Notes on the Highlands and Islands, Scotland (August 27-September 22, 2023)

Re-centre (Google Map navigator).

Harvey’s tour of the Highlands and Islands: 27 days, nearly 2,000 miles, and 15 destinations and accommodations.

August 27-29 (Sunday – Tuesday). Sunday. Ness in the Wirral, and Penrith (which, etymologically, maybe derived from the Welsh: ‘pen rhydd’) in the Eden Valley, were overnight stopping-off points en route to Scotland. The towns feature a number of distinguished examples of early to late nineteenth century Methodist chapels. One of which — Sandgate Head Primitive Methodist Chapel, Penrith (built 1815) — has been converted into swish rentable apartments, and provided a place to lay my head before the long journey to Scotland next day. As I drifted into sleep, I thought of all those generations who’d once filled the interior with hymn singing, listened to sermons, prayed, baptised, married, and commended their dead to God.

August 29 – September 1 (Tuesday -Thursday). Tuesday. At a viewing point on the way to Glencoe, Lochaber, there was a burly, caber-tossing-type gentleman in a kilt with a set of bagpipes. I imagined that he’d, perhaps, just finished playing a doleful lament for those of Clan Macdonald who’d been massacred by King William III’s forces in 1692. The auditory reflections of the music off the mountain sides would’ve been a sound to behold. I can’t quite imagine climbing to the summit of Cader Idris in Meirionnydd, Wales, and encountering someone playing a harp. The Scots really do like to parade their emblems in the grand manner.

Glencoe is the scene of an ancient caldera collapse. The volcano erupted onto the land surface. The precipitous mountains (shaped, in part, by glacial erosion) are the result of this cataclysm. In my experience, the range is forbidding and discomforting. At evening, after sundown, the steep shadowy and fractured faces that climb into the low-hanging grey cloud evoked the vision of a smouldering Mount Sinai — on which Moses received the Ten Commandments (Exodus 19-24).

The first haggis of a Scottish tour is always special and, sometimes, the best. Mine, topped with chicken and in a pepper sauce, was taken at a restaurant at Kentallen Pier, overlooking Loch Leven. The building was once a railway station built in the Mackintosh style. It was closed in the 1960s — a victim of the Beeching cuts. Lochs at evening possess an uncanny and comforting stillness. The world gently turning to sleep.

Thursday. A visit to Ballachulish Slate Quarry, which is a few miles further down the road from where I’m staying. It was established in 1682, and remained in operation for nearly three hundred years. The quarry is arranged in a horseshoe shape to form an incomplete amphitheatre. Like many post-industrial sites I’ve walked through in South Wales, a residual presence (the ghosts of history) still ‘haunt’ the site. (The past is always present.) In the nineteenth century, the workers and their families suffered the same heartless exploitation by the quarry owners as had coalminers in the valleys by coal owners during that period. Whites enslaved whites too. Scottish slate is harder than Welsh slate, but more difficult to cut.

September 1-3 (Friday-Sunday). Friday. The ferry to Mull departed from Oban, Argyle, to Craignure in the early afternoon. On arrival, we drove along the coast road to Tobermorey (after which one of the Wombles was named), where we were staying at a traditional B&B. Before checking-in, we headed to Dervaig, trying to establish the lay of the land and hoping to find a place to take ‘a nice cup of tea’ (as my Dad used to say). I’m at an age when tea is inordinately consoling. We found sustenance at the oldest pub on Mull: The Bellachroy (est. 1608).

Saturday. Tobermorey is a relatively small coastal resort. The brightly-painted houses recalled those on the harbour front at Aberaeron, Ceredigion. We travelled along the road through Salen towards the west coast of the island and Calgary Bay (after which the Canadian city is named). It boasts calcareous sand — fine grained, white, and painfully reflective.

In the evening, while avoiding an oncoming car, I stepped onto the verge and into a shallow ditch that was overgrown with vegetation. My shoe was covered — like a melted chocolate-coated toffee apple — up to my ankle in thick black mud. And this was fifteen minutes before eating at a fine-dining restaurant.

