Many people find a lot in common between New York and Glasgow – did you find that?
Well, Glasgow is much more familiar to me than New York. I was born close to Glasgow, and have always had a family association with the city. My wife is Glaswegian and I spent a good portion of my twenties living there. Both cities have great music scenes and great architecture. But New York feels a much more epic and unknown creation somehow – the ultimate city, a bit unfathomable, exciting, romantic, dangerous. It’s somewhere that you will never really get to know. But I was relieved to finally leave the city. I’d been living in cities out of convenience, and I got to a stage when I wanted to live somewhere I wanted to be all the time, and for me that was the Western Isles. It wasn’t a hard move to make. They have been part of my life since I was a boy.
You’ve written a lot about walking around the Highlands and Islands. Of all the beautiful places you’ve visited, could you tell us what are the most beautiful and unique?
I’ve travelled widely, but I don’t think that there is anywhere more beautiful and unique than the Western Highlands and Islands of Scotland, particularly on a fine day. For solitude and the best beaches I would head to the Isle of Coll – you get literally miles of golden sand to yourself. For bleak majesty, the Assynt region of Sutherland is hard to better. Be sure and pack your collected poems of Norman MacCaig if you head there.
Do you prefer long meditative walks in Scotland or more dramatic, eventful ones?
For bleak majesty, the Assynt region of Sutherland is hard to better. Be sure and pack your collected poems of Norman MacCaig if you head there
I am a fan of the familiar and meditative walk, the opposite of a thrill-seeker, much to the amusement of the people I used to regularly walk with. I don’t walk for the challenge; I walk for the time it allows me to think, and to be outside. There was something Ianthe Brautigan said about her dad, the writer Richard: “Instead of going to an office and working, he went for long walks inside himself using his body as a map.” I think that is true of most full-time creatives, and I think about that quote a lot when I’m hiking.
There is some really inventive cooking going on in the Highlands and Islands, isn’t there?
It’s getting much better for food and accommodation, and there is a move away from the tartan carpets and tartan chicken – that’s chicken stuffed with haggis by the way – and damp B&Bs of the past.
Over here we have Chef Pamela Brunton – until recently she was cooking at the Argyll hotel in Iona (which remains excellent), but she’s about to open up her own place on Mull, The Painting School in Carsaig. She’s done stints at Noma and Fäviken and there’s that similar ethos to her cooking. It’s fantastic stuff.
Up in Tobermory I always go to Café Fish. It’s in a great location in the old ferry terminal overlooking the bay. And the food comes right off their boat onto the stove. There are no frills, but it’s all the better for it. Further afield I would recommend the Old Bridge Inn in Aviemore and the Applecross Inn, in Wester Ross. They are the two best pubs in Scotland and both serve wonderful food.
Landscapes are so unique, country to country. Where inspires you outside of Scotland?
There is something about France that I love. I lived in the Auvergne region from age six until eight, so this feeling possibly comes from some deeply embedded nostalgia. The French aesthetic and climate are very appealing, as are the corner bistros, the language, the art and literature, the bread, cheese, wine, the pace of life – particularly in the country – and the variety of landscape.
The last time I visited was in 2010, to stay with my cousin who lives on a farm in the Loire Valley with her French husband. They make amazing organic goat’s cheese. We sat outside at night. It was warm and we drank wine from a local vineyard – the sort of stuff that you just can’t do in Scotland.
Your Tweets are often about pub lunches, when touring. What makes the perfect British pub for you?
England does pubs well – country pubs where the food and the beer is local and of the highest standard. Scotland has a lot to learn in this respect. On tour we have a well-thumbed Good Pub Guide and that’s where we pick out spots. I like unpretentious old pubs with a bit of history that have been left alone inside – wood and stone and a real fire, a choice of local ales and a thoughtful menu. The Blue Lion in East Witton, Yorkshire, and The Lamb in Hindon, Wiltshire are two recent favourites.
Your image was once very rock n’ roll and urban, and now it’s very folk and rural – one can’t imagine you by an infinity pool in the Indian Ocean drinking margaritas. But do you, at times, want luxury when you travel?
Other than going on tour I rarely travel outside Scotland, and that has been the case for the last 16 years. “The more you travel the less you notice,” as the saying goes, which is certainly true of touring. I try and keep my eyes open, and there are places that I’d like to go back to – Iceland being one, Northern California another – but I would rather be at home surrounded by familiar things and scenery. Besides, I hate to fly. I am also not interested in places being fancy, because more often than not it means that they are full of insufferable posh idiots.
You wrote a song – “Waverley Steps” – about the long, steep and often perilously windy staircase at the main railway station in Edinburgh. As the locals are very aware, there’s still no tram in the city, but there’s an escalator on the Waverley Steps now. Are you in favour?
Well, there are still steps on one side of the escalator. I’d still rather take them.