We had tried to get out of Ullapool. As night fell we headed north, but the petrol needle resolutely pointed south. It would be stupid to risk driving off into the dark unknown and there seemed to be no petrol stations to be found anywhere. We pulled over and asked a man poking around in the black front garden of the very final house on the road out of Ullapool, and watched a performance of Highland hospitality clashing with Scottish miserliness.
“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 wee drop I suppose.”
“Oh thanks,” I said. “That would be great.”
“Aye well… Just huld on there a munnit…” The short man, with his pale denim shirt tucked into his pale denim jeans and his hair like a cascade of tight black springs falling down the back of his neck disappeared back into his house, coming back with a can of petrol held up.
“Ah,” he suddenly stopped short, the can suspended in mid-air. “But you’ll probably be needing diesel won’t you?” He let the can drop by his side. “Aye, wull, it was a nice idea but...”
“No,” I said. “The van’s not diesel. That’ll be good for us…”
“Oh,” he said, slowly hiding the can behind his back. “Wull… I dinnae really have that much you know…”
I told him that it was fine and we’d find some petrol the next morning and watched him relax and loosen visibly. “Oh if you think so, aye. So…have you come far then?” he went on, brightly now. Leaning on his fence post. “That’s a braw van you’re driving there…”
Having parked for the night high up on the hill 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 a contented bee. At Ardvrek Castle we pull up for late breakfast porridge and for just the short amount time we stay here 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!” she calls back to me. “I feel I could just pick it up and eat it…” A surreal outburst.
I go back into the gloom of the van and read in the guide book about the castle and learn that the Royalist owner had the castle taken off him during the Civil War and was hung, drawn and quartered here in 1650. The subsequent owner was then 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 a sweet-looking old man smiles and waves a gnawed walking stick greeting at us as we drive past him walking the glens – I do think how the landscape here won’t really have changed in the slightest 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, with everything around us taking on a melancholy feeling. Dreich I tell Giristroula I think the Scottish word is for all this grey and drizzly rain. It doesn’t really cheer her up to have a word to label it. 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 torn rags, the naked rock peeping through. It would be pretty unwise to suffer a heart-attack out here I’d imagine, out on these hostile moors surely a hundred miles from the nearest person or building or any sort of life. And it really must be an unforgiving place in the winter. But then the landscape and weather shifts and the slate grey rocks and the heather changes to straw-coloured grass and reddish rocks. The landscape becomes open, stretching wide, looking more like something from 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 round here reminding me of the Shipping Forecast, which we have sat in the van each night listening to, often with the Atlantic clattering just outside. At almost the very top of the country we reach Durness and stand on Sango Bay. The sand is soft and unexpected bright-white. The peacefulness is a little unsettling. I stare out towards the Arctic, nothing of mainland Britain in front of us now, only hundreds of miles of cast-iron sea. (Shipping Forecast region: Fair Isle).
There is a small graveyard of a battered broken-down church on the grassy banks above the bay. Every grave seems to be inscribed to different people, all called MacKay. I’ve read that the area we’ve been driving 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, seems to have the name MacKay. Except one though… Even here in this isolated corner, a place where you can’t be completely be sure that the 20th century has broken over the shore, it seems you can’t escape The Beatles. John Lennon’s aunt is buried in this graveyard. Lennon himself was sent here for remote holidays with his family for summers as a boy.
We drive on – 12 days after leaving working, serried Liverpool ourselves – and continue eastwards along the top of the country, feeling on the very edge of the known world. We journey on round the pale-green sea loch, Loch Eriboll – where an adult Lennon brought Yoko and son Julian in 1969 to show them where he had spent his holidays and badly crashed his car spending five days in the local hospital. “If you’re going to have a car crash,” Lennon said “Try to arrange for it to happen in the Highlands.” I look out across the loch at the sloping mountains, a double rainbow rising above the trees. He wasn’t wrong. Once we are round the loch, the land continues to get flatter and a little duller as we pass through the town of Tongue, and then we’re up again on the highest coast of the country. Giristroula remarks on how the white beaches and bays with turquoise seas lapping the shore look like those back home. “Just like the beaches of Paros…” she says to herself, shaking her head in amazement, as she stares out at another shimmering inlet of beach and water. She’s less impressed by what she calls all the “colourless houses” dotted all along the coast here, all huddled down low out of weathered necessity but now with their windows open in the summer heat and the curtains flying out, like doves, in the breeze. We can see two-thirds of the body of a man outside one house, as he leans his head through an open window to chat. He must look like a horse poking out through a stable door on the other side. The vast white geometric sphere of the nuclear power station, balanced here on the very crown of the country, hoves into views. Dominating and impressive, although old and leaky and presumably hopelessly unsafe. It looks like some sketchy 1950s idea of what a base on the moon would look like, especially so as the power station seems to have killed off all plant and flower life in a wide arc of dead rock all around it.
Thurso is a big, proper town. Granite and serious and evidently prosperous. We’re on the final stretch now – stopping first at the sign of the true most northerly point of mainland Britain, Dunnet Head, and then at last we’ve done it. We’re there. John o’Groats. Things are less touristy at this end of the country. There are fewer fast food places and more of a community evident than in Lands End, John o’Groats forever-linked counterpart back down in Cornwall. I’m amazed to see a large school up here, people living on this furthest point of the country. So, 19 days since we stood at an almost identical signpost, we take our photos under the ‘Land’s End – 874 miles’, and reflect on the journey we’ve taken. How we’ve made it all the way up through this elongated land. This fortress built by nature.
“You’re 34p short.”
The small, 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 lurks 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 beg, we tell her we won’t hook up the electricity to the van, all we need is a hot shower. She remains unmoved. After all the travelling to get here I am broken, but there aren’t many other sleeping options up on the northernmost tip of Britain. I do a tour of the site. A group of leathered bikers – shaved heads, huge beards, skull-decorated – feel very sorry for our plight but can’t find any change, rootling around between them, tapping pockets, offering overly polite apologies. It looks like our luck, after all these many endless miles, has run out at the worst possible time. Then a lumbering figure appears from behind the office portacabin.
“Here,” says 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 thank him and bounce back into the office, slapping the money down.
“We’ll have a berth please.”
Having counted carefully, the woman looks up with slanted eyes, a growling mistrust. “And where did you get this?”
A tremulous hulking figure stands behind her, waving his hands pleadingly in the air.
We leave the portacabin triumphant and stand and breath in the painfully fresh air deep into our lungs. Inhaling the sea and salt and nature, as if hoping we could store it somehow and take it away with us. And then we take our little patch of flattened grass for the night. Our place at the very top of the country.