We’d driven north towards Fort William, a cloud mist and drizzle trailing behind like a cloak, we‘d hardly stopped. We wound each other up every 5 or 10 minutes looking sideways at one another then out at the sheet of drizzle or the pouring rain.
“So whose idea was this; Scottish highlands, late November?”
Orsi had a vague recollection it was my idea and as we got higher and the rain continued it became a more definite absolute written in stone sort of recollection, it was definitely my idea. I said, “nope” of course, it was all hers
We’d liked Glasgow and had been talking about all things Scotland, I was in character as Neil Oliver for a lot of the way pointing out hills and Glens where a bloody battle had been fought, which of course in my imagination was just about everywhere.
Orsi had innocently said refereeing back to the times when Glasgow was the empires second city
“You know when Glasgow was important… “ I cut her dead and said
“Never, ever, say that whilst there are any Scots nearby, we’ll never get out alive”
After a frustrating stop at Glen Coe we arrived at Fort William on the shores of Loch Linnie we were feeling much better, the place almost deserted, nothing much moved, but we liked it, mind you the whole of the Scottish highlands were a quiet road at that time of year, we liked that too.
I’d told Orsi of the warming open fires in the pubs up in Scotland, which were proving quite illusive and though the Crofters bar on the High street was friendly and comfortable, decorated with blue tartan seats and stuffed stags heads with glass eyes staring out into eternity from the walls, there was no open fire going, so we bought a bottle of local whisky instead, that hit he spot.
There’d been parking spaces everywhere and which, and as is always the way, a choice leads to discussion, which leads to disagreements and that night we ended up in a free car park across the North road on the other side of town in between Lidl and Morrisons with a load of humming trucks.
Next morning after a pit stop at the Weatherspoons we set off towards Kyle of Lochalsh. It was pretty much a copy paste of the drive from the day before through a blanket of gray haze though we stopped a little more regularly laughing to take pictures.
“Look at the mist on that one” I said flipping back through the photos
At one point Orsi had said innocently “You know I read, midgets and the rain are Scotlands curse”
I very nearly crashed the van.
We had to take a 40 mile detour via Fort Agustus as the A87 was closed, but it meant we got to drive along the shore of Loch Ness, neither of us could help peering out across its dark waters wondering. I broke the silence, I knew we were both thinking the same thing
“Do you think its true?” I said
“Naaah” she said.
There are times Orsi is far more of a punk than I
Back on the A87 just past Invermoriston we stopped at a cairn in memory of a man called Roderick Mackenzie who we learned had served as an officer and later a body guard for Bonnie Prince Charlie in the 1745 Jacobite rebellion, apparently he bore a strong likeness of the prince, and whilst on the run after the catastrophic defeat at Culloden the group were cornered there in July 1746, Roderick had acted as a decoy and given his life so the Prince could escape
“A brave act by a brave man” said the plaque, I thought about it as we drove on, no question about that.
Along that sweeping road I’d remembered that around 1.30pm I had an absent healing appointment but we were out of signal so I’d not received a text saying they were ready. I’d focused anyway as we drove, rather like listening to the radio, it seemed the team were on side and ready, I heard later what had happened, by all accounts it had very successful. Remarkable
Half an hour on we noticed another roadside marker at a place called Shiel Glen so I pulled over again. It marked the place where a battle had been fought between an alliance of Jacobites and Spanish troops, and British government forces on June 10th 1719 The Jacobite alliance trying to restore the exiled Stuarts to the throne and though they were confident, were poorly armed and supplied and were defeated by the government cannons, interestingly manned mostly by Scotts.
