‘Stay with life’ – Father Michael, Tongue.
Thibault and I awake in our separate quarters of this mostly-refurbished flat in Thurso. It’s an unloved town on Scotland’s northern coastline, and the end of the line of the railway route that runs from Inverness to the very end of the land. I stayed up late the previous night talking to my partner on Skype and then writing. The alarm wakes me up several hours too early, but it’s no good: time to get up.
We breakfast on bananas and shreaded wheat. Our warm host, John, pops back in from the other nearby flat he’s doing up, and conversation kicks us all awake. The morning’s subject is midges, a terrible scourge of the north western part of Scotland. Thibault tells us about one man he heard about who became so crazed from midge bites that he began to scratch away at his face and arms, inflicting terrible wounds, until he had to be sedated in hospital. I’m frightened for the days ahead, and John offers to give me a lift to a nearby fishing shop where there should be some kind of better protection beyond a trucker hat, flapping hands frenetically, and DEET cream.
Thibault boards a bus back to Inverness, off to continue his walking across as yet-unknown parts of the Scots hinterland. John and I drive through Thurso’s small town centre. There’s a prominent church and a small area around a few streets with some grubby shops, but much of Thurso is of an ugly dark-yellow/brown brick or of pebble-dash. Low-levelled narrow streets continue on an improbably long scale with ugly houses and shops. The town’s dirty appearance gives the impression of wearing beer and sand spattered sunglasses.
‘It was the allure of big money, but it didn’t last. Now things have got worse, for all of us.’ – Jim, Brora.
Journeying across this far north-eastern Scottish coastal countryside has been tough, desolate and trying. Yet the people I’ve encountered and the conversations shared have been like a rubber ring, keeping my mind focused on the pleasure of this adventure. It’s not in reaching the end, but the pleasure in the means. These conversations and journeys are starting to feel like a kind of method for travel that I hope to use after I return to London. It’s about seeking out people and their stories as much as seeking out locations and their landmarks.
One recent pleasure has been the discovery of Scottish hospitality. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve met some bloody fascinating and generous people across the border. Human nature doesn’t cease to delight me. Those that despise other human beings should try instead spending time among them. You’ll be surprised.
But there’s something that feels practised and culturally routine about the kind of warm reception I’ve had from the Scots, be it in Lowland or Highland. Outside Edinburgh and Dundee, it has been a standard experience in small towns and villages to smile at passers-by. It feels rude not to! In smaller villages, people will even shout ‘hello!’ to you as you pass.
‘Excuse me, are you from Tain?’
‘What’s it like round here?’
‘There’s bugger all. You’re better off going back to Inverness.’
– Conversation with a man outside Asda, Tain.
Ah, Inverness. You once seemed like the very definition of distance, a remote town that I associated in my mind with a 5pm curfew and snowfall in June. As ever, travel rubs away the ignorant patina that comes with a parochialism I never suspected I had, but no doubt harboured. Visit Inverness? Yes, because it’s not too bad a place.
I awake in the best hostel by far of this trip. The Inverness student hotel is cheap, cosy, and very friendly, and for a mere two quid I get a giant’s breakfast of juice, home made scones, piles of toast and bowls of cereal. There’s free coffee, tea and wi-fi! Sat in the main area, conversation casually flickers between whoever you happen to be sat next to. Young and old people sit about from across the world. I feel like I’m fifteen again, on the threshold of discovering so many different parallel lives, each alive with energy and adventure. It’s dizzying and exciting.
‘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.