‘Not everyone could do it. It’s his choice, he loves it.’ John on John, on the island of Johns, also known as Cape Wrath.
I could gaze at this view forever. Scatter my ashes here. This is a longer post, but the sights, stories and scenes ah, it’s worth following!
It’s 8.30am. At different times in my life, I’ve spent this time cattle-trucked on morning tubes and trains, fellow passengers arguing and fighting, stress and frustration sweating from people’s shirts and ties like a miasma of tolerated suffering. Or buses caught in interminable south London traffic, making me late for school, then university, some arsehole’s music blaring at the back from his phone. Or in the last year, dodging blind taxi drivers and the horsey wives of the rich in Chelsea tractors along the south circular to my current university on this very same bike besides my tent today.
Here is just tranquillity and peace. The area in and around Durness is a gentle paradise, even in the feint morning drizzle I awake in. My tent’s camped up on a patch of heather overlooking the road. The heather itself is soft enough to sleep on, but any hopes of sleeping under the stars are dashed by the pestilence called midges. Still, what a place to wake in. Forty seven days to get here has been quite worth it.
Turns out those ten different sets of directions for Cape Wrath in the pub last night were, mostly, spot on. A little down the way is Keoldale Bay, where the first ferry of the morning awaits to take a small group of fellow cyclists, miscellaneous visitors and a restless young family over to the most north-western part of the British mainland.
A local suggests to us not to bring our bikes over to cycle across Cape Wrath. It’s twelve miles each way to the lighthouse at the cape’s north-western tip, and the ‘state of the road, the pot holes, it innae worth it’. I’m not sad to leave it behind. I’ve read of cyclists attempting the journey and it’s a miserable and lonely experience. If the easy hills of Orkney can break my back wheel, who knows what state the bike will fall into upon the hills of Wrath.
The Kyle of Durness separates the cape from the rest of the land, making a ferry necessary. John the ferryman takes us over, a five minute ride costing the cost of two pints, but a rare opportunity to visit this strange corner.
‘Thirty one years I’ve been doing this. This has been my quietest season.’
On the other side is 107 square miles of pure wilderness, largely unreached by humankind. Most of it is an MOD firing range, often interrupting access here. Much of the land is filled with unexploded bombs. Another John invites us into a minibus and over an hour, drives us over the landscape on the narrowest of roads towards the lighthouse.
There are no roads here, no trees, no telegraph poles. No traffic lights or roundabouts, no people. There are few signs of settlement aside from the occasional MOD bunker and unexploded ordinance warning sign. Much of the visible rock is around 400 million years old, some of the oldest extent rock in the world. The landscape looks in many parts the same as it would say 100 or 1000 years ago.
It reminds me of something Father Michael told me the previous day. ‘I love it here,’ he said, ‘there’s no graffiti, no McDonalds’. It was unspoilt by the crassness of capitalism and the petty machismo that comes with urban overcrowding and juvenile boredom.
Scotland more broadly seems unspoilt by the social malnourishment and cultural cretinism of the average British Town Centre with its retail parks, high street chains, mass underemployment, routine poverty, evident public health problems, and abysmally inadequate housing. There’s something about this country which, in elated moments like this, deserves its independence, deserves to disconnect its association with its southern neighbour and the ugliness and fear that define it. There’s still Glasgow and its suburban sprawl ahead though…
When William Camden visited here centuries back, he described it as plagued by ‘very rapacious wolves.’ They’re all gone, the last one killed in Sutherland somewhere not far from Wick over a century ago, but the cruelty in the landscape remains. The bumpy and blotchy track across Cape Wrath passes the occasional herd of deer, whilst predatorial birds like the bullying Skua loom in the distance, seeking out smaller birds to harass. A few derelict army vehicles sit in the distance, painted pink and other colours a few years back for some MOD public relations exercise with a local school. As the cameras came out, the schoolchildren lifted out some hidden posters and placed them over the vehicles: no bombs, no bullets, no war.
