Morning sees us even making it into the breakfast room of the hotel we’d only camped in the car park of. No one asks any questions as we gingerly enter, 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 as if the storms of last night were just some faulty memory. This really must be one of the world’s greatest breakfast table views. 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 lifeline for the residents here. The residents travelling on one of only the two services today who turn and look blankly into our van, like mildly curious shorthorn Highland cows, as they chug past.
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, more suited for the cattle that once trod it rather than our tartan grumbling machine. The Bealach na Bà seems to hold some sort of disavowing stance too – the beginning of the climb is wreathed in signs telling 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, her knuckles gripping the steering wheel turning white. We have to pull into tight passing places to let anything coming the other way pass and I count about 90 of them as we climb. My arm starts to go numb from the thank you salutes. I am glued more closely however, with a sort of foreboding fascination, to the drops next to us, with nothing, or just thin strips of road-side aluminium, saving us from these falls. What happened the usual obsession with British Health and Safety? This seems more like a road you’d find in the far-flung wilds of Crete or something. Our driver is now – her confidence up – taking the turns with complete Greek abandon: swinging the wheel through her hands, veering left and right, cackling to herself, banging on the steering wheel. I remember too late that Giristroula fell asleep before the end of the Italian Job the one time I made her watch it. A film highly regarded in this country by those slightly overweight men with their shirts untucked and framed pictures of Lambretta mopeds up on their walls, but not really of great relevance down in Greece. She never learnt the cautious salutary lesson. But we make it down the other side safely and glide into the small village of Torridon and stop for tea, something bland and reassuring as we reflect on the preposterous promenade up in the sky we’d just taken.
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, they’re still tackled today as they were back then by eager competitive climbers – but now in all that 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’d climbed Ben Nevis he’d never had a clear day at the top. It becomes obvious he doesn’t really appreciate my smug description of the miles of clear sky and the views I tell him we had when we were up there, and so with an “Aye, will you not be getting on your way now?” we set off again. Further into Wester Ross.
The scenery 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 over a thousand meters deep – and then the granite mountains that glide into vision as we round corners and then fill the whole windscreen, is more than anything I ever imagined. We’re taking a ludicrously impractical 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 the length of our journey. I heard from a friend I have back in London – quite the most ridiculous man and a completely unreliable source on most types 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. He was very precise on this exact figure. Whether it’s true or not, rounding a loch must be 10 times more than that. But it’s worth it. 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 which, like the Highland Railway, must provide an indispensable service for the sparse, spread out, communities around here. Gloriously unfashionable records played, without any sort of hipster irony; English and Gaelic conversations; Celtic songs and snippets of news that are more like over-the-fence conversations. All broadcasted out on the airways 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 all your calls. But can you nae call when I have nae got a record on please? I cannae concentrate on two things at once you know…”
After the long drive, made even longer by regularly stopping to look down from our point up at the top of the high banks at deserted sunlit coves framed with blooms of flowers and thistles, we pull in to Ullapool. Giristroula doesn’t look impressed as we park in a Tesco’s car park.
“Why does the guide book say this town is so beautiful?” she chaffs, as if personally lied to, holding the open book at arms length, looking up over the pages and down again as we walk into the town.
We get to the sea front. This is beautiful though. The harbour caught in the slowly dying sunset. There’s a lone old glass British Telecom phone box here looking out to sea. When did I last use a telephone box? When did anybody? I open up the door to see if they still have that unique smell of nicotine ash and urine inside. There’s a good-looking pub on the seafront. A vicar stands far out on pier, tall, in his dog-collar and a holey grey cardigan. He stands above his flock of three or four bent old ladies clutching hymn books to their chests, and we can just about hear him as he reads out some long hectoring verses that the evening breeze carries out over the sea.
In the pub an overweight middle-aged American lady in large glasses, patterned bow-tied maternity dress and tight close-curled librarian hair walks around the dark wooden bar. She clamps her mobile phone to each of the pained-looking locals’ ears for them to say hello to her friend back home in the Mid-West.
“Can you believe this!” she cries, snatching the phone back. “Yes! 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 Giristroula and I walk back to the Tesco’s car park later, knowing we can’t stay there but not knowing where we should go to park up for the night, 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. She’s 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…