Well, we did our best for them. We really did our best to show my small choir, Les Jeudistes, everything they wanted to see in Scotland. It was the second time we'd gone on tour; our first tour was to south-east England two years ago. For Scotland they'd made a sort of collective wish-list of things they wanted to see. So often this column is about life in France seen through British expat eyes, so I hope you'll find it interesting to discover what a mainly French group made of Scotland.
The French take on Scotland is built on the same stereotypes as anywhere else in the world, but their view is coloured by the traditionally soft spot the French have for Scotland - and for Ireland too - expressed in The Auld Alliance, a sort of special relationship between France and Scotland dating at least from the time of Mary, Queen of Scots. Until the mid-18th century mutual support was invoked whenever France or Scotland went England-bashing. Anyway, braced by an Auld Alliance spiced up with the usual stereotypes, Les Jeudistes didn't quite go the length of producing a list with boxes to tick, but they came near it. While admitting that they were going to the north of Scotland primarily to sing, other attractions clearly beckoned. Patricia (soprano) started the ball rolling: she wanted to see whales, seals and dolphins. H'm. Not easy. The rest followed up more or less predictably. Haggis loomed large. Otherwise castles, mountains, lakes, kilts, bagpipes, porridge, whisky and . . .
. . . ghosts. France is convinced that Scotland is hyper-haunted. The French firmly believe that in Scotland the ghosts pop in and out of ruined castles, dark woods, misty moors and lone shielings as though they were on their way to Tesco's. By bus.
So off to Scotland we went, with several concerts lined up and a full programme consisting of sacred music, some folksongs in the local dialect of Occitan (the southern French sub-language, descended from popular Latin: Provençal is another dialect) and a suite of songs from my own pen, settings of lyrics in Shakespeare plays. Josephine and I, in our dual role as head alto/conductor and joint roadies, drove on ahead of the rest, our Peugeot van laden with music stands and all our sheet music, printed programmes and concert uniforms. The rest followed by air.
It's not easy to get from the Languedoc to Scotland in one jump at civilised hours. In the best of all possible worlds there would be a Ryanair or Easyjet route Béziers - Inverness and return, preferably in the middle of the afternoon, allowing for a siesta both ways. No such luck. The best they could come up with was from Girona, in northern Spain and not all that far from where we live, to Prestwick, 25 miles south of Glasgow.
After a 4-hour drive from Prestwick to the Moray Firth in pelting rain and the thickest of Scotch mists - hiding any lurking ghosts - nothing would do Patricia, on crutches due to a skiing accident, but a brisk after-supper stagger from our up-town B & B (more about this later) down to the harbour in Nairn, a pleasant little town with magnificent beaches. Those distant lumps at the water's edge, could they possibly be seals, basking in the gathering evening gloom? Eyes strained in the semi-darkness. They weren't moving much, were they? Seals or driftwood? It was decided that they were phoques (from the Latin phoca, seal) but phoques fainéants, do-nothing, motionless seals. We staggered back. One thing less to tick off the list.
We did our best to concentrate the Franco-Scottish experience in a visit to Cawdor Castle, seat of the Earls of Cawdor, but now occupied by a Czech woman who has managed to acquire the title Countess. According to Shakespeare, this is the castle where Macbeth murdered King Duncan. If ghosts gather anywhere, it ought to be here.
The French were enormously impressed at having their own personal piper. He met us at the turnstile and led us at a steady march to the drawbridge, kilt swinging, pipes skirling. Now retired, he told me he had at one time been piping instructor to the Sultan of Oman's Mounted Pipes and Drums. Mounted on camels, that is. Camels. I mean, imagine . . .
We duly toured the castle, singing Occitan songs in the inner bailey (heads appearing at windows, enthusiastic applause), admiring all that the family seat of an ancient Scottish aristocratic family had to offer, including the stuffed head of a pet goat which enjoyed eating packets of Player's Navy Cut cigarettes, leaving the silver paper till last, and which drank itself to death with a quart of red lead paint. Jean-Claude (tenor) left the gift shop the immensely proud new owner of a perfectly ordinary tweed cap which, as far as I know, he has never taken off since.
So in one go we ticked off castles, kilts and bagpipes. Bagpipes thrust themselves forward again when we drove across northern Scotland to the fishing and Hebridean ferry port of Ullapool to sing, in company with a Gaelic choir, something nobody had thought of putting on the wish-list. At the interval the pipes and drums of Ullapool High School (17 bagpipes, 12 drummers) played for us, a wild and splendid noise. No seals, do-nothing or otherwise, in the sea, but mountains and lochs galore.
There weren't too many boxes left to tick now, and there was one most unexpectedly less when one morning towards the end of porridge-optional breakfast Paul, our B & B host, produced a small haggis, expertly cooked by his wife Mairi. (If ever you're looking for a bed and breakfast in Northern Scotland, look no further than Cawdor House, Nairn. I've never stayed, and would never hope to stay, in a better. It's a wonder we ever left.) Paul read Robert Burns' Address to the Haggis, written in a dialect totally incomprehensible to the French, and at the appropriate moment stabbed it in the vitals, preparatory to serving a small helping to everyone. Very dramatic - and very tasty. The French were delighted.
That didn't leave much to tick off. On our last morning we visited a distillery, a place called Brackla. Vast copper stills poured forth torrents, cascades, tsunamis of colourless whisky, mostly bound for India and the Far East. (It wouldn't assume its usual golden tint until after long storage in old oaken sherry barrels.) Laden with miniatures, we headed south towards Prestwick, via Loch Ness (no monster, but hope springs eternal), Ben Nevis and Fort William, Ballachulish (fish and chips, much enjoyed), Loch Lomond and Glasgow.
But oh dear. No ghosts, not even of the Cawdor Castle goat. Not a flicker of ectoplasm, no suggestion of wraiths or revenants. Not the slightest echo of things that go bump in the night. I supposed if Josephine and I had thought about it we could have asked the ever-obliging Paul to lay something on. Meanwhile Jean-Claude surges about the village wearing his tweed cap and telling everyone who will listen what a marvellous time we had. I hope he doesn't forget to mention that we gave several quality concerts, too.
Photographs: Barbara Grüner