The moon had sailed over a black and orange sky as we slept in our van at the top of the country, the sea rolling in and out in an huge arc all around us. Morning comes and we mutter our farewells to the closed door of the miserable woman in her office as we leave the campsite early. I imagine her in there downing her skalk: the whisky-for-breakfast tradition round these parts.
There is an area even more north and east than John O’Groats that we decide we really should see before leaving this furthest flung part of Britain, Duncansby Head. We park up and walk some of the long coastal path, gasping in more lung-fulls of bracing air. We approach the local wildlife and fall for that irresistible urge of saying “Hello” in a posh accent to the impassive faces of the horses and sheep that stand dumbly, looking at us over fences in the fields. We gaze for a while at the Ducansby Stacks: giant points of rock, like two dunce’s caps sunk in the sea, and then we’re back on the road and, for the first time really since Cornwall, heading southwards. Back down Scotland. Past the lonely crags and through empty moors – gloomily beautiful.
“Scottish drivers are definitely worse than the English,” Giristroula tells me as another car cuts us up on the A99. “I don’t know why it is, but they are.” And, of course, if anyone should be an expert on maniacal drivers, it’ll be the Greek.
“Well it’s nice you have car parks and we could have that walk on the cliffs back there,” she says. “If we were in Greece everyone would have just driven to the very edge. Greeks would take their car to bed with them if they could…”
As critical as she is of her countrymen’s road habits, and how she now feels she’s adopted polite British driving ways, Giristroula still finds the etiquette of crossing the road here ridiculous. She wheezes with laughter at the people she stops for at zebra crossings breaking into an embarrassed jog in front of the car, holding up their little apologetic thanking hand. “They don’t do that in Greece,” she says as she revs the gas a bit. “But then… I guess they don’t really have any zebra crossings, thinking about it…”
As we carry on our sluggish way down, we’re overtaken by a red post van and I dwell – just like with the school at John O’Groats – how there is real life going on here, it’s not just a place to gawp at remote beauty. As I gaze at the red van pootering off into the distance in front of us, I remember the old black and white film about the Night Mail train running up to Scotland, with Auden’s poetry and Benjamin Britten’s music. I mutter away to myself in the passenger seat with a clackity-clack train rhythm as we chug along.
“Letters from uncles and aunts, to Scotland from the South of France… Letters of condolence to Highlands and Lowlands… Notes from overseas to the Hebrides…”
Giristroula regards me dubiously out the corner of her eye.
We reach a small pleasant-looking town. Brora. A sign tells us it’s known as ‘Electric City’ as it was the first place in Scotland to have been wired up with electricity. It doesn’t really live up to this billing: a turreted old stone clock tower seems the most animated thing here today. But as we crawl into the deadly quiet town, it slowly starts to reveal itself to be a very peculiar place indeed. It’s deserted, but in doorways along the town or resting jauntily against pillar boxes or caught mid-stride coming out of shops, everywhere, there are elaborately dressed wicker scarecrows. I don’t know why. Scarecrow policemen, scarecrow lovers stare at each other on a park bench. Scarecrows all over the place, but no real people. The weather has also suddenly become unnaturally hot. Giristroula can’t believe it, she has long been schooled on the idea of how this is a miserable climatic island – 9 months of winter… and then 3 months bad weather. The beating sun now as we clamber out of the camper van seems almost like an act of deceit. I get out of the van barefoot, burning my soles on the paving stones.
“Do you nae have any shoes?” comes a barked hidden voice.
Startled, I look around and can’t see where the voice has come from. Peering into the shadows I see two impossibly aged old ladies, sunken faces, sitting side by side on a bench hidden from the bright light by dark overhanging trees. I raise a hand in greeting, but they don’t respond. I head inside the bakery and, as I look for macaroni pies, two identical twin girls in identical red tartan skirts, the same red ribbons in their hair, stand bent at identical angles and glare at the buns, bannocks, Dundee cakes behind the breathed-on glass. It is unnerving. The whole town feels very odd. We leave Brora and its wicker people without hanging around too much longer, as strange thoughts of Summerisle come to my mind.
