As we began our home stretch, the final thousand miles back to London, I’m beginning to understand why most travelogues seem to follow the Fibonacci principle: they start off slowly, with tiny chunks of journey described in finest of details, only to end with swathes of land covered at the speed of light, from one major point to another, almost without stopping.
Not that inability to stay equally focused on all the minor details for months is the only reason why we speed through the remainder of Caithness and Sutherland in a day. We are trying to reach Inverness before the van finally breaks down; we can feel it in the vibrations – it won’t last long. So, sadly, we pass most of the attractions along the way, including almost all the stops on the enigmatic Pictish Trail, and several signs pointing to standing stones, cairns, stone circles, including the aptly named Hill o’ Many Stanes.
If it’s not visible from the A9 (one of the most challenging highways in UK as it is – we suddenly remember the place where we had to double-take five years ago, in a van with considerably weaker engine: the dreaded Berriedale Braes, a monstrous, winding slope, 13% both ways), it’s not on our itinerary. That doesn’t mean we see nothing: on the contrary, the road passes a fair number of castles – ruined or standing, the largest of them, at Dunrobin, resembling something straight out of a Disney theme park – distilleries, and even a finely preserved broch near Golspie. There’s also quite a few massive monuments adorning the peaks of the hills we pass, some simple statues, some more complex and abstract, all terribly out of place in this raw, fierce, green-brown landscape. The distilleries are where we make brief stops, to let the wheels cool down; it’s weekend, so they are mostly closed, but we make notes of their names – we’ll be trying them all later: Old Pulteney (we had tried this one – strong iodine and seaweed, like the final sip of Laphroaig), Clynelish (the only open shop, the malt is so perfect – sweet and fruity, almost treacle-like – we buy half a bottle instantly to keep us warm later), the ubiquitous Glenmorangie, Dalmore…
One place we do make a longer stop at is at Badbea; from a car park not far from Berridale, a narrow path through heathers takes us to a steep cliffside, scattered with ruins of old croft cottages. This, and a stone memorial built by the descendants of one of the inhabitants, is all that remains of a village of Badbea, the symbol of Clearances.
Known euphemistically as “Improvements”, the Clearances saw thousands of Highland Scots removed from their small crofts, to make place for sheep and modern (by Victorian standards), intensive agriculture and industry. Those who refused to slave away at factories, coal mines and harbours, were given a simple choice: either leave the country (which most of them did, thus ensuring places like Canada and New Zealand had their share of Highland blood) or relocate to villages like Badbea. Not quite yet a concentration camp, but getting there, Badbea was positioned on a wind-swept cliffside, so dangerous and inhospitable, as the rumour had it, that the women working the fields had to tether not only their livestock, but their children, to prevent them being blown off by the wind. Having seen what the Atlantic wind gale can do, I find the story rather plausible.
Incidentally, one of the largest monuments seen along the A9, not far from Golspie is that of the 1st Duke of Sutherland, responsible for some of the worst atrocities of the Clearances. The statue, rather understandably, is quite controversial, and once every few years an attempt is made to destroy it by local “unknown culprits”.
There aren’t many campsites in this part of Scotland to choose from, and we dare not go too far from the main road, so we stay the night at a highly non-descript caravan park near the Durnoch Firth bridge, hemmed in between the A9 and a freight railway line. The site advertisement claims you can “buy your dream here”, but I dare not think of whose idea of a dream this place might be. They do have a decent washing machine, though.
It’s Sunday the next day, as we drive through the Black Isle – a narrow peninsula, accessible only through two tall bridges, known both as a place of natural beauty, and a location of an organic brewery; the weather gets almost as bad as it was on Hebrides, and the passage through the bridges is an adventure in itself. But we make it more or less safely to Inverness; it being Sunday, there are no garages open, so after doing some basic (and less basic – more cold weather clothes & heater are a necessary purchase) shopping, we head to what is for many the greatest attraction Scotland has to offer: Loch Ness.
It’s only a few miles from Inverness to where the most famous lake in the world starts; a further ten takes us to Drumnadrochit, the largest town on its shores, and the location for the third most visited castle in Scotland: the Urquhart. Everything here is, naturally, overhyped and, despite the late season and weather, overcrowded. The Urquhart Castle is impressive – if you haven’t seen a medieval castle before, that is; otherwise it’s just another picturesque ruin, with a pretty tower. The fact that you can actually touch the waters of the revered Loch from the castle grounds makes the long trip all worth it for most of the tourists here.
We see no Nessie, or rather – we see it everywhere, from a large statue in front of the Loch Ness Centre, to postcards and fluffy toys. The lake itself is a pretty sight, if you can find somewhere to look at it in peace: a narrow strip of calm, deep sapphire; the trees in the Great Glen are beginning to turn scarlet and golden. The autumn finally caught up with us; it’s just a week until the equinox.
Bizarrely, there seems to be only one campsite on the northern (western?) shore of Loch Ness, and it’s a tiny one: Borlum Farm is a horse farm with about a dozen pitches attached to it, and a basic toilet/shower block, costing £15 per night. Apart from us, and two beautiful cats, the rest of the guests are a bunch of Scandinavian backpackers, huddling and shivering in the bothy as the temperature at night falls nearly to zero.