The Highland Inn: A Fawlty Towers Redux
An Air of Slight But Not Disagreeable ShabbinessLast updated Saturday November 26th, 2005
By SCOTT JOHNSTON
We were away for three days, the three of us - my friend Tom of 30 years, Hsiu ling - a 28-year- old Taiwanese girl whose Edinburgh University PhD thesis on the social and political context of Nazi architecture I was editing. And me. Our aim was to climb a well known and much loved peak in the western Highlands of Scotland.
It would be a long and strenuous day, and not for the faint hearted. So we booked ourselves for two nights in a 10-bedroom Highland Inn that a good script writer could with little effort use as the inspiration for a new series of Fawlty Towers. It is not expensive and attracts a goodish collection of prime people-watching material.
Particularly rewarding is their interaction with the owner, a well spoken Englishman of huge suppressed anger. He dresses always in pinstriped shirts over a larger than healthy stomach. What he really wants to be is a banker. He had developed a bizarre system of administration involving the daily creation of dozens of little paper chits to be pored over, reconciled and verified, classified and analyzed, and filed for future cross referencing. A request for a cup of coffee will spark this system into operation, generating yet more chits and dockets. It is hugely watchable.
Antlers And All
The truth is likely much more mundane, but our theory is he must somehow have offended his family who now pay him perhaps £10,000 a year on condition he never comes south of the border, and he uses the money to finance the purchase of this well over 100 year old coaching inn that like him has come down in the world.
It stands at the junction where you can leave the road to Scotland’s far northwest and turn on the still single track road due west towards the sea. Great and shapely mountains soar up behind the inn. There are faded sepia tint photographs of late Victorian shooting parties. In the bar, a place that the small local population seems to use in the evenings to confirm their sense of the futility of life, there is of course a stag’s head, antlers and all. Later pictures, circa 1923, show single deck buses of the time with spindly wheels and thin tires and people dressed in kilts standing by, looking impressed. And there is a reprint of an account of the place by some late Victorian traveler whose description conveys the same sense of wonder at the discovery of the exotic and the primitive that you find in 18th century accounts of travels in the Scottish Highlands.
We arrived late in the afternoon. The front door of the inn leads through a small porch directly into the dining room. Beyond that are doors to the bar and to the bedrooms. Nothing is modern, and at first sight none the worse for that. There is an air of slight but not disagreeable shabbiness. Generations of people, you feel, must have been comfortable there, and felt at home.
Two thin, anxious people stood by the door leading upstairs to the bedrooms. - clearly guests who had arrived minutes before us. Confronting them, a woman, mid 50s perhaps. She must have got dressed in the dark. Ill fitting trousers, and a dowdy sweat shirt. She had a walking stick and a strong English accent acquired at an expensive minor public school where she’d majored in condescension.
"Ah" she shouted to us across the heads of the two worried guests, ignoring them entirely "Archie’s at the airport!"
Good to know.
"These people are French," she added, pointing at the nervous couple. "Well they might be Belgian, of course. They speak French, anyway."
The worried man muttered "French."
"Jolly good,” boomed the woman "Ah, la Belle France!"
And she swept them upstairs, calling back to us "Janet will be down to see to you.”
Reappearing just as Janet joined us, she limped slightly to the front door, turned her back to it, pushed it open with her backside, and with the words "Bottoms sometimes have uses you know!" walked out of the inn and out of our lives, I suppose for ever.
Janet is the woman who enables the place to survive. Fortyish, Glasgow accent, cheerful, friendly, no airs and graces, professional and efficient. In the evening we had a pint in the bar, watched Archie (now revealed to be the owner, back from the airport) busy administering his fascinating and complex system of chits from his position behind the bar. More chits than drinks were crossing the bar. It was fascinating.
Tom and I had a room with twin beds. But it had no bathroom - very unusual in this day and age. But no matter, there was one next door, which in the course of the night I visited. I had taken elaborate care not to lock myself out, but the door was smarter, and I had to spend five minutes knocking softly on the door to waken Tom to let me in. Which, with good grace, he did.
He and Hsiu ling and I met at eight for breakfast, which was entirely adequate. The other guests - all social misfits in one way or another - afforded some interest. The French couple, cowed and silent. An enormous woman from Liverpool with a loud and jolly voice. Everything she said - absolutely everything - was punctuated with gales of wheezy laughter. Her husband looked defeated. Had she been found in a shallow grave, no jury would have convicted him. "Give my love to Toronto" she bellowed across the room to another guest who had revealed he had plans to go there. And then nearly fell off the chair, wracked with mirth at the humor of her own remarks. Priceless stuff!
