We had tried to get out of Ullapool. As night fell we had headed north, but the petrol needle was pointing south and there seemed to be no petrol stations to be found anywhere. We had to pull over and 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 great 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 wee drop I suppose.”
“Oh thanks,” I said. “That would be great.”
“Aye well… Just huld on there a munnit…” and 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. He 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, wull, it was a nice idea but...”
“No,” I said. “The van’s not diesel. What you’ve got will be good for us…”
“Oh,” he said, slowly hiding the can behind his back, “Wull… I dinnae really have that much you know…”
Telling him that it was fine and we’d find some petrol the next morning, we then watched him relax and loosen again noticeably. “Oh if you think so, yes. So…have you come far then?” he went on, brightly now. Leaning on his fence post. “That’s a real 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 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! I feel I could pick it up and eat it…” she calls back to me. A surreal outburst. I take the chance to go back into 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 this all 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 – 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, everything around us taking on a melancholy feeling. Dreich I tell Giristroula 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 torn rags, the naked rocky skin peeping through. It would be pretty unwise to suffer a heart-attack out here I’d imagine, on these hostile moors surely a hundred miles from the nearest person or building or life. And it must be a quite 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 outside. At almost the very top of the country we reach Durness and 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).
Unexpected here as well is a modest 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, to have been called MacKay. There is one conspicuous anomaly 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 was buried here, and Lennon himself was sent here on holidays for summers as a boy. We drive on – 12 days after leaving working, serried Liverpool ourselves – and 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 brought Yoko and son Julian in 1969 to show them where he had spent his holidays, and badly crashed his car spending 5 days in the local hosptial).
Once 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 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 to herself, shaking her head in amazement, as she stares out at another bright inlet of beach and water. She’s less impressed by what she calls the “colourless houses” though, dotted all along the top, all huddled down low out of weathered necessity, and I’m not sure what she makes of the vast white geometric sphere of the nuclear power station balanced here, on the very crown of the country. I think it looks great myself though – although it looks old and leaky and presumably hopelessly unsafe. It looks like some sketchy idea of what a base on the moon would look like, especially so as the power station seems to have killed off all the plants and flowers in a wide arc of dead rock all around it. We drive on through Thurso, which 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 finally we’ve done it. We’re there. John o’Groats. Things are less touristy at this end of the country. There are less 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 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 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 start to beg. We tell her we won’t hook up the electricity to the van, all we needed was 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 carefully counted, the miserable woman looks up with slanted eyes, a growling mistrust. “And where did yae 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 end of the country.