1st-18th September, 2013
“Where ye headed?” He asks through an open window.
“Oban,” I tell him, “but anywhere on your way will do us fine.” He motions for us to get in. H climbs in the back with our bags and I squeeze into the passenger seat next to our driver’s belly, which rolls over onto the steering wheel.
“I’m just out for a run,” he says. “I’ll take ye te Oban.”
We drive the scenic route, out past Inverary, and round the tip of Loch Awe. Our driver points out the scenery as we glide by: rolling mountains dip down into moss green valleys and back up into splendid rocky peaks. The loch shimmers under the late-summer breeze.
“Aye, this is the most beautiful place in the world,” he nods, satisfied. I agree wholeheartedly, at the same time thinking back on all the other most beautiful places in the world I’ve seen.
He drops us in a small car park in Oban, and we go in hunt of chips.
When I was four years old, Oban was the biggest city in the world. There were sky-scrapers reaching up to the clouds and a million people bustling the streets. Now I’m grown up, it’s a small fishing village with a population under 9,000.
Vinegar seeps through soggy paper and onto greasy fingers. We gaze at the small boats bobbing by the tiny bay, half covered with crispy brown seaweed. I point to a large black CalMac ferry creeping in, “that’s our boat”.
The Isle of Mull was home from the time of my earliest memories, until just before my 6th birthday. It was on this island that I took my first shaky steps, uttered my first intelligible syllables, learned to read, write and run into the gorse opposite our house in Salen, where my mother would call to me in fear – “be careful of the bogs!” Is this where I’m from? I wonder as the ship pulls in.
Aunty Gill greets us from the boat with a big hug. We drives past achingly familiar landscape, to her lovely wee house, just outside Salen. She points out my old school; the pub and corner shop; houses which once belonged to people with half familiar names. Everything is a third of the size it used to be. I recount memories as they arise–the boy on his bike who gave me £1 when I walked to the shop, and how bad mum made me feel for taking it. I threw the pound into the flowers at home, never to be seen again. I wonder if it’s still there, I think, as we drive by our old house, Glenleedle, my nose to the glass.
The next morning, Gill drives us into Tobermory, the island’s capital. Tob has around 700 inhabitants, and a single row of vibrant pastel-coloured shop fronts, facing out to the harbour. We meander down to the cafe at the end of the row, where fresh fish comes straight off the boats and into the kitchen. Gill buys us fish and chips, H’s first ever taste of the infamous British delicacy.
Gill leaves us to wander back around the colourful shops, dipping in and out to run fingers over quaint souvenirs. We continue walking out of town, spontaneously taking a footpath that brings us out at another road. A sign indicates the way to Calgary Bay, 12 miles. A car approaches and I instinctively stick out my thumb.
The third vehicle stops: a German couple in a red camper-van, travellers on their own adventure. We hop in. The road winds on along the northern part of the island, round a string of hairpin bends and past Dervaig, where I immediately recognise the funny, triangular buildings. Eventually, I spy the bay.
As soon as we cross over the dunes, I see the ghost of my father running toward the sea. A fine mist of spray mingles with the salt water welling in my eyes. My feet hit the sand. The wild shores of Calgary Bay, one of my earliest memories.
Piles of seaweed form a slimy border between wet and dry sand, a few metres or so from where the waves rustle up. Small insects hop in and out of sand burrows. Cumulus clouds tumble over H and I, slurping Wyld Wood cider and Hobgoblin beer among gorse-sprouting dunes, our toes digging into the cool, sugary sand.
After two too-short days on the island, we cross the Sound of Mull on a brief ferry ride from Fishnish to Lochaline on the Scottish mainland, then climb the steep hill to the main road out of town. The road alongside Loch Aline is one huge midgie disco. We swat at our faces and arms as itchy red bumps rise up. Every few minutes, a car engine rumbles in the distance, steadily growing louder until a car appears and drives on by.
It’s a long wait before we finally get a ride to the next crossroads. We crawl along the road, one car at a time.
A couple take us the last stretch towards Fort William, choosing the longer, but unfortunately not so scenic route all the way along and around Loch Eil, rather than the short ferry hop over the water.
