Swans, swords & stings: a weekend in Stirling

The hangover from my first night of vertical drinking since March 2020 had all but subsided by the time the train from Glasgow arrived at Stirling station last Thursday.  For me it was my first time visiting Scotland’s seventh-largest city; it was my brother’s first time back since studying at university there; and for our ‘beer club,’ it would be an unprecedented step in the relationships many of the seven of us had only formed during the various lockdowns of the last year.  When we met for drinks at No. 2 Baker Street, which is not only the name of a pub but also its address, they were the first pints of many consumed over an entire weekend spent together – a weekend that by the end of which the drinking would be better described as being horizontal.

Originally we had decided to spend the weekend in Stirling with the intention of attending the Doune The Rabbit Hole music festival between 12-15 August, but uncertainties over the council’s ability to license the event in the current climate led to it being postponed for the second year running.  Since we had already organised accommodation in the city it was agreed that we should travel through and make the most of the weekend anyway, especially when it was the first one after the majority of Coronavirus restrictions were lifted earlier in the week.  We had a core cast of four people for most of the weekend, and the others dropped in to spend either a day or a full 24 hours, in the style of a television sitcom where a beloved character returns for a special guest appearance.

Stirling Castle

Upon toasting our arrival in No. 2 Baker Street it was exclaimed that this was “Beer Club on tour,” which to my mind made us sound like a bunch of twenty-somethings sitting by a pool in a Spanish resort downing shots of all-inclusive Tequila, when the reality was that we are all in our mid-thirties and were sitting in a bar in Stirling drinking £4 pints of Peroni, Innis & Gunn, and Deuchars.  

Our flat was but a stone’s throw away from Stirling Castle, which would have been ideal if we were an invading English force from 1297, but it was equally as suitable for a group of men whose only war to wage was on the boxes of beer they had brought with them.  The apartment was spread out over two floors, with a lounge and a pool table upstairs, and the kitchen, bedrooms, dining room, and bathroom downstairs.  My brother and I shared a room for the first time since our ill-fated family holiday to Orlando in 1998 when I fell in love with a Tallahassee lassie and ruined the Magic Kingdom for everybody else.  The Plant Doctor and Adam, the lobster scientist who has strong opinions on shoelaces, bunked up together, and the third bedroom was left spare for our guest appearances.  From every room in the flat the Wallace Monument could be seen in the distance, never more spectacularly than when a vivid rainbow looped across its face on our second day in Stirling, and never more ominously than when standing in the bathroom and glancing out of the window to be confronted by this enormous phallic structure.

After enjoying a delicious homemade vegetable curry in the elegant dining room, where we spent more time debating whether or not there is an angry dog depicted in the Georges Braque painting which hung above the fireplace than we did admiring all of the other interesting features in the room, the original four of us along with special guest star formerly amongst the ten best bar staff in Aulay’s and now the best Covid test site operator in Oban went upstairs for a session of pool before embarking on our first tour of Stirling’s pubs.  There was a wide range of abilities in our group:  from those who had the ability to play pool, to those who didn’t.  Unfortunately for anyone with an interest in the sport, Adam and myself – the two amongst us who fell into the latter category in the range of abilities – were somehow nominated to play the first game.  It must have been around fifteen minutes before either of us potted a ball, by which time everybody else had taken an unusually keen interest in the St. Johnstone vs Galatasaray football match screening in the next room, and by the time the game was finally put out of its misery we had both thoroughly disgraced ourselves.  Adam at least improved as the weekend went on, to the point where he was regularly making shots and winning games, whereas my pool game was resembling my sex game:  best described as a lost cause.

It was alleged that I fell in love four times during the course of our weekend in Stirling, but by my count, it was no more than three, and only one of those was true love.  On Friday the 13th we booked a two o’clock tour of the Deanston whisky distillery, giving us ample time beforehand to have a wander around the village of Doune, which was the entire purpose of our weekend in the first place.  It was a brooding morning, the sort where the clouds in the sky were as grey as the stone on Doune Castle; which is the perfect weather for viewing a 600-year-old building.  The castle has been used in many films and television series, including Game of Thrones and Outlander, but walking around its perimeter felt no different to walking around any other grey and windswept part of Scotland.  It’s part of the enduring charm of the place.

Doune Castle

We continued down through some woodland beyond the castle, where we walked alongside the River Teith, which had the strongest current I have ever seen.  Along the way, Adam mused aloud about composing a strongly-worded letter to Stirling Council complaining about the lack of benches along the bank of the river, only for it to become evident that there was one solitary wooden seat sitting on the other side of the fast-flowing water.  A person would have to be really keen to rest their weary legs to reach the bench from where we were, but it would undoubtedly be the council’s out when challenged on the matter.  The saga with the benches seemed to be repeated throughout Doune with their pubs.  We tried the doors of no fewer than three pubs or hotel bars on Friday afternoon, eager for a drink and maybe some bar food to line our stomachs before the whisky tasting, only to find that they were all closed.  In the end, we resorted to purchasing cheap sandwiches and the Bud Light beers with the screw off tops just to see us through.  Doune was a quaint wee village, though.  Every house seemed to have a hanging basket dangling on one side of its door and a noisy wind chime from the other, which on a day like Friday carried more than a hint of menace.  On the main street, there was a video player repair shop and a cartographer, and it was then that I knew we were finally on the right track.