I had not had a shower before breakfast and left the table before my companions to have one. I took the key to our room, telling Tom I would leave it in the door in case he needed in while I was still in the shower. Which I did.
Ten minutes later I return to my room, damp but wrapped in a dressing gown to find Tom wrestling with the key. Nothing we can do will open the door. Tom goes for help. Janet comes back with him. She does her cheerful best. But the door stays locked. She goes for Archie. He arrives, as usual, sweating slightly. Nothing. He goes to fetch a bag of tools. Comes back, and begins, methodically at first, but with increasing desperation, to rip out the various bits of wood panelling around the door. Nothing. He goes off to fetch "heavier equipment". Already there’s a heap of wood and plaster around the door. It’s clear he’s prepared to dismantle the place brick by brick.
Since I am still in my dressing gown and need to get dressed, I do not seek to dissuade him.
At this point Hsiu ling shows up. A mere slip of a girl. She picks up the key from the floor, glances at it and at the door, inserts the metal tab to which the key is attached into one of the holes that Archie has already bashed out, and the door swings open. Had she not had the advantage of five thousand years of civilization behind her, we would have felt just a bit humiliated. As must Archie have felt when a moment later he arrived with yet more equipment. But the lass has done the job for him, and without breaking sweat.
Leaving Archie with what was left of the wall around our bedroom door, we drift off, not to climb our mountain, for this was a brief bad day in an otherwise outstanding summer, but to drive down to Ullapool, the Summer Isles and Lochinver, arguing vigorously about whether rationalism ought properly to form the basis of a sensible philosophical system.
Restoring the damage to our door and to the surrounding wall was not the only problem on Archie’s mind as we drove off down the lochside that morning, a curtain of low clouds veiling the mountain tops where we really wanted to be, but occasionally parting to tantalize us with glimpses of them high above us in the sky - handsome soaring and jagged ridges and peaks. Away on our right, across the loch, under the doleful gray cloud cover, lay the desolate and trackless country that lies to the east beyond the massive bulk of Ceatharnan, a mountain created with the picture postcard industry in mind.
Before we left, Tom had learned that Archie’s plan for the day was to launch the next phase of a protracted and bitter campaign to reclaim the £5000 that, according to the reckoning yielded up by close scrutiny of his system of chits, Visa had long owed him. Tom left him rearranging the his evidence in preparation for his new assault.
Leaving all that behind, we drove on arguing with increasing passion about the proper role of reason in the ordering of human and public life. This took us nicely to Ullapool, where we had a bun in a sad tearoom that sold toys and kiss-me-quick paper hats and souvenirs of tastelessness unmatched anywhere in my experience except in the holy town of Lourdes in France.
After that we had sandwiches in one of these whole grain food places - home baking, strange salads, and lots of brown rice. It is a curious fact that in the Highlands you often find such places, also selling wind chimes, crystals, and other New Age artefacts. They advertise ceilidhs and meetings where you can bond with the timeless earth, or rocks, or whatever. They are run by earnest 30-something New England women who are tall and handsome, but in an unattractive sort of way. They wear long skirts, and wooden beads. The food was good, though. The proprietor’s world view might be short on rationality; it wasn’t lacking in sound commercial logic.
Then to the pub, a very different social milieu. A plain straightforward no nonsense kind of place, clean, well run, and efficient, with windows overlooking the harbor. The lunch menu indicated sensible no nonsense Scottish food. Sensible locals sat around being agreeable to each other. We sat by the window, continuing our debate on reason and ideology, but with our voices lowered, not wishing to attract ridicule and contempt.
A man at the bar began to take increasing interest in us. Late 50s. Tough. Tattoos on his forearm. But not threatening, in any way. Turned out he was desperate to get into conversation with the very noticeable and decidedly gorgeous Hsiu ling. He wanted to tell her at some length about his experiences as an engineer in China and what great guys his Chinese workmates had been. Great drinkers too! All this delivered in a strongish Scottish accent, interspersed with what he believed to be Chinese, but not recognized as such by Hsiu ling.