It had followed the British Navy’s engagement and the blowing to pieces of Eilean Dornie castle just 12 miles away on loch Duich a month earlier on May 10th The attack was due in part to the castle being a store house for arms and ammunition, a Jacobite stronghold and also the Spanish landing 300 soldiers in the highlands to aid the rising, 30 or 40 of them in the castle at the time. The rebellion would smolder on for years finally fully igniting in 1745 and it would be another 200 years until Eilean Dornie castle was beautifully restored to what we know it as today
I was piecing things together, soaking things up, but right then the only thing we were soaking up was the cold pouring rain, we ran back to the van drenched. But twenty minutes later we rolled into Dornie and past Eilean Dornie castle on the confluence of Loch Duich and Loch Long. It was a mile stone, we were in great spirits, all those years working in London for the Network, the Standard, London Lite, Time Out, Metro standing opposite the Scottish tourist posters in the underground stations looking at a picture of that enigmatic looking castle. I’d always smiled to myself and said
“Hey Aunty Irene” and there we were, we’d made it
You see one of the reasons joking aside, that we’d set off into the highlands was to visit with my Aunty Irene who’d moved up there 40 odd years ago to a place called Sallachy just down the road from the castle. She’d raised a family there on the side of a mountain and had later become the caretaker at Eileen Dorney castle amongst other things, she’d held that position for the last 19 years… ok ok she is one of the caretakers/guides at the castle, but still, she has the keys to the front door and in my book besides being a wonderful lady that is pretty damned cool
She’d text me ‘Could I remember my way to Sallachy?’
I’d quipped, “I can but not sure exactly where is it that you live, is there an unusual rock at the end of the road that we’ll be able to recognize?’
She’d sent back perfect directions, roughly along the single-track lane along the side of Loch Long, then a left literally up a dirt road on the side of the mountain ‘Creag Mhor’
We’d both lent forward as I dropped Pearl into first and took the steep mountainside road. Orsi side glanced nervously at me but a few minutes later we drove under the pine trees and out of view from below and pulled up, nose up hill, bottom heavy into her driveway. I Left her in first gear handbrake on, stepped out and there she was; Irene.
I went straight across, gave her great hug at the doorway. Irene is 67 but retains a beauty and elegance of a person years her junior. It was so good to see her, she invited us straight in, boots off, showed us around the place, we just sat down me on a rocking chair Irene opposite in an arm chair, Orsi on the couch with the fire roaring away. This was the welcome I’d been talking about, warm and close, and familiar.
Irene had baby-sat me Stephen and my elder brother Peter when we were babies. She’d known me as a little boy. We loved her and her sister Kathy and her brother Ken unconditionally. She’d inherited the Moughton’s (my Nan her ‘Aunty Flo’ and her Mother my ‘Aunty Alice’s’ maiden name) warmth, openness, and down to earth emotional depth. When Stephen my bother had died in May this year Irene hadn’t thought twice, driven all the way to Blackpool in a day to be at the funeral, I was touched. During the next few days she gave me so many new insights into my Mum and Dad, my Nan and Granddad and myself
Her and her X husband had built the home on old crofters land. They’d begun with a couple of caravans, he’d been quite gifted with fiber glass and so begun fiber glassing around them, encasing them, then built outwards and joined them together, which became the lounge. It had morphed into three bedrooms, a living room and kitchen area, a stand in bath and wash room, they’d built the road up the mountain side themselves, planted trees which hid their home from view from below and their water came straight off the mountain side behind them.
It had taken a few years, but such a remarkable feat, kids, dogs and horses, when you’re the one building or doing, it’s hard perhaps to realize just what has been achieved. Irene was always self-depreciating but always talking up the wilderness and the environment and the people around her
Her two beautiful girls Marie and Gayle have turned out well rounded bright intelligent and worldly, with a string of A levels and university degrees, both doing well, happy with families and husbands, all a credit to Irene.
The place was so clean, the fiberglass walls and floor polished red, with wood paneling here and there. There were books and music tapes on the shelves, stone steps led up and away into the bedrooms, crystals and stones glinted in the windows, drapes and cushions on the comfy couch and pictures of her girls, her sister and family, and the fire blazing away, instantly cozy
My mum’s side of my family are from Lancashire, or at least the ones within my living memory are though my Grandad Manus was a Scott. The town they were born into Accrington has an old dialect that is so familiar to me and seems so rare these days, whenever I hear it, it takes me right back into the warmth of my formative years. Years living up there have woven a highland weave into the gentle colour of Irene’s Accrington accent; it sounded beautiful to our ears
Her partner Jeff came up to join us that evening too, we sat and talked about I can’t remember what now, we’d brought up 3 bottles of red wine and they were all gone by the time we went to bed.
