Scottish Sojourn - July 2014
Public House, Keiss


Driving on the left, shifting left-handed, I drove exactly 1066 miles through the Northern Scottish Highlands. Call me Charles the Conqueror, Son of William, (factually) vanquishing multiple roundabouts (rotaries in Boston), meandering lambs, many miles of one lane two way “roads, ” all in an underpowered but extremely economical Fiat.

But getting to Inverness from London proved to be a most unusual (perhaps not) adventure. After 50 years of fantasizing about taking an overnight sleeper train with a beautiful blond I was about to get me desired dream come true. But the train was cancelled due to electrical problems on the Scottish border, so Isabelle and I slept in our sleeper compartment while the train was parked for the night in Euston Station London. But it was up a 4:30 AM to rush off to catch a regular train albeit without reserved seats.

As holders of a first class ticket on the Caledonian Sleeper we settled in to the first class compartment in the Virgin Rail express to Glasgow only to be confronted by a punctilious conductor who insisted we move to the now overbooked cattle car (A.K.A. second class). I protested in my usual mild manner and when the conducted proved to be intractable I muttered something like “You being a bit punctilious which I slightly mispronounced as punctilias (emphasis on the AS. And that’s all he heard, “ASS,” as he responded with that enough I’ll have you off at the nest station. When I responded with “What do you think I said, he responded that there were other passengers on the train and he would NOT repeat what I had said. At which point I gave up and we painfully made our way, loaded with baggage down several cars to find a seats, not together and with no window, to continue our journey.

Chapter 1: In Search of a Local Hero

However from that point on, the trip whet swimmingly. Literally! Practically every day, mon petite mermaid Isabelle went swimming in the north Sea or North Atlantic. As “fresh” as it was (fresh meaning bone chilling cold) we sought out and she “bathed.”

Isabelle’s friend Pam, at whose lovely house we spent the night, met us at the inverness train station. We dinned with her and her adult daughter and husband (Mairead & Keith) at a very traditional Scottish roadhouse restaurant with a waiter host owner whose stick would go well at the Carnegie Deli. It was here that I had my second taste of Haggis, the first being at a Robbie Burns, Ron Simon, and Ron Doster’s birthday party last December. The Scottish Haggis was delicious; say no more.

Then next morning we picked up the rented car and took the wrong turn at the first roundabout heading 180 degrees in the wrong direction. It was uphill from then as we reversed course and set off for Pennan, the micro village of 36 homes on the sea that was the location for “Local Hero.” The 1983 films lead actor was a child hood team mate, classmate, and 60 year friend, Peter Riegert. The film, directed by Bill Forsyth, is considered by many to be one of the best Scottish films ever made. The large cameo performance by Burt Lancaster didn’t hurt either. I’ve wanted to visit Scotland and in particular Pennan for 31 years. Eureka, it was all I hade imagined and more.

We stayed in the Pennan Inn where we met an English Scottish couple who were “Local Hero” fanatics. It was great fun remembering the scenes such as Peter describing the Aurora Borealis from the red phone box. The next night we met another pair who in 1983 were living in Pennan and in whose home a key scene was shot. As a kicker their 5 year-old son played the part of the Russian Captains allegedly out of wedlock son (hush-hush). They regaled us with a tale of Peter’s apprehension about playing the aforementioned inebriated Phone Box scene until they suggest a wee dram or two of fine single malt might put him in the proper mood to play the part. How Marlon Brando of them, and if Peter took their advice, how method was that.

The next day we found a uninhabited cove just west of Pennan with a fabulous sandy beach and I went swimming. (Burr!) To warm the body and soul we continued on to Banff where Isabelle spent hours sketching the gravestones in an ancient cemetery and I went exploring finding a man in kilt whose fade was a map of Scotland. And low and behold, as a teenager he was an extra in LH. He turned me on the “The Ship,” the local inn where they filmed the Pub scenes. At the ship we met a host of wonderfully idiosyncratic and hilariously garrulous, characters. They in turn plied us whiskey and LH anecdotes.
Banff bay

Chapter 2: Keiss is Nice

A long drive North by Northwest through scenic shires and sumptuous scenery, made additionally memorable by a most urgent need to urinate, several times; what did I drink that made my usually ironclad kidney want to burst at the seams? Arriving on the Northwest coast in Keiss we promptly went for a walk along the rugged coast and got rained upon for the first and only time in Sunny, Scenic, Scotland. For the remainder of the rest of our trip the skies were sunny, the temperature balmy, the winds mild, and the occasional cloud billowing white as the clumps of lambs wool speckling the omnipresent grazing land.

Midge NOT. In preparation for the trip I read Steven King-esque stories about omnipresent Midge flies that bedevil tourists, lambs, and locals alike. Isabelle brought her trusty midge nets and I brought Avon “Skin So Soft,” the anti midge potion recommended by Scottish woodland workers. If they swear by “Skin So Soft” who am I to question their Monty Pythonesque “I’m a Lumber Jack” endorsement.” However we encountered NO midges save for a few moments on the Isle of Skye as we were able beat a hasty retreat from the veranda of our B&B to the save haven of the sun room.

