It is just after five and I leave to cross the waist of Scotland, east to west, from the Tay estuary on the North Sea to Ardnamurchan and the mighty Atlantic Ocean. I am not a lover of cars or driving but this journey is a delight, through the small towns, by the loch side over the moors through the glens and always always westwards. Going west is going home.
With the morning har lifting west of Comrie, the sharp shafts of light punching colours into the hillside, sleepy St Fillans and a solitary dinghy crossing Loch Earn creating a perfect triangular wake, I am thinking, as I often do, that I live a very charmed life. Into my 70th year, my three score years and ten, still able to work fulltime in the design and construction of a wide variety of buildings. clinics, schools, churches and domestic properties. Not every project is blissful and none is without hassle, needless complication, frustration and disappointment but this one is a joy. It is a simple extension with alterations to a croft house sitting at the foot of the hill facing westwards, just up from the shore, with nothing between you and America save, that is, for the sea and the sky. It is a joy because the site is idyllic, the builders have that rare quality of genuine interest in the work and honesty in relations, the officials, while slow, are understanding and even apologise for their failings and the clients are of the best kind.
At lochearnhead, I turn right and climb up through Glen Ogle, with the line of the abandoned railway still visible in the opposite side of the glen. Over the hill and Ben lawyers come into view and I descend swinging round at Bovain past the garage with that strange land rover with its extended caterpillar tracks. Here the road has long straight stretches, that encourage speed, along the Dochart to Loch Lubhair. (For legal reasons the actual speeds cannot be recorded here) Soon we are into Crainlarich now wakening up and beginning to go about its business. I pass under the slender railway bridge still carrying a working railway. Crainlarich has lovely charm and evokes memories. The station sits above the village and on southbound journeys the train would stop for an extended period to connect with the Oban line. There would also be a buffet car on board, but meals were too expensive for us, and on this station a private entrepreneur ran a brisk business victualling the eager passengers with sandwiches and hot tea while steam poured from the engines valves in clouds along the platform.
The railway is now my companion like a dog following me, now on the right, now on the left, on the road up to Tyndrum where I stop, sit on the wall to drink coffee with the sun heating up and the midges beginning to gather. Then on past the Oban turn off, climbing again with the ancient hills coming closer and the astonishing “horse shoe bend” where the railway traces a line round the glen at Auch in an almost full circle. There is a railway workers cottage at both side of the glen, only accessible from the railway itself and each with a single platform. I recall a southbound journey, as a child, when the train stopped at one of the cottages and a lady dressed in a heavy overcoat with a suitcase was helped onto the train. It is a long gradual decline now to bridge of Orchy (a wonderful section of road for the cyclist) past the inn which always seems inviting as a place to rest the night and then loch Tulla with its strange cartwheel bridge, up to Black Mount and on to Rannoch Moor. The railway leaves us here and finds its own way across this stark landscape. It is late spring, warm and colourful but in winter it can be a very bleak and an unforgiving place. After some long stretches over another cartwheel bridge, the road twists and turns its way down to Glencoe past that awful cottage. Glencoe can’t seem to shake off its brutal past. The notorious massacre and now blighted and scarred by the visual memory of decades of viscous abuse. The cottage should be flattened and some memorial to respect the victims put in its place. That’s my opinion.
Turning right at the end of the glen the hills give up their menace and light streams in from loch Leven and Glencoe village. I just have time to make a short detour through the village and up to Glencoe House. It is a solid Victorian turreted and pedimented pile built in 1896 from red sandstone and grey granite sheltered by trees and a sweeping view down to the loch and westwards. On a crisp early summer morning it looks the place to stay and a snip at just under £1,500 a night. My interest in it is quite specific. In the 50s and early sixties it was a hospital with a maternity wing and it was where I and my sister were both born. It was the first time I had seen it now, as a luxury spa retreat. My sister describes its present state as obscene. I felt the only obscenity was the lack of a plaque commemorating its unique offspring’s.
It is not long before the winding road at the edge of the loch brings me to Corran and the ferry that takes us across to Ardgour. It is a short journey but I always get out to stand on the deck to listen to the surge of the water and spray and breathe in that intoxicating air carried over the sea.
The final leg of the journey in long straight stretches and miles and miles of twisting and turning roads takes another two hours, but it is magical and the one road I love to drive on. It swings around land and then sea lochs, through narrows, heavily wooded with birch and beech shrub, moss covered rocks and lichen covered oaks, past tiny half hidden sandy coves with a solitary yacht and through the small hamlets of Strontian, Salen, Glenborrodale and finally Kilchoan. I have to concentrate all the time. There is no radio or music to divert my attention as I set my gaze on the next turn of the road, ready for the unexpected and constantly memorising the next passing place. Kilchoan is resplendent in the mid-morning sun, protected by the hills behind and looking over to mull with the reclining Ben More. It is time for a stop and stretch, a visit to the village shop and the convenience housed within an old croft house with toilets and showers and quant notices from the volunteers who faithfully maintain this facility for the visiting sailors and campers.
