Monday, 26 September 2011
More heavy rain fell in the night, but the morning is brightening. I have checked out and sit in my car, studying the road map, unsure of where to go next. There are now several options. I could continue along the coast to Aberdeen, drive up to the Cairngorms National Park, or investigate the south shore of Loch Ness. Unsurprisingly, I find that I want to do all of these things! I begin by driving back to Loch Ness, to which I find myself rather attached now that I have learnt so much about it.
On the way I pass a James Pringle Weavery, closed down several years ago and turned into a tourist attraction. In the small but interesting exhibition, an old man demonstrates the working of a semi-automatic loom by pedalling steadily. The machine makes a great noise and the shuttles fly back and forth. Because there are no other visitors, he takes a break to have a chat and tells me that he has been a weaver since he learnt the trade at his grandfather’s side, from the tender age of ten. His grandfather’s grandfather had been a weaver too, like so many people in the area, but now there are only about thirty weavers left in the whole of Scotland, reportedly producing high-quality cloth for the Arab market.
His tale is another version of the familiar story of exploitation, encountered earlier in quarry and mine: not getting paid for the whole yard of cloth produced, only for a percentage – in this case because of ‘shrinkage’. The weaving families had to buy the looms and other necessary equipment from the mill owner and paid it all off over many years. They set up the large looms in their tiny cottages and lived around the edges. All the family was busy with the washing, carding, dyeing, spinning and weaving of the wool, but they were not allowed to buy wool or sell cloth independently. Their pay was spent on supplies provided by the mill owner who also set the prices, profited from every single transaction and effectively owned his work force. The only possible escape from this form of slavery was through emigration – usually to Canada, the United States, South Africa or Australia – and was mostly chosen by younger sons who would not inherit the family loom.
Information panels on the history of Scottish clans display the famous McNames with their corresponding tartan colours and plaid patterns, as well as illustrations of the old warriors in the full glory of their garb. I cannot help thinking that they must have been very sure of their manliness to go prancing around in skirts, as well as coldly disdainful of the prevailing climate conditions.
There is also information regarding the Whisky Trail, a route that takes visitors to famous distilleries in the area. Rather amusingly, this Whisky Trail is sponsored by the Automobile Association AA (Alcoholics etcetera?). It is the same association that issued a handy book of excellent road maps, the ones that guide me on this trip. Printed on its back is the notice: ‘The experts at the AA have created these maps to help you navigate Britain’s roads safely and easily’ – especially after sampling some whisky at all these distilleries, I suppose! The Automobile Association’s daring combination of road travel and Whisky Trail sponsorship makes me wonder if Scotland could possibly have its own, separate, special laws concerning drink-driving too.
The inadvertent humour continues at the traffic light of a building site, where a large sign proclaims: ‘Pedestrians push button and wait for green man’. I sit in my car, waiting for the lights to change, and laugh delightedly, wondering which one of his many forms the mythical Green Man might assume at this crossing. Will he show his face, surrounded by foliage, as the spirit of nature, the personified triumph of life after the dead months of winter? Will he surprise children in his newer guises as Robin Hood or Peter Pan? Or will he reward patient pedestrians by meeting them in more esoteric form, as a guide to the personal transformation and inspiration that are also in his power, and associated with his name? I want to push that button, just to find out.
The drive along the south shore of Loch Ness is splendid! I am pleased that the single track road between Dores and Foyers is without traffic and I can crawl along as slowly as I like, for I find myself visually stunned by the steep, rocky woodland bank on my left and the view across the loch on my right. I arrive in Foyers and discover that this is a famous, if barely advertised, sightseeing spot. It certainly isn’t marked as a place worth visiting on my up-to-date AA map. Maybe because it lacks a distillery?
Nearby, a tremendous waterfall plunges into a gorgeous gorge; a spectacle that inspired Burns, Keats and Wordsworth, to name but a few famous visitors. And here at last I find a car park and a well-maintained footpath through unbelievably and indescribably beautiful woodland, leading down to the waterfall.
Uplifted, my soul reaches out in an attempt to embrace the glorious beauty that is spread all around me. In this particular place, more than in any other I have yet visited on my journey, I find the nearness of nature in its untamed and varied splendour almost overwhelming. In my youth I took the beauty of the natural world for granted, but these days I find that this easy acceptance is often replaced by a sense of awe and wonder, and a questioning of how: How is all this beauty possible? Who composed this great harmony?
The path that leads down to the lakeside is a Red Squirrel Trail, but no squirrels are to be seen. They must all be enjoying their midmorning nap. Instead, I find myself wandering through the sequence of topics from our Botany lessons as fungal fairy rings spread out amongst billowy clusters of moss under bracken that is just turning golden, and the air is so pure that lichen grows on the conifers in splendid abundance, its fronds and lobes scattered like jewels across my path.
Picking them up, I feel their delicate texture and then run my fingers over the rough bark of a Scots pine by way of comparison. After years of indoor living, this intense exposure to the natural world has a miraculousness about it that appeals strongly to my sense of touch and reminds me of my childhood. In those far-off days, stone and soil, bark and leaf had to be touched and felt to be more fully understood – and so it is now.
Towards the end of the afternoon I take the A9 and follow it through great scenic splendour into higher hills. Once again I drive without a clear goal. Just picking a road and a general direction is enough. In the evening I reach the Cairngorms National Park and the village of Kingussie, where a surprise awaits. The B&B I approach has a Swiss flag above the door, and the landlady turns out to be from Zurich, like myself. This is unexpected, to say the least!
Now a stream of Swiss dialect floats through the Scottish air and I am welcomed like a long-lost friend. There is also a lovely cat, adding her presence to the general delight, and the room could not be better. The landlady proposes to share her supper with me, so we sit down in her cosy kitchen for a good chat about our homeland and the circumstances of our lives that brought us together here. And although my Swiss German is exceedingly rusty after so many years spent in England, it limbers up as the evening wears on …
Read more in ‘Reports from the Road’, a tale for explorers of Great Britain – solo or not. Clicking on the cover will take you there:
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