One rainy July afternoon, BB and I arrived at a remote part of Scotland where we found forty people sheltering under a large pergola tent, sharing a generous picnic.
We had landed at the opening event of an Outlaw Family Reunion, organised to celebrate a much-loved ancestor now lying beneath a grand Memorial, set atop a nearby hill. Despite the inauspicious weather, this was a jolly affair where I met Outlaw relatives both familiar and new.
As ever for this family, the atmosphere was welcoming and warm; delicious food was passed around with mugs of steaming hot, proper coffee. Coffee when offered is generally an accurate bellwether for what is to come; this brew augured well.
Those gathered had been called from far and wide. The Ancestor’s children, the parents of some of those gathered, were also commemorated around his grave and here he reunited sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, cousins, grandchildren, grand-parents, aunts and uncles gathered to celebrate, well … The Family.
Not one to miss a beat – or good reason to explore lesser-known territory – BB suggested that we extend our visit for a road-trip around Scotland. Given I have only enjoyed limited experience of Glasgow and Edinburgh and am fond of the Scots, I concurred. I was, once upon a star wed to a very jolly example of the race and our beautiful progeny carry a distinctive McSurname. Greater knowledge of and respect to their origins felt right.
Picnic over, the multi-generational group began its pilgrimage up the hill. MOL (Mother-Out-Law for newcomers to this blog) barely had to take a step; with a grandson at each arm, this doughty dame was flown up the incline several inches above the ground looking neither unhappy, nor remotely concerned.
Once gathered under myriad and makeshift cover, typed sheets were distributed and BB’s Eldest Brother orchestrated the singing of a goodly number of hymns. Never have I witnessed The Lord’s My Shepherd delivered with such familial and feisty gusto … under such damp circumstances. As Memorials go, this one was truly memorable.
Some time and a hot bath later, the Family regrouped for dinner in the appointed hotel, followed by the imbibing of splendid Scotch and a good old natter.
The morning featured relaxed walks, stone-skimming on the nearby Loch and a group photograph, after which we set off for Part II of The Reunion; lunch at a grand country house hotel, resplendent upon its own Isle. This once-upon-a-time home had been built by The Ancestor and in the mists of time lost to the ownership of others; this did not dull our enjoyment of the place … or of a truly gastronomic Michelin Star lunch.
Time came to part with Outlaws-all and for BB and I to set out on our own adventures. We arrived some short hours later at Oban and the discovery that a hotel described on its website as Boutique in this case meant simply “Tiny”. Friendly, clean and perfectly habitable, our room overlooked the Bay; in each others’ company we were simply happy. We ventured out, climbing to MacCaig’s Tower before a lazy descent to claim a table at Eeusk, where fabulously fresh fish, perfectly chilled wine and picturesque views awaited.
After a brief meander around town the following morning, we set out to Fort William hoping to hop aboard The Jacobite steam train made famous by Harry Potter; alas, spontaneity is not accommodated by those in charge of tourist attractions and without having booked our seats months earlier we drove to the train’s destination. We arrived in Mallaig just in time to settle at the window of our well-placed hotel room and watch the illustrious locomotive puff its way into the station.
Having arrived late-ish, we emerged just after 9pm to try the door of several restaurants, all closed. Our luck changed at the Chlachain Inn for on being turned away by bar staff, an affable and smiling Chef burst forth from the kitchen apologising for his town; I can give you fish and chips and that’s it! he declared. We accepted gratefully and watched as he whipped up a batter made of Tennents and not much else. Reader, this fish was a joy, light and delicious; the chef extended his hospitality by inviting BB to a game of pool … and losing with exceptionally good grace
The following morning we pored over our map wondering whether to take a trip to Skye just over the water; the sky above did not look too promising however and after some debate we decided to cut our losses and head over to Perth, where one of BB’s many Aunts was expecting us one day or another that week. Decision made, we plotted a scenic route through the highlands.
