Complete 2400 word article


By Pam Hobbs

It's 8.25 on an overcast Monday morning in Glasgow, and I am nervous. Around me everyday life in the city goes on. Double decker busses and old fashioned taxis rumble by, and road repair men have knocked off work to drink tea from their flasks. I am even starting to envy a young lad dozing in the cab of his digger, as I wait with half a dozen strangers for the arrival of Pamela.

I wonder if she's changed in the 16 years since we last met? She was already famous back then when a crew from England's popular television travel show, "Wish You Were Here", filmed her throughout our 1989 trip. Then there was the children's radio story in which animals instead of people accompanied her on a Hebridean excursion. I do know that she keeps in terrific shape, goes on tour whenever she gets the chance, and remains the darling of everyone she meets. Her friends send postcards telling me so.

Now, suddenly she appears through the gloom, and my reunion jitters turn into pride. An apparition from the past, she stops in front of us - a l963 green and gold touring coach every bit as grand as I remembered. And guess what ? She is named after me!

The story behind this story started in 1982 when I toured the Scottish Highlands and Islands in a l950s coach owned by David Dean of Classique Sun Saloon Luxury Coaches. My resultant articles in The Globe and Mail and Los Angeles Times had such an overwhelming response, David was able to buy and restore a second coach. He chose this l963 Leyland Leopard, winner of the l964 British Coach Rally for the luxury touring class. Then, claiming that his influx of North American passengers enabled him to put a second vehicle on the road, with characteristic generosity he named her Pamela for me.

Over the years my handsome namesake has become a familiar sight on the back-roads of northern Scotland. Roomier than many coaches of that era, she has a row of double seats on one side and singles on the other, for a total of 28. Everything is authentic, from the green and gold livery to chrome ashtrays on the seat backs and a large clock above the driver. On tour she is washed and shined daily. Occasionally we are urged to "give our feet a good shiggle on the front mat" to keep the interior clean. Also "No smoking cigarettes or cigars or glue sniffing. Sit on the floor, somebody's lap, but not on the armrests... if you please." By the end of the first day we are all as caring of Pamela's welfare as if she is our own.

To understand the tremendous success of these tours is to know former Londoner and adopted Scot, David N. Dean, (a.k.a. The Lone Ranger), who credits the birth of his company to a bout of malaria. Contracted while he was driving across the Sahara, the illness afforded him time to get a bearing on his life's direction. Vintage motors had always been his passion, his training was with touring coaches in Britain, and he had come to love Scotland's more remote regions. The answer to his dream was to buy a 25 years old touring coach, restore it inside and out, and take it around the Hebridean islands where a 7' 6" wide vehicle has an advantage over huge modern busses. Twenty-five years later David has nine vintage coaches, each one bought with specific tours in mind as his itineraries continue to expand into England and continental Europe. One of his biggest joys, he, says, is the volume of letters he gets from passengers who have made him and his tours so much a part of their lives.

Certainly Classique's passengers are unusually loyal. 70% are repeaters, which means many know each other and keep in touch so they can be together on future trips. Holding the record to date is a Londoner who has racked up 200 trips since l98l. I didn't meet her, but sitting across from me on Pamela, Pat O'Keeffe from Surrey tells me she has been on a hundred Classique tours. Like David, she says that her real love is northern Scotland, but she's also enjoyed their trips to Spain, France, Ireland, and Norway, and plans to be on David's first Corsica tour when it is introduced next Spring.

We are a mixed bunch, ranging in age from 31 years' old John to Leslie who at 95 stands as straight as a pole following thirty years in the Grenadier Guards. The overseas contingent includes my husband Michael and I, and American sisters Mary and Martha who promise to bring a third sibling next year "because she is an artist and will love the colours." Sabene, tells me she lives in the polluted environment of Stuttgart (Germany) and escapes in her mind to these remote places when things get too hectic at work. Always first out of the coach and last back on, she heads straight for the deserted mountain trails and beaches while the rest of us are still wondering whether to have another cuppa.

If, as the medics tell us, laughter promotes good health, then members of our group this week are in terrific shape. They laugh at David's jokes, names of places we pass through, the fickle weather, traffic jams (interpret that as a morose looking cow peering at us through a curtain of ginger hair, or snowy-white sheep blocking our single track road) and whatever else tickles their fancy. One man tells me not to worry about the rain, because it will make me good- looking like him. Several passengers take it upon themselves to fill us in on dramatic events in history, local folklore, even the names of trees as we pass them. They sing along to tapes of rousing Scottish songs by Harry Lauder and Andy Stewart, and urge us to try 'clootie dumpling' doused in thick cream. For those who like to walk, rain showers are no deterrent. Equipped for the weather, they march off up the mountains on leaf-strewn trails, and scramble over rocks to reach a soggy beach. For others less nimble, there is always a welcoming café or pub on hand. Tea and toilet stops are frequent. "Go now, or use your initiative later" is David's departing shot. "Have your 20 p ready - unless you're into limbo dancing..." he tells us on the one occasion we must pay to use the facilities..

Our drive out of Glasgow is uneventful. We travel through the suburbs, along the banks of the River Clyde where the world's most famous ship-building yards now lie empty, and onto the ferry for the Isle of Bute. Along the way Pat and Michael discover they were practically neighbours as children growing up in London. Pat also tells me she wrote the children's story about Pamela, and has another one set in Norway to be aired at Christmastime. By mid-afternoon we are on a second ferry, this one travelling the 45 minutes journey between Oban and the Isle of Mull. Here in the adorable fishing village of Tobermory we are lodged for three nights at a four-star hotel perched grandly above the extravagantly scenic Sound of Mull. In summer, David invites his passengers to join him on after dinner jaunts to a beach or hilltop to watch the sunset. In October it gets dark early, so we settle for log fires in the lounge with coffee and truffles, followed by drinks in the new conservatory bar.

