Going to Scotland has always seemed to me like going home. Not because I am Scottish – my family, extensively researched, comes from a rather boring part of the East Midlands, which is about as disappointing as you can get.
My paternal grandfather, born near Peterborough, moved to Norwich by way of Mansfield, where I believe he was living with or near his wife’s relatives. She came from Sheffield, which is at least a step in the right direction.
My mother’s ancestors came from Brighton by way of Cambridge, which is not very exciting either. So why do I feel an affinity for Scotland?
My parents were fond of the place. In fact my wife and I honeymooned in the same cottage in Strathyre that they had rented – or borrowed – for their honeymoon in the 1930s. I have always loved mountains, and during our honeymoon we climbed Ben Nevis and The Cobbler. Norfolk is a wonderful part of the world, but its lack of mountains, or even an apology for hills, is a sad deficiency.
The closeness to Scotland that I feel today, however, started around 1990, when I lived in Norwich (as I still do), and our next-door neighbour was Derek, a friendly fellow from Aberdeen. After a couple of years we had tuned into his accent, and we told him how much we loved his native land.
It turned out he had a sister who owned a cottage in Ballater that she might be persuaded to rent to us – because, like my wife, she too was a teacher. And so it came to pass. The “wee house” in Ballater, just down Deeside from Balmoral, became our home from home, and until last year, when it was sold, we stayed in it almost every year for 22 years.
Not that we were ignoring other parts of the world, but Ballater was something special, and it remains so: perfect size, ideally placed for a wide selection of mountains (I walked up all the local Munros – the Scottish name for 3000-footers), friendly and with a stunning river and some excellent restaurants.
But isn’t Scotland cold and full of midges? Well, it can be cold, but so can England. In summer you are as likely to happen on a warm and dry spell there as here, and when you get rain, it rarely lasts all day. Midges have been conspicuous by their absence, but Ballater is not on the west coast, and we tend not to camp by rivers. Or anywhere else.
This July, it was mainly hot. So hot that our walking was severely curtailed. But that didn’t matter. We were in the right place – a place we knew well – and there was plenty to do in stunning landscape and with a refreshing absence of crowds. There were familiar restaurants and cafes, and a couple of new ones. Familiar faces, too. We had supper at a pub restaurant by the River Dee with the original owner of the wee house: she and her husband are salmon fishermen and know everyone. There is a real sense of community.
For the first time, someone asked me if I was local. I wished I was.
So why don’t I just up sticks and move to Ballater? Roots, I suppose. I love Norwich too, and Ballater is such a long way away from here, and from family and friends. I can’t complain about that: if it wasn’t such a long way away, it would be inundated with visitors, which would not be good.
Unreasonably, we want to preserve Ballater just as we’ve always known it: we were deeply shocked this year when our favourite restaurant (in the world, probably) suddenly became an Indian. Don’t get me wrong: we like Indian, but this was an appalling loss.
Scotland as a whole, however, is a tremendous gain for anyone with a love of beauty who can get past those ugly wind farms in the Borders. Every time we drive down the wonderful A93 into Braemar, then alongside the Dee past Balmoral and into Ballater we are at home – a feeling I believe has rubbed off on everyone we’ve taken there.
Forget exotic holidays abroad: Scotland is special. It’s impossible to stay away for long.