Inverness is spread out in the sun in front of us. So here we are… in that teaming metropolis amongst all the glens and lochs that we’d heard so much about. The Bright Lights, Big City of the Highlands. The place where people plan their nights out months in advance, as we’d learnt from the men in Lochalsh.
It is a handsome town: respectable and strong and serious and without many tourists, as far as I could see anyway. Although the shops down the descending high street selling the tins of shortcake, with the cardboard cut outs of white West Highland terriers in cute little tartan dickie-bows in the windows – so twee it brings on a deep dry heave – must be here to appeal to someone other than uninterested local Invernessians passing by.
There is a noble looking sturdy red granite cathedral by the river and outside the pubs very Scottish-looking men are stood smoking. Men with skin so white it’s almost translucent. They look like those anatomical, see-through, maps of the human body. I ask one youngish looking man outside one pub if it was an okay place to come in for a drink. He drags on his cigarette, points his head upwards to let go a stream of smoke before righting it back down again to talk to us in the strange strangled voice of the recently inhaling smoker. Eyes slightly squinted.
“Naw,” he says. “Not really. Naw. You wanna try down there,” he nods towards a better looking place by the river near the imposing Inverness Castle. “You don’t wanna really be coming in here. It’s a bit of a shithole to be fair.”
He flicks his cigarette end away high in the air and it rises with a cascade of sparks before like a falling red star. He turns back to go into the dark old-smelling pub and, as he walks in and chats to the locals, I work out with a bit of a surprise that he’s actually the landlord of this pub.
So we visit the other pub, near the large red castle overlooking the River Ness, and it is good. We sit at a table and at last Giristroula – having talked of little else since we crossed the border – can have Scottish salmon. My great-grandfather, who ended in Culzean Castle, had started his life here in Inverness and so I bother the pub staff every time I go up to the bar, telling them how I have Invernessian blood pouring through my veins. They feign polite interest each time, rolling their eyes behind my back as I swagger back to my seat with another whisky.
Later, a little worse for wear, outside Inverness railway station I vault over the railings of a stately war memorial to The Queen’s Own Highlanders. Closely reading the names, drawing along the letters with my finger – swaying a little – I see all the names of the townfolk who lost their lives in the battles of Egypt and the Sudan. I am pleased to spot my family name amongst the fallen soldiers of Inverness, but less happy to see the added note that he had died of disease on the way to battle rather than heroically in the heat of things. I get the awful feeling of my hapless family history running unaltered through the years, trickling down from these northern highlands, down the line through to me. And no-doubt following me down to my new country and my new life in Greece too. As I leap back over the railings again, my trousers get caught and I fall and am briefly left dangling as two Japanese girls, maybe the only other tourists in the town, watchfully walk past me on their way in to the train station.
The Glenurquhart Road takes us out of Inverness. It is the same road, in the opposite direction, we took from Glasgow: the main road, the A82, that spines through Scotland, and the one we left days ago to head west to Skye…
Skye no more, Lochaber no more, Sutherland no more. Thinking of all those areas we’ve travelled through and have now left behind, a sadness grips me. Scotland – with its history of the Highland clearings where whole communities were destroyed in the 18th and 19th Centuries, and then the economic depressions two hundred years later as governments let communities wither and die again – has a sadness lying in it, hidden deep, beyond its surface visual melancholy beauty.
I liked Inverness a lot, but we still have the prospect of Loch Ness ahead of us. No point in mournful reflection now. And there’s the usual parking the camper van for the night dilemma too. Light starts dying almost as soon as we reach the long, gently agitated loch, so we find a secluded spot away from the road, by the water, and just simply park up. It seems so easy – a great, freeing life. And then the night, like a huge black animal hunkering low on top of the water’s edge, sits down on us quickly, clumsily, leaving nothing for us tonight anyway but cards inside under the van’s lamp and listening to the wind outside.