Fort William is disappointing. A small town at the foot of Ben Nevis, the highest mountain in all the British Isles–a mere 1,344. The centre is smothered in tourists in hiking gear, camping shops and tacky Scottish memorabilia. After Inverness, Fort William is the second largest settlement in the Scottish Highlands and one of the ‘outdoor capitals’ of the UK.
After dinner in a greasy-spoon cafe (more chips), we trek back out of town and find a nice guerilla camping spot by the ruins of Inverlochy Castle, with a view across the River Lochy.
We’ve just finished packing up camp in the morning, when a man in his late 50’s arrives on a push bike, takes off most of his clothes and wades out into the river in his speedos. The temperature can’t be more that ten degrees, and the river decidedly less so. We gape as he wages a battle against the current, touching the opposite riverbank before making his way back over to us. He rises, dries himself off, nods at us and peddles away.
The road to Inverness takes us along the entire stretch of Loch Lochy and then Loch Ness. Road-signs are now in both English and Scots Gaelic. No sign of any interesting wildlife.
We first met Ben in Edinburgh during the Fringe Festival. Now we meet him in Inverness city centre, and the three of us hitch up to his parents house in Tain. Ben’s parents are mature hippies, living in a beautiful self-renovated house with solid black beams and a homely warmth. Within minutes of arriving, we’re right at home, the kettle bubbling away.
After a delicious dinner, warm conversation and guitar playing, we follow Ben through a garden maze that winds round trees and under hedges, past a small stone circle, compost loo and vegetable garden. He leads us to a vibrantly painted caravan, our home for two nights.
Our one full day in Tain is spent cycle-touring round the area, seeing all Ben’s childhood haunts. H suggests borrowing the bikes to ride up to John O’ Groats. I look at him doubtfully. Cycling with backpacks isn’t much fun, and my bottom is already numb after just a couple of hours.
We leave the house on foot after a hearty breakfast, trekking the two mile path from the front door to the small main road. We hitch over the Domoch Firth and up toward the tip of Scotland. It’s mid-September and the weather is changing, growing colder with each passing day.
Lifts are few, short and far between. We’ve only just reached Helmsdale as the light begins to dim. I’m keen to push on and camp at John O’Groats, but the traffic has thinned almost to nothing. A car stops, but he’s only going up another six miles, just as far as the next turn. We jump in anyway, breathing warm air onto numbing fingers.
Our driver is warm and chatty and we manage to cover a surprising amount of topics over the winding six mile road. He takes us another few miles out of his way, up as far as Wick, apologising that he can’t go further. “But hey, if you like you can always camp in my garden tonight. It’s not on the way to John O’ Groats, but I can put you back on this road again in the morning,” he says, as we drag our packs out of his boot. H and I look at each other and break into grins. We stuff the packs back in again.
An hour later, we’re drinking wine in Pete’s studio, while he rolls a spliff for H. H in turn entertains us with one of several electric guitars. Pete seems impressed. More spliffs are rolled and the wine bottle is drained. Eventually we creep into our tent in Pete’s garden.
“I can either put you back on the road where we stopped yesterday,” Pete tells us after breakfast the following morning, “or, if you like, I can give you a ride up to see Dunnet Head. John O’Groats is a bit kack anyway, and Dunnet Head’s the real northern tip.”
Pete drives us back to Thurso and drops us on the road that will take us out of town and along towards the west coast. We wave him goodbye, happy that even in the British Isles, you can still have hitchhiking adventures like that.
We wait just across the road from the turning to the Orkney Isles ferry station, now closer to the Arctic Circle than London. There are few cars on the north coast of Scotland, and barely any stop. Those that do take us an average of four miles each. We could actually walk faster. “If ye see a wee green van comin’ yer way, make sure te flag him down,” one driver tells us. “He’ll be goin’ all the way around.” It seems everyone knows the movements of everyone else up here.
It’s amazing the information you can pick up while hitchhiking. We learn, for example, that the Pentland Firth contains 20% of Europe’s tidal potential; that the Dounreay nuclear power station in Caithness is one of the first, (our ride said “the first”, but I can’t find confirmation of this), nuclear reactors on the planet. It’s currently being decommissioned, yet still employs 200 people.
Each short ride gives us a different window into life in the Scottish Highlands. The topic of Scottish Independence crops up frequently. There seems to be a fairly even split. Those who want to keep the Union generally base that view on a pragmatic argument, (“Scotland isn’t ready yet”), rather than an ideological one. Many express frustration at the lack of attention given their corner of the world by decision makers in Edinburgh, let alone London.
