We rolled out of Glasgow without a hitch, which surprised me I was I suppose expecting London type traffic, but it seemed as though Glasgow was only just stirring as we left.
Glasgow glittered and twinkled, metal and glass as the morning sun lifted sleepy lids creating a beautiful rhinestone effect as we shot along the M8 above the city. We were all intention we were all attention we crossed the river Clyde and onto the A82, the road rose and soon were cruising alongside Loch Lomond, only an hour or so along the road but I was already dropping, I felt like I was getting sick so just after Inverbeg I pulled in at a place looking directly out across Loch Lomond a vast startlingly open place, mountains clearly visible towards the north, powder icing cake snow on their conical peaks. I sat very quietly, zoned out watching things move in slow motion. A spider we’ve had on board ever since Jack and Sheila’s clear out back in Teignmouth was busy, neither of us had the heart to put it outside, it seemed a little too far north and cold, so it spun on in the corner of the windscreen, it made us smile, it had become our companion
Trees let loose their grip on heavy dried leaves which fell and spun in marvelous spirals slowly all the way down to the wet black tarmac, a robin popped up and out of a hedge just across from us, checking us out, a Robin is for courage I thought, I suspected this was not going to be an easy journey.
An hour later we pushed onward and higher into the bracken zone, pine forests cloaked the lower slopes of the grand mountains, their boundaries sharp straight unnatural lines. Between these artificial lines the slopes were bronzed with the summers desiccated dead ferns and when sunny fingers did break through the heavy cloak the mountains glowed like polished bronze where ever they were touched.
The road hissed, we seemed to be following the rain between ancient stone walls blanketed with think green velvet moss that closed in on both sides then and swept away up into the mountainsides, trees too were coated and dripped lichen like old men’s beards, ancient black rocks lay scattered everywhere, for a small country Scotland sure is a big place. In places motionless glass lochs reflected the dark mountains and grey sky, in others rain lashed and confused their surface. Mists appeared from nothing above the forests, rushing upwards like a crowd vanishing as quickly back into nothing.
We turned the heater up in the cab, Bad Religion “Stranger than fiction” played again, as we were headed towards Oban. Orsi had found a Backpackers hostel for £38 for the two of us, we really wanted hot water so Oban it was.
The road dipped and climbed, till we arrived at the picturesque village of Inveraray on the western shore of Loch Fyne where it suddenly everything became still. The surface absolutely mirror glass still but it was the whisky shop prices took our breath away. We only pit stopped then took the longer coastal road around to Oban.
Half an hour along we noted an unusual rocky crag which turned out to be the ruin of Dunadd castle believed to be the ancient capital of the Kingdon of ‘Dal Riata’ and few miles along the road were mounds and standing stones. We’d sort of stumbled into a place called by some “the ghost valley” but better known as Kilmartin Glen the richest prehistoric site in Scotland. I instantly went on high alert looking for the next available place to pull over, it always seems to distress Orsi, but once that was safely done it was coats scarves and gloves on, tumbling out of Pearl excitedly and were across the road in minutes
To look on these things in a fenced field, as I mentioned earlier, I think it keeps your attention and your imagination fenced in, I like to look at the hills, mountains and contours, how the stones appear and sit in the landscape and they were slim and quite beautiful, there was a cist and a henge there too. We wandered in and around them for half an hour but the numbing cold bit into us, we reluctantly gave in and hurried back to the van checked the map, there were more just ahead.
