Creggans Inn; OLD-FASHIONED SCOTTISH HOSPITALITY
| Strachur, Scotland
SIR Fitzroy Maclean is a man on the move. Even his nearest and dearest often have only a faint idea of his where and when.
Trying to fix a meeting with him (though easily agreed in principle) was fraught with such difficulties as his secretary, or his wife, Veronica (they've been married for 36 years), telling you with polite sincerity over the phone that as far as they knew he had been in Yugoslavia for five days and it was uncertain when he would return, or that he had just left for a month in Russia which might well turn into six or seven weeks. . . .
By keeping in touch with your ''contacts'' (though his wife was herself about to leave for an extended tour of the United States), you could vaguely chart his gradual return home. ''Yes,'' said his secretary, who by now you know to be called Mrs. Sheila Macpherson, ''if you call his London number at 10 o'clock on Thursday, he should be in . . . .'' He is. ''Ring me at home next Monday,'' he says affably. You do. Mrs. Macpherson answers. ''I think he's reaching Edinburgh tonight,'' she replies laughing. And so it goes. . . .
But even Edinburgh is not ''home'' for Sir Fitzroy. This dynamic former diplomat, former Conservative MP, author, historian, farmer, innkeeper, filmmaker, has a place in London, a house on the island of Korcula in Yugoslavia , and a fine late 18th-century mansion in Strachur, Argyll, Scotland. It is this last home, he often repeats, which is for him ''the most important spot on earth'' -- a statement which, from such an inveterate, longtime traveler, really has meaning.
It is here that my wife and I finally had the enormously enjoyable privilege of meeting Sir Fitzroy, though even then not, in fact, in his house but over a delicious lunch by a warm autumnal fire, just down the road at the Creggans Inn. This inn overlooks the flat expanse of Loch Fyne bordered by soft, low hills, blue and misty in the distance.
Sir Fitzroy and Lady Maclean have kept the Creggans Inn - which manages to combine the original feel and atmosphere of the country pub it has long been, with the luxury and excellence of the good hotel it now is -- for 25 years. They have enlarged it, improved its cuisine, decorated it in a fresh, homelike way, and placed it in the capable hands of its amiable manager, Laura Huggins. They have built for this comfortable and quiet hotel a growing international reputation. Their aim, Lady Maclean had told us on a previous stay there, was a ''sumptuous simplicity,'' the relaxed feeling of a shooting lodge, as much like their own home as possible.
It is indeed friendly and easygoing and makes an extremely acceptable center for anyone wanting to tour (and it has to be done, really, by car) that wonderful and enchanting jigsaw puzzle of lochs and glens, of hills and crags and moorland, bracken and heather, of castles and ruins and superb gardens warmed by the Gulf Stream and watered by west coast rainfall which is the West Highlands. History comes virtually to the Creggans Inn's front doorstep. Over the road, near a now disused jetty, Sir Fitzroy has had a plaque placed honoring the fact that Mary Queen of Scots landed at this point 400 years ago.
If the inn seems somewhat exposed outside, inside it's as cozy as you like. The pleasant staff mainly comes from the village of Strachur itself, and part of the charm of the place is that its general efficiency is underpinned with a certain unashamed and local amateurism: This is no artificial hotel.
The light lunches are a comparatively new idea, designed for the motorist-in-a-hurry (though ours with the hospitable Sir Fitzroy went on for about three absorbing hours!), but the food is still as finely prepared as it is for the dinners, which are full scale and beautifully made. Lady Maclean's recipes from her own printed cookery books appear on the menus. The home-smoked salmon and Loch Fyne oysters are specialties. And the ample breakfasts (if, like me, you enjoy that sort of thing) are in the best tradition of the country house. The porridge, memorably, is eaten from a wooden bowl with a horned spoon and served with cream.
On our previous visit to the Creggans, we had spent a good night in one of its spotless rooms with a private bathroom almost the same size as the bedroom itself. The room was welcoming, and had some of those touches that seem like gimmicks or advertising in some hotels but here only seemed delightful. ''We pride ourselves on the fact that there are NO RULES for guests in our Hotel'' is a happy announcement printed on the information sheet - though information is provided in abundance: the gardens to visit (Crarae and Benmore on Loch Eck we specially loved), the tours to take (not to be missed on any account are Glendaruel and the Kyles of Bute -- stunningly beautiful countryside and views), and close at hand the Woodland Walk on private Maclean land, which will take you 1 1/2 to 2 hours and for which you will need ''stout footwear.''
There is a little map provided for this walk, but visitors find that there is something even more helpful than that: a famous and friendly collie dog, Dougal by name. Dougal is not the hotel dog, he just thinks he is. He has adopted the place and its guests, and knows the Woodland Walk like the back of his paw, acting as the more-than-enthusiastic guide, expecting for payment only the exhaustless throwing of a stick. Dougal actually belongs to neighbors, but has chosen the life of a hotelier rather than one of lazy domesticity. Dougal is as much a part of things at the Creggans Inn as Sir Fitzroy and Lady Maclean (well, almost) - and he does manage to be there all the year round.