The Deanston distillery has been producing whisky since 1965, when the site was transformed from a cotton mill following the decline of the cotton industry.  From the outside, the building doesn’t look very much like a distillery.  If it wasn’t for the white lettering on the side facing the car park, you might be forgiven for believing that you have driven into an industrial office complex or a mid-level insurance company, rather than a whisky distillery.  We were greeted inside by our tour guide Erin, who led us through the gift shop and beyond the cafe into a courtyard, where she opened the door to the warehouse and gave us an introduction to the brand.  Before leading us into the cask warehouse, Erin asked each of us whether we prefer drinking sweet or smoky whisky.  Everybody answered in a calm and sensible manner until it reached the end of the semi-circle, where I was standing.  I could barely contain myself.  My hands were practically shaking, so pleased was I with the line I had balancing on the tip of my tongue, ready to drop like a lemming.  I looked straight into Erin’s eyes:  “I like my whisky the same way I like my bacon…smoky.”  She hardly flinched.  It was impossible to tell if she was smiling or not due to the face coverings, but I like to think that she enjoyed it.  “You’ll probably be disappointed, then; Deanston is a sweet whisky.”  It was ever thus.

During our Warehouse 4 Experience, we tasted three 15ml drams straight from the cask, though there was a fourth that was not advertised which Erin claimed she had given to us because she liked our group.  This sounded more like theatrics to me than any justification for my joke about bacon, but either way, it made the £35 cost seem like good value, especially when it felt quite steep earlier in the day when we thought we were just going to be walking around a distillery rather than sitting on a bench in the warehouse drinking shots of whisky.  The first dram we sampled was a 2001 Organic Fino Hogshead Finish cask at 55% ABV, which would also be the favourite for most of us.  I always struggle when people talk about whisky tasting notes, and I especially did when Erin spoke of hints of nut and sherry on the nose or a taste of red fruits and chocolates, partly because I was still distracted by the question of whether she had found the bacon remark funny or not, but also because when I swallowed a mouthful of the stuff my throat felt like a dentist had performed an oral procedure on me with a blowtorch.

Our whiskies had strengths ranging from 55 & 59% to 61%, significantly greater than the 40% I am used to experiencing in my Jameson, and I could still feel it the following afternoon when we made our way up to the Wallace Monument.  I didn’t have any more than the crib notes on the life of Sir William Wallace and I’ve never seen the film Braveheart, so I saw the trip as a good opportunity to fill in some gaps in my understanding of Scottish history.  Once you have made the long trek from the base of Abbey Craig to the monument, you buy your tickets and are given a raffle token in return, and when your number is called you are summoned to begin your climb up the structure.  Whilst we waited for our ticket to come up, Arctic Fox pulled one of the tennis balls she is famous for carrying everywhere out of her bag, and we began kicking it around amongst ourselves.  It is the highest altitude at which I have ever played any ball sports, and I could tell that there was a lot of panic about losing it over the edge.  The more we kicked the small tennis ball against the side of the Wallace Monument, the easier it was to imagine returning there the next day and seeing a newly-installed plaque warning:  “NO BALL GAMES,” particularly when we were attracting the attention of two separate dogs who became very interested in the fluffy ball.  Even now I can’t stop thinking about how mortifying it would be knowing that you are the party responsible for Stirling District Tourism feeling the need to put up a sign asking adults not to mess around at a site of significant national interest.

There are 246 steps leading to the top of the Wallace Monument, and I was aware of every single one of them.  The narrow stone spiral staircase up to the observation platform doesn’t lend to grace or elegance, especially with the requirement to wear a face covering and the way those can fog your glasses in heated situations.  I was wearing my salmon chinos for the first time in several weeks, and when I dipped my hand into the pocket to reach for a tissue to wipe the condensation from my lenses, I found a light blue mask I hadn’t used in a while.  I think I ended up with three separate masks on my person that day.  It occurred to me that face masks have become what a £5 or £10 note used to be back in the days when we were still carrying cash; something you unexpectedly discover when you slide your hand into the back pocket of a pair of jeans, or maybe even down the side of a sofa cushion.

After visiting the three exhibition galleries within the monument, you finish up in the crown at the top of the building.  The first room played an animated video that told the story of William Wallace’s rise to prominence, as well as housing the mighty sword that he carried into battle.  Wallace’s sword weighs approximately 3kg and is 1.68m in length, close to what we recently knew as social distancing.  The second exhibition displayed thirty sculptures of significant Scottish figures who have contributed to the history of the nation, including the first two women to be added to the Hall of Heroes in 2018.  In the final gallery before reaching the summit, we learned all about the geography and military strategy behind the 1297 Battle of Stirling Bridge, which was pretty cool to see before stepping out into the crown and witnessing the landscape for ourselves.  The view from the observation platform was well worth the whisky-soaked sweat.  We could see all the way out across the Ochil Hills and the Forth Valley.  From our perspective, it was easy to see how William Wallace trapped King Edward’s English army at Stirling Bridge.  Though at the same time, I had walked up all 264 steps carrying the tennis ball in my jacket pocket and never felt as much temptation as I did there on the observation platform to toss it to the group.  Somehow I resisted.

