We are staying in the People’s Republic of Sturgeonia. We meant to enter through Berwick-on-Tweed, with its bridges celebrated in art, but apparently the A1 was shut; the satnav took us through deserted valleys and past uninterested sheep and lonely peaks. It was so deserted that I wondered whether we would spot the Border; there are no machine gun posts yet. In fact there was a cairn, with ‘Scotland’ on it and a boy vomiting against the side. He was vomiting on the Scottish side. I don’t know if it was a gesture – for all I know the other side of the cairn says ‘England’. We did not investigate but drove on towards Edinburgh and arrived at midnight.
Edinburgh strives bravely to please the tourist but its heart is not in it. We had booked a self-catering flat. It was the meanest bit of space that I have encountered since I was in New York and people there would boast of similarly exiguous and cabbage-smelling accommodation. In each case the excuse was location, and indeed we could look out of the barred windows onto at least one murder site from the novels of Ian Rankin. On the table was the book of rules. After perfunctorily welcoming us to the great city in which we were privileged to be resting our heads, it told us at length what we were not permitted to do. ‘PENALTY: £100’, it would say, or, in one case, ‘PENALTY: £500’. That I think that was for spilling Irn Bru on the carpet.
Bella, the dog, needed to relieve herself before retiring. She has a foible about this: she will only do it on grass, unless she is in Portugal. Portugal is an exception as there is very little grass there. It is like Buddhists being allowed to eat meat in Tibet. There is grass in Edinburgh but it is locked up at night. We wandered the streets looking for a blade or two on which she could deposit one of her small and elegant effusions. It was all put away behind iron railings. She became embarrassed. Finally we broke into the National Gallery and found a patch there: in the grounds, obviously, not inside, in front of the Reverend whatever skating, or any of their other masterpieces.
Edinburgh is the subject of an interesting social experiment. The aim is that fifty per cent of the population should be traffic wardens. If you look around you, you will see that they are well on the way to achieving this exciting target. Furthermore, there is a new law to the effect that it is an offence to block the view between a traffic warden and any car in which the warden might reasonably be considered to be taking a professional interest. As a result the roads are occupied by the much-admired new trams and by Americans in kilts trudging glumly up to the Castle, while the pavements are full of traffic wardens, preening themselves and lovely in yellow.
On we drove, past the wonderful Forth rail bridge and the site of yet another road bridge in the process of being built, and onto the A9. This is the road that takes you out of the Central Belt north from Perth and on as far as you want: even as far as John O’Groats. The A9 is a difficult road. It has two lanes for most of its length and you get stuck behind lorries and caravans. The radio signal goes and Radio 4 turns to white noise. There is money for another road bridge for the Central Belt, but not for communications in the Highlands.
The view of the Cairngorms is stupendous – or was. These days it is difficult to see the Cairngorms as the roadside is littered with official signs. These announce enterprising new traffic-calming projects, remind you of the speed limit and inform you that policemen are operating in unmarked cars. (Operating? On whom?) There are endless speed cameras.
And now we are in the Highlands and there is a problem with rubbish. I wish that there was an agreed standard about what could be put into which bin. There are two bins. There is a sign on one of them that tells you that various things are not welcome, and another sign to the effect that if you put the wrong things in the wrong bin they won’t take them away: on a second offence they would throw it all through your bedroom window with a foul cry. We put the bottles (there had been family merriment) in the bin that did not say that bottles were forbidden. Half an hour later the neighbour deposited the bottles back on our doorstep with a note. It was in capitals and underlined, like the anonymous notes that one gets accusing one of sodomising the vicar’s cat. It was to the effect that bottles were not welcome at all. They were to be taken to the supermarket.
I resisted the temptation to shove them, open end dripping, through the neighbour’s bedroom window with a foul cry. This was wise, as half an hour later she set out up the hill with a wheelbarrow containing, I am fairly certain, her murdered lover. Certainly she trudged glumly back with wheelbarrow empty and the lover has not been seen since. What might I have seen if I had looked in!
Instead, we drove with the bottles the twelve-mile trip to the supermarket and back, thus solving climate change at a stroke.
I am sitting with the sun setting over the western mountains. (I am writing but not posting, as there is no broadband.) There is little human between us and Canada. The landscape is immense. It ruminates as it settles into the night. Otherwise it is absolutely silent. I hope that they let us continue to come here. I love it and it feels like home. And I hope that they grow out of their current mood of institutional bossiness.