As I write this post, I am sitting inside a cozy guesthouse on the south side of Loch Lomond (a bit north, northeast of Glasgow). It is dusk. Across the street, smoke rises out of the chimney of a stone cottage that has been covered with white plaster. The house sits right on the road so that its front walls essentially act as a guard rail. Behind the house a hill rises up to a tree-lined top. The hillside is dotted with sheep and cows. They are standing with their backs to the wind because the wind is pushing a light rain in misty sheets that sweep across the field.
I am sipping a glass of red wine that I bought at the grocery store in Bulloch. A town that sits on the southern tip of Loch Lomond. The largest freshwater lake in Great Britain. I am waiting on a delivery driver from the local chinese restaurant to deliver my dinner – Fresh crayfish and mixed vegetables over fried rice. It’s not on their menu. My host called and ordered it for me personally. He knows the owner and chef of the chinese restaurant. My host, Jean Mark is a french pastry chef who worked in California for 13 years before deciding he’d had enough of that rat race. How he ends up in Scotland I didn’t ask.
Jean Mark says this is the only restaurant in town who can prepare dishes as good as, and sometimes better than himself. It is the only place he will eat if not cooking for himself. “The crayfish dish is superb,” he says. “You have to know to ask for it. It is the secret of the chef. These crayfish, they come from the Highland rivers somewhere. They are not in the proper line of commercial delivery, if you know what I mean,” he continues. “They are…how do I say it…illegal is not the right word…..”
“Bootleg,” I offer
“Yes, yes, this is the word. Bootleg,” he answers. “You understand this word?” he asks.
I nod, smiling to myself. I resist the urge to explain to Jean Mark what a lot of Scottish immigrants ended up doing for a living throughout the remote hollers of Appalachia over the last hundred years plus. Including my own ancestors.
“What would you like for breakfast in the morning. You can have continental breakfast, traditional Scottish breakfast, or if you like I can prepare you my favorite crepes for breakfast?” Jean Marks asks in his English/French/Scottish accent. This is a no brainer.
“I’ll take the crepes, please.”
The crayfish dish has arrived….It is unbelievable! And the New Zealand Pinot goes perfectly with it.
I arrived here after a full-day’s drive from St. Andrews on the east coast. The drive was broken up with a couple of wonderful stops. First, was the William Wallace monument just outside of Stirling. The monument is inspired by a medieval tower. It is perched on a rise looking over the city of Stirling and the Stirling river where Wallace and his gang defeat the English army in a decisive battle (The battle of Stirling bridge). The Wallace Monument will be instantly recognizable to anyone who has watched The Lord of the Rings as it is used prominently in the movie. It is a steep hike from the visitor center up to the base of the monument. The 260, or so, steps it takes to get to the top of the monument completes the morning exercise. Despite the cloudy/rainy day, the views are beautiful.
From Stirling, I continue driving west, eventually coming to a town called Doune. While driving through the small village, I see a sign for the Doune Castle. “Ah, not another castle today,” I think. But while driving out of the town, something is tugging at my memory. There is something about this castle….oh yeah, the Visit Scotland information guy in St. Andrews said I should tour this castle…and that if I was a certain kind of movie buff, I would really enjoy it. What the hell. I turn the car around and wind my way through the very medieval village and to the castle.
It does look familiar, as I walk from the parking lot to the gate. Once inside and to the visitor center, it became obvious. On the wall behind the desk hangs a poster for the movie, “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.” This is the Swamp Castle!” The audio guide that comes with the tour cleverly weaves excerpts from the movie into the soundtrack during appropriate spots within the castle tour. Actually, it is a wonderful Castle tour.
After departing The Swamp Castle, I follow the directions recommended by the visitor guide in St Andrews and wind my way north/northwest, briefly crossing over into what is called The Highlands before turning back south at the northern tip of Lake Lomond. The drive, most of it in heavy fog, rain, and mist, has taken me through some very beautiful country that reminds me very much of the finger lakes region of New York, or even the Glacier National Park area of northern Montana – minus the dizzying altitudes of course. It also reminded me very much of Appalachia.
There was one more very cool side trip along this part of the route. Up in the Highlands, before turning south at Loch Lomond, a saw an old worn-out sign that pointed to the right that read, “Rob Roy’s Grave Site.” That would be cool, I thought, and quickly turned onto the directed road. Well,this road became nothing more than a single lane path leading way, way back what we would call a holler. “This can’t be right,” I thought, and even stopped to turn around once. But I checked my map first. Indeed – my map even shows the gravesite being down this path. So I pushed on. Finally, I came to an ancient stone church sitting peacefully by itself on a hill by the road. Very much like one comes across on the backroads of Appalachia. There was parking space for about 3 cars by the road. I can’t even remember if there was another sign announcing the gravesite. I stopped and looked around. Sure enough, at a gravesite, different from the others only by the installation of an iron rail around 3 graves, was the Rob Roy MacGregor burial site. The original headstone was illegible, but at sometime, someone had installed a newer one with a Rob Roy-esque defiant message. There were a few coins tossed on the grave and a couple of faded flowers. That’s it -No monument, no memorial – just this modest gravesite. Folk hero or villain? I guess every culture has its own Rob Roy, be it Robin Hood, Jesse James, etc..
The final stretch of the drive was along the entire western shore of Loch Lomond. It was raining, I was road-weary, and needed to find my next lodging before dark. I stopped a couple of times for a quick photo of the lake and a Public House, but that was it.