I am reminded of the lessons of pilgrimage, the one about meeting each moment as it comes, rather than expecting things to be a certain way – and its extension: not making assumptions based on yesterday.
I am in Kinlochbirvie. The clear blue day of yesterday has passed and an unholy wind howls about the car. The night was so clear there were stars outside the windows – one of the best reasons I can think of for sleeping in the car.
Before settling in for the night I wandered down to watch the sun set over the water behind the harbour. It was a Peter Pan world, an island cove, sparkling sunlight spiralling on the current; if I squinted just enough I could see Captain Hook and his shadowy pirate ship sailing in on the passageway between the islands.
The evening was still, clear, bright and blue; two boys, aged about 12, were swimming in the evening light. I threw myself into the summer North Sea when I was 16; I know how cold that water is.
By the looks of this morning, grey and blustery, I guess it was the kind of day that doesn’t come this way too often.
I notice the trees I hadn’t noticed yesterday – their leaves grow only one direction. They look like cartoon trees caught in a wind, all their leaves pointed one way.
I clamber into the front seat and drive out of town, marveling at the change in the landscape now mirrored grey, which highlights the rocks, rather than yesterday’s blue, which highlighted the green. I wind my way out of the valleys of Kinlochbirvie, the landscape a hailstorm of rock.
I stop to pee in what looks to be a sheltered corner – and my pee goes the way of the leaves while I do my best to stay upright. This is one wild wind.
I drive into the morning, alive once more to the unfurling landscape of Scotland’s north. The names on the signposts are more Norse now than Gaelic, they remind me of reindeer country with their Ss and Ks.
As I coil around the roads in the howling wind I see sheep pressed close to rocks, birds fly crooked paths, waters whipped like egg white to sharp and choppy peaks.
Each rock thoroughfare unveils a new valley, massive blank canvas settings, each unlike the others, stages waiting for something to happen – in reality, that would be snow.
This land is a landscape photographer’s heaven. I stop the car, again and again and again, to snap the breathless views – even though I cannot hold the camera still in the wind, not even when I lean up against the car, because the car too is rocking in the wind; and even though I know my photos are crap.
I swear two things:
* I will not stop to take any more photographs . . . I just do not have the skill to capture the light (and besides, it’s bloody freezing out there);
** I will do a photography course to better understand my camera.
Naturally, I keep stopping to take the photos, just in case.
I have the road to myself, the wilderness to myself, all of life it seems to myself . . . despite reasonable traffic going in the other direction yesterday: I guess that’s the difference between Sunday and Monday.
Another valley and there is a castle ruin, so startling that again I stop and I stop and I stop to photograph it on my way down the hill. And then I pull in and, lured by the small stone pathway, rug up and run towards the ruin into the wind blistering off the loch.
Round towers have always held a special place in my heart. My inner princess perhaps. I run, because to move any more slowly is to go the way of everything not tied down, and circle what is left of the old walls, high on a small green tor stretching into the loch.
I touch the stone, it’s like touching base with the ancients.
The crumbling stone is their signal to us, we were here.
Glancing up at the mountain, I see the colours that to me are the colours of women’s truth: the purple and green of the heather.
Purple and green were the colours of one of the early women’s liberation movements, the one that gave women the vote. Whenever I see those colours, I am reminded there is another story, an untold subtle story woven into landscapes, not quite as visible as stone castles and tower ruins, but participatory and influential and just as real.
I drive on, grateful not only for having caressed the ancient stone and breathed the ancient wind, but for having warmed my blood with the run.
I am heading south now, down the west coast, away from the Arctic. I have long had a date with the lands of ice and snow in the north, ever since I was a small child smitten with stories that conjured images of shoes like tennis rackets parked at the back door.
Deep in my heart I dream of dog sleds, I dream of white, I dream of fur hooded jackets. To this day I can see the shoes, see the door, see the wood cabin, see the wooden fence surrounding the house and see the snow, all around.
Another corner and another reveal jigsaw puzzle mountains behind green hills, 3D woodcuts in receding shades of blue. Snow country in summer.
I did stand in the Arctic Circle once, when I visited my son in Tromso and his friend took us for a walk inside the circle. Not one to have unfinished business tagging along in my life, and having long dreamed of spending time with the reindeer people of the north (the ones in my imagination), this was a do or die moment, act or quit dreaming. So I sent a call to the universe: if I am meant to return and spend time in the land of the reindeer, give me a sign.
A footstep later I trod on an antler in the damp, yellow clod of grass.
And then, in the distance on a small headland, the prettiest little town I have seen for a long, long time: Ullapool.
I bet that has a viking name.