‘I might go home. Nah, I’m not sure.’ – Pissed man in Aulay’s bar, Oban. His accent becomes increasingly foggy in correlation with pints of Tennents’ lager consumed.
I awake on a grassy plain beneath a sloping hill, hiding me and my tent from a nearby farmhouse and its insistent signs not to camp on this pretty spot. Stubbornly and stupidly I have refused, and my reward is a delightful beach, and a constitutional stroll among a small herd of goats and sheep preoccupied with their Sisyphean task of keeping the grass short. It’s a sunny morning, and the fresh dawn light skitters a gold veil over the surrounding grassland.
Time to pack up and jump aboard my transportation device. I am leaving Iona happy with a heart relieved of its concerns, and a mind refreshed and ready for future misadventures. Passing the pretty abbey and the surrounding village, the conviction grips me that I’ll see this place again, some sunny day. It’s a happy-melancholy feeling, sad to be leaving such a tranquil place and the state of mind achieved within it, but energised and yearning to reach home, albeit along the most scenic and strange route available.
Callum spots me by the harbour as I sit and ponder. He’s setting off to explore the hills behind the village for the day. His conversation betrays a mind that deeply ponders the details of things, prevaricating and deliberating before reaching the wisest of all decisions, ten minutes too late. Whether it’s an effect of the oh-so-slowed time of Iona, or a geologist’s appreciation that matter takes millions of years to form, I can’t gather.
Two local ferry-men about to set off on a trip to Staffa spot me waiting with the bike and invite me into their boat for a quick lift back to Fionnophort. They take care to bring the bike over, and help me with the bags at the other end. The early middle-aged gent has a very light Scots accent characteristic of Ardnamurchan and, I realise, Mull and Iona too. With another man by the jetty, talk turns to the local ceilidh in Iona last night. ‘You know I don’t go out much these days’, he says happily. Many of the local men here were brought up around music, particularly the pipes. I picture a cottage alive with the shouts of young sons, wahooing loudly into a set of bagpipes found in a cobwebbed attic and shrieking with laughter.
‘When in some future time I shall sit in a madly crowded assembly with music and dancing round me, and the wish arises to retire into the loneliest loneliness, I shall think of Iona.’
The road exiting Fionnophort is buffeted by a rough wind against me, whilst the skies weigh up whether to pour with rain right now, or in several hours. For all that, I leave Iona energised. Felix Mendelssohn’s words play in the key of this mood. Alone and improbably, I’ve discovered a place of inner peace I can summon to mind whenever despair requires.
Travelling alone, difficult experiences will force into being this inner fortitude – it’s either that or give up. Let stubbornness prevent that second option from even being broadcast! From the food eaten to the stamina summoned on some kneecapping mountain, there’s no-one around to suggest what’s best except oneself.
I wish I’d discovered this earlier. I’ve known stress and the blues, belief in one’s own capability diminished or extinguished altogether. I’d like to take some craft into space and through the mysteries of rocket propulsion, spin myself back in time a few years and return with a simple enough instruction to my younger self:
See that bike and that tent? Grab them. See that work phone, laptop and that histrionic boss? Ignore all that, leave them behind. You won’t need a map. Pick a direction on the compass and just go. For a few days, a week, no more. You’ll return renewed and ready.
The journey back through Bunessen and Carsaig takes around twice as long as that maniac pedal the previous morning, but some inspiration’s at work, and I find myself talking and singing aloud to myself on the empty road.
Mull is always changing. The barren fields and craggy sporadic rocks that surround Fionnophort give way to more undulating and fertile plains a little before Bunessen, a dozy hamlet that flowers within the fissure of a deep and lovely bay. The trail then swings back – UP! – into a rolling bouncing up up and down through cleared woods, then transforms again. We’re bordered left by Loch Scridain, a sleepy and flat expanse of water too ancient and modest for the dramatics of deep fir forests and plesiosaur sightings that surround your average breathtakingly beautiful Highlands loch. Then it’s Pennyghael and its flattened plains eerily depopulated for such a majestic spot. At least I pass the point beyond my meanderings yesterday, heading further east now towards Craignure, Mull’s only other ferry port. The road then cuts through a long mountain range overseen by kingly Ben More. Clouds of flying ants begin to stick to the sweat on my shirt, legs and lips. Puh, puh, PUH!
