In which the writer, a friend and their assorted offspring continue their road trip to the isolated Applecross peninsular. (See also: On the road to Applecross: Rannoch Moor)
The pit stop of Fort William has long gone from the rear view mirror and now we are in serious loch and highland country as every twist and bend in the road reveals new panoramic angles to the unfolding landscape. It really is straight out of a propaganda slideshow from the archives of VisitScotland where the locals are always friendly and kilt-wearing, the sun always shines and midges, island drug problems and bleak housing estates excluded from the frame. It’s the Scottish fantasy where the peaks of the munros are veiled by rolling mists, the calm lochs sparkle in the cold sunshine and the mighty glens hold scattered whitewashed crofting cottages and tiny villages. Even so, the sunshine can’t completely vanquish the moody atmosphere of the mountains.
We are now in the kind of empty wilderness where canny highland shop owners spook the passing trade with signs pointing out that they are the last shop for 60 miles. This apocalyptic hint is enough to make the southern drivers scream in terror, execute a screeching handbrake turn and clear the shelves of all vital provisions within ten minutes. But Mr Scotland merely sighs in contentment and his heart swells with pride at every turn of the scenery. I swear he occasionally wipes away a tear and hums songs that that no doubt yearn for the Gaelic day of liberation. The heathen have nothing on this.
At the Five Sisters of Kintail we take a detour into the surprising lush Glenelg peninsular and HFB is in his element. He conjures up forgotten clan feuds and cave massacres, abandoned dilapidated barracks with trees growing where the King’s troops once slept and caroused, bronze age stone house brochs that to this day no-one knows what they were built for and are only found in Scotland. He turns up a small working turntable ferry at the end of a tiny twisting road that still allows travellers to go “over the sea to Skye”. By sleight of hand he reveals a cosy highland inn down an old military road. HFB always knows where the pubs are, vital information partly because north of the Trossachs they are few and far between and partly because the offspring have come to regard pubs as sacred routine of camping trips. At some point in the afternoon foghorn cries swell up for the pub. Pubs to them mean woodburners, robust meals, jacking up on crisps and soft drinks, easily fleecing ale-adled adults, football in the garden, swings over loch waters, hot chocolate, dogs who play football and landlords with magic tricks. Curiously, and thankfully, their interest in pubs instantly disappears the moment they cross the line back into the city.
Like so many corners of this literary isle the pub and the area has associations with a writer, Gavin Maxwell wrote Ring of Bright Water about out a Londoner and his pet otter living in the area.
The iconic Eilean Dunan castle flashes past as it sits at the confluence of three sea lochs with its fleet of tourist coach parties clustered at the start of the bridge. Its onwards and round Loch Carron and then barely a pause for ceremony we turn off the main road and we are climbing the Bealach nam Bo, Pass of the Cattle, the old drove road use to take cattle to market. For once I lapse into silence to allow HFB to concentrate on negotiating the narrow track, hairpin bends and cyclists with buckling thighs and kneecaps ready to viscerally explode from the pressure of the climb.
In the old days gangs of men with shovels were the only thing that would free the pass from winter snow. Sometimes it had to be abandoned for weeks on end. Travel by sea to Applecross could be equally difficult. If the ferry could not land at Applecross because of the conditions the passengers would get an unwanted free trip across fifty-odd miles of rough seas across the Minch to Lewis and wait for the return crossing across the same stomach-churning waters.
Over 2,000 feet high at the top of the pass strong cold winds buffet us and shafts of light sear through the clouds and burst over the Cuillin mountains on Skye. The descent slowly takes us into the sheltered, peaceful and fertile bay of Applecross. After the rough camping of Rannoch Moor the Applecross campsite is bucolic and civilised with hot showers, flower tunnels and mowed grass. Bikers and cyclists float about high on the adrenaline of conquering the pass.
The next three days are spent roaming the peninsular, its tiny fishing villages and sparse churches.. We ghost through the remains of old crofting cottages and semi-abandoned cemeteries where the weather has erased the names and dates of the headstones to anonymity. Inquisitive seals watch us as we scramble across rocks, discover tiny bays and try swimming in the freezing sea. The cold of the waters is vice-like but curiously euphoric as well. We walk through Atlantic rainforests, so called for the abundance of lichen and mosses and take lunch in the surprisingly balmy and sheltered walled garden of Applecross House.
Meanwhile the offspring are turning increasingly feral. They barely bother to change their clothes since the first night on the moor, preferring to walk around in a mis-matching assortment of jumpers, waterproofs, hats and scarves. They have abandoned all pretence at hygiene and are cheerfully axing every silken tie to civilisation. They conspire in Gaelic, make raids on the food supplies, gradually take over the car for their music and inform us that our services are no longer needed for cooking since they will now be in charge of that. Eventually HFB and I retreat and make our last stand around the beer, tobacco and whisky supplies. On the stone and sand beaches the feral ones create strange cryptic sand sculptures adorned with shells and stones laid out in random patterns.
On the last night we take our cookers and camping chairs down to the beach to cook our dinner. The feral are despatched for firewood and a fire is soon underway. As the sun sinks over the distant Cuillons strange boats built for unknown purpose hug Raasay Island and through the Inner Sound. Assorted waders busily run up and down the retreating tideline digging up tasty morsels. The receding sea uncovers a strange circular stone wall, weirdly similar to the beach detritus sculptures made earlier in the day by the offspring only a hundred metres further up the beach. HGB, ever the master at decoding the landscape, examines it and concludes it is an old fish trap. As dusk turns to dark bats swoop over our heads, silhouetted against the unpolluted haze and glittering stars of the night skies and the Applecross Inn looks cosy across the dark waters of the bay.
Oh yes, the award-winning, charming Applecross Inn. It’s somehow cramp and smaller than it appears but has a lively and friendly atmosphere, charged by the fact that it is the only place for miles and it’s full of thirsty, hungry travellers, bikers, walkers and locals. It seems to have been doing this for years. The old black and white photos on the walls have young men lounging with their bikes outside the inn, laughing and smiling into the camera. The dates of the photos tells us that war is only a few years away.
Its outdoor garden is the beach, the bay and beyond. so after dinner you stroll out onto the beach with pint in hand and feeling rather full from delicious locally caught lobsters cooked in garlic butter, and loganberry cranachan for pudding. It’s a satisfying business and a good time to light the pipe and enjoy sunset. The feral disperse looking for wildlife under rocks, their quick nimble fingers catching small eels and crabs for curious examination before returning them to scuttle back out of sight.
The feral beg for another night but we need to get them back to a city fast. Another night and they will look like miscreant vagabond child solders of the Gaelic Alba Liberation Army. Another two nights and they will be. The coastal road, only completed in 1975, dips and glides along the sea. We pass tiny hamlets and inch our way around highland cattle who sit on the road refusing to move. Gannets divebomb into the sea for fish. We turn inland along the Torridon Loch and a panorama of the astounding Torridon mountains loom over the loch. A well-travelled friend once described a walk around the Torridon coastline as one of the most beautiful he had ever done.
That’s saved for another day. Only when do we exit Applecross and head across more highland scenery to Inverness do dark rain clouds swirl down low over us and the rain lashes down. It’s a long drive back via the Kessock Bridge, the wandering A9 and a road diner turned-up by HFB for his final trick of the trip that seems lost in time and serves up a heart-stopping fry-up.
Back in Glasgow it’s raining and growing dark, exactly the same time and conditions as when we left days ago. It’s as if the hundreds of miles on the road and sunny cold days in the highlands are already consigned to memory by the Glasgow gloom.