Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

August 18, 2017
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Tartan tour

An insider's guide to the history, splendour and self-mocking wit of the Scottish Highlands

I spent the first 28 years of my life in Scotland. Yet, for me, it's still as wondrous a place as it might be for any tourist coming to find the land of their ancestors. Every time I visit this craggy country perched on England's shoulders like a hat (or like England's brain, as I would tease my English medical school friends), I feel the years roll back and I'm a child again.

The first time I returned home, after three years working as a country doctor in the sprawling, reddish-brown state of Texas, I looked down from the plane upon the neat, almost manicured, fields of my homeland. As I gazed out, I remembered that both the Irish and the Scots are said to have 54 words for different shades of green, and I felt a tightening at the back of my throat.

Like any emigrant to North America, I miss my memories. I miss my former country folk. I miss the Scots' simplicity, their common sense, their frugality. I miss their irreverence and their tolerance for hardship — they take it in their stride. Over the centuries, like most agricultural nations, they've had to: winters were harsh and the soil in the Highlands was so rocky it couldn't support large families on the farm. As one historian said, "The fertility of Scottish women was greater than the fertility of the soil, hence the great Scottish immigrations across the globe."

In my youth, life was simple. Born during the Depression and raised in wartime Britain, we learned to amuse ourselves with simple things. We would explore river banks, scramble over heather in gorgeous bloom, hike everywhere, anywhere, to find panoramic views of the countryside, ancient battlefields or ancient monuments, wandering over sprawling estates whose owners had only one demand: "Close the gates after you."

I miss the Scots' dry, self-mocking sense of humour; they don't take themselves too seriously. Their best stories — whether around the fireplace or behind the bar in a pub — are always self-mocking. I miss that in many of my American patients, and I suspect Canadian doctors might agree that humourless patients can be hard to deal with. A Scottish colleague once told me about a retired patient of his, who got bored and took a job as the janitor in a city park. Said my friend, "This patient came in one day with a minor problem. I asked how the job was going. He replied: Oh doctor, times are so different. People come into the toilets for all sorts of terrible reasons. When someone comes in for an honest to goodness crap it's like a breath of fresh air!'"

Green Acres
Joking aside, I miss Scotland's fresh air. I miss the fresh water running down from the hills, hurrying in shallow streams over the river bed gravel that gives it purity — the basis of the velvet Scotch. I miss the evening light that lasts almost to midnight in summer. I miss the strange luminosity in the day when the sun comes out, if only for a moment, until the next burst of rain. Though I curse the weather when I have to drive, alternating between sunglasses and windshield wipers every few minutes.

Yes, Scotland can be wet and cold. Visitors need to know they're not coming for the sun. Still, Scotland on a beautiful day in May or September can be the envy of Europe and, in the 30 or so trips I've made since 1960, I've often had great weather by avoiding Scotland's temperamental summer.

One day in late April, for example, I was walking along a road enjoying the most glorious Scottish spring we'd had in many a year when I came upon an old lady. "Can you remember a spring like this?" I asked in passing. She called after me, "I cannae rrrememberrr a summerrr like this."

Come not for Scotland's weather but for its scenery: undulating green hills in the Borders area, southern lowlands not unlike Ontario's, craggy granite peaks in the north like the foothills of our Rockies, sleepy fishing villages like the Maritime provinces and magnificent baronial homes like Connecticut's — you'll see how New England got its name.

Come to the county where I grew up: Perthshire. Located in the geographical centre of the country, the area has played an important role in this nation's long and turbulent history. Perthshire can claim it has hosted Macbeth, Mary Queen of Scots, Queen Victoria and Robert Burns, among many others.

HIGHLAND FLING
Visitors come to fish its streams and golf its historic courses. They come to walk hills and climb mountains, to explore villages and find castles and to follow distilleries on the Whisky Trail. And to meet its people.

You find Scottish folk when you stop to pull out a map, and they come up to ask if they can help. You encounter them when you stick your head into a store to ask for directions and a customer pulls out his keys and says, "It's too complicated. Follow my car and I'll show you." You discover them when you stop at a pub in the evening, they hear your accent and, with gratitude even after 50 years, come up and say (because they don't differentiate Canadians from Americans), "Hey, Yank. Have a beer. This one's on Ike's army!"

 

 

 

Other armies have visited Scotland. The savage battle of Killiecrankie took place five kilometres away in 1689, when 2500 Catholic Highlanders attacked a force of 4000 English Protestants and killed half of them in less than an hour. The breast plate of the Highland leader "Bonnie Dundee," with the hole from the ball that killed him, hangs on display at my favourite castle, Blair, a 10-minute drive just up the road. Amongst the eclectic array on display at Blair Castle is an antique book dated 1673, showing the travels of Edward Brown, the king's favourite physician.

