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Issue 74 - Ferries, Fares, Jokes and Views

Scotland Magazine Issue 74
April 2014


This article is 4 years old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

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Ferries, Fares, Jokes and Views

Following in the footsteps of H V Morton

Just a few miles outside St. Andrews, on his way to the Newport-to-Dundee ferry, Morton happened upon Leuchars Church, which he believed to be the finest Norman building remaining in Scotland, and worthy not only of more than a page of description, but also a photograph – a rare thing in a book more than eighty years ago. But when he got to the ferry, the old Morton, who had a knack for latching on to the quirky and the unexpected, found another gem of a story.

Having complained in print about the high cost of the ferry across the Forth from South Queensferry to North Queensferry, he suggested that if Edinburgh was a lot closer to London, there would have been a road bridge across the Firth of Forth by 1929 – and made the same comment about the Tay. He did, however, concede that the cost of crossing the Tay was ‘reasonable’ even if the pricing structure verged on the absurd.

“The Dundee ferry is, however reasonable, three shillings for a Rolls Royce coupé
and three shillings and sixpence for a Ford four-seater. Cars are assessed on their seating accommodation.” Morton’s Bullnose Morris, he would have been pleased to discover, being a two-seater was charged at the Rolls Royce coupé rate! Three shillings (15p), in 1928, however, this was quite a lot of money back then – around £6 at today’s values.

Crossing the Firth of Forth, however, had cost him 10 shillings, the equivalent today of around £20 – a surprising sum, as the Tay crossing was longer than the Forth.

Even that paled into insignificance when he discovered that the very short crossing over the Kyle of Lochalsh to Skye cost him 15 shillings, £30 at today’s values. These fares, he noted, infuriated the Scots.

“Dundee was busy that morning” he wrote on reaching the north shore of the Tay “with its marmalade, its jute mills, its cakes, its linen. There was a deep Manchester rumble over the stone setts as the jute wagons went by.” But, almost relegating Dundee’s great industries to footnotes in the city’s long history, he suggested that “One of the main exports is, of course, journalists.”

Like Aberdeen, he mused, Dundee had provided more journalists to newspapers and magazines south of the Border than any other city.

With his long career in newspapers, he had, it seems, encountered several ferocious Scottish editors wielding blue pencils!

On to Perth, where he had been told to expect little, but in fact enjoyed the town thoroughly

“The River Tay,” he wrote, “which the legions of Agricola hailed as the Tiber, gives a rare beauty to Perth as it runs swiftly beneath its bridges.” But Perth has a real treat just a mile or so from the city centre, as Morton discovered..

“I climbed Kinnoul Hill before breakfast. The morning was cold with the chill of early autumn, but the sun shone in a cloudless sky. When I left the road to strike up over the grass to the summit my footsteps were printed black behind me in the thick dewfall... I have written of the views from high places in Edinburgh, Stirling and Dundee. What can I say of the country that spreads itself below Kinnoul hill? It must be one of the grandest sights in Scotland.”

From Perth, Morton drove north, visiting Aberdeen – where the fishing fleet was the main focus of his attention – although he did embark on one of his occasional flights of fancy, likening the fame of Aberdeen to that of Wigan – both being best known through jokes.

Wigan’s joke, of course, was about its legendary pier, while Aberdeen’s joke – available in hundreds of different guises – is all to do with being miserly when it comes to parting with money.

Both places, he acknowledged, had become much more famous through their jokes
than through any self-promotion by their respective councils.

He did, however, conjure up the idea of a special and very large building, in sparkling Aberdeen granite, erected for the purpose in a highly secret location, where half a million potential Aberdeen jokes were
put through rigorous quality control each year before being given a stamp of approval by the city fathers.

Elgin, Inverness and then Fort William were all on his itinerary “Every healthy man who visits Fort William climbs Ben Nevis. No one suggests that he should do so. It is just one of Scotland’s unwritten laws of decent conduct. When he has done this the climber finds that the atmosphere of Fort William warms towards him.”

Morton, himself however, found the mountain elusive, being certain – and ultimately disappointed – that there would views of it from within the town. He was, however, a believer in ‘decent conduct’, setting off up the glen and climbing to the top.