The crown at the top of the Wallace Monunent

Once safely back down on steady ground, we took a leisurely stroll around the grounds of the University of Stirling.  I could tell that it was quite cathartic for my brother and the Plant Doctor, who both studied there at different times.  Arctic Fox attempted to feed the ducks in the pond with tiny slices of carrot, but despite their vociferous quaking, the ducks seemed unwilling to dive their beaks into the water to catch the sinking pieces.  Soon a couple of swans who were surveying the scene from a distance began wading their way through the thick algae.  Seemingly they had seen enough of the attention the ducks were receiving and were keen to re-establish their territory.  The ducks quickly fled, and we were forced into re-thinking our carrot distribution when the swans puffed out their chests and hissed at us.  This happened at a couple of different points around the point, and every time it seemed to be Alan who was the subject of the swans’ ire.  

We were all brought to a panic when a dog who was walking by the side of its owner on the path behind us became attracted to the scene on the grass.  This dog came barrelling down the slope and bounded straight into the muddy water to a cacophony of cries from its owner, hissing from the swans and howls of shock from us.  The owner was quickly able to coax the canine from the pond without anyone being hurt, at which point it became the most playful pup in the world, parading from one horrified person to the next, tongue hanging from its mouth and mud dripping from its body and legs, seeking all the affection it could get.  I have never felt so terrified as when it approached me and all I could see was the end of my salmon chinos.  Something about this playful, mud-caked dog trying to befriend a complete stranger with its mischief as the rest of the group looked on unimpressed reminded me of Erin at the Deanston Distillery, but I couldn’t place what.

As if the 264 steps to the top of the Wallace Monument weren’t enough, we then embarked on a steep climb up a hill at Sheriffmuir, but at least this time we had beers.  For all the good I believed that 18 months of yoga had done my fitness, this day was really testing me, though that it was the fourth day of considerable alcohol abuse probably didn’t help.  At the top, we took a group selfie in which all of us are surely sporting the wildest hair any of us has ever had, and we could see as far afield as Grangemouth.  In fact, it was more or less the same view we’d been treated to from the Wallace Monument, only this time we could see the landmark in our photographs.  Whilst up there, the Plant Doctor revealed the deeply personal story behind his reason for wanting to take the group up that particular hill, which was probably the most touching moment of the Beer Club on tour.

The walk back from Sheriffmuir was not without its trauma.  The introduction of beer into the mix invariably meant that a call with nature was going to be required for some in the group.  My brother, the Plant Doctor and Alan wandered off into the forestry at separate sides of the road while I took it upon myself to look after the beers.  From my position on the roadside, I could hear my brother warn that there was a hole in the ground containing a wasps nest.  The next thing I remember is seeing Alan moving faster than he did even during our game of football with the nine-year-old boy in Easdale.  He had a rapid turn of pace, and it turns out that he did so because he had been stung three times; twice on his arm and once on the back of his leg.  It was the first time he had been stung by a wasp since he was a boy, and it was obviously extremely painful.  

I remarked how the incident put me in mind of the 1991 Macaulay Culkin film My Girl, but nobody else understood the reference.  I tried to explain the scene where the young boy, who it is earlier established has an allergy to just about everything, accidentally steps on a beehive while trying to find a ring belonging to the titular girl and dies from the allergic reaction to the sting.  None of this meant anything to the rest of the group, and I was finding myself increasingly more concerned with the fact that nobody had ever seen My Girl than I was about the health of my friend.  Alan became curious and asked how long it took for Macaulay Culkin’s character to die and whether he went into anaphylactic shock, as though the movie was a medical journal.  I tried to assure him that, to the best of my memory, the kid was killed instantly by the bee sting and he probably didn’t have anything to worry about, but it had also been around thirty years since I’d seen the story.  To the best of my knowledge, Alan is still alive today, though between the swans and the wasps he really had a day of his 24-hour guest appearance in our weekend.

Since we first met him, the Plant Doctor has been waxing lyrical about his hometown pub, the Settle Inn.  As much as anything, this trip was a pilgrimage to the bar.  When we walked in on Friday night it could just as easily have been Aulay’s.  It had the same kind of homely vibe; the regulars sitting around the bar; the barmaid who knew everybody’s name; the jukebox to throw money into.  They even had my favourite beer on tap, Caesar Augustus from the nearby Williams Bros. brewery.  Really the only difference between Aulay’s and the Settle Inn was the flytrap which we found on the windowsill by our table, a contraption that was little more than a glass of Coca-Cola with clingfilm wrapped over its top and a hole big enough for the barflies to be tempted into.  It plays on the anomaly that while flies are excellent at finding their way into tiny gaps, they are terrible at getting back out.  The glass must surely be the subject of some outrageous wagers on a weekly basis.

