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April 19, 1987|JERRY HULSE | Times Travel Editor

LOCHEARNHEAD, Scotland — Nobody with his wits about him could possibly describe Ewen Cameron's hotel on Loch Earn as elegant or castle-like or charming. Or even average. Ordinary, yes.

If the truth be told, Lochearnhead Hotel is remarkably undistinguished, with rather plebeian rooms of which a goodly number are without loos, and one must march down the hall to bathe.

My own room is best described as trim with simple comforts, as long as one doesn't rise upright during the night, in which case one risks the chance of a skull fracture, which indicates the slope of the roof in this third-floor garret.

Still, this isn't sophisticated Edinburgh, or even Glasgow, and so travelers come here for the setting, which is startling. Besides, once inside the front door the guest discovers a special warmth (just as Margaret Thatcher did on an earlier occasion) along with the disarming personality of jovial Cameron himself with his bottomless pit for good Scotch, of which there is an abundant supply in the pub that's directly beyond the registration desk whose clerk does double duty both as barmaid and receptionist, pouring Scotch one moment, then flying off to check on another guest the next.

It's that sort of hotel: a place with an abundance of character of which Cameron leads the roster. Famous throughout Scotland as a former athlete, he once reigned as the champion caber tosser of Great Britain, a bloke with a 53-inch chest who also mastered the hammer throw and the shot put, picking up three titles in one afternoon and smashing three European records. Moreover, with his talent as a skier, both on land and water, he dazzled the young maidens here about.

It is said that Ewen Cameron's parents watched their son "grow like a slow-inflating balloon." When they wearied of the hotel business, the stalwart lad carried on, in the interim getting himself elected deputy lord mayor of Perthshire, which is where all this takes place.

Barely 36 miles west of Perth, the region of Ewen Cameron's hotel boasts more lochs than any other locale in all of Scotland. Indeed, it faces Loch Earn just outside its door, with a backdrop of rolling green hills and a country road that leads to the nearby grave of Rob Roy in the little hamlet of Balquhidder, which is where the engaging Pat Fergusson, Balquhidder's gentleman farmer, was laid to rest only recently in the soil he nurtured with such devotion and which had been tilled by his family before him since 1718.

It was Fergusson in his bib overalls and gentle voice who told tales of winter gales when the bones ached and summer when the sun soaks the good earth with its lochs and glens and brays and burns, which is to say the lakes, valleys, hills and streams of the now deceased Pat Fergusson's beloved Scotland.

In Balquhidder a 150-year-old post office with a slate roof has been converted to a summer cottage for travelers, a brook singing by its door along with trout hungry for the hook.

Other vagabonds vacation in Balquhidder's Keeper's Cottage and an ex-barn that Pat Fergusson converted into a charming stone cottage with walls two-feet thick that are hung with old prints of cows and farmers haying and such.

Guests pick blackberries outside the door and fish in the Balvaig River and Loch Voil and Loch Lubnaig. And there's a second cottage, a former stable with a hayloft Pat transformed into a cheery shelter.

If it's peace one seeks, Balquhidder with its cattle and sheep, footpaths and the buzzing of bees of a warm summer day unites the soul with the nature of Scotland's tranquil countryside.

This is a land of heather and gorse, Roman walls and stone fences. The stone on which St. Angus stood as he blessed one particular glen serves as a memorial near Pat Fergusson's ancient barn, which in turn is only down the road from the ancient churchyard where Rob Roy, Scotland's infamous cattle thief and freebooter, rests alongside the graves of his wife and two of their five sons.

All this is less than 10 miles north of Loch Lomond:

By yon bonnie banks and by yon bonnie braes,

where the sun shines bright on Loch Lomond,

where me and my true love were ever wont to gae,

on the bonnie, bonnie banks of Loch Lomond.

Oh, ye'll tak' the high road and I'll tak' the low road,

an I'll be in Scotland afore ye,

but me an' my true love will never meet again

on the bonnie, bonnie banks of Loch Lomond.

Well, so much for one lad's lament. More fortunate souls discover joy on the banks of Loch Lomond with its woods and rhododendrons and the old baronial-style Lomond Castle Hotel framed by Ben Lomond, the mountain that sweeps to the glen behind the Scottish mansion.

Ivy climbs its walls and guests sip tea beside an inviting fire just inside its door.

Rising beside another stretch of Loch Lomond, the castle-like Tarbet Hotel stands at the crossroads to the Mull of Kintyre and Inverness on a rail line that provides direct overnight sleeper service from London.

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