A rainy day in Edinburgh – nothing for it but to head for an afternoon folk session in one of my favourite pubs
“It’s a Saturday afternoon”, my friend says to me, as a smile spreads across her face.
I smile back, nodding in recognition. It is a Saturday afternoon and while we could easily be lying at home wasting a day, or bogged down in never-ending chores, we’re not, we’re here in the snug Captain’s Bar in Edinburgh, supping on pints as we await the next song. The gathered musicians are sat on benches and stools mere feet away, and we’ve rarely been happier.
Music sessions take place here every night and some afternoons and while the onus is on Scottish and Irish folk music, it’s not always the case as we’ve just discovered. We sat in stunned silence minutes ago as a dainty and impeccably dressed lady sang an a capella version of Katie Melua’s Closest Thing to Crazy with such vulnerability that she turned a middle-of-the-road pop song into something quite beautiful, and the whole pub (well all 20 or so of us, it is small) are still recovering from singing a raucous rendition of Windmill in Old Amsterdam. It’s certainly not your average Saturday afternoon.
Normal service soon resumes. The bar man nips out from behind the bar, picks up his fiddle and joins in a jig, while another lady floors us with a beautifully delivered Gaelic lament.
Sad songs are good for you
Perhaps caught up in the moment, my friend tells me that when she dies she wants us to throw her wake here. I promise her I’ll do my best (if I’m still alive).
The sombre tone of the song makes me reflect too. It’s a year since my brother died and while the popular analogy pertaining to grief talks of the empty chair at the table, for reasons I won’t go into, that doesn’t fit with him at all.
It’s at moments like these that I feel his absence most. He was a musician and from the age of five or six when he was given his first guitar, he would play alongside my eldest brother at family events or social gatherings when our Irish mother would take to the floor, or convince me or one of our many aunts, uncles and cousins to sing. He liked it more than he would admit, though his eyes would roll if any of us dared dropped out of time.
I wonder then what he would have thought about me getting up to sing the previous night at another of my favourite folk music pubs, Sandy Bell’s? I’m sure whatever he thought, he would have been none too surprised. I just hope my timing was OK.
Driving to Diabaig tested my mettle but spare a thought for my passenger, who probably wished she’d packed earplugs
To some, driving in Scotland (outside the cities) is second nature. Single track roads are taken adeptly, they worry not about the sheer drop into the valley below as they wind up a mountain, and when confronted by a surprise steep incline they calmy drop to first, keep a steady speed and reach the top without so much as a shriek. This is not me.
I am a city dweller: I know where I am with traffic jams, roundabouts and speed bumps. But out on the open road I feel a little, well alone. No other cars to help me anticipate the road ahead, and the fear that should I stall at 90 degrees I’ll be on my own for a very long time indeed.
Of course, my fear is only slightly based on reality. You do come across other cars driving in Scotland and I’m a safe driver, but I have a vivid imagination.
So with the unnerving chuckle of the man in the bar from the previous night still taunting me, my friend and I set off on the short, beautiful, but at times treacherous drive to Lower Diabaig.
Diabaig here we come
From Torridon village, where walkers often park up before they begin their ascent of the twin peaks (or horns) of Beinn Alligin, the road to Diabaig climbs inland. At first it skirts Upper Loch Torridon, before snaking further away from the coast.
I was just getting used to the narrow roads, bumps that hide the route ahead, and even the hairpin bends, when a particularly sharp one of the latter revealed an unexpectedly steep hill. There was nothing for it. I screamed, shouted some panic-driven obscenities, awkwardly moved down to first gear and floored the accelerator, all the while willing the car to make it up. It did. Just.
Driving to Diabaig – the payoff
I was still shaking with relief when we reached the viewpoint over the loch below. What a scene: a mass of sapphire water framed by grassy moorland and not another soul to be seen. This is what Scottish travel is all about.
From here the descent into the tiny harbour hamlet of Lower Diabaig was relatively stress-free. Admittedly my friend and I strategised to ensure our safe return to Torridon (by then I was a single-track pro).
Lower Diabaig is little more than a clutch of cottages, a red telephone box, a pier and a cafe/restaurant. But it is a calming, pretty spot and one that I plan to revisit. Now that I know what to expect, the drive there will be a breeze.