As well as undetonated devices, the grasses here are also filled with adders. Truly this place is Wrath, the perfect spot for an evil despot’s secret lair. In the past, the site was used by other NATO countries to practice firing and bomb-dropping. This has been scaled back in recent years after an American missile exploded just a mile above Durness, and the regular pounding itself became rightly subject to local complaints about noise. These days the MOD fire missile after missile at the rocks at Garvie. The ancient cliff remains remarkably unaltered by these devices of violent men and their homicidal ways.
We reach the lighthouse at the end of this narrow and broken road, perhaps the most isolated place I’ve ever laid eyes on. The lighthouse was built by the Stevensons (kin of Robert Louis…) in 1828 and was occupied for 170 years, a lonely lighthouse keeper next to nowhere keeping watch over this dangerous stretch of sea. The Norse name for this place was hvarf, meaning ‘turning point’, the point that Viking sailors recognised to turn either east towards home, or south towards the western-coast of Scotland.
The views from the cliffs are striking. I climb down part of the edge on one cliff where a very steep track leads down to the sea. Nearby is a promontory suitable for sitting, offering a view that takes in every separate level of nature. Insects and flies crawl on the nearby rock where lichen thrive, and grasses grow in spurts around. Small wildflowers and cotton-grass flicker in the breeze. Below are the sharper rocks leading to breakers which lash away at the shoreline. There’s some seaweed and crabs, and deeper beyond, the universe of the seas. In the horizon sea becomes sky, and great gulls hover over the late morning sun. Then there are the great stacks of rock further away, like the ‘cathedral stack’, or another with an enticing cave. Standing on the edge, there’s an odd thrill in imagining to be like Icarus, raising one’s arms and attempting flight. Humans, sheep, deer and other large animals gaze out at this cross-section of life, and are gazed at in turn.
As I wander about the cliffs, Steve shares his awe of the view. He’s from Sutton in London but now words as a tree surgeon in Hereford, a place he prefers. ‘It’s the right combination of the wilds of Wales and the prim properness of the shires.’ He’s taking his two grown up lads cycling across north-west Scotland, and shares tips about the tough headwinds over the isles of Lewis and Harris in the Outer Hebrides, places I’ll reach in a couple of days.
‘It was all… bleak, it was all like this’, gesturing to Cape Wrath. He takes my photo by the lighthouse, and we wander in separate directions to explore the limits of our own minds on this bare and unforgiving coastline.
Back in Dornoch, Alan told me a story about the cape. He was visiting here with his wife, childhood sweethearts, one rainy and stormy morning. A great fog hung over the lighthouse and surrounding cliffs. His wife left him for a moment to peer further down from the cliffs at the seas below. Alan pottered around but found the climes too unforgiving, and went to find his wife. He searched up and down the cliffs but there was no sign of her. He called out her name in the fog but saw or heard nothing. Panic set in. Had some gale pulled her from the cliff? Had she misjudged the steepness of the precipices, or lost her stead on some loose rock? He searching for what felt like hours but to no avail. He returned to his lighthouse and its small café, hoping that some other visitor might know. Inside was his wife with a cup of tea. ‘Where on earth have you been?’
I return to the small café in the lighthouse, run by the third John of the island. There’s a small exhibition about the island and a surprisingly affordable café in this remote spot. I talk to the second John, driver-John, about bothies and birdlife, and after a time we board the bus back through the bleak landscape, and cross the kyle over a waiting boat. The bus trip is £12, but despite the expense, the trip is most certainly worth it.
It’s the early afternoon now, and I have no fixed destination for the day. One of Steve’s sons tells me that the next settlement is Scourie, ‘I think it’s twenty miles, but I’m not sure’. The landscape ahead is hilly, but beautiful, they tell me. I’m daunted but excited. An abyss is ahead.
These mountains take one so high and so out of oneself. Leaving Durness, the road steeps up and passes country like the previous day, populated by heather, deer and the occasional sheep. There are no settlements here at all now. A soaring series of mountains occasionally give way to a plateau and the ruined walls and chimney stack of a 19th century croft house, but for the rest, I spent the next several hours passing enchanting lochs, soaring bens and deep and fertile glens.