Like Aulay’s, the Settle Inn became the central focus of our weekend; the ultimate goal and the place our days revolved around.  We went in on Saturday night and found ourselves talking to the same people we had met on Friday.  I was in conversation with an older gentleman who had an impressive head of white hair and wore an immaculate Harris Tweed coat which I swear he claimed he had paid a thousand pounds for.  He was wearing this expensive coat with a garish tartan shirt and a pair of jeans, which seemed at best ill-advised and at worst offensive to me, as I’m sure it would have to Marco the director of an Italian menswear company, too.  I couldn’t comprehend the thought process that would lead someone to spend a thousand pounds on a quality coat only to pair it with denim jeans.  You don’t see a Versace necklace resting over a black bin liner, or a notice warning against ball games on the Wallace Monument.

On a couple of nights we invited some folks from the Settle Inn back to the flat for some post-pub drinks, although those never ended well.  One red-haired woman was offended by the way Adam and I would make crude jokes at one another’s expense, whilst another guy grew increasingly exasperated by our failed attempts at getting the movie E.T. to play on the DVD player.  As he stormed out of the flat he was heard to say, “my ex-missus is dropping off the kids in the morning.  I don’t even know what I’m doing here.”  

Invitations to the Settle Inn seemed to be more difficult to convince people to accept.  Whilst in Molly Malones watching the Celtic game, we struck up conversation with two of the barmaids who were on duty, intending to ask them to join our team for the pub quiz in the Settle Inn later that evening.  We learned that they are both from Dublin, or just outside the city, have the same first name but spelt differently, and are in Stirling studying nursing.  I asked them how it was to be watching a bunch of thirtysomethings nursing pints of beer, and it is hard to think that that wasn’t the point where our offer began to look less appealing to them.  If not, it was probably when I pointed to the pint of Icebreaker IPA I was drinking and asked the Irish barmaids what their favourite icebreaker is.  “I’ve never tried it,” one of them responded.

Remarkably they seemed to be warming to us as time went on, and the young woman who was first to finish her shift went as far as to join us at the bar for a drink.  At one point she even agreed to come with us to the quiz, though it was doubtless induced by the hit from the initial mouthful of cider after a long shift, and as soon as the friend she was going out with turned up, all bets were off.  It’s difficult to tell how much difference a couple of nursing students would have made to our cause anyway since the quiz was extremely difficult and we went on to suffer a crushing defeat, but it’s something we will never know for sure.  What we did know was that even amongst the wreckage of all of our defeats, from hissing swans to wasp stings, and whisky hangovers to poorly-judged remarks, we had somehow survived Beer Club on tour.

Revenge of the sheep

I’m currently sitting on a train bound ultimately for Stirling via Glasgow, the first time I have travelled out of Oban since late 2019, and it’s too early to say how I feel about it.  When I was last on the train I expect that I had a four-pack of Budweiser and some snacks to keep me nourished through the journey, and the only suspicion I had about my fellow passengers was whether one of them was going to interrupt my solitude by sitting in the empty seat next to me.  Today I brought a 500ml bottle of Highland Spring still water, which I was annoyed with myself for having forgotten to put in the fridge yesterday, and a 50ml tube of antibacterial hand gel.  Most people are wearing masks, except for one woman who has fallen asleep with hers clinging to her chin and her sunglasses perched atop her head.  It’s like nobody ever showed her how to wear these things in the proper way but she’s quite pleased with herself for almost getting it.  The others who aren’t wearing face coverings seem to be either a generation older than I am, English, or eating a sandwich.  It is possible that some are all three, but if they are they at least have the consideration to not speak with their mouths full.

Virtually all of the few remaining Covid restrictions in Scotland were lifted on Monday 9 August, meaning that life is beginning to feel a lot more like it did back in 2019 before any of us knew anything about a novel coronavirus.  Many of the things that we were only able to do over Zoom during the last 18 months, or in strictly reduced terms, we can now enjoy almost without limit.  Pubs are back to operating under their usual hours and you can finally drink at the bar again, people can gather in large groups where the only cap on numbers now seems to be how popular you are, travel – at least within the country – is firmly back on the agenda, and The Lorne pub quiz is up and running.  Other than the advice that people should still wear a face mask in certain settings and the ongoing threat of a highly contagious respiratory virus, things are pretty much as normal as they have ever been.

On the final weekend before those last restrictions were eased, when Scotland was still in what was commonly being referred to as “level 0.5”, the Plant Doctor was visited in Oban by his brother David and his partner Laura.  I had met Dave once before a few years ago, on a night where the Plant Doctor lured us back to his flat after the pub and tricked the two of us into eating mushrooms which had been hidden in a large omelette.  Whenever I tell people that story they usually react with shock and horror, commenting on how dangerous it was for the Plant Doctor to secretly feed us halloucanagenics in an egg dish, until I am forced to correct them and confess that it was only closed cup mushrooms we were eating and Dave and I just don’t like them.  It’s amazing how quickly you become the dick after people who initially had sympathy for you when they believed that you had been drugged learn that you simply don’t like to eat mushrooms. 

