I’d never previously considered the far north of Scotland as a Christmas and New Year holiday destination. According to the daylight indicator on my Garmin watch, the sun rises at 9.07am on the summit of Ben Hope, Scotland’s most northerly Munro, and goes down again at 3.31pm. That doesn’t give you much opportunity for serious hill walking, unless you don’t mind walking in the dark.
And then there’s the weather. I’ve discovered from various trips to Skye that when it rains in north-west Scotland, it rains so hard that even the ducks need umbrellas. The mist can be so thick that if you swing your ice axe into it, you have to wiggle it around a bit to get it out again. It’s a place where the warming effect of the Gulf Stream meets biting Arctic winds from the north. The weather gods have become so confused here that it’s perhaps the only place in the world that you can see palm trees covered in snow.
Prior to last year, I’d spent 15 of the last 16 Christmas holidays abroad, either in Africa or South America. But I’m not yet ready to wrestle with COVID-19 travel restrictions without Sherpa support, so this year we decided to give north-west Scotland a go.
Edita booked a cottage far from any village on the shore of a sea loch, in a part of Scotland where the coastline would make Slartibartfast blush with pride. What a location it was! It was a sea loch within a sea loch. Our own little 3km sub-loch probed inland like a bent finger. There was a hilly island in its middle and another island guarding the entrance to its parent loch, a loch with over 30 islands of its own, and numerous inlets sprouting from it like the arms of a kraken. It was a further 3km from the mouth of our sub-loch to the Atlantic Ocean. All of the coast was mountainous, characterised by tall cliffs and pebbled beaches.
I dare say there are more sheltered fjords in Norway, but a scan of a map revealed that it may well be the most sheltered sea loch in Scotland. We never tired of the view from the breakfast table as the black sky lightened, gradually revealing the contours surrounding the loch. Every evening at 4pm, we enjoyed cheese and white wine as we watched the sun set over the hills on the opposite side of the loch, lighting the clouds with an orange glow and shining a silver gleam across the water.
Our cottage felt pretty remote. To reach it, we needed to turn off the main road and drive for a mile to the end of a tarmacked driveway that undulated like the spine of the Loch Ness Monster. But we were intrigued by some fine looking houses on the opposite shore, partially hidden by the hump-backed island in the middle of the loch. These houses were not accessible by road. They were situated halfway up a steep hillside with what appeared to be pleasant gardens beneath them.
Our cottage was at the road end, but an abandoned Land Rover blocked a track beyond that was marked by a sign as a public footpath to a named village. There were even marked boxes at the road end for the postman to deliver his parcels. Two or three cars had been parked up in lay-bys since we arrived. At first we thought they belonged to wild campers, but it soon became evident that they belonged to residents of the secret village.
One afternoon an hour before dusk, we decided to explore the public footpath. We walked along a well-maintained trail up to a col then down across moorland, following a line of electricity pylons.
‘This would be a heck of a long way to carry your groceries,’ I remarked as we crossed the high point.
As we rounded a headland into another natural bay, the mystery was solved. Below the houses and hidden from view by the island as we looked from our cottage, there was a substantial pier with a boathouse. There was even a salmon farm. It was quite a community and the residents obviously arrived there by boat. Although this community was attached to the mainland, it was more like living on an island.
We climbed up to another headland then down the other side. On top of a cliff ahead of us was another cluster of houses above a more secluded cove. It was like some fairytale community, more remote than you could ever imagine, yet perfectly civilised. There was another small beach where a heavy motor boat had been dragged up a ramp.
A wire fence with a foot-gate barred our way. Beyond it, a steep path climbed intriguingly up through birch woods to the houses. A sign had been pinned to the gate, explaining that older members of the community were isolating from COVID-19 and we should telephone if we wished to enter. There was no phone number.
Obviously we were not welcome, so although it was a public footpath, we turned back.
‘They must be very fit old people, if they climb up and down that path every day to get to the motor boat they’ve hauled up onto the beach,’ I said grumpily.
But I couldn’t blame them. I wouldn’t want some silly tourists walking up our driveway in the Cotswolds just to be nosy.
We wandered back to our cottage in the dimming light. A sense of the surreal settled over us.
‘I feel like I’m dreaming,’ Edita said. ‘What a place this must be to live!’
There was no Wi-Fi at our cottage, but they did have an old-fashioned seaweed-powered DVD player and a selection of Scottish-themed DVDs. So that evening we watched the 1980s comedy Local Hero, about an eccentric fishing village on the coast of north-west Scotland that is threatened by oil exploration, a film with a great many memorable one-liners.
‘There are two Gs in “bugger off”,’ I found myself quoting in a Scottish accent at the end of the film. ‘They should have put that on the sign up to the village.’
There was no Wi-Fi in the house, but we were able to get 4G in the garden. This enabled us to check the mountain weather forecast every evening to see what mountains we could climb the following day.
It is possible to go hill walking in Scotland that time of year if you’re fully equipped. We were expecting snow, so we’d brought axes and crampons. What I hadn’t brought was a wind turbine, to produce enough power to provide electricity for the rest of 2022. I’ve talked a little bit about the rain and the mist, but I hadn’t reckoned with the wind. By heck it’s windy in that part of Scotland.
Tune in next time to hear more about both the wind and the mountains we managed to climb in spite of it.