The mobile-signal network on Mull is extremely limited. Woe betide the driver who doesn’t have a paper map to consult when their GPS freezes, and the pulsating, blue location marker is marooned in a landscape of nothingness. Road signs are a godsend.

It takes me at least three days to orientate to a holiday away. On this occasion, I’ve been recuperating from COVID-19 along the way. Today was the first on which I felt able to extend the focus of my attention beyond the body (which remains a challenge). When I’m not working, and the thinking muscle is relaxed, new ideas and solutions to existing problems, pour into my mind.

September 3-4 (Sunday-Monday). Sunday. A number of the roads that cross the island are established on the footprint of the old ‘coffin roads’ or ‘corpse roads‘. Centuries ago, they were the routes used to carry coffins from isolated communities either to places with burial rights or a type of ground that could be more easily dug. Some people claim to have witnessed a spectral echo of those pallbearers and mourners, still walking along these roads.

En route to the ferry port for the crossing to Iona, we stopped off for tea at Duart Castle — ancestral home of Clan Maclean. The film of Alistair Maclean’s novel When Eight Bells Toll (1971) used it as a setting. As I was leaving the cafe, in came Sir Lachlan Maclean — the Maclean Clan Chief. Somehow, we entered into a long and very funny conversation about getting food down your jumper. He’s a very modest and self-effacing gentleman; I warmed to him. ‘I’ll not forget you and this conversation’, he said on parting.

The museum displays a fascinating map of the wreck of the Swan — one of Oliver Cromwell’s Commonwealth navy fleet, which sank in the coastal waters over which the castle looks, on September 13, 1650, following a violent storm. It reminded me of one of Cornelia Parker’s exploded objects.

A ferry ride across the River Styx (as it were). It departed Fionnphort, on the Ross of Mull, in choppy weather. Mercifully, the journey time was short. I’d no idea what to expect of Iona. When I’d walked up the landing slip at Caldey Island, South Pembrokeshire, Wales, I knew instinctively that the place was extraordinary. I received no such impression on Iona. Some pilgrims to the island consider it a so-called ‘thin place’ (a permeable boundary between this world and the next, and a concept that I find hard to swallow). For me, the landscape is too mundane to admit to transcendence. My most poignant moment was on finding the grave of the former Labour Party leader, John Smith (1938-1994). He was an exemplary politician who held old-school socialist values.

Outside the abbey stands St Martin’s cross, the last of Iona’s earliest high crosses. It had stood on that spot for over 1,200 years.

Monday. The weather was sunny and calm; the return trip to Fionnphort was without incident. It’s so brief that the ‘in case of emergency’ announcement lasts nearly a third of the journey time. When the ferries are in dock, they moan and screech like a large, wounded aquatic mammal: deep, resonant, and brassy.

Like in so many villages in Mull, sheep wander the roads of Fionnphort, unabashed by vehicles and pedestrians, and huddle together on the rocky outcrops, like those in William Holman Hunt’s Our English Coasts (1852). Mind you, there are a good many humans, too, who amble down the centre of the road, oblivious to oncoming traffic. (‘All we like sheep … ‘.)

September 5-7 (Tuesday-Thursday). Tuesday. It was a perfect day for a boat trip to Staffa. As we edged towards the island, a pod of common dolphins broke water and swam parallel to us for several minutes. I can’t think of another creature that so evidently enjoys doing something for its own sake. The joy of being. Staffa’s extraordinary basalt columns — which were thrust upwards in line with the erupting magma, and cooled and solidified very quickly — evoke a vast fossilised city of skyscrapers. Fingal’s Cave famously inspired Felix Mendelssohn’s overture, Die Hebriden [The Hebrides] (1830). He’s said to have been a respond to the peculiar echoes within the cave. I enjoy the idea of creating a piece of music based upon an acoustic phenomenon.

