The smell of frying bacon wakes me. I peer out of the tartan van to see Glen Nevis camping site a hive of morning activity. Kenneth Williams looks to be doing his exercises in the next camping bay. Sid James heads towards to the shower blocks in his dressing gown with a bar of soap and a towel over his shoulder. It’s a very ordered community life, set among the vast Scottish wilds. Neighbouring campers greet each other as they walk along the grids of neatly verged small roads, as if off to work for the day with a newspaper under their arm.
I prefer the wild camping of leaving our van wherever we come to a halt for the night, but a steaming shower directly under the mountain’s frowning glare is a welcomed relief.
We eventually leave the camp site and set off northwards again, calling in first to the petrol station on the outskirts of Fort William.
While I go and stock up on junk in the service station, Giristroula fills up the tank. I come back round the side of the van and something is clearly not right.
“Something’s not right!” Giristroula calls out as she fires a blast from the petrol pump into the tank and the petrol comes straight out again in a great fountaining arc.
“Well don’t do it again!” I shout as she has another go, sending the petrol spitting back out once more.
I take over the pump, and at a loss as what else to do, press the handle once again, with the same disastrous result of a geyser of spraying petrol jetting out from the opening and down onto my shoes.
What can be happening? Then we see it. We’re putting petrol into the water tank. With a sick feeling in our stomachs, we gingerly sniff at the opening we’ve been shoving the nozzle into – down the side of the van from the, now quite obvious, petrol cap. It’s where the camper van’s water supply goes in and is stored, and it now reeks of petrol. What have we done? We’ll have to try and get the water tanks drained somehow.
We start up the van and chug round the streets looking for somewhere that could help us, finally finding an old corrugated-iron garage up on a hill above the town. The owner raises his eyes from under the bonnet of a car as we pull into his forecourt.
“We’ve done the silliest thing…” I tell him as he walks over, wiping his filthy hands on an even filthier rag. His dour silence making me nervous and making me talk far too fast.
“I don’t suppose you’ve ever seen anyone put petrol in the water tank before have you? Have you ever seen anything like that? Maybe you have?”
“Aye,” he replies, slowly. Turning away to look at the van. “Once or twice. There are some fools out there, it’s true enough…”
He brings us out a small electric dredging machine and some plastic piping and hands it to me.
“Oh. You have everything we need…” I say.
“Aye. I saw the two of yous coming into town yesterday. I thought to myself, they look like a pair who’ll be filling their water tanks up with petrol…”
I can’t tell if he’s joking or not. His face makes no register of humour whatsoever. I let out a little bleat of a laugh, a little too loudly, and then just as suddenly stop. It’s clear he’s not going to giving us any help either.
Giristroula and I spend almost the whole day, dredging the tank, filling it with water, pouring the petrol out onto the garage forecourt where it mixes with the light rain that’s falling and runs away in greasy rainbow streaks out past the old tyres and hulks of broken cars.
The garage owner sits watching us with a miserable look on his face – it’s never too difficult to distinguish between a dolorous Scotsman and a ray of sunshine really – as he sits on an oil drum, smoking his roll ups with the petrol running under his boots. Occasionally he shakes his head at our work and walks off to inspect the rest of his garage. At last he leaves and his apprentice lends us a final helping hand.
At the end, feeling at least relieved that we’d got rid of most of the petrol residue we stand on the forecourt thanking the assistant for his help, just as a small lady customer – one of those indestructible Scottish types – comes into the garage carrying an enormous exhaust pipe over her shoulder.
“Well, you see, we’re friendly here,” she says. “That’s why the lad here helped you. Aye, we’re friendly on the west coast alright. And the further north up the west coast you go, you’ll see, the friendlier we are. Not like them on the east coast…” she adds, pulling a disapproving face.
After this back-breaking work we set off, tired and at least four hours behind schedule. We pass the owner coming up the hill and wind down the window to give him our thanks again.
“Thank you so much,” I say, still trying to curry favour with this relentlessly saturine man. “And I can confirm in the future you West Coast folk really are the most helpful…”
“Aye,” he replies “And careful with our money. That’ll be £40”. He stands by our van in the rain with his hand out.
“Water doesn’t come for free you know…”
I hand over the cash, watching the Highland rain runs down his face, dripping off the end of his long eagle nose.
We’re back on the A82, passing through everything we looked down on from Ben Nevis. Deep countryside and so many different lochs. I try to take in everything as we pass but there is so much environmental confectionery on offer here, it’s hard. I even think perhaps the Scots gave up keeping track when I see that, having earlier passed a Loch Long, we are now passing a Loch Lochy.
We finally leave Scotland’s version of Route 66, having looked over the huge Glengary view down onto the Caledonian Canal, and we now swing onto the road heading west towards Skye. The pine trees I felt were missing before are all around us now. And the weather – grey with a slating rain, and even a mist rising up off the fields – seems entirely appropriate for this scenery.
Out of the mist appears Eilean Donan Castle. It’s quite the most evocatively perfect Scottish image. Set on a loch, a stone bridge, turrets, flowers, mountain backdrop. It sits there almost in a trance – drugged with its own perfection. It’s beauty makes me feel desperately sad and I don’t know why.
We cross over the modern Skye Bridge and onto our first Scottish island. It’s disappointing to be landing on Skye in such a prosaic way when a ferry has been running this stretch of water since the 17th Century, but time is getting on and we need to settle on somewhere on the isle to stop for the evening.
We keep heading through Skye, under-researched and so unable to decide where to stay. We eventually park up in the pretty harbour town of Portree to eat. We pass a pub where a group of middle aged ladies and gents, out for a nice evening, are entering. One of them is wearing a kilt. Giristroula stops and grabs at my arm, like she can’t quite believe it’s true. One of the ladies points at her friend, a man with a kind red face over his big white Aran sweater. “Oh, excuse me love,” she says to the man on the door. “Can you not let this one on please, he’s TROUBLE…” They all cackle with laughter. The mans red face goes redder still.
Later we have to move the camper van out of the town to find a more suitable place to sleep. So we keep on travelling through the island in the dark. “Is this the best place to stop?” “Is this?” Eventually, now in pitch black, we just throw the van to the side of the road and sit with the engine off, miles away, it seems, from anywhere. The wind rocking us and making moaning noises. Dismembered voices all around the van.
“What’s that sign?” says Giristroula peering out of the front window into the black night. “Does it say no parking? Go and see.”
She ushers me out, and with a start I see the sign isn’t a sign at all but a cross. It sits by the side of the road under mysterious jagged dark lines I can see hanging high above us. Like gigantic teeth set on the black sky. I hurry back to the van and bed down for a night of bad dreams under the tartan blanket.