So a few miles on we pulled into another car park, braced ourselves, then we walked across to them like stiff jointed stick people. There were magnificent standing stones and mounds of rounded river washed rocks half way between a football and a cricket ball in size (I presumed ice age) that had been piled up, ancient burial places, all aligned along the valley. We particularly liked a place they call ‘temple wood’ there was something beautiful there and we became a bit less wooden as our joints loosened as we used them. I heard the tell tale ringing, noted it, but I was to wet to sit and tune in, also we’d promised ourselves no driving in the dark, it was approaching 4pm and it would be dark in 20 minutes, so sadly we had to move
As we drove north along the valley there were more stones, mounds and a river that wove gently though and at the far end on a vantage point looking back down the valley was a startling church with a graveyard of neat terraces underneath, it looked amazing. If I was a Neolithic man and I wanted to comprehend, to talk to the spirits that is precisely where I would have stood, its why of course the church was there, it was a sacred place, it nagged me that we couldn’t stop
The road narrowed following the rivers course, then crossed it and up over the mountainside coming out suddenly into the open, looking down on the most beautiful view of the Loch Craignish valley and right there a huge standing stone stood, marking perhaps the exit or entry to the valley we’d just travelled through. It was the golden hour, the last light of the days sun illuminated the bracken, heightened the green and reds of the grasses and the greys of the mountains. It was incredibly beautiful the road ahead was obvious; honestly, I’ve seen that road so many times before, that road down and across the valley floor and up on the other side into the mountains zigzagging, I had always know that the next part would be difficult, but I was focused on getting to Oban before darkness and hadn’t realized the significance till next day, still I swept the feelings aside
We didn’t fall for Oban, we’d expected sleepy fishing town, we were looking for that fire side, but instead we found a blaring fun fair that wailed, thudded and pumped cheep pop music, there were parking space testosterone moments, mix ups with the Backbackers reception, it was all a little jarring after the dreamy stones of Killmartin
I’d been to park the van, and was walking back into town, when Santa Claus sat on his sled, reindeers in front and all his little helpers behind were being led through the town by a full on Scottish pipe band right past the hostel front door. Behind a hushed crowd slowly followed, going to who knows where, it was surreal. We stared in disbelief both of us smiling like a pair of mad people. But it settled an ongoing argument between Orsi and I. Now we knew for a fact that Santa starts his world tour in Oban Scotland every year, it was the 16th of November, it’s a fact I’ve seen it with my own eyes, Orsi had always said he’d gone to Hungary first on the December 9th but I have photos to prove it now
We had a few drinks in a few very odd pubs, then back to the hostel, I slept very deeply that night. It was hard to rowse me the next morning, strange dreams of foreboding.
I’d been really pulled to go back to Killmartin valley, the picture of that church wouldn’t let me rest, what is the point of being here if we didn’t learn anything about the things we were seeing? Initially I’m sure Orsi would rather have just stayed in town, rested and read a book, but I was set on going back.
So; first we stopped at that magnificent standing stone on that hillside where the A816 looped reverentially and respectfully around it, it really drew your eye, pointed to the Atlantic ocean to the lands of west set on the tip of a toe of the hill side, behind it mountains formed a rough horse shoe, stunning, and over the next rise, the valley of Killmartin, the ghosts.
The Kilmartin Glen had been gouged out around 10,000 years ago when melt waters from lock Awe a few miles away had burst, and surged down to the sea. Up on that hill at the narrow end of the valley where the church now stood I guessed would have been the place people would have gathered 5 or 6 thousand years ago to pray and to connect. It seemed obvious and natural. The church graveyard itself it turned out contained not only modern graves but had a collection of 23 amazing grave slabs of powerful tribal leaders from the 13th century onwards, statements of power, swords, lions and unicorns were carved on them, and it would turn out the church was in fact built on a Neolithic site, it was remarkable
We had questions, had it been cleared of trees, what was the climate, was the sea level higher, was the river wider and did it flow faster, how had the stones survived, who were the people at Dunald castle what was this Irish connection we kept hearing about.
The lady on the desk of the museum was the classic dour Scott who answered my questions as best she could without giving too much of herself away, but as I looked up from a map on the counter I met her gaze and something seemed to give way in her. I’d gone back across to the ordinance survey map on the wall when she called me back and said
“I see yoor checkin the mouwntains” pulling out a well thumbed book of the shelf behind her she opened it. I went back across and she pointed out many ancient hidden sites up in the mountains all around the area, I lit up, but she warned us against going up there
“You’d have to be very fit, you could get very wet, you could get cold, you could get lost, you could sprain your ankle, you could get into trouble, you’ve to be wary of the weather”
Private frazer the undertaker and character in Dads Army came to mind, I chuckled to myself and asked her, more really as something to stop her warning me of more peril
“Have you walked up to any of these sights yourself?”
