Days 56-57: Highlands by hire car

‘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?

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Day 39: Grantown-on-Spey to Inverness

‘It’s a crazy place, but in a good way…’ – Jackie, Forres.

The rain awakes me, pattering against the thin sheets of this tent perched on some nameless Highland hill. Little droplets form on the tent’s exterior, each one unique in outline, existing for a few moments, then rolling away.

It’s colder today, overcast and damp like an early winter morning. I listen for some time to the chirruping, whooping and cawing of the birds. The forest around me is densely packed with spindly tall trees, some rotten, some sporting a floral blue moss. This is wilder living, and now involves some wild toileting. As I take my trowel and bog roll to a more remote part of the woods, I spot the flight of a buzzard rising up through the trees.

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Day 38: Ballater to Grantown-on-Spey

‘People ask me, “what do you do for a living?”
And I say, “As little as possible if I can help it”.’ – Gerard, Corgarff,

Life and I are getting wilder and weirder by the day.

I am to all intents and purposes in the middle of nowhere, immersed in a landscape I have never experienced before, one of rich, verdant forests, the steepest of mountain crags, and little living except birds and vegetation. In other words, everything. I am tumbling through towns with no preparation, guided by the road and the conversation of people in streets, pubs, chippies and other passing places. Camping now feels less like a desperate second best and instead the proper way of experiencing the terrain, sleeping among it, smelling it, being disturbed and thrilled by it.

And the dawns…! I’ve known nothing like it. Everything feels so far removed from those codes of common life I left behind in London. Work, work, and… work. There’s no value in those codes here. A few times now I’ve heard older people speak derogatively about ‘having a piece of paper’. The paper qualifications like those I’ve got might help procure a stressful and insecure job in the lower rungs of the professions where burnout and breakdown are as common workplace injuries as lower back pain or carpal tunnel syndrome are for labourers.

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Day 37: Stonehaven to Ballater

‘I think things are changing, where it won’t be normal for people to lock themselves in their little homes, with their TVs, all alone. People need each other.’ – Joe, Banchory.

For the first time in my life, this morning, I watched the dawn break out and filter through the trees. Its gentle golden light streaked across the fern leaves surrounding me, and permeated the tent with a rich and uncanny glow.

It’s also the first time I can remember going to sleep without setting an alarm. Since the age of 11 I’ve adhered to the harsh disciplinary regime of the all-too-early wake-up tocsin. Before that my mum would wake me up for school. The terror of 07:00 on the alarm, the anxiety of worrying you won’t drop off, and over-thinking the moment where consciousness becomes sleep. Or the misery of waking from a great dream half an hour before you must get up, sorely interrupted. How I hate the tyranny of these clocks!

At first I’m worried – will I sleep all day and get disturbed by a local farmer? No no. Instead I discover that I sleep in occasional bursts, as many of us do. It’s the dawn that wakes me at around 4am. I have another snooze and then rise as the sun gets warmer around 8, I think.

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