Wednesday. We headed for the ferry terminal to cross from Mull to Sunart. On arrival, we stopped off at Keil Chapel and burial ground, on the shore of Loch Linnhe. The inscriptions on many of the oldest gravestones have weathered away. On one, however, this a stern moral warning remained legible: ‘Memento Mori’ [‘Remember that you [have to] die’]. Cemeteries are as much for the benefit of the living as they are for the dead. Through their gravestones, the departed still speak.

On the way to Acharacle, we passed through the village of Strontian, where the element Strontium was discovered down a lead mine in 1790. Strontium-90 — the radioactive isotope produced from the element by nuclear fission — sounds to me as though it belongs more to the realms of science fiction than of science fact … like Kryptonite.

Throughout this tour, I’ve come across a number of folk from elsewhere in the UK who’ve moved to the Highlands and Islands hoping to begin a new life. Many have established either a restaurant, or a B&B, or a local-craft shop, to support their livelihood. It’s hard to imagine a habitable landscape that contrasts more with the city and town environment. The population in these parts is very thin. You can walk a considerable distance without seeing anyone. I’m now of the frame of mind that six people, seen in close proximity, constitutes a crowd.

The beaches at Lake Moidart are peppered with microlite. The fragments crystalline surface (which looks as though it has been sugar coated) reflects sunlight; so, they’re easy to spot amid the sand and seaweed. We’d come to see the ruined Castle Tioram, which dates from between the 12th and 14th centuries. Getting to it was like running an assault course up a steep rocky mound.

September 8-11 (Friday-Monday). Friday. We set off to stay at a Roman Catholic presbytery — near Mallaig — that has been converted into a apartment in order to provide an income strand for the still-active church attached to it. It’s situated overlooking Loch Morar, which reputedly has a monster, second only to the Loch Ness monster in fame. I shall keep open a keen pair of eyes while we’re here.

We took dinner at a restaurant in Mallaig, which we’d eaten at during our last visit in 2019. They serve the best fish and chips I’ve ever tasted.

The accommodation is overseen by Father Stan. Every evening he leaves fresh pastries at our door. ‘All part of the service’, he says. Its a very touching gesture of imaginative kindness.

Saturday. we took the train from Mallaig to Fort William over the Glenfinnan Viaduct (built 1897-1901), which has, of late, gained a global profile due to its appearance in the Harry Potter series of films. As we approached, the conductor played a recording of rousing orchestral music over the PA system. (Have you ever heard the like?). Were it not that Fort William remains the largest town in the Highlands, it would have little to commend it. (My desultory experience of Swansea came to mind.) Every time I’ve visited, it has rained. The town does, however, have have a number of worthy eateries, as well as an impressive bookshop.

The journey home reminded me of the train ride from Shrewsbury to Aberystwyth. After a several-day long heat wave, the dank cold air was welcome.

Sunday. In my experience, train and plane journeys are invariably too long while boat trips never last long enough. We took a 45-minute cruise from Mallaig to Kynodart. The residents had bought-out the village. This is an example of ‘taking back control’ that’s meaningful and evidently workable and beneficial to the collective. Communalism at its best. They live ‘off the grid’ in the most literal sense of that term; the villagers have developed their own hydroelectric power station and are, thus, independent of the National Grid electricity supply. Visitors are encouraged to pay for services with cash, all of which is banked in the village Post Office and spent on the village. Last year, the small community shop alone contributed over £76K to the local purse. The residents’ achievement is both impressive and winning.

We had four hours to kill before returning to Mallaig, much of which we spent at The Old Forge — the most remote public house in the UK. Over lunch, we got into conversation with two fellow passengers who both came from the USA but were now living in Venice, Italy, and Portugal, respectively. One was a retired art historian. It was a rich time of shared passion, fellowship, and bonhomie. We took dinner with them later on, back at Mallaig.