“Och No” She’d said
I thanked her
“Oh s’nay bother” she’d said.
The museum was fantastic, I loved the way it wove in history with the unimaginable past and yet encouraged the reader to be poets and to imagine. It answered every question we had, we spent some time in there and in both of our minds the land surrounding this area became three-dimensional.
Driving through a place can be wonderful, walking a place connecting with it physically and is unforgettable, but answered questions give it a voice. We loved it there. We were both happy we’d gone back. The ringing was loud all day there, was loud when I wrote this and it’s loud as I edit this.
That first night it had been colder in the Oban hostel room than in the back of Pearl, but I remembered I’d brought a fan from Anglia House so we’d plugged it in. It was so good, we were toasty warm.
But I couldn’t sleep the last night, I was worried that I was putting Orsi through an assault course, I wondered what on earth we’re doing driving up to the Scottish highlands in late November in a van designed for summer and autumn, I’ve avoided doing it so far as I’ve not wanted to draw attention to us with a chimney out the top, but next year if we carry on this way of life, it has to be a small log burner
Now to something that had been on my mind ever since we’d been to Hadrian’s Wall. Over the years I ’ve heard many Scots joke about the Romans not conquering the highlands, that they only got as far as the Hardrians wall, begun in AD122 after its said the mysterious disappearance of the 9th legion up in the Caledonian wilderness, which is unproven and possibly a legend by a defeated people, or perhaps a more recent people searching and gathering together stories that inspire a collective national identity and pride.
A little later the Antonine wall was begun in AD142 and ran for 39 miles between Bo’ness on the Firth of Fourth and Old Kirkpatrick on the Firth of Clyde and took 12 years to complete it was apparently abandoned after just 8 years. It’s said the legions relocated to back to Hadrians wall. But recently discovered roman forts and military camps at Cawdor near Elgin and Tarradale and Port Mahomack above Inverness put a bit of doubt on this.
In fact the Roman General ‘Gnaeus Julius Agricola’ defeated the massed Caledonians and Picts, apparently 30,000 strong (a roman estimation) led by a Chieftain called Calgacus at the battle of Mons Graupius in AD 83 I’d like to suggest that perhaps the Romans wondered what the hell they were doing up there, was it all worth it? Dramatic stunning and beautiful Scotland certainly is, but that constant wet sure must have been debilitating in sandals and non-waterproof tents, I’d like to suggest, that in the end they simply didn’t want to be there.
There is no question that the Romans were formidable and once decided upon something usually achieved their objective, but they simply aren’t known for their love of hiking, local history, pastel or water colour painting or sipping local whisky, they were into sunshine, olives, wines, gold silver bronze lead, metals and fine materials, not all that heavy wool and all those Caledonians and Picts bickering with one another and with those Irish tribes too come to that, worse than Palestine by all accounts, no, if the Romans had wanted it, if the sun had shone and there had been gold up there not the “trackless wilds” as Tacticus described the country, there would be a Roman road right up to Thurso for sure. Not that I am commenting on the prowess of any Caledonian or Pictish warrior, which could be a dangerous thing even now, seriously and genuinely I sympathize with them, it seems like a loss and I wonder what things would have been like had they been left alone; but no, there was apparently trouble along the Danube that held the legions up and back and then ultimately, I recon, it was the weather that drove the Romans back
It was raining full on next morning when we left Oban too, we hissed our way north along the coastal road, looking forward to the legendary views, the ocean and the wilderness, but it just wasn’t to be seen under that cold steam. Its not Scotland’s fault, all that water is why the place is so lush rugged and so wild if your going to go up there just prepare for it.
I’d heard from my Aunty Irene, she’d said she’d have a warm fire ready when we arrived, we we’re looking forward to it and her.