John Archibald’s account of a spectacular fund-raising trek, with a group of Gurkhas, coast-to-coast across the Scottish Highlands continues.
Part 7 – Commando Country (contd2)
We wound or way through the impressively wooded grounds and turned right onto the B8005 that ran from Clunes to Gairlochy. Coming towards us were four rather tired and dishevelled looking Swiss hikers (these Swiss get everywhere).
“Pliss, can you tell us, is there shop this way?”
A quick shoofty at the map confirmed my suspicion that there was probably no chance of a shop of any kind in the direction they were headed.
“Sorry, I think Spean Bridge is the nearest shop”.
Spean Bridge was 6 miles behind them. They looked stunned. I thought they were about to burst into tears, so I wished them well and quickly pressed on. I can’t bear to see grown men cry.
Two miles later we came to Gairlochy at the south-west end of Loch Lochy, which marks the top end of the southern, man-made section of the Caledonian Canal. This runs for 62 miles from the Scottish east coast at Inverness to the west coast at Corpach, near Fort William. Only one third of the entire length is man-made, the rest being formed by Loch Dochfour, Loch Ness, Loch Oich, and Loch Lochy. There are 29 locks (including eight at Neptunes’s Staircase, Banavie), four aqueducts and 10 bridges in the course of the canal.
The canal was designed by the famous Scottish engineer Thomas Telford, supported by William Jessop, and built between 1803 and 1822 at a cost of £840,000, but was never a great commercial success. As the canal was originally built too shallow and suffered from poor construction in places, most traffic still used the sea route. It was not deepened until 1847 (work designed by Telford’s close associate, James Walker by which time most ships were too large, and Inverness was soon connected to the Lowlands by railway. The canal is now mainly used by pleasure craft.
Looking down from the bridge over the canal the Gurkhas were fascinated by the huge lock gates that held back the black peaty waters behind them. I tried to explain how the locks on a canal worked. I smugly considered myself something of an expert on the subject having joined a friend the year before for two days on a narrowboat on the Avon canal as we made our way from Bath to Bristol and back. At the risk of offending any narrowboat enthusiasts I have to confide that the best thing about narrow-boating, apart from the lunch stops at wonderful old pubs, is that you are unlikely to get seasick. Unfortunately there were no boats making their passage through the lock, so we pressed onwards, up the B8004 towards our 5.00pmRV at the Commando Memorial and Spean Bridge.
Half a mile further on the River Spean swung close to the road and there, standing up to his oxters in the dark water was a fly fisherman lazily executing one expert Spey cast after another as he covered the river with his fly.
“He’s fishing for salmon” I explained. I prayed to whatever God of Fishing there was, and in my long and sad experience there wasn’t one, that he would hook a ‘fish’* for the lads to see. Once again my prayers went unanswered.
(*Among true brothers of the angle a salmon is referred to as a ‘fish’. It is said that when the actress Diana Rigg was fishing the River Spey and landed a lovely silver sea trout, she jumped up and down with glee shouting ‘I caught a fish!”, only to be rebuked by her stern ghillie with the words, “It’s no’ a fush. It’s a troot. Only a salmon’s a fush”)
Half an hour later we arrived at the memorial. Temple was chatting away to the journalist, Richard Wilson. We climbed on board and the interview began, with Rajen elected as the official spokesperson. The expected questions arose, including the Gurkhas’ views on the issue of pensions and the ninety-year old Gurkha pensioner with the VC who had been barred from entering theUKfor medical treatment.
The Gurkhas answered the questions politely and without rancour, as always the world’s natural gentlemen. I am afraid I let the side down and made it quite clear to Richard what I thought of the failure of our Government to properly look after our Armed Forces and to meet its side of the Military Covenant, citing the examples of cheap catering and inadequate equipment. The Government couldn’t even provide our soldiers with decent boots! When you are in a trench or sangar at 3.00am on a cold, wet night with real bullets and mortar rounds flying overhead you do not want to know that your weapon and equipment was the cheapest that the MOD could buy. Finally Rajen saheb was asked,
“How do you likeScotland? How does it compare with Nepal?”
He replied diplomatically, but with feeling, that it was very similar,
“Except the midges. We don’t do midges”.
That evening we decided to give the curries and fish and chips of the Spean Bridge hotel a miss for a change and took our custom to the bar and restaurant of the Aonach Mor hotel. Carol Lisburn, a sweet colleen from the Emerald Isle, bade us welcome.
Carol had first arrived in 2007 and had decided to settle. The entire tourist and hospitality trade in the north-west Highlands appears to have been taken over by incomers, even the owners of our hotel were English, but if they are all as friendly and helpful as Carol then it is the Highland’s gain.
The obligatory pints of beer and large Jack Daniels were ordered and attention was switched to the pool table. Arjun and Rajiv had squared off. Arjun potted a ball to his obvious delight, and just possibly a hint of surprise? Then another. Then another. His eyes sparkled and the look of sheer joy on those dark, handsome features was wonderful to behold. Then he missed a difficult shot and retired to the bar to consume his JD. Rajiv missed a difficult shot. So did Arjun, then again did Rajiv.
Arjun, now looking decidedly more relaxed, lined up a possible pot, and almost missed the cue ball entirely! Obviously the JD was having the required effect, but the look of sheer embarrassment on his face was classic.
Then the food arrived. Curry hadn’t been on the menu, but when Carol realised who we were she had gone into the kitchen to ask the chef could knock up a curry for us. Liz Gibson, the chef and owner of the hotel, appeared dressed in her chef’s whites and looking like she had spent a very long day in a very hot kitchen. Liz, a ‘Torry quine’ fromAberdeen, was a delight. So was the subsequent curry. When she again emerged to enquire as to whether the curry was up to Gurkha standards the ever attentive and impeccably mannered Rajiv schmoozed her.
“Thank you. That was wonderful”
Lal, Mr Mountain, sitting to his right, replied with a smile the width of Knoydart,
“It’s not over yet!”
He was as good as his word. He had three helpings. I thought he was going to eat poor Liz out of house and home, but she didn’t bat an eyelid.
Liz was an Army Mum. Her son had been severely injured at the age of 19 on exercise in Germany. He had been in hospital for 2 ½ years at the Queen Elizabeth Military Hospital at Woolwich. Although visiting her son had necessitated a 5-hour round trip, Liz said that the staff had been wonderful to her son and the family.
The care could not have been better. When, in 1996, the decision had been taken by the then Conservative government to close the hospital, along with several other military hospitals, he had been transferred to a civilian hospital in Middlesex. Although the care he had received there had also been wonderful, being a civilian hospital it did not offer quite the same understanding and supportive environment to military personnel that a military hospital could.
Liz could not understand why the decision had been made to close the Woolwich. It was, she said, incomprehensible that an institution that provided such outstanding service to military personnel and their families could be closed, when today some NHS hospitals even turned away servicemen in uniform lest it cause distress to civilian patients.
Despite the fact that having us as customers had probably cost Liz money, she gave us a very generous cheque, added to by Carol. Bless you ladies. We’ll be back.
Catch up with Gurkhas in the Mist – a coast-to-coast walk across the Highlands