Great Uncle Keith… and the Scotland Road Trip

I’m not sure quite how it happened but I found myself on a 600-mile road trip to the far recesses of Scotland with a toothless 85-year-old in my passenger seat.

We hadn’t seen my Great Uncle Keith for 25 years so it was a bit of shock when the phone rang at my parents’ house and a feeble voice rattled down the line, saying, ‘Hello, It’s Keithhhh.’

Great Uncle Keith, my father’s uncle, had slipped off the radar some time in the early 90s. He met a ‘lady friend’ called Valerie, who had seemingly wanted him all to himself and as a result, he had severed ties with the family.

A quarter of a century on, and with grasping Valerie having passed away, Great Uncle Keith had decided to re-connect with my father, his long-forgotten nephew – from all of 25 miles away in Manchester.

My father is an only child but his father George (now dead) had two other brothers – the aforementioned Keith, and Jack, who married Jill (!) and moved away to Scotland to lead a hardy life of hiking and extreme outdoor pursuits.

We hadn’t seen Jack and Jill for years either but would occasionally receive a postcard from them, usually from far-flung places like the Himalayas, accompanied by messages such as, ‘Did a steady 30-mile hike yesterday; tomorrow tackling Everest…’ or, ‘On the Inca Trail. 40 degrees. Terrain easy.’

Given that Keith hadn’t seen his brother Jack for many years either, I rather generously offered to drive him up there for a Scotland for a family reunion. My parents, never ones to miss out on an adventure, were to accompany us on the trip also, in order the provide some light relief or drive me to despair, depending on how you looked at it.

The first shock was the kind of surprise that you can only get when you haven’t seen someone for 25 years. Far from being the sprightly piano-playing uncle that my father fondly remembered, Keith was now a dithery old man, with only a few silver wisps of hair and, more worryingly, a distinct lack of teeth. He was to stay at my parents for the night before we embarked on the Great Road Trip to Garelochhead.

Somehow, at 2am in the morning, he managed to bring a whole glass shelf crashing down in the bathroom, causing my father to nearly have a heart attack and my mother to get terribly flustered indeed and make statements such as, ‘What on earth was he doing, CLATTERING around in the dead of night?!”

Morning came and the great road trip had begun. I was behind the wheel, with toothless Great Uncle Keith safely ensconced in the passenger seat. My mother was giving a running commentary of the scenery, while my father sat studying one of his Ordnance Survey maps. Four hours later, with a short lunch break (in which gummy Keith attempted to eat a sandwich like a gurning Les Dawson), we arrived at Jack and Jill’s little house on the edge of Loch Lomond.

I vaguely recall Jill from my childhood. She was rail thin, terribly fit and as sharp as glass. A retired headmistress through and through, she didn’t suffer fools gladly.

Jack was much more affable, very quiet and extremely fit also. Now 89, he was – unbelievably – still running up the fells and back before breakfast.

As the car pulled up, Jill waved a spindly arm. And the first thing she said as she greeted her long-lost brother-in-law was, ‘My goodness Keith, where on earth are your TEETH?’

It was a question that all of us were itching to know the answer to. We never did really get to the bottom of it.

She cast a shrewd eye over all of us and turned her attention to my father, who was visibly attempting to hold his stomach in.

‘And Michael,’ she went on. ‘Haven’t you put on weight?!’

Somewhat ironically, given her obsession with how porky we’d all become, she emerged from the kitchen with a mountain of cheese scones and insisted that we all tuck in immediately.

Jack, who had been out doing a spot of windsurfing on the loch and also appeared to have grown a handle bar moustache, arrived shortly after, and they both proceeded to regale us with tales of Pensioners Do Extreme Pursuits.


Two hours later and having been force-fed several more cheese scones, the parents and I began to make noises about leaving for Glasgow – thankful that we’d had the foresight to book into our own hotel – and telling Great Uncle Keith that we would return to collect him in 48 hours. He looked petrified.

Driving back two days later, Keith was already waiting on the path with his battered suitcase. He had never looked so pleased to see us. As we bundled him into the car, Jill peered in and said, ‘Now Keith, remember what I said. Straight to the dentist as soon as you get back. And then you must consult a dietician immediately.’

Privately, I thought the chances of Keith, who only ever ventured as far as the corner shop, consulting a dietician were extremely slim (excuse the pun) but I didn’t dare voice this under Jill’s steely gaze.

‘No Teeth’ Keith just smiled compliantly, showing his gums.

On the journey back, Keith told us that Jack and Jill had marched him several miles up a hill – not to fetch a pail of water – but to explore the former residence of Glasgow-born designer Charles Macintosh (famed for those silly chairs with an elongated back). Reaching the summit, they found that the house had yet to open for the day.

