Last week EVERY BRILLIANT THING embarked on a tour of the Highlands & Islands of Scotland. Our Joint-AD James joined Jonny and Stage Manager Hamish for a spectacular road trip. Here’s his tour diary.
Sunday 20 September
Last night Jonny was on stage at Forest Arts Centre in New Milton, Hampshire. If you stand on tiptoes you can just about see the Isle Of Wight from there. Today he begins a journey to the very opposite end of the United Kingdom as EVERY BRILLIANT THING embarks on a week-long tour of the Scottish Highlands & Islands.
I’m going along for the ride, and I can’t wait. We try to make sure someone from Team PP travels to every different tour venue to support the company on the road, to see the venue first hand, meet and get to know venue staff and most importantly meet local people who are our audience. It made sense for it to be one person for this northerly week and I
pulled ranks selflessly offered to be that person.
Jonny and I are in the grip of tour anticipation in a surprisingly nice Wetherspoons in the arrivals hall at Glasgow Airport awaiting our Stage Manager Hamish who is driving North with the list, Jonny’s costume and various tour collateral. We’re excited to be taking the show back to its village hall roots – it was conceived with Pentabus Theatre Company for a rural tour circuit and began life in Ludlow before its unexpected journey to New York via Edinburgh and more than 50 UK tour dates so far. We’re excited because neither of us has ever been North of Glasgow before. We’re excited because we both quite like whisky and there may the chance to sample a drop or two. It’s going to be an adventure.
All aboard the tour bus we soon get a first glimpse of the breathtaking scenery we’ll be treated to in the coming days as we drive around Loch Lomond, through the Trossachs National Park and up and over mountains to Fort William. Our pit stop for the night is the Croit Anna which looks incongruously like a U.S. roadside motel teleported to the banks of Loch Eil. We dump our bags, hit town and ensconce ourselves in The Grog and Gruel with pints of local ale, a plate of scallops and plans aplenty.
Monday 21 September
It’s an hour’s drive to Mallaig under blackened skies that unveil a vivid rainbow as we hit the coast and drive onto the car ferry. As we approach The Isle Of Eigg, the sky unfurls another rainbow over its craggy hills and white beaches. Nature is putting on quite a show. The wonderful Maggie meets us off the ferry and whisks us to the island’s one coffee shop, restaurant and bar – Galmisdale Bay – where we’re treated to homemade courgette and rosemary soup and sandwiches while Maggie gives us the Island lowdown. Eigg has been owned by its 98 residents since a pioneering community buy-out of the former Laird in 1997 and it has the world’s first completely wind, water and sun-powered electricity grid which was switched on in 2008 to give islanders 24 hour electricity for the first time. Its beautiful scenery is towered over by “an Sgurr”, the largest pitchstone ridge in Europe.
Eigg is tiny, and there are hardly any roads. It is impossible to get lost. You’d think. But we somehow conspire to embed the car in a field before considering we might have gone wrong somewhere, and Hamish suffers the ignominy of a three point turn under the disdainful gaze of a border collie, a duck and some chickens who know us a mile off for contemptible Southerners.
We set up the show in the beautiful Isle Of Eigg Community Hall, tuck into delicious homemade lamb curry and sag aloo delivered to us by local caterer Sarah, and set to a highly competitive pre-show warm-up on the ping pong table out back. Showtime is billed as 8pm but Maggie explains “island time” and sure enough our lovely audience of 24 gather for 8:30pm to be part of a very special, intimate Island show. Maggie says the audience would have been bigger but for it being someone’s birthday… we think 25% of the entire population is pretty good going.
We’re staying in the grand former Laird’s house, now converted into Earth Connections Eco Lodge by Bob and Norah who are passionate environmentalists and wonderfully warm and hospitable hosts. We see out the day with Highland ales by a wood burner in their beautiful library.