Ullapool is not a great place. The road north to Ardmair Bay and beyond, though, is magnificent. Ten miles we turned west on the single track road and on to the Struachan Bar, a sad damp place, overlooking the Summer Isles off Achiltibuie. I sailed once from there with my American cousin Hutch. We nearly drowned getting aboard our yacht after an agreeable dinner, and we made tea on board in the morning with sea water. Only Hutch noticed.
Near the Struachan Bar is the Island Seafood Smoke House. It advertises viewing facilities for visitors. This amounts as far as we could see to a shaky wooden veranda letting you see through three windows to watch one or two women with their backs to you cutting or rolling things on what you assumed to be benches, for you couldn’t see beyond the women’s backs. Just as well the veranda had a wooden railing. Otherwise you could easily do yourself serious injury toppling backward in a trance brought on by aggravated boredom. If I ever have problems in future getting to sleep I shall think of the Island Smoke House. Nobody there spoke to us.
Next along the road was a depressing hovel. If you were inside and could see through the grime on the windows you would have had a stunning seascape to contemplate. Islands and rocky promontories and distant mountains. The sun would rise behind all this. But what in fact would capture your attention would be a rusting pram and other bits of unidentifiable things lying in the untended straggling weed ridden grass. But this was a commercial enterprise. At what had once been the gate was a rough wooden board supported by a couple of bits of concrete. On the board were one or two bunches of wilted vegetables. They were unclassifiable. A notice written roughly on a piece of cardboard said "Organic Produce". What optimism! The human spirit is truly unquenchable. We were 25 miles from Ullapool, at the distant end of a single track road little better in places than a cart track, and here they were, running an enterprise that you imagine might take in two or three pounds in a good week at the height of the season, purchased out of curiosity, or more likely, out of compassion.
By now, as forecast, the sky was clearing and we returned to our Highland Inn, confident that we would be climbing on the morrow. As indeed we were.
The bar was now a familiar place. Archie working the chits. Locals helping each other draft their suicide notes. Guests having bar meals that were very much better than you might have feared. We had soup, and went to bed.
Now we discovered that Archie had been quite unable to mend the lock. But he’d tried. You could see that. For in what must have been a fury of rage and frustration he’d clearly bashed the door violently inwards so that the handle had smashed into the wall inside our bedroom, leaving a new hole gaping in the plaster.
Call it Schadenfreude if you like, but this delighted us, and had no bearing on our comfort. We went to bed, me to sleep immediately.
Next thing I know is Tom is desperately trying to waken me. A hard job. I must have been dreaming of the Smokehouse. But now the fire alarm was shrilling. We joined one or two others in the corridor. The alarm continued for a bit, then went off. No smell of smoke. We go back to bed.
Ten minutes later the whole thing is repeated. This time Janet comes bustling busily upstairs. "False alarm. Back to bed, everyone" she says. We obey, and another day at our Highland Inn draws to a close.
In the morning we are up early, and are ready for our day out on the mountain. Our strange fellow guests trickle down, and do not disappoint us. We eat in silence, relishing the surreal quality of the conversation flowing all around us. And the summits are all clear. It is going to be a great day. Just one thing, though. As a precaution we’d like to fill up with petrol at the outset, so as not to need to stop on the way home after the climb. There can’t be more than 200 people in Archie’s tiny community. There’s a shop and a filling station, 100 yards from the inn. We ask Archie when the filling station opens. "Petrol!" he says, distancing himself from such a request. "Petrol? Seven, eight, nine, I don’t know. No idea." The whole demeanour expresses astonishment that a guest - at a place where the next filling station is 20 miles away - might ask such a thing.
A splendid man.
And so we left, headed west for our mountain and a day on high peaks, like walking on cathedral roofs, and the sea and the islands of the west below us.
You can get an awful lot for your money, at our Highland Inn.
Scott Johnston, 72, is a native of Dundee, Scotland, and a graduate of Durham University in England where he earned honors in philosophy, politics and economics. From 1979 until he retired in 1995, he was the chief executive of the National Farmers Union of Scotland. In retirement, he has been a consultant to the European Union in Romania and Bulgaria. He lives in Edinburgh where his hobbies are constantly reconfiguring his homemade alpine garden and climbing Scotland’s mountains, if at a more sedate pace than in the past. He is a first cousin of Al Hutchison, a frequent contributor to Reporters’ Notebook.