Sheila A. Grant.
August, when the first glimpse of lilac heather darkens to carpets of purple, is a perfect time to visit the Highlands of Scotland. But don’t forget your midge net.
Leaving the bustling town of Aviemore and the impressive Cairngorms, snow still clinging to the depths of the corries, our first destination is Huntly. Joining The Whisky Trail, where lorries aplenty carry the famous Speyside malt whiskies to all corners of the globe, we drive parallel to the River Spey. It rises in Loch Spey near Roy Bridge, before opening into the Moray Firth 107 miles further on.
Once past Grantown on Spey there are less mountains, apart from a few Corbetts (hills above 2,500 feet but lower than a Munro at 3,000). Ben Rhinnes above Aberlour is the whisky lovers’ favourite climb. Around 20 distilleries can be seen from the summit, and if visibility is poor the breeze still carries the scent of this local product.
After Aberlour, I reach the little town of Rothes with four distilleries. Then, turning away from the Spey lies Dufftown, with the grand total of seven distilleries making it the town with the most!
Once I am near Keith the view begins to look like farm land, bearing more than a slight resemblance to Ayrshire with its fields full of sheep and cows. I’m surprised to see so few black Aberdeen Angus cattle in the area.
At the peak of a steep hill I stop to admire the panoramic view. A long narrow valley is spread before me, a patchwork of fields, busy red tractors adding to the impression of a water colour painting. A red kite flies across my vision, but too fast for a photo.
Huntly is a quiet town, very spread out with narrow streets and a pretty square. There are no distilleries but the renowned Dean’s Shortbread has recently opened a new factory. In 1975 a local lady, Helen Deans, gained fame as a wonderful baker of traditional shortbread. Older locals recall with fondness Helen dishing out her imperfect samples to the children playing outside. Her husband was Pipe Major of the local band and Helen’s shortbread raised money for the band. Now it’s a successful business with the lightest shortbread I have ever tasted. And I thought mine was good!
The campsite, spread out in small groups of around a dozen pitches in circular enclosures, trees adding a degree of privacy, is a joy. Pitch 51, my allocation, coincidentally was the house number of my youth. I park Sylvie and take Cleo to check out the dog walking area. It’s the best one I have come across, a huge field with paths and long grass where she can run wild, leaping up and down to see over the long grass.
Back to base and my first job is to fill the water tank. As usual I manage to flood out the surrounding area! Job done, I reverse back into my pitch. Electric cable successfully attached I begin the task of unwrapping fragile items from towels and jumpers. Going over potholes causes a dreadful clatter and Cleo remains a nervous traveller.
When the time comes to prepare the evening meal, the gas hob lights with ease but the oven does not. Matches, gas lighter and the built-in ignite all fail. There’s plenty of gas but no light. The switch is tucked low under the oven so I lay down on my stomach, torch in hand, head in oven, and try to read the words on the dial.
“Oh my God! Are you alright?” a voice shouts.
I jump, cracking my head on the oven door. Turning on to my back, I look up at a formidable looking woman standing inside Sylvie, arms crossed over an ample chest, a face like thunder.
“The oven won’t light,” I answer lamely.
“Are you supposed to be in this pitch?” she asks sternly.
“Pitch 51, yes,” I reply rubbing my head. “Funnily enough, I used to live at number…”
“You are in 50,” she says sharply, “and we booked it.”
I had reversed back from the water tap to the wrong pitch, an easy mistake to make. After a pregnant pause and no sign of her saying ‘let’s just leave it’ I offer to move. A brief nod and she stomps off to sit in the car with her partner where they watch me disengage attachments, repack breakables and move to the correct pitch. I hate an audience when reversing.
I have a cold Killie pie for my dinner, but at least the beans are hot.
The next day we walk to ‘The Bin’, a wooded hill with many paths of different lengths and heights. It’s lovely walking along the banks of the River Deveron and passing Huntly Castle. Now an impressive ruin it has a fascinating and violent history reaching back to Medieval times. We cross the river on a re-opened bridge severely damaged after a recent storm. On such a lovely sunny day we meet friendly, chatty people all happy to advise on the correct direction (my maps remained on a table at home!).
Eventually we reach our destination but with so many trees there is no view. We’re joined by two guys, one young with long hair flowing down his back, the other older and so tattooed he could be a mobile gallery. With numerous piercings he looks rather sinister. They walk on but a bit further on the older man suddenly steps out of the woods in front of me. Where is the other man? Has he been murdered and buried in the forest? After a few minutes he stops and swings around to gaze intensely into the dark woods. I walk past him, hesitantly, Cleo at my side, hair rising on the back of my neck. Will Cleo protect me? I briefly glance back relieved he’s not following me. The absence of the young man troubles me. Perhaps I’ve read too many thrillers?
My sense of direction (if it exists) fails and we eventually emerge a long way from Huntly by the side of the A96 Aberdeen to Inverness road, our only route back to the town. There’s no footpath, only rough grassy verges and we have no choice but to walk the two mile stretch back to town.
Oh, the relief to see the Tesco sign as we approach Huntly! A few revitalising purchases are made while Cleo attracts attention, her coat festooned with bright green sticky willies.
The following day is wet, so the ideal opportunity to clear out some of the surplus gear I continue adding to my limited space. This is followed by a brisk walk to one of the many charity shops before enjoying a relaxing evening in a tidy campervan, all set for the next day’s drive to Ballater. The site there is bigger so someone should know how to get my oven working!
Salads are suddenly less tempting. So too are thrillers.