Word from Wormingford
Posted: 05 Oct 2010 @ 00:00
Ronald Blythe retraces a journey taken by his younger self
SCOTLAND is never England, even by a Border mile. If one had to sense the fleeting breath of some other culture, it would be that of France.
Scotland, which, when one is back home, looks like the tail-end of Britain, acquires a grand mileage when one is there, making it a very big place indeed. Range after range of mountains, endless lochs, countless glens, mystifying roads, and, where I am in Perthshire, vastly spaced-out houses that provide an intimate neighbourliness that is often closer than that of a Home Counties street.
I first went to Scotland in my twenties, clasping James Boswell’s Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides, in which the young author hoped to dispel in his companion’s mind the conviction that his native land was barbarous. Dr Johnson, his poor old body rolling along, had to admit that the noblest prospect that a Scotsman saw was not the high road that led to England. Persuading the great man to leave London for Skye was proof of the Doctor’s love for his friend, not of his changed opinions where Scotland was concerned.
I carried this glorious travel-book on trains, buses, and on foot, tramping its map, now and then stumbling beneath its verbal blows as English literature’s mightiest odd couple steered me hither and thither. All this a long time ago.
But now Christopher drives me to all the destinations made somehow sacred to us both by previous visits, and there they are: grim Ben Lawers, enchanting Glen Lyon, immense Rannoch Moor, mythical Fortingall (and also true Fortingall), and the first autumn leaves — silver birch — racing ahead of the car. Venison, haggis, and a nip of the malt on the table, and a hint of Kirk austerity as we push open, here and there, a solemn door.
The parishes are few and far between. Fortingall itself is more like a diocese in width and influence, its Celtic Christianity keeping its Presbyterianism informed. It is possible that the voice of St Adamnan is heard above the torrents still. Anyway, I can hear it — but then you know how fanciful writers’ ears are, and not always to be trusted.
Each morning, the Highlands rearranges itself to create watercolour views. “Look!” we cry. “Did you ever see anything like it?” Yes, but only in Scotland. Each night, the harvest moon and Venus observe their images in the loch, and the sheep stop nibbling. But the Tay runs glitteringly every minute.
Each teatime we close the high deer-gate. In bed, a tremendous quietness rules us. I find myself remembering my Scottish neighbour in Suffolk, Mr Anderson, who was judge at the sheep fairs, and who looked out at our tableland mournfully though un-complainingly. Were he not in heaven, I would send him a postcard.
The parish magazine lies on the chair. “Braes of Rannoch Church of Scotland linked with Foss and Rannoch Church of Scotland. Minister: the Reverend Christine A. Y. Ritchie, B.D., The Manse, Kinlock Rannoch, by Pitlochry, Perthshire. . .” The magazine is economically informed and impressive, with articles on the cuts, “A Chill Wind”, and the tourist management of a huge, lovely, empty area.
On the far side of “our” loch there is the smudge of the Black Wood, a sliver of the prehistoric Caledonian Forest, where I once walked, looking for the red squirrel. It makes Adamnan quite recent.