Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3 of this story were published over the last three days. If you haven’t read them, briefly, @ian_bec and I are about to leave England in a Northerly direction so that I can share the joys and pains of Scottish mountaineering with him.
Early in the morning of 2nd April 2007, Ian and I crossed the border into Scotland, the land of my fathers. We drove past Dunbar where my Dad’s parents had lived, tried to ignore the nuclear power station and the cement works (which dominate the skyline) and admired the Bass Rock (which has nothing to do with music). I promised Ian that I had travelled to Edinburgh so many times that I didn’t need to look at the map. That turned out badly. We got caught up in a confusing one-way system instead, which cost us valuable time and ensured that later on we couldn’t enjoy some spectacular Highland scenery because it was dark by the time we got to it. Eventually, we found the Forth Road Bridge. The weather had beaten us to it.
Normally, you can expect to enjoy the view across to the legendary engineering triumph of the Forth Rail Bridge, to the East. Not that day. Concentration on the road ahead was the main priority.
The next stage involved a long drive to Perth and then Pitlochry and towards the Cairngorms. As the road turned to the South to wheel around these huge mountains, Ian gasped and asked how high they were. It can be hard to identify precisely which peaks you are looking at from a distance, from a moving car, with only a road map to aid you but eventually I settled on some candidate summits and gave their height. They were considerably higher than the Brecon Beacons, more monumental in stature and covered in ice and snow. The Cairngorms are huddled close together with steep sides distinguishing them from the land around them and mostly joined by a high plateau, although from our road this wasn’t clear. Ian was not prepared for this sight and looked more than a little relieved when I reminded him that they were not on our itinerary. “Our mountains will be, erm, lower?” he asked. “No“, I replied. We drove on in silence for a while.
After we’d crossed through the Cairngorms, we took the A9 for Inverness. Inverness sits at the top of the Great Glen, a mighty fault line which runs right across Scotland. Although the Cairngorms are below it, they are an exception to the landscape around them, which is hilly but not mountainous. As soon as you come upon the Great Glen, it becomes immediately obvious that the land to the North of it is made of different stuff. With our modern geological knowledge, which tells us that the land to the North came from somewhere near North America and collided with the rest of the UK millions of years ago, we get a vision of clashing tectonic plates absolutely unknown elsewhere on the mainland. To say it is dramatic is an understatement. Ian gasped again. We pressed on.
From Inverness, we continued North and then turned West. Unfortunately we lost the day light just as we reached Loch Garve, which was a shame because the road after that is particularly beautiful in the evening sun. I cursed my arrogance back in Edinburgh. Ian must have been very tired, having driven from Cardiff on the Friday, stayed up late in London, driven all the way to Berwick-Upon-Tweed the previous day and was now negotiating his way along a Highland road in the night. The cricket commentary kept us going, though the mountains blocked the signal from the South with increasing frequency.
Scottish Highland roads are not measured so much by their distance as by the time it takes to travel along them. In almost all of England the slowing factor is the other traffic. In almost all of the Highlands, the main inhibition is the roads themselves. You simply cannot drive fast. It is too dangerous. The road itself is often bordered with a loch, a drop or large rocks. When those hazards don’t present themselves, there is endless, fathomless peat bogs. If your car gets into that, having slipped off the road, you will not get it back out. Not if it’s a car like Ian’s, at any rate, without assistance. No-one else was driving on that road, at that time of night. Who would do such a thing? All these difficulties are one thing, mighty stags sleeping on the road are quite another. Crashing into one of these beasts can kill you and do little to the animal itself. Startling them is not likely to improve your speed, just your chances of further accident. We saw plenty stags in the headlights. We were both pretty tired but the sight of the stags gave charged up our adrenaline. “This is a really wild country“, said Ian. Damn right – that’s why the Romans didn’t trouble themselves with it.
By the time we got to Loch Broom and I was able to announce that we were on the home straight. I urged Ian to keep his wits about himself though because there would be one tricky section still to come. After we passed through Ullapool, we had to turn off the road into a village called Rhue, where my folks live. English villages tend to be clustered around a church, a pub and a post office. Welsh villages are more spread out but still connected, albeit by greater distances, by the same social fabric and physical buildings. Scottish Highland villages are far more spread out because there are only so many places where a house can be built. These islands of solid rock are scattered amongst the peat bog. Rhue is one such place. A dozen or so homes are strung out along a single track road which is about a mile and a half long. The road twists and turns around steep drops at its unfenced edge. Sheep like to sleep on it in the night because it is the only flat land for miles around. Shattered, Ian negotiated this road with gracious charm, though I could see his nerves being visibly shattered.
When at last we arrived at my folks’ home, he was more than ready for the Highland Welcome prepared for him. Some supper and a wee dram later and he was perking up, pleased to have conquered the distances between his faraway home and this strange land. He’d met my parents before, plenty times, but never in their homeland. There were several reasons for making this epic journey at the start of our mountaineering holiday. Aside from my needing to catch up with my folks, it guaranteed Ian proper Scottish hospitality from people he’d met before. It also meant that we could all go off mountaineering together, which I thought would soften the fear of the challenge for him. If my folks could do it, so could he! Of course, he was well aware that my folks were hardcore arctic explorers, so perhaps that just upped the ante?
We slept long that night and awoke to glorious weather. Ian found himself in one of the most beautiful places in Europe. We breakfasted and prepared expedition packs for the day ahead. Here’s my folks house.