In which the writer, a friend and their assorted offspring go on a road trip to the isolated Applecross peninsular. (See also: Roaming in Applecross)
The omens were good and so was the forecast. HFB was salivating at the prospects of this trip. The suggestion had barely been made and he was already seeing those brooding peaks circled by birds of prey, he was checking his flasks to fill with Scotland’s finest and dreaming of vast empty spaces marked on the map only by incomprehensible Gaelic names. Suggest a campsite, a pub and the great Caledonian outdoors and Mr Scotland is mentally packing his stuff and buying new kit before the sentence is finished. Kit that I never knew I needed until I see him use it. Even better, and surprisingly, he has never been to Applecross so for this Gaelic revolutionary it’s going to be another part of the map bednotched and staked out, another piece of the code cracked to bring about the Glorious and Happy People’s Republic of Alba.
Granted Applecross sounded suspiciously anglicised, something more akin to the cider country of the heathen and indeed its name is an anglicisation of the Pictish name Aporcrosan, ‘confluence of the [river] Crossan’. But a quick Google search reassuringly reveals that the peninsula is also known by its Gaelic name, A’ Chomraich (the sanctuary).
Applecross was one of the earliest and most important Christian settlements in Scotland with a Celtic Christian monastery founded in 673 AD by the Irish monk St Maelrubha. Few traces of this early Christian age remain though St Maelrubha’s influence echoes down the ages in place names and stories. He used nearby Loch Maree as a place of pilgrimage for those afflicted with mental illness. Centuries later in 1772 it was reported that sufferers were forced to sip holy water from a well, and were then dunked into the cold loch waters three times a day, for three weeks. By 1838 this individual approach to curing mental illness had become refined to a mass process of dragging sufferers round the island on a rope behind a rowing boat.
I knew nothing about Applecross’s history when years ago I developed a restless urge to visit the area. It looked like a serious journey to a remote peninsula, five and half hours drive along narrow, difficult roads forced to kowtow and shuffle around some of the wildest and grandest Highland scenery on the west coast. There’s also the Bealach nam Bo, Pass of the Cattle, the UK’s highest road pass and a typically modest British answer to Bolivia or Georgia’s death roads. The Bealach nam Bo is of course a piece of cake compared to those roads but it does require nerve and experience to negotiate its hairpin bends. The pass is frequently closed during the winter further sealing Applecross’s isolation and leaving only the coast road, which was not completed till 1975, or the sea for access.
What piqued my interest was far more shallow, someone recommended the Applecross Inn and said it was excellent for local seafood. So why not drive for nearly six hours for a pint and a pub meal? Applecross and the Torridon mountains became evocative names, somewhere north and way beyond the hinterland of the central belt, where the road is a fragile ribbon of civilisation, where munros, hard winters and wilderness rule and where in the old days there were few ways to eke out an existence other than crofting and fishing.
But as we left Glasgow in the gathering gloom of an autumn evening we first had to break the journey and wild camp on Rannoch Moor.
On Rannoch Moor: “A wearier looking desert a man never saw”
Rannoch Moor is a wild, desolate and bleak wilderness made-up of blanket bog, rocky outcrops, lochans and rivers. Its other-worldly landscape excites strange and haunting passions, it is feared, despised and loved in equal measure.
One day an colleague of HFB sidled up to him, furtively looked around to make sure no-one was looking and dropped a large piece of paper on his desk. It turned out to be a hand-drawn map detailing how and where you can swim across the moor. This is forbidden sacred knowledge amongst the moor’s secret disciples, the cells in a movement undercover and counter to Roger Deakin’s Waterlog territory. All records, all stories are strictly hand-written, out of the archives and off the net. HFB was considered a potential acolyte yet something spooked him about this map – it hummed with dark sacrifice for this knowledge, the lost souls still out there drawing their own invisible map of exactly where you can’t swim on the moor, their bodies floating suspended in 20 feet deep peat bog coffins waiting to drag down those foolish or reckless enough to stray from the path.
