Speed, bonnie boat! Over the sea to, erm, Zeeland

A new ferry route retraces a 200-year-old trade link between Scotland and Holland.
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The Independent Travel

Arriving from a small Fife port in the Dutch town of Veere reminds me of Alice's journey through the looking glass. Veere is in Zeeland on the now land-locked island of Walcheren. But here are the same pantiled roofs and crow-step gables to be found back in Culross or Pittenweem; the same cobbled streets; the same tidy harbour. As for the dykes, dams, sluices and ditches which secure Veere's foothold in its watery landscape, all these words made made their way across the sea into British dictionaries hundreds of years ago. Now one of those sea lanes is reopening after two centuries.

Arriving from a small Fife port in the Dutch town of Veere reminds me of Alice's journey through the looking glass. Veere is in Zeeland on the now land-locked island of Walcheren. But here are the same pantiled roofs and crow-step gables to be found back in Culross or Pittenweem; the same cobbled streets; the same tidy harbour. As for the dykes, dams, sluices and ditches which secure Veere's foothold in its watery landscape, all these words made made their way across the sea into British dictionaries hundreds of years ago. Now one of those sea lanes is reopening after two centuries.

"I don't think there is any general appreciation of just how close the links between Scotland and the Low Countries once were," says my husband's colleague Fiona Watson, the Stirling University historian who presents the BBC's In Search of Scotland television series. But from mid-May, with the launch of Scotland's first daily car ferry service to mainland Europe – from Rosyth near Edinburgh to Zeebrugge in Belgium - a forgotten connection will be re-established.

We northern drivers rejoice, anyone aiming at Zeebrugge having up to now having to face a boring and expensive haul to Hull, which nipped two days off your holiday, taxed family bonhomie to the limit and ruled out the possibility of Continental weekends on wheels.

In September came the announcement that a young Greek shipping company, Superfast Ferries, had won the Scottish Enterprise bid for the overnight route from among 42 competitors. Eight of Superfast's 12 ferries are under three years old and well equipped with bells and whistles, wooing their 1,550 passengers with games rooms and dance halls, boutiques and casinos, conference facilities and swish cabins, all en-suite. Rosyth-Zeebrugge fares will start at around £63 return or £350 for a family of four plus car.

Scotland's tourist industry will benefit, too. "It removes at a stroke a major disincentive to visiting Scotland," said Patrick Laughlin, chief executive of the Kingdom of Fife Tourist Board, recently. With advance bookings already running into tens of thousands, things are looking up in his patch already. David Paterson, owner of Culross-based DA Tours, which runs coach and specialist group holidays in Europe, told me he had already laid his head on the line in booking 20,000 berth-nights.

So much talk of Scotland and Europe made an excellent excuse to spend a weekend within easy reach of Zeebrugge, celebrating the new route by unearthing its venerable antecedents. Thanks to Fiona Watson, we knew that from 1541 to 1799 Veere had been the official port for Scottish trade – mainly wool – in the Netherlands. Ties had been strengthened earlier by the marriage in 1444 between the Lord of Veere and Mary Stuart, daughter of the Scottish King James V1.

A little stone swan sails over the doorway of a house in the Veere marketplace, once the inn where the Scots traders enjoyed duty-free liquor. According to Peter Blom, Veere's archivist, riotous noise and outlandish dancing were apparently causes of complaint from the neighbours who lived next door to the foreign merchants in The Lambkin, one of the two fine Renaissance "Scottish Houses" on the harbour, now preserved as the town museum.

Peter, an enthusiastic delver into the days when 7 or 8 per cent of Veere's population were Scots, seized a pike off the wall of the town hall courtroom to point out the tiny saltire flown by one of the ships crowding the Veere quays in a 17th-century painting. Zeeland song, story-telling traditions and dialect all carry echoes of that past. The surname Schot is common in these parts.

The provincial capital, Middelburg, with its terrific abbey, medieval shooting galleries and a town hall reassembled from the Second World War rubble of its former self, lay four miles down the road. Oyster shells lay among the medieval litter displayed among finds from the Scottish Houses cellars. From our vantage point in Veere (the name translates as Ferry) it was pleasant to see Europe as an old Scots oyster reopened.

The Facts

Getting there

Juliet Clough's trip was organised by DA Tours, Culross (01383 882200; email: study@datours.co.uk), which offers coach/ferry and air tours to Europe. The Medieval Dutch Ports tour visits Veere and Middelburg. Juliet flew from Edinburgh to Amsterdam with easyJet (0870 6000 000; www.easyjet.com), which offers fares from £27 one way. For ferry crossings from Rosyth to Zeebrugge contact Superfast Ferries ( www.superfast.com).

Being there

Juliet stayed at the Campveerse Toren, Veere (00 31 118 501231). B&b in a double room costs from ¤60 (£40) per night.

Further information

Netherlands Board of Tourism (0891 717 777; www.holland.com/uk).

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