‘It reminds me of home’ – Britt, Strontian.
Home… where is home? Home this morning is in this rental car, parked on the outskirts of the eastern Highlands tourist village of Pitlochry, sat next to my younger brother, listening to country music on BBC Gael. Home is a conversation the previous evening with my wife, the intimacy of shared phrases, experiences and concerns that lovers have and know. A weekly phone call from my folks opens up a front door in my mind with a familiar carpet, a cat capering in the kitchen and the love and laughter of my immediate family. Drinks, jokes and banter in a small boozer with a gang of wizened geezers feasts the spirit with the pleasure of friends known and yet to know.
Home has no fixed location and needs no set of keys. Its security is not in alarms, fences or boundaries but in openness, generosity and just chancing it that wayward hello to a passing stranger.
As we rub our faces awake and share our yawns, a couple of locals wander by our parked car and say hi. We’ve probably been rumbled but there’s no problem here. Christy needs to get back to Fort William to start his journey home, so with a little reluctance we leave behind Pitlochry and head back east, passing through pretty Aberfeldy. The road is full of marvels. After Aberfeldy we sweep along a narrow road that presses the spectacular Loch Tay to our left, and the almighty Ben Lawers and surrounding mountain range to our right.
A curious road sign takes our fancy, and we detour north to a place called Fortingall. The thriving fields and woods display a spectrum of greens like none I’ve ever seen, of every conceivable hue. A string of cheery Victorian chalets of Swiss appearance appear and terminate at the grand Fortingall hotel, incongruous in such sleepy surrounds, and a small but impressive churchyard. A local man gazes at us as we leave the car, and shouts that he’ll open the church for us. But we’re not here for that.
A yew tree grows here that is over 5 000 years old. The Fortingall yew is a miracle of life, and a truly hidden wonder of the world. What other living creature can count this many years? It may be the oldest living thing in this world. Here it is, this strangely contorted, twisted-up yet still thriving tree. Its centre seems to have exploded into an octopus array of wayward branches, each expressing uniquely its hunger to grow, expand and thrive.
Victorians once came here to cut away its branches as souvenirs. Testimony to this casual egoism and stupidity are the disfiguring wounds still evident on the trunk. But others have come, built a wall of protection around it, and ensure it survives. This yew is a symbol of a kind of eternity, of a lived experience beyond the comprehension of any human. Each yew has a connection with the infinite: after five hundred years, when most trees have long expired, the yew begins to grow again. Many places of worship in Britain were built close to their powers. At Fortingall, this remains.
The drive after Fortingall takes us through the magnificent Loch Lomond and Trossachs national park. Ben More hangs over our left and the array of mountain and forest is stunning. North of Crianlarich, we drive through the stunning Glencoe mountains, before reaching Fort William. It’s time to return the rental car-mobile bed, and for my brother to return. I’m sad to say farewell but it’s been a wonderful trip in and across the Highlands, experiencing what we can of Scottish drinking, eating, wandering and mischief. We both agree we’ll return.
I’ve had my bicycle locked up by a pub for a couple of days. When I return I notice that the front wheel has become dangerously buckled, wobbling all over the place as it struggles along the road. In the town’s bike shop, a guy picks at the spokes. Each is loose and rattles like a penny in a teacup. His face expresses a combination of horror and a smirk. Fortunately it can be repaired, but it involves waiting for a few hours in my new office, Fort William’s Wetherspoon’s, whilst the work is done. By the time I leave Fort Bill with a fixed bike and enough provisions for a few days in the wilderness, it’s around 4pm. A fierce wind has picked up and rain is falling.
South of Fort William is a regular ferry service from Corran to Ardgour in Western Lochaber. This is one of the most remote and unspoilt parts of the western Highlands, a stretch of land flanked by Loch Linnhe to the east, the sound of Mull to the south, and the Irish sea to the west. It is untroubled by anything more than the most tenuous of human settlements.
The wee free ferry here is a local affair, run by the Highland council rather than CalMac, the firm that run most ferries here and take a fair profit in doing so. Rain quickly makes my shoes unwearable, and a hostile wind seems keen to blow me back into lovely Loch Linnhe, Scotland’s longest fjord. But the journey is just too wonderful for any kind of despair to set in.
From Ardgour the road is busy for the occasional moment with cars brought over by the ferry, but is otherwise a perfect cycle trip. Heading south from Ardgour, it passes Linnhe and majestic views of the distant Glencoe mountains to my left, and to my right, a series of increasingly verdant forests. The path winds this way and that then cuts itself across an extraordinary glen, ambling gently over undulating hills where the only other occasional living creature in sight is an eagle or deer. It’s a treeless and steep valley. One could disappear into these scapes and never be found.
Unlike say the suburbs of London or the West Midlands, much of the Scottish Highlands are still undergoing a kind of shrinking. Settlements disappeared or are disappearing. Consider Scotland’s small population and remarkable custodianship of its people and heritage (which is by no means perfect, or even that good, but by the standards of urban England, well…). In these hills in which I ride alone through, great mining works took place over the 18th and 19th centuries. The element Strontium was discovered here and Lead was mined for wars. Strontium? It was used to convert sugar from sugar beet, vital for feeding and energising industrial workforces, and later to make those cathode ray tubes in the 20th century television set function. Conditions were abysmal but a workers’ lawsuit was dismissed. Today all that remains of the mining is the village I now approach, and which it’s named after: Strontian.
From the lunar glens and their ghosts of mining folk, the road descends into Loch Sunart. Tall dense forests of Scottish pine and fir trees flank the way. Fern bushes erupt everywhere, their spindly green fronds swaying in the winds, distinguishing these hillsides from the more bleak and rockier hillsides further north towards Ullapool and Durness.
