‘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.
‘The most terrible creature on this planet? It’s the human. We destroy everything… closely followed by the midge, and the tick!’ – Greg, Lochinver.
I awake with a fierce hangover on a shrubby hillock in the heart of Culag woods, a small but dense forest overlooking the fishing village of Lochinver. The beer, whisky and good times made sleeping easy, but the surface around me is uneven and boggy. Some strange little insect has lodged itself in my arm and with some difficulty I manage to squeeze it out. I’ll quickly become accustomed to these nasty critters. My socks and much of the tent are soaked through, and a pair of damp and whiffy socks are unhappily thrown away as tribute to the rain gods.
It’s a Sunday morning and the overnight rain seems to have cleared. Being dependent on tourism and fishermen, Lochinver actually has a shop and tourist office open, with a little museum at the back. There’s nothing about the wretched people of Assynt that Pennant saw, but the collection completes the pieces of a familiar puzzle. After Culloden, the local MacLeod chiefs had their obligations to their clans removed. Like other highlanders, they took well to making money from their lands, and gradually adopted a London-based lifestyle of the rich, spending the income of their estates in coffee houses and card tables. Debts lost them the land to the enterprising Duke of Sutherland. Over the early 19th century local farmers were burnt out and cleared to make room for sheep farming. Economic profit continued to trump traditions and human lives.
Lochinver was built in 1812 as a fishing port for these evicted farmers, and over the following nine years the surrounding area – that Jurassic wilderness I passed through yesterday – saw burnings and evictions. There were riots in nearby Inchnadamph against the collusion of the local church with the lairds, but most people were forced by starvation to move to Canada, Australia and elsewhere. By the 1870s the price of wool collapsed, and greedy lairds faced financial ruin, until Queen Victoria turned the Highlands and hunting into an English aristocratic retreat. Whilst the rich came to holiday, those locals who managed to eke out a living through croft-farming or fishing struggled to survive. It was a bleak place. Some organised deer raids against the rich, driving away toffs and their game to preserve ‘the land of Assynt to the people of Assynt.’
‘I’ve been skiving for like, the whole week!’ Young teen to older brother, Tollcross, Edinburgh.
Every part of me had started to ache: knees, legs, heart and head. I needed a few days rest with my partner in some cosy, lovely and friendly town, surrounded by wonderfully sunny weather and friends old and new. Edinburgh has therefore been a gentle delight.
It’s also a city of contrasts. Its historic Georgian town centre just about conceals large and troubling social problems cast out to the suburbs. Its confidence in displaying its own past is undermined by an uncertainty about its future. And for a town that some remark as being the ‘most English’ Scottish town – on account of its seeming gentility perhaps? I’m not sure – the built scenery often reminded me of a Scandinavian or German town, pleasant if somewhat sterile. I’ll try to relay what I’ve found, and I encounter visions of its past and future quite at odds with each other.