The morning can’t come soon enough for me. But when it does, and the light strengthens outside, it comes with a shock. Purely by chance – again – we find we have have parked blindly in the night in the perfect place this morning. We are right underneath the Old Man of Storr. The shapes in the dark last night, which were so successful in giving me the fear, were actually the Trotternish rock formations: colossal rough arrow heads of granite rock pointing to the sky. And we had set up camp right underneath the centre piece – the contemptuous looking long face of rock that is the Old Man. There’s is a commotion going on outside the van this morning though. A gigantic Highland bull – ginger fringed wig over his eyes, huge swaying horns – has set up home in the middle of the road. A police car with lights flashing follows him around, but is completely ignored by the bull who does whatever it likes. Officers have been sent to stand and flap arms impotently at the beast. This is obviously a Big Deal in Skye. As we sip tea in the van we see the Skye police force eventually stand down, but one nervous string-bean recruit, who looks like his uniform is wearing him, is stationed on some kind of bull duty for the day. The fat unimpressed bull and the thin awkward adolescent, with his prominent bobbing adam’s apple, look an odd double act stood together in the middle of the road.
Giristroula and I decide to trek up The Storr. It’s slow, painful going after Ben Nevis. We’re feeling the fatigue from the earlier submits and the mishaps with the van and with also having to follow a long line of bright coloured anoraks filing up the climb – these hills of Skye seemingly not much of a closely held secret in the daytime – neither of us enjoy the climb much. The rocks seem more arresting viewed from out far anyway. Peering down on us grandly, rather than stood up close. The weather is bleak and we’re feeling pretty bare within. There’s a sign advertising food for the hungry climber at the bottom of the trek back down, with an arrow pointing: “Takeaway…14 miles”.
Back in the camper van, we slump for a while. We have a momentary loss of nerve. Why are we here? So far away from anywhere we know. So far from home. It feels like great chains are lashing us to our seats. The temptation is to just stop here and do nothing. It’s feels like such a long time since we started this tour, we’re tired, feeling like we’ve been plunged under dark waves. But what else can we do? We have to keep going, if nothing else, just to get back. We start up the van and head on up over the top of the isle. The weather cheers as we climb higher. A cool gleam falls on the Quiraing rock formations. They resemble, from the road, a giant hand. A warning for travellers to stop? Or maybe it’s a wave goodbye to the country, as it plunges into its northern seas. The sea lying out beyond is frayed and choppy and we stand and gaze out onto the horizon – a still, silent, solitary activity that links us back to all the other horizon-watchers that have stood at the sea’s edge since the beginning of time. My reflections on all this though are broken as I note the time and realise we will have to race down the west side of the isle as I’d heard that there is a tour of the Talisker whisky distillery you can do, and only an hour or so before it closes. I’m only interested in the free testing of the Talisker at the end really – the “king o’drinks” as the old poem ‘The Scotsman’s Return From Abroad’ has it – but the distillery is a beautiful part of Skye in its own right. Set down on a perfect fresh water river that flows down chiseling mountains out into the white mouth of Talisker Bay.
The whiskies are good. Smoky, lingering in the back of the mouth, all that sort of thing. Everything you might imagine. Giristroula has never really drunk that much whisky before – tsipouro and raki being the spirit of choice down in Greece – and I’ve never really appreciated it all that much either, just a cheap Bells or Teachers glugged down as an unwise chaser on regrettable Big Nights Out in London. However, since Dumfries where I asked in a pub what was a good whisky and the whole bar joined in to help me – one man even producing his own homemade and regularly updated, leather-bound almanac of favourite Scottish malts he had on him – we’ve been on unavoidable learning curve. And while I still think to myself “well, it’s just plants and water mashed up in a big vat really” when the evangelicals rave too strongly about it, I feel we’ve developed some sort of cultured taste of whisky while we’ve been here in Scotland. Or this what I tell myself anyway, as I look out with slightly hooded eyes on the last of Skye, my chin propped up on my fist, my elbow resting on the dashboard, a slightly imbecilic smile spread on my face, as Giristroula drives us slowly back over onto the mainland and to the Kyle of Lochalsh hotel.
We don’t have a room. We park up in the hotel car park, expecting to be moved on, but nobody says anything, so we stay. To freshen up before dinner – tinned haggis and Mulligatawny soup on the camper stove – we head to the public toilets by the tourist office. It shouldn’t be too bad though as I’ve read in my guide book that these are the most lavishly decorated public toilets in Britain… Having paid our 20p to get through a little gate, I’m disappointed to find the toilets are just bog-standard white porcelain and tile. They do have showers though. We sneak in to one of them and are in the middle of washing ourselves down when there’s a bang on the door.
“Eh. Yous in there. I’m lockin’ up the doors now.”
“Oh. Just a minute,” I shout.
This doesn’t go down well. “I dinnae get paid overtime you know!” the man bellows back though the door.
As we exit, bedraggled and wet, there’s a small angry Scotsman waiting for us. One eye scrunched closed in irritation. Tartan hat. I ask him if he’s responsible for the toilets.
“Aye…” he responds charily.
I tell him we came especially, having heard about the decoration. He brightens visibly. “Aye, that was me!”
He tells us how, having retired as a local school teacher 20 years ago, he took over the running of the lavatories. It was a labour of love. Festooning the walls and cubicles and cisterns with old maps, drawings, photos of historical figures, thistles and saltires, new vases of flowers set on the toilet tops every day.
“But what’s happened now?”
“Och. The bloody council. They di’nae like it. Took it all down last year.”
“But it’s famous….”
“Aye. I told them,” he shoulders slump. He looks despondent and tails off. “No one listens to me anymore…”
We sit in the hotel bar in the evening. Imposters, but no one seems to care. I listen to the men of Kyle of Lochalsh gathering round their drinks in the thinly decorated 70s-looking lounge bar, talking of next weekend when one of them is going to Inverness to go on a shopping run to the Marks and Spencer’s there. The general tone as they talk of this journey to the nearest large town, around 70 miles away, is one of hushed respect. As if he were taking some journey without maps, entering into the dark interior of African Liberia or somewhere. We leave for our night in the camper van parked outside in the car park, next to a now markedly more tempestuous and frothing dark Loch Alsh. Strong winds have arrived, like someone fat running in late, blustering along, all coat and bags. But the Scotsmen behind us – big heavy-set capable men, who have been born into all this beauty, bred and fed on the rain here, but thinking anxiously about having to go on a trip to Inverness – have left me feeling happy on this dirty night. We drift off to sleep with the hulk of Skye watching us, resolute and hardy, from over the water. Guarding us as the gale blows outside.