I wanted to be awake for an exactly 24-hour day, but didn’t dare pick up the pace to make it home by the deadline. The car behind me was hanging right there, about 200 yards back, and I couldn’t tell what it was in the dark. But I needn’t have been anxious. Right at one in the morning, I pulled into the yard. Still wired and caffeinated from the bottom of the barrel at McDonald’s in White River, I undressed and stuffed my duds into the washing machine, emptied my luggage, put everything away, reset my alarm clock from Edinburgh to Montpelier, and finally drifted off to vivid memories of the past week.
The first and last days of a European tour are the most strenuous. You fly east on a red-eye, arrive about breakfast-time, and spend the day on a bus, touring and sight-seeing till you can at last check into your first hotel. Coming home, you take off after breakfast, chase the sun west, and arrive in the States at rush hour — except that your body thinks it’s 9 or 10 at night already. After clearing customs, I generally miss a homebound bus by about 15 minutes, so I settle down to await the next one, only 2 hours later. Once I get to my car, it’s coffee and the BBC to keep me awake for the last long hour. Except that the BBC at that hour of the night is unbelievably insipid. So I’ve got “The Mikado” on the CD player: “I’ve got a little list; I’ve got a little list!” or “When a man’s afraid, a beautiful maid is a cheering sight to see; And it’s oh, I’m glad that moment sad was soothed by sight of me.” Singing along, while keeping both eyes peeled for deer, moose and raccoons, works just fine. Except that, in this case, I wasn’t singing all that well. Our group, together on bus or boat all week, had given new meaning to the term, “common cold.”
But I digress. Between those bookends, there was a tour. And Day One is sort of like the Sorting Ceremony at Hogwarts: In a group of mostly retired folks, as was ours, you find out who can walk and who can’t; who wanders off and shows up late for rendezvous; who needs to be encouraged. There were 40 of us, so separating the Gryffindors from the Ravenclaws and Hufflepuffs was more complicated than usual.
We met our tour guide as soon as we landed: a towering Scot named Jim Leslie in his clan’s tartan kilt. A retired, 30-year veteran of the Tayside constabulary with a delightful sense of humor, he made all the difference in the experience of the week. Scotland’s history is complicated and violent — think local warlords (clan chiefs) jealously guarding home territory and occasionally banding together to fight the English — and Jim had all his dates, plots, royal successions and battles down cold. When he deadpanned, one day, a scientific description of the wild haggis, whose legs on one side are longer than on the other, so that it can circle its native hill in only one direction, some of the folks didn’t tumble to it till almost the end.
We crossed the River Forth very near the site of the 1297 Battle of Stirling Bridge, in which William Wallace’s Scots warriors destroyed an English army. Then we hiked up a pretty good hill to the towering Wallace Monument. Remember “Braveheart?” That’s him, somewhat fictionalized. He was later executed by the English in a most grisly manner, but thus became the nation’s most revered champion — a symbol of never-ending heroic defiance in the face of inevitable military defeat. But never of the spirit!
On a day devoted to a more peaceful leader, we took the ferry to the Isle of Mull, enjoyed the ritual game of politer-than-thou on its unique one-lane roads, and took another ferry to Iona, where Saint Columba landed and founded his most famous abbey in 563. It’s hard to imagine what life must have been like there 1,500 years ago. Later, the abbey was sacked and burned, and many of its monks killed, in several Viking raids. At the moment, it’s in a good state (for its age) and undergoing restoration.
Traveling in just a couple of hours from the sublime to the vaporous, we toured the distillery at Oban and sipped some of its output. I’d planned to pick up a bottle of Oban scotch. Unfortunately, after all my careful planning and organization for the trip, I’d left my credit and bank cards on my desk at home. Like the Beatles, I got by with a little help from my friends (specifically Steve, the videographer), but extravagances were out.
There was so much more! Neil Ross and his border collies communicated as if by intuition and performed prodigies with flocks of sheep. (During a lull, one of his savvier dogs sneaked onto the empty bus and ate our tour manager’s sandwich.) Red and blue flags on Culloden Moor ominously marked the battle lines of the two armies at the start of that last great battle for Jacobite independence, while grassy mounds marked the mass graves of the fallen. We gaped at royal dining rooms bigger than hockey rinks, while Jim explained the origins of “turning the tables” and “right-hand man.”
By our last dinner together, we were pretty mellow. Jim, with candle and nightshirt, recited Robert Burns’ “Holy Willy’s Prayer.” I told the story of Mulcahy and the Band-Aids. And from there we turned a little later to our 24-hour-long day.
Willem Lange is a regular contributor to Weekend Magazine. He lives in East Montpelier.