A good place to have a wash. That’s what you always seem to be looking for when touring round in a camper van. I look out of the curtains of the van this morning at the great expanse of Loch Ness, a sunless glare amongst the tall trees on the bank, and watch Giristroula bathing precariously perched on rocks close to the shore. She’s certainly got a good location that’s for sure. As I sip my tea, I count her toppling in three times, rising each time like some miserable looking beast from the lagoon. Cheered up for the day, I pack the things away and we soon 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 out back into mountainous areas, further west. We’re happy to see the high peaks again though – unsure how many more we’ll see 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. These are day-trippers – less fit and hearty than the lone-walker figures we occasionally glimpsed through north Scotland – and 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 me 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 catch the tailend of conversation a 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 can do. He often responds to that…”
We get back in the van and carry on. I watch in the camper’s rear-view mirror as we depart as the loud red faced Scotsman in his maroon v-necked jumper beams for a photo in a line-up of smiling, trusting, Japanese.
The next loch we meet, Loch Garry, I’ve read in my guide book looks like an outline of Scotland in profile from a certain angle. We stop 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 taking over of the camera, 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 of the same smile. I break in and say to the couple. “Can you see Scotland outlined in the lake?” They look down across the panorama, doubtfully. “No? Come on, can’t you see it? Look, that would be Edinburgh, just over there would be John o’Groats…” As I badger them, I realise they have no interest in any of this. I’m becoming as annoying as the fat man back at Loch Loyne. I re-join Giristroula in the van.
We reunite with Loch Ness and, having looped round the bottom of the loch, find ourselves travelling up again now, on the eastern roadside. We pull over to inspect the waters more closely. Sitting on a jetty, we watch the slightly 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 – lowering ourselves down 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, as we pass a young boy pulling at the arm of his grandmother – the old woman sitting down resolutely on the cut steps. “I can’t,” she’s wheezes at the imploring boy. “I’m fucked.”
By a tiny old post office there is a car boot fair going on in the grounds of community hall. Jigsaws with missing pieces, box with water marked covers of old vinyl records. We pull over to ask how far we still have to go and I peer into the community hut. Old age pensioners are being looked after by eager young volunteers in jumpers. Playing board games, geeing up the slumped old timers to roll the dice in their little plastic cups: “Go on, give it a good old wriggle…” “I’m all fingers and thumbs today!” says one of the helpers which makes 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 tshirt.
We carry on heading up the east side of Loch Ness, and eventually reach Inverness once again – 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, despite it’s name, not as beautiful as you’d imagine – the Beauty Firth seemingly made up of a charmless long bridge, a few tool hire warehouses and kitchen showrooms on a roundabout, and Inverness Caledonian Thistle’s stadium sat, 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 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 suddenly 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 we had seen, including Ben Nevis – gives us deeper trees all around, looking as if they had just been freshly painted. 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. And at Birnam Wood we pass the point where Macbeth met his witches and everything to me seems fair and nothing foul as we advance through Perthshire on our way down to Stirling.
From Culloden to Bannockburn – from the low point of Scottish history to the high – in one day. The sky blushes purple and pink in the summer dusk as we roll into Stirling town.