Back after 10-odd years, and Edinburgh hasn’t aged a day. She’s still the charming, youthful, cultured, witty young woman with a flair for the arts and an affliction for harris tweed. She’s quite the coquette, too, and knows exactly what she’s doing to her admirers. You can see it when you look up at Edinburgh Castle from Princes Street (which is really Princess Street, but don’t tell the boys) and notice how she’s lined up the mediaeval houses just so – haphazardly at first glance, but following a hidden aesthetic order intended to enrapture.
If you ever visit, you must stay at The Balmoral – not that there’s any other hotel in town but some people might try to persuade you otherwise. For dinner, go to the dogs (I’m not being rude), which feels deliciously clandestine: like a moonlighting kitchen fronted by a funeral parlour for canines. (Not as morbid as it sounds, honest.) Here, wash down a bowl of hearty rabbit stew with half a bottle of Garnacha and know what it feels like to be warmed to the marrow.
The short version: you needn’t ever visit Inverness.
The long version: Inverness is dodgy. (I might just as well say it, since it’s you.) For one thing, it’s a town possessed by seagulls. (Here, it might be helpful to remember that birds are descended from dinosaurs.) They strut down the deserted streets like masters of the universe – huge beasts, feathers like serrated blades, beaks like daggers – the victors of some apocalyptic Hitchcockian war, laying claim to all discarded food and public statues.
The humans of Inverness, shrunken and sallow, slither around corners like silent shadows, muttering in unintelligible tongues, casting sidelong glances. They look out wistfully at the world from behind the glass windows of empty bars, no doubt dreaming about returning to their meagre dwellings, hanging the noose around their own necks and kicking the bucket from underneath their own feet, and doing away with Inverness once and for all, observed only by the impassive yellow eyes of a seagull, perched imperiously on a lamppost right outside the dirty window.
Urquhart Castle on Loch Ness
“Technically, it’s just a lake. But add a monster, and it’s marketable!”
I’m certain Urquhart is a character from a P. G. Wodehouse novel, but I can’t for the life of me remember which one or which one. The castle, meanwhile, is just comical. A joke of a ruin perched atop a breathtaking view (on a nice day, anyway), as if it were erected specifically for the tourists to dish out 9 quid apop for a chance to take selfies with a mediaeval backdrop. Somehow, none of it makes sense, not here in Scotland: the view, the castle, the (hi)story. Castles are meant to be menacing and impenetrable bastions, bathed in a past of violence and bloodshed. Urquhart, meanwhile, is more like a Swiss chateau (albeit a cheaper, plainer version of it, because what Scot would splurge on such silly things as turrets.)
But the views are lovely, especially on a nice day, and the photos do turn out fine.
“Skye”, in Scottish Gaelic, means “the land where lambs are born”. An old Scottish legend claims that lambs, innocent angelic beings, fall from heaven straight onto Skye, where they spend a few months before being marched to the mainland at 6 to 10 months to be slaughtered.
I’m spinning a yarn here. (Pardon the pun. But it is true that lambs are slaughtered for meat between 6 and 10 months. Did you know that? Yummy!) But it’s a perfect made-up legend, because Skye, in spring, is a heaven of frolicking four-legged angels, skipping across paddocks and being all cute and shy and adorable. There are also some impressive waterfalls on this volcanic island.
Fort William & Glen Coe
Like the bulbous nose of an old man, Beinn Nibheis looms over Fort William, a proud little town dwarfed by the giant squatting in its backyard only in size, but not in spirit. It still feels like a garrison town, where people come to mostly because they want to move on – North-West to the isles or South-East to adjoining Glen Coe.
Glen Coe is not as impressive on a dazzling sunny day, but beautiful nevertheless. The undulating hills and valleys a testament to the greatest master – Mother Nature – standing on display, commanding admiration with a cold nonchalance given by the knowledge that they will still be here after we and our cars have long been devoured by worms and moss.
Onich & Loch Lomond
Hands down, my favourite. This was where I tasted summer for the first time this year. But not the sweltering, palm-tree lined, white sandy beach summer of the tropics, smelling of sunscreen and tasting of sugary fruit. This was the refreshing, rubber sandals on pebbled shores, dappled shade of leafy trees, saline lochs brimming with cockles and clams and crabs and langoustines summer of the north, where the water is freezing and the air tastes like grilled scallops.
Stay nowhere but Camus House, where you will feel like an old family friend visiting for the weekend (and then want to stay forever once you lay your eyes on the view in the breakfast room), and dine nowhere but the Lochleven Seafood Café, but do yourself the favour and disregard any vegetarian inclinations. (Bafflingly, they do have vegetarian options on the menu, for which I will never forgive myself.)
Glasgow is like its accent: edgy, alert, and grunge. Its inhabitants are obviously unused to clement weather: on a warm sunny day, they walk around wearing dark stockings and leather jackets, as if unsure how to deal with the sunshine or caught in the wrong city altogether. But they have rainbows in their hair and patterns on their greenish pale limbs that look strangely out of place exposed to the elements.
Glasgow is Edinburgh’s plainer sister, sullen and pinch-faced, reading Solzhenitsyn in a corner or else planning the demise of the world in a seedy teahouse. But she’s by no means dull – there’s a rich inner world underneath the hard shell, of only you dig a little deeper and peek under the surface.