I decided that if my blog is called the Mature Wanderer I should really do some wandering. Since I intended to devote only one day to this I had to exclude the Hindu Kush and the Kamchatka Peninsula (you`ve no idea what a relief that was). I remembered the words of the great Marcel Proust to the effect that what we need is not a new Paradise but new eyes to see the Paradise we are in. I applaud these wise words but being a vulgar fellow still at a low rung of the evolutionary ladder I find it helps a lot if what I`m looking at really resembles what I might call Paradise. I have not reached these lofty heights of spiritual advancement that enable great spirits to decide when it is right to place a bomb in their underpants. I should have thought modern detergents adequate but that`s me demonstrating how common I am again. This is further illustrated by my lack of excitement at the prospect of an eternity of harps playing to the shouts of “Hosanna” and other words we didn`t normally use in Glasgow. Nor do I feel much better about the alternative which seems to be bearded men foaming at the mouth in perpetual outrage. So let me explain for others similarly decadent what I decided.
I can say that I did reach my Paradise. It took about half a tank of petrol and around three hours crossing Scotland. I live in Dunfermline and my plan was to drive to Stirling, take the long straight road which goes south of the wonderland of the Trossachs, drive north alongside Loch Lomond and then turn west at Tarbet to come down to the Cowal Peninsula. The weather was bright and sunny until this last turning. It can be difficult to make good progress alongside Loch Lomond. It is the largest area of fresh water in the United Kingdom, although it actually holds less water than the mysterious Loch Ness. Monsters are no fools. Nessie likes plenty of room to hide in. The reason for the slow progress is twofold. One is the traffic, especially in summer. Much of it, for some reason, is fleets of motor cyclists looking alien in their helmets and leathers with headlights that look like fireballs until they are close enough to show a human being attached. The other reason is that you are constantly distracted by spectacular views across to the mountains on the far side with unearthly sunshine breaking through the clouds.
Once I turned off, a very Scottish mist came down to obliterate the hills and most of the road. It was accompanied by driving rain that made me wonder whether this could really be the way to Paradise. After all, John Bunyan in his religious masterpiece “Pilgrim`s Progress”, had warned `there is a road to Hell even from the gates of Heaven. ` I wondered if I had found it. Being Scotland, it cleared in minutes and glorious shafts of sunlight lit up parts of the craggy monsters beside the roads (these are mountains, not the much-maligned inhabitants). Then I began to notice Loch Eck, blue and sparkling, appearing just beyond the far side of the road. Not wishing to disappoint over-zealous nationalists, this Loch is not named after their leader, our first minister, Alex Salmond. It is true that he is sometimes referred to, a little disparagingly as `Eck, but the name of the loch predates him. The name comes from the Gaelic eich which can mean a long low moan rising to a shriek (perhaps not an uncommon reaction to some politicians) or even the call of death. I am a little deaf but I was not aware of any such sound as I stopped to photograph the lovely stretch of water. Since I have already been more theological than I really intended in this blog I won`t speculate that the call of death would be a normal precursor to a visit to Paradise, but remember the words of Proust. I prefer the more probable meaning that eich in Gaelic can mean `ice`.
Some 20 miles further down I reached my goal; Benmore Botanic Garden. This is one of the gardens owned by the Royal Botanic Garden of Edinburgh. This latter was founded in 1670 in Scotland`s capital as a physic garden. Edinburgh`s great reputation as a centre for medical excellence was founded at that time when overcrowding and deeply unsanitary conditions gave doctors experience of medical conditions which saved them making inconvenient journeys up the Congo or Amazon to discover. It was to be about a hundred years before the glorious New Town construction to the north of Princes Street turned it into one of the world`s great cities. Therefore, the cultivation of medical herbs was important. Its enlightened luminaries realised that different climatic and soil conditions could make the cultivation of other plants possible, hence Benmore and other gardens in different parts of the country.
I am as capable of conveying the beauty of this place in words as I am that of a Beethoven sonata or whatever other music delights you. To save you, however, from grinding frustration, you can see the photographs I took if you go to
The garden is large, covering 120 acres and moves sharply uphill at times and back down. There is a Chilean Rainforest Glade, a Bhutan Glade, a Japanese Garden and a long avenue of sequoias, the giant redwoods normally associated with Oregon and California. Scottish botanists brought seeds over and planted them at Benmore where, evidently, the climatic and soil conditions are likely to result in even larger trees than in California. Anyone who wishes to dispute this point will have to wait some 3,500 years to prove his point since it takes a while. The café at Benmore has an enormous slice of one of the largest ever Redwoods which was cut down in Fresno California. The protection of these trees in the US is largely due to John Muir who was born in Dunbar in Scotland. He was also largely responsible for the creation of Yosemite as a national park. It is ironic that he should be doing that act of great environmental protection around the same time that another Scot, Andrew Carnegie, was using reinforced concrete to build the high rise buildings of Manhattan that would make New York the model for all modern cities.
The sequoias are not the only imports from the New World. In the late 18th century the remarkable Archibald Menzies found himself on Vancouver Island. This came about because he qualified as a doctor and joined the navy in time for what sounds like an unbelievable voyage round Cape Horn for fur trapping. His brother, William, was a botanist so he got interested in plants. On Vancouver Island he picked up seeds which resulted in the trees now known as Douglas Firs which appear in Benmore and elsewhere in Scotland. They were named after another itinerant Scottish botanist, David Douglas who also visited Canada during his short life. Menzies, in Hawaii, was served an odd dessert containing unfamiliar seeds which originated in Chile. He planted them and brought back to Scotland the first five araucaria ( monkey puzzle) trees in Europe. Examples of them are growing strongly in the Chilean Rainforest glade at Benmore. While on Hawaii, Menzies had some spare time, so he did what anyone would do. He climbed Mauna Loa and used a portable barometer to estimate its height at 13564 feet ( 4134 metres). It is actually 13679 feet (4169 metres) and it happens to be the world`s largest volcano in area.
I am a poor botanist. My father was a knowledgeable amateur and he often tried to teach me about plants. I was always more interested in words than vegetation. I remember germander speedwell and tormentil as names because I liked the sound. I have no idea what they look like. Even without that knowledge I found Benmore to be a Paradise. I`m sure an able botanist would be ecstatic.
I took the short route back. I drove down to Dunoon, just south of the Holy Loch where the nuclear submarines are based and took the ferry from Hunter`s Quay. I love that ferry journey. It reminds me of the very similar one I once took between the Greek islands of Kefalonia and Ithaca. Ithaca was the legendary home of Ulysses who took ten years to get back there from Troy after the war. I took rather less time to get home. If he ha d had the benefit of Google maps he`d have been back in a couple of days and Homer would have had to think of something else for one of the world`s great literary masterpieces.
Remember to visit http://www.rngnovels.co.uk to find out about my published books. You can find out about or buy my travel books : “Coffee, Castanets and Don Quixote” about four great cities of Spain or “Coffee in Cuba” about that remarkable island, along with a weird visit to the old USSR, finding out how to become immortal from the knees down in Greece and the dangers of map-reading in Rome. For a longer read there are my novels “Masks of Venice” and “The Women from Crete”