a comparison, with reference to fruit scones and grizzly bears
- Graeme Semple -
Obviously only the kind of heretic who fraternises with the likes of the Hooting Vale and Misty Fen Ramblers Club would consider England in an appreciation of the world's great mountains; even if you've never been there, all manner of derisory and flippant remarks about the Lake District etc are warranted for a variety of reasons. But probably the most valid reason for not venturing south is that there's simply no need; ever hear of "The Cuillin District"? No, they're on Skye. Yet if the Lakes don't get a look in with Scotland, it makes sense to say that the Highlands suffer the same fate under an Ande or a Himalaya.
Looking to spend a couple of months abroad, I thought I'd test this theory. Canada was the place: everyone knows from geography at school that the Rockies are (a) very large indeed and (b) home to some of the planet's scariest and hairiest animals, which eat people whenever it takes their fancy. I'm afraid I have to concur with TAC27's comments that Scottish wildlife is decidedly lacking in the pointy teeth department, especially after seeing Mr Black Bear get ripped into some rubbish at the roadside. Better still, I was in my kip in the Lake Louise YH when Ms Grizzly Bear became separated from the weans and proceeded to shred five tents in the campsite next door, resulting in several serious injuries plus an upturn in underwear-related business at the laundromat. The woolly-bunneted environmental lobby are, as ever, jolly keen to save the Cairngorm plateau and its wildlife from increased visitor pressure, but I can't help feeling a bit apathetic in the absence of an unsettling howl or two.
Before heading off, I was to suffer from paranoia - mainly because I knew that lots of shambling around deserted transcontinental highways was in prospect, complete with sabre-toothed friends; but also because I feared acquiring a dependency on shiny glaciers and 12000ft summits. After two months in Canada, you soon accept that the water in mountain lakes is hallucinogenic turquoise, and I knew that readjusting to the everyday grey Scottish loch and the modest altitude would never be easy, that many hours of blank vegetative staring would probably be required to appreciate Glen Coe once more.
What with wall-to-wall literary references, cutting-edge scientific thinking, hot political polemic and enough arty-farty banter to make Late Review look like The Shane Ritchie Experience, it's obvious that TAC readers are a thoroughly cultured, educated and well-travelled shower of buggers who turn the average bothy trip into a celebration of High Art in which Conservative manifestos are toasted along with the marshmallows. (But the manifesto is a marshmallow surely? - Ed.) It would be foolhardy to suggest these people would accept anything less than an expansive and authoritative insight into the aesthetic and cultural experiences to be had in Canada. Hard luck then, because I went for the stereotypical image of a bad shirt and a large rucksack complemented by a thumb in the air, and successfully avoided encountering any grand opera houses or sophisticated clubs polluted by self-indulgent jazz.
Whether you're in the cities or mountains of Canada you experience superlative sights and steaks, but nothing, no Rough Guide, no brochure, prepares you for the truly awesome tat for sale. I know that just about every country has an image of itself to flog to visitors, but I reckoned Scotland was Number One with some really offensively overpriced tartan nonsense. When Crieff Visitor Centre exhibited alluring modesty and understated charm in its leaflet subtitled "A Myriad of Attractions" (car park, bog, pottery, café ...), I thought an all-time low had been reached in tourism. However, the same criminally insane pedlars and town planners who gave Scotland its guff were obviously in cahoots with a transatlantic collective working to ensure the same fate for Canada. Even after witnessing the Little Chef experience at Tyndrum and suffering the indignity of finding yourself in a shop selling plastic kilties and laughing haggises (haggii?), none of this will allow you to cope with Saskatchewan Crossing in Banff National Park. Nightmarish tartanalia and unimaginative milk jugs don't seem so bad when you can shell out for a "grizzly-bear-in-a-can", or a stuffed-moose-heid-and-maple-syrup personalised keyring.
