In 1962, I was in the course of wrecking my first year at university, but I had
worked as 'postie: Christmas day' on triple-time, and paid the family devoirs:
okay, if uninspired. Then I found out that I could miss uplooming Hogmanay (never much enjoyed) by getting the train the next morning from Princes Street to Oban, where the youth hostel was open, and stay for the weekend.
I had just heard Wagner's Tristan und Isolde
for the first time, souped up by Arnold Bax's Tintagel
and Elgar's – still rarely heard – overture to Yeats' Diarmuid and Grania
. Rapping for the Celtic Twilight. 1962 was Beeching Year and the Oban line had been on his death list. Apart from sorting-out my history course, and discovering Victorian academe, the rest of the decade would be the bloody awful 'Festival of Our Ford', and wrecking of the Victorian city, which has yet to cease.
A rake of old red coaches and a black engine, slowly heating them, repaid a grey tweed walking-suit I'd inherited from Grandpa Russell who had died earlier that year and by God I needed it – but by Callander, the sun was up, the stag at dawn had drunk his fill, etc, and the western mountains blazed with bracken. Shovelling white steam we descended on dark-blue glittering lochs.
Years later, I re-read Anthony Trollope's The Duke's Children
, and realised how much he had used Post Office tours of duty, the Caledonian Railway and the steadily-extending Oban line in his Palliser novels, making the experience of the uneasily rich on the tourist trail echo the dissent of Chekhov or Fontane. 'Trollope destroys us with his genius', said a gobsmacked Tolstoy in 1880, and the Yale-rebuilt edition of The Duke's Children
in 2014 would make it rank as his greatest work: a study of decency and civic responsibility, otherwise dissolving under the cosh of cash. Trollope's Planty Pal noted at Bad Ischl that he could stabilise in old-fashioned ways that Franz-Josef no longer had to hand, through the 'Gladstonian Constitution' that infuriated Bismarck: social novels, university settlements, millionaires with morals: not something found much these days in the financial sector.
Oban in 1962 was freezing and all but deserted, marked grandly by buildings later wrecked, like the elaborate wooden station. Facing their own scrapyard were the elderly handsome MacBrayne diesel 'pocket liners' of the 1930s. I sketched the green-sandstone Free Kirk said to have been designed in a few hours by Augustus Pugin from his schooner in the late 1840s, a part of an awkward Catholic revival emanating from Abbotsford and Mountstewart which gripped just months before he went mad.
You can actually relive old Oban for a few seconds in the magic prelude to Powell & Pressburger's film, I Know Where I'm Going
(1945), when Wendy Hiller – self-made heroine – steams north to marry her Denis Thatcher on his island of Kiloran and lands at boat-cluttered Oban bay – or so she thinks. But from there the Oban cab will take her on to Luing, the old tower, the trees, the dishevelled house and its eccentrics, the moonstruck loch...
The greatest film ever made in Scotland? Whose stunning climactic, supposedly set in a storm in the Sound of Corryvreckan – which elated Kurosawa, no less – was in fact concocted in a London swimming
pool. Its lead actor Roger Livesey (he played Trollope's veteran Whig, the Duke of St Bungay, in The Pallisers
, 1973, his last screen role) never actually set foot in Scotland: all the studio stuff being filmed in London. Yet the country's complexity haunted Michael Powell. The Edge of the World
, 1937, had tackled the death of St Kilda in 1930, The Spy in Black
, starring the great German-Jewish actor Konrad Veidt, was a tragi-comedy of brave spies, Brit traitors and decrepit steamers in 1914 Orkney.
Corryvreckan: 'It doesn't suck you in. It spits you out'. Corryvreckan is like that. It blasted the pioneer steamboat 'Comet' across Loch Craignish in 1823. Then mazed the veteran boatman Duncan from Craob Haven when – with us on board – his boat ran into a sudden green wall of water: 'Christ! I've never seen it like that before!'.
Was it also Scotland's first tourist phenomenon? It gets named as 'Charybdis Brecani' in Adamnan's life (c. 700AD) of his teacher Saint Columba, when the Iona monastery was a modest clutter of huts and crosses, and Scarba and the vast fortress-like Staffa must have been more impressive waymarks. Yet, though part-Scots, and living as a precocious schoolboy only 80km away between 1814-16 at Irvine, Edgar Allan Poe – of A Descent into the Maelstrom
and begetter of Hollywood horror in general – was unaware of it. Can this be true? And in post-viral tourism, can we get back to that Saturday morning in 1962 where the islets of Easdale and beyond stood out like grey or silver cut-outs in the lower firth?
Well, my near contemporary PS Waverley is getting her new boilers fitted and will sashay-out – syncopating away – we hope by June. Be there!