A long, long day making up the lost miles… we enter the county of Moray, the first new mainland district on our way since we had sailed to the Isle of Skye.
Moray means river Spey, river Spey means Speyside, Speyside means whisky – and that, in turn, means lots and lots of barley. We drive through an increasingly rural landscape, fields of golden spring barley stretching endlessly from the foot of the Cairngorms to the North Sea cliffs.
We enter Elgin – a handsome, italianate city, once boasting a castle and a cathedral – now both ruined; being the centre of the district, it is a natural place to explore the best of what Speyside has to offer. We had passed a few distilleries already; there’s another one in Elgin – Glen Moray – and a few more along our way, but most of the Speyside region is higher up the river, at the foothills of the mountains. Not having time to visit each distillery one by one, we make our way to Gordon & MacPhail’s – one of the largest whisky shops in the world, where we stock up on miniature bottles to last us a few days.
We keep to the coast; the sea shore is tall and jagged, and from the town of Buckie eastwards, it’s lined with small, old, attractive fishing harbours. We’re headed to one of them for lunch: Cullen. The home of Cullen Skink – it even boasts as much on the road sign at the entrance. Cullen Skink is a member of that famous family of hardy, warming fish soups that wives cooked the world over for the fishermen husbands; it is now served all over Scotland, but we, of course, had to try it in the place of its birth.
Cullen is another pretty harbour town, with an interesting, rocky coastline. Uniquely, it’s cut off from the rest of the world by giant railway viaducts – now part of a cycling path – that run straight through the town. The soup we eat at a small cafe by the town square – and it’s everything we imagined it to be; soft, creamy, potatoey, with big chunks of smoked haddock thrown in. In taste and texture, it is very much like the Scandinavian fish soups, which is not at all surprising – it’s another lasting trace of the Norse heritage in the Highlands.
We continue the long day, meandering through more, increasingly beautiful harbour towns – Portsoy, Banff, Macduff; we leave Moray and cross into Aberdeenshire, which looks like no place in Scotland we’ve seen before: we are no longer in Scandinavia, we are now in Northern Europe, but south of the Baltic, in Germany and northern Poland. The woods are thick with pine, oak and beech, the fields heaving with golden grain, the cliffs shatter and roll out into long, sprawling dunes. Eagles and harriers soar over the road, pursued by jackdaws; grouses continue their dangerous sport of running right under the wheels of the cars.
Our next stop is a real treat, and something I’ve waited for a long time; a place worth to fly across the ocean all the way to northern Aberdeenshire for: Pennan, a remote, single street fishing village huddled at the bottom of a mighty, crumbling cliff.
Pennan’s stunning beauty would remain unnoticed by most except the most intrepid explorers of the coast – the roads here are steep, narrow and winding each way, and the cliffs make the village almost invisible from above – if it weren’t for the movie I had mentioned a few weeks before, The Local Hero. This quiet niche hit, a subdued, wonderful movie, is set in a fake Scottish village of Ferness – but the village scenes were filmed in Pennan.
I thought we’d be the only ones crazy enough to visit Pennan in the middle of September, simply because we saw a thirty-year old movie once – but when we arrived, there was actually a small queue of equally mad fans of old cinema, waiting to photograph themselves in front of a red telephone box (a real one, set up by BT at request of the locals and fans, not the prop from the movie, but it hardly matters).
Finding movie location is a skill and a vocation, and whoever performed this duty for the Local Hero, did a marvellous job. The beaches of Mallaig and the village of Pennan are among the most perfect examples of the respective Scottish coastal features available. Pennan is so picturesque and photogenic, it hardly seems possible it wasn’t built for the movie from the scratch: the tiny, colourful houses, the laundry drying out in the sea breeze on fishing net ropes, the crumbling cliffs – and the single inn, with a small, but well stocked bar and a dining hall playing the soundtrack from Local Hero on a gramophone.
We sip a slow pint looking out through the inn window, which frames a view straight out of some other movie, maybe a Bergman – a couple sitting at a table at the beach, with a wooden net drying post beside them; we then climb back up to the van – we wouldn’t dare forcing it all the way down and up – and head on down the A90 towards and past Aberdeen.
We drive through Aberdeen without stopping; had we chosen to not disembark the ferry from Lerwick, we’d reach this city a few days ago. The harbour is immense, and crowded; the city is built of a grey, somber stone – giving it the many nicknames (City of Granite, City of Silver, etc.), in an odd, Disneyland-like fashion. But apart from the fairy-tale turrets of the granite buildings we see nothing to make us stay on the way to the campsite – and it’s already late.
The Deeside Holiday Park is a large caravan and touring park, but it’s one of the few nice ones, set in a wooded valley by the edge of the River Dee, and friendly to tenters and backpackers; the facilities are a bit scattered about, into three huts spread all over the park. The grass pitch is £14 without hookup.