Pilgrimage to Strachan – Part One

Two years ago, almost to the day, I embarked on a trip to the Scottish village where my surname originates. At the time, I wrote three narratives journaling my voyage, all of which I am in the process of editing. Below is an updated version chronicling the first part of that expedition…….

Sitting by myself on the driveway in my trusty black Astra automobile, it was hard not to feel a tinge of excitement for my imminent journey. After all, it’s not everyday you embark on a road trip to where your family name originated.

While inputting SatNav details of the Edinburgh hotel where I was spending the first night, thoughts turned to objectives of the expedition. What did I want to achieve from my pilgrimage to the Scottish village of Strachan, Aberdeenshire?

If truth be told, I didn’t really have much of an agenda other than to sample the beauty of the area first hand. Something I’d previously only been able to picture through anecdotal images and online research.

I was travelling alone on this 800 mile round trip from my home in Yorkshire, England. My itinerary a one night stop in Edinburgh, two nights in the Aberdeenshire village and my final night in Glasgow on the return trek.

To my surprise the two hundred mile drive from my home to Edinburgh was exceedingly quiet. The rumble of tyres on the A1, the sound of the woman’s voice on my GPS system and an eclectic mix of music on my iPod my only audio companions.

The GPS gave me an ETA of three hours for the first leg of my trip to Edinburgh. Although, that wasn’t taking into account the extra thirty minutes a middle aged man needs for bathroom breaks ….. Hey we all gotta go!

The GPS woman was very pleasant. She was full of interesting anecdotes: such as the day a man took the wrong turn in Berwick and how many speed cameras adorn the A1 near Dunbar. She spoke with a tinge of sadness about her husband leaving her for the women who is the French translator for the same GPS company.

She was fiercely proud of her offspring and showed me photos. I remarked how much they looked like her, before returning my gaze to the road. At this point, I was thinking it probably best stopping for a coffee as I was having hallucinations of verbally interacting with a SatNav.

Scots Border

My arrival in Edinburgh, coincided with the commencement of an unforgiving rainstorm. After checking into the Premier Inn I’d intended to go into the city, but witnessing the torrential downpour outside I thought better of it. I wasn’t overly perturbed by this itinerary change, after all I’d experienced the delights of this historic metropolis numerous times.

Instead, I made my way to the hotel bar, ordered a pint of beer and sat with my laptop to draft a blog for my website garystrachan63.com .

In my boredom, and whilst I sought inspiration for my blog, I sat guessing the occupation of the smattering of patrons in the bar. For example, I was pretty sure the big guy quaffing Guinness as adjacent table was a bricklayer. This Poirot like deduction reached after observing the guy was covered in brick dust and in possession of bricklayers hod.

Sitting at another table was a guy whom I suspected, with his airs and graces and the weird taboo hairdo, was a hairdresser. I don’t like stereotypes so my conclusion didn’t take into account his overtly camp demeanour. It was the scissors and comb poking out of his shirt breast pocket that led to this assumption.

The very fact I’d reduced myself to this game, re-affirmed my earlier thoughts that travelling alone maybe wasnt such a good idea after all. Coming to the conclusion the game was rather absurd, I lost interest in it…… That, along with the fact the guy with the scissors and comb had finished his drink and left with the bricklayers hod…… Proving my assumption incorrect and re-affirming that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover.

Later, during a quiet evening meal at the hotel, I realised that if you wanted a ginger beard a good way of achieving that is to a) already have a beard, and b) consume a full rack of pork ribs with barbeque sauce…… If you have a copper coloured head of hair you can achieve this by merely growing a beard, the rack of ribs is optional.

After troughing my dinner, wiped barbeque sauce from my beard and finishing my beer, I headed to bed for an early night. There was a trip to Strachan to recommence in the morning, and I wanted to undertake it feeling fresh.

Over breakfast the next morning, I plumped for a cooked meal to set me up for the day. Briefly forgetting the country I was in situ, I asked the waitress for a full English breakfast. As she stood there smirking at my gaff, I quickly rectified the request to a full Scottish breakfast. Thankfully it appeared the Sassenach hadn’t offended her.

So what’s the difference between a full English breakfast and the full Scottish? From my experience there isn’t much at all. The Scottish version is just a full English without the superiority complex … Before I get slated for disloyalty to England, that was just a joke……. Anyway, I digress!

