November 24, 2004

Oban and out

I am going to Scotland tomorrow, to Oban: to get away from London, to use up some leave, to play in the chess tournament there. I played there once before, in 1999, and have, ever since, wanted to go back.

I might have won it, five years ago, when I was a better player than I am today, not so weighed down by stress and tiredness and lack of confidence. I was in the leading pairing in the final round, and although I lost - I always lose crucial last round games, as I did in the tournament the other day - I remember it vividly. I remember thinking, for about half-an-hour after my opponent had gone slightly wrong, that I was actually going to win after all. I remember being so engrossed in the game that I was greatly surprised, after resigning in the final position and shaking hands, to look up and see this huge circle of people clustered around our board, dozens of them - or so it seemed - all craning their necks to follow what was happening and see for themselves how it was all going to turn out. Normally at chess one's concentration is, pace Wodehouse, disturbed by the uproar of the butterflies in the adjoining meadows, but there could have been a hundred people standing there, all coughing and shuffling and apologising to one another, and I would have been completely oblivious to them.

I remember not being oblivious to the sight of snow topping the island of Mull, dominating the view from wherever you looked. It was the first snow of the winter, one of the locals told me. We have had that snow already, but I am looking forward to it still. I remember the fish shop, still serving its chips in newspaper, and the signs in Gaelic at the local Tesco, and the entire smallness of the place, as if it was all of it standing on the end of the railway platform.

Mot of all it was the railway journey which I remember and which is probably my main reason for going back. It is three hours out from Glasgow, most of it spent tracking back and forth across the Highlands like a skier walking uphill. It is a difficult journey through difficult history, and having read Prebble's Glencoe I was reminded, as I went, of Alistair MacDonald's desperate and futile journey in the opposite direction, with his clan four hundred years before.

History transforms itself into tourism, all the more easily with the absence of the people. After Glencoe came Culloden, and after that the Clearances, and after that there was nothing there but a terrible emptiness to look at and think about the desperate MacDonalds and their deadline.

The emptiness itself, of course, is what you are there to look at - and there is plenty of it to see and plenty of time to see it, though one must wait for the way back to see Loch Lomond and the rest of the scenery, since the journey out, and uphill, is at night. It is still not a journey to be missed - such is the gradient that the train, as if exhausted, is obliged to wait for about ten minutes at each Highland station before setting off again, and the passengers all get out, mill about the platform and take themselves a cigarette break, their smoke mingling with the steam coming from the engine, as if the train itself were doing the same thing.


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