DAY 25: DURNESS/JOHN O’GROATS

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We had tried to get out of Ullapool.

As night fell we had headed north, but with the petrol needle pointing south. And no petrol stations to be found anywhere.

We asked a man poking around in the dark front garden of the very final house on the road out of Ullapool, and watched Highland hospitality clash with Scottish miserliness. All acted out in front of us in some turmoiled performance.

“Aye, there’s no petrol stations for miles round here.” A pause. “I have some petrol though.”

A longer delay and then with a bereaved exhaling of air: “I could give you a drop I suppose.”

This short man with his pale denim shirt tucked into his pale denim jeans and hair like a cascade of tight black springs falling down the back of his head came back from his house proffering a can of petrol.

“Ah,” he suddenly stopped short, the can suspended in mid-air in front of him. “But you’ll probably be needing diesel won’t you?” He let the can drop by his side. “Aye, well, it was a nice idea but…”

“No” I replied, “The van’s not diesel. What you’ve got will be good for us…”

“Oh,” he said, slowly hiding the can behind his back, “Well I really don’t have that much you know…”

Telling him that it’s fine and we’ll find some petrol tomorrow morning I watched him loosen noticeably. “So…have you come far then? he asked brightly. “That’s a braw van you’re driving there…”

Having parked for the night high on the hill up over the town, we head back into Ullapool next morning, stock up on petrol, and then we’re out again, on our 25th day from London.

We take the scanty roads of Ross and Cromarty, the now full camper van buzzing along like some contented tartan bee.

At Ardvrek Castle we pull up for late breakfast porridge and for just the short amount time we stay the clouds part, flinging sunshine on the half ruined castle standing on its plinth of grass and rock sat in Loch Assynt.

It’s a beautiful scene and Giristroula stares transfixed as she collects fresh water from the loch. “It’s like…biscuits! I could pick it up and eat it…” she calls back, surreally.

I take the chance to go back in the gloom of the van and read in the guide book about the castle.

The Royalist owner had the castle taken off him during the Civil War and was hung drawn and quartered in 1650. The subsequent owner was also duly hung drawn and quartered when the monarchy was restored.

It is utterly haunted and the apparition of a ghostly mermaid likes to hang around just about where Giristroula is now busily filling our pans.

I keep all this to myself.

*

In 1773 Samuel Johnston and his biographer Boswell toured the Highlands. They found a sparse land with often no roads, money not introduced in some parts, and the weather “not pleasing”.

Dr Johnston thought the Highlanders “black and wild as savages” and while I can’t quite agree with him on that one – as an old man smiles and waves a gnawed walking stick greeting at us as we pass him in the van out walking the glens – I do think how the dramatic landscape here won’t have changed in the slightest really in the almost quarter of a millennia since the doctor laid eyes on it.

The sights in this region, mountainous and wild, thinly inhabited and little cultivated, really are one of the great scenes of human existence.

The weather isn’t pleasing on this stretch though. Everything around us is taking on a melancholy feeling. Dreich I think the Scottish word is for this grey and drizzly rain.

We putter along past moorland boulders and wind-bent grasses. The hills are all cloaked in greens, but still hard and rocky. Like a man clothed in rags; the naked rocky skin peeping out.

Then the landscape and weather shifts: the slate grey rocks and the heather changing to straw-coloured grass and reddish rocks. The landscape becoming open, stretching wide, looking more like the mid-West of America, under a fast moving, changing sky.

We have driven from Cromarty and are now heading past Cape Wrath – all the names reminding me of the Shipping Forecast, which we have sat in the van each night listening to. Often with the Atlantic clattering outside.

At the very top of the country. Durness. We stand on Sango Bay. The sand is soft, unexpected bright-white. The peacefulness is almost unsettling.

I stare out towards the Arctic, nothing of mainland Britain in front of us. Only hundreds of miles of cast-iron sea (Shipping Forecast region: Fair Isle).

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Unexpected here too is the modest graveyard of a battered, broken-down church on the grassy banks above the bay.

Every grave seems to be inscribed to someone called MacKay.

I’ve read that the area we’ve driven through is the most sparsely populated in Western Europe. This church must have the largest, but most remote, parish in the land. And every parishioner that dropped off here seems, quite inexplicably, to have been called MacKay.

Except for one. A quite conspicuous anomally.

Even in this isolated corner, a place where you can’t be completely be sure the 20th century has broken over the shore, it seems you can’t escape The Beatles.

John Lennon’s aunt was buried here. And Lennon himself was sent here on holidays for summers as a boy.

It’s taken us 12 days to get to this beautifully nowhere place from working, serried Liverpool. We continue eastwards, feeling on the very edge of the known world.

Journeying on to the pale-green sea loch, Loch Eriboll, where an adult Lennon, having brought his family in 1969 to see where he had spent his holidays, once badly crashed his car.

Round the loch, the land continues to get flatter, a little duller as we head along. Through the town of Tongue, and then we’re up again on the top of the country.

Giristroula remarks on how the white beaches and bays, with often turquoise seas, look like those back home.

“Just like the beaches of Milos…” she says as she states out at another bright inlet of beach and water, shaking her head in amazement.

She’s less impressed by what she regards as the “colourless houses” though, dotted along the top, all huddled low out of weathered necessity. And no one can be impressed by the huge ugly nuclear power station balanced here, on the very crown of the country.

We drive through Thurso. It is a big, proper town. Granite and serious and evidently prosperous. And then we’re on the final stretch – stopping first at the sign of the true most northerly point of mainland Britain, Dunnet Head.

And then we’ve done it. We’re there. John o’Groats.

Things are less touristy at this other end of the country. There are less fast food places and more of a community than in Lands End, the counterpart town in Cornwall. I’m amazed to see a large school up here, people living on the furthest point of the country.

19 days since we stood at an identical signpost, we take our photos under the ‘Land’s End 874 miles’, and reflect on how we’ve made it. Made it all the way through the country.

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“You’re 34p short”.

The short, pug-faced woman sat behind the desk of the John o’Groats camping site pushes our heaped change back over the table towards us. Her nervous looking husband lurking behind her, heavy-set but cowardly tense, wearing thick glasses with no eyes behind them.

Our pleas fall on deaf ears. She taps the sign telling customers that a night’s stay is £20.

“It does no say ‘nineteen pounds sixty six pence’ now, does it?”

We begged. We pleaded. Told her we wouldn’t hook up the electricity to the van, all we needed was a hot shower. She remained unmoved.

After all the travelling I was broken. But there aren’t many other sleeping options up here.

I did a tour of the site. A group of leathered bikers – shaved heads, huge beards, skull-decorated – felt very sorry for our plight but couldn’t find any change, rooting around between them, tapping pockets, offering overly polite apologies.

It looked like our luck, having journeyed the country, so many endless miles, had run out at the worst possible time.

A lumbering figure appeared from behind the admin portacabin.

“Here,” said the owner’s husband in a hushed voice, shaking slightly, handing me a 50 pence piece coin.

“Take it. But don’t tell her I gave it to you.”

I bounced back into the office, slapping the money down. “We’ll have a berth please.”

Having carefully counted, the Scottish dragon looked up with growling mistrust.

“Where did yae get this?”

A tremulous hulking figure stood behind her, waving his hands pleadingly in the air.

*

We left the portacabin office triumphant, stood and breathed in the painfully fresh air deep into our lungs, walked to the end of the country. And took our patch of flattened grass for the night.