That’s not to suggest one must only cycle here. I pass roads that lead to Handa Island, a specially-protected haven for rare birdlife, and a road towards Kinlochbervie, a small fishing village that leads eventually to Sandwood Bay, the most beautiful beach in Scotland, one cyclist I met in Bettyhill told me. He’d been travelling for two weeks across the north-west just to find this secret treasure of a place. Cycling’s my thing, and I follow the road and, after a few miles up and down sweeping hills bursting with mystery and life, regain that state of quasi-narcotic elation of the previous day.
I start to reflect on this pleasure and desire. To a degree, I feel like I am discovering these feelings both for the first time. I’ve known happiness and joy of course, but the lifestyle and culture I’ve been socialised into, like all people born since 1979, has been one where pleasure has been based on a lack. You’re bored, you’re hungry, you want that new thing, so you scratch that itch, fill that lack, return to a state of zero. Things like easy credit, the growth of entertainment as a form of capitalist consumption, and the commercialisation of the Internet have made scratching this itch instantaneous. You can get what you want now, or if not, you ought to…
Though poverty and malnutrition are real social problems, there’s still a remarkable ease in acquiring technologically sophisticated smartphones, TVs and other tech. Our pleasures aren’t pleasurable, but become problems to be solved, boredoms to be dispelled. We’ve been infantilised by all this, requiring entertainment at all hours and throwing tantrums if not.
Labour-saving industries have, in turn, stripped many of us from holding any real personal responsibility until later in adult life, and often lacking the basic skills to create or repair things that were normal two generations ago. We’re to a degree largely surplus, or at least, societies in parts of England (at least…) have rendered this the only remaining human activity. Our consumption is our economic production. The frustration, depression, boredom and anxiety it all engenders has become our wider cultural condition. It is marked in the growth of gym memberships and obesity, in depression and anxiety prescriptions
You can call it anhedonia, as some have. I once called it negative capitalism, the effect of living in an economic politic, but these terms seem clunky and inadequate out here, with this new knowledge and this new pleasure. This pleasure is one that’s been grown organically. It doesn’t seek a release because it’s not a drive or a lack. It’s more like a musical key, an elated feeling that happens through pursuing one’s own choices, using one’s own emotions and reason as the sole guide for the day’s outcomes. It’s a state built up through kind and warm interactions with strangers, premised on a natural trust and generosity. I’ve come to assume that people I meet are friendly, wise and helpful, and I naturally treat them this way. They are affectionate in return. No more do I lock my bike, so far away is London.
When I was younger, I’d get lost in time reading and trying to understand the descending degrees of human suffering. Accept like a curse an unlucky deal. Human existence seemed necessarily tragic, frustrated, unhappy and isolated. The literature I read filled in the necessary greys and blacks to complete this view. How absurd that was, how ludicrous, how glad I am to have overcome this myopia. Why such reflections on human existence, the ‘existentialism’ of Dostoevsky, Kierkegaard or Sartre, measure experience in degrees of pain, suffering and lack?
There’s little use wishing for a time machine, but it would’ve been far healthier and more interesting experimenting with pleasure at an earlier age, from a scientific view at least. From indulging in yoga or MDMA to trying out kayaking, or hiking, or a shorter trip like this. As I grew bigger, and older, my reading and writing turned to criticising and attacking instead of enjoying and creating. Frustration filled the void of desire. So my book Negative Capitalism is, like most left-wing pamphlets and books produced over the last sixty years, focused on what is going wrong in the modern UK, combining history, economics, architecture, mental health, and other stuff.
But it holds an unproven assumption that if enough resentment builds up, eventually it will force its way and overwhelm the powerful and create a fairer and more equal society. Blockages and flows, a plumbers’ view of human events. No moment in history suggests this is possible, or even remotely likely. Resentment, fear and deprivation create only more negative feelings of the same. They lead not to revolution but social collapse, and to a collective desire for even harsher authorities to step in and restore order.