The sense of relief as we parked up at the Torridon Hotel and Inn after a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Inverness Airport was palpable.
It was November and though the drive should have taken a lot less, a delayed flight and early sunset meant we had to navigate a large part of the route along a single track road in the dark. And then it started to rain.
Nevertheless, we had made it and walking into the lobby of the hotel, where a stag head stared down at us to the left and a fire crackled away to our right, felt a lot like we had returned from a major expedition. What that imagined expedition was we didn’t know but we felt like victors and fully deserving of our feast to come.
Checked in and warmed through, my friend and I virtually skipped to our bedroom to prepare for dinner. From our double windows at the front of the Victorian manor house we could just make out the silhouette of some large mountains looming over the black loch, but the view would have to wait, hunger beckoned.
Downstairs in the 1887 restaurant we could hardly contain our excitement. Weather like this called for two things: red wine and food. And lots of it.
I opted for the lamb belly with anchovy, spring onion, carney ash and pickled white cabbage to start, while my friend chose local Wester Ross salmon with sea buckthorn, sea vegetables, and grilled lettuce.
For main, I couldn’t resist the halibut with leek, Skye mussels, cured ham and butter milk, while my friend decided to try venison for the first time, reared on one of the mountain ranges we couldn’t quite make out: Beinn Eighe.
It was all rounded off with a delicate gingerbread (for her) and a selection of British cheeses for me.
Full-bellied, rosy-cheeked from the wine, but not quite ready for bed, we made our way to the Whisky Bar where we sat next to two couples (one English, one Scottish), who seemed to find our dallying over the menu quite entertaining.
“Where are you off to tomorrow?” the Scottish husband asked.
“I’m not sure,” I said. “Perhaps we’ll just explore the estate.” Truth be told, we hadn’t actually thought past dinner.
“Are you driving?” he asked.
He must have seen the hesitation in my face. The last thing I was thinking of right now was getting behind the wheel of a car.
“You have to go to Diabaig” he instructed.
“What’s the drive like?” I asked.
He could hardly hide his amusement. “Oh fine”, he said. “You’ll be fine.” All the while glinting at me.
My stomach did a backflip. My friend just laughed.
Brushing off the sense of impending doom I returned my attention to the menu.
With 350 malt whiskies to choose from, it can be a daunting prospect choosing a nightcap at the Torridon. Luckily for us, the helpful barman was on hand to help steer our decision.
“I like it a bit peaty but not too smokey” was my pathetically inept instruction.
However, somehow it worked and I was presented with a dram of my new favourite whisky brand: Bunnahabhain.
It wasn’t quite as nice as the Old Fashioned cocktail the barman subsequently made me, which I declared to the whole bar (well by this stage it was just me, my friend and him) was the “nicest Old-Fashioned I’ve ever had”.
Needless to say, we slept very well that evening.
Today I should be in Fife. I should have collected my hire car from Edinburgh Airport this morning, driven over the Queensferry Crossing Bridge and be making my way along the A92, en route to the East Neuk (or corner) of Fife to my bed for the night at The Ship Inn in the harbour town of Elie.
I had even planned to attempt the Elie Chainwalk during my latest trip to Scotland – a truly unique coastal walk that starts at Kincraig Point by West Bay beach. I say ‘walk’ but it’s more of a scramble really, using the carefully placed chains and posts to pull, lower and generally drag yourself along the half-a-kilometre cliff-hugging route between Elie and Shell Bay. It sounds like a great adventure but alas, it is not for today.
Today I am holed up in London. Flights in and out of Scotland are grounded and Fife, along with other areas along the Central Belt of Scotland (Strathclyde, Lothian, Tayside) as well as parts of the Scottish Borders, have been under red alert for snow for the first time in Scotland’s history (or at least since the weather system was in place) as the polar vortex labelled the ‘Beast from the East’ and Storm Emma continue to wreak havoc across Britain.
Ah well, extreme weather is one of the things visitors to Scotland must contend with. Undeterred, I plan to fly to Edinburgh on Saturday morning and spend a couple of days in the Scottish capital exploring as best I can in the cold conditions. Fingers crossed I make it this time.