HI HO SYLVIE!

DISCOVERING SCOTLAND

Sheila A. Grant

In my late teens I bought a moped. We were a family without a car so the exhilaration of driving off that first evening minus map, helmet or plans, was an unforgettable thrill. I drove randomly with no concept of direction or distance. Time meant nothing until I faced a sign indicating that Dumfries was a mere ten miles away. Oops. I was lost! Fortunately, a passing cyclist advised me of the most direct route back to Kilmarnock. It bore no resemblance to the one I had just driven. As dusk was falling I reached home, greeted by angry and anxious parents.

Was my first adventure on the open road an introduction to a new style of holiday? Perhaps a seed was planted deeply in the brain!

That moped took me north of the Highland line that summer, sleeping in youth hostels. I recall long sunny days stopping randomly at points of historical interest, scenic lay-bys, and ice cream cafes. I also remember my first sight of the grand hills and glens, but the biggest surprise was the sight of Lochnagar with snow on the peak – in June!

It was quite a gamble at that age with so little experience but times were different in the 50s. I loved every minute of that holiday which gave me a taste of independent touring. Many decades would pass before I chose another, different attempt.

Family holidays covered years of enjoyable fun, leaving many happy memories. But once you are left on your own the absence of companions leaves a vacuum, and finding a solo holiday that suits is a challenge. The first flush of youth may have dissipated but I am still active and sedentary holidays or regimented bus trips hold no appeal.

When I plucked up the courage to head off on my own, I enjoyed river cruises on the Continent visiting parts of Europe and Russia for the first time. I would have liked more time to roam freely off the beaten track but of course, there was a schedule. And a solo holiday means you are vulnerable to ‘cling-ons’! Travelling from Paris to Avignon by train I was joined by a woman whose eyes lit up as she discovered I was also travelling alone. By the time we reached our destination I knew her family history down to the full menu of the meal enjoyed at her late husband’s funeral! Only by opening up my Kindle (rude, I know) did she get the hint.

A friend suggested campervanning might suit me. It had never crossed my mind but my interest increased when I began looking into what was involved. Mobile homes were available everywhere but as I had never driven anything bigger than a family car I ruled them out. A two-berth campervan would be ideal but the only place I could see them was online or on paper.

Using internet, telephone, car magazines, adverts and visits to depots, I was on the point of giving up when I heard the words ’yes, we have one’. I drove the 70 miles to the dealer the following morning. There was no price tag but the magic word ‘Automatic’ was emblazoned on the front of the vehicle soon to be named ‘Sylvie’. It was a two-berth with cooker, toilet, shower, a fridge-freezer and a comfy bed. She ticked all of my boxes! Preowned for six months and with only 700 miles on the clock, the van looked brand new. I paid the deposit on the spot.

The following few weeks were spent negotiating insurance. Due to my age, some companies would not even consider my application (apparently, oldies are riskier on the roads than the young) but eventually I obtained cover. I also joined two caravanning clubs and, after receiving their maps and handbook, enjoyed many evenings poring over guides and maps, arranging routes and sites.

On the day I collected Sylvie, the dealer rattled through instructions, handed me the keys, wished me well and returned to the office. It took all of ten minutes and went right over my head! Bemused and a bit nervous, I sat in a daze coming to terms with my new purchase.

Sylvie was approved by the family and much admired by most of my friends who all wished me joy in my adventure. A few thought I had lost my marbles and frowned at my extravagance. But life is for living and I felt sure I had found my new passion.

An initial short break at Culzean was my introduction to setting up, assisted by a kind neighbour – the first but definitely not the last – and I returned home more confident and ready for the main events.
Since then I’ve experienced many wonderful holidays, choosing routes that have allowed me to visit so much of Scotland that was unfamiliar and enjoying every minute of every day. Evenings in a campervan are relaxing, always surrounded by lochs, rivers, glens or mountains and always spectacular. A walk around the site means new friends always ready with advice and tips.

Midges are Scotland’s curse, especially in the evening, but with midge-proof screens when windows are open, none of the vicious insects gain access to my habitation.

I have made many stupid errors (none resulting in injury), but as my confidence improves I relax more and I wish I had discovered campervanning a few years earlier. Every trip has been a pleasure and with time I have become more daring, even driving the NC500. Admittedly, it was only for about ten miles, but still…
I have seen parts of Scotland that without a campervan would have been out of my range. Each trip has revealed more of the beauty and history of a country with no shortage of peaceful, beautiful places. And the choice is all mine! Such freedom.

At present, my favourite site is Altnaharra, a remote site on the bank of Loch Naver, close to Ben Hope and Ben Kilbreck. The hills are peppered with the remains of croft houses, the last sign of a busy community of crofters forced to leave during the Highland Clearances. It’s a special place with a unique sense of peace plus an interesting history. I long to return.

I consider myself very fortunate to have found Sylvie. With so much ease I have discovered hidden snippets of Scotland’s fascinating history and continue to research so much that was never part of the school curriculum.