And the final part, it takes me up and over, now at a more relaxed pace, round the unmistakable form of a volcano crater before coming to rest at the end of the journey, with the soft voice on the wind blowing up from the beech and seeming to say “where have you been all this time?”
I change my mind and take the long way home. There is time and somehow this day calls for it. I turn left at Salen and slide into the soporific village of Acharacle. It could just as well be middlearth. Maybe it is the familiarity knowing each bend and rise in the road, maybe it is the mid-afternoon warmth, maybe it is the romantic setting at the end of Loch Shiel with the enchanting names of Mingarry and Dalilea and the sharp familiar grandeur of Resipole. Maybe it is simply nostalgia and the pleasure of warm memories, but it almost overcomes me.
I stop and have a look at the new manse. It was one of my projects and I would love to see how it actually works out in practice. It, like most designs, never work out quite the way it was planned. I got on well with the committee till a new chairperson took charge insisting on his version of the plan and an inferior design adopted. It was a lost opportunity. The first incumbent realised this but it was too late. I think about calling in for a cup of tea. The minister is hanging out her washing but I need to move on.
I do have time, however, to walk up to the little church, a Telford building, up from the road beautifully still half concealed by the trees. This was the church where my father was the minister. It was his last parish before retiring and the happiest charge. It is encouraging to see the building in such good condition and clearly well cared for. I try the door and to my delight it opens. Inside is the familiar smell of hymnbooks and polish with a fly buzzing at the window.
I wander through to the vestry which is now a toilet and open for the convenience of travellers. In the past the vestry like the church was always open. The weekly collection was simply placed in a bag in a drawer in a desk there and at the end of the month the treasurer would take it to the bank. There was no question of it being lost or pilfered. At one time, however, there was a local man with serious alcohol problems and there was a fear that when on a bender he might help himself, so it was decided, for the sake of prudence, to put a lock on the door. This was no problem. My father was a joiner and, truth be told, he would often prefer to be on the tools than in the study. He bought the lock and fitted it. It had three keys. One for the minister one for the session clerk and one to be hung on a hook beside the door. They were taking no chances.
I climb up the few steps into the pulpit. It was where I preached my first sermon. Called in at the last minute when no one else was available I stumbled through assorted musings on the prophet Hosea. It lasted 9 minutes 50 seconds. My father timed me. The lectern has a bible open at Psalm 107. It was the section from the authorised version that I remember memorising in class at school “they that go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters, these see the work of the Lord and his wonders in the deep..” It is an ancient song that has meant a lot to me over the years. It speaks graphically in a quartet of pictures of God’s faithfulness, his willingness to answer the prayer of those in desperate need, and our response in thankfulness to him. I have worked and re-worked it versions of contemporary song many times and tried to illustrate in various ways. Overcoming a strange inhibition, I read it out loud to the empty building and it resonates around the building. It is especially poignant today
Walking down the aisle the memory of my sister’s funeral comes flooding back. She was 12 years my elder and throughout her short life suffered from epilepsy, mental illness and sever learning difficulties. She spent some time in a mental institution villa nine at Lennoxtown hospital but after a particular illness my parents decided to bring her home, where she was cared for up until the end of her life. It is hard to imagine what life in a mental institution would have been like in those days but contemporary accounts are sometimes chilling. It may well have been something that my parents saw then, that convinced them, home was where she should be. It was a considerable burden for a middle aged couple, all the same, with a large family to care for and already committed to serving others in the community but they bore it with astonishing grace. It was only in later life that I saw something of what that commitment meant. Barbara was greatly loved by everyone in the community. She brought out something touching in their lives and the whole community was present at her funeral. In the packed church a family friend lead the service and read the verses from 1 Thessalonians I can still hear the authorative tone “But we would not have you ignorant, brethren, concerning those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep.. ”We sang the paraphrase “How bright these glorious spirits shine” to the double metre tune of St Asaph with its repeat of the second section to cope with the odd last verse which give its an untended lift and emphasis:
“In pastures green he’ll lead his flock
where living streams appear,
and God the Lord from every eye
shall wipe away each tear.”
The other singing was the children’s hymn “When he cometh” I never liked it with its jaunty tune its repeating predictable rhymes but it was a favourite with my father and I realised then, why it was. My brothers and I carried the coffin down the aisle. The undertaker had helpfully suggested how we could do this with dignity. The shortest at the front and the tallest at the back the box on our shoulders and holding each other round the waist. When we reached the door friends took over and shared this burden to the graveside at the back of the church. A simple bronze plaque on granite stones marks the spot. As I trace the steps that day I pass the memorial stones of many folk who I knew. Among them the memorial to the committee member who gave me such strife over the manse building and for the first time felt genuine sorrow. Strange how it takes death to stir sympathy.
There is a soft breeze coming up from the loch and the trees are swaying gently. Ben Resipole is reclining as in an afternoon nap with bees still busy among the wild roses. A lamb bleats in the distance. I really want to stay but another meeting calls and it is time to leave. I reluctantly slip over the Shiel on the triple arched bridge and make my way back eastwards. I am trying not to cry.
*Acharacle is Torquil’s Ford in Gaelic