DAY 24: TORRIDON/ULLAPOOL

Morning sees us even making it into the breakfast room of the hotel we have only camped in the car park of.

No one asks any questions as we gingerly enter, and we don’t say anything, and so we’re served by the bay windows with the loch and the Isle of Skye just outside, sat now in the sun. Surely a contender for Great Breakfast Table View of the World.

Before anyone does complain, we steal away in the camper van, leaving Kyle of Lochalsh, and drive along – pressed next to and exactly following – the Highland Railway line.

Past Plockton, Duncraig, Stromeferry. The Highland line is decidedly rural, non-electrified, often has to contend with landslides, but these small, doughty trains, protected by an Act of Parliament so I’ve read, must be a true lifeline for the residents here.

Highland travellers – on one of only the two services today – who look imperturbably into our van, like mildly curious shorthorn cows, as they chug past.

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We hit the Bealach na Bà, a single track road that winds up the mountains of the Applecross Peninsular in a series a hairpin turns, ribboning up into the sky. It looks an almost impossible route, far more suited for the cattle it once was designed for than our tartan grumbling machine.

The Bealach na Bà itself seems to hold a disavowing stance too. The beginning of the climb is wreathed in signs telling us that novices shouldn’t tackle the drive. ‘Not advised for learner drivers’, ‘Not suitable for camper vans’…

But it’s too late to turn back now, and I watch Giristroula, a picture of concentration, tongue out, taking the twisting turns.

We have to pull into tight passing places to let anything coming the other way pass. I count about 90 passing places as we climb. My arm starts to go numb from acknowledging the thank you salutes.

I am glued even more closely though, with a sort of foreboding fascination, to the drops next to us. With nothing, or just thin strips of aluminium, saving us from the sheer precipices. What happened to good old British Health and Safety?

Our driver though is now – her confidence up – taking the turns with Greek vehicular abandon. I remember too late that Giristroula fell asleep before the end of the Italian Job the one time I made her watch it.

But we do make it down the other side safely. And we stop for tea, to reflect on the magnificently preposterous promenade we’ve just taken, and take a seat in the small village of Torridon.

Standing on the shore of Loch Torridon we feel impossibly small as three ‘Munros’ stare down at us from behind the village house tops.

A Munro, I’m told by a weather-beaten man from the Scottish Mountaineering Association, coiling endless rope into his van parked next to ours, is a mountain over 3,000 feet. Named after Sir Hugh Munro, who listed them all in the 1890s, and still tackled today as they were back then – but by climbers in expensive microlight clothing rather than heavy tweed jackets, plus fours and stout hobnail hiking boots. You get the title of ‘Munro Bagger’ if you can climb them all.

We feel we’ve done enough with our one Munro of Ben Nevis, but I’m pleased to hear this man of the mountains, with his leathery skin, horny hands, sun bleached hair and soft strong accent, tell us in all the times he’s climbed Ben Nevis he’s never had a clear day at the top.

He doesn’t really appreciate my smug description of the miles of clear sky and views we had when we were up there, and so with a “Aye, will you no be getting on your way now?” from the Mountain Association man, we set off again. Further into Wester Ross.

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The scenery really is something else here. When Giristroula talked me into it this Last Chance To See trip of Britain I had reckoned on this part being special, but the silvery black lochs we run past – some 1000 meters deep – and then the granite mountains that glide into vision as we round corners and which eventually fill the whole windscreen, is much more than I ever imagined.

We’re taking a ludicrously impractical, ludicrously scenic, long route to Ullapool, following the coast which, as the coast doesn’t really follow the coast – cutting in for miles of lochs and bights – has added hugely to our journey.

I heard somewhere (from a friend I have back in London – who is definitely an unreliable source on all sort of information, to be honest) that following a river from one point to another, following all its twists and turns, is 3.14 times longer than how the crow flies. Well, anyway, true or not, rounding a loch must be 10 times even more than that.

It’s worth it.

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As we pass between two Lochs (Loch Maree and Loch Ewe) I turn on the van’s old radio and find, appropriately enough, ‘Two Loch’s Radio’.

A cottage radio station – surely Britain’s smallest – which, like the Highland Railway, must provide an indispensable service for the sparse, spread out, communities around here.

Out of date records – gloriously and unironically unfashionable – English and Gaelic conversations, Celtic songs and snippets of news that are more like over the fence conversations. All broadcasted to those listening over miles and miles of lonely Scottish moors and mountains.

At one point the DJ makes a plea “Aye, thank you for your calls. But can you nae call when I have nae got a record on? I cannae concentrate on two things at once you know…”

After the long drive – made longer by stopping to look down at deserted sunlit coves, framed with blooms of flowers and thistles from our vantage point at the top of the high banks – we pull in to Ullapool.

Giristroula doesn’t look impressed as we park in a Tesco’s carpark. “Why does the guide book say this town is so beautiful?” she chaffs, as if personally lied to.

We walk through the streets to the front. She cheers up at the sight of the harbour and its cute charms in the dying sunset. And the pub is welcoming.

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An overweight middle-aged American lady in large glasses, patterned bow-tied maternity dress and close-curled library hair walks around the dark wooden bar with her mobile phone, clamping it to each of the patiently pained-looking locals’ ears to say hello to her friend back home in the Mid-West. Snatching the phone back “Can you believe this!” she cries “I’m in Scotland!”

She makes a mournful old man with a roadmap lined face pose for a photo with a cuddly monkey she’s been taking round Europe. Presumably posing it with equally unimpressed old men in beer halls in Bravaria, cafés in Paris, or tavernas in Greece.

As we walk back to the Tesco’s car park, knowing we can’t stay there for the night but not knowing where we should go, we see the blowsy American lady walking arm in arm with three of the young, heavily made-up, girls from the pub – presumably the trouble of the town – laughing her head off. “Where are you taking me!” she screams with uncontrollable happiness.

You wait your whole life, come to a cold distant town on the very northern point of an unknown continent…and finally start to live.