INVERARAY, Scotland — Nothing prepared me for this little town. The first time I saw it, my husband, John, and I were headed elsewhere, driving down Highway A83, about 40 miles northwest of Glasgow. We crossed the naked summit of Glen Croe and rounded the head of Loch Fyne, and five miles down the loch, the road curved and presented us with a stunning view. Across a bay that appeared to have been made to reflect its charms was this elegant, well-planned town, all white buildings with black trim, lined up along the water like model schoolchildren awaiting inspection.
As we drew closer, a green stone castle with pencil-sharp turrets appeared in the parkland on our right. The castle, like the town, dates to the mid-1700s. The third duke of Argyll, the head of the Campbell clan, moved the town and the castle to this location, and it is his vision, altered by years and remodeling, that one sees today.
Americans have not yet discovered Inveraray on the bank of Loch Fyne in western Scotland, although Europeans have. Those who come here--and there was, during our stay, one exceptionally noteworthy visitor--find an orderly village of about 500 that seems to weave a visual spell that holds the mind's eye captive.
Enchanted, we tried to stop to explore but couldn't find a parking spot. So we kept driving but vowed to return and savor Inveraray at leisure. It was a promise we were glad we kept.
We returned in early autumn, renting for a week the top half of an old stone farmhouse, Stronshira, tucked between the A83 and the little bay called Loch Shira just north of town. From Stronshira's windows we enjoyed that first-seen vista of Inveraray at all hours of the day and night.
The layout of the town is simple, like an upside-down cross. The north-south main street is intersected by one short street. The Georgian-style courthouse, now home to the Inveraray Jail Museum, blocks off the loch end. Ignore its flier's lurid description of the exhibition of "torture, death and damnation." That, although harrowing, is only the introductory part of the museum. Instead, it is a faithful re-creation of what 19th century Scottish prisoners once suffered in law court and jail. Taped excerpts of famous trials lend an air of authenticity.
Many Scottish towns cluster their main institutions--courthouse, school, church and public house--around their principal crossroads, earning the corner the nickname "Legislation, Education, Salvation and Damnation." In Inveraray's case, "Legislation" is the courthouse, and "salvation" is the severely classical parish church (so unchurchlike that a sign states: "This is the Church of Scotland. Not the town hall!"). "Damnation" awaits in the George Hotel's cheery bar, on the northeast corner. "Education" is now relocated on the other side of the wall, so Inveraray substitutes "Medication," as in Dr. Kevel Singh Bijral's medical office on the crossroads' west side.
Bijral, a Sikh from the Punjab, has practiced here for 17 years, but I had to wonder: Did he not miss other Sikhs? No, because there is a Sikh community in Glasgow, where the family goes for services. And Indian food? "Curry has been voted the most popular dish in Scotland!" he assured me. Didn't he feel exotic as a Sikh in a small Highland town? His eyes twinkled under his deep blue turban as he told the story of his eldest son, who, on a break from medical school, got a summer job as a guide at the castle. "He wore the green sweater and kilt that the guides wear," Bijral said. "He was the most photographed person at the castle that summer." And at the young man's wedding, which was still the talk of Inveraray, all the Sikhs wore kilts.
"They danced magnificently, just like Highlanders!" said Niall Iain MacLean. He and his wife, Inez, were wedding guests. Niall Iain, white-haired, ruddy and handsome, and the merry Inez are Stronshira's owners. They live on the ground floor, with a shared relish for life, deep-seated kindliness and endless humorous anecdotes of town goings-on.
"You see that house over there?" Niall Iain asked as he pointed to a small, isolated building along the shore. "That's a dangerous house." Our eyes opened wide. "Yes," he continued, solemn-faced. "When you walk past, he asks you in and gives you drinks this size." His thumb and index finger parted widely.
He enjoyed quoting his 10-year-old grandson on their home: "Not very high-tech, but environmentally friendly." The old toaster worked well, and the free-standing cupboard with a heater in the base for drying rain-soaked clothes was eminently practical. But the comfortable if old-fashioned apartment had modern appliances, too.