Keiss castle
The first full day on the north east coast found us on the beach, Isabelle bathing, et moi photographing. Later we went to the large metropolitan City of Wick, (for the Highlands) population half a large as my NYC CO-OP. We sought out “My Beautiful Launderette” which unfortunately was not taking in the wash due to an unfortunate fire. All was solved by a cup of tea, Isabelle’s passion for shopping a Charity Shops where she bought many pounds of second hand books for very few pounds sterling.
Our next day saw us exploring the headlands at John o’ Groats on the far north east coast. Over hill and dale we beat a somewhat damp trail along the coast strewn with rocky spires, nesting seabirds, and a multitude of skittish sheep. Isabelle is a most energetic hiker as she walked ahead for miles as I settled for just 3K’s and a bit of communing with the aforementioned sheep. I sang to them a little ditty by a former my University Professor and singer songwriter, Mark.
John o’ Groats

Sherman, whose ditty “I’m in love with a sheep, Our love it can’t be beat…” did not impress the adults although the lambs were enchanted.

Later in the day a distraught individual committed suicide by driving off the cliff where we had parked the car to begin our meandering. We were by then exploring another cemetery, an abandoned gristmill, charity shops, and tea for two in Thurso.

We enjoyed our digs at the Sinclair Bay Hotel and Public house. I spent several hours with the lads over a pint or two solving worlds problems and world cup disappointments. I also watched ten minutes of UK version of Jeopardy with questions considerably more difficult than the American version. That the contestants knew the answers to what I considered very obscure questions was most impressive. And the food, especially the local mussels and haddock served in this old, somewhat moldy, but thoroughly enchanting Pub was wonderful. We should have booked for a week not three nights. Which brings me to the advice section for those lucky enough to travel in the Highlands: Don’t drive 1066 miles. Go to fewer places and stay much longer. For every fascinating locale we visited we passed by 10 or 100’s of others.

Sinclair Bay Hotel, Keiss

Chapter 3: All Hail Ullapool

Day 8 was a long drive on winding mountain roads and trails along the north coast stopping places that fit our fancy; tea here, cemetery there, here a sheep, there a bay, every sight yea-yea! Then it was down the west coast to Ullapool, stopping for dinner at a restaurant in Kylesku most highly recommended by Mairead & Keith.  

The spectacular Ardverck House just north of Oullapool on a hillside with a wonderful view overlooking Loch Broom Again Isabelle took to the water spending most of day bathing and turning beet red from the blazing sun, more befitting the Bahamas than the Highlands. When she didn’t return after many hours I fruitlessly went looking for her as she had wanted off along the beach and around the point towards the village. When I was able to gain a vantage point to view the obscured portion with my binoculars, she had returned to her original location to continue bathing. I returned from my walk to the Inn and asked if they had seen her. Their response was to call the local coastguard, as they were certain she had been swept out to sea. I convinced them to wait a bit longer and do another search when of course we found her safe and sound. But a man assisting with the search was the proprietor of the Frigate Pub where that night we had another fine meal.


Chapter 4. Blue Skies Skye

Another long drive with detours along the coast roads reminiscent of the Pacific coast drive if the P.C.D. was one lane with passing cut outs for the infrequent oncoming traffic. The locals speed around curves and over the tops of hills when there isn’t a chance in hell that one can see if there is oncoming traffic. It’s a thrill ride with the safeties off.

We stopped for dinner in a one-kitchen town and ate like a horse at a country inn and restaurant that had been recommended to us by our friends in Inverness Keith and Mairead.

We arrived at my first ever AirBnB lodgings Porter Lodge, and were greeted by Tess, an ancient scraggly Great Dane with a warm and loving demeanor and her mistress,

Val Fellows with a personality to match. Val is a poet, video artist, and collector of highly idiosyncratic and marvelously whimsical flotsam and jetsam. Her home shouted caprice.  One of her guest cottages appeared to be an old boat turned keel up on a raised slab, Door and windows added. There was a screen door on a boat, go figure. And a fine messed screen normally would be a necessity as the woodland south of Skye is well know for the terror of Scotland, Midges. It was here for two minutes at dusk (10:30 PM) in Val’s garden that I got my first taste of a Midge attack. But retreat was possible with no casualties. 

On the first full day in Skye Isabelle went for a long walk to local sandy cove and I took the Ferry to Mairead intending to go to Morar, where the Local Hero beach locations were filmed. While there was a local train, an antique steam train, and a Bus, now we were leaving for Morar in the next two hours, so I hitched a ride, took all of 3 minuets, the fourth car picked me up.

The sumptuous silky soft white sand beach would have been a nice beach in the Bahamas. And the water was many degrees warmer than in the far north. Almost all of the twenty beach goers were clumped together in the first few meters in front of the parking area. I proceed further and met only one couple grilling fabulous, fat and flavorful Prawns. As I was photographing the scene (I believe where But Lancaster landed in the Helicopter) when they asked if I would like them to take my picture they heard my Yank accent the next thing was “Have a shrimp mate, we got em on the bar-bi. Yea they were Aussies and the Prawns were perfect. 

As I was hitching back to the Ferry a Police car passed, made a double U’ey and pulled up besides me as I’m congratulating myself on having my passport with me. But unlike Rambo, the office cheerfully asked if I wanted a ride back to the village. Could not have been nicer and I was back in time for little pub lunch and the 5 PM Ferry.

Chapter 5: In Inverness and to London

Inverness found us at a classic old world semi lux hotel on the banks of the Ness. Another fine local sourced dinner with Keith and Mairead, a river walk afterwards and a night spent with a hungry and noisy baby seagull nesting outside our window.

Up early for the long train ride to London made shorter by the fascinating company of Roger and Babs Smith-Stanton.

Chapter 6

Mom with the Beatles at Abby Road, The fishes in the river Themes, at Highgate Cemetery with Karl Marks, and with the Queen at Buckingham Palace.

By Charles Fernandez

Northern Scottish Highlands