September 11-14 (Monday-Thursday). Monday. Off to the Clan Cameron Museum, Achnacarry. We have no equivalence for the concept of ‘clan’ in Wales. It’s tribal and, I imagine, provides a sense of belonging for all those with that surname, where ever they are in the world. The museum map suggests that there’s at least one Cameron in Kazakhstan, and a great many in Canada. The latter are the offspring of emigrants escaping the Clearances and famine in the Highlands during the mid-18th to mid-19th centuries.

On, then, to revisit the Dark Mile, close by. This is a road that passes through a dense canopied forest, where the remains of stone walls and fallen trees are covered in moss and lichen. Thereafter we made our way, via Spean Bridge, to the accommodation, which overlooks Loch Lochy. (Clearly, by the time they’d got around to naming this one, imagination had run dry. Perhaps there’s a Roady Road nearby, too.)

The restaurant that’s next door to our apartment, which overlooks the loch, has the aspiration of fine dining but the quality of Wetherspoon. A truly mediocre and hideously over-priced meal. To be fair, we’ve otherwise enjoyed some excellent food during our stay in Scotland. One of the best meals, in my opinion, was reasonably priced and purchased from a very modest ferry-launch sea-food hut.

Tuesday. We headed towards Inverness, via Loch Ness (the largest and most famous but, arguably, least scenic of all the lochs), stopping off for refreshments before travelling to the Culloden Battlefield and Visitor Centre, which memorialises the battle in 1745. The building is one-storey high and made of grey stone and glass, predominantly; it sits effortlessly and unobtrusively in the surrounding landscape. The battle field is a war grave. The Jacobite dead were stripped of their belongings and unceremoniously buried, en masse, by locals from nearby Inverness. It’s a solemn place, through which you walk slowly, deliberately, and quietly. The Jacobite army (who have my sympathy) were ill-prepared, poorly lead, exhausted, and hungry. They never had a chance against the Government army. In less than one hour, the last Jacobite Rising was quashed. Unsurprisingly, Culloden Moor is considered a ‘thin place’ between the living and the dead. The sounds of battle and images of disoriented soldiers roaming amid the scene of carnage have been witnessed by many, particularly on the anniversary of the conflict.

As soon as we’d settled into our B&B, at Westhill, Inverness, we drove to Cawdor (of ‘Thane of …’ fame) and a cosy village pub for what turned out to be an excellent meal — thus, overwriting yesterday evening’s appalling experience. My resentfulness has been duly exorcised.

Wednesday. Inverness. On the main wall of the former Athenaeum on the High Street is a pair of painted biblical texts, solemnly warning passers-by who ‘live without hope and without God in this world’ to amend their ways. It’s a mode of silent street preaching.

The Inverness Museum and Art Gallery has geological samples going back 3 billion years. I can’t conceive of so-called ‘deep time’ on this scale, any more than I can get my head around a distance such as 10 million light years. There was a 19th-century painting of Oliver Cromwell that was hung upside down on the gallery wall. This arrangement honours the practice of Prince Frederik of Denmark, a previous owner, who so despised him for executing a king that he inverted the portrait to express his disgust. (Eat your heart out Georg Baslitz!)

The other curiosity on display was Alexander Grant’s Rondello — a uniquely round fiddle that he believed would produce uninterrupted sound waves and thus a purer tone than that made by the standard, f-hole shaped body. It was not a commercial success. Not all good ideas manage to achieve traction. On, then, to Fort William via Fort Augustus to our evening’s accommodation. The rain and colder air has set in.

Thursday. I walked into town through sunshine, rain, sunshine, and rain, again, to buy supplies from a pharmacy and a well-respected local patisserie. The latter often has a queue that bends out into the street. I was reminded of those photographs taken during the Second World War of folk lining up outside butchers and bakers clutching their ration books. I’ve caught a cold; no doubt a bog-standard, old-style corona virus (a Scottish common cold variant). Today’s LFT was ‘negative’. It’s in everyone’s interest to check. I’ve heard loud hoarse coughing in the streets and restaurants throughout the tour. (Is the Glenfinnan Monument, Lochaber, my visionary tower?)

