A Westerley shore of Loch Lomond (north of Glasgow).
Time to step things up a bit I think! A couple of months have passed since my trip around the Lake District, a journey that was immensely; intensely enjoyable whilst reminding me how green about the ears I am when it comes to adventuring. Having got rather more nervous than necessary on fell-peaks that Lilliputians would have scoffed at I realised that some emergency altitude toughening up was required… so a couple of rock/ wall climbing lessons later, an opportunity presented itself for a group of us, in aid of celebrating a friend’s birthday in style, to head north of the Scottish border to tackle Ben Nevis, the highest mountain peak in the United Kingdom… “Yikes!”
The bulk of the gang will be heading up to Glasgow by plane, but I’ve decided to be a tad more leisurely and only ever-so-marginally more environmentally friendly about it and so set off in my faithful little Fiesta a day ahead of them.
The plan is also to visit some friends who’ve recently moved up to Glasgow, but I make a right balls up of that one not realising hooooow long it actually takes to get there by car (5 hours plus!)… this means I miss m’pal on the small lunch-break window I was aiming for, and have to take a rain-check until I head back south in a few days time. Early on in the drive up I find myself skirting the Lake District again but resist the temptation to veer off the motorway for a nostalgic glance.
"My FIRST scottish highland castle purched upon the shores of Loch Lomond!"
Once through Glasgow, the surroundings begin to offer hints of the more scenic, natural and sublime landscapes that will become a constant backdrop to my 3 days in the highlands. I am soon skipping along the east sure of Loch Lomond, a grand 71 square kilometre expanse of water.
Mostly only brief glimpses of the loch are afforded me through the trees that line the shore and road and I find myself becoming a bit of a danger to driving craning to get a better visual purchase on the scene rushing past. Luckily the village of Luss is soon signposted, a picturesque little village by the shore of the Loch where I pit-stop for a much overdue lunch and to massage my car-weary buttocks back to life as I stroll along the shore avoiding the over-zealous swans that seem to guard the shoreline.
A rather obstinate swan refuses entry to the Loch shore to a frustrated tourist... for real, this swan would NOT let them pass... I watched for at least 5 mins before headin' on m'way.
Back on the road for another couple of hours, but a nice easy route up the A82 all the way. In my experience so far, mile for mile, this is one of the most beautiful roads in Britain!… even beyond Loch Lomond it takes you deep into the Scottish Highlands proper, hitting Fort William (my destination) before heading on up north-easterly along the shore of famous Loch Ness to Inverness on the far coast, lined by hills, vales and mountains almost every step of the way.
Notice the not so welcoming amendment to this 'Welcome to the HIghlands' sign :D
Eventually I pass a big road sign that marks my official entry to the Highlands. I pull over for a snap. The sign proudly announces this as the ‘Outdoor Capital of the UK’ but a momentary excess of Scot’s pride has led to this unforgivable reference to the ‘southern connection' being blacked out with spray-paint…”Yelp!”… I am in the Clan lands now!… Technically I am part Scot (Father’s mother’s mother having been a child of the Aberdeenshire Lawrances) and I do have the Celtic hair-colour of historical choice and genetic pre-eminence (GINGER!) so maybe I’ll sort’ve pass as a local?!
By this point in my journey already, the flatlands are long since behind me, and my concept as an Englishman of what constitutes a ‘hill’ is rapidly being redefined.
Craggy fell peaks and valley troughs begin to verily undulate across the landscape before me like giant petrified waves, my Fiesta's little ribbon of grey-tarmac road wreathing like a fragile thread towards, through and between them. Occasional glimmers of white can be sighted clinging to the lips and crests of some of the mini-mounts already. I’m a long way from my south coast stomping ground now, and remind myself that temperatures up here will invite such glimpses of icy permanence. The hills have fabulous patterning upon their flanks where rock slides and general earth slippage, and weather erosion have taken a beautiful toll upon the ‘skin’ of this vast landscape over the centuries. Stippled rents, and earthy scars trailing down the verdant sides of these hills, make it look like the tracks of age old tears etched down the hillsides, or rather, as I will describe it later to a friend as if we are looking at Mother Nature’s millennia-old stretch-marks left on permanent display for all to see their delicate tattooing upon her curves.