On the Wednesday morning I stepped out into the creaking fiberglass lobby down the stone steps into the lounge a fire was already roaring away, it felt so good. I washed on tiptoes at the deep sink in the fiberglass anteroom. A little window looked out onto the beautiful glassy Loch half a mile below, Irene appeared from outside, a little groggy, apparently something had clogged the water supply up on the mountain side, she’d had to go up that morning, unplug the ferns and debris from the pipes that ran down to the house
“Just the way it is” she’d quipped
Jeff a school teacher had already gone to work, Irene made toast, we made coffee, and the three of us sat around the fire that day talking, the day flew, we looked up to find it was 3pm, Jeff was expecting us at his place at around 6pm so we’d jumped up and hurried out to get a walk in down by the loch before it got too late.
Irene said “I’ll expect you back when it’s dark”
We’d changed into walking boots outside by Pearl, Orsi pulling to get a move on. I was excited. I took my wallet out of my pocket and slung it onto the bed in the back of Pearl but for some reason kept the keys in my pocket, something said ‘throw them in too’ I hadn’t listened, too much going on, not present, pulled in all directions, I left the side door unlocked too, we set off happily down the dirt road towards Loch Long.
The clouds had finally cleared, it was absolutely calm pristine clear in the glen, the only thing that moved was a curl of smoke from a cottage a mile or so away on the shore. Fast energetic Robins popped up along the road and in the trees and bushes, I’ve never seen so many, and so confident, they were everywhere, watching and checking us, honestly; it was startling.
Robins are for courage.
Sallachy is a hidden beautiful place at any time of year but right then mountain sides of were covered with blanket of golden brown bracken, with splashes of iridescent green brightness of crofters fields lower down their slopes, a dot here and a cluster there of white washed houses with black or grey roofs. The trees had dropped all their cover so the odd caravan or rusting car were now visible adding to that very end of autumn feeling and Long Loch itself stretching like a great splash of mercury all along the lowest point of the glen reflecting a mirror image of the ‘Bienn A Mheadhain’ mountains and the orange pinks, pastel blues of illuminated clouds overhead. I was absolutely enchanted, it whispered and called, and pulled us down to its side, I’d really been missing these things
I’d taken a photo up by some holiday cabins I’d imagined would be a better shot, a man had quizzed us but he’d relaxed when I mentioned Irene, back down the road and along the edge Loch Long it was low tide, it was so very very still, I just skipped off the road
“I gotta go” I’d laughed
Orsi walked on as I hurried down to the waters edge. I’d spied a sand bar to walk out on. Out in the loch was a small conical island covered with pines that seemed to float on the mirrored surface of the water, on the bank nearest a house with a ribbon of smoke rising undisturbed up into the pastel sky.
As always I’d wanted to get closer, my feet began sinking, Irene later told me it was quick sand, but I’d moved quickly, made it across and took the shot. It was here I remember messing with the keys popping them into the inside pocket of my coat, then I’d hop skipped and jumped back to the sandbar then tested the sand between where I was and the seaweed covered rocks of the shore line, it was solid so made my way across, all the time keeping my eye on Orsi wandering ahead in her red coat on the road above, I’d felt torn
I made my way along the narrow sandy line at the waters edge and seaweed. It was about 3.30pm and would be getting dark in around 40 minutes
At one point I’d stumbled on a seaweed-covered rock, I was having fun so let myself roll down on the seaweed and jarred my left elbow on the rocks underneath. I rubbed it as I walked along the shoreline, laughing.
