Most – not all! – of my novels are set in Scotland. Of course, it’s an immensely varied country, from the sharp edges and dark corners of Glasgow and Edinburgh to these great cities’ fabulous sights; and from the rolling hills and dales of the Scottish Borders to the vast and rugged emptinesses of the Highlands.
It was to these great empty spaces we travelled on Friday. For anyone who doesn’t know Scotland, I’ll try to describe the journey.
From suburban Edinburgh, it’s an easy dozen miles or so (traffic permitting) to the Forth Road Bridge. Soon there will be two bridges across this wide estuary and, of course, there’s the world-famous Victorian-built Forth Railway Bridge too, but it’s a rail bridge, so not for us on this occasion.
Through Perthshire – which, even from the motorway, is a beautiful county (get off the main roads and it’s a landscape of lochs and trees and hills). North of Perth, the A9 winds through a wooded landscape that begins to open out to reveal the hills of the north. To say it’s beautiful is an understatement. Sadly, it’s also a dangerous road – partly because only small sections are dual carriageway and drivers tend to get impatient when stuck behind slow-moving vehicles, and partly because of the tourists who may not be used to driving on the left, and who are further distracted by the scenery. There really are no options though – from here north roads are few and far between and where minor roads do exist, they are narrow and winding and slow.
Our destination was far north-west of Inverness, which is the most northerly city in the United Kingdom. Travel time thus far, around three and a half hours. With at least another two and a half hours to go, we opted to stay the night in a small hotel by the banks of the River Ness.
We were meeting a group of walkers at 11 on Saturday, near a tiny village called Achiltibuie. Achiltibuie is the best part of an hour’s drive north of the pretty seaside town of Ullapool, itself an hour or more from Inverness. Now the road is quieter, the scenery increasingly wild and beautiful. Ullapool is an important hub, though – here the ferries sail to the Outer Hebrides, Lewis and Harris. It’s a busy fishing port too, but don’t get the wrong idea – the local population numbers only 1,300 people or so! Numbers are considerably swollen in summer months by tourists, and by walkers and climbers. On Saturday it seemed busy, but sadly we didn’t have time to visit the charming small market.
A few miles to the north, we turned off the main road towards Achiltibuie. Now driving becomes a serious adventure, because the next 24 miles are all on single track road, with passing places. Negotiating these is a knack and drivers should be polite enough to let faster traffic pass from behind as well as waiting, if necessary, for oncoming traffic. I first travelled this road as a schoolgirl, though, and not only is the surface considerably improved, but there are many more passing places too.
Now the scenery is sublime. Every now and then an alarmingly vertiginous mountain rears up. These hills are spectacular, and though none is a ‘Munro’ (ie over 3,000 feet), they must be climbed from sea level, so they’re a challenge!
Achiltibuie itself boasts all of 300 residents. You don’t come here for the shopping! You come here for the scenery, and the wildlife, and the walking. Maybe some sailing too – the Summer Isles, just offshore, are stunningly beautiful.
We walked. It’s hard to describe the magic of this remoteness. It’s a vastness of sky and land and sea and my goodness, you soon learn that your part in all this is small. But it gives gifts by way of compensation for putting you in your place – it brings an inner peace that it’s hard to capture in any other way.
I love the Scottish Highlands and one day soon I will set a novel here, for sure. Why waste a good bit of research?