Friday, 2 September 2011

A Visit to the Highlands, Part Two

Sunday morning we were left to our own devices and we went and looked in a local antique shop. I didn’t notice much except the vast number of books on the Royal family and a book called ‘Fun in Bed’, which wasn’t at all what you think - it was subtitled ‘The Convalescent’s Handbook’. Published in 1934, and still with dustcover intact, it was worth probably a good deal more than the £18 being asked, though I wouldn’t have wanted to sell it.

The rain was already fairly fierce, but fiercer still was the wind. We dashed back to the car and returned to the hotel to pick up our packed lunch: 2 apples, 2 bananas, 2 nutty bars, 2 diet cokes, and 4 cheese and ham rolls, all wrapped in foil and placed in a JD sports bag. It was like going on a school trip.

We were going to Corgarff Castle for lunch followed by “a gentle walk across the moors”. “Be prepared for rain”, James had added in his itinerary notes.

Corgarff castle is not a romantic looking castle. From afar it looks like some kind of grain silo. Actually, it is jolly old and distinguished and full of history and so on. The thing was, today, officially, it was closed because of the high winds. HSE of course. But Sir James Forbes, Bart, was not to be stymied and made an arrangement which allowed us access at least to the barracks.

But by god the wind was high, as high as I have ever felt, at land or sea. And it was not simply its velocity but the cold it carried with it. Where on earth did that come from? It was too cold even for snow, so instead we had sleet that felt as though it would rip the skin off our faces.

Through this biting weather a good number of us made it to the castle, including Professors Brian and Catherine Skinner, both in their eighties, both still teaching (at Yale), both still dancing. He edited the Oxford Companion to the Earth, and she is the world’s leading expert on asbestos. Asbestos is a mineral. If you leave it alone it is harmless. The worst thing you can do if you find asbestos is to start ripping it out. That is altogether far more dangerous than leaving it in. This is one of the many things I learned in Scotland.

The daughter of these distinguished bods is the filially conscientious and cheerful 'Weeds' fan Lassa Skinner, the founder of 'Culture'; she and Debby hit it off well and spent a good deal of the next couple of days laughing together.

After eating our packed lunch I decided to find out if anyone wanted to take "the gentle walk over the moors". Several were up for it, mostly Californians (of whom there were no less than 18 non-family members for the celebrations), but after descending to the car park (a couple of hundred yards through the slicing sleet) James looked at me and used the word “brutal” and decided in his quiet way that no-one was going to catch hypothermia or be blown to kingdom come on his watch. Instead we repaired to a local knit-shop where we drank hot chocolate full of marshmallows, and talked of what might have been. (Actually, we talked about the rise of the Napa Valley wineries, with winemaker Penny and her husband Chip, who is interested in Sustainable Energy, and has a magnificent beard, and a gravity of diction that masks a dry humour).

That evening we were supposed to rehearse our flinging and reeling at a bash in the Lonach Hall, open to all. Food was laid on for the out-of-towners, and we took two bottles of wine (one of which I had won in a raffle at the Glenbuchat ceilidh the night before).

I managed one eightsome reel, with the aid and gracious assistance of several Californians who had been diligently practicing all year long. Debby and I tried a Gay Gordon but thankfully we joined too late to make utter fools of ourselves. We were nevertheless soon exhausted and made it back to the hotel in time for Match of the Day 2 to watch North London (Spurs + Arsenal 3) being humiliated by Manchester (Utd + City 13).

The cold of the day had seeped into our hotel room. The radiator had ceased to work (it transpired that Ian had run out of oil for the heater). I slept in two shirts and socks.

And so to Monday. I wanted rather to do the walk we hadn’t done the previous day, but there was a much higher priority. We had to find some shoes that Debby could dance in. She had gone all Imelda Marcos about her shoes and brought four pairs of high heels, along with several floaty frocks, and a vintage ball gown. She had brought neither dancing shoes nor walking boots. She had not packed, in short, for Scotland. She had packed for Park Lane.

It was an altogether brighter, warmer day, and we embarked on a tour that took us to every shoe shop in the region. We went to Ballater (I’m still unclear on pronunciation) where Debby bought me a coat and pair of trews at McCalls of Perth and she couldn’t find shoes; we went to Dinnet and Aboyne and eventually to Banchory. At Banchory there is a huge new Tesco. It was the only shop that had dancing shoes in Debby’s size.

The landscape is wonderful. It is so varied. You pass quickly from arable land to moor, to forest, and past the odd loch. We moved between the parallel rivers of the Don (to the north) and the Dee - sinuous full-flowing rivers comfortable in the landscape, just below flood level. We stopped at Cambus O’May (ah, the names – Tom a’Char, Muir of Fowlis, Tough, Echt) and took photos on the suspension bridge.

