An April weekend, longing for adventure and difference I packed up my wee Renault Clio and drove north. I had figured out that with careful rearrangement of seats I could, if I lay at a sharp angle, sleep just about horizontally and comfortably in this tiny space, thus somewhat recapturing the freedom of having my dutiful and sorely missed little van I sold to go to the other side of the world.
It was a long drive indeed from Durham to Ullapool, the road cutting through ever changing land. First the odd east coast of the Borders with its ominous and oddly shaped power stations and drab little towns. Then the heavy traffic of Edinburgh, the Forth Road Bridge and Perth – the busy collar of Lothian. After this are the pine valleys and dramatic viaducts of Tayside, intersected with shallow rivers flowing fast and clean and dark grey towering, turreted gothic country houses. Through this comes the intense hulking loom of the still-snowy Cairngorms, far bleaker and more formidable than I had imagined them to be, beckoning and urging me to try my luck on their bulk, as mountains do.
Emerging through the overbearance of stark, dangerous mountains to the peaceful, vibrancy of the countryside of Inverness was a new breath. All awash with spring flowers, greenness, and gabled cottages. From here the road bore west over the Highlands, where habitation ceases again. The dwindling road cuts through sparse mountains and valleys too beautiful to be sensible. Finally, the way drops down into another world again.
The west coast of northern Scotland is an illustration from a child’s book, an imagining.
Here there is only clear crisp ocean, mountain and sky. Far from everything, remote communities of squat white cottages sit amongst ochre fescue and odd little tufts of pine, grown for some semblance of shelter. There is something homely to this wildness, in how the gardens bleed out into open land, how the sheep graze both as they will. To live here seems like a statement of intent, of independence.
I wonder if the jagged, monolithic ancient mountains hold the same ethereal appeal for those who have been here forever? Do the old families still live here? Or have these stoic, spartan little houses now been bought up by wealthier people from wealthier parts?
It is a landscape of adventure, outdoorsiness. That the outdoors – of mountains, lakes and fells – has a distinct culture is something that I had no real inkling of until I went to the Lakes. I knew a few hardy folk walked in the mountains of course but that’s about the extent of it. To see just how many come this way regularly to walk and explore makes me realise how insular life can be living in Cornwall, how insular life can be in one’s own country. It is a thriving, active subculture that has its own knowledge, dress codes, language and morality.As with the Lakes, I had the sense of being initiated into an open secret wandering about in this new landscape
Ullapool is the centre of it all up here and is bustling with outdoorsiness, a base for exploration and is surprisingly urbane. I had imagined a village shop that opened a few hours a day and maybe a pub. Instead, it is filled with cosmopolitan coffee shops and shiny outdoor shops selling designer gear and flat whites.
After a peaceful night by a small cove near Achnahaird, listening to a calm sea and oystercatcher piping, I walked up Stac Pollaidh on a recommendation. It is the most accessible of the mountains here I should wager but one of the most dramatic. It is to be seen taking centre stage in the above photograph, like something out of monument valley. It was busy-ish with families and all ages ascending and descending the winding path up to the stone buttresses. Despite being one for seeking out the quietest places (out of some misplaced arrogance I presume) this was altogether pleasant. Everyone spoke in a much deeper and kinder way than I usually encounter from walkers in other areas, everyone was smiles and enjoyment, and I had genuine conversations with interested parties about the land and what they knew about it.
I experience the odd effects of vertigo from time to time and it was rather windy on the ridge of Stac Pollairdh, though beautifully clear, so I am proud to report I made the actual summit by scrambling over what was a legitimately precipitous pillar. On reading about this when home I discovered this section is known as a ‘bad step’ which means, basically, moderately scary, exposed and if you fall you’ll probably die and I was very happy with myself for doing it pushing through my sense of terror (which I had persuaded myself was unfounded at the time) and generally not plummeting to my doom.
So this was the Scotland that I’d been hearing so much about. Until living up in the north of England I had never been to Scotland, indeed this was my first real excursion.
So some general feedback; the peculiar rearing mountains of Assynt in that purple dusk light, the squat little hamlets next to the purity and power of the Northern Atlantic ocean equate to one of the most enchanting places I have ever seen. I am immensely grateful to have been there. It is quite the remarkable island we live on.