The weather’s turning against me. A bracing breeze is ratcheting up into a nasty headwind, whilst the relatively flat road starts to pull diagonally upwards into the clouds. Panic starts to set in. These ants won’t get off me. Forgotten aches start to reappear with the inopportuneness of noisy neighbours during a family gathering. Caught between Pennyghael and Craignure on an empty single-track road, there’s suddenly something quite alarming about being in the middle of nowhere. Fuck…
The body is an easier beast to manage than the mind. Feed and water it sufficiently, ensure a minimum of sleep and don’t abuse it too heavily with booze, and it should tick over. The mind however is less protected from the weather of its moods. Moments of blind panic do hit one on a lonesome road on occasion, and the mind needs a gentle massage back to life. Thoughts of home help, of happy times with my partner. But with mental overexertion, more often expressed in nights of turbulent dreams, one must slow this wayward train of thoughts and feelings down. Just do what you can. Those unlikely consequences you’re worrying over, come back to them when they happen. Slow down. What’s in the horizon? Focusing on the features of the immediate landscapes soon dissolves the classic measurements of time. It is no longer something that passes but which unfurls, a motion that reveals at the speed of lived experience. The more sensory and imaginary stimulation it receives, the speedier it passes.
After what may well be hours, but which feel like mere minutes, I’m thrilled when the mountains around Ben More give way to thriving woodlands, where hefty dragonflies flutter and buzz across my path. Swallows zip and twirl in the space above me. I pass Duart castle, ancestral home of the local Clan MacLean, and ride into Craignure, a string of small businesses besides a busy jetty.
There’s not much to Craignure, and it lacks the charm of Tobermory, Salen or Fionnophort. It boasts perhaps the most overpriced convenience store in the UK, and a couple of pubs and cafes. In MacGregor’s I get a half of well-kept Guinness and catch up with the voicemails and missed calls accumulated from a week without phone reception. Why phone companies don’t introduce a roaming service in the Highlands – or aren’t just nationalised into one single and not-for-profit public phone network – remains puzzling.
I take a ferry over to Oban, a small harbour town on the Scottish mainland. Aside from Fort William, Oban’s the first settlement of any real size and extent whatsoever, and there’s something thrilling about arriving. I’m wide-eyed again, a country bumpkin travelling to the Big City! There’s a choice of supermarkets, over five pubs, local council services and dual carriageways! People on Mull had already told me, with a degree of mock-tragic self-deprecation, that Oban was just too big for them. Again, by south London proportions the place would fit three times over within Streatham or West Croydon but, oh, the pubs and supermarkets!
Like all the Scottish towns I’ve encountered, Oban’s growth seems to have been carefully supervised. It has a promenade of shops and pubs that face the sea which are dignified, well-aged yet still carrying a kind of joviality, like someone who believes themselves to be seventy or eighty years young. I like it. The backstreets bunch up nicely, and pretty Argyll square and its mad traffic gives way to a web of residential streets with shops tipping their ends. A couple of wizened old Oban fellers chat to me in the street about my bicycle. Neither of us can quite understand each other, but they direct me to a fine local hostelry where quality beers may be consumed in a convivial atmosphere, and slap my back with a friendly if overdramatic pelt.
Hasten Auley’s Bar, a brilliant locals boozer where the football’s interrupted by the beer-soaked inanities, profundities and obscenities of a gang of heavily-refreshed old men propping up the bar. I gulp down a large glass of Harviestoun’s Schiehallion lager and follow it with a cup of Bitter & Twisted. I spend around an hour here, soaking up the conversation, chatting a little myself and writing. It’s a lively and friendly place, and I’d gladly stay. But I’ve got an itch. Yep, it’s that itch. The locals warn me against moving, predicting storms and the mother of all monsoons ahead. But like a wet-eared fool I brush them off. It’s still early evening, and that wanderlust won’t weaken.
For a second time today, fuck…
There’d been the most feeble of downpours earlier when I’d disembarked the ferry, but it seemed weary and without heart, like a high court judge sentencing another member of the establishment to the mildest of custodial sentences after some horrific misdemeanour. ‘Ever so sorry, old boy…’ But upon leaving Auley’s, the scene has changed entirely. The floods are so bad that I imagine some modern-day Noah locking up his chip shop and attempting to bundle the contents of the local zoo into a stolen pedalo.
Being the most ridiculously optimistic traveller, I decide that a pack of wagon wheels will be sufficient to sustain a journey vaguely south. I get directions to Inveraray, about forty miles away, and through dogged determination decide to aim for that. Oh the fool that I am…
What does rain look like? Not much, though it’s also pretty hard to examine when the wind’s hailing it in your face along a flooded A-road east out of Oban. To be honest I can’t quite see the rain, or much else in fact, though I’m pretty certain it’s raining, as my shoes are waterlogged and I cannot feel my toes. The occasional car that passes sprays a three-foot arc of water my way. Poke your tongue out and lo, a free refreshing drink! In situations like this you’ve got to laugh, and joke, and sing, and whatever.
