When the weather turns ugly on the west coast of Scotland the damp seeps into your very soul. It was day five of our driving sojourn through the Highlands. The highway roundabouts had become less intimidating but navigating an unfamiliar car through traffic on the wrong side of narrow rain-slicked roads was beginning to wear me down. It was still only noon when we pulled into the little town of Fairlie and spotted a B&B with smoke wafting from its chimney. The thought of a warm hearth was irresistible and we decided to stop for the night.
"Aye we do have a room," said the fellow who greeted us at the door. "Come in an warm yerself by the fire. Wifell bring ye a cupo tea."
We parked the car, left our packs in an upstairs bedroom of the old farmhouse, and joined the couple, Henry and Meg, in front of a glowing coal fire in their hearth. The conversation was unhurried and friendly. We could have been old friends who dropped in for a visit, and by the time the second cup of tea was poured the tension of the days drive had drained away and we were ready for a meal.
"Pub down the way has pretty good food," said Henry. "Ye can drive or walk along the beach, not far really."
I was happy to leave the car parked, so despite the cold, penetrating mist drifting in from the North Atlantic we chose to walk. By the time we found the tiny vine-covered pub we were chilled through. I pulled open the heavy oak door and stepped inside the warm, yeasty interior. The hum of conversation and laughter came to an abrupt halt and during the few moments it took our eyes to adjust to the dimly lit interior the place was utterly silent. No one was actually staring at us but their curiosity was palpable. This was a locals hangout, unaccustomed to strangers.
We slid into a bum-polished wooden booth and ordered a McEwans. Like the bench, the thick oak table was worn smooth by the comings and goings of countless patrons who had paused here to escape the chill, quaff a pint or two, and chat with neighbours. The dark wood-panelled walls were hung with polished horse-brasses and mysterious hand-wrought iron implements that could have been there since Robby Burns himself laboured in a nearby field. The hand-written menu, propped up between the salt and the vinegar, featured three or four choices; I decided to go for the bangers and mash.
"Where you folks from?" asked an old fellow sitting alone at a nearby table.