September 15-18 (Friday-Monday). Friday. A final visit to the suitably named Rain cafe for breakfast, before heading to our next accommodation. The journey took us through Lochailort (where we were this time last week), and onward to Ardnamurchan Point. This is … almost … the most westerly point in the UK. The lighthouse was built in the ‘Egyptian Style’ by Alan Stevenson, and completed in 1849. It’s 118 feet tall. After 1904, the fog horn and lantern were driven by three Kelvin Diesel engines (which were manufactured in Scotland) working in parallel. They’re magnificent.

Thereafter we drove to the Volcano Cabins at Ardnamurchan, where we’d be staying for the next three nights. They’re situated at the centre of a 12-mile diameter caldera. This is an experience quite unlike anything I’ve known, previously. It’s like living inside a crater on Mars. And the silence … the absolute silence. The cabin is a cross between a Swedish sauna, the International Space Station, and a Hobbit home: efficient, economic, and compact, but without being claustrophobic. The northern lights have been seen from here during the last week.

Saturday. A lazy morning, enjoying the surroundings at the start of a whole day of sunshine. When the wind rises, the reed grass whispers. After lunch we drove to Sanna Bay, down a narrow road (with a great many ‘passing place’s, mercifully), stopping also for cows who’d walk into the centre of the road and come to a complete standstill with a nonchalance that suggested deliberate passive belligerence.

Sanna Bay comprises established sand-dunes and, like Calgary Bay, Mull, white sand compose of shells that have been broken down into tiny fragments. The rock outcrops (which reminded of the settings for some of Bill Brandt’s nudes) and pools, lichen-covered limpets, varieties of seaweed (one a purple-pink colour), and crystal-clear water that seemed to move so slowly as to suggest that it was of a medium with a higher density.

As evening faded into night and the thin cloud dispersed, stars punctured the dark indanthrene blue sky. There’s no light pollution on this part of the island. The layered density of the cosmos became increasingly evident as my eyes adjusted to a darkness that was as profound as the silence.

Sunday. Rain and wind. We holed-up and watched the communion service from St James’s Church, Piccadilly, London, on YouTube. Lunch was taken at Mingary Castle Hotel, which is situated on the very edge of the Lochaber coast. (It was a special anniversary celebration.) The castle was built in the 13th to 14th centuries. It’s, now, almost entirely renovated structure has only four bedrooms and seats no more than twenty diners. The food was very good. (Not that I’m a foody.) And the view over the clifftop from the rear door — breathtaking.

Monday. I awoke to morning mist, and six deer grazing on the lawn. We began our slow voyage home, leaving Ardnamurchan under turbulent clouds, through which the sun broke through, saturated the greenery, and whitened the reflective wet road ahead.

We retraced routes that we’d by now travelled several times, and stopping-off at a reasonable cafe at Archaracle which we’d patronised when last in that area. From there we travelled to Glenfinnan to see the viaduct and monument. The latter, I’m persuaded, is the structure which my visionary tower foreshadowed. But for what reason? This site has become inundated with tourists, buses that look like large insects, fat touring caravans, and family vehicles.

We gave up searching for a car parking space and moved on to Fort William (for the third time). At the local museum: a birching table (last used in 1948, astonishingly); an anamorphic portrait of Bonnie Prince Charlie (Was he ever called that to his face, I wonder?); his unflattering ‘trews’ (maybe); examples of ‘secret portraits’ of the prince (concealed in pedants and fob watches, lest the wearer’s alliance be revealed); and a slate from the Ballachulish quarry (which I’d visited on September 1), caught my attention.

Late afternoon, we arrived at the hotel in Glencoe (at which we’d dined on August 31).

This would be our last loch view and hotel meal of the trip.

September 19-21 (Tuesday – Thursday). Tuesday. On the journey from Glencoe to Glasgow, I felt like Moses coming down from on top of the mountain to the plain. We stopped off to look at the Glencoe Visitor Centre.

