A disclaimer: I know there’s nothing worse than English people patronisingly telling Scotland how much they love whisky and haggis, so let’s stay together guys. I know English lists of what they love about Scotland are always “oh they’re so friendly” and “I love the seafood” and “aww, Highland cows look like teddy bears”.
But last June, my wife and I went to Scotland on the sleeper and drove for a week or so in a great loop from Fort William up to Inverness, then across to Aultbea and down into Mull and Oban. It was ridiculously sunny and we had just found out she was pregnant and it was one of the most extraordinary times of my life: emotionally intense and fantastically beautiful. I’ve been up to Scotland lots in the past, of course, family holidays and work trips and boozy weekends, but this was something special and memorable and something I will treasure forever.
I have no idea, for the record, whether independence will be good for Scotland, or anything. I just know I’ll be a bit sad, because all these places of which I have these almost painfully intense memories will no longer be in my country in the same way, even if they’ll still be exactly as accessible. So here are some things that I love about Scotland, and which I hope will still be part of Britain in another 300 years, because it’s great.
Apologies in advance if this is patronising, Scottish people; I’ve tried not to be.
The Caledonia Sleeper
Trains are simply the best way to travel. And there’s still something incredibly romantic about getting on your sleeper carriage in Euston and waking up among the Trossachs, great bleak hills looming up just outside the window, rolling your way to Fort William.
Sun in Oban over the harbour
It’s an extraordinary place, Oban; the ridiculous folly of McCaig’s Tower on the top of its punishingly steep hill, looking down over the splendid fishing harbour (and its really rather fancy fish restaurant at the bottom). It’s the gateway to the Hebrides, a sort of Narnian cupboard for some of Britain’s most outrageously beautiful places, but is itself both glorious and adorable. And when the sun shines in midsummer, you can get a sunburn at 10pm.
Light at midnight
On which subject, when we were right up in Aultbea, in early June, I went outside at half midnight and the sky was still light. You are properly north up there; only nine degrees’ latitude from the Arctic Circle. You can’t help but be aware that you’re on a tilting, roughly spherical planet hurtling through space, and how that affects everything about our lives. Or I couldn’t.
Whisky and haggis
Don’t judge me. They’re really nice.
Beaches in Mallaig and Mull
I could have picked any one of millions of beaches, but Calgary Bay in the north of Mull and one just outside Mallaig are the two that stick in my mind. The ones with crystal-clear water and endless white sand that look as though they’re in the Bahamas. They’re not, for the record, and if you go prancing into the sea thinking it’ll be like the Bahamas you will get a rude shock, but they are as beautiful as anything you will find in Thailand or Brazil. (On a related note, don’t go swimming in Loch Ness. You won’t get eaten by the monster that obviously doesn’t exist, but if you do it in early summer, as I did, even for less than a minute, you may get cold urticaria and not be able to stop your teeth chattering for 25 minutes.)
Tiny, beautiful, ancient; it has a 1,500-year-old history of Christian worship, and was held by Norse kings in the ninth century. And it has lovely beaches (again), and corncrakes in the fields, and eagles overhead, and waves crashing, and a great hill in the middle with a view out over the world.
The way Edinburgh is a city carved from the living rock
It’s not like anywhere else. The castle rising up out of the stone; Princes Street Gardens is a valley splitting a city in two. Arthur’s Seat is basically a dead volcano slap bang in the middle of a suburb.
Endless drives seeing nobody
Whole hours driving through blasted heaths and ancient forests, seeing no one. We think of this as a small crowded island. It’s really not. There is solitude in Scotland such as you will never know in any other part of the country.
Island-hopping. Who needs Greece? Also, for no extra charge, you can see porpoises and dolphins and (my mum says) minke whales. Which is just brilliant.
Like a mirror. Extraordinary.
I know, I know, stereotypical Englishman banging on about the natural beauty etc etc. But on Lunga Island, there are just so many puffins, and puffins are total dudes. You can barely move for them. Also, the rest of the wildlife is pretty extraordinary. Where else do you see eagles and porpoises and grey seals in Britain? And basking sharks and so on? OK, lots of other places, but none the less, it’s great. Also, just near Lunga is Staffa, which is a bizarre geological anomaly, all hexagonal columns of basalt. Incredible place.
All of Mull, really. But Tobermory, all bright colours and fishing boats and a little distillery, is somehow everything that’s right about small rural Scottish towns.
The Caledonian Canal
No one seems to comment that this dead-straight slice diagonally across the whole of the country means that the whole land-mass north-west of the line from Fort William to Inverness is technically an island. I think it’s pretty cool.
Best restaurant in Britain, and I have been to literally every single restaurant in Britain, obviously. We had to book about a century and a half in advance and spent three months’ salary on the tasting menu, and it was all completely worth it.
Dancing on a table with Celtic fans
In 2001, I went to visit a Glaswegian friend of mine on the day of the Scottish Cup Final between Hibs and Celtic. By 5pm I was topless on top of a table, swinging a Celtic shirt around my head, with my glasses lost somewhere in among a pile of bottles on the floor of the pub, hugging fans of a team I don’t support and who only rarely asked why this posh-voiced Englishman was quite so excitable about the Hoops’ victory. Then we ended up wandering down Sauchiehall Street at 3am and I ate a deep-fried battered haggis. Now if that’s not the real Scotland I don’t know what is.
In short, please don’t leave us.