A good place to have a wash. That’s what you always seem to be looking for when touring round in a camper van. There aren’t many better than where we find ourselves this morning.
I peer out of the curtains of the van at the great expanse of Loch Ness, a sunless glare amongst the tall trees on the bank, and watch Giristroula bathing precariously perched up on rocks close to the shore. As I sip my tea, I watch her toppling in three times, rising each time like some miserable looking beast from the lagoon.
We set off for a mini circuit inside our larger, on-going, lap of Britain: looking to circumnavigate the 70 or so miles round Loch Ness. The west side road runs straight alongside the notorious waters for about three-quarters of the way down, but then we’re thrown off the side of the loch and back out into mountainous areas, further west. We’re happy to see the high peaks again though – not sure how many more we’ll get from now on as we head southwards and leave the Highlands.
High above another loch, Loch Loyne, we’re drawn over to the side of the road by the sight of a curious crowd of gathered tourists. Day-trippers – less fit and hearty than the lone-walker figures we’ve occasionally glimpsed through the remote north Scotland – they’re gathered, staring, at a field full of piled-up small stone shrines. We pull up to have a look ourselves. I ask, but nobody seems to know why or for what purpose these hundreds of balanced stone towers have been left here. I walk around and peer at a few but they give no real clues. Home-made memorials I guess. I see a note wedged under one rock stack: “For Fred” next to a whisky bottle. Bottle empty. I then catch the tailend of conversation an expensively cagouled Japanese is having with an inordinately jaunty Scot, who seems to be on his own personally appointed errand here, doing the rounds, talking to the Loch Ness tourists.
“Really? You’ve seen it?” the Japanese credulously asks.
“Oh aye. Many times. But the wee beastie only comes out at night. I have my own little whistle that I do. He responds to that…”
We get back in the van and carry on. I watch in the camper’s rear-view mirror as we drive off – the loud, red-faced Scotsman in his maroon v-necked jumper beaming for photos in a line-up of smiling, trusting, Japanese.
The next loch we meet, Loch Garry, I’ve read in the guide book looks like an outline of Scotland in profile from a certain angle. We stop and I twist and slant my head at various angles and I’m sure I can see Scotland lying down there. Set in the bright water, like an ice cube mould. I try to convince a holidaying couple stood on a rock next to me, taking their photos. They are doing the habitual double-photograph relay: one of them up on the rock posing, the fraudulent hold-it smile – then the other one clambering up, the same place, the same smile. Then the inspection of the picture, the disappointment, the handing back of the camera, the smoothing of the hair, back on the rock again, the fixing the smile… I break in and say to the couple. “Can you see Scotland down there? Outlined in the lake?” They look down across the panorama doubtfully. “No? Come on, can’t you see? Look, that would be Edinburgh, over there would be John o’Groats…” As I badger them I can see uneasy looks between the two of them. I realise they have no interest in any of this at all. I’m as annoying as the fat man back at Loch Loyne. I re-join Giristroula back in the van.
We reunite with Loch Ness, having looped round the bottom of the loch, and find ourselves travelling up now, on the eastern roadside. We pull over to inspect the waters more closely. Sitting on a jetty, we watch the rippling waves of the loch lap over rocks, submerge them, and then watch as the rocks writhe back into sight again. Nothing more sinister comes out of the oily black-looking water.
The Falls of Foyers, just off the loch entail a fairly steep climb down. We lower ourselves into the bowl of thick green nature to see the – fairly anaemic really – stream of a waterfall trickling over the rock cliffs. It’s a difficult climb up again too, so it appears: we pass a young boy pulling at the arm of his grandmother – the old woman sitting down, rooted, to the cut steps. “I cannae,” she wheezes at the boy. She looks him in the eye, mournfully. “I’m fucked.”
By a tiny old post office there is a car boot fair going on in the grounds of a community hall. Jigsaws with missing pieces, plastic crates full of water marked covers of old vinyl records. We pull over to ask how far we still have to go till we get to the north edge of the loch and I peer into the community hut. Old age pensioners are being looked after by eager young volunteers in knitted jumpers. Playing board games, geeing up the slumped old timers to roll the dice in the little plastic cups.
“Go on Mary, give it a good old wriggle…” says one of the helpers. “Oh I’m all fingers and thumbs today!” says another, making Giristroula peer at her with an uncertain closeness. On the other side of the road a long haired adolescent stalks past Loch Ness in long gangly strides. Faded denim jacket, sleeves cut off, Iron Maiden back panel, sewn on patches and sweatbands, Judas Priest t-shirt.
We carry on heading up the east side of Loch Ness, and eventually reach Inverness once more – the tranquil gyratory of the loch completed. We don’t want to continue the way we’re pointing now – north – which would take us back onto the Black Isle we’d passed the day before – as with the Isle of Purbeck or the St Ives Island not really an isle, just a peninsular. We don’t want to head over the Beauty Firth either, where we had seen the River Ness empty itself from the loch into the sea yesterday and which, despite it’s name, is not as beautiful as you’d imagine – a charmless long bridge, a few tool hire warehouses and kitchen showrooms on a roundabout. Inverness Caledonian Thistle’s stadium, just a heavy goalkeeper’s punt away from the firth. We also don’t want to head south on the A82, which would take us past everything we’d seen on our way up through Scotland. We briefly toy with the idea of heading a few miles due east to Elgin to allow the Greek to wreak revenge on the current Earl for his ancestor’s pillaging of the Parthenon marbles, but decide instead to get back on the A9 and head south through Culloden.
For the first time in Scotland we’re on a good, large road. The Far North train line runs alongside us, later turning into the Aberdeen Line. I heard a good story once that train drivers are unofficially instructed to go full speed whenever they run alongside a main road, just to goad the car drivers as they flash by. I hope it’s true. As another ScotRail express flies past our slogged-out van, though, they really don’t need to flaunt rail’s superiority with us. We lumber and toil up the steep climbs of the road as it passes through the Cairngorms. The previously completely empty road filling up behind us, snaking back with obviously annoyed, slow-moving traffic. No beeping though, which surprises Giristroula.
“They’d be hooting endlessly now if we were in Greece,” she says. “Do you know what the smallest thing in the world is? The very smallest thing in the whole world…?” Giristroula turns to me, pinching her fingers together closely so I get the idea. “It’s the time in Greece between a traffic light turning from red to green and the person behind you beeping.”
The south-west end of the Grampian mountains – the range which runs up to the north east of the country and all that we’d seen there, including Ben Nevis – now gives us deeper trees, all looking as if they’d all just been freshly painted that morning. The trees cast long shadows over the road and heather runs riot off in the fields – streaks of purple lying at angles all over the hills. We cross stony half-rivers, patiently waiting to be filled by the more customary Scottish rains, like a parched dog standing by its bowl. At Birnam Wood we pass where Macbeth met his witches and everything seems fair and nothing foul as we advance through Perthshire. Small Auchenshoogle-like towns start to grow in size as we make a right turn at Perth on our way towards Stirling. Signs to Dunblane remind me again of the sad sub-tour of British tragedies that we seem to stumble on from time to time.
The sky blushes purple and pink in the summer dusk as we roll into Stirling town. We’ve travelled from Culloden to Bannockburn – from the low point of Scottish history to the high – in one day.