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 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 a turmoiled performance.
“Aye, there’s nae 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 some I suppose”.
This short man with his dark denim shirt tucked into his pale denim jeans and hair like a pool of black springs on his head came back from his house proffering a can of petrol.
“Ah ” he suddenly stopped, 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 good idea but..”
“No” I replied, “the van’s not diesel. That’ll be good..”
“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 saw him loosen noticeably, though still wrestling with his native necessity to help.
Having parked for the night high on the hill over the town, we head back into Ullapool next morning stock up and then we’re out again, on our 25th day from London.
We take the scanty roads of Ross and Cromarty, the now sated camper van buzzing along like a contented tartan bee. At Ardvrek Castle we pull up for late breakfast porridge and for just the amount time we stayed the clouds parted 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 Passepartout stares at it rapt as she collects fresh water from the Loch. I read in my guide that the Royalist owner had the castle taken off him during the Civil War and was hung drawn and quartered in 1650. And then 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 where Passepartout is busily filling our pans. I decide not to tell her any of this.
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 the Doctor on that one, I think how the dramatic landscape we pass now won’t have changed in the almost quarter of a millennia since he laid eyes on it. The sights in this region, mountainous and wild, thinly inhabited and little cultivated, really one of the great scenes of human existence.
The weather isn’t pleasing on this stretch, the aura around us taking a melancholy feeling. Our Boswell keeps up her great driving artistry, speeding us along past moorland boulders and wind-bent grasses. Green but rocky hills around us like a man in rags; the naked 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 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 are reminding me of the Shipping Forecast: which we have sat in the van each night listening to, 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 Artic, nothing of mainland Britain in front of me. Only hundreds of miles of cast-iron sea. The Shipping Forecast region of Fair Isle.
Unexpected too is in the modest grave yard 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, most remote parish in the land. And every parishioner that dropped off here seems, quite weirdly, to have been called MacKay.
Except for one, quite conspicuously.
Even in this isolated corner, a place where you can’t be completely be sure the 20th century has broken over the shore, 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. I wonder how long it took the young Lennon.
We continue eastwards, feeling on the very edge of the known world. Journeying on to the pale-green sea loch, Loch Eriboll, where Lennon, a terrible driver, having brought his family in 1969 to see where he spent his holidays, crashed his car badly.
Round the Loch, the land continues to get flatter, duller as we head along. Passepartout driving us attentively through the town of Tongue, despite all my poor directions. And then we’re up again on the top of the country.
Passepartout remarks on how the white beaches and bays with often turquoise seas look like back home. “Just like the beaches of Milos” she says with stupefaction on her face. She is less impressed by what she describes as colourless houses though, dotted along the top, all huddled low out of weathered necessity, and we’re both contumelious of 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 true most northerly point of mainland Britain, Dunnet Head – to John o’Groats.
Things are less touristy at the other end of the country. There are less fast food places and more of a community than 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 ‘Land’s End 874 miles’ and try to think grandiose thoughts having made it all the way through the country here. And fail.
“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 towards us. Her nervous looking husband lurking behind her, heavy set but cowardly tense, wearing thick glasses with no eyes behind them.
Our pleas fell on deaf ears. She tapped the sign telling customers that a night’s stay is £20. “It does nae say nineteen pounds sixty six now does it?”
We begged. Told her we wouldn’t hook up the electricity to the van, all we needed was a hot shower. She was 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 cabin.
“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 bantam weight Scottish dragon looked up with growling mistrust “Where did ye get this?” A tremulous hulking figure skulking behind her, waving his hands pleadingly in the air. We left and took our patch of flattened grass for the night.