Nothin’ to be shy about Mrs N, you look just fine :)
The Fort William MacBackpackers Hostel.
I arrive finally at Fort William at about 18.00 and the sun is still summer-high over the hills that border the far shore of Loch Linnhe, the large expanse of inland sea-water that segues in from the sea via the Firth of Lorne and that Fort William abuts.
It takes me a little while but eventually I find my ‘home’ for the next 3 nights, the MacBackpackers Hostel, one of a small group of about 5 independent hostels set around the Highlands.
Jerry, the incumbent South African manager of the Hostel lets me know the score, and also my room and bed names… yep ‘names’, all rooms and all beds in this place, amusingly are individually named for identification. I am in the ‘Scottish Battles’ bunk-room and my bed (if memory serves?) is named after the Battle of Falkirk. Other rooms include ‘Neeps and Tatties’ & ‘Scottish Myths and Legends’. This amuses me greatly and I am glad already that I have opted to “slum it” in a hostel, whereas my friends will all be stayin’ together in a swanky B&B/ hotel when they pitch up tomorrow.
The sun slides down as a l'il boat bobs around on Loch Linnhe.
For today I have little more to do than walk along the Loch shore watching the sun set… very, very, very slowly.
It’s incredible how even only a few hundred miles north within this tiny island nation, the effect of the summer sun’s light remains evident so much longer into the night. The sky will still be streaked with ultra-marine blue when I walk home from the pub tonight at 23.45. And the pub about sums up my first night really. I stroll up and down the length (there’s not really a breadth) of Fort William town, a one street conglomeration of bars, eateries and pleasant enough looking shops, with a town green and church at the centre. I follow the sign that points ‘To the Cinema’ from one end of town to the other without finding said venue. Another sign at this end of town points ‘To the Cinema’ back in the direction I’ve just come from, so I oblige and strut back with heightened observance to the original end of town. No luck.
Frustratedly I once more obey the original sign's statement 'To the Cinema' but it's not to be found until sometime later... un-sign-posted, off behind the main thoroughfare and a vacant, disused property up for letting… bummer.
The town centre green in Fort William
Myself, Captain Nemo and Professor Arranox retire to the pub for a pint of Scots ‘Best’ Ale, my first neat shorts of single malt whiskey and a light baguette dinner that they kindly fix up for me, even though it’s after last food orders. I am disturbed from literary adventures however-many leagues under the sea, to be engaged in conversation by a quad of middle-aged bus-tour travellers from down South (my neck of the woods in Birmingham as it ‘appens) who fill me in on some of the sights to be seen in the area, and ‘fascinating facts’ imparted to them by their tour guide.
One of a weary travellers closest friends! :)
Apparently Scotland contains more dormant volcanoes than any other country on Earth. Apparently I’m a “lovely, nice man unlike the couple at the next table” who shunned their gregarious approaches. Apparently if Loch Ness (750 feet plus deep at its murky bottom) was emptied and all of the people in all of the World were to stand upon one another inside of it, it would not be filled to overflowing with the physical sum of humanity. (I neither asked if this would be owing to the fact that after the second and third billion or so were stood upon the shoulders of the first billion to volunteer for this experiment the latter might be somewhat mulched at the bottom, thus creating the space required to bear out this ‘fact’, nor when this ‘fact’ was first hypothesised with our exponentially increasing world population in mind).
Apparently despite the fact that from end to end Loch Ness is 2-3 miles shorter than The Channel Crossing from England to France (26 miles for the latter), Loch Ness has never been swum across in the manner that so many goose-fat smeared maniacs have traversed the Channel to France over the decades owing to the Loch’s extremely low temperature. Or possibly they’re all scared of The Monster? Apparently as a lone traveller with an amiable enough ear for those who wish to commandeer it I am susceptible to such conversational hi-jackings. Apparently they had to go. Shame.
Near midnight, and the skies are still in a lingering dance with the Sun.
And so, one more whiskey for the road, and a warm-bellied return to curl up amidst the backpack and sweaty-sock bestrewn Battle of Falkirk where I must sleep with 7 fellow soldiers tonight.
Luss Village Pier.