Long before the sun shines on it I am in love with Tobermory, dating to 1788 though there was a settlement of sorts here since before time was recorded. Snuggled around the harbour its main street buildings resemble a child's drawing painted in the brightest of colours. Shops are a pleasure, whether you're interested in buying or not. Some sell a bit of everything from fishing gear to local malt whisky and Tilley hats from Canada. One specializes in Celtic Jewellery. A former church is stocked with all things Scottish, including edible souvenirs and tempting lunches. Pubs and restaurants beckon with their soft lights and glowing fires, and promise of seafood lunch specials. Still we walk on by, because I have it on good authority that a local fish and chip wagon serves the best seafood in town. So instead we sit on the hard damp sea wall among the begging gulls, eating our freshly caught haddock from a paper bag - and couldn't be happier.

An afternoon drive shows Mull to be an island of rare and compelling beauty. The sort of place where city people come to repair frazzled nerves, then stay on to run little hotels and guest houses. Where composers and poets are inspired to write their greatest works, and amateur painters blossom into professionals. If I were a landscape artist I would bring to these islands extra tubes of paint: soft mauves and light russets and multiple shades of green for the hills; jaunty pinks and yellows, reds and whites for the old stone buildings; gold for miles of beaches, silvery shades for sea and sky, even sparkling pinks and pale turquoise for granite rocks glistening between the trees.

At Calgary Bay where toilets unjustly boast of being five star, but the beach is a definite ten, David tells us about the resident Mrs Bartholomew whose ancestor fell in love with a local lad called McLeod. Considered an unworthy suitor, the young man was sent packing and ended up in Canada where he joined the Mounties. "That's Colonel J.F. McLeod, commander of the Royal North-west Mounted Police" David says, peering through his mirror at us. "Something of a legend in Canada I hear, and he named his new home Calgary to remind him of this one here."

With so little traffic about, we are sometimes invited to leave the coach and walk ahead. When I do, I find myself totally enveloped by the landscapes. In a certain light the brooding hills beneath low-slung clouds have a biblical look to them, while forests of pines piercing a chalk blue sky remind me of home. Occasionally we come across a small community, clustered around the foot of walking trails into the hills. More often though there's no more than a lone white cottage with smoke furling from the chimney, washing billowing on a line and sheep grazing by a stream. That's when I find myself wondering about its occupants, whose lives must be very different from most.

From Mull's south west coast it is a brief ferry ride to Iona, a tiny island of great importance, owned by the National Trust of Scotland. It was to the stark, desolate looking Iona that Columba and his twelve disciples came in AD 563 to build a monastery of mud and wattle. By the 7th century this had become the centre of Christian teachings in Europe. Today pilgrims hurry past the nunnery ruins in which summer's wild flowers linger, to an abbey and cathedral built upon remains of a l3th century Benedictine monastery. Forty-eight Scottish kings, including Macbeth and Duncan, and countless Highland chiefs are buried on Iona. Some of their tombstones can be seen in the abbey precinct.

In less windy weather than we have today, boats set off from here for Staffa and the magical Fingal's Cave. Flanked by great basalt columns, its wonder inspired Mendelssohn to compose his Hebridean Overture in 1832. Scott, Keats and Wordsworth all immortalized their visits in verse, while the English naturalist, Sir Joseph Banks, wrote that "compared to this, what are the cathedrals and palaces built by men ? Mere models or playthings."

Our home for our last two nights is a comfortable hotel on the shores of Loch Linnhe, just south of Fort William, where the staff greets us as old friends. We're into the Highlands now, endowed with some of Scotland's grandest scenery with outdoor activities to match. Our stops are at natural history centres and museums, superbly presented by dedicated Scots. Always they have cafeterias where we can enjoy freshly prepared local dishes in attractive settings. (The clootie dumpling is lovely, but sorry guys - no more haggis for a while.)

Seldom have I been so aware of history, as I am in these lonely hills. We travel an old drovers' route, once walked by men and dogs taking their sheep to markets in the south. On their journeys, which lasted for days or weeks depending on distance and weather, they stayed at small inns such as the 17th century King's House Hotel in Glencoe. A cosy lunch stop for us now, its guests these days are largely climbers, hikers and skiiers.

There is no laughter as we disembark at the Valley of Glencoe, and recall the massacre here in the winter of 1692 . Thirty-eight members of the Macdonald clan were dragged from their beds and slaughtered on that fateful February day. Three hundred more escaped the king's soldiers, only to perish from cold and hunger within days.

Martha, our new American friend, comes to stand beside me. She says she can see the women and children wading through waist high snow stained crimson with their blood; she can hear their screams over the shouts of soldiers echoing throughout the valley. I tell her I can too. And so will you when you come this way.

David Dean can be reached at Classique Tours, 8 Underwood Road, Paisley, PA3 ITD, Scotland. Telephone: 0141-889-4050 Tours leave Glasgow from the end of March to the end of October. Prices start at $516 per person for four days. Our six days to Mull, Iona, and Ardnamurchan, Sunart, West Highlands, Argyll & Isle of Bute, cost $996. This includes all transportation, accommodation, and admissions, cooked breakfasts and three-course dinners daily. Discounts are given when tours are paid in full before 25 March. Pre and post-tour stopovers in Glasgow are offered at special rates. All prices are in Canadian dollars, converted at $2.40 to the pound sterling.


Photos by Michael Algar