I had read that Sir Fitzroy was in Strachur six months a year, but he admitted that I was right not entirely to believe it. ''Not this year, anyway,'' he said with a bit of a wry grin.
Our lunchtime conversation, as you'd expect, ranged widely. Punctuated with a considerable amount of laughter, we touched on his wartime experiences in Yugoslavia, where he was sent as Churchill's special envoy to the as yet unrecognized Tito (no one was even sure then if ''Tito'' was a woman, or a committee, or what). Maclean wears his heroic record lightly, and yet parachuting into Yugoslavia and making contact with the partisans was, without any doubt, an act of extraordinary courage, endurance, and perspicacity. Before the war he had been in the diplomatic service in Russia, and had traveled intrepidly around that country outwitting the secret police at every possible opportunity, despite this being the period of the Stalinist terrors.
Apparently he picks up various languages like Dougal picks up sticks. Wanting finally to get out of diplomacy, he had got himself elected as a member of Parliament, only to rapidly enlist as a private soldier as war was declared. His resourcefulness and bravery received rapid recognition, and all his abilities were put to a climactic test with the Yugoslav episode. There was for me something uncanny about meeting him face to face while I was still in the middle of reading his fascinating book describing these experiences of 40 years ago. ''Eastern Approaches'' is the title of this classic war adventure, and it is still in print.
As a writer, Sir Fitzroy also has books on Russia to his credit, a recent biography of Tito, and among several other publications, a concise history of Scotland. His Tito biography looks at first like a picture book. But its text is thorough, readable but thoughtful, and amounts to a telling assessment of the tough and brilliant communist leader by a man who shared friendship and mutual respect with him, while remaining light years away from him politically.
When we met, he was full of two current projects. One is a TV series of programs on Russia, to be seen eventually in both Britain and America. Of the two producers from the two countries, one was responsible for Alistair Cooke's ''America.'' Maclean is writing a book to accompany the series. His most recent trip to the USSR had convinced him of many striking changes taking place in Russian society. The Western media tend to emphasize the ''dissidents,'' but he made it clear that the TV series, for which the Russians are allowing considerable freedom and access, would not concern itself with these rather exceptional figures, since what is happening throughout the country quite naturally -- caused by consumerism, increased governmental confidence, and just plain ''human nature'' -- is of such interest.
His other plans are for a film about Tito. He was just about to leave Scotland again (having only just arrived back) for the United States, meeting his wife in Hollywood, where he was going to discuss this film. Who would play Tito? The names of Albert Finney and Robert De Niro were tossed into the air, and Robert Hardy for Churchill. ''I thought his was the best portrayal of Churchill I've seen,'' he commented, referring to the recent British television series ''The Wilderness Years.'' He should know. He had numerous encounters with the wartime prime minister. Would Sir Fitzroy appear in the film? They'd have to find a young actor to play his younger self, of course, but ''I think I'll have a walk-on part like Hitchcock as a Montenegrin brigand or something!''
How does he enjoy going to the United States? ''I love the States -- and I love the USSR! One thing they have in common is that they both make marvelous ice cream. . . .''
It was an entertaining three hours at Creggans.
Any visitor fortunate enough to find the Macleans at home, could have a fascinating time of it. Both greatly enjoy telling stories, and since they have had lives bursting with activity (and not the slightest sign of its abating) and obviously think of their inn as an outlet for good old-fashioned Scottish hospitality, you are likely to hear all kinds of things.Ask them about the grisly and gruesome end (which wasn't an end at all) of the legendary local laird turned sheep stealer, Macphuin of Drip. Ask them about the dog Dougal's trip to Dunoon and how he found his way back to Strachur. Ask them about Strachur's Juvenile Pipe Band and how this kilted bunch of musical youngsters came to tour Yugoslavia and finally march down the streets of Dubrovnik.
Ask Sir Fitzroy about the time he and Veronica were camping - where was it? Turkey? Greece? - without a tent (though they occasionally called in at an embassy for a bath) and one night found themselves in the middle of a clandestine gaggle of gun or ammunition smugglers, and how he fell asleep leaving his wife awake and petrified they would be seen. Ask them what they feel about tourists who spend a day and a half on a whistle-stop tour of Scotland instead of staying for at least a week and really taking in some of its astonishing light and expansive beauty and lucid atmosphere. Ask them about the tiny Scottish island (''my rock,'' Sir Fitzroy calls it) they reclaimed ceremoniously about a year ago for their clan. Ask them about their house, and they'll show you round it. Ask them about the ferocious and dangerous game of shinty played by the local lads, just in front of their house, a game that used to be played between entire villages but is now confined to a wild bunch of 22 players. The nearest thing to it is hockey - but shinty is much rougher. Ask them . . . .
Actually, you don't need to ask the owners of the Creggans Inn anything to set the conversation going. You are likely to feel completely at home here as soon as you walk through the door.