After many months where the only contact we had was through our ‘Beer Club’ Zoom meetings every Friday night, I met the Plant Doctor, Dave and Laura in Aulay’s, where they were sitting with my brother and the man who the previous Friday was so drunk from celebrating his birthday that it took him several minutes to be able to get up from his seat.  This guy was in a jovial mood once again – his face was blazing with it – and he looked at me from across the table with curiosity in his eyes as he sipped from his pint of Tennent’s, his surgical mask tucked underneath his chin.  I wondered if he had recognised me from our last encounter, when I was so in rapture with his heroics, but it turns out that I remind him of somebody else and he was struggling to place who that person is.  He was putting almost as much effort into trying to summon the name of the famous figure whom I resembled in his mind as he did rising out of his seat seven days earlier.  In the meantime, all I was interested in was finding out more about the hat he was wearing, but all he could tell me was that he had bought it in Croatia some years ago and hadn’t taken it off since being told how well he suited it.

The question of my appearance was evidently plaguing our companion.  Every so often he would interject into the conversation the five of us were having amongst ourselves to give us another piece of trivia in an effort to jog his and our collective memories.  It was said that I look like a character from a television show.  A show from the 1960s.  An animated character, or maybe a puppet.  We are all in our thirties and had no idea who he was thinking of.  Eventually, in the same way that he was able to push himself from the very same seat a week before, he dug in and found the name he was searching for.  It came out of nowhere when he extended his right index finger and pointed in my direction.  Suddenly, in the manner of someone who might suffer from Tourette’s Syndrome, he loudly exclaimed:

“Joe 90!  That’s who you look like.”

I am familiar with Joe 90.  At least I remember dad referencing the character when we were younger.  Initially I wasn’t sure how to take the comparison, whether it was insulting or flattering.  I suppose it is difficult to be insulted by the prospect of being a 9-year-old prodigy who is recruited as one of the world’s leading spies; whose glasses are the source of all of his powers.  Coming from a man who had already so impressed me, I decided that I would accept being told that I look like Joe 90 as a compliment, even if it wasn’t exactly what I was hoping to hear.

Although the weather forecast for Saturday was looking very unsettled and threatened some thunderstorms, the five of us arranged to meet at eleven o’clock to walk the mile-and-a-half out to Gallanach so we could catch the 11.30 ferry to Kerrera.  We had barely crossed the railway bridge when it began to rain heavily and we learned that not only did my brother bring the fewest beers with him out of any of us, but his jacket also didn’t have a hood.  I usually take some comfort in knowing that I am not the most ill-prepared person in a group, though my relief on this occasion was quite short-lived when I discovered that my boots are not even nearly waterproof.  Thankfully the rain shower was brief, and we had as good as forgotten about it by the time we reached the ferry car park.  

As fate would have it, we overestimated our ability to walk to Gallanach carrying backpacks filled with beer in the time we had set ourselves and arrived a few minutes after 11.30, so we resigned ourselves to sitting on some rocks drinking beers until the next advertised sailing an hour later.  To keep us amused in the meantime we questioned one another on which of the many boats in the bay we would rather own, judging each one on its size, shape and colour, as though any of us would ever have the means to buy a yacht or be sober enough to sail it.  Our eyes meandered around the busy shoreline, drinking in the floating vessels as well as our lagers, the 55 minutes we were waiting to pass feeling like they might as well have been an eternity.  In a fit of pithy, my eyes catching sight of a little black boat that was slightly longer than all the others and the only one moving across the narrow passage of water, I asked the others:  “Wouldn’t it be funny if we were just sitting here getting drunk and that was the ferry coming back?”

We quickly gathered ourselves together and came to realise that when it is busy they tend to operate more sailings to get everybody across to the island, meaning that we were able to pocket our beers and get over to Kerrera close to our original schedule.  The day was gloomier than when the Plant Doctor and I had been in April; the sea looking less like a blue marble and more similar to a curling stone, while the lambs who were on the cusp of being born back then were growing and had obviously well established how the different parts of their body work, judging by the carpet of shit on the grass.  After stopping at the top of a hill to take a photograph of the five of us around a dishevelled and broken down old digger – the end result looking like it could be the cover of our debut album if we hadn’t missed our slot in the recording studio and sat on the pavement outside getting drunk – we ventured down towards the beach, where we spread out across the rocks and ate our lunch.

Around us there were a couple of different groups who were seemingly interested in taking a dip in the water, and the Plant Doctor was considering it too.  Once the first man had gone in, a succession of swimmers followed, with the Plant Doctor stripping down behind a rock that presumably provided some kind of modesty, at least for a moment anyway.  Soon he was striding into the sea, a bottle of Newcastle Brown Ale clenched in one hand, the other serving as something akin to a modern fig leaf.  Amongst us we were discussing how the scene was as compelling as a car crash:  horrific, something nobody wants to see, but yet impossible to take your eyes off.  He swam about twenty or so feet out, and before long the Plant Doctor was involved in a conversation with the three other swimmers, who were from Bristol.  It was funny to us knowing that he was completely naked in the water, compared to the rest who were swimming in their underwear.  There was no way of knowing if they could see from their perspective what we had seen.  We could only hope for the sake of the mother, son and daughter triumvirate that they couldn’t.

