Peace breaks out after wartime jaunt

highlandspm''Peter Markie and sister Pat shelter dressed for the summer, Glen Coe-style
highlandspm''Peter Markie and sister Pat shelter dressed for the summer, Glen Coe-style

I blame Hitler for the Scottish Highlands jinx that has bedevilled me for more than 70 years and, as I discovered the hard way in a recent holiday, remains alive and unwell.

As a six-year-old Glaswegian back in 1939, anything north of my Maryhill tenements territory was viewed as another country.

Hitler changed all that come September when I found myself on an evacuation train heading north for Perth Station, then north by bus to the village of Stanley.

This was my first such trip, the gateway to Braveheart country, but within a few weeks I was in the Perth Royal Infirmary. Our evacuation centre was based amid a huge orchard and my Tarzan impressions chasing apples came a cropper resulting in a compound fracture of my left arm and a year in recovery back in Glasgow. So when they ask me “What did you do in the war, Dad?”...except they don’t as this incident has been declared a family no-go area, off-limits, banned.

For years I resolved in vain to return despite family calls from Scotland and more punishingly, exhortations from old newspaper colleagues like music man Martin Lilleker and Sheffield’s greatest gift to travel writing, Stephen McClarence; more recently the Sheffield Telegraph editor joined the clan: never mind the hills, lochs and historic landmarks, get to the Oban Distillery! The jinx really came into play two years ago when I booked for the definitive Highland holiday that would take me, at last, beyond Stanley and deep into God’s Country, including the Western Isles.

A few weeks before departure, the trip was cancelled through lack of bookings. An alternative, not so exotic, was offered and accepted.

Within days, my right knee gave way resulting in a Hallamshire Hospital check-up; they found nothing wrong apart from old age but in the meantime I had to pull out from the trip.

So to this year and an invitation to join my sister Pat and husband Felix, both well-travelled and experienced in Highland ways, for a week based at the Tralee Bay Holidays park, a few miles north of Oban. Then another foul-up. A week before take-off I discovered my travel wallet with all the train tickets had gone missing.. mixed up in a clearance of junk mail so had to re-order right on deadline.There was more; the road to Oban was cut off by a forest fire and amid jokey messages about ice axes, earmuffs and midgie nets, a final warning ignored to my cost: BRING THERMALS.

The holiday lodge was on a plum, front row spot taking in the bay and beach but the jinx intensified with the foulest weather I’ve ever experienced. Storms, gales, torrential stuff that got inside your trainers, made worse by weather reports of a sun-baked England heading for drought. So bad the TV people became hate figures as Oban, beloved by tour guides as the Gateway to the Isles became the Wettest Spot on Earth. Trust the Scots to have the perfect word for it: dreich. (How come the open-necked, tanned Michael Portillo never loses his tan on TV rail trips across an always-sunny Highlands?).

It meant most of the holiday gear remained unpacked, shorts and sandals unused, suntan lotion a bad joke. But we still had a memorable time with the painstaking Felix in charge of driving, TV programmes and tricky Caledonian maps (as befits Lithuanian stock), Pat the itinerary and kitty, me the washing-up. There were reports of snow in the Cairngorms, Atlantic weather systems causing havoc with no signs of easing and it all proved too much even for a pod of pilot whales forced into taking refuge near South Uist shore.

Still we caught the famous Glencoe Pass before nature intervened (and indeed it was cut off even as I returned to Sheffield), took in Fort William, braving Loch Linnhe, then the spectacular Ben Nevis and the even more engaging Glen Nevis with its waterfalls.

At least Fort William retains a sense of humour; amid the gales, one shop had stickers out: “Enjoy the sunshine, why not hire a bike?” Sunshine? We did catch glimpses on a day out to see the irresistible attraction titled The Bridge over the Atlantic, designed by Scottish genius Thomas Telford.

This is a 40-minute drive south of Oban in the conservation area of Easdale. The 200-year-old curvaceous surprise connects the Isle of Seil to the mainland. But there was a bigger surprise in store. Over the bridge we found a hut selling souvenirs, postcards and photographs. The surprise was it was unattended. You were invited to take what you wanted and leave the money in a pot. Honest. Bigger shock outside. A petrol pump, again unmanned, just leave the money...

Seil, Easdale and Luing were the heart of the slate industry for 300 years, supplying slates for roofs across Britain and Europe. They must have been a defiant lot to survive. There’s still an air of defiance; a three-minute ferry journey takes you to the car-free Easdale Island where the locals have held out against a bridge being built to preserve their privacy. Mind you, how do you top The Bridge over the Atlantic?

The mainland village of Ellenabeich boasts The Highland Arts Exhibition centre which has a Turkish bazaar feel about it because of the crush of the welcome as much as the battery of Scottish material on sale. I was chased to sample hot, homemade shortbread while Pat dropped for Scottish tablet freebies.

The biggest regret was having to pass on the famous Caledonian MacBrayne ferry trips. Felix and Pat had done most of them after years of enjoying Oban as their take-off point, including Tobermory and Mull and Iona. We had sights on the ultimate, the all-day cruise to Barra in the Outer Hebrides even if you don’t actually stop to get your feet on the famous Whisky Galore island. “Enjoy the sunshine out on deck” trills the brochure writer who obviously hires his bike in Fort William.

With the weather impossible and likely to remain so for the coming weeks, we cut the holiday short but made sure of Oban Distillery (I always obey editors). What struck me most here was their excellent guide on all things whisky was born in Norwich.

Heading south, we took in St Conan’s Kirk, Loch Awe, one to remember. Is there a more exquisite churchside view in Britain? Immediately below the terrace are the waters of Loch Awe which wind away for 20 miles. North east rises Ben Lui overlooking the three glens of the Lochy, Orchy and Strae in this the land of the unpronouncebles. Our last call was Balquhidder Church and the graveside overlooking Loch Voil, looking a shade unkempt after 277 years, of outlaw Rob Roy.

Then through the Trossachs to Callander for our Falkirk base, the weather never relented. A trip south of Glasgow for a family gathering was marred by a day-long downpour, so bad we couldn’t even manage a look outside at the garden. Last morning and a church visit earned a final soaking in the short dash between car park and church.

Of course the sun broke through on my train journey home but the jinx had the final laugh as there was a mix-up over the Sheffield connection at York and I found myself in a race across the station, negotiating down and up stairs as you do at York like a crowd of evacuees, shades of 1939 Perth without the gasmasks.

There the jinx ended. Awaiting me was a letter on behalf of the South Yorkshire Asbestos Victim Support charity (which is stuggling to survive) telling me of a win in their raffle. A bottle of Scotch.