It took a wee while to settle last night around the stern folk of John O’Groats, who were pleasant enough when they thought money was coming their way but soon turned sour when they realised it was not.
There were signs everywhere proclaiming no overnighters and the hotel carpark was packed, so I parked up around the corner, nestling in to a fence so as to look like I belonged to the house.
I snuggled down in the back seat, popping my head above the window to inspect a sudden noise – to find a big moon just risen above the horizon, like a golden wafer snapped in half.
Nothing settles me more quickly than the sight of an old friend like the moon, and in the morning I noticed I was parked up against the Coast Guard.
I woke pleased, happy to have slept well, thinking ‘this is what it must be like to be homeless, looking for somewhere to sleep that does not disturb others, yet is safe and sweet just the same’; followed by, ‘how quickly we adapt, night three in the back seat and my knees don’t mind as much that they can’t straighten up and my back is content against the back seat’. Unlike previous nights, I have slept through the entire night.
I drive up to the lighthouse in the dawn light, a narrow road through sheep paddocks that I’d discovered last night when I was looking for somewhere to park, and stop in a dip for a quick wash and change of clothes (change of clothes being a relative term).
I spy tower rocks in the distance, park at the lighthouse and rug up against an unholy wind. There is a sign that points across the fields to Ducansby Stack; and so I set off, a scarf wrapped around my ears, into the howling grey morning; a shower of sunlight bursts from the sky, like rain pouring from a distant cloud.
It is a glorious start to what will be a glorious day.
My first stop is the Castle of Mey, a great stone monolith surrounded by ribbons of high stone walls overlooking Harrow Harbour – I wonder if the harbour name has anything to do with the tall cairn with a cross on the top in the middle of a nearby field; and I wonder who the hell had to build those walls
The castle is closed and I meander on into the morning, through the surprisingly vast and flat northern lands of the Scots.
Mid morning the cloud clears to the west, opening the day to a most heavenly blue, brightening the purple heather and turning the dying brown stalks of summer weeds to hazy pink.
I drive through villages, the houses scattered like buckshot around the fields; I drive through towns too small to boast a cathedral; sheep hide from the wind behind spindly glades of grass; and just as suddenly as the day turns grey, so too the drive turns hilly until there is a serious blue mountain on my horizon.
That mountain is every which way I turn, blue and shapely; I can see how the ancient ones mythologised features of their landscape; it is a steady presence, its mood shifting with the glory of the day.
A heartbeat later I am in the mountains. Breathtaking mountains. Everywhere I turn I am scuttled by beauty. The landscape is choppy: large, jutting, deep, narrow, and the colours, the humbling colours, the awe-smiting colours whose beauty is in their light – I do not attempt a photograph; I would need a paintbrush and palette to begin to uncover those colours.
There are myriad mountains in the distance now, like kingdoms of legend and myth. The road is a single lane trail. I climb in and out of hill and glen. The day is grey and blue above, purple where the heather meets the treeline and sweetest green where the waters run down the mountainside.
This is wilderness. Startling, eternal wilderness. The moment, endless, is intimate; I am north, at the top of the island they once called Albion, an outpost of cold.
I wonder how many Scots have driven this road? If they drove like an Aussie it’d only take a couple of days from anywhere at all – jeez, with the amount of summer daylight in this country you could leave at first light and be home by dark!
I drive through Tunga and the road inhales as it threads around an estuary of blistering beauty. There are crude laybys to dive into for oncoming traffic – of which, thankfully, there is none. The world is all mine.
There is an eagle, brown and white, sitting on a fence post. She flies off when I stop to say hello; though now it’s her turn to smile at me, as she flies above, keeping steady company with the car.
Ages later, I notice a bridge in the distance. With cars on it. I begin to laugh. At a T intersection I laugh louder – I have missed the main road; and so I give thanks for Scottish signposting, because I wouldn’t have missed my emaciated road for all the shortcuts in Christendom.
I drive on and on and on, those mythical valleys unfolding in spectacular glory; it is easy to see the source of stories about lost kingdoms. At a corner, a sign on a large stone says ‘Welcome to Geo Park’ and I chuckle out loud, because that’s exactly what it is: a theme park of rocks and grasses.
And then another corner and the blue ocean slugs my reeling senses; another corner and the mountains turn silver.
And another and another and another: colours, landscape, textures, light, shades of light, shapes, forms, angles, coves and caves, waterfalls and waterways. It is so pretty. So very very pretty. I would need a cinematographer’s eye, and lens, to capture it; beauty blasting at 360 degrees; exquisite loveliness, all around.
I stop at Smoo Cave, captivated by the name; only to find it is the English name; the Gaels called it Smudha. It has quite a history that cave: massive, gaping; the old clansman MacKay dumped 18 murdered bodies into the cavern, convinced no-one’d ever find them because local legend had the devil biding there; then there were the bobbies looking for an illicit still who were rowed beneath the waterfall, where they drowned. And so on.
I look at the map and notice my glorious landscape has a name – it is Kyle of Tongue. I think of Kyle of Sandilands (Australians know what I mean).
I drive on from Smudha to find the glory is not over – you could set any adventure epic at all against this landscape; I wonder, have I driven a more spectacular road? This is me – I have driven a lot of roads. I cannot bring to mind one that has unfolded over and over and over like this one.
For a long while – which is actually a short while, I’m allowing for the fact I’m in Scotland – I have the road to myself: just me and the wilderness, snow country in summer; majesty untouched, in an ancient kind of way.
The drive is not over.
I have pulled in to Kinlochbirvie, eight twisted miles off the main road, haunt of the Hopeman fisherman of days gone. Here I sit, having a cider in a pub high on a tor overlooking ocean-going headlands.
The day is still here, sheltered now, like it must have been for the fishing boats seeking refuge from a tempestuous North Sea.
I look out over the small harbour, the sunshine through the big window warm and sleepy.
I raise my glass to glory.