I know I’m not the first to poke around this less trodden route, but I wonder what would happen if talking about, thinking about and planning political change began instead from the point of pleasure. Rather than detailing the circumstances of defeat, a depressing exercise, couldn’t another route be taken that starts by experimenting and learning about what other kinds of things bring pleasure and happiness, beyond consumer crap and miserable careers.
This seems like the path taken during the later 1960s until the late 70s or early 80s in the counterculture: drug-taking, communal living, exploring one’s sexuality happened alongside a pleasure in community politics, squatting, and an interest in the environment and land struggles. When John Barker writes about his involvement in the Angry Brigade, an amorphous left-wing terrorist group during the very early 70s, he compares late-night discussions of the Situationists, community activism in welfare struggles and squatting alongside just ‘having a good time’. Hope and pleasure energised this past wave of struggles whose ideas and strategies are still the norm today. But that pleasure is gone. I wonder what use it could have.
The road reaches the very small settlement of Scourie. It’s been a long and lovely ride over the late afternoon, and I take a stop to buy some Orkney ice cream and local newspaper, and make small-talk with the local staff. There’s a nearby hotel with a bar, and I head in for a half and some conversation.
I’m served by a Polish feller distracted with the football, and drink up a pint of Cairngorms Trade Winds whilst charging my phone. The West Highland Free Press is the UK’s first employee-owned newspaper, but beyond this interesting fact, the local news is an odd mix of affected outrage (‘Police defend use of armed officers at sporting event’ – at our Highland Cross, the thugs!), success stories for local pipe bands and school teams, and the usual grumbling about local building plans. Editorial pieces reflect concerns of people I’ve met that the western Highlands and islands, like Orkney and Shetland, might get shafted and disempowered by Scottish independence. The back-pages are thankfully free of tiresome cricket and football: instead it’s all Shinty, a game similar to field hockey but more physical, and played mainly in the Highlands.
Whilst the beer’s bad, the bar itself is good, and I get talking to Leslie who takes over the bar after a while. He’s from Birmingham, and has come up to Scourie to work in the hotel after previously managing one of a small chain of hotels run by this joint’s current owner. He came up here to have a look, and had no appetite to return.
‘I don’t regret it. I couldn’t go back. I can’t do cities now [laughs]. Just look at this place.’
As he continues, ‘there’s a lot of people from all over round here. Poles, Czechs, Hungarians, Australians. Some work in the fish farms. Others just come here, for this.’ The conversation is friendly and focuses on specific beauty spots of the Highlands. I’ve enjoyed the ride so much I’m in no mood to hurry, and over a map, I ask Leslie about a small village quite in the middle of nowhere. ‘That’s Lochinver. Yeah, it’s a nice place, lots of Spanish and French fishing boats come in with their catch. You might like it.’
On a whim, I decide to take the detour.
The road after Scourie is even more breathtakingly unpeopled and spectacular. I pass through glens that, aside from the road, I could easily believe have remained unchanged for thousands of years. H.V. Morton also travelled through this coastline of north Sutherland and found a magic in it like I do:
‘more remote from civilisation than when I crossed the Sierra Nevada … the very workshop of God.’
There are no cars now, just deer, and birds, and the occasional hardy sheep. After a couple of hours in this eerily empty but wonderful journey I begin to feel like some hydrogen bomb might have wiped out most of humankind. What would it be like, being the last human being? Oh, the tranquillity, the peace, right? No, I disagree. There’s a superb scene in The Twilight Zone, where Henry Bemis (‘a charter member in the fraternity of dreamers’, ah what a superb show!) improbably survives a nuclear war after being trapped in a bank vault. His love is books, and now he has time enough at last to read to his heart’s content. But alas, as he picks up his first book, he stumbles on some rubble and breaks his reading glasses. The show ends with him crying into the abyss, ‘that’s not fair! That’s not fair at all! That’s not fair…’
The journey is as fascinating and as bleak as that parable. One needs people. The sun is still out by the evening but the wind has dropped. Stopping for more than a moment, I’m surrounded by a great swarm of midges, landing in ear, eye and tongue. It’s impossible to take a break, and I struggle to ride and eat biscuits, and drink water. I have my landscape more enchanting than anything in the Louvre but, that’s not fair, that’s not fair at all.
