The writer and broadcaster Ian Mackenzie, who died 10 years ago, was for many years a regular SR contributor. In this three-part Scottish Journey, first published in our Christmas 1998 edition, Mackenzie takes a succession of trains to the far north.

Part I: To Tain
After Perth, our thrumming Sprinter climbed on to the roof of Scotland, a snow-covered land not so much hostile or benign as indifferent, a lonely place, treacle black under the snow, rising to support hulks of unpointed mountains, left-over fossils of the Ice Age.

The elderly Inverness couple opposite me were asleep by then, tired out by a 2am fire alarm and by their telling me how the man’s father had spent his life on the Highland line painting its stations and how his wife ran Loch Ness Cruises. As they snoozed together I began to notice the two boys behind them, students or sixth formers. Their faces were English or perhaps Edinburgh, and they were close and comfortable with each other. Here were two couples of different generations and lifestyles celebrating the same miracle: human comfort in an oasis of light and warmth on the route of an ancient drove road at 1,500 feet on a cold November afternoon.

It was in darkness that we swept past Culloden down the steep slope to the Beauly Firth and Inverness, where I changed trains.

The Sprinter for Thurso and Wick was full. A good Saturday in the Highland capital had apparently been had by all. Now sated by its excitements, the survivors were going home to towns, villages, hamlets, all the four-hour way up the coast to the Pentland Firth.

Two men were unable to get on the train without assistance. Their helper addressed us: ‘Please make sure these gentlemen leave the train at Tain’. Well, that was my destination too. I braced myself for good works, though as it turned out there were more than enough Good Samaritans aboard.

Opposite were two Highland lads with navy-blue T-shirts. I knew they were Highland before they opened their mouths because they were as different from the two boys in the Edinburgh train as hard cheddar from crumbly Stilton. One had a chin like a shovel and the other hands big enough to bend a girder. Across from them was the only person in the carriage I had doubts about. He had the bevvied look of someone who might just take an unfancy to someone – me, say. He addressed the two boys.

‘Wake me at Invergordon’.
He thought that insufficiently cordial. ‘Where are you getting off?’, he asked.
‘Where’ve you come from?’
‘How long?’
‘Two weeks’.
‘Not much sleep?’

He reflected. ‘Invergordon? Shit-hole’. Satisfied, he fell asleep just as two golden spaceships floated past the window. They were oil-rigs moored off the shit-hole.

By now the two men who’d had to be pushed on to the train at Inverness were asleep nose to nose like kittens. The sprinter coming to rest at Invergordon raised their level of consciousness to the extent that they staggered off the train only to be pushed back on again. The whole world seemed to know they were cargo for Tain.

A young man and woman swayed down the coach to occupy the seats vacated by the Invergordon Tenerifens. Both were high as kites, the girl’s eyes scintillating with mischief. The young conductor informed them that it was £20.60 each to Thurso, it would be three and a half hours, and no, they couldn’t smoke. Tennent’s Extra was extracted from the catering trolley and good humour reigned.

I stepped on to the platform at Tain and inhaled the sweetness of a Highland evening enfolded in a carapace of chips and cordite. It was fireworks Saturday.

The station car park was humming with cars like a new cow-pat with
flies. A jolly man took my case. Helensburgh cab-drivers don’t take
your case.

‘Would there be an off-licence open?’, I asked. ‘The hotel will provide drink for meals, but one requires a night cap’.

‘Say no more’, he said, standing the cab on its back wheels.

I must say I felt remarkably sober for a man descending from the legless express, but when the off-licence turned out to be closed I felt soberer.

‘He’ll be off for his cup of tea, it’ll have to be the Spar’. But just then he arrived, carrying his cup of tea.

The Royal Hotel was the kind they don’t make any more. Bang in the centre of town, with a grand staircase up to the front door, over which two pigeons were celebrating, the female mildly hysterical and the male cooing, ‘there, there’.

The bar restaurant was not a shadowy canyon with mini-tables to chop off your knees, but a large busy room with blazing coal fire. From a comfy nook I sat looking out the window at the opera-set street with town clock. It must be medieval Nuremberg in die Meistersingers. On cue, a chorus of young men and women strolled by. Less predictably, a woman in a kilt led a dog on a lead with a half-chicken in its mouth.

To a background of fireworks I turned my attention to the menu. Escargots? I’d come north to eat snails? One starter was ‘Chef’s pate’. Huh, we all know what that means. But I like toast. It came, and I was shamed. It was the best pate I’d had since a memorable terrine in France 25 years ago; beaten only by a meat loaf my uncle George’s mother used to make. When a young assistant manager drifted up, I opined on the pate. ‘You have a terrific chef’. He smiled. ‘He’s French. Been here 12 years’.

As I rose from the table, I saw across the street a recessed gate with arched iron lettering. ‘Pilgrimage’, it said. I walked out of the hotel (now only the male pigeon was drunkenly muttering) and turned at once into Saint Duthus Street. I hadn’t remembered, though later leaflets in my room reminded me, that in medieval times Tain was one of the most pilgrimmed sites in Scotland. Then it was due to the angelic St Duthus. Now it may be due to the angelic Glenmorangie.

The next day, as I waited for the taxi, I looked through the hotel window up the high street of this civilised little town and pondered a mystery. Rather as Perth station was once the dynamic centre of a rail network which was a great national resource, so Tain was once in the centre of a network of spiritual and educational energy which produced national figures, bards of a culture, architects of souls and society. Where did it all go?

Next week: Tain to Forsinard

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