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The Royal Scotsman: A Scottish Fling
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The Royal Scotsman: A Scottish Fling
  Edinburgh Travel Tale

by Lorry Patton ...

scotland_train2_lp.jpg "This train bound for Glasgow?" a stranger squeaked, mistakenly climbing on board.

This train was the Royal Scotsman. This train was the luxurious and very exclusive private tour train bound for Scotland's lochs and castles and battlefields.

And more, this train was bound for Scotland's glory, and a wee bit of Scottish beguiling.

"Ah! Private, you say!", he said, stepping back reluctantly whilst muttering "Nice!"

Quite. If nice means fit for a queen.

Our guest list, however, did not include royalty. On the contrary, we were a more ordinary lot -- proprietors, military captains, teachers, entrepreneurs -- with nothing in common, except, perhaps, a yearning for "auld lang syne."

Oh, what a sight we were the twenty-four of us! Pampered decadently, while steaming across little-used railway lines on a train with all its old-world charm intact, stopping at simple stations with simple names such as Maillag, Boat of Garten or Spean Bridge. It was surely sinful, to be thus obliged.

I can still see the regular folk peering at us through the windows every time the train groaned to a halt. Curious, they leaned forward on the platform and scanned the interior of the 1928 Pullman carriage, resplendent with wainscot walls, plaid drapes, brass lamps and overstuffed armchairs. When their eyes caught the eyes of the tuxedo-attired waiter primly serving tea and biscuits in the posh salon, their focus quickly shifted. But, only for a moment. I knew indubitably, we were a spectacle, sitting there, sipping, nibbling, our heads buried in tomes the likes of "Hamlet" or the "Odes to Bonnie Prince Charlie."

I had heard of Scotland's magic and it was true; the images rolling by the window held me captive.

Ferns, philodendron, and rowan trees crept wildly from the fertile grounds that bordered cool and misty lochs and streams. Gentle farmland dipped and heaved as far as I could see. Sheep grazed in the meadows amid austere crofts; groomed dogs roamed without restraint; stone fortresses loomed on the horizon.

We skirted Loch Lomond and crossed Glenfinnan Viaduct. We climbed Cairngorm Mountains and followed the rock- strewn shores of the Atlantic.

T'was the season and heather brushed the moors a purple hue, tinting the atmosphere a pale lavender where the hills met the skies ... somewhere 'way over there, at the edge of the earth.

scotcastle2.jpg Occasionally, the skies darkened; a cloud broke and the world turned a rippling grey. Then, just as quickly, the sun exploded and sucked the moisture from the ground in steamy swirls. We came to expect these sudden downpours and never ventured off the train without a giant umbrella.

Our side trips allowed us an intimate insight to Scotland and its people. We visited lived-in castles and fortresses and were guests at private homes and gardens ( both opulent and common), and several enterprising local businesses.

The whole family at the Inverawe Smokehouse -- cousins, nephews, nieces, aunts and uncles -- welcomed us in the big old-fashioned farmhouse like long lost relatives from abroad. The younger generation graciously served smoke salmon, trout and wine and questioned us about our professions. One young lad, about six or seven, dressed in kilts for the occasion. He smiled shyly when asked to pose for pictures.

scotman2.jpg A bagpiper greeted us at the gatehouse of Sir Fitzroy Maclean's home. The author of several books on Russia and friend of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, he, his wife Lady Phipps, and his black and white terriers, seemed genuinely pleased to see us.

A shower sent us scurrying indoors to his private den -- a safe haven for the hodgepodge of newspapers, magazines, postcards, greeting cards and photographs that documented his life as a British Diplomat, a Brigadier, a Member of Parliament, and a respected author.

When asked if his best seller "Take Nine Spies" was based on firsthand knowledge, the tall and gangly scholar replied with the only answer possible of a diplomat. Any snooping on his part, he rested on his cane, cleared his throat and chuckled, "was for research only!"

A personal "best wishes" message from the Queen Mother was displayed on the mantel alongside candid snapshots of Sir Fitzroy's family socializing with the Royal Family.

The names and faces were different; otherwise, it could have been my mantel at home. Poised in capes and gloves and silver tray, the Royal Scotsman's staff greeted us with dignity and hot mulberry wine whenever we'd return from a stimulating visit -- a piece of Scotland's virtue blazing in our hearts.

Betty, our learned guide and constant companion, added to our knowledge of the Scots with historical snippets of Scotland's ancestry and plight. From the 5th century on, she traced the Picts, the Britons, the Angles, the Normans, the Scots of Dal Riata, the Vikings, the Celts, and the many different clans.

Bonnie Prince Charlie, Robbie Burns, Napoleon, Sir Walter Scott, Andrew Carnegie, Sean Connery and Shakespeare were just a few of the familiar names she bandied about between tragic tales of Jacobite uprisings, the Queen of Scots, and personal renditions of lamenting Gaelic folk songs. Sometimes we joined her.

One wet and windy day, oblivious to the looks from the regular commuters, a bunch of us gathered on an upper ramp on the ferry to the Isle of Skye and wholeheartedly sang the wrenching "Skye Boat Song."

It was 1746 and Bonnie Prince Charlie had just been savagely defeated.

scotsong2.jpg "Speed, Bonnie boat, like a bird on the wind, onward the sailors cry. Carry the lad that's born to be king, over the sea to Skye. "

Our voices floated in perfect harmony like the birds on the wind over the sea to Skye.

"Banned are our homes, exile and death, scatter the loyal men. Yet ere the sword, cool in the sheath, Charlie will come again."

Alas, Bonnie Prince Charlie did not come again; and so it was, the future of Scotland was determined.

Our last evening, the train creaked and clanked and squealed onto a sidetrack and slowly pushed itself into a grove of trees. It came to rest alongside a Scotch distillery.

The sound of bagpipes pierced the silent night.

Like the rats in Robert Browning's classic "Pied Piper of Hamelin," I would have followed the piper anywhere. As it was, he led us to the tasting room for a sample of the famous golden elixir and the equally famous Scottish fling.

The festivities began with a haunting duet between an accordion player and the bagpiper. The song was "Amazing Grace."

Perhaps it was the scotch, perhaps it was the mournful melody, or perhaps it was simply Scottish beguiling, whatever it was, the experience was so intense, I thought my heart would burst.

The ruddy-faced accordion player kissed my cheeks again and again in response to my words of praise. "Oh, my darling," he blurted, holding me tight. "You have made my day! "

Encouraged to get involved, before long we were kicking up our heels in true Scottish tradition.

"And here's a hand my trusty friend, and gives a hand o' thine, we'll tak' a cup of kindness yet, for auld lang syne."

It was the first time I really understood Robbie Burn's ode to old friends and old times.

We held hands, the twenty-four of us, and loudly and fervently echoed the words.

"For auld acquaintance be forgot ... "

Back at the train, teary-eyed, emotional, we promised to "ne'er forget."

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