hot…
Our closing night is spent munching under municipal council trees – the branches like tips of paintbrushes touching the sky a very dark blue – watched down on by the formidable glare of William Wallace. This was where Wallace stood and watched the English armies gather on Stirling Bridge before his famous victory over my countrymen, so it seems as appropriate a way to be sent off from Scotland as any.
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 Johnson 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 new and unique for both of us. Winston Churchill once said, so I read somewhere, that “Of all the small nations of this earth, perhaps only the ancient Greeks surpass the Scots in their contribution to mankind.”
Here in Stirling we saw for ourselves the toppling castle – the city’s acropolis – high up on the crag right in the very centre of town. We also saw the rattling cars pass the decaying, draughty Thistle Centre shopping hall. The centre full of ‘Neds’ in trackie bottoms. One holding up the green and yellow emblem of a bottle of Buckfast wine. He shouted at his mate “Ya scabby bassa!” and aimed a kick at him, missing and kicking his trainer high in the air.
As always on this journey it sort of felt a little difficult to tell exactly if we’d found ourselves amongst the Spartans or the Athenians really…
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 tourists stand outside, trying to peer into our van. As if we’re some sort of exhibit put on by the Scottish Council of Arts.
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 somewhere in the North East, to journey down the back of England. The impetus to really embrace the new life in Greece perhaps remanded until we fully complete this old one in England.
But what did we learn anyway on this trip my Greek travelling 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 things I never knew about 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. 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 own personal identity here – identity, like the Electric Brae, perhaps just a perspective trick anyway – I did feel strangely proud of the country at points all along the journey.
I felt depressed at times too. Sometime a little embarrassed at some of my fellow countrymen. Dismayed at some of the dirty corners of the cities (but rarely of the countryside). But I also felt a satisfaction at seeing, and showing off, where I come from.
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 get emotional and feel a pride and a nostalgia and a sense of connection to something that really doesn’t actually exist? Or, at the very least, something that is quite hopelessly intangible? Well, I guess I shall find out.
Giristroula tells me that the British know what they’ve got. That nothing in the country is left unexploited. And that this isn’t always necessarily a bad thing.
“You don’t let your country go to waste at least, unlike Greece. But, God, sometimes… sometimes you really vgazete apo tin myga xigi as we say back home – you can make meat out of a fly.”
And it’s a very beautiful country too,” she says 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 know that there’s a country here that I could easily love, if only I could just quite work it out, and one which will be waiting for me to return, has me smiling as our Greece-bound plane pulls away into the sky.
Let it always be there.