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A VIEW FROM THE BRIDGE
“Loch Morlich. You have to go there.”
The waiter brought my plate of bangers and mash, and saw that I had a map of the area spread across my table.
The vast swath of countryside represented in a noncommittal shade of pale green, I already knew, was Cairngorms National Park, covering an enormous region in the far north of Scotland.
My map, a freebie from a tourist information bureau, was sorely lacking in the kind of detail one would expect from an office promoting Scotland’s many outdoor delights. Neither footpath, parking area, restaurant or scenic overlook, nor gradient, peak or valley was identified on my map. This could be why the map was free. You have to pay for the good ones.
“There,” the waiter said, indicating a differently colored smudge in one corner. Then he put my dinner plate on it. “Loch Morlich is very nice.”
“Is it?” I stared ravenously at the plate of classic British food. These sausages were going to be good. “How do I get there?”
“You like hiking?” He was clearly not Scottish. For one thing, he was smiling. Scots don’t do that unless you pay them or drink heavily with them. “You can walk there.”
“I’d rather not. I won’t find it.”
“There’s a road. A bus goes there.”
“Oh, splendid.” I picked up knife and fork. I wanted to plow into the food, but one hesitates to do that with the waiter hovering. “Where do I find this bus?”
“Right there,” he pointed through the window. “That’s the bus stop.”
“It’s very nice.” He left.
Wondering whether he meant the bus, the stop or the loch, I tucked into my dinner and decided to investigate the apparent attraction the following day.
The bus turned out to be an ancient double-decker that arrived at its stop the next morning either completely free of any scheduling constraints or seriously late; it was hard to tell. The driver looked at me with surprise, accepted my money and said with a shrug that he would take me to Loch Morlich, which made me think he didn’t do this sort of thing very often.
I was the only passenger. This was hardly novel, as no one could have known when the bus would arrive or where it might go. A timetable posted on the bus stop had been printed in the 1990s and belonged in a museum.
The driver floored the accelerator, the bus lurched into a forest and I lurched into a handrail. For the next ten minutes or hour (time being meaningless in Scotland), the creaking double-decker flung itself at trees, teetered horribly in curves, screamed up little hills and roared ferociously down them. Hapless pine branches that overhung the narrow park road (not on my map) were smacked mercilessly; birds scattered; a young doe leapt into a ditch.
Quite without warning, the bus shuddered to a stop beside a clump of greenery and a wooden fence.
“Is this it?” I asked the driver after I had stumbled back down the stairs, afraid he’d suddenly lean on the throttle again. “Loch Morlich?”
I couldn’t see any loch. There were just tall trees. The forest looked dense and faintly unwelcoming.
“Aye,” he said without looking at me. Then, without pointing, “O’er thar, lad.”
“Oh, thank you.” I stepped out of the bus onto the road.
“You’ll like it,” he said without taking his eyes off the road. “It’s very nice.”
“Is there a bus going back the other way?”
“Aye, when it comes.”
“Do you know when?”
I was left in a blue cloud of diesel exhaust, completely alone, on an empty two-lane road in the middle of the forest.
It occurred to me then that ‘nice’ might not mean what you think in Scotland.
Join me again next week as I explore a little more of the Cairngorms and Scotland’s imaginative bus service.