It’s too wet to take any photographs of the passing scenery, though it’s no great loss. Out of Oban, the road threads north, passing through some woods by Pennyfuir, through the village of Dunbeg, and by the sleek lines of Connel Bridge. It then threads east through gentle country plains and woods. Taynuilt is the only settlement I recall passing. After that it’s just road. Road flanked by forests, road flanked by lochs, but road. Not road like Mull or Ardnamurchan, but a consistent, sturdy and utterly dull road that points into a dot on the edge of the horizon.
I make an awful pact with myself not to stop, which has me cycling without stasis for around four hours in a torrential downpour as consistent as this roadly road-like road. I pass under Ben Cruachan, a large mountain with a power station tunnelled inside that flows out into a hydro-electric dam. But it’s too wet, late and misty to make much of it, so I carry on. Loch Awe does look extraordinary in these mists, the alabaster skies ready to collapse into the ripples of their reflection, and my road parallels it, twisting south for Inveraray.
Thereafter it’s a long and lonely ride through thick woodlands. The rain begins to slacken, but the consistency of the scenery makes it hard to determine just how far I’ve travelled. To people my solitude, I use Mendelssohn’s Hebrides as a melodic base to compose lullabies about chip shops. For around fifteen or twenty miles I pass nothing except trees. I’m therefore pretty surprised when the road gives in and in the distance I see a large and tatty hotel and, beyond, a large grey wall of empty space. Welcome to Inveraray.
It’s a weird place. The seafront is very shabby, a hotel flanked by an attempt to attract tourists to a nearby castle. A funfair sits half-packed up by the desolate promenade, its bright colours and obvious disuse seeming to implicate the residents of the place in some kind of dark crime.
But… a chip shop is open! I pour the rain out of the crannies of my waterproofs and devour a large cone of the good stuff. Two young people work there. Unfortunately for them they are manna to me after my hours in the monsoons, and I hustle conversation out of them like a Hamleys toy assistant flogging tat to the tourists on some manic Saturday afternoon. The guy behind the counter says, predictably enough, that it’s a very quiet town, but tells me of its transport links to Glasgow. He thinks that there isn’t much about the place, ‘it’s deflated’, but I can’t get a clear reason of how he’s ended up here, and I suspect he doesn’t have one either.
They point me to the George hotel for a drink. As I pack up my bike and pull out some dry clothes, some bored but innocuous teens lurk and gossip in the staircase of a nearby church. Inside I find a warm and lively local. I get a half and treat myself to some Lagavulin whisky, and change into some dry clothes. Sensation is beginning to return to my legs. All I need now is the solitude of my thoughts, a chinwag with a few locals, a dram for the road and a dry tent for the night.
Alas, two European backpackers spy me at the bar and hook onto me, and begin to ask about my travels and life. I’m not in the mood, but feel obliged to respond out of politeness, as in the way Scots have responded to me. But they’re a little immature whilst at the same time being oddly overly considerate to check my opinions on one thing or another. I’m lulled into one ethical debate after another, arguing against the hostile remarks they make about religion being merely a thing of fear, to trying to explain why Aleister Crowley’s ‘do as thou wilt shall be the whole of the law’ does lead to abuses and actions without consent. But my word, I just want this whisky and some peace!
Time disappears. I manage to make sufficient excuses to enable myself to leave, but it’s now too dark to see. This torrential rain has achieved a nirvana state of deluge intensity. I struggle to cycle out of eerie Inveraray along the main road to Glasgow but I just cannot make out a thing. Cars are also struggling to navigate the narrow road in the torrential rain and it soon becomes far too dangerous to proceed further. I pass a cemetery and am tempted to stop, but the night is already too bleak and spooky to chance it.
Further ahead, I think I make out a patch of flat grassland. It looks like it could be the driveway to a large stately home, but I have been annihilated by this rain and cannot go on. But nor can I turn back. Oban is too far behind, and the stretch of loch-side road that separates us too dangerous to navigate.
I fail to get the tent up right – most of the grass gives way to a layer of paving underneath, and the tent has nothing to stick to. In the struggle to put the thing up in the pitch-black night, my clothes bag falls into something damp and every item of clothing gets soaked through. I manage to get the tent up without letting too much rain, but the amount collected on my clothes and sleeping mat quickly fills the interior with about an inch of rain water.
This is, without a moment’s hesitation, the worst conditions I have ever slept in. My home is a picture of misery, little more than a large puddle under a waterproof cover. Let it be said, it takes me a very long time to fall asleep. What happens next is, if you can twist your imagination just a little bit further, even worse…