23 FEBRUARY 2002, Page 28


Magnus Linklater

I HAVE a boyhood memory of a hot summer's day in the Highlands. We are tramping through knee-high heather on a steep hill overlooking Loch Duich in Wester Ross. Fishing-rods clutched in our hands, we are in search of a loch said to be teeming with brown trout. There are just three of us, all boys, none over the age of 12, and the heat is beginning to get the better of us. We stumble on a clear spring surrounded by moss, bubbling up in a tiny pool, and sink down, take long gulps of ice-cold water, then lie back to enjoy the sun. Above us, a golden eagle is drifting across the sky and a wisp of cloud hangs over the peaks of the Five Sisters of Kintail. The sea is unimaginably blue.

Just another childhood idyll — one which would not, I imagine, go down very well with today's safety-conscious parents. Allowing young children out in the wilds of the countryside with no adult supervision, in danger of getting lost, drowning, or death by exposure — the height of irresponsibility. What, no protection against the sun, and drinking untested water? Pure folly.

The freedom to walk unhindered over beautiful country and escape the banality of mass tourism is something Scotland still offers. I am fairly certain that I could, this summer, replicate that memory almost unchanged. I could fish the loch, drink the water and gaze at the eagle, though I might not be able to guarantee the weather. I can think of a dozen places offhand where you could, with reasonable peace of mind, allow your children to stray, to bathe in rockpools, or race along miles of white sands.

I can also think of one thing that has changed immeasurably for the better in Scotland: there are now decent places to stay, and somewhere good to eat. My childhood memories of Scottish hotels are anything but idyllic: dour, dank, draughty and depressing, with lumpy porridge, Brown Windsor soup and leathery roast beef. 'You'll have had your tea,' was the standard greeting of unforgiving landladies at those grim bed and breakfasts.

Since then. the improvement from top to bottom of the tourist industry has been remarkable. There are now small luxury hotels scattered across Scotland, which are as good as any of their size in Europe, with prices well below the average. There has been a surprising boom in upmarket bedand-breakfast accommodation — I could name several of the grandest New Town houses in Edinburgh where you can stay in great comfort, looked after in idiosyncratic style by their owners, and at a fraction of the cost of a big hotel. Even that most unpromising branch of the holiday trade, the self-catering establishment, has been transformed. Looking down a long list of holiday lets recently, I noticed, among them, a sporting lodge on the island of Mull, a baronial castle near Stirling, an 18th-century house overlooking the Cuillins on Skye, an island stronghold in Orkney, and, most unusual of the lot, a 19th-century folly shaped like a pineapple, refurbished by the Landmark Trust.

Most of these places seem to be run by young couples whose commitment to good food and high standards is their only passport to survival. Seafood, which was once unheard of on Scottish menus, is now as common as fruits de mer on the Brittany coast. There is a strong emphasis on local beef, lamb and venison. The restaurant has become a focal point of small towns and villages instead of an embarrassing extra. You can still find, in the smallest towns, butchers, bakers and fishmongers who sell local produce of high quality. And, of course, this being Scotland, no self-respecting hotel, however remote, is more than five miles from the nearest golf-course. I treasure the memory of the little nine-hole course just down the road from the Scarista House Hotel on the island of Harris, where, on one hole, you drive out on to a rocky promontory with cliffs either side and no margin for error.

So why is all this so difficult to sell? The Scottish Tourist Board, now heart-sinkingly renamed Visitscotland, has been recording a depressing drop in tourist numbers for several years. You can cite all sorts of reasons — the devastating effect of the footand-mouth epidemic, the decision by thousands of Americans to cancel their European trips after 11 September, the cheapness of package holidays, the unpredictability of the weather; but there is more to it than that. Scotland's image in the eyes of the world has become set in aspic. For too long it has relied on a handful of frayed

clichés: pipe bands and tartanry, Highland games, Edinburgh Castle. the Trossachs, Loch Ness, shortbread, whisky and haggis. Much as the modern generation of travellers likes a bit of tradition, it likes something else even more — the guarantee that it is going to have a good time in congenial surroundings.

Visitscotland struggles to convince them of that. Look through their endless publications or check out their website and you will find no lack of lists, divided into categories, carefully starred, noting such essentials as en-suite facilities, disabled access, fire doors and cable TV. It does not convince you that you are going to enjoy your stay; and it leaves some terrible gaps. Because it lists only registered properties that are prepared to pay an annual fee, Visitscotland omits some real treasures. You have to try really hard to find out about a place like the Applecross Inn, for instance: a remote and delectable little hotel in a tiny village on the west coast which serves wonderful seafood and does great ceilidhs.

With only a little imagination and a bit of enterprise, you can create your own Scottish idyll. There are small organisations, such as Discover Scotland or Ecosse Unique, which put out brochures about recommended places to stay; there is a useful website called cottagesandcastles.co.uk; but in my view the best source is one called aboutscotland.com. Run from the Borders, it provides an eclectic collection of the great, the good and the unusual, all personally vetted and recommended by its discerning owners. Using that as a basic guide, you can then draw on a wide range of local knowledge. For instance, a friend, who helps run one of Scotland's grander castles, was asked to put together a fishing holiday last year for an Italian family who could afford only to tour in their ancient Dormobile. He got them a day on Loch Leven, the greatest trout loch in the world, two days' salmon fishing on the Tilt, boatfishing on two hill lochs and the offer of a sea-going trip off the Fife coast, for £180 all in. I know someone who booked a voyage for his family from north to south of the Hebrides, using local boats and staying in bed and breakfasts all the way. It took a little time to put together but it was done for less than the price of a two-week holiday for one in Tenerife. If I was to recommend an unusual holiday, I might well suggest a week in my native Orkney, trawling through the greatest collection of prehistoric remains in Europe, collecting mussels on Waulkmill Bay, walking the cliff-tops of Hoy, and fishing the finest trout lochs in Britain.

In the end, I suspect that Scotland yields its most cherished secrets to those who are prepared to spend a little time looking for them. If you succeed, the rewards are great. Perhaps a better address for the Scottish Tourist Board would be doityourself.com.