I pass more sweeping mountain ranges and lochs, through a smooth road that blasts through millennia of metamorphous rock to take me and the midges to our shared destination. and skitter briefly by Kylesku, the first smidgeonth of a village for some twenty or so miles. Sheep overrun the roads frequently. To complete the joy of the day, rainbows frequently appear as rainclouds give in to a renewed burst of sunshine.
The road reaches Loch Assynt and splits. I follow Lochinver to the right, leaving the Ullapool route for another day. My word, how the scenery transforms again. The loch is almost Jurassic looking: a long and thin expanse of water rendered entirely gold and black by the intense sunlight and the daunting shadows of the nearby mountains. Trees spurt up on crags that appear almost tropical, and the swarms of midges are so thick that they frequently collide against my face like a gentle hail of papery bits. For eleven or so miles there is the magnificent Loch Assynt to my left, and everywhere else, just nothing.
Thomas Pennant came by Assynt nearly a quarter of a millennium ago on his Voyages to the Hebrides. Like other travel writers, he can’t resist comparing unusual and spectacular geographical features in feminine terms. The mountains here he calls ‘mamillary’, just as William Gilpin would describe his picturesque Wye landscapes as ‘bossomed with wood.’
But in Assynt he comes across what appears as the very definition of desolation:
‘The prospect to the west was that of desolation itself; a savage series of rude mountains, discoloured, black and red, as if by the rage of fire.’
But this bleak land was a little more populous when Pennant arrived. These areas still had their Highland clans (the MacLeods here), and local people struggled to eke a living on the harsh and infertile land. Pennant comes across a scene of misery and injustice:
‘the people almost torpid with idleness, and most wretched: their hovels most miserable, made of poles, wattled and covered with thin sods. There is not corn raised sufficient to supply half the wants of the inhabitants.’
Hunger was a kind of norm. But as Pennant travelled by Loch Assynt, like I do, he discovered, quite against his instincts, that some outside force was causing this scene of desperation:
‘Numbers of the miserable of this country were now migrating: they wandered in a state of desperation; to[o] poor to pay, they madly sell themselves for their passage, preferring a temporary bondage in a strange land, to starving for life in their native soil.’
The land needed some kind of improvement, granted, but one directed with the welfare of these hungry and weary Highlanders at its fore. Instead, as these stories on the road have shown, these poor peoples were burnt out of their villages by English landlords, evicted, sent either to small croft farms on the least fertile of lands, or forced to learn to fish. Most migrated to the ends of the earth.
As Pennant reflects on this bleak scene in Assynt, he ends his account with a profound attack on landlords through the form of a dream. In it, a Highland chief from two centuries earlier explains to him how ‘mighty chieftains’ became ‘rapacious landlords’, exchanging
‘the warm affections of their people for sordid trash.’
Pennant’s journey was scientific in its purpose, to document the nature he encountered. But injustices over land burned then, and have burnt through history now. Assynt remains the bleak place of Pennant. Distant news in Palestine tells of an aggressive military state deploying fear and the law to annihilate the poor of Gaza whilst the world stuffs its fingers in its ears. Injustice remains appalling, whatever the date. Historians refuse to tolerate, so why do we today?
It’s a tough route, these eleven miles in a Jurassic abyss. I’ve got Pennant, the midges and the sun, but my legs are starting to break against the pedals. Just in time, the wee village of Lochinver arrives, shielded by a thick forest. The road pours down into a thread of buildings, a pub, a restaurant, a post office and church, a coach and its tourists, and a harbour resplendent in the late evening sunset.
Outside the Culag hotel a smartly-dressed man clutches his face in sadness. I spy the harbour and see a preoccupied but cheerful man walk towards me, doing his best to suck the filter from his fag. Ian’s a warm and cheery fellow. He gestures to the bike and I tell my tale. ‘That’s wild, good on you!’ He shares his dream of kayaking around the world, smiling and laughing as he looks into his imagination and pulls out the scenes of his future freedom.