A foreboding cloud was rolling across the sky from the west, swiftly suffocating any colour that was once there.  It wasn’t long after the Plant Doctor had shaken himself dry and gotten dressed again that the cloud carried out its bleak threat and erupted into rainfall.  The stuff was crackling off the ground like an explosion in a joke toy shop, drenching us instantly.  The next hour was a miserable, sodden traipse around the northern loop of Kerrera conducted in a seemingly endless barrage of rain.  It touched me in places I haven’t been touched in years; every part of me was wet.  At one point we encountered a herd of around five wild goats who were sheltering from the storm under a large rock face, even staring down a couple of sheep who attempted to join them.  In the adjacent field there were dozens of sheep who were standing perfectly still.  We watched in awe for several minutes, wondering what they were doing.  They didn’t move an inch the entire time, almost looking like they were participating in some satanic ritual.  If the scene was taking place in a horror movie, this would be the point where the group of bedraggled hillwalkers should flee with all of their energy, but we were too soggy to run, and they would surely have identified us from the sound of our squelching anyway.

Further along the track, once the rain had stopped, we encountered a new problem when the Plant Doctor dropped his rucksack after one of the straps had snapped.  We stopped by the side of the road not far from the ferry as he investigated the damage inside, trying to ascertain whether any of the bottles had broken.  Having presumably spied the spectacle from his window with some suspicion, a man appeared at the end of his garden path and peered at us over the top of his fence.  We greeted him with a hello and were met with stony silence in return, as though we were sheep trying to nudge in under a cliff.  I explained that the buckle on the Plant Doctor’s bag had broken, and then quickly followed it up with the line:  “the buckle buckled.”  Still nothing.  We quickly picked ourselves up and carried on our way, but even now I wonder what he thought we were up to and if he would ever have told us.

Straddled either side of the trip to Kerrera was the return of the Lorne pub quiz, which was being held for the first time since The Unlikely Lads finally won the thing in September after more than a year of coming up short.  Our original trio had reduced by a third in the meantime with one unlikely lad moving to Edinburgh for university, meaning that the Trig Bagging Quiztress and I were in the market for new members to join our team.  On the first quiz back we had a pair further complement our outfit, one of them a lone Bawbag who didn’t yet have the rest of his team ready to return.  We did alright considering it was our debut outing as a team, finishing inside the top three places, but we knew that we were going to need to do better if we were going to avoid waiting another year before this team wins a £25 bar voucher. 

Our smorgasbord of trivia knowledge was added to the following week by a bird watching accountant, and from the opening two rounds, we were leading the pack.  However, it was beginning to look as though we were getting ahead of ourselves when our initial run through the geography round produced only three answers from ten questions that we could be confident were right.  The rest we had no real clue for and were going to have to take a stab in the dark at answering before the silver-haired host came round to collect our paper.  When the answer sheets were returned to each team, we found to our amazement that we had scored something like 11 from the 14 available points and even my completely blind insistence that Carson City is the state capital of Nevada proved to be correct.  Our ragtag collection of Unlikely Bawbags went on to win the pub quiz by two points – largely thanks to our guesswork, but we weren’t caring about that.  We even won the bonus round bottle of wine with another wild guess at the combined total of Subway, McDonald’s and Starbucks chains worldwide.  It was a spectacular double triumph.

I went round to Aulay’s after The Lorne closed since I was still on a high from the quiz victory and I wasn’t travelling through to Stirling until midday the following afternoon.  When I walked into the pub it was as though the door to the lounge bar was a portal to another time long since forgotten; something taken straight out of a sci-fi movie.  The bar was packed with so many people that I had to wade through the crowd just to get to my usual cool spot by the ice bucket.  There was a chattering buzz about the place, and I had to assume that not everybody had heard of what had just taken place in The Lorne.  Music filled the room as I fought my way to the bar, although it was an unfortunate coincidence that the song which was playing as I walked in was Dude (Looks Like A Lady) by Aerosmith.  Brexit Guy was propped up by the bar, a row of half-drunk measures of Quntro strung out like fairy lights in front of him and the Plant Doctor.  He had returned to Colombia shortly after the pandemic began last year and nobody was expecting to see him back in town, yet here he was.  It was like a Saturday night in 2019 all over again.

In the company of Brexit Guy and the Plant Doctor at the bar was Marco, the director of an Italian menswear company who was holidaying around Scotland.  He was immediately charming and it was easy to see why he was attracting so much attention.  It didn’t take long for Marco to turn his focus onto the way I was dressed, and more specifically onto fixing the casual look I have been attempting to fashion for the midweek quizzes since they started again.  He began pulling at the sleeves and shoulders of my light jacket, fluffing it like it was a throw cushion on a sofa, before telling us that in Italy men leave the top two buttons of their shirt undone if they have visible chest hair.  Marco demonstrated this by asking me first to unfasten my second button and then he began manoeuvring the collar of my shirt so that it sat over the lapels of my jacket, while finally some random button partway down the jacket was closed over.  For those few minutes, I was effectively reduced to the role of a mannequin modelling the summer 2021 casual drunk collection.