‘Never mind,’ they said. ‘We’ll just walk several miles into town for lunch and come back in a couple of hours.’

On the verge of collapse, puffing Keith had to plead not to be taken back up the hill, at which point Jill expressed her horror at how unfit he had become.

Overall, he’d enjoyed his mini-break, Keith concluded. But he was glad to be getting home.

‘Perhaps you’re getting a bit long in the tooth for these trips away,’ my father quipped.

Going The Extra Mile

If I told you that the parents are happy to make a five-mile drive every Saturday simply to draw some cash out (more on that next week), it might come as no surprise that they think nothing of a 120-mile round trip for lunch.

Yes, no distance is too far for the parents to drive.

They would think nothing, either, of making a two-hour detour just to look at a building my father was vaguely interested in, or trek for miles across the Pennines in search of the source of the River Ribble (it’s a small babble of water in the middle of an isolated field in Yorkshire, for anyone remotely interested).

Once, due to my father’s inherent fear of flying, we drove from Preston to France, Germany, Luxembourg and Belgium – and back.

In a week.

Needless to say, my only lasting memory of that great cultural adventure was playing Top Trumps with my sister in the back of the car, while gazing at great expanses of Europe passing by in a blur.

One particular episode of my parents’ travelling madness occurred on New Year’s Day 2009, when most of the population were nursing hangovers and quite sensibly padding round the house in their PJs.

Not the parents.

Two days prior, the husband and I had foolishly agreed to accompany them (and the omnipresent Uncle Stephen – more on him later) on a relaxing country drive, hopefully stopping for a bite to eat in some quaint gastropub, en route.

What we didn’t know was that we would spend two nausea-inducing hours pretty much off-roading across the Lake District, with no guarantee of a meal at the end of it.

For someone who spends a maddening amount of time pondering over the simplest of tasks, my father turns into a cross between Lewis Hamilton and Dick Dastardly the minute he gets behind the wheel.

So it was with some trepidation, that the husband and I – feeling a little delicate from the previous night’s festivities – gingerly climbed into the back of my father’s Suzuki Swift (competitively priced, excellent fuel consumption AND one of Jeremy Clarkson’s favourite small cars – just ask the parents) before embarking on our New Year’s Day sojourn from hell.

After an hour heading into the Lake District, we began to climb higher into the hills, the rain lashing down and mist swirling around us (sounds dramatic but it really was). It might have been my imagination but the higher we climbed, the faster my father appeared to be driving, narrowly avoiding the occasional bemused sheep, and pulling over once or twice to study his trusty Ordnance Survey map – with all the intensity of a Man On A Mission.

When I tentatively broached the subject of how much further the place my father had in mind might be (resisting the urge to revert back to the child-like whine of ‘are we nearly here yet?’), it was met with a stony silence. One thing the parents will never do in the face of adversity is admit defeat.

Another hour later, my father conceded that he might be slightly lost. After all, he said, he hadnt visited this pub since 1977. For all he knew it might not even exist anymore. Yes, 1977. This, you see, is all part of the adventure.

So, it was a rather weary car load of travellers that eventually pulled up outside the Blacksmiths Inn, which according to my father, dated back to 1577. Quite an impressive history for a pub that appeared to be in the Middle of Nowhere.


Stomachs rumbling, we dutifully following my father into its oak-panelled bowels  – only to be met with the news that, as it was New Year’s Day, they were fully booked for lunch and there was no chance of getting anything to eat.

My parents and the perpetually-jovial Uncle Stephen seemed completely unfazed by this news (did I mention that they don’t actually believe in booking restaurants, leaving it purely to the jaws of fate), opting to have a drink instead, ‘now that they were here’, and engaging the landlord in a conversation about the pub’s original gas lamps that my father recalled from his last visit 35 years ago.

The husband and I, on the other hand – battling a strange mix of car sickness and gnawing hunger – were rendered almost speechless, collapsing into some hard-backed chairs and closing our eyes in silent despair.

But the day was to take an unexpected twist. Just as we were meekly sipping our coca-colas and contemplating the long drive back, the phone rang. It was a family of six cancelling their booking. Struck down by a sickness bug. The whole lot of them.

‘You’re in,’ cried the landlord triumphantly, throwing down menus in front of us. ‘Kitchen closes in 30 minutes.’

Fed, watered and hardly able to believe our luck, we clambered back into the Suzuki Swift to brace ourselves for the arduous journey back.

It was only when my father paused to linger over his map, that we realised this adventure might not be over.

‘Now, I’m sure there’s an old water mill around here…’