“Ouch that hurt, get a grip mick”I took another photo then climbed back up onto the road where I caught up with Orsi and walked to the end of the Glen took a few pictures from the salt marshes, where I’d slipped again. It was the end of the day the light was amazing. We’d turned back to Irene’s chattering and planning our next move
We were back up the mountainside and at the side door of Pearl I remember thinking of the keys as we’d entered the driveway, there was no weight in my jacket. Hand shot in my pocket, then another… no keys!! It was stunning. There was no second guess I knew instantly I’d dropped them on the beach somewhere. We looked at one another. I went straight into Irene
She said “Hi how are you, you ok?”
It was surreal I remember saying “Yeah kind of, but, no. I think I’ve lost the van keys on the beach”
It changed everything.
We went straight back down but it was already dark and the tide was half way up the beach covering my tracks. We tried, we splashed desperately, rolling rocks, tearing clumps of seaweed aside but in the dark everything looked different, it was hopeless, we had to give up. That night we stayed at Jeff’s house at Achmore had a good night, our spirits still intact, how hard could it be to find a set of keys on a beach? I knew where I’d walked; we’d get them next day,
Also Irene knew of a guy called Doodie who had a metal detector and lived a few miles away at the end of the Glen. After a few calls she’d located him and he came up to her place next day. He’d initially been a little cautious leaving it with us, it had cost £800 he’d said, but I think once he’d gauged us he felt better. I was positive, I just knew we’d find them
“Just don’t put it in the water” he’d said, I gave him my word
Problem was the low tide would be an hour later every day and so it would be dark, also that particular low tide was unusual and would not be repeated for over a week so the low tide line would be a meter higher which meant we couldn’t scan where I’d walked and the morning low tide was at 4.30am and so pitch dark,
Next evening in the twilight Orsi and I splashed along the shore stumbling amongst the rocks and the kelp and seaweed me with the detector trying to remember my steps, Orsi with a rake diving onto a patch when the detector buzzed. But tide waits for no man and slowly pushed us back up the beach, Jeff came down, Doodie and later Irene too. I sensed surrender, it sent me into overdrive
The shore was covered in seaweed, the bladder wrack attached to the rocks. If we’d have been able to get back in time that first night we might have found them but as the tide came in the seaweed and kelp had risen, the keys dropped, then as the tide had retreated, the seaweed had laid back down burying them underneath
The metal detector was excellent, but not something you could swish about randomly, we’d been meticulous, but I realized it would take a great deal more patience, so I slowed my pace and went over the whole area again
I was absolutely driven, I was sure we’d find them, how could we not? Though my tracks had disappeared with the first tide, my path along the beach seemed obvious, the sandbar, the rocks, and the seaweed
I went down there 5 times in all that first few days the metal detector picked fragments of metal, beer bottle tops a few inches below the surface of the sand but we couldn’t find them and my heart began to sink. It is a mystery and has disturbed me very deeply ever since. How could I have let this happen? The keys not just to a van but to our home!!
We were stranded, unable to come and go on own steam, Sallachy is a long walk to anywhere except wilderness, 4 miles in fact to the main road. Irene was wonderful it didn’t seem to faze her. She said we were welcome to the place, offered to go and stay at Jeff’s house and we could stay at hers as long as we liked, add to this Jeff offering to put us on his car insurance so we could go off and explore the highlands and they would ferry each other to and from their work places, they were simply, great. We’d called the AA they said they could tow us but couldn’t get us a key; that would have to be by a VW dealer; the nearest one 60 miles away in Inverness
We came to our senses and on the Friday, called VW in Inverness and ordered a key which came to £149.00 but would be 5-10 working days to arrive as it had to be cut and send from the manufacturer in Germany, then another £90 quid to have the key programmed to our vehicle. It was maddening.
Meanwhile down in the Glen I continued searching through the bladder wrack and the rocks, I think I was driving everyone mad by this time, I expected to find them
I kept saying over and over to myself “Never give up, never never never give up”
Jeff demonstrated just what highland hospitality was, bought beers, cooked amazing vegetarian nut roast, even managed to fix and grout Irene’s new shower whilst we were there. He played guitar, sang us his songs, told us of the mythology of the Glens and the highlands and how things used to be.
