Through a glass darkly – 21

Going North

Scotland is a bigger country than many people realise. And crossing the country is not quick. To get from Edinburgh [where we live] to Wick, not far from John o’Groats, a distance of about 260 miles, is a minimum of five hours driving, and takes roughly eight hours by train and bus. To get from Edinburgh to Durness, on the north-west coast, on public transport takes two days; a bus to Inverness on the first day, and then train and bus onwards the following day. I did the journey two years ago in the early autumn testing the limits of my Senior Citizen [free] bus pass. 

We are going up north again shortly. The plan is to have a couple of nights in Inverness, then three nights at Armadale up on the Pentland Firth, and then two nights at Laide, on the west coast near Gairloch. It will be the first time since lock-down began that we will have been beyond Edinburgh and the surrounds. And it will be the first time since 1974 that Susie and I will have been together north of the Great Glen, the geological fault line that runs south-west from Inverness on the Moray Firth to Fort William at the head of Loch Linnhe . The glen which contains Loch Ness and which separates the North West Highlands from the Grampians.

On our original trip north we hired a brown Ford Escort somewhere in Edinburgh and set off with an ageing tent intending to travel anti-clockwise round the north coast. It was about forty years before the creation of the North Coast 500. Before we started I had to go and buy an anorak on Princes Street; as an ignorant southerner I didn’t realise that Scottish summers are rarely warm and dry. I think we also went to ASDA to buy provisions and a small camping stove.

It didn’t seem sensible to camp in Aberdeen. So we stayed at the Treetops Hotel, and got up early in order to visit the fish market before breakfast.

Susie at Aberdeen Harbour

Aberdeen is where Susie had been at uni [curiously we both have Master’s degrees from Aberdeen], and so for her it is a place of memories. [I guess we all have some attachment to cities/towns where we were at uni. Back in the summer of 1964 I spent a couple of lunchtimes walking in St James Park with the wife of the Bulgarian press attache, who told me what  an attractive town Sofia was; as she described it, a cross between Heidelberg and the stage-set for The Student Prince. When I got there a couple of months later it looked more like Cumbernauld New Town.] And it didn’t seem sensible to camp in Inverness either. We stayed in a hotel on the edge of town, of which I remember only that it had a tartan carpet, tartan wallpaper, and a matching tartan ceiling. Or maybe the tartans didn’t match. It was a pretty gloomy place.

Then on north. We had coffee with Susie’s cousin Charlie in Evanton. We stopped in Lairg to buy a copy of The Times; it might be the last opportunity for some time. I think the headlines concerned a major storm in the Irish Sea which had severely disrupted the Plymouth-Fastnet yacht race. In which Ted Heath was a competitor.  On a minor road ten miles south of Ben Hope,  we stopped to look at the impressive ruins of Dun Dornadilla. A bit further on we got out of the car to look at Ben Hope, thereby inviting half million midges to share the car with us.

Near Ben Hope

And then, as it started to get dark, we pitched our trusty tent on a gentle, grassy slope overlooking the waters of Loch Eriboll, a deep sea loch on the shores of the Pentland Firth. It was where the remaining German U-boat fleet surrendered in 1945. It was apparently known to British servicemen during the war as Lock ‘Orrible, on account of the frequently inclement weather. But I didn’t know that at the time.

When we woke up at about four o’clock the next morning, water was streaming through the tent. We had no built-in ground-sheet in those days. So the water simply flowed in under the walls at the top end of the tent and out at the bottom. We put a very wet tent in the car, retrieved our belongings from the shallow stream, and went in search of breakfast in Durness. Or more precisely in the Craft Village at Balnakeil; a collection of local enterprises housed in the huts of what had originally been built after the war as an RAF early warning/listening station. 

Phone box on Loch Eriboll

It took two or three gusty days camping at Sheigra to dry out the tent. We swam a couple of times, bought sausages and a frying pan in Kinlochbervie [the pan stayed with us for years, the sausages didn’t], and failed to walk the four or so miles to the famed Sandalwood Bay. After that we put the tent away in the boot. We stayed in the Summer Isles Hotel at Achiltibuie, which at that time had quite an elderly clientele, many swathed in tartan rugs. The proprietor was Robert Irvine, an ex-actor, who wore knee-breeches and buckled shoes,. His daughter was Lucy Irvine, the author of Castaway [later filmed by Nicolas Roeg with Oliver Reed and Amanda Donohoe]. Much more economically we stayed in an isolated caravan, next to naval gun emplacements overlooking Loch Ewe. The owners were reluctant to let us away, preferring not to handle money on the Sabbath. After which we rushed to Eilean Donan to take photos of sunset over the castle, and took the ferry across to Skye, Where we stayed in a very run-down caravan in a field somewhere near Portree.

Eilean Donan Cstle

Things looked up when we had a night at Kinloch Lodge Hotel at Isle Ornsay. It was newly-opened in 1974, very comfortable, very luxurious, with an excellent restaurant. [Claire Macdonald subsequently became a well-known cook and cookery writer.] We ate well, and then made the mistake of doing some serious malt whisky tasting in the bar with the Portree dentist. Which made it difficult to face the black pudding at breakfast. After that we took the ferry back to Mallaig, and made for Arisaig. Alistair at Port na Doran, where Susie’s family had camped for many years gave us one of his vans, and a message to ring a number in London. So we spent the next morning in the Arisaig phone box, clutching a handful of pennies and trying to make a person-to-person call to someone in London.

Sunset over Eilean Donan

It was a good trip. Which had lasting consequences. Susie and I got engaged while we were at Isle Ornsay, which was a big plus, though we have not drunk whisky since. And the phone call was the offer of a job in Paris, where we spent the next few years. Happy days !

September 2020

Published by europhilevicar

I am a retired vicar living on the south side of Edinburgh. I am a historian manqué, I worked in educational publishing for 20 years, and after ordination worked in churches in the Scottish Borders and then in Lyon in the Rhône-Alpes. I have a lovely and long-suffering wife, two children, and four delightful grand-children

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