Although I have many doubts about the Government’s approach to Covid, since the outbreak started I have avoided travelling to my second home in Scotland.
This is partly because I don’t have a second home in Scotland, but there is a place in Aberdeenshire that does feel enough like home for me to want to go there. It’s called Ballater, and we have been there almost every year since about 1990.
We started going because our next-door neighbour in Norwich came from Aberdeenshire, and once we had got attuned to his accent – it took a couple of years – we found that he had a sister who owned a cottage in Ballater, and she might be willing to rent it out to us.
She was, and she became a close friend. She introduced us to several different Highland Games – no, that’s not a euphemism – and introduced us to her friends. She fishes for salmon, and she knows the top people along the River Dee – not just the ghillies, but the landowners. She is well connected.
The “wee house” we stayed in was a former school house, with plenty of ground and strategically placed. More recently it has been sold, and we have stayed at other cottages in the town.
During Storm Frank at the end of 2015 much of the town was flooded, when the Dee burst its banks to the south and west of its centre – the water inundating the golf course and hurtling into shops in the High Street and buildings elsewhere. It has taken some time to recover.
This was a major change to the town, of course. But other changes happened too. The station, which had been redesigned as a museum commemorating the visits of the Royal Family (Balmoral is just up the road), burnt down. Again it has risen from the ashes, and the Prince of Wales – or the Duke of Rothesay, as he is known in those parts – has opened a swish new restaurant to assist in the revival of the town. We’ve eaten there. It was superb.
Still we can’t help hankering over the Green Inn, which was in the early days probably our favourite restaurant in the world, but was sold and became an Indian. A very good Indian, it has to be said, but not the same thing.
We also miss the Glen Lui Hotel – or will, because it too was hit by fire earlier this year, and the last we heard it was due to be demolished. We stayed there on a couple of occasions, but always ate there when we were in Ballater, because the food and service were so good.
Storm Frank didn’t just flood the town; it demolished roads outside the town (the main A93 was washed away at one point between Ballater and Balmoral: it took only 19 days to replace it, partly because Norfolk County Council had nothing to do with it) and bridges went down too. A beautiful footbridge at Cambus O’May on the way to Aboyne was badly damaged and has been hit again in recent days by another storm.
One of our favourite spots, the Linn of Quoich, had its road bridge completely destroyed, meaning that walking to the Linn became much more of a challenge.
We still love it all, of course, but we are becoming wary. Other restaurants and shops have changed hands, and when we arrive in Ballater nowadays the first thing we do is look round anxiously to see if our favourite places are still there. It’s the same everywhere, no doubt, but when it’s your second home, the changes hit you harder.