Rannoch Moor is given a brief mention in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped, in which a young man is kidnapped, shipwrecked off Mull and then makes his circuitous way back to Edinburgh. Stevenson enthusiasts have pinned down an imprecise unmarked wilderness walk that, like in the book, is deliberately vague, invented by imagination and distorted by plot.
Rannoch Moor, or more precisely Corrour train station, also provides background to the “it’s shite being Scottish” scene in the seminal film Trainspotting. The gang accidentally find themselves on Rannoch Moor in “search of fresh air”. The scene briefly echoes Withnail and I (“We’ve gone to Rannoch Moor for fresh air by mistake. Are you the train driver? Stop saying that. Of course he’s the fucking train driver”) before it takes an erudite and pithy view of the Anglo-Scottish relationship. Every line in Renton’s rant about servile, miserable Scottish trash being colonised by effete English arseholes is superb writing and great delivery. Danny Boyle lets the brooding, featureless moor and grey skies seep into the frame and Renton’s eyes, a city rat let loose on the great mythical outdoors that underpins the Scot’s proud psyche. For many Scots though their reaction is more akin to Spud’s plaintive plea: “this is not natural man”. Renton’s eyes can see only see the endless moor and a nothing, after his rant he takes an expressive swig out of a bottle that suspiciously looks like it contains vodka rather than the national water of life. There is no train back for a long time and the station is an insubstantial mirage of civilisation.
Once while walking along the West Highland Way part of Rannoch Moor I passed a family who were just coming over the brow of the hill and onto the moor. An hour later the mother was airlifted off the hour in sparkling sunshine and blue skies. Later in the pub I heard that she had no water and was suffering from dehydration. I reckoned she took a long deep look into the wilderness, panicked, muttered no bloody chance, discretely emptied her water bottle and informed her husband he was to call emergency services to airlift her out. The only times I have been on Rannoch Moor it has been glorious sunshine, so I subsequently feel cheated of being battered by the kind of bad weather that scrubs your soul and allows you to sink wet, cold and battered into the warming, charms of the King House Hotel.
The King House Hotel, one of Scotland’s oldest licensed inns, offers a warm welcome, woodburners, ales, malts, a large meal for the kind of appetite only a tramp through the unnatural outdoors can stoke. It is a welcome sight after walking Rannoch Moor although the moor extends its grip for a while yet, releasing you only slowly as the inn slowly and torturously draws toward you, every step by now sore and exhausted.
It was first used as a barracks for George III’s troops looking for Bonnie Prince Charlie after the Battle of Culloden (1745). Dorothy Wordsworth wrote in 1803 that it was a miserable wretched place: “long rooms with ranges of beds, no other furniture except benches, or perhaps one or two crazy chairs, the floors far dirtier than an ordinary house could be if it were never washed. With length of time the fire was kindled and after another hour of waiting, supper came, a shoulder of mutton so hard that it was impossible to chew the little flesh that might have been scraped off the bones.”
It has much improved since and its atmosphere enriched by its passing trade over the years: once cattle drovers and labourers, now walkers, climbers and wildlife enthusiasts. However, its hospitality a curse and a blessing for labourers using it as a last port call on their way via the Devil’s Staircase to building the Black Water Reservoir at the turn of the 20th century. Many who indulged too much in drink but did not shelter died on the hills, lost and exposed to cruel, remorseless turns of the weather.
The scent of burning wood and the lights of the inn are cosy and inviting but we are having none of that. We pitch our tents in the dark trying to avoid the worst of the bogs. This is not a good time to remember that my splitting tent poles were supposed to be replaced and are on the verge of snapping beyond use. The occasional car passing by on the A9 deceives you into thinking we are somewhere when really we are 1,000 feet above sea level in the middle of nowhere. As the temperatures drop to freezing we empty our rucksacks and then proceed to put on every single item of clothing we’ve got – scarves, hats, hoodies, trousers, jumpers, the works.
In my tent the children and I bunch-up close as the middle of nowhere and the looming shrouded hills press all around. This was going to be a cold night.
Snow on Rannoch Moor