I miss Scotland for its legends, its mystique, its romantic history. When the Old World formed the European Union in 1993, the northern Highlands region of Scotland found itself described as "Europe's last remote frontier." Indeed. The words carved into the granite slab at Loch Tummel's Queen's View, near the vacation village of Pitlochry, are more specific: "Only traders, adventurers, writers and armies visited the Highlands before the 19th century."

It's hard not to have favourites when you've spent your childhood in this land of the bagpipes and the kilt. One of my favourite towns is Pitlochry in the north part of Perthshire, with its main street peppered with restaurants, interesting souvenir shops and expensive places where tailors can outfit you in tartan attire that your kids might use later for Trick or Treat.

Pitlochry has a nationally famous summer theatre festival, great fly fishing, superb golf and every kind of outdoor activity. I have a soft spot for this so-named "holiday town" because my mother was born 15 kilometres away in Moulin, a village whose church dates from 1180.

My other favourite town is my birthplace, Crieff, at the other end of Perthshire, half an hour to the south. Its attractions include Innerpeffray, founded about 1680, the oldest free lending library in the country. The library's unique exhibits include Holinshed's Chronicles, published in 1577, which was the basis for some of Shakespeare's historical plays.

Get Out Of Town
But Perthshire also offers Scone Palace, where the kings of Scotland were crowned for 500 years. It has the gardens of Drummond Castle, shown to advantage in the movie Rob Roy, while the actual grave of Rob Roy lies beside the little village church in Balquhidder.

Near Crieff, history is spanned at Ardoch in Braco, where a Roman camp dates back to the second century, and at Huntingtower Castle, a 15th-century castellated mansion, where the future King James VI was imprisoned for a year. The Crieff area has old churches, too, like St. Bean's, a 13th-century church in Fowlis Wester with a leper squint — a small window through which lepers could watch the service from the garden.

A half-hour drive away is the Wallace Monument, a 67-metre-tall Victorian monument built centuries after the historic Battle of Stirling Bridge of 1297. Unbelievably, William Wallace's broadsword was saved and is on display in the tower. Mel Gibson played Wallace in the movie Braveheart and a statue with an uncanny resemblance to the actor — erected, perhaps, by Scottish tourism — has now appeared near the monument.

Indeed, tourism is big business in Perthshire. The region offers more than 3000 events for visitors every year including village galas, Scottish dancing, Highland nights, nature walks, mountain climbs, garden festivals and golf championships. Perthshire now has 40 fall golf courses and five scenic nine-hole courses. The Gleneagles Hotel has four courses, including the renowned King's course and the equally famous Queen's (although the hotel is getting to be a bit pleased with itself and is very expensive, especially if you're travelling with children).

Great Scots!
Edinburgh, the city where I went to medical school, has a castle that is the second-most visited historical attraction in Britain after the Tower of London. Statues of William Wallace and his successor, Robert the Bruce, grace the castle's entrance. Below the end of the cobbled street of the Royal Mile sits Holyrood House, with its 500 years of history including a famous assassination.

Edinburgh is a convenient, even romantic, place to end a Scottish vacation. You are surrounded by historical museums, proud culture, beautiful gardens, one-of-a-kind hotels and — something new in a country where part of the joke is "Hell is a place where the cooks are British" — superb restaurants. Favourites include the North Bridge Brasserie which offers great food in the Scotsman (tel: 011-44-1315-565-565; www.thescotsmanhotel.co.uk), a fascinating hotel. The hotel was converted in 2001 from the headquarters of Scotland's famous newspaper. Meanwhile, just round the corner on Princess Street sits the luxury Balmoral (tel: 011-44-1315-562-414; www.thebalmoralhotel.com) with, arguably, the ultimate dining experience in Scotland, the Number One restaurant.

But fine dining is likely not what keeps on drawing visitors. Dr Micheil MacDonald, a Scottish anthropologist, tells me why so many North Americans visit his country: "First," he says, "there's a sense of history. This land of the Scot resembles a time capsule but, unlike the world of Disney, it's for real." He continues: "Second, North Americans come home to trace their roots. Everyone seems to have a Scottish granny."

Scotland has produced a remarkable crop from its rocky infertile soil: Baird, who invented television and Bell, the telephone; Carnegie, the gentlest rich man in history and Burns, the poorest great poet in literature; Hunter, the dean of surgical anatomy and Fleming, the discoverer of penicillin; Simpson, who saw a use for chloroform and Watt, who understood the value of steam; MacMillan, the blacksmith who built the bicycle and Napier, the mathematician who created logarithms; Mackintosh, who made rainmacs and Macadam, who made tarmac.

Scotland discovered much of Canada and, appropriately for a canny country, it had Adam Smith, the world's first economist. Even the founder of the Bank of England was a Scotsman. As other countries are wont to remark: "The Scots interfere with everything!"

 

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