Having breakfasted, at around 9.15 am I repacked the car, reset the faithful GPS prior to setting off on the next stage of my sojourn, the 120 mile journey north to my ancestral home.

This element of the journey on predominantly empty highways had a tranquillity not often experienced during contemporary driving . In fact it was so relaxing that at one point the GPS woman nodded off to sleep. When she started snoring as we circumnavigated the city of Dundee, I was beginning to understand why her husband had left.

My northbound journey from Edinburgh was the most picturesque segment of my trek. The panoramic splendour of sweeping forests, woodland, hills and other aesthetically pleasing flora and fauna a welcome visual companion.

Not too far from Montrose, the GPS woman woke up to tell me we weren’t far away. Not the forensic accuracy I’d expect from my GPS, but I bought cheap so I’m partly culpable…… As my mum always advocates, “If you buy rubbish, you buy twice!”…… She doesn’t use the word rubbish, but I thought it best not use the noun she prefers!

The highlight of the journey on day two of my trip, apart from my arrival, was the last fifteen miles or so from Fettercairn to Strachan. This involved a steep winding drive  up to the peak of Mount O’Cairn, with its spectacular views of the Cairngorms to the west. When snow arrives, Mount O’Cairn road is renowned for being one of the first roads to be closed, as well as the last to open. Looking at how exposed this peak is, it’s not hard to see why.

This fifteen mile journey took me around an hour. I more than doubled the expected time (according to the random GPS woman) for this stretch of the journey by regularly stopping to take photographs. The seemingly endless picturesque views usurping my priority of a hasty arrival.

Once back on the road, the erratic GPS system (now making announcements in Mandarin Chinese) counted down the miles to Strachan, my excitement rose at the thought of treading the ground of my forefathers.

Amongst these reflections I pondered what style of buildings I would encounter. Also, how would I pronounce my surname at hotel check-in; would I opt for the pronunciation of Strakhan which I ordinarily use or Strawn as the village is known.

All those questions would soon be answered, but not until I’d taken several photographs of one of ‘Strachan’ road signs welcoming visitors to this small, but perfectly formed, village.

SIgn Strachan

‘Strachan’ road sign photographs completed, I proceeded on the winding road to the village, which came to a stop at a T-junction. A right turn would have taken me on the road to the town of Banchory, three miles away. The left turn, which I chose, took me into the village.

It soon became clear the old granite grey terrace cottages, which I envisaged would adorn this Aberdeenshire community, weren’t the predominant type of abode. It has its share of older structures, such as the school and hall, however, I was surprised to see the number of more recently built houses. My initial impression was that the area displayed an image of well maintained affluence.

I pondered whether this affluence is from middle classes who have made their money from the oil industry in nearby Aberdeen, or whether it is locals who snap up these properties. I don’t know definitively but I concluded it’s probably a mixture of the two.

So at 2pm on 28th May 2015, I was in the village of Strachan, beside the rivers (the Feugh and the Dee), and amongst the undulating green land previously trod by my forefathers. One of the things that struck me was that due to the nature of this predominantly unspoilt land, there would be large parts of this terrain that hadn’t changed in hundreds of years.

On arrival, I checked into the recently re-opened Feughside Inn. This was an agreeable, pleasant and hospitable base for exploring the area, around two miles out of Strachan village itself. I inexplicably pronounced my surname Strawn for the first time ever as I checked in, before retiring to my room for a sandwich and set up wifi on my iPad.

I cannot be sure of what exactly my ancestors did undertake in this beautiful area hundreds of years ago. However, I can confidently say they wouldn’t have eaten cheese and tomato on rye, or ever messed around setting up wifi to find their way to Morrison’s at Banchory, a castle at Stonehaven or the RSPB sanctuary at Crowton.

I will conclude this blog now as a clan member in Wichita, Kansas has just nodded off. I intend to write more extensively about my trip in further narratives.

In the next instalment I hope to provide details of a visit to Banchory, dinner at a friends home in Strachan, trips to Donnattar Castle, Aberdeen and Glasgow; not forgetting the riveting tale of when I thought I’d driven home without my beard trimmer.…… Although, I’ll probably leave that last anecdote out!

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