Why are mountains female? In Scotland, there are three sisters in Glen Coe and five sisters in Kintail – not a brother in sight.
I'm inclined to such inconsequential musing when travelling through the West Highlands, sun streaming through the bus windows and the woman behind me regaling her companion with that old chestnut about the short-sighted wifie and the dog. I had better tell you, too. Stop me if you've heard it.
The wifie is on the bus to Portree, in Skye, and at Glen Coe an elderly man gets on and sits beside her. "Ooh,'' she says. "Is that your dog? I love dogs,'' and she leans over and starts stroking the small furry animal in the man's lap. He says nothing. "Would it like a biscuit?'' asks the wifie rummaging in her bag. For the next hour or so she strokes the dog intermittently, offering it biscuits and then at Glengarry the man gets off. "Goodbye,'' he says, "and thanks for feeding my sporran.''
The rest of the family have gone to Portugal to play tennis. I don't play tennis. I went with them at half-term last year, but much as I enjoy sitting on the terrace of the tennis club in Val de Lobo listening to shouts of "Oh I say, good shot Caroline'' by day and eating grilled sardines al fresco by night, I'd much rather spend Easter in Scotland.
Most years at this time I wake up to the sound of lambs bleating outside my window, but because Easter is so early the house is surrounded by huge roly poly pregnant ewes. When I'm ready to be put out to grass like them I shall have a couple of sheep as lawnmowers, a sheepdog called Jim (all the sheepdogs on this island are called Jim or Dal) and six big, black hens with red combs scratching about by the back door.
One of the first stories that I ever did as a young reporter in Scotland was about a village school being closed down in the Western Isles despite passionate protests from the locals. It was in Harris. The school only had one pupil, and he was the teacher's seven-year-old son. I expected to find him doing his lessons on the kitchen table, but no, every morning son and father both left the house and walked across to the school. Half way through his geography lesson, a black hen with a bright red comb wandered in and laid an egg in the art cupboard.
"So what's new?" I asked my local informant, who had kindly offered to drive me to the Port Appin ferry. Well, he said, the local council had just turned down a plan to build a gibbet at Ballachulish for the Jubilee celebrations. "You mean the Queen's golden jubilee?" I said, surprised. "Hardly", said my informant dryly, and this was not exactly royalist territory.
Up here in Appin, they are celebrating the 250th anniversary this summer of a local hero, one James Stewart, the last Jacobite martyr, who was hanged after being found guilty by a Campbell jury of murdering the King's messenger, Colin Campbell of Glenure.
If you have read Robert Louis Stevenson's novel Kidnapped, you'll know the story.
If you haven't, the bare bones are these. Seven years after Bonny Prince Charlie's futile bid for glory and the English throne, when anti-Jacobite legislation was at its most draconian and bagpipes, porridge and the wearing of tartan were outlawed, Campbell of Glenure, known as the Red Fox, travelling on the King's business from Fort William to Inveraray was ambushed and shot at Ballachulish. James Stewart of Appin was arrested, tried and executed. He was almost certainly innocent, but someone had to swing, and his unfortunate corpse was left to swing from a 30ft gibbet beside Loch Linnhe for two years.
When bits fell off the rotting body, they were retrieved and wired back on. In the circumstances you can see why people in these parts are more inclined to commemorate a local martyr than a foreign monarch. The gibbet plan was turned down on taste grounds. Apparently someone at the meeting did suggest lighting bonfires to celebrate the Queen's golden jubilee, to which a heckler at the back shouted: "Aye, burn the bitch."