I didn’t really know what was happening – to me, it seemed the fashion equivalent of taking wild guesses at the geography round of a pub quiz – but I was happy to go with it.  Marco explained that the collar was opened out over the jacket to display the shirt, whilst the whole thing was done to “frame the chest hair,” which was the first time I have heard body hair spoken about as though it is a da Vinci.  It was impossible to tell how the proper way to dress casually looked in the mirror of the bottle gantry behind the bar, but in a way, it didn’t even matter.  It had been so long since I could stand at the bar after a pub quiz with a pint in my hand and without a mask on my face, being dressed by a complete stranger while the jukebox provided a soundtrack to the night, that nothing could detract from it, not even being told that I look like Joe 90.

Lights out

The light in my bathroom went out one morning recently right while I was in the middle of showering.  It sounds like the worst thing that could happen to a person at such a delicate point in the morning routine, but really it was fine since I’ve become quite familiar with the surroundings and I was able to feel my way around.  

What was most remarkable about the episode was that I had actually been thinking a day or two earlier about how unusual it seemed that I had changed the lightbulbs in every room in my flat over the course of the three years I have been living here, but I’ve never had to replace the bulb in the bathroom.  What are the chances of that happening – first that there would be one room where the light never goes out, and then that the light would expire just as the thought has occurred to me?  These are the sort of questions that you ask yourself when you are living as a single occupant and there is nothing much else happening in your life, in the same way that you become fascinated with diffusers or are suddenly concerned about why there was a pair of walking boots seemingly abandoned by the railings along the Esplanade.  

You usually see one item from a pair discarded by the side of the road:  a shoe, a slipper, a glove; or you come across singular objects which you can understand how they have become separated from their owner:  a hat, a child’s toy, a pacifier, or most commonly these days, a face mask.  These are things you can forget about seeing, but it’s difficult to stop yourself from thinking about the possibility that somebody walked away without realising that they weren’t wearing their boots, especially when they were still laying in the same spot 24 hours later.

It took me several days to get around to changing the lightbulb in my bathroom.  This was mostly because I kept forgetting that the light wasn’t working, though there was undoubtedly a little laziness involved too.  During the height of summer, sunlight pours through the four windows in my flat when the curtains are opened, giving each room a natural light that could fool anybody into thinking that they can get away with living without halogen lighting.  It was only when I flicked the switch outside the bathroom door and nothing happened that I would remember my plight, and on those few mornings, I was subsequently faced with the decision of whether to pull the blind down over the window as I normally would or leave it up for the additional light that was being offered.  There was an inherent gamble involved in not drawing the shade, especially with the back door to our flat’s communal garden being situated right outside my bathroom window.  But the way I saw it, sometimes in life you have to live a little and take a risk if you’re wanting a thrill, even if that thrill is only a hot shower in the morning.

When I did finally replace the bulb it took me all of two minutes, and most of that was figuring out how to stand the stepladder around the bathtub.  Geometry was never my strong point in school and this was even worse than the unusual puzzles the textbooks would ask you to solve.  I could just see myself sitting in Mr Adair’s Higher Maths class, sighing as I was faced with yet another arduous question about an implausible situation that could never actually crop up in real life.  Why would I possibly need to know what ‘x’ is in the following scenario?  A single-occupant (s) leaves a lightbulb (lb) unchanged for 3 days.  He is 37-years-old.  The light fitting (f) hangs 1.67M above the ground and 13 inches from the edge of the tub (t).  t is 47cm from the point where the door (d) touches the bathroom wall.  s’s ladder (l) is 43cm wide and 83cm tall, and s’s reach ( r ) is 2 feet.  If it is a Saturday afternoon and h is hungover as hell (h²), and s wants to finally get around to changing lb, x is the angle at which he must position l between t and d to r the lf.  What is ‘x’?

In fact, there was an elderly man in Aulay’s one Friday night who needed more time to get up from his seat than it took for me to substitute the lightbulb in my bathroom.  It was the gentleman’s birthday and he had been in the pub celebrating it for most of the day, though from the condition he was in you could be forgiven for believing that he had been drinking since his previous birthday.  And really, who could blame him?  We’ve all been having a year of it.  He decided that he’d had enough shortly after I arrived and took one of the spare seats at the table he was sharing with another man he had never met, Nathan the wind farm engineer from Manchester.  Before leaving, he had to first get up to go to the toilet, and this is where his trouble started.

He placed his large bear-like paws on the two tables that were either side of him, one paw on each, and pushed down with all his might.  Beneath his blue trilby hat, the old man’s face was pink as a watermelon, while his eyes were like steely pinballs; the most determined I had ever seen.  He tried and tried to prise himself from the patterned cushion, but it just wasn’t happening; his body presumably weighed down by all the Tennent’s Lager he had consumed.

