‘You go home, put on the TV, put your feet up, make some dinner, go to bed, wake up, and then you die!’ – Jeff, Douglas.
I awake on Sonya’s sofa in the west end of Morecambe. The morning sun bursts between and beneath the sitting room curtains, distributing a calm and cheery aura about the place. With Sonya’s early-teenage son Zack, a sharp-witted and funny companion in our conversations, we head out into Morecambe for a spot of breakfast. As we pass along the sea-front, Sonya points to where fairs, swimming pools and other proud mainstays of the Morecambe resort once stood. Unlike Scarborough, there’s no conspicuous absence of these glories. The strange thing about Morecambe is that after spending time here, it seems unlikely that there ever was an overextended and wildly ambitious resort here, for good, or for ill.
Bye bye happiness, hello loneliness, I think I’m gonna cry…
‘Nothing is assured’ – Sonya, Morecambe.
Mid-morning, and the rain’s falling hard on my tent. Its light and rhythmic percussion wraps into my dozes like a thousand tiny mallets pattering against a vale of cotton wool. Droplets condense and form on the inside, and drip drop drip down onto my sleeping bag. In the course of the night, the lower half of the tent has flooded and most of my stuff is soaked through. My feet are freezing, but most of me’s unscathed. For around an hour I sit inside that tent, listening to the rain, wondering when it will take a pause.
At last, a break in the showers. I dash out into the nearby forest to find a discreet spot for my ablutions, then return to pack up. The rain’s still paused – great! I combine desperation with opportunity and attack my bike’s rear gears with a screwdriver. Eventually some combination of twists and fiddles has the vehicle moving as it should again. I celebrate with a few bowls of granola and just the most wonderful view of Lake Thirlmere. Mists hover above in thick tufts, their reflections on the water’s surface giving the impression of the imminent collapse of the heavens.
‘Once you’re wet, there’s nowt you can do.’
‘Yeah, you might as well just get wet.’
‘You might as well go out, get wet, stay out for the day, then go in.’
– Punters in The Bush, Cockermouth, dispensing Zen weather advice.
Perhaps sleeping in parks isn’t so bad after all. I’ve managed to get eight hours sleep for the first time in too long, and I’ve not been disturbed by any passing policeman or local dog-walker. Indeed the small green is quiet when I get up, and I pack up my tent and belongings before another soul strolls by this way.
The morning is dry and relatively warm for a change. Feeling enthusiastic, I drift back through Gretna and towards the border. There’s a huge ‘outlet village’ at a roundabout directing traffic to and from Scotland, boasting its slightly higher-end mass high street chains on offer. Golf shops, American clothing brands, Costa coffee, luxury kitchenware and the like. Despite almost everything being closed, the car park is relatively full, and the mock-high street inside has a surprisingly large number of people strolling aimlessly up and down, content to be just near the retail gods.
‘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.
‘To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.’
– Mary, reciting William Blake’s ‘Auguries of Innocence’, Carsaig.
Stillness… peace. The tide laps against the jetty of Carsaig pier on the southern tip of Mull. It’s an untroubled morning, and a gentle breeze carries the sighs of the seas into earshot. I’m camped just by an old Victorian boathouse with the words ‘virtue mine honour’, the motto of the local Clan MacLean.
In the distance, a smart little sailboat bobs about untended. I’ve allowed myself to sleep in, and the only other tent on this remote pier-side stretch of grass and rock has disappeared. I have this wondrous place all to myself.
I pack up with the luxury of slowness and start to cycle back up the steep and narrow track. It’s excruciating work, a near vertical ascent across the most rough and basic of roads, and my heart feels like it might burst under the strain. Eventually I reach halfway up the hill, catching my breath by a most improbably-placed telephone box beside a raging waterfall. Quite defeated, I decide to call in to a little cottage by the impressive-looking Carsaig House.
‘Time, it doesn’t matter’ – Bill, the ex-lighthouse keeper, Ardnamurchan Point.
In a remote and rainswept tent, on a most remote and windswept peninsula, I awake after a night of strange and intense dreams. A combination of oscillating emotions, fatigue, and heavy intake of cheddar has shaken up my psyche.
I’m surrounded by ferns, their delicate fronds flickering in the morning’s easy breeze, but little else: a farmhouse in the far distance, a telegraph pole behind me, and the slither of a road ahead. I pack up and follow the single-track trail I’ve slept nearby, somewhere between Kilchoan and the very end of the mainland, a place called Ardnamurchan Point. It’s a bumpy track that passes the occasional field of sheep but otherwise rocks along an ancient landscape, unspoilt by KFC drive-throughs or Argos distribution centres. Occasionally some rallying bit of graffiti appears on the broken road: ‘nearly there!’ ‘go go go!’, remnants of some fun-run once? Otherwise the landscape is wild yet peaceful, a pleasure to rove up and down in the gentle and dry morning.
The narrow road eventually reaches its an end at the foot of a lighthouse and a traffic light, one that feels almost like a sarcastic joke in this most remote and undisturbed of places. It ensures that in the extremely rare event of two vehicles attempting to pass each other on the bridge to the building, no accident ensues. Well, caution is the aim here. Ardnamurchan Point is the most westerly point of the British mainland, and a small visitor centre by the lighthouse makes the most of this fact. Inside, a local girl from nearby Kilchoan sells me a ticket of admission and tells me of her enjoyment of life here. Her accent is sweet, soft and light, much milder than those one hears elsewhere in the Highlands.
‘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.
‘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.