Aviemore is in Scotland. This is unfortunate. Canada has its equivalent resorty-type mountain sport place, Banff. Apart from the familiarity of the name, we'd do well to take Banff in return for Aviemore, because Banff does its tourist-laden job with very little evidence of bare concrete and overpriced go-kart tracks. Even though Banff's main street is awash with touristy dross, it succeeds in looking as if it's been around for longer than the Aviemore Centre - although it also attracts a summer population to rival the influx of tab-heads and Special Brew drinkers at Loch Lomond. Word has it that the appearance of the Banff Springs Hotel (reminiscent of the joint in The Shining where Jack Nicholson lost the place) in a Japanese soap partly accounts for the marauding sharply-dressed swarms photographing post boxes and shrub borders. The proprietors of the extortionate jewellery arcades, the moose-head outlets and the Nikon battery stockists have realised that fiscal transfer will occur on a truly continental scale when Japanese has prominence over English and French in shop window signs.
I suppose all this nonsense performs the ultimately admirable task of keeping the bulk of the punters in a relatively limited area. Jasper National Park is the biggest of the four contiguous Rockies Parks, and covers a greater area than the other three combined. The vast area to the north of Jasper townsite, which leads to the top of the Rockies and the Yukon, is a perfect example of the truly intractable landscape which no amount of tourist development could ever hope to encroach upon. The size of the geographical buffers needed to protect the Highlands are, comparatively, so tiny that it's no surprise there's a stooshie when someone fancies a concrete railway track. How about restoring the Highlands to a primeval environment devoid of roads and coaches and shortbread? Construct a 45ft wall across the north end of the Central Belt and turn Loch Lomond into a mammoth Waterworld extravaganza. Access to the water would be denied unless a jetski is used. (That happens already doesn't it? - Ed.) A chairlift would run from Luss to the summit of Ben Lomond for year-round artificial skiing and paragliding. A funicular railway would be constructed for good measure at Rowardennan. And a bouncy castle inflated every mile of the West Highland TramWay, complete with Tam Weir themed burger and whisky emporium. The raison d'être of this development would be to effect the demolition of every settlement north of the wall, as enough employment would be created for the entire population of the Highlands in the daily running of the park. Wolves, bears (all varieties), moose, elk and penguins would be introduced. And mountain lions. Surely the sacrifice of Loch Lomond on such a commercial altar will be for the best when Scotland could thus seriously consider rivalling even the furthest-flung grizzly hangout? I fail to see how Michael Forsyth could raise objections to such a visionary solution for the ills of the blue rinses, Mondeos, unemployment and scones in the Highlands.
Scots in Canada are frequently embraced by the "Oh yeaaah, my grandfather was a MacWhatever" approach. Indeed, in the case of two airhead skateboarder types this resulted, after fifteen minutes of vacuous chitchat, in the golden question, "So do you speak English across there?" The "problem" is that so many different cultural influences make up the relatively small Canadian population; eg Newfoundlanders, Newfies, are the butt of a range of jokes about their alleged obsession with fish and fog. (Hey, I must be a Newfie then! - Ed.) There are genuine downhome rednecks in Alberta, some of whom are particularly anti-French. I heard one bloke at referendum time in October last year say he'd gladly pack the separatists off to Mururoa - presumably so he could be left free to enjoy Calgary's burgeoning 4x4 pickup and tobacco-chewing scene. Then there are the snooty types in Victoria who make a big deal out of their afternoon tea thing, and the Nova Scotians who have a different kilt for each day of the week. Apart from the omnipresent festering hatred between the Tims and the Huns, Scotland is pretty much unified in its occasional irrational, tribal and xenophobic celebration when the English are involved in some footie.
The unnecessary desire to insult a southern neighbour aside, Scotland and Canada share small towns. Quality ones at that. With silly names. Worse even than Drumnadrochit. I didn't make it to Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, but I did pass through Grand Forks, BC: not very much to see apart from the fact of it not being grand at all. (There's also the fabled Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump - Ed.) If I had had more time I would have enjoyed conducting a brief monitoring programme of the driving patterns utilised by the young men of the Forks - something tells me it would have had a lot in common with the well-known circuit of the Fiesta-driving weasels in Crieff, who seem unable to tire of the same throbbing club classic.
Perhaps a worldwide tourism industry free of bad taste is like asking for Noel Edmond's head on a stick: an inspired idea but as long as there's a few bob in the equation it's asking too much. Where there's shit telly there's deranged viewers, and where there's tourists there's dodgy icons. As far as the big hill debate goes, I reckon youse should all get out there and appreciate the singular significance of crossing a timezone in the mountains.