Tuesday 22 September
Fortified by Norah’s delectable breakfast (the homemade honey had Jonny in raptures), we drive to the other end of the island and hike across fields to the cliff face above the beautiful Singing Sands and spectacular views of the Hebrides. From the ferry we watch as the Islanders stand en masse to wave an emotional goodbye to Spaniard Paloma who has done the summer season on Eigg and become part of the family. From Mallaig we drive a windy coast road south and then inland through dramatic mountains to the tip of Loch Sunart’s wizened finger and Strontian. We’re warmly welcomed to the Ben View Hotel by Graham who we quickly establish is the world’s most genial and hospitable hotelier, his kindness extending to picking us up from the pub at the end of the night after a couple of warming drams from a well stocked top shelf.
Wednesday 23 September
Graham’s breakfast will take some beating. A Scottish cheeseboard and chorizo to start, obvs, fresh fruit and yoghurts, and then the “full heart attack” – top notch bacon, sausage, black pudding and everything else. No need for lunch, it’s fair to say. We shelter from a dreich Scottish morning and tackle some admin before Hamish heads to The Sunart Centre to set up tonight’s show. With the sun making a tentative appearance we head out for some fresh afternoon air and in Jonny’s case a paddle in the crystal clear loch. After a pre-show bite at the riverside Kilcamb Lodge, we head to Ardnamurchan High School which houses the Arts Centre and tonight’s gig. There’s a foosball table in the foyer on which we discover Jonny is a professional standard table football player. He beats Hamish 10-0 and me 10-1.
Strontian: Before and After!
We’d put 40 chairs out tonight but to our delight we’re soon helping our host Eoghan unstack more from the store cupboard as the audience continues to grow. We end up three rows deep and Jonny steps on stage in a warm and responsive atmosphere to tell the story of the list once more.
In an act of unbelievable generosity, Graham welcomes us back to the hotel with a late night feast he’s prepared – lentil soup, garlic bread, Cajun chicken, whisky infused Scottish cheddar. We’ve each put on a stone in 24 hours. Graham joins us to watch the football highlights we discover he does have a foible amidst the amazingness – he’s a Liverpool supporter. We express sympathy and hit the sack.
Thursday 24 September
After another “full heart attack” we’re on the road again and heading North. We think the Sat Nav has had a meltdown before spotting the Corran – Inchree ferry offering us passage across Loch Linnhe. Is this the shortest car ferry route in the world? It takes about 3 minutes. We stop off in Fort William for coffee before joining the A87 for miles of dramatic natural splendour as vicious rain hammers the mountain sides and forms frothing torrents cascading to the lochs below.
Dornie Hall has a strong claim to the most picturesque location of any theatre we’ve ever toured to. Perched on a little peninsular where three great lochs meet, it is surrounded by lobster pots, framed by towering mountains and backdropped by the beautiful and iconic Eilean Donan Castle. It’s breathtaking. We set up the show and head off to take a look at the castle up close, before finding tonight’s now traditional sporting pre-show warm-up in the form of a pool table in The Dornie Hotel. I won. Just saying.
The show is a cracker. Our wonderful hosts Lochan Arts have gone all out to bring in a crowd and make the hall really homely with a little bar and free crisps for all. Jonny really enjoys himself and we’re thrilled to meet audience members afterwards from miles around and even two who are visiting from Montana. It’s a short drive over the bridge to the Isle Of Skye and our hotel for the night.
Friday 25 September
It has come to our attention that the Talisker Distillery is on the Isle Of Skye, and so are we. It would be rude not to. So we wind our way through jaw-dropping scenery to the other side of the Island to join the fascinating distillery tour and partake in just a tiny little tasting. We were tipped off that last night’s Vet owns a café that serves the best coffee on Skye, so we stop off on the way back. The coffee is excellent, but the Vet is nowhere to be seen. Maybe he has followed a veterinary calling?
