“I cursed for a week when I heard we were moving to this god-forsaken shithole. We’d had a cushy number at the barracks down in York. Then I cursed again when we heard the company had to leave Inverness and move down the Great Glen to check out a rumour of some trouble with the Highland scumbags around Fort William. It will be a load of bollocks as usual, and even if it’s not there’s a hundred of us so we’ll soon sort it out. They won’t want to mess with British Army redcoats. It’s a hot august day, my pack’s heavy and the forest midges are eating me alive. Still, nearly there, only ten miles to go. We’re having a breather before crossing a high bridge over the River Spean. The captain’s just told Jonesy and Webby to check out the other side before we cross. They’re already half-way across so we’ll be going again in a minute. CACK! Shit a fucking brick! Was that a musket? CACK! CACK! And two more! Jonesy’s on his knees, now he’s face forward on the ground. Oh sweet Jesus, we’re under attack!”
These were the first shots of the Jacobite Rising, when Captain Sweetenham and his men were ambushed and captured by a much smaller force of MacDonalds at High Bridge, part of the network of military roads and bridges built by General Wade after an earlier Jacobite rebellion. They were built to allow troops to be moved quickly around the Highlands. Apparantly no-one cottoned on they would also allow the rebels to move pretty smartish as well. I wanted to visit High Bridge but I couldn’t find it on any maps. Luckily, when I mentioned it to Betty at the museum she told me it was derelict but still there, and that I could get to it on a path from the Commando Monument just outside Spean Bridge.
As predicted by my daughter, I did get taken up the Great Glen, but it wasn’t by Ben Doon and Phil MacCavity. I travelled to the Commando Monument with Anne-Marie, an Irish girl in her twenties, and her Italian boyfriend, Andrea, in a tiny blue car they’d hired ten minutes before they picked me up. They lived close to the Formula One track in Monza but Andrea was a commercial diver who had just been on a training course at nearby Loch Eil. Anne-Marie was genuinely fascinated by what I was doing but clearly thought I needed specialist psychiatric help. Andrea meanwhile was driving through the thunderstorm with one hand while yelling down the phone to his ‘Mama’ in machine-gun Italian. (I thought we were going to Spean Bridge not the Planet Cliché. Who writes this drivel?) He finished with a “Ciao Mama, ciao, ciao!” and I asked him if he knew anything about the independence debate. He supposed it was like the Lega Lombarda wanting the north of Italy to split from the south, though I pointed out that Scotland already is and always has been a separate country with its own legal system, education system, language, culture and even banknotes, and was only in a political union with England. Anne-Marie then had a truly bizarre Mrs Doyle moment describing the Scots as being ‘very, very, very, very, very, VERY, VERY, VERY PROUD TO BE SCOTTISH!’, then suddenly announced the economy in Ireland to be ‘TOTALLY SHITE! HA-HA-HA-HA-HA!’ I teased her she’d gone from one crap economy to another and she said that was nothing, she had an Italian friend with an Irish mother and a Greek father. Tough luck kid!
The Commando monument is a striking seventeen feet high cast bronze sculpture of three Commandos in battledress. It stands majestically on a low peak overlooking the original World War II commando training grounds and surrounded by the much higher peaks of the Ben Nevis and Aonach Mòr ranges. The shower of sleet added to the poignancy. I found it very dignified and was a little surprised by how moved I was by the whole experience. The inscription on the monument reads:
UNITED WE CONQUER
In memory of the officers and men of the commandos who died in the Second World War 1939–1945. This country was their training ground.
But despite the inscription, the monument is clearly used as a memorial to all Commandos killed in action. There were several wreaths laid at the base of the plinth including two with messages in Polish. One British wreath read “In fond memory of my dear Commando comrade, Johnny Marsden, who sailed south to the Falklands thirty years ago and never came back.” The wreaths were sad but it got much, much worse. I saw something else about fifty yards away and went to investigate. I found what was called a “Garden for Tributes”. It was a low, circular wall about fifteen feet in diameter, inside which were lots of personal tributes, not wreathes, but a little more permanent, like hand-made plaques, or other small dedications based around a personal belonging of the lost, loved one. I thought I’d recorded some of the tributes but when I listened to my notes all I heard was my voice breaking as I spoke “It’s too upsetting….too upsetting to read any of them out.” It was the names, ranks, nationalities, ages, dates, and other personal and intimate detail that made it so heart-breaking. I later found out that this site is used by many surviving World War II Commandos as the designated final resting place for their ashes along with those who have died in more recent conflicts such as the Falklands, Afghanistan and Iraq.
“I said, war, huh, Good God, y'all, What is it good for…”. Well, you know the rest.
I found Betty’s path quite easily and set-off to High Bridge, but soon began to be a little concerned and alarmed at my own stupidity. Anybody who lives in Spean Bridge will think I’m a complete wimp, but I was on high moor, I felt that if I reached up I could touch the low cloud, and I seemed to be heading out into the middle of no-where with no food, no water, no mobile phone signal and no clear idea of where I was going, how far it was, or how long it would take. Still, I was on a clearly defined path. I crossed my fingers and pressed on.