Night falls and no mythical green van has appeared. We pitch the tent in a small patch of woodland just outside Tongue, whose peculiar name appears to have derived from the funny shape of the road on the map.
Dawn is breaking we pack down the tent with bleary eyes and walk a little further in search of a good stopping place, H grumbling about his lack of sleep. The road crosses the mudflats along the Kyle of Tongue, which shimmers in the morning light. I look back along the road the way we’ve come, and notice a small green van approaching.
“Aye, I’ll take ye te Durness,” he tells us as we hop into the two passenger seats, our packs safely crammed into the back. “I’m gaein’ down te Lochinver,” he tells us. I trace my finger along the squiggly line on my battered map of Scotland. I have to turn the page twice before I find it. I nudge H and point to the page, watching his eyes light up. “I think we met one of your mates yesterday,” I tell our driver.
We cut across the Cape of Wrath as spots of rain appear on the windscreen. Our driver is a quiet chap. I gaze out of the windows as the rain falls down in sheets, wondering how life must be up on the forgotten north coast.
The wee green van drops us beside Loch Assynt with a sign saying ‘Ullapool’, which quickly turns to mush. It’s not long before two friendly women pull in, going all the way to Inverness. Suddenly, we’re steaming along. We whizz down the next 50 miles of road and the women drop us by the turning that takes us out past Loch Luichart and onto the Isle of Skye.
The sky is already clearing as we walk across the long bridge onto Skye, the sun dropping down into the sea below. The first town over the bridge is Kyleakin. We wander in, still on foot, backpacks digging keenly into our shoulders. It’s far enough for one day. There’s space to camp by the water’s edge and three bars to choose from. We opt for ‘Saucy Mary’s’, mainly because it sounds like the kind of place where anything could happen.
Nothing very interesting happens until breakfast the following day. A tiny, non-event, that fills me with fear. I find a small tick with its face burrowed into my inner thigh. It’s surrounded by a faint read ring. Shit.
Let me explain. I have a friend named Ed, who lived in the forest in Sweden for two years. He’s currently suffering from chronic Lyme disease as a result of that, which almost killed him twice. The perpetrator: a tick. These beasts are minute, but by no means insignificant. The first symptom of an infection is quite often a red ring.
I call Ed. His advice: go to the nearest doctor or clinic. Demand that they give you a minimum three weeks course of antibiotics. Do not leave until you get it.
It’s a short ride into Broadford, which we almost miss completely being as it’s only a few shop fronts. There’s a tiny NHS medical clinic tucked away off the road. Here they tell me that there isn’t Lyme disease in Scotland. I can see someone tomorrow, but will need to make an appointment. When I tell them I’m on my way to Glasgow, they recommend I wait until then.
We hitch a short ride out to Ardvasar, where the ferry crosses back to the mainland. I’m tired of hitching, tired of camping, tired walking with my pack.
For several years now, on something akin to my ‘bucket list’, I’ve wanted to take the World’s Best Rail Journey. This is my chance.
I booked our tickets in Oban and got a pretty good discount, £15 each for H and I. There are two issues with this: 1. Our train leaves at 5am, and I now realise there’s a good chance most of the journey will be in the dark. 2. Our train leaves at 5am. Where the hell are we going to sleep?
I find a small car park round the corner from the train station, with a slither of grass at one end, and a magnificent view across the mouth of Loch Hourne. We sip whisky as the sun dips into the sea, then pitch the tent as night falls in.
A few short hours later, we take the tent down again, still in darkness. The first cracks of light peer through the fog as our train begins to grind out of Mallaig station and creak along the track. I assemble my notebook, pen and camera on the small plastic table, ready to witness the “most scenic train route in Britain”.
Back in Glasgow, we stay with friends we met on our way up north. I visit the Accident and Emergency room of Glasgow’s Royal Infirmary, and after waiting for five hours am again informed there is no Lyme disease in Scotland (try telling that to this woman). I am given a one day supply of antibiotics, basically to shut me up.
Tired of hitching, we arrange a series of trains and buses that will take us first to my mother’s wedding, then to a friend in Newcastle and back to Brighton, via London.