Since our last visit, they’d constructed a reproduction of a 17th-century turf house on the footprint of the original. Its thatch is made from heather, which grows in abundance around and about. The authenticity of the interior is undermined by the Scottish folk music piped through the not so hidden speakers. (This genre of music is ubiquitous in the cafes and restaurants in the Highlands and Islands. By now, I rather wish it weren’t.) Its presence in the turf house, overwrote the conditional ‘silence’ (comprising the sounds of wind and rain on the exterior, the distant rush of a waterfall, and cattle in the fields) that the occupants would’ve heard three centuries ago. Folk culture is as much about preserving the acoustic phenomena associated with structures as their materiality, in my opinion.

Before embarking upon the final leg of the drive to Glasgow, we took lunch and a cup of tea at the Drovers Inn, near Loch Lomond. It was established in 1705, and doesn’t look as though much has been done to modernise or dust the exterior of interior since. Which is how it should be. It’s rather like walking into a public-house version of the John Soane Museum. It’s stuffed to the ceiling with glass cases of equally stuffed animals; stag and mouse antlers clutter the walls. I recalled the interior of Norman Bates’s house in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960). Wonderful! This place has an ‘atmosphere’ as dense as Venus. It also claims to possess several ghosts. Which is how it should be, too.

We passed through the Grampian Mountains and Clydeside (the site of a once vital ship-building industry) before landing in the environs of the University of Glasgow. The landlady of the apartment we’re staying at was once a lecturer at Edinburgh Art College. Her house has real artworks on the wall — an antidote to three weeks of suffering excretable prints and photographs of the local scenes in eateries and residences. She and her husband have a very engaging and idiosyncratic collection of religious artefacts, tin toys, children’s booklets, and old Penguin classics. This is: Jesus, Me, St Francis, and an unknown (to me) photographic portrait.

Wednesday. We ate our ‘free’ breakfast at a cafe associated with the B&B and, then, walked to the Kibble Palace at the Glasgow Bontanic Gardens. The interior is graced by some fine examples of 19th century sculpture, including The Elf (1899) by the Welsh artist William Goscombe John. They, at one and the same time, looked at home and incongruous amid the orchids, carnivorous plants, and tree ferns. A wind arose — the harbinger of the afternoon’s serial downpours.

I ducked into the Hunterian Art Gallery for cover. Two contrasting artefacts stayed in my imagination: a roofing slate from the Lady Dorothea Quarry, Wales (1820-1970) (a support on which some artists painted with oils in the nineteenth century), and a reasonably good John Hoyland acrylic painting on cotton duck, from 1969.

Thursday. After breakfast, we headed out of Glasgow towards the English border. On our descent, the motorway signposts indicated ‘The South’ and ‘Carlisle’. Of course, from the perspective of England, Carlisle is ‘The North’. It’s all relative. The weather changed from blustery sunshine to torrential downpour. The driving rain threw up spray that made road signs impossible to read. We did a pit-stop at the dispiriting Cheshire Oaks out-of-town shopping mall, where I bought a tie for a forthcoming family wedding, before landing with friends for the night on the Wirral.

September 22 (Friday). The final leg, from Bromborough to Aberystwyth. The rain was cruel. Visibility on the road was once again severely impaired. Today ‘The North’ was North Wales. As we entered Wales, the new 20-mile an hour speed limit on ‘roads with streetlights no more than 200 yards apart, usually located in residential and built-up areas’ had to be observed. Granted, it does feel as though the car is proceeding through molasses. No doubt we’ll get used to this restriction. There’s been a good deal of objection to the legislation from both inside and outside of Wales. I can imagine a scenario where a child steps out in front of a vehicle travelling at 3o mph and is killed. The community beats its collective breast and laments that it would’ve done anything to bring that little one back. Well, reducing speed by 10 mph may is something we all could do in order to preempt such a tragedy.

You have arrived’ (Google Map navigator).

See also: Intersections (archive);  Diary (September 15, 2018 – June 30, 2021)Diary (July 16, 2014 – September 4, 2018); John Harvey (main site); Instagram.

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