The people of Spean Bridge would have been right, I am a wimp. I walked through thick woods for ten minutes then suddenly I found myself at the bridge. It spans a narrow gorge high above the river rushing far below. It must have been an impressive sight in its day and indeed it still is. Two tall brick columns still rise grandly from the valley floor but there is little left of the causeway they once supported. I got as close as I could until my way was barred by a fence and a sign saying “Danger: Ruins Unsafe and Steep Drop”. I could have climbed over it for an even closer look. I could mince my testicles and fly them business class to Las Vegas but I’m not going to. Birds were singing, spring was coming and it was a truly tranquil, beautiful and evocative place. You just don’t find these places unless you get out of your car, onto your feet and go looking for them. But despite the serenity it’s easy to picture the handful of clansmen with pipes skirling, dodging amongst the rocks to give the impression of a much larger force and persuading the redcoats to surrender in what was to them a foreign and hostile environment.
Shortly after I’d left the bridge the river also left the gorge and I carried on walking beside it towards Spean Bridge. It was like a scene from “Deliverance”. Duelling banjo’s anyone? I wonder whether I could squeal like a pig? I met Jimmy Cameron when he disturbed me answering a call of nature behind a bush at the side of the path. I replied to his cheery “Good Morning” but it’s hard to maintain one’s dignity while simultaneously trying to fasten one’s flies and spraying piss all down the front of one’s jeans. I thought it best not to shake hands. Jimmy was in his seventies and a resident of Spean Bridge out walking his dog. He claimed to be a direct descendent of the Cameron of Lochiel whose statue is in Fort William. He was also a lovely old bloke. I don’t know if he was lonely but I couldn’t shut him up. He spent a quarter of an hour telling me about the history of the Jacobites in the area and then I asked him about the independence debate. Jimmy had strong views that ‘the Government in London has no idea of the needs of the Highlands and Islands’ and that so much more could be done with roads and tourism to bring prosperity to the area. He said Scotland should be ‘separate’ and raise its own taxes but then he said he wanted to remain part of the United Kingdom(?). Maybe he was just being polite to an Englishman. I’ll put him done as a pro.
Union 2: Independence 2: Nae That Bothered 2
Like everyone else I’d spoken to he completely dismissed sectarianism. But then he started banging on that ‘I don’t think they should let all these foreigners in’. (Doesn’t your heart sink when someone starts a sentence with ‘I’m not a racist but…..’? He was an old man, we’ll let him off.) He’d seen a television programme about gangs of Romanians scamming cash machines, ‘…and they’ve got these machines that look just like cash machines but they’ve got cameras inside and they put them over the front of the real cash machines and steal all your money then go back to Romania to live the high life!’ I could have talked to Jimmy for much longer but I had to move on and in the end I had to be almost rude to get away. He called after me. ‘Ah still want to watch the English fitba, Scots is shite!’
I stood outside Spean Bridge for nearly an hour with no luck. You really have to have a skin like a rhinocerous to do this. Then just as I was thinking of giving up and getting the bus a great big green Ford people carrier flashed its lights as if to stop. But then it carried on straight past me. ‘Tosser’ I thought and carried on hitching. Two minutes later I heard a beep behind me. When I turned round I saw the green Ford with the driver gesturing to me to get in. This bloke had actually gone up the road and turned round to come back and get me! I climbed in the front seat to join an Asian man called Abhi and his teenage son called Nikhil from Wembley. I thought they were Sri Lankan. They agreed they looked Sri Lankan but said they were actually Indian. They told me they were just driving around Scotland for pleasure and were loving the scenery. We’d been chatting away for about ten minutes when I turned round to adjust my rucksack. It was only then that I realised that another eight female members of the family were in the back!
‘Oh hello everyone, I’m sorry, I didn’t know you were there!’
‘Oh yes Andy, of course’ said Abhi. ‘And why don’t you open the glove compartment and say hello to Auntie Meera!’ I presume this was an Indian joke.
Abhi asked me if there were any nearby places of interest they could visit and I said it depended which direction they were headed and where they were staying tonight.
‘Oh no Andy, we are driving back to Wembley tonight.’
OK. So it’s one o’clock in the afternoon, there’s ten of you aimlessly wandering around the Highlands and at some point you’re going to make the decision to head home on the journey of at least ten hours to North London in a people carrier. I remembered why I’d always been in favour of immigration. This was clearly a family of fortitude and resilience with much to add to the indigenous gene pool.
They dropped me back at Fort William and as I walked back to my digs I reflected on the end of day two. I’d been picked up by two Scots, one of them Orcadian, and Irish-Italian couple, a British Asian family and not a single miserable stuck-up white English jerk. What’s the matter boys? Scared I’m gonna fart in your shiny new 4X4 or something? And everyone had been so lovely. In fact they’d been too lovely. Where was the anti-English vitriol? Where were the Bravehearts spewing out their independence invective? I’m writing a book ferchrissakes, I need something to make it interesting! Maybe I’ll find it in the great Scottish cities of Glasgow and Edinburgh. Still, I’d started the day bored, lonely and exhausted with no idea how I was going to be able to get through the next few weeks. Now I was walking on air. I just couldn’t get the title of Kate Adie’s biography out of my head. “The Kindness of Strangers”.