There is still no cure for Mallaig
Twenty-one years ago, realising that I had travelled very little in my native country, I went on a tour of Scotland, writing a book about my experiences as I went along. The result, 'Travels in a Small Country', provoked angry correspondence when it was serialised by the Herald. The proprietor of the 1314 public house in Bannockburn challenged me to a duel outside his establishment. I was warned that I had better never set face in Mull again. But from the dreariest place in the whole country, the object of my fiercest attack, there was no response whatever.
The terminus of the West Highland railway (metaphorically as well as literally), the fishing port of Mallaig, maintained a lofty silence. 'You can't get anything more end of the line than Mallaig,' I had written. 'Built on the site of a hill by the sea, it has one of the most romantic outlooks in Europe, yet the village itself is shoddy, rundown and unwelcoming'.
Yet no one objected. I supposed that it must be true: that Mallaig was worse than Bannockburn, inferior even to Fort William. What was so awful about it? I will summarise.
At the only hotel, I asked the receptionist for an early morning call for the first train out, the 6.50. She said the best she could do was leave an alarm clock in my room along with a 'continental breakfast'. A fellow guest, an Englishman completing a cycling holiday, was reluctantly given permission to park his bike in the foyer. I spotted it there in the evening as I set off in search of fresh Mallaig haddock. In one of several seedy bars, I encountered what was known throughout the West Highlands as 'pub grub': i.e. neither fresh nor Mallaig, but something that had once possibly been a haddock.
The alarm clock didn't work, but I was pretty sure I would be awake in this dreary little room long before the required hour. And there, on a tray, was the promised continental breakfast – a tiny bowl of rice crispies, a stale roll, a packet of marmalade and a tea bag.
The 6.50 was unheated. It had not been cleaned since the day before and was littered with filthy coffee cups and old newspapers. Its loco was called Oor Wullie.
'Nine stops to Fort William,' sighed an American as we pulled out. He sounded weary of all the lovely scenery.
The cyclist sought me out. His news of the morning was grim indeed. His bicycle had been stolen from the hotel foyer. The proprietor had noticed it gone around 2am. For a few minutes, we both cursed Mallaig. I made a joke of saying that the place sounded like a disease and asking whether there might be a cure for it.
My new friend was philosophical about his loss. Though of some sentimental value, the bike was fairly old; he would have had to buy a new one soon anyway. What depressed him was the thought of it being stolen in the West Highlands, where he had heard people felt so safe they didn't bother to lock their doors at night. The experience had sickened him. Mallaig had sickened him. In the hotel he had asked for bath towels and been given hand towels; even in the Amazonian jungle, they had heard of bath towels.
One thing was certain: he would not be returning in a hurry. 'Goodbye Scotland,' he said bitterly. I tried to cheer him up and said he should give us a second chance. But he was inconsolable. I came to the sad conclusion that there was no cure for Mallaig.
After dining out on Mallaig for several years, I had pretty well forgotten all about it. But then, last weekend, I was reminded of its uniquely nightmarish qualities. In the Spectator magazine there was an account by Jeremy Clarke of a February jaunt, the first and greater part of it by Caledonian sleeper, to Fort William and then onward, by one of those pathetic two-carriage ScotRail jobs, to a place no man should be expected to visit in February, alone on his birthday.
I will let poor Jeremy Clarke pick up his own story.
'I walked out of the station and turned right at the Fishermen's Mission. The high street consisted of a couple of shops (closed), a marine engineer's workshop, a public lavatory, a boarded-up pub and a Portakabin selling books and fishing tackle....(closed). I'd brought swimming trunks, goggles and a towel with me. A couple of dozen lengths of Mallaig's indoor pool would be as splendid a way as any to celebrate my birthday. It would pass the time, too. The pool, when I found it, was also closed.'
He pushed on as far as a small development of new-build housing on the outskirts of the village. It was called, appropriately enough, Gordon Brown Place.
On his way back, with hours to fill before the next train back to Fort William, the birthday boy had a lucky break. A funeral service was being broadcast from the porch of the Church of Scotland 'via a large, rock band-style amplifier.' The minister's apocalyptic words – 'a new Jerusalem and no more nakedness' – rang out across the Sound of Sleet. The minister went on to praise the good and useful life of the deceased, 'one of the world's greatest knitters'. Jeremy leaned on a gate and listened, right to the end. After it was over, he continued into the village, wondering if the Fishermen's Mission might be open for a cup of tea.
Despite the many advances in medical science since 1989, when I wrote my book, I am afraid there is still no cure for Mallaig.