Talking about the experience afterwards to a group of locals, Morton told them “of the Swiss mountains I have climbed and of the sights I have seen from the Libyan Hill in Egypt, and from the crests of the Aures Mountains in North Africa. Nothing I have seen from any of mountains approached the glory of blue hills against blue hills – the monarchs of Scotland, mile after mile, with their heads in the sunlight of an autumn day.” Praise indeed.

At Mallaig he caught a steamer on its way to Stornoway – but his destination was not the Isle of Lewis but Portree on Skye, where he had arranged to meet and stay with Mr Campbell who ran the Sligachan Inn. Even the steamer captain knew he was coming, and greeted him on board with the news that there were many letters awaiting his arrival at Sligachan. “If you want to be really well known” observed Morton, “go to live in the most solitary place on earth. In an island there are no secrets!” He had imagined Skye many times over many years before he ever set foot on the island. Indeed, as the steamer made its way to Portree, he expected to be disappointed – fearing that the image he had carried for so long in his mind might easily exceed what awaited him.

“To me it is pure romance. Some stray old wind from Culloden blew, I think, into my nursery when I was a child, for almost the first stories I heard were stories of Skye and of a brown-eyed prince hiding in a cave...

Skye, for me, has always been shrouded in the splendour of a lost cause... I feel, as I approach Skye, that I am on the way to wreck a dream. It may be almost as disappointing to see Skye as to meet in later life the girl you wanted to marry when you were eighteen! But something in the blue mountains reassures me as the clouds lift – queer grotesque mountains, dark and heroic.”
Skye, however, did not disappoint him one bit.

Awaking in the Inn on his first morning on Skye, the dramatic views which greeted him as he stepped out of Mr. Campbell’s door surpassed his every expectation.

“Imagine”, he wrote, “Wagner’s ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ frozen in stone and hung up like a colossal screen against the sky. It seems as if Nature when she hurled the Coolins up into the light of the sun said: ‘I will make mountains which shall be the essence of all that can be terrible in mountains. I will pack into them all the fearful shapes. Their scarred ravines, on which nothing shall grow, shall lead up to towering spires of rock, sharp splinters shall strike the sky along their mighty summits, and they shall be formed of rock unlike any other rock so that they will never look the same for very long, now blue, now grey, now silver, sometimes seeming to retreat or to advance, but always drenched in mystery and terrors.”

Morton walked on Skye for several days, soaking up the atmosphere – and the mist and rain – before leaving Sligachan to spend his last night on the island in Portree.

Sailing to Kyle of Lochalsh, on the MacBrayne paddle steamer Glencoe – which had already been in service for more than 80 years – he vowed one day to return as he watched the mountains disappear into the mist.

There are some surprising errors of continuity in Morton’s narrative, for he had left his car at Mallaig before crossing to Skye, and had returned to the Scottish mainland many miles north at Kyle of Lochalsh – to be miraculously reunited with his trusty Morris for the drive into the Trossachs, already in the 1920s the most visited part of Scotland. Back behind the wheel, he set off for Loch Lomond. The coachloads of visitors ‘doing Scotland in five days’ persist to this day, but, as Morton observed, Scotland comes to their rescue.

“Scotland is a baffling country to describe. You think that you have summed her up, that you have assessed her values and reached a decision about her when without warning she suddenly flings a surprise at you. The Trossachs are not fair. A man spends months touring a country, penetrating its remote mountains, enduring heat, cold, fatigue, high teas, Sabbaths, kirks, and at the end comes suddenly on the whole thing in concentrated form, boiled down to the very essence and spread out over a small compass conveniently near to the cities of Glasgow and Edinburgh. No wonder most travellers to Scotland never get farther than the Trossachs. I repeat: they are unfair and should be abolished in the interests of more distant places. The Trossachs are like a traveller’s sample of Scottish scenery. They remind me of those small tins of biscuits which firms send out beautifully packed to indicate a range of manufactures. If you like them you can order larger quantities.”

Henry Vollam Morton was born in Lancashire in 1892 and became the best known travel writer of his generation. Having achieved fame in 1923 with his coverage of Howard Carter's discovery of the Tomb of Tutankhamon for The Times newspaper, his prolific travel books were subsequently translated into
many languages.

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