It’s trendy nowadays to deny that the 60’s was a golden age in Britain, but it was a great time to be a kid. I had free school milk, three public libraries within walking distance, Play for Today and Armchair Theatre on TV, and not a care in the world. Best of all, in 1969 I passed my 11-plus to go to West Leeds Grammar School for Boys. It wasn’t a great school, in fact it was a lowest of the low working class grammar and many of the boys hardly had arses in their pants, but it tried hard to make something of us. The teachers wore their university gowns, we had compulsory Latin lessons, and discipline was strict with regular slipperings, but the staff were utterly committed to the welfare and education of their boys. This commitment was shown in the breadth of extra-curricular activities. Over one particular three-week period I didn’t go home at the end of the school day once due to football, rugby, cricket or tennis matches, cross-country, table-tennis, drama club, or quizzes. One Monday morning in assembly the headmaster announced that the previous Saturday the school had put out seven football teams and seven rugby teams. That’s about two hundred kids out of a school population of five hundred, and each of those fourteen teams would have involved at least one teacher giving up part of his weekend to accompany them.
And the school trips! We went to France twice, Germany twice, and it seemed like every other week-end we were at youth-hostels in Snowdonia, the Lake District, the Peak District or the Yorkshire Moors. These trips were generally organised by Mr Pullman and Mr Williams. Now, Mr Pullman and Mr Williams were, in the vernacular the time, ‘confirmed bachelors’. It seems incredible now that a couple of old queens were allowed to regularly escort groups of adolescent boys on overnight trips but we thought nothing of it. On the contrary, there was never ever the merest suggestion of any fiddling around and we boys worshipped the pair of them.
Then, in the long, hot summer of 1974, they took us to Scotland. We jumped on the train at Leeds City then changed at Glasgow for the West Highland Line to Mallaig and the ferry to Skye. It was an idyllic two weeks under the blazing sun as our burnished and happy group slowly made our way back to the mainland and up the Great Glen to Inverness where they took us to a battlefield called Culloden. I wasn’t very interested at the time but I bought a slim booklet from the gift shop to read on the train home. On the way back to Leeds I read it cover to cover, four times, and each time I became more and more intrigued by this almost unbelievable story. Why had no-one told me about this before? By the time we got back to Leeds I was hooked. I was truly, madly, deeply and irrevocably besotted with Scotland in general and the Jacobite Story in particular, and I’d make sure that anyone who would listen to me knew about it. From that moment on I was doomed to live in the constant fear that friends and colleagues were whispering about me behind my back whilst tapping their temples with their first finger.
The years went by and my wife and I, then my family, visited Scotland at every chance. We spent one summer on the remote island of Berneray with it’s population of forty and which took three different ferries to get to. We felt we had to go to the kirk on Sunday or the Wee Free’s would have done a Wicker Man on us. Another was spent in a gloomy mansion on the banks of Loch Awe, five miles from the nearest road, where deer roamed in the grounds and our young kids slept for fourteen hours a night. Then there was Pennan on the Moray Firth, where they threw us out of the pub at midnight and we found it was still daylight, so we sat on the harbour wall by the phone box used in the film ‘Local Hero’. And more recently we found the delightful fishing villages of the Fyfe coast. At Pittenweem we watched from the harbour as dolphins and seals played in the Firth of Forth. At Crail harbour there’s a little hut where an elderly lady keep’s her son’s crab catch alive in a bath and will boil a couple up for you for lunch. You have to take your own wine and bread if you want a picnic. And the highlight of every year is our long weekend at the Edinburgh Fringe. If you’ve never known the madness that is the Fringe then I can’t describe it, but if you’re past the first flush of youth you should think long and hard before committing to both Glastonbury and the Fringe in the same year as I once did. That year I woke up one morning and heard on the radio that a middle-aged man had been found dead in a portaloo on Princes Street and I had to check to make sure it wasn’t me. Edinburgh in August is quite simply the best place on the planet.
A few years ago I got a place on Mastermind with my specialist subject “Bonnie Prince Charlie and the 1745 Jacobite Rebellion”. I never appeared on Mastermind as I couldn’t make it on the day they were recording, but it was during the research for this that I began to feel I wanted to do something based around the route of The Prince’s army from the Highlands to Derby and back north to the cataclysmic conclusion at Culloden. Walking would take too long and just wasn’t feasible so I toyed for while with doing it on a moped but that also wasn’t right. If I was going to make this journey I wanted more contact with the people and places I was passing through. Then I remembered how much I’d enjoyed hitch hiking as a student more than thirty years ago. I could hitch at a leisurely pace, stay at B&B’s, go in the local pubs and talk to all the people I met along the way. It would be perfect. Then I dismissed it. It might be fun for me but nobody else would be interested in an old man bumbling around Jacobite sites and I still had two kids to put through university. Fortunately for my project, in 2004 Alex Salmond was talked out of retirement, got the Scottish National Party out of intensive care and the independence debate took off in earnest. Now there is an independence referendum planned for the autumn of 2014 and there is a very real chance that in a few years’ time Scotland will leave the United Kingdom and go it alone. I wanted to know more about what both the Scots and the English thought about Independence. If I could combine my Jacobite trip with research into what the Scots and English thought about themselves and each other it sounded much more promising.
I discussed my idea with friends and colleagues, several of whom told that while I was up there I should “tell the sweaty fucking jocks to fuck off, we’re better off without the wankers”. My daughter tried to tell me it was too dangerous and this did give me a few moments pause for thought. I was going to be in some lonely places. I’ve seen Deliverance and I certainly didn’t want to be taken up the Great Glen by Ben Doon and Phil MacCavity. My son just called me a knob.
Ah bollocks. I’m in my fifties, fairly secure, hate my work and might die next week. I packed in my job, packed a rucksack and pointed the graceful bonnet of the Rover due north.