At Craigievar Castle Debby wanted to know if it had been painted (it is very pink). It hadn’t. It was the natural colour of the rendering (known I think as ‘harling’). We wandered about the garden. I felt a twinge of gout. This boded ill for the reeling. I stood and stared at the views from the castle and thought that it would turn me into a painter: that variegated landscape, that changed with every scud of a cloud, would fascinate endlessly. I could see why Henry James had time for these hills. It is a remote place, but it is not wild. Very different from North Wales, which is less remote, but stonier altogether.

We got back to the hotel. Our room: the bed had not been made, the dirty cups had not been taken away – the room had not been touched. There was no heat. And the saniflo had not stopped going from the morning’s ablutions – it was on permanent grind. There seemed to be a large number of flies. Nonetheless, despite cutting myself on the ear with a razor, producing more blood than any ear has the right to contain, and a zip problem on Debby’s vintage ball gown, we were ready by ten to eight, which would get us to Lonach Hall by eight or thereabouts. Perfect.

Ian – who was catering for the party at the Hall - had locked the front door.

And the back door.

He had locked his only paying guests into his own hotel.

We were the only people in the place. Debby made phone calls from a list on the wall of the kitchen (Ramsay would have gone ballistic at the state of it), while I looked for a key. Eventually I re-examined the door. It was a double door. There were two locks. The right hand side of the door was bolted top and bottom. I undid them both and kicked. I didn’t think it would open, but it did. We were free.

Driving to the hall we realised that not only had we left the Glenkindie Arms Hotel open to all comers, but that our own computers were in there. It would be necessary for someone to go back and relock the doors.

Turned out I had to. “Could you pick up some corkscrews while you’re there?” added James.

I sank a dram and back I drove, through the darkening glen. I went inside, found a couple of corkscrews, closed the doors and then wondered about the Yale lock. Surely I should lock that too. I sat in the car and pondered. Yep. I got out, relocked, headed back for supper.

Which was, of course, fabulous. Pork, mushroom risotto, spinach, apple. Crackling to die for. I sat in between Professor Mrs Skinner, who told me about the asbestos, and an extremely stately and beautiful woman called Dawnine Dyer, who was a wine-maker.

At 10.00 pm the dancing commenced. Debby gamely joined in the eightsome reel and looked absolutely gorgeous, beaming confusedly. And then we stripped the willow successfully (what a dance that is!) before speeches and then the climb into impossibly complicated Highland reels, all of which seemed to be know to the Californians, who were a joy and a laugh throughout the celebrations.

This was a great occasion. The dancing is transfixing. It allows for the joyfulness of music, the physical exertion of dance, the innocence of flirtation, and the happiness of communal experience. I am looking forward to James and Kerry's 50th, because there is no age limit in any of this. the young and the old do exactly the same thing and take exactly the same pleasure.

Well past midnight, perhaps past one, Debby and I were done in. We went to find Ian to get the keys to the hotel. Well, apparently, there was no Yale key and so two of Ian’s henchmen had returned to the hotel to open the back door in order to open the front door from inside and so let us in. When we got there for some reason that had not been achieved. I say “some reason” but it may be because the chief henchman was up to the gills with drink. After we had entered through the back door he tried to inveigle me into having a nightcap with him. “What’s all this red tie?” he asked me (I was wearing a red bow tie), as though in the answer clarity of thought would magically assert itself.

We went to bed.

An hour or so later I awoke. Smelled burning. I went downstairs to the dining room door. Red Tie and the peach-faced boy who accompanied him came out full of apologies. Red Tie was trying to start a fire – in the fireplace, at least. A lot of newspaper had been burned.

I turned to go back upstairs. Nope. Red Tie wanted another word. Between the two of them they explained that Ian’s car – which Red Tie had driven back from the Hall – had had a puncture that couldn’t be fixed till morning; the peach-faced boy (“I’ve been driving for four years”, he told me in a bid to borrow my car) had run out of petrol. Ian and his team were stranded at Lonach Hall. Would I consider…?

I got dressed, and drove, once more, to Lonach Hall. When I got there I found Kerry raging at the state the kitchen had been left in and James storing bottles of champagne. There was no-one else around. Ian and his gang had left.

James and Kerry’s daughter Theodora had also left – with the keys to James’s car. And she was not answering her phone (it was gone 3.00 am by now). Could I possibly give them a lift back to Glenbuchat?

I was more than happy to do this, because James and Kerry have been the cause of one of the best weekends of our married life, and I felt waves of gratitude and sympathy coursing through me. They are exceptionally nice people, and they deserve all the good that will ever come to them, and more.

They were just about to get into the car when James’s mobile rang. It was his daughter. “Tell her to get here AT ONCE”, said Kerry. And I believe she did.

I drove back to the Glenkindie Arms Hotel. It was locked. I went in through the back. We had to be away by 7.30 in order to catch the train home.

At Aberdeen station we bumped into a fellow guest, who had taught me the word “dreich” (not unsurprisingly a term for some of the weather we’d had). We asked her what she did. She was in Sustainable Energy.

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