The journey was spectacular – drizzle notwithstanding – and we took in panoramas a-plenty, remote railway stations where trains stop only upon request, Ben Nevis and a meandering drive through breathtaking vistas to stop at Achnambeithach. Here, a tiny road alternately smooth and rough diverted us deep into Glen Etive, where we witnessed extraordinary landscapes, rivers and remote farm houses one of which BB remembered was home to another Aunt, whom he visited as a child; in those days, reaching this house – one of only two in the valley – involved crossing a bridge-free river in a box hanging from an overhead cable. Progress has made its mark, for this neck of the water now happily, boasts a bridge. For him, this was less of a casual tour, more an instinctive trip down memory lane; his happy face brought unexpected joy to the drama of our surroundings.
We drove through grand Perth and on to another cousin’s home, where Aunt awaited with dogs and a warm welcome. We spent two lazy days and nights here, pottering, reading, relaxing, eating and drinking and getting to know Moneypenny, for Aunt was less retired older relative and more entertaining and glamorous than I had expected. An air of quiet confidence belied the impression of homeliness; M had lived in exotic places and knew more about the world than us both. She seemed quietly to organise, plan and know exactly what was what, giving the distinct impression of one around whom things happened exactly as they should.
The time for our departure arrived; M had a grandson to prepare for safari and things to do. With fond goodbyes we set off for the final leg of our adventure.
In Edinburgh the spacious apartment of a wickedly talented and Professorial friend awaited. We had spent our first night in Scotland with The Prof, who entertained us with glorious food, wine and witty repartee. She left for the USA before our return but kindly entrusted us with keys to her lovely home; from these tall windows we gazed over perfectly formed chimney pots, to all intents an army marching in splendid synchronicity down the hill towards Fettes: the seat of Tony Blair’s arrogance, Prof had quipped.
Our first evening was spent cooking and enjoying dinner a deux, after which we set out to see The Kelpies. These astounding sculptures by Andy Scott celebrate the history of working horses around the canals; as we gazed, darkness fell and lights within the structures slowly rose. We walked around, through, below, marveling at the sheer scale and exquisite detail of these fine equines, at the extraordinary feat and ingenuity of engineering. Eventually tired and inspired, we headed home.
The next day brought a visit to Edinburgh’s Museum of Modern Art, where we saw paintings by Ben Nicholson and his contemporaries, their content chiming unexpectedly with a book I am reading. About the Bohemians by Virginia Nicholson, is an absorbing tale of the lives of the very artists exhibited here and a natural narrative unfolded as I moved from one painting to the next. We then took in Matisse, Picasso, Miro, Magritte, a whole room of captivating Bridget Riley and finally the super-real Tourists by Duane Hanson.
We left happy, driving across town to visit Clever Mr and Mrs Nephew, who founded and run the Edinburgh Casting Studio. Here they celebrate hands, faces, bodies, baby feet and even pet’s paws for people who want to remember themselves and their loved ones exactly as they are now; Mr & Mrs N shape this unusual work with kindness, compassion, verve and talent. They also provided us with exceptional quantities of humous, wine, conversation and laughter; I am a Very Proud Aunt.
Parting company with my brother’s son and his wife, we made our way to the Leith Dockers Club to meet Old London Friend whom I have not seen for a few years, but who happened to be in town attending a jolly memorial for punk performance poet Jock Scot. Whilst we had never met Jock, OLF knew him well from days gone by. In this room of friendly people, Jock’s arresting, moving poems were read and his life handsomely celebrated, not least by our small group where far too much scotch was cheerfully imbibed within this surreal and cherished night. The poet himself predicted that his 1993 book would be republished once I snuff it; OLF has done just that. Where is my Heroine? is a tome of grit and beauty; I have and recommend it.
In the morning my sore head regretfully dimmed our last day in this beautiful place, albeit not enough to prevent us attending the first birthday party of a smaller Family member we met at the start of our holiday: a poetic and circular finale to the week. This gentle celebration took place on Seacliff Beach, a remote and secret spot about an hour outside town; after mingling with cousins and their offspring, we wandered and roamed on the rocks and sand, the playful wind etching this beautiful bay into our skin for ever.
Scotland: thank you for your sights and scenes, unrivaled in London. We will return.