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A Journey into Scotland … Part 36

I’d spent thirty six hours thinking that Loch Carron was a rather attractive loch. I’d travelled less than six miles before I became aware that I had considerably under-rated its beauty. It is mind glowingly beautiful. Heart-stoppingly beautiful. It is on the scale, of making everything else in the world seem a little bit ordinary, that very few places reach. Everyone has their own list of places they must see and I am no different. My list contains lesser known names. I like solitude and open spaces and people in smaller numbers. The reasons why there are smaller numbers of people up here are historical and shameful. But there is a beauty forged from the lack of a human touch.

As I ride up the side of the loch the full vista suddenly comes into view. The entire loch stretching back into the most southerly of the Torridon Hills. The rocks that make up these mountains are some of the oldest in the world and the views have a timelessness that makes me want to stop.

I don’t. I’m too nervous about trying out the ankle that I injured on Skye, and which necessitated the extra day I had spent by the lower shores of the lake. I’m cycling a road that runs parallel to the railway. The railway hugs the shores of the loch and for that reason I almost wish I had taken the train. At certain times of the year you can catch a steam train and that would be beyond wonderful. (Though actually being on a steam train has the disadvantage of not being able to see the steam train.) To sit on the hillside and to watch a steam engine pulling coaches down this line would be something to see. I’m not particularly a railway buff but I cannot help but be drawn into the past when I see a steam engine. My father, who was an engineer, said they were the last invention built on a human scale. He wasn’t a romantic but he too was touched by the grandeur of steam. He had spent a good part of his life in the boiler houses and engine rooms of merchant ships. He knew of which he spoke.

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No steam trains for me though. Just steady progress powered by my own legs. The day is overcast and rain threatened. I want to get up this hill that will take me back into the heart of the country. I’ll be crossing halfway to the other coast and, if my ankle doesn’t hold up, then the North Sea will be the next I will look out over. Before long I join the main road that will take me up in height and back in geological time. These are lands that glaciers shaped.

At Stromeferry there is a sign that provoked howls of laughter in a later acquaintance though I never saw it as a joke. The sign simply reads “Stromeferry No Ferry”. The place was obviously once one where a boatman would row you across the loch. Many of the larger sea lochs are now crossed by bridges but anyone going north from here must either follow my route inland or go via one of the bigger boats. Once past the head of the lake you can turn left for Loch Torridon or even risk the dramatic mountain pass and the steepest road descent in Britain by going to Applecross. Urban legend has it that Applecross is so remote that the accent is closer to English than Scottish. It has attracted a good number of new age folk over the years so this could easily be because the listener had been listening to English people speaking.

I’m very much in Scotland. To those who like their beauty of a chocolate box lid type then this could go down as the first day in which Scotland doesn’t continue to defy the laws of aesthetics and get more lovely, than it is possible to get, the further north you go. To me and many others the beauty just changes from the rich visual splendour of lochs and mountains to the bleak and rugged beauty of moorland. And such moorland. It feels ancient. I feels enormous on a scale you wouldn’t think possible on a small island like Britain. I came to get away from it all and this is a pretty good place to get away to.

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The road is gentle and mostly uphill. It’s the first A road I’ve come across that has passing places. I’d worried that my planned route took me along quite a number of roads marked in red. I needn’t have worried. This merely denotes that they are the main route. Often the only route unless you are prepared to make the hazardous way across the wide open spaces. The reality is that it is a perfect place to feel in touch with that part which is descended from wandering people who lived in a harsher time and in harsher climes. If Darwin is right (and this Christian believer is quite prepared to accept the truth of evolution) then my DNA has spent a lot longer in environments like this than in towns and cities. Without entering too deeply into ground covered by anthropologists, geneticists, biologists, philosophers and theologists, I feel very much at home.

I’m in a thoughtful frame of mind and this is a good place to be thoughtful. I allow the pedals to beat out their steady rhythm. I rise higher and occasionally find myself in the clouds. If I’m going to manage this injury then finding a steady pace and keeping on going seems to best way. If I’m going to rejoin my planned route at Ullapool then I am going to have to get well into the centre of the country and beyond. And as I climb I become aware that anywhere I camp tonight is likely to be a wild and windswept place to put up a tent.

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Up here, unless you know the locality, the place names on the map don’t prepare you. Sometimes a place marked as a hamlet turns into a substantial settlement. Oftentimes what you are expecting to be at least a village turns out to be a solitary farmhouse. I’m heading for a place called Achnasheen. I know it has a railway station. I know absolutely nothing else about it; except that it is somewhere along this vast glacial valley and quite possibly up in the clouds.

Dusk is falling by the time I get there. There is a hotel and I go into the bar. There is a shinty team in from Dingwall and they are as boorish and anti-social as any sports team, that dresses in neat club sweaters with embroidered badge, usually are, once the beer has started to flow. It is the one unfriendly bar I enter in all of my time in Scotland. I ask if there is anywhere I can put up a tent and am told that there are about twenty thousand acres of moorland out there and nobody will have the slightest objection to my camping on them. I had contemplated treating myself to a night’s Highland accommodation and hospitality but this wasn’t the place.

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In researching this travelogue I have discovered that this hotel burnt to the ground one night in the early nineties. While I am very sad at any such conflagration, I am delighted that no one was hurt and not displeased that it happened to the one hotel in the country I had absolutely no intention of returning to.

I do find a flat piece of moor not far from the railway and spend a very restful night in my tent. I woke up in the middle of a very dark night. I have rarely experienced such an intensity of silence.