I meet a young man walking by the road, eyes dreaming at the distant hills. He’s the first person I’ve seen for some hours. He tells me that there’s good communities here, and speaks in a distinctly light, mild accent that I hear later in Strontian and further west. That all said, he’s leaving. Why? He’s going to Edinburgh for university, as ‘many do’. But, he insists, ‘I’ve got friends from my class at school, they stay here and farm’. ‘What exactly?’ ‘Sheep and cattle, you might’ve seen some’. I haven’t yet, but he directs me into the village.
Further inside, I find a local village shop selling every conceivable thing in a space a little larger than the average bathroom. Like the young fellow on the road, the old gent here struggles to hear me. Either I’m losing my voice, or years of gentle contemplation of the epic scenery here continues to preoccupy the locals with the abundant mystery of nature. ‘It’s rural’, he tells me, quiet and very nice. ‘People think it’s an island, but it’s a peninsula!’ he tells me of Ardnamurchan, with a surprising degree of sternness. I imagine a classroom with bored kids picking their noses as an impatient geography teacher drills and dictates, mist and rain spattering against the light and creaky panes.
Further up the road is the Strontian hotel and a bar full of locals relieved to be out the rain. At the bar I get talking to Britt, a retired Norwegian woman who has lived in the village for some decades. The landscape reminds her of growing up near Trondheim, with its trees and lochs that resemble fjords. Certainly by Strontian the landscape takes a kind of Norwegian turn, another unique facet of this wondrous mandala of a landscape. She’s glad to see a fellow cyclist, and tells me she’s the only other bike user in the area. With a population so small, it’s probable. She came here after meeting a man who would become her husband at Cambridge University.
‘He just looked at me and said I really like you, and – whoosh!’
He’s passed away but his disused Jaguar car remains on the drive. Our conversation drifts over topics as ranging as Stephen Hawking, the Second World War and the Shetland bus. It’s a friendly boozer. As we talk, other locals at the bar peep in with snippets of conversation. People seem to look out for each other. An older fellow near us ensures a steady supply of half pints arrive by Britt, and everyone seems gently aware and supportive of each other. It’s nice. Another guy nearby called Kevin keeps up conversation, and I could stay for some time, were it not for the rain, and that hunger for a just a little bit more of Ardnamurchan. I say my goodbyes and head out. The rain starts to take a very nasty turn.
Torrents of rain lash the bicycle frame, whilst winds against me attempt to elevate me into some kind of macabre flight. The earlier bays by Lochs Linnhe and Sunart are replaced with even denser forests of firs and stretches of fern, each froend expressing a distinctive shape and form whilst retaining a marvellous symmetry with its neighbouring leaves. The damp and moist airs gives the impression of some kind of European rainforest. Deer often block the path ahead then flee when I come close. Slugs lazily slide across the road, reasonably untroubled by any fear that the very occasional of car might squash them. I even spy an otter on the descent down into the next settlement, after some miles of delightful nothingness.
I stop at the Salen Hotel for some momentary sanctuary. Despite being covered in waterproofs the rain has crept inside my shirt and soaked me through. Tourists in the small restaurant look at this dripping wet shape of a man with sympathy and amusement. I straggle into the bar and find succour in half a pint and ten minutes under the hand-drier in the nearby loo. The owners here are English newcomers and are indistinguishable from the wealthy tourists with their boats in the nearby jetty.
One guy brought up with them makes friendly conversation at the bar. He points to the distant alabaster skies, pocked with moody clouds. ‘Wait until you can see Moidart. If you can, that means the rain’s going to stop. But there’s no predicting it.’
The bar consensus seems to be to stay here and carry on drinking. But there’s the remainder of sunlight in the sky, and more to explore. I dash back out to my bicycle and jump aboard, heading out west, further into the unknown. The rain starts to diminish after half an hour and the scenery remains beautiful: still those thick firs and ferns that sweep down into delightfully deserted bays, but the road twists back in north inland.
A steep range brings me back into abyss-like plains with stunning views of distant peaks, deer and high-flying predatorial birds. The road zigzags up a mountain range and along a protected forest. Being the only human being to witness these things at this point, and the gradual onset of a beautiful gloaming, dark blues and salmon tones fusing with patches of gold and fuschia, before falling into a dark blue that resembles the sea on a sunny morning.
Eventually these reveries are rudely interrupted by Kilchoan, a small village on the west of the Ardnamurchan peninsula. It’s becoming too dark now to reasonably go much further, so I head into the local hotel-cum-boozer for something warming. Over a rank local whisky, I stand by the bar in my bare feet, hoping the residual heat of a group of drunk locals nearby will help my shoes and socks dry. It’s a lively bar. To my right, a small group of drinkers have formed out of passing persons. They compare relatives they known on Islay. To my left, this group of boisterous drunks struggle to articulate the drinks they probably shouldn’t be having after that much taken.
‘Vodka! Vodka, and…..’
‘Coke for him, lots of coke.’
The old barman takes their orders with placid indifference. Another old feller walks in and spots a friend. They talk loudly for a while until he pulls out a harmonica and starts playing to the pub. It’s superb stuff. One of the least sober of this group, an Australian, expresses his enthusiasm in unfortunately sarcastic terms. ‘Never trust an Australian’, this old farmer and harmonica maestro replies.
I head out into the last of the rain. There’s the meagrest of light left to find a spot to camp, but I pedal along a thin track of a road north to Ardnamurchan point. After about a mile or so I’m comfortably away from any nearby human settlement. Up one steep hill is a flat plateau, suitable for a tent. I peel off my wet layers and am relieved to be dry. I pitch up, switch off and pass out.