Such is the unending spectacle we are treated to through the windscreen, we’re starting to get blasé, but it’s no hardship to retrace our route along the A87 to see again its majestic sidings. We’re soon on the banks of Loch Ness, unable to stop our necks from craning and our eyes from scanning the water for any sign of mysterious dark shapes beneath the surface as we roll into Drumnadrochit.
Tonight’s show is at The Craigmonie Centre at Glen Urquhart High School, which slightly surreally is an exact replica of the school in Strontian. So we know our way around. There is a dart board in the actual room we’re performing in, which solves tonight’s sporting pre-show warm-up. Hamish is a bit of a wiz with the arrows, it turns out. A properly lovely audience assembles and Jonny gives a virtuoso performance in a small but perfectly formed circle.
We’re alerted to the fact that tonight is the last night of the Loch Ness Beer Festival, which is remarkably fortuitous. We need no further bidding.
Saturday 26 September
Allow me to sing for a moment the praises of the largely unsung heroes of touring – stage managers. In our case, he’s called Hamish, and he’s an absolute marvel. Hamish has many skills – amongst them playing darts and Tetris packing a car with a PA, speakers, speaker stands and myriad other things. His workload on tour is frankly Sisyphean: driving for hours, unpacking the car, setting up the show, operating the show, doing the get-out, re-packing the car, organising hotels, corralling sometimes tardy actors and Artistic Directors to stick to carefully conceived schedules – all with great grace and good humour and an air of indefatigable enthusiasm. Truly the lynchpin of the tour.
And thank goodness for Hamish this morning as he uncomplainingly drives our fuzzy heads four hours north from Drumnadrochit to Lyth. We keep going just a little bit further for a quick and unashamedly touristic stop at John O’Groats before traversing the now flattened plains to Lyth Arts Centre. What a welcome awaits us from our tremendous host Bing – coffee and homemade melt-in-the-mouth scones and pancakes, and our lodgings in cosy rooms opposite the theatre with views that stretch for miles of uninterrupted fields stretching to the sea. This beautiful place is a labour of love, conceived by artistic director William in 1970 when he sold his London flat and bought a former school building which he has personally, painstakingly renovated and transformed into a theatre, art gallery, rehearsal space and artists’ residence.
William personally greets the audience as they arrive from miles around and charges their glasses. The show is beautiful – quiet, concentrated, emotional. Then the whole audience joins William for sit-down dinner in the gallery before returning to the auditorium for part two – a concert by Jazz Extempore, five musicians from England, Scotland, Brazil and Croatia who met each other at William’s invitation on Monday and have spent the week living together here, sharing the music of their own cultures and composing new songs to play for us tonight. They are astounding. William says his goodbyes to the audience and joins us and the band for drams late into the night. Lyth Arts Centre – a heart-warming, welcoming, vital place serving its local community and artists worldwide, run with love and integrity. We are honoured to have visited.
Sunday 27 September
Another bright and breezy start and on to the car ferry from the deliciously named Scrabster to Stromness on Orkney, which looks idyllically lovely in gentle Autumnal sunshine. We arrive at St Magnus Centre in Kirkwall and walk purposefully into the venue, only to beat a hasty and loudly apologetic retreat as we gatecrash a room of lady choristers mid-change into their robes. We take the opportunity for a mosey around the town and harbour.
It’s a cracker of a show to finish our Highlands and Islands adventure. Orkney has the best readers – loud and clear as bells to a man and woman. Our host Ian joins us for some post-show grub at the lovely seafront restaurant Helgi’s before we retire to our digs tired and happy.
Monday 28 September
The most astounding sunrise paints the sky vermillion as our early morning taxi drives Jonny and I to the mini Kirkwall airport, and heroic Hamish points the car back towards the ferry and south towards our next show tomorrow night in Leeds. It’s been an honour and a privilege to visit such beautiful places, meet such lovely people and perform for such generous, warm-hearted audiences. Thank you to all who welcomed us. The Highlands & Islands – a brilliant thing.