‘Driech’ in the Highlands

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I’m sitting in a coffee shop in a small town called Pitlochry in the Highlands of Scotland.  Storm Frank is in full swing outside.  The sky is a dark shade of grey, the rain is horizontal and relentless. The entire valley – or glen – has been turned into a series of great lakes with small fishing sheds and treetops poking incongruously out of the middle of them.  Both the Tay and the Tummel have burst their banks and there is flooding of biblical proportions.  We’ve been lucky – our cottage further down the valley is just high enough up the hill to be above the waterline but the cat has her wellies ready and her eye on her favourite Christmas bauble just in case.

I cycled the 6 miles over the hills to this the nearest coffee shop, from a hamlet called Logierait.  My wheels covered more water than road and my trousers are now dripping onto the polished wooden floor.  I’ve just picked another lump of mud (I think – although it could be cow dung) off my cheek and have been edging my sodden boots towards the big open fireplace near the end of the table.

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Believe it or not, this is when Scotland comes into its own.  On days like this when I have lost sensation in my toes, my ageing and injured hamstring is crying out for a hot bath and I am reminded as I glance at the sleeve of my fleece that half-way through one of the downhills I may have used it to blow my streaming nose.   When I am covered in mud from head to toe, am so wet that even my underwear needs wringing out and my cheeks are stinging from a combination of hail, rain, sleet and snow.  It is only then that I can truly appreciate the crackling log fire and the huge pot of tea served by the welcoming and chatty landlord who makes a passing comment about how ‘driech’ it is outside and doesn’t blink an eye when I position my wet feet so close to the fire grate steam rises off them.

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It is tempting then to sit back into the weathered leather armchair, read my book and nod off against one of the soft tartan cushions but the waters are rising and what is left of the afternoon light is fading fast.  I have squeezed the last drop out of my pot of tea, that was definitely a drying splatter of cow pat not mud, and I still have the cycle-wade-swim home to tackle.  I don my snotty fleece and damp waterproof, reluctantly remove my soggy boots from the fire place and head back out into Frank’s path.  I will be back at the cottage soon, and it is only 6 miles away.  But thanks to the Scottish hills and weather, my cycle will have been an adventure and the open fires, mugs of tea, wee dram of whisky and cosy evenings a delicious reward for venturing out.

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10 Reasons you’re missing out if you haven’t visited Scotland

1.         You can walk for miles over hills, through woods and heather, savouring the complete isolation as you conquer a ‘Munro’…and just when you thought you’d mastered this mountaineering lark, you find yourself knee-deep in marshes laughing so hard you haven’t the strength to extract yourself.

2.         The people are so friendly, you’ll be ‘pals’ with every shop keeper, pub landlord and passer-by within minutes of arriving.

3.         You can order most of the menu knowing it’ll be tasty hearty fare (fattening but after those hills absolutely necessary re-fuelling material), even if you have no idea what it is – think neeps and tatties, haggis, rumbledethumps, black buns, Ecclefechan tart, tablet and soor plooms.

4.         Scotland has thousands of different varieties of whisky.  If you weren’t a whisky lover before, you will be by the time you’ve spent a couple of days here.  Alternatively there’s always whisky-flavoured fudge, whisky cream, whisky-flavoured cheese, whisky-flavoured tablet…

5.         It’s cold, wet, icy, snowy or ‘driech’ as a true Scot would say.  Which means you are entirely justified in spending whole afternoons by the crackling log fires drinking tea or sampling your way through ‘wee drams’ of the aforementioned vast collection of whiskies.

6.         Nothing but nothing beats a pipe marching band in full swing on a bright summer’s day in the Highlands (for a taste have a listen to Highland Cathedral played by massed pipes).  Hairs on the back of your neck, lump in throat stuff…

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Nothing quite like a marching pipe band

7.         Where else can men wear skirts and look more manly than any of their trouser-wearing counterparts.  No, really.

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Throwing the hammer Highland Games-style

8.         The tough Scots spirit peaks in towns and villages across the Highlands throughout the summer.  The Highland Games have something for literally everyone: Girls of all ages in clan tartans deftly dancing over swords looked upon sternly by a row of judges, pipers in the corner of the field warming up for their solo piping contest, cross-country runners setting off up the nearest hill to return some miles and large clods of mud later in the afternoon, large burly (kilt-clad – see no.7 above) men hurling a 19ft lark tree into the air, and others bulging out of their vests carrying large boulders as far as they can down a track (think ‘World’s Strongest Man’ but with stones that are shaped as nature left them rather than manufactured perfect spheres).  And if you’re more of a couch potato, there are always craft stalls, falconry displays and rows of tasty food stalls to keep you going (essential when the sun goes behind a cloud or the heavens open – which in this part of the world doesn’t even elicit the batting of an eyelid.  Even the highland flingers have special waterproof macs and clogs to keep their costumes dry).

9.         If you’re a budding Tiger Woods or a retired Gary Player, you are spoilt for choice.  You could play golf on a different course every day for over a year and a half and the views are spectacular.

10.       And to finish off the day, there’s no leveller on the dance floor like a Ceilidh.  With hands, arms and legs flailing, you’ll find yourself grabbing hold of complete strangers as you attempt to ‘Strip the Willow’ or keep up with the ‘dance caller’ as you fumble your way through an ‘Eightsome Reel’.