Travellers’ Tales

Union chainbridge
Union Chain Bridge crossing the border between England and Scotland.

“We live in a wonderful world that is full of beauty, charm and adventure.
There is no end to the adventures we can have if only we seek them with our eyes open.” – Jawaharial Nehru

Venturing across the Minch and driving across the Highlands through Glen Shiel and Glencoe in the February may not be for the faint hearted but it hardly ranks among one of the “great journeys” that the world has to offer the intrepid traveller. Although taking the ferry has become as routine as catching a bus (and about as reliable as any rural bus service) and we have travelled this road many times, the landscape never fails to delight and the weather to surprise. Perceptions of Scotland in winter are bound by myth and cliché; but if you are prepared to risk the fickleness of the weather, the colour of birch twigs in a shaft of sunlight, a waterfall frozen into icy daggers or a rainbow framing the gateway to a rainy glen can turn myth into reality.
Organising something as mundane as having the car serviced is a routine chore for many, but for those of us who enjoy living in rural isolation it can require the logistic precision of a military operation and getting the car to the garage can cost more than  the service. Although I am never enthusiastic about leaving the island, there are times when it is necessary, and the prospect of a little self-indulgence helps make the chore more palatable. The opportunity to visit friends, discover a new garden, nursery or bookshop and explore some less familiar regions of Scotland are good enough reasons to muster a little enthusiasm.

The Union Chain Bridge spans the River Tweed between Horncliffe, Northumberland, England and Fishwick, Borders, Scotland
The Union Chain Bridge spans the River Tweed between Horncliffe, Northumberland, England and Fishwick, Borders, Scotland

On recent trips to the mainland we have been exploring the borders from Berwick in the east to Stranraer in the west. The landscape is much softer and richer than the austere windswept islands which are now my home. The verdant valleys, woodland and rolling farmland are comfortable within the shelter of the hills and moorland of the ancient kingdom of Northumbria and the Scottish southern uplands. It is as if a mantle of settled, affluent middle age has descended on the shoulders of rebellious, turbulent youth, turning reivers into yeoman farmers as times rolls on.

The border between England and Scotland is not a precise line drawn by modern cartographers following UN peace negotiations. It meanders from coast to coast, an ancient demarcation drawn by centuries of conflict, changing allegiances, internecine feuds and treachery. This is the land where as a boy Walter Scott was first introduced to the Border Ballads and it is just a short step to Waverley novels and the creation of the romantic myth of Scotland. Whether you like your history with a sugar-coating of romance or prefer the darker under tones of harsh reality the Scottish Marches like their Welsh counterpart do not carry their history lightly.

There are no border posts, wire fences or police patrols and the bands of reivers have been banished by time, but in other parts of the world borders are still areas of conflict and despair. The Berlin Wall and Checkpoint Charlie now belong to film noir, the le Carré genre of cold war espionage fiction and Trip Advisor, as the focus of history has now moved once again to the borders of Greece, Turkey, Syria and beyond. As we meandered along these now quiet Scottish border lands, admiring carpets of snowdrops in the rain and misty vistas of distant hills, it was difficult not to be aware of the darker side of the history and the despair which seems to drift like a miasma over lines on a map. As for the Scottish Snowdrop Festival, we never did manage to find any of the gardens advertised as open – perhaps another border myth.

11 thoughts on “Travellers’ Tales

  1. biggardenblog

    Why do you need to go to the mainland to have the car serviced? Some readers might conclude that we don’t have a vehicle servicing/repair workshops in Uist, whereas there are three I know of, including a very good one in Benbecula, that is also MOT station. I’m sure some like me might wonder if it’s a convenient justification for an escape from Uist winter to somewhere a bit softer! ;~)

    • This post was not about getting my car serviced, nor intended as a comment on the presence/absence or quality of local garages. I would always advocate using local services, but sometimes it is not possible for the required work to be done locally. I may have unintentionally conveyed the wrong impression, but as I don’t write for anyone other than myself, I’m not about to add disclaimers and caveats about other brands may be available etc.
      Donning a hair shirt is not a requisite of living on a Scottish island and the occasional escape at any time of year for a little cultural, intellectual or physical hedonism can be therapeutic. So refreshed by my travels, this soft Sassenach is off to start muck spreading. 😉

  2. Really interesting piece again Christine, but no Scottish Snowdrop Festival! What a let down! Actually I was thinking of trying to source a few Scottish snowdrops from one or two of the well known Scottish sites…Cambo was the only one which came immediately to mind, as comparisons for DNA purposes, for my fledgling Welsh Historic snowdrop hunt. Any ideas of who else to consider ….age of site, and degree of naturalistion being the most important criterion,
    best wishes

    • Hi Julian, I think the failure to find the gardens was probably my fault or perhaps the gardens were not open because of the very wet conditions. However, details of the participating gardens are on the Discover Scottish Gardens Website, you could try the National Trust and Botanic Gardens, but I suspect that private gardens might be a better bet. Even if I didn’t manage to visit any gardens, it was a delight seeing so many snowdrops naturalised in the hedgerows and woodland.

  3. What an excellent quotation to begin with Christine. Thanks for sharing some of your adventures – that drive through Glencoe and across Rannoch Moor will always be dramatic. Mind you, Robert MacFarlane in The Wild Places made the latter even more dramatic – worth a read if you haven’t already done so

    • “Great things are done when men and mountains meet.” William Blake.
      I’m a fan of Robert MacFarlane too. Even after a lifetime of reading there is still room for more travel books on my shelf. To read a well written informative piece of writing about a journey is to become a travelling companion. It might be second best, but as an armchair traveller it is possible to be inspired and to take the first step on a journey. It is surprising how much there is to discover on one’s own doorstep. So todays journey will be down to the cottage garden to check on the progress of the bulbs and then to beach, it might be the same as yesterday, but there sre always discoveries to be made.

      • Yes, it’s partly an attitude of mind – every day there are adventures to be found. I wonder what you discovered in the cottage garden or the beach…

        • The beach id more interesting than the garden at this time of year. My haul included an armful of driftwood, some of the fire and one or two more interesting pieces for the garden, a barnacle encristed sheep skull with a nice pair of horns and a gannet skull. Not to everyone’s taste, bu they are part of the flotsam and jetsam that serves as sculpture in my seaside garden.

          • And they will make lovely additions to it – is your spiral ‘finished’?

          • Once again rain stopped play this winter. Finishing all the projects which we started last year are the top of the list for this year. I have stamped my very large feet and there will be no new projects until these are completed.

          • Finishing older projects is an admirable task, Christine, even without big feet. We are doing a bit of that too

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