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Looking Back: July 1968

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From James Gilfillan who lives on the Luss Road



FOR miles the Loch stretches, calm and blue, studded with islands, some able to sustain small farms, other only a stretch of rocky soil, grudging life to all but a few stunted trees.

Think of Scotland and you think of tourism; think of them together and you’ll think of Loch Lomond, and then surely of the high road, the low road and I’ll be in Scotland afore ye.

ON the Stirlingshire side ‘the Ben’ rises, massive and aloof, its peak covered in snow for much of the year, towering over the Loch, keeping guard over its domain. Across the Loch the road winds, tortuous and narrow, up from Balloch, through Luss and Tarbet and finally on to Ardlui at the head: a nightmare in a way for the driver but an entrancing journey for his passengers.

In winter the Loch is dark and deserted. Traffic dwindles to the odd vehicle and the only stranger is the mountaineer, complete with climbing boots and tackle, raising an optimistic thumb at the roadside. The Maid of the Loch lies at her morrings, patiently awaiting summer; cafes and hotels are empty, remaining open only because hope springs eternal: and the residents go quietly about their business.

But now summer is here and all is changed. Balloch is thronged with visitors, hotels are full, small boats ply on the River Leven. The Maid steams once more on the Loch: over to Balmaha, or to Rowardennan, up to Inversnaid, through the narrows to the head of the Loch, and back again, the decks crammed with passengers, all enjoying the Scottish air, the scene, and now and then, summer or no, the equally-Scottish rain.

The trickle of road traffic has steadily grown since Easter, and by this time it is a continuous stream of vehicles heading north. They drive with a watchful eye for the pendant sign Bed and Breakfast, which legend can bring the car in front to a sudden and alarming halt. Noth that there is any lack of such signs One resident put it tersely: “It’s M&B in winter and B&B in summer.” These itinerant holidaymakers get value for their money. For as little as £1 or 25/- they may receive supper, certainly a warm clean bed, and next morning a good country breakfast. Some booked in for a single night, are so well pleased that they will prolong their stay, touring around for several days and returning to base each night.

Appearances can be deceptive. A couple, dressed in jeans, the man bearded, the two children decidedly high –spirited tour out to be violinists with one of the leading national orchestras. A Divinity Professor from South Africa, before leaving, solemnly prays and commends his kindly hosts to God. The olive-complexioned family who arrive late one night letting their fourteen-year-old boy do all the talking turn out to be Spaniards – the parents without one scrap of English, but proud of the little their son know The young couple in their Mini, rather quiet and shy, try hard to keep their secret, but the brand new luggage gives them away, and a scattering of confetti only confirms what everyone suspects.

Those who have no other means come on foot. The Youth Hostel is two miles up the road at Auchendennan and they seem to converge on it from all the countries. The American student walks carrying the Stars and Stripes at his side. Italians stroll casually, enigmatic behind dark glasses, Germans are determined, marching in groups, clad in their lederhosen, singing and laughing. The French sit at the roadside, whistling to the girls and exuberantly thumbing every passing vehicle. Some carry great packs; others travel light. Some have guitars strapped to their backs; other play the mouth organ as they walk. Some of them especially the girls, looks so young, but they travel in groups, colourgul, gay and happy. This is summer, this is their holiday’ they are at last seeing that stretch of water to which they have been drawn by a haunting song which is never hackneyed no matter how often it is sung. The B&B people are busy, feeding guests and changing beds. They consolte themselves with the thought of their own holiday to come later.

Hotel-keepers take on extra staff. Cafes and restaurants work at full stretch; the season is in full swing, and as long as the sun shines everyone is happy. There is always, alas! The note of tragedy. Might I be allowed to utter a word of warning? Each year the Loch claims its victims: an overturned boat, a swimmer seized by cramp, or children going beyond their depth,. And the lochside, that narrow winding road, too often sees the racing ambulance, the screaming police car, the flashing blue light proclaiming that the visit may have ended in disaster.

Yet summer or winter, one factor remains constant. Behind the Loch Lomond hotel is the church. Alexandria North says our notice board, and behind it rises the clean spare ines of a modern building, not much over three years old. Low pitched roof, square uncompromising bell tower, inside plenty of light and space, excellent kitchen and good toilets; all stamp it as a functional church for this age.

During winter months the congregation worship together, a family of God, but in summer this family expands to take in those of many nationalities. Sometimes we have a minister from England, staying as a guest at one of the hotels; once an Australian professor, who embarrassed the minister by thanking him for his sermon, which the preacher himself felt wasn’t worth writing home about.

And always the hikers. Down they come early, ushered into the hall by Tom the beadle (who, of course has been expecting them and has their tea ready). There in the hall they leave their packs and file into church (Tom again has their pews reserved at the front), where they sit in glorious and colourful informality, jeans and bare legs, kitls and sweaters, anoraks and windcheaters, making worship here part of their holiday.

One Sunday it is three pews of fairheaded Danes, and only afterwards does the minister learn that one one of them can understand a word of English. (And they seemed so interested in the sermon!) Again it isa group of German, who later call at the manse to discuss the ecumenical movement.

Swedes, French, Spanish, Dutch, American, they all come, their nationality betrayed by the foreign coins sometimes found in the offering. However, it is all the Lord’s Treasury, and the Bank is well used to exchanging them for a more familiar currency.

For most the sun will surely shine and Loch Lomond will be the irresistible lure.

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