He returns to earth and looks me in the eye with heightened electricity. ‘And here?’, I ask. ‘I love the place, it’s so quiet, I come here as much as I can, three times a year.’ He directs me to the nearby Culag woods for a spot to camp, and points me to the Caberfeidh pub, ‘it’s good, run by locals’.
I venture into the strange woods, along a track that leads past a scrapyard of ruined coached into a very steep trail into a deep forest. Steep paths in the forest lead into strange grottoes of nothingness. I spy a massive wood sculpture of female fertility. There’s an orgy of midges at each point, and as I flap my hands, I spot a height that promises to be suitably remote for a tent. The midge net comes in handy as I set up camp. For the first time on my trip, I’m charmed enough by Lochinver to wild-camp early in the evening, leaving my tent behind to explore the lives of the locals.
There’s live music in the Camberfeidh tonight. A young, handsome Australian sings his heart out to a pub of drunk locals, grateful for their Saturday.
‘I’m not worth it, and you’re not worth it, and we’re not worth it, now’.
Kyle Woolard charms the audience, and the banter is quite hilarious. A cover of the ‘Bonnie Banks o’ Loch Lomond’ gets the locals in chorus, but the exchanges with one heavily pished local are worth sharing.
‘What the fuck was that last song?
‘It was a sonnet I improvised for you in another language.’
‘Can ye sing it again?’
‘Listen, let me do something right. I’ll sell you a CD of mine, it comes with a free poster…’
‘Look, I don’t give a fuck, we’re in Scotland, aright…’
As Kyle sings a cover of Daft Punk’s Get Lucky, private experiences and emotions become shared as readily as unwanted kittens as the booze ratchets up the boozer’s mental intensity.
‘There’s nothing more difficult than the relation between a man and a woman. I mean me, and your dad, and whatever. We’re all cunts. We all fuck up. You’ve just got to feel your way through it. But don’t be afraid to say you’ve fucked up. When you’re dogmatic, that’s when things fuck up … stubbornness!.’
A man too drunk to hold his hands straight dictates this to a late-teen lad bored but bound by some obligation to listen. As he continues,
‘Pride is one thing, but humility is what will win you the battle.’
The local grog comes from the Skye Brewery, fine beers, followed by finer malts, Cragganmore, Highland Park and Dalwhinnie. I’m really enjoying myself. Local lass Ashley Mackay takes to the stage and steals the hearts of everyone in this cramped pub room. Pieces of conversations with locals reveal that a local woman has died, and many here are in mourning, explaining the smart suits, handstrung faces, and air of sadness. It’s a close community here.
At the bar is a wizened-looking man with long hair and a beard, gazing at the locals and me with a very specific kind of curiosity. I recognise a fellow observer of the human race, and make conversation.
‘Lively here tonight eh?’
Greg is a story-teller and all-round adventurer, and has just moved here from Aberdeenshire, where’s he’s from. Over beers and whiskies we get talking about the local area, which he’s already in love with. I share my experiences of the northern Highlands.
‘There’s a difference between being welcomed, and being accepted. You’re being welcomed, and that’s great. These people will talk to you, invite you in, buy you a drink. But there’s a way to go with being accepted, when the locals see you as one of them. When they’ll invite you in, confide in you.’
Outside, we talk about democracy and politics, a conversation that began with Scots independence but has threaded off somewhere far more interesting. Greg gestures to a nearby tree by where my bike is parked.
‘Take a look at this tree. You see each leaf. It’s like each life has its own opinion. Together, all these leaves have their own views, disagreeing as they go. We’ve got to take a look at the tree as a whole. What does it need, what brings it together?’
He offers to let me sleep in his flat, a tempting offer, but I’m a little drunk and sleepy and after the trouble putting up my tent, I politely decline and cycle back to Culag woods where my tent is. I dive in and fall asleep, extremely pished and ecstatic. Let the midges and ticks munch. In this refuge from a grand sweeping abyss, oh Lochinver, I’ve found another mini-universe of life.