The moon had sailed over a black and orange sky as we slept in our van at the top of the country. The sea in an huge arc all around us. Morning comes, and we mutter our farewells to the closed door of the old sow in her office as we leave the campsite early. I imagine her in there downing her skalk: a constitutive whisky-for-breakfast tradition.
There is an area even more north and east than John O’Groats that we decide to see before leaving this furthest flung part of Britain. Duncansby Head. We walk some of the long coastal path, gasping in great lung-fulls of bracing air. 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 these fields.
We gaze 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. Past 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 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 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 the 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, often holding up a thanking hand.
“They don’t do that in Greece,” she says. “But then, they don’t really have any zebra crossings…” she adds as an after thought.
As we carry on our sluggish way down, we’re overtaken by a red post van and I think again, like the school at John O’Groats, how there is real life 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 that old black and white film about the Night Mail trains running up to Scotland, with Auden’s poetry and Benjamin Britten’s music, and I mutter away to myself while Giristroula regards me dubiously out the corner of her eye…
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…
We reach a small pleasant town. Brora. A sign tells us it’s known as ‘Electric City’ as it was the first place in Scotland to be wired up with electricity. It doesn’t really live up to this billing. A turreted old stone clock tower seems the most vital, animated thing here today. But as we crawl into the town, it slowly starts to reveal itself to be a very peculiar place indeed. It feels deserted, but in doorways along the town, resting jauntily against pillar boxes, caught in animation 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.
The weather has suddenly become unnaturally hot. Giristroula looks shocked. She says how she thought this was meant to be a miserable island – 9 months of winter… and then 3 months bad weather. The beating sun seeming almost like some 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 see two impossibly aged old ladies, sunken faces, sitting side by side on a bench hidden from the bright light by dark overhanging trees.
In the bakery, as I look for macaroni pies, two identical twin girls in identical 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 odd. We leave Brora, its real and its wicker people, without hanging around too long, 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 hub of the Highlands I’d heard so much about. The Bright Lights, Big City. The place where people plan their nights out months in advance, as I’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. 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 bring on a deep dry heave – seemed to be there to appeal to someone other than uninterested local Invernessians passing by. There is a noble looking sturdy red granite cathedral.
Outside the pubs in the streets very Scottish-looking men are 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, stood 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, arching back down like a falling red star. He turns back to go into the dark old-smelling pub. 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 good pub near the large red castle overlooking the River Ness and, at last, Giristroula – having talked of little else since we crossed the border – has Scottish salmon. My great-grandfather, who ended in Culzean Castle, had started his life here in Inverness. I bother the pub staff every time I go up, telling them how I have Invernessian blood pouring through my veins. They feign polite interest and I swagger back to my seat each time.
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 back and forth – 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 brave 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 hapless family history running unaltered down the years. Trickling down from these northern highlands, down through the line, down to me. down to my new country. my new life in Greece.
As I leap back over the railings again, my trousers get caught and I fall and am briefly left dangling as, maybe the only other tourists in the town, two Japanese girls, watchfully walk past me on their way into 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. And Scotland, with its history of the Highland clearings where the wealthy landowners brutally destroyed whole communities in the 18th and 19th Centuries – and then the economic depressions almost two hundred years later as governments let communities die again – has a sadness lying in it, hidden deep, beyond its obvious visual melancholy beauty.
I liked Inverness a lot. But we still have the prospect of Loch Ness in front 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 the night, like a huge black animal hunkering on top of the water’s edge, sits on us quickly, clumsily, leaving nothing for us tonight anyway but cards inside, under the lamp, and hearing the wind outside.