Irene was amazing and joked at times about her two girls being dragged up on the side of a mountain, but boy what a start in life. I saw as she moved and spoke the gestures and characteristics of my own kin, her mother my aunty Alice and my Nan, the Moughtons, I felt many times whilst we were there, my Dad who’d spent a great a lot of time up there my Nan, Mum, uncle Jim and Granny Moughton, she caught me a few times looking but it can appear and sound strange so I mostly kept quiet about the movements I saw
After another evening talking about everything from Father Ted, death and Scottish independence, we’d decided we had to take responsibility and leave her with her man. We couldn’t stay there in that frame of mind, anxious, stressed restless and worried, we couldn’t go anywhere. Pearl was safe, so we decided to go up to the Isle of Skye on the bus and come back in around a week to get the tow when the keys arrived,
Next morning, I’d been unable to sleep so I’d got up for one last search along the glen at 6am in the darkness the tide was already turning, I’d wrapped up and walked down to the loch in the near blackness. I’d expected to freeze but was it so incredibly peaceful, such a joy once I was out there on my own in that quiet.
I searched the beach side with the detector, made my way across the slippery rocks with a tiny torch, digging when ever it buzzed, I was absorbed with the task, a mile or two away the lone twinkling light of a crofter cottage the only visible thing out there, a jewel pinned upon the cloak of blackness. I stopped and watched reverentially the first glimmers of daylight come up over the Glen, I was happy down there. No restrictions, my own steam, my own pace, adversity brings these realizations
“Never give up, never never never give up” I recalled Churchill’s voice. I repeated it over and over and over
I asked for help I listened but didn’t hear anything, no ringing at all. I was mystified. I couldn’t hear, I felt so humbled.
The tide came in so I walked slowly back up the dirt road got back at about 7.40am feeling a little better, then crashed into an exhausted sleep. I’d tried to calm myself but my stomach was in knots, it had been 4 days since we’d arrived and we had to do something, we had to leave that day.
Orsi had checked the bus times, woke me at about 10 to get the 11.40am bus. Irene ran us up to the bus stop outside the castle. We realized on the way highland bus prices were expensive, managed to scrabble together around £17 between all of us, we made it with two minutes to spare, me scrabbling under Irenes front seat for a £2 coin I’d dropped in the rush
“Couldn’t invent this could you” I quipped nervously.
The ticket was £20 to a place called Broadford, we didn’t have enough, I think all the blood drained out of our faces, the driver had obviously seen it all before, asked us if we had a card as there was a cash point at the coop in Kyle the next stop, where he had a 5 minute pause, we breathed out and flopped back into the seats
From Kyle the bus shot over the bridge onto the Isle of Skye and to Broadford a fairly desolate place, where we’d booked into a Backpackers Hostel. We stepped off the bus into the rain. As we approached the address we had, we were confused to see a funeral directors out the front of where the hostel should have been. There were two or three black hearses, a black 4×4 obviously for rougher ground out there and a few other polished ceremonial black vehicles parked out front in the wind swept car park, it couldn’t have looked more desolate. One of the hearses had ‘Gaelic’ on the number plate. I don’t think we laughed, though we should have done, we just paused and just blinked at one another said nothing and then walked on. We found the hostel reception around the back we so wanted that room.
I’d called earlier the voice on the phone had said,
“ok you just come, no need for de reserve, there es no worree about having a room, there es nobody here”
We were greeted at the door by two dark haired damp looking but very friendly Spanish Catalans. The place was shall we say a little unloved. It had around 20 rooms and had that coldness of an unoccupied house but was clean and quiet, possibly quieter than the whole of Loch Long, the only people there were 4 students and a pensioner from Blackpool who it seemed had run away.
We walked along the beach and through the village that day in the rain that evening we found a lovely bar hidden at the back Broadford hotel, the people were lovely the barman tipped us off for a good walk next day. We sat in there for an hour two. Back at the hostel we watched David Attenborough Blue Planet on BBC I-player on my laptop sat on the edge of a couch shoulder to shoulder with an earphone each, we really needed some comfort. We were Numb