Our pub near Callander

The Low Road —- Loch Lomond —- Alastair McDonald sings Scottish Ballads


Roman recommended us to order scotch at the pubs in the Highlands – “their scotch is (of course) great, their beer is lousy”. I completely agree with the first part, and quite disagree with the second part: we did try very good local ales!

Our third three-day stop in a bed-and-breakfast was about a mile before Callander, on a small bend of a side road. How did we spot it? We still don’t know. We just were incredibly lucky: that bed-and-breakfast is by far one of the best, one of the most beautiful places I have ever stayed in, in my whole life.

We had already been travelling for a whole week in the Highlands —- we stayed in very good bed-and-breakfasts in the Trossachs, in the Lochalsh district, in absolutely gorgeous surroundings.

That day started a bit harshly. After an incredible trip to Skye the day before, MC woke up with sharp toothache, the kind that demands immediate attention. We called the insurance company in Colombia, and they gave us an address in Edinburgh or Glasgow where she could get dental emergency assistance. Great.

Great but… thinking of going back to a city after that incredible week in the Highlands felt like a cold shower, a return to routine, even if the city is beautiful Edinburgh. We talked on the phone with the Edinburgh practice (psychologically, at that point, thinking of having to go back to Edinburgh felt almost like flying back to Bogotá…) and they told MC to take some painkillers (strong ones) and go there the next day.

So we had one more day. Driving (I with a headache, she with her toothache) back to Edinburgh was weird. Loch Alsh, then Loch Ness then Invergarry, where the pub had engravings of several of the mountains we had climbed, as if put on purpose to lure us to stay longer in the highlands. Then Ben Nevis, Port Arthur, more lochs, an old mining village where somehow my headache dissipated and MC also started to feel better (thanks partially to the incredible cheerfulness of the cook, who prepared us an incredible rendering of haggis), then Glen Coe. Quick quick – we had to be back in Edinburgh… MC told me to stop longer at Glen Coe (among the most beautiful mountains we have seen anywhere, including Andes, Rockies, Sierras and Alps) but I pressed a bit – we had to be back in Edinburgh not too late to find some accommodation…

Wait a minute: did we really have to sleep in a city, in any city – in an Edinburgh, a Bogotá, a Manhattan? We decided not. We decided to extend our paradise for at least one day more, or maybe two or three and only go to Edinburgh when needed (for the conference), on Sunday afternoon.

Callander, near the end of paradise, was there waiting for us. The best of all bed-and-breakfasts, at Diane’s. Next to the river. Next to another enchanted mountain. Two hundred meters from the pub.

The pub. All pubs are great, but some are greater. The pub in that hamlet, about one mile upstream from Callander, with its homebrew ales (and yes, they were good), its evenings of music (with good fiddlers, guitar players, rhythm, banjo, etc. and everybody singing from the booklet), its comforting food, its atmosphere.

Pubs are public houses. The closest I have ever seen to your comfortable, nice, living room at home, is a good pub. The sofas. People arriving, greeting friends, staying, hanging out in the sunny evening. Beers, if you want. Scotch, if you want. Just browsing the internet, if you want. No pressure to consume anything, you can stay for hours on your couch – the only exception being dinner time (like at home). Haddock in beer-batter. Good chips. Venison. Hare. People happily talking loudly, families celebrating something, people simply sitting and talking quietly. But oddly, never the pressure of “you have finished you have to leave”. Single malts at about £2 a shot, with a little water to “open them up” if you want.

We sang a bit with the crowd – María Clara has always loved to sing, ever since I met her, and that has led her to sing with amazing people in Madison, in Helsinki… Here we just jumped at the opportunity.

The Scottish ballads, in their simplicity, are deceiving. When accompanied by good fiddlers, their power is spellbinding. The booklet had perhaps 200 pages of songs, that people seemed to know, some better than the others. Ballads, words, stories of massacres, of love, of death, of travel, of the sea, of the wicked English, of the sad state of Scotland, of places.

Camille Paglia, in an interview, reminds us of the link that goes from Medieval England to the best lyrics of blues, of gospel and country, of western music and rock ‘n’ roll, through Scotland by way of Appalachia and the American South: the four-line ballad stanza.

It’s poetry on the page—a visual construct—that lasts. The eye too is involved. The shapeliness and symmetry of the four-line ballad stanza (descending from medieval England and Scotland and carried by seventeenth-century emigres to the American South and Appalachia) once structured the best lyrics of rhythm and blues, gospel, country and western music, and rock ‘n’ roll. But with the immense commercial success of rock music, those folk roots have receded, and popular songwriting has gotten weaker and weaker. (Camille Paglia)

These ballads have it. The shapeliness, the symmetry. The lyrics that resurfaces in Appalachia and the South.

I remember we sang the song here above (Loch Lomond), here sung by Alastair McDonald. It is a song of a Scottish soldier, captured by the English and sentenced to death in Carlyle, not far from Scotland. The song is about his “taking the low road” back to Scotland. Listening to this, singing it, brings tears (of longing? just the beauty of the ballad?) to me…


By yon bonnie banks and by yon bonnie braes
Where the sun shines bright on Loch Lomond
Where me and my true love will ne-er meet again (alternate: Where me and my true love were ever lak/wont to gae)
On the bonnie, bonnie banks o’ Loch Lomon’.
O ye’ll tak’ the high road, and I’ll tak’ the low (road)
And I’ll be in Scotland afore ye
For me and my true love will ne-er meet again
On the bonnie, bonnie banks o’ Loch Lomon’.
‘Twas there that we parted in yon shady glen
On the steep, steep sides o’ Ben Lomon’
Where in (soft) purple hue, the hielan hills we view
And the moon comin’ out in the gloamin’.
The wee birdies sing and the wild flowers spring
And in sunshine the waters are sleeping
But the broken heart, it kens nae second spring again
Tho’ the waeful may cease frae their greetin’. (alternate: Tho’ the world knows not how we are grieving)