The most memorable holiday in Scotland that I never had


By Kenneth Roy

My old friend Ian Hamilton QC refused to participate in the Scottish Review’s survey of memorable holidays in Scotland. He sent the following reply: ‘Holidays are Hell wherever spent. Holidays are a distraction from joy. Holidays are for people who work with Kenneth Roy. Holidays are bunk’. Mild beer by Ian Hamilton standards – marked 4 on a scale of 1 to 10.

It’s all right for him. He lives in one of the sweetest places in Scotland. Life for Ian must be a perpetual holiday. The same cannot be said of most of us. I have an office overlooking the runway at Prestwick Airport. In the morning I wander down into the terminal building and observe the general happiness of the departing souls. There is a spring in every step, a novelty cowboy hat on every head, and much talk of sex on the beach. It could be the name of a cocktail.

You will remember that wonderful film ‘Love Actually’ and the opening narrative in which Hugh Grant, the prime minister, muses on the sheer volume of love all around us. It’s true. There are lots of hugs and kisses here at the terminal, even at 8 o’clock on this dismal June morning. It is hard sometimes not to think of the messages from the twin towers as the planes made their unscheduled landings. In the last seconds, people texted ‘I love you’ and left it at that. Forever.

I rather like the idea of holidays. I have not yet reached the stage of glorious melancholy achieved by Professor Walter Humes who, in his contribution to the Scottish Review’s survey of memorable holidays in Scotland, confesses that he views every journey as a looming threat rather than an exciting prospect. He must be thinking of Ardrossan.

But holidays in Scotland are not what they were. Nowadays, as soon as you step off the railway platform at Pitlochry, once my favourite holiday destination, there is the unmistakable Highland aroma of the Indian takeaway. I have nothing against the Indian takeaway – ‘as such’ – but it pollutes what was once a clean, intoxicating air. It is the smell of modern tourism, packaged, restless, borrowed.

I once stayed for a fortnight in the Atholl Palace. Now, there was a hotel. Built of local stone in 1874, on a raised spot facing Ben-y-Vrackie, it boasted 46 acres of ‘policies’, trees of many varieties, and a nine-hole golf course. All these amenities were still in place in the degenerate 1960s. But I arrived too late. The glory days were over.

Latecomers for any of the many repasts were fined a penny. Grace was said before the main meals, the grand piano was locked on Sundays, and in the Recreation Room a lady sang such ditties as ‘A frog he would a wooing go’.

In its heyday, this was a temperance establishment. J J Bell, a Victorian Scot of the urban kailyard school, left a vivid account of the stimulating hydropathic culture of the 1880s. The meals were served at long tables – horror of horrors, one was expected to mix with one’s fellow guests and make genteel conversation. A hearty breakfast was followed by a full mid-day dinner (as it was called), and then a substantial plain tea at 5.30 (an abundance of scones and fancy breads), the daily gastronomic marathon ending with a supper of milk, bread, butter and cheese at half past nine. There were prayers in the drawing room at 9.45 and lights were extinguished in bedrooms at 10.30 prompt. If you wished to read, you did so by candelight.

Latecomers for any of the many repasts were fined a penny. Grace was said before the main meals, the grand piano was locked on Sundays, and in the Recreation Room a lady sang such ditties as ‘A frog he would a wooing go’. Baths of every description could be had at a cost. ‘Liver packs’ (whatever they were) were charged extra.

When Ivor Brown began to frequent the Atholl Palace half a century later, the regime had relaxed a little. Brown, who edited the Observer and somehow managed to be the paper’s theatre critic at the same time, found deep in the billiard room 60 lockers – ‘forgotten niches’ – each of which held two bottles of whisky for those too feeble to conform to the rigid discipline. The lockers were still in use for this illicit purpose, and the manager of the hotel, who wore a frock coat, provided keys as a special favour. Organised dancing, a daring innovation, was supervised by hostesses who arranged introductions for the lonely and the shy. Even the waltz, up close and personal, was allowed occasionally. Soho had come to Pitlochry.

I missed all that. The most memorable holiday I never had in Scotland was in the Atholl Palace Hotel, sitting forlornly at the long table, dreading the approach of the hostess and longing for lights-out. No doubt that grumpy old chops, Ian Hamilton QC, would have felt much the same.

Courtesy of Kenneth Roy – read Kenneth Roy in the Scottish Review