A toast to my surly waitress in Skye
James Dalrymple's Notebook
Saturday 14 August 1999
It was a proud moment for me, a native of Scotland who now lives in the south of England. I had promised my two guests - my aunt from New York and her Italian friend, both in their seventies and both of them experienced world travellers - that they would see something that would take their breath away, and we had driven 600 miles to see it. This magical island and its misty, forbidding mountain range had not let me down.
Yet what followed in the next 30 minutes made me burn with shame. We had ordered something called Fresh Haddock Garni from the menu, along with a bottle of chilled white wine, allegedly from the Loire valley. What we got was a plate of congealed mush, swimming in fat, accompanied by chips the size of Ian Botham's fingers and blackened at the edges. And the wine, served at the temperature of a baby's bathwater, was so corrosive that it could have been used to clean the smeared cutlery that had been slammed down in front of us by a waitress who had said only one word - a sullen "Yeah" - since we had walked in.
The bill for this mess, paid by my aunt, came to over pounds 70. The girl made no comment at the pounds 5 tip and I wanted to rip the note out of her grubby hand.
We spent that night at what called itself a three-star hotel, where the bar had closed by 11pm, and where the shower in my room produced a dribble of either scalding or freezing water - with nothing in between - from a rusting, wall mounted, clip-on nozzle that became a frightening snake as it jumped at me in mid-flow. The bill here was close to pounds 200 for three.
Next day we paid six quid to cross a 200-yard bridge back to the mainland, making it pounds 12 for the round trip. In Skye, as with everywhere else in the tourist centres of the land of my fathers, they promise you a warm welcome then charge an entrance fee at the door.
One night, in a B&B house near Oban, I slept in old, frayed sheets in a room with walls so damp that you could have grown mushrooms on them. In a long, sleepless night I could look out of the window across a moonlit bay, where scores of islands floated in dreamlike beauty, but neither the bedside lamp nor the light in the lavatory worked, and the single strip of bacon, shrivelled egg and two-inch sausage we got the next morning looked lost on the vast plate. Cost: pounds 38 a head.
It was our only foray into the low end of the market. But we discovered that the majestic but dilapidated hotels were little better. Threadbare carpets, windows sealed shut through age, creaking floorboards, a cuisine that left you either ravenous or bloated with badly cooked food - combined with poorly paid, demoralised staff - made each night's stop a Gothic adventure. Bram Stoker must have got his inspiration in places like these. My aunt's bath taps shook so violently as they tried to produce hot water that she had to call for help to turn them off. We laughed at that. We stopped laughing when we got a bill for pounds 250-plus the next morning.
In all, my trek through the Scottish highlands with the two ladies lasted five days. And back in London, looking through credit card stubs and what cash remained in my wallet, and estimating what my companions had spent, I did a rough calculation and realised that we had spent nearly pounds 1,800. In my local travel agency I discovered that for about the same amount, for three people, we could have had 10 days in Austria or a cottage in Tuscany, or five nights in a Venice hotel on full board.
I was fuming at these figures. But I didn't regret having taken these two elderly companions to the land of my birth. We had seen and enjoyed one of the last great and unchanging landscapes left in Europe. I had played golf in a valley deep in the Cairngorms, on a course that is said to have been built by God to get his handicap down. We had walked at dawn through the dark, fearsome mountain cauldron of Glencoe and trekked across the bleak moor at Culloden and tasted, in both places, the long, often murderous and turbulent history of a nation that has learnt, through centuries of violence and conflict, that tolerance, decency and fairness are the goals of any society.
But my experience of that trip made me unsurprised by the news that this year the Scottish tourist industry - employing more than 180,000 people, and one of the country's biggest earners - was facing meltdown. There has been a huge drop in the number of tourists. Hotels and B&B houses are running half-empty, cafes and gift shops are going bankrupt, and the armadas of huge touring buses that once clogged highland roads are becoming an endangered species.
I found myself rejoicing at this news. I have a deep, instinctive loathing of the tourist trade. To me it ranks third in the three most destructive cash businesses in the modern world, behind those of weapons and drugs. And, as a reporter who has seen the poisonous effects of it on every continent, I make that claim in complete seriousness.
In the last 40 years, mass tourism, and the ruthless players who control it, have distorted economies, destroyed landscapes, corrupted whole populations and too often polluted ancient and delicately balanced cultures. In the long term it almost inevitably destroys the very things that it claims to celebrate.
It has turned a country such as Thailand into one gigantic brothel, with its government officials little better than pimps for the thousands of 13-year-old girls who sell themselves in the streets of Bangkok. In my lifetime I have seen two of the most beautiful islands in the world, Tenerife and Ibiza, turned into stinking, concrete hell-holes where gangsters control the time-share rackets, and the giants of mass tourism have turned peaceful villages into alcohol-fuelled playgrounds for British hooligans.
In the Algarve, where I once walked for miles through marshlands used as a route-stop by a thousand species of migrating birds, they have drained the water and poured chemicals into the earth to build an endless chain of golf-courses, and the skies are now silent of birdsong. Just two years ago I went to see the Niagara Falls and found that one of the world's great natural spectacles is now surrounded by mile after mile of cheap motels, clapboard trailers and fairgrounds, driving away the original residents and creating an environment around the falls that is as decayed and raucous as a Third World shanty town.
Scotland, despite its miserable climate, has always been attractive to millions. But it has jealously guarded its greatest asset, the millions of acres of mountains, lochs and forests that make its northern region that last great unspoilt wilderness in Europe. It has golf courses, too, hundreds of them. But they were created from the landscape, designed to enhance, not destroy it. And apart from one great aberration - the hellish region around Aviemore - there has been no attempt to build high-rise concrete hotels.
They are canny promoters, too, quick to exploit a culture and mythology that are largely as phoney as their most famous cloth garments ("just give me your name, sir, and we will find your clan tartan and run you up a nice wee kilt, and sporran to match") and the historical absurdities that were created by Walter Scott. The infamous Loch Ness monster was invented by a nameless Victorian journalist, yet within a few years a whole legend - including forged documents - had been created, suggesting that the damn thing had been with us for centuries.
Hollywood gave us Braveheart a few years ago, and millions of Americans really believed that it was close to historical truth. Nobody in the Scottish tourist industry (or even in the academic industry) so much as whispered that Mel Gibson's version of the life and times of William Wallace was the biggest load of codswallop imaginable. It all helps to bring in the punters and their money - and one from the other will be quickly and efficiently parted.
So to me, for one, the decline in the Scottish tourist industry is just fine. We've gone just about far enough down that greedy, dangerous road. Bus-loads of geriatrics choking the roads, concrete eyesores built on the edge of the 17th fairway at St Andrews, thousands of identical gift shops selling tartan junk and plastic bagpipes, private bridges that rake in millions for entrepreneurs, and the ripping out of the forest around Loch Lomond to put up cheap wooden huts - all of it to benefit whom? Not those who sweat at the sharp end, the lowest-paid manual workers in Europe. And certainly not those who love and admire a truly great country.
So, long may the appalling cuisine flourish. Let the rains and winds howl. Put another 10p on petrol tax and force those gigantic buses off the narrow roads. And let's raise a glass to those surly waitresses and B&B gorgons who make you feel as welcome as a hawk on a grouse moor.
If you want to see Scotland, do what thousands of true travellers still do. Get your waterproofs and hiking boots out, buy a stout tent, get out there and experience a culture that is as mature and honest and good as any in the world - and feast your eyes on a landscape so fine that it will steal your heart away.
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