Meanwhile, on the television in the corner of the bar, the BBC highlights of the day’s Olympics action was being played.  I would occasionally feign an interest in the Men’s 200m individual medley, but it was difficult to peel my eyes away from the Olympian effort which was taking place before me as the birthday boy made yet another attempt to wrestle himself out of his seat.  Each time he failed to get up he insisted to me and Nathan that he would be fine once he was on his feet.  All he had to do was get there.  It must have been at least the seventh attempt when he finally managed to steady himself, his paws gripping the two tables the way I hold onto a pint glass.  The first thing he did after rising to full prominence was to ask the barman to phone a taxi for him, and when he returned from the toilet we had to implore him not to sit down again as he reached for his nearly empty pint.  The taxi wasn’t long in appearing, and when the barman wrapped his arm around the birthday boy’s waist to support him, it was like watching a victorious athlete being carried around the running track by his jubilant countrymen.

With the old man safely escorted to his taxi, I felt obliged to make conversation with Nathan since he could just as easily have refused my request to sit on the spare stool at his table.  It seemed we should have had a common bond since we were both so impressed with the feat of perseverance we had just witnessed, but our conversation fell into silence when he asked if I had been watching any of the Rugby sevens and I was forced into confessing that I wasn’t even aware it is an Olympic sport.  We both glanced up at the TV screen as though the Men’s 10000m athletics final was suddenly the most compelling thing in the world, and in a way it was.  We could have run the entire thing ourselves, so interminable did that silence seem.

Eventually, my newfound interest in athletics faded and I made another attempt at conversing with Nathan shortly before my brother joined us.  I learned that he is in the area working on a wind farm project down in either Tarbet or Tarbert – I can never tell which is which, and it only confuses matters if you ask.  He couldn’t find accommodation in whichever village he is employed, so he had to travel all the way to Oban for a place to stay.  The life of a wind farm engineer sounded pretty fantastic once Nathan got into it.  Since there is such a high demand for renewable energy these days he is basically travelling all around the world helping to install wind turbines.  It is delicate work, however, and there are certain conditions in which Nathan can’t do his job.  On these days he is forced to sit in a hotel room or a pub, where he likes to sample a whisky from whichever town he has ended up in.  It seemed fortunate that he landed in Oban, where our whisky is terrific.  I was curious to know what type of event would cause a wind turbine installation to be halted, and Nathan obliged by telling me that he isn’t able to work when the temperature is too hot or too cold, or when it is especially windy.  I could scarcely believe what I was hearing.  The one thing that a wind turbine lives for is the thing that can stop it from functioning altogether.  It is exactly like me and sex, I thought.

Nathan was reeling off a list of the places where he would ordinarily be working when my brother turned up.  In the last year, due to the circumstances around Covid, he has spent more time in the UK than ever before, when usually his job takes him to places like France, Germany, Italy, Croatia, the Gulf, and Japan, amongst others.  My brother asked him if he goes wherever the wind takes him, but he didn’t seem to flinch.  This got me to wondering if Nathan ever gets tired of hearing people making wind-based puns.  He must get them all the time.  How could you expect to be in his line of work and not be inundated with wind puns?  I decided to ask Nathan if there comes a time where he’s sick of everyone he meets insisting on making puns based on the fact he works with wind turbines or if it eventually all blows over.  He took a gulp of his Oban Malt and crooked his neck to look up at the television.  “I don’t like to have too many of these in case I need to work in the morning.”

It is difficult to say whether I was more inspired or shamed by the birthday boy into replacing the faulty lightbulb in my bathroom on Saturday afternoon.  I had awoken with an unusually fresh sense of purpose that morning, which was all the more remarkable considering the Plant Doctor, my brother and I had reintroduced the tough paper round drink into our Friday night.  As well as getting my large weekly shopping trip out of the way, I also found time to make a visit to the barbershop.  It was my second haircut since Covid restrictions were eased enough to allow the barber to reopen, and I was glad to get it out of the way in advance of the lifting of the last remaining restrictions on 9 August and some upcoming adventures.

The barber’s was completely empty, a rare sight on a Saturday morning, which allowed me to enter my name into the appointment book and immediately take a seat in the big chair.  As I removed my glasses and settled in, the barber was in the midst of an internal struggle over how much longer he was going to keep the shop open.  He wasn’t seeing the kind of trade he usually does on a Saturday, with there being particularly fewer tourists coming in than he would expect.  I was surprised to hear that people go for a haircut when they are away on holiday, since I’d imagine that’s one of the first things anyone would do before a big event, but apparently the barber makes at least £300 a week from visitors.  

According to him, many small towns in England don’t have a traditional barbershop, only a unisex hairdresser, so one of the first things they do when they arrive in a place like Oban is to get a haircut.  Then he also gets a lot of American and Australian tourists, his theory being that they tend to take longer trips around Europe of up to a month, meaning that by the time they reach Scotland they are due to have their hair cut again.  It was all very fascinating to hear about, even if I’m not sure that I believed that small English towns only have unisex hairdressers.  I feel like I always learn something when I’m in the barber’s, although I never know how useful the information actually is.  It’s all well and good hearing about the hairstyling habits of holidaymakers, but what I really need to know is why light bulbs last much longer in some rooms than they do in others, and where I was going to position my stepladder to change the bulb in my bathroom.