A lonely glen, a loch and a visit from Rabbie Burns
On the rare occasions that my husband and I take the chance to have a day off together, our instinct is always to head north. Living as we do on the edge of the Highland line, the hills are our constant companions, calling to us from every north and west-facing window. To me the Highlands have always represented escape. My happiest holidays throughout my life have been in woolly-jumper-and-welly places: I still feel extraordinarily lucky to be living now in an area that draws holiday-makers from all over the world. When it is our turn to take a holiday, then, it’s the hills that draw us.
Friday was just such a day. Putting aside responsibilities for a few hours, the two of us set off to enjoy our favourite part of Perthshire. We were heading for Kenmore, on the shores of Loch Tay, but the journey was half the point. We chose the road less travelled, a narrow farm track that twists and climbs through lonely little Glen Quaich and up onto the heathery tops of the hills, with views of mountains as far as the eye can see.
Down in the green floor of the glen, the land is fertile enough to support small scale livestock farming. We passed a brown sow with a brood of adorable little piglets. ‘Oh dear, how will we ever be able to eat bacon again?’ I sighed, watching them. ‘Easily,’ replied my carnivorous husband, smacking his lips.
It is a lovely little glen. We saw oyster catchers and a few lapwings (or peewits) with their distinctive jaunty crests and untidy, tumbling flight. We (all right, I) admired the mass of wildflowers along the verges of the road.
We passed a field full of those startling orange sheep. We thought again, as we do on every visit to the area, what a desecration it would be if applications to build wind farms in this glen were to go ahead – but that’s a whole new field of debate which I won’t enter here. After a few miles, we came to the hump-backed bridge and the cattle grid which mark the end of the farmland and the beginning of the steep climb into the hills. There is a large sign warning you not to attempt this road in winter conditions: even summer drivers have scored deep gouges into the tarmac in attempts to negotiate the vertiginous hairpin bends. Looking back from half way up the hill, we could see the road twisting beneath us down into the glen. (You can also see quite clearly in this photo the line on the hills where the green pasture gives way to heather moorland.)
The last house on the hillside has alway appealed to me. An abandoned stone cottage, it would be a harsh place to live in winter, but I enjoy daydreaming about doing it up as a little writer’s retreat in the warmer months.
Up on the top of the hill, the landscape is much more bleak. In August this is ablaze with purple, but the heather in June is still brown and dead-looking. We could see for miles, though, even on a cloudy day. I always love it up here. There is no sound but the bubbling cries of a curlew, the bleat of a distant sheep, and the wind whispering in the grasses.
The descent, which is almost as steep as the way up, takes you quite suddenly into a different landscape again: the lushly wooded hillsides around Loch Tay. Just before you get into the woods you can catch a glimpse of the imposing mass of Taymouth Castle below. Built for the Marquess of Breadalbane in the early 19th Century, it was decorated with no expense spared to make it suitably magnificent for the reception of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in 1842. She was charmed: Breadalbane was virtually bankrupted. Taymouth had a chequered history in the twentieth century and now stands empty, awaiting a promised transformation into a luxury hotel. (I hope this happens: it would probably be good for the local economy and it would certainly be a fabulous place to stay.)
The small village of Kenmore lies at the bottom of the hill, in a spectacular setting. Behind it, Taymouth Castle; on each side, the high hills, and before it, the long stretch of Loch Tay, source of the River Tay, the great salmon river that winds through Perthshire to come out into the North Sea past Dundee. The opening of the salmon fishing season on the Tay is celebrated at Kenmore every January 15th, with pipers and toasts and a ceremonial pouring of a dram of whisky into the waters of the new-born river (followed, of course, by a spot of fishing – usually in the snow). Kenmore’s arched bridge marks the point where the waters of the loch become the waters of the river.
The village itself is extremely pretty. It was constructed as a model village by the laird, the Campbell Earl of Breadalbane, and thus is in a very uniform style of whitewashed stone cottages with black woodwork. I am always reminded of another example of a Campbell model village, Inveraray on Loch Fyne in Argyll. (Say what you like about the Campbells, they were good town planners.) The high street of Kenmore has the kirk at one end, above the loch, and the spiky gateway to the castle at the other.
On one side of the street is one of my favourite post offices. Rural Scotland is full of characterful post offices, doubling as the village shop. (I might have to write a post dedicated to them one day.) I love the fact that there is still a sign saying ‘Telegraph Office’ over this one (above the word ‘Office’ on the big black sign), years after telegraphs were rendered obsolete by mobile phones and emails.
On the other side of the street is one of the reasons for our visit. The Kenmore Hotel claims to be the oldest inn in Scotland, having been serving drinks to travellers and locals alike since the sixteenth century.
It was well established when a certain young poet, Robert Burns by name, visited it in 1787, and was persuaded by his drinking pals to write a bit of graffiti over the fireplace. His pencilled poem is still there on the wall above the fireplace, reverently preserved under glass.
In rather uninspired English, reminiscent of Wordsworth at his most lumpen, Burns’ verses nevertheless give a startlingly recognisable description of traveling down from Glen Quaich to Kenmore. ‘O’er many a winding dale and painful steep,/ Th’abodes of coveyed grouse and timid sheep,/ My savage journey, curious, I pursue,/ Till fam’d Breadalbane opens to my view. – /…The Tay meand’ring sweet in infant pride:/ The palace rising on its verdant side…’ and so on. The national bard of Scotland wrote so much better in his native Scots, in my opinion. Still, it’s quite something to have his autograph in your bar.
It wasn’t Rabbie Burns who lured us into the pub, however, but the general appealingly old-fashioned ambience. An unpretentious wee room off the front hall, the bar has a low ceiling and a log fire burning comfortingly in the fireplace (under that poem!). We took a seat near the fire on a dark wooden settle padded with tartan cushions. Through the window, curtained with woollen tartan, we could see the post office and the hill beyond, while my husband enjoyed a pint of very fine Perthshire ale and, in a moment of great self-indulgence, I savoured a dram of Highland Park 18 year old from the vast array of malt whiskies on offer.
After that, a walk was in order. Kenmore has at least two lovely little beaches – Loch Tay is a big enough body of water to have a measurable lunar tide – so we went for a wander along one of them, accompanied by hopeful ducks and noisy canoeists from a nearby adventure centre.
Following our walk with a good lunch over the bridge at the Taymouth Courtyard, a friendly modern restaurant and shop built on the site of the old farm buildings of Taymouth Castle, we felt thoroughly relaxed and refreshed by the time we had to head home again to collect our younger son from school. It felt as if we had had a long break from domestic routine, yet it was only a few hours. ‘Mummy, you’re on time!’ exclaimed my son in amazement as I appeared at the school gates. Only when I heard a burst of laughter behind him did I notice his headmistress standing close by. She despairs of my chronic lateness. Perhaps we need to escape domestic routine more often: it clearly does us all good.
For another post on this area, see Blue hills and orange sheep: the Highlands in full colour.
(Despite appearances, this post was not endorsed by Kenmore tourist association; although payment in whisky would be gratefully accepted…)