I can hit the extremes of both loving and loathing the time stamps I have set for myself. On the one hand, they give my days structure, and often set me on a pathway to wonderment. On the other, they prevent me doing what I would rather do, a lot of the time, which is settle into my little bolthole and avoid leaving as much as is humanly possible.
Do I regret the plans, after the fact? Never. And that’s the key point, really. They are my way of saying to myself, ‘you’ve been writing lists and plans all your life, and it’s time to actually live them.’ But it isn’t always easy. And it demands a lot of me. And, in the end, I’m not sure if I’m someone else when I’m away, or more myself than I have ever been before.
Back to the beginning.
On the road to Inverness, which first required a ferry, from Fishnish to Lochaline.
I LOVE the ferries. The areas where they dock often have a wee cafe, with a good server and bad coffee, and a gathering of travellers, stretching their legs. They have a casualness about them, which makes driving onto them feel like catching public transport, which, essentially, it is. On these smaller ones (I never think the cars are going to fit, but there is always heaps of room), you can just stay in your vehicle; drive in on one side, off out the other. I go upstairs, because that’s what I do now, admire nature.
Look at this water. And this sky.
[insert reverence here]
The drive to Inverness is scenic, and therefore quite challenging, particularly if you want to actually look at the scenery, which I do. There are many motorcyclists and motorhomes, and the roads are one lane, if you’re lucky (although I do love me a passing place!). I find myself hunched and tight as I drive. It takes concentration.
The silver lining is that admiration-stops must be deliberate. So stop I do, just to look. I can’t tell you exactly where this is, but I do know I chose it because of the house. Scale is everything.
Light is something I notice all the time here. It can turn on a dime, along with the weather, and make everything new. See?
I am so enamoured with the landscape, I actually recorded myself speaking whilst filming it, which I hoped would be more effective than a panorama image.
Now there can be no doubt as to the level of my affection.
I arrived at the Clansman Hotel for my Jacobite Cruise of the Loch Ness at the same time as a group of about 40 students. I wanted to be annoyed, but recognised the logo on their backpacks and realised they were exchange students, so I instead smiled generously and imagined someone smiling at Kitty in return.
Choosing a seat was challenging, given the table-and-benches setup they had going on. In the end, I just took a whole booth (too nippy up on top), and played out the whole every-booth-fills-until-someone-is-stuck-with-you caper. I was cold and tired, and detecting diabolical levels of ‘Nessie’ obsession (‘please do not throw food overboard for Nessie’). I bought sparkling and chips. It helped.
Castles also help, as it so happens. The ruins of Urquhart Castle are as old as they are atmospheric, the parts missing serving only to enhance the impact of imagination. Here, the ruins speak for themselves, with the visitor’s centre and gift shop situated some distance away, meaning I could avoid them altogether.
I loved it.
And this section most of all, because of way it is built right on the very edge of the land, making it look almost suspended over the deepest loch in Scotland.
I joined a castle information session, made special by the enthusiasm of our guide. Although, I can’t help but think that much of Scotland’s history can be be summed up quite easily by a single sentence.
Scots are brave…and exceptionally stubborn.
Next stop, Jane and John’s lovely home in Inverness, where they have played host to over 600 Airbnb guests. Jane greeted me at the door and we were soon chatting over tea and home-baked biscuits, looking through the atlas to find Kitty’s temporary home in China, and reflecting on the origins of Airbnb, which were less about business than home-sharing, and therefore set apart from the anonymity of hotels.
John arriving home in full kilted regalia, after a day playing the bagpipes for a charity do at Dumbarton Castle? There’s an iced cake if I ever did see one.
At their recommendation, I ventured into Inverness on foot, looking for the Black Isle Bar, whose on-tap beers include many from their own organic brewery on the actual Black Isle. Unfortunately (or fortunately, if you hadn’t dilly-dallied), it was Seafood + Stout night, and therefore packed to the brim with show-offs and their plates of langoustines. With an hour to wait for food, I drank a lonely pint and moved on.
Inverness is a pretty town. The River Ness running through it brings calls from the seabirds and produces scenes from its many bridges such as this:
And, on this Saturday night, it had a wonderfully incongruent blend of history and modern-day revelry, with its bars and restaurants, many of them housed in stately, old buildings, playing host to a community at leisure.
Feeling the effects of my pint, I headed in the direction of fish and chips, past the cemetery and the old church, marvelling, as I am wont to do, at the casual historical presence (I couldn’t read the inscription on this part of the old church, and decided it says ‘I am older than you can imagine’), and lamenting that Leakey’s, the local bookshop of note, is closed on Sundays. I would have loved to take home one of the prints from their front window.
At MacLeod’s, one of the local ‘chippies’, the potatoes have names (Cambridgeshire Markies today), and the haddock is from the decks of the Budding Rose, in Petershead. But, being a busy Saturday night, it was all sold out.
‘If you were from Australia, and there wasn’t any fish left, what would you order?’ I asked the young gent behind the counter.
He didn’t miss a beat. ‘The Stornoway Black Puddin’s nice.‘
Stornoway Black Pudding it was then. It was delicious.
As I had mentioned to Jane when I arrived, I didn’t expect this holiday to be so centred around people (thinking mostly of Uncle Jimmy at the time) and the staggering beauty of the landscape. But, having breakfast with the travellers in the bedroom beside mine, and sitting in this sunny back garden in Inverness as John mows the lawn and Jane tells me about the soap she loves from Provence, has taught me that travelling is always about people, and is at its best when it is as much about who you meet as what you see.
And I have been missing out.