‘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.
‘Life doesn’t give you a user manual’ – Christy, Fort William.
Christy and I awake refreshed in our chintzy bed and breakfast on the shores of Fort William. The hotel’s a dive, and we’re both restless to escape out of the town in some way. But with a sprained ankle, Christy’s not able to ride any bicycle. Walking will only get us so far, and we’ve drunkenly lost ourselves in the wilds of Glen Nevis a previous night. The rain is still insisting on its responsibility to soak we weary humans to the skin, and fierce winds are affecting nearby boats.
Over a Scotch breakfast (like a full English, but with potato scones, black pudding and Irn Bru…) we decide to hire a car. It’s the one way of leaving the town and exploring and, besides, it can cheekily double-up as a cheap place to sleep. With that plan, we phone around til we find a cheap enough car on the outskirts of Fort Bill. It’s strangely exciting. Forget those steep mountains and hills, forget the bloody awful weather… none of these can restrict our striving to explore these landscapes. With the most basic of plans to head north, we decide to get lost on a spectacular level, to find and immerse ourselves in some rocky and remote wilderness. With provisions packed, we head out onto the open road.
Whoosh! It’s a brand new car and my driver handles it with some speed. It takes getting used to. Twenty miles, the subject of two to three hours’ meditative cycling and day-dreaming, expires in equivalent minutes. But it’s an opportunity to test how these landscapes feel at different speeds. Much of the north-west Highlands seemed like it would be as beautiful in a car. There’s a vicarious pleasure in reading about another’s travails and toils breaking their bicycles up the steepest of hills and most remote of midgey crannies. Surely in a car it’ll be much easier?
‘It’s like a circus up there’ – man in tourist office, Fort William.
There’s far worse places to wake up hungover and aching than the foot of Ben Nevis. Intuition guided me to a good spot behind a large fug of ferns on a Glen Nevis back road. Rain is gently falling, horizontally as well as vertically it would seem, and a thick mist hangs over the head and dampens the ears. It’s no day for scaling peaks, but in the distance I hear groups of men in the distance visitor car-park psych themselves up with Maori-style chanting. I picture David Brent leading them on, clapping and leering.
I head into Fort Bill in anticipation of a special event. The Queen’s Baton relay will be passing through here, aye, on its long and meandering way to Glasgow, but it’s not that. My younger brother’s decided to come up here on a bit of a whim and see me for four days. He’s about to turn twenty six, and feels the need to leave the capital, even just for a few days.
‘You know what I’d wish for right now? A fifty pound note on the floor.’ – Group of teens, ascending Nevis.
I’d vowed to give myself a day off the bicycle, come what may. Scaling Britain’s highest mountain then may not seem like a choice destination for gentle perambulation, but I awake excited and apprehensive.
Ben, my Swiss cycling companion found along the road to Fort William, awakes nearby and together we scour a map. He’s unsure of his next destination, ‘somewhere to the west, I think. Or maybe south!’ I’m pleased just to be able to see a map. Following roads and local directions has left me with a different cartographic take on the terrain. Five miles of steep hills and sweeping views constitute more space in my mind than thirty miles on a flat and dull track. The Hebridean islands I’ve travelled seem so close to each other now, and it’s remarkable how different the landscapes and seas appear on each one. Months could be spent exploring them. One might still be no closer to making sense of their captivating mystery and tranquillity.
Glen Nevis is the flat valley that sits beneath the mountain, lush with forests and streams. We’d camped just by a picnic area along one walking path. Leaving Ben, I follow the road further into the Glen, towards another small forest with a – groan – Braveheart car park, and a little ahead, beyond the caravan parks and car parks, a tourist visitor centre.
‘I think things are much more fragile than they seem. Poke at the right hole, and the whole thing could come falling down.’ – Ewan, Isle of Eigg.
I awake a little late in cheery Mallaig, a harbour town on the Scottish mainland. Disconcertingly, the sun is out already. Contrary to local wisdom, perhaps Scotland does have a summer?
It’s not long before I’m back in Mallaig harbour, boarding a small vessel with my bike that takes the twice-weekly journey to the isle of Eigg. This peculiar and remote island has a small community that was one of the first to buy back its own land. In the case of Eigg (pronounced egg), this was through a protracted struggle against an obnoxious and inconsiderate landowner Keith Schellenberg. The story of the island’s struggle has been shared with me in various pub conversations on the way, and I’ve found out more through Alastair McIntosh’s excellent book Soil and Soul: People versus Corporate Power, a potent and inspiring book about community and the possibility of political change.