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A Journey into Scotland in 1987 … Part 39

Ullapool Youth Hostel hadn’t changed a bit from the outside. If I’d been shown a picture of it before I set off, I don’t think I would have recognised it, but as I push my bicycle along the main road I know where it is going to be and what it is going to look like. The one major thing my memory has got wrong is the colour. I remember it as a whitewashed building; it is a rosy grey pebbledash. It is exactly where it should be.

Photo credit SYHA

Photo credit SYHA

In 1963 we’d gone there with my father. My mother stayed at home in Thurso with the new baby. I’m sure we missed them both terribly but I can’t help thinking that this was what made the holiday so special. We spent time together and we were left to our own plans and schemes for many hours each day. The photographs tie in with my memory of the weather being perfect. The warden’s daughter joined us in our play. This was rare. In all our childhood not many other children were accepted by the whole tribe of us. I was very fond of her. I was only four but it would be many years before I would be as fond of a girl again. True to the traditions of this journal, I cannot remember her name.

Four Johnsons and a warden's daughter (standing)

Four Johnsons and a warden’s daughter (standing)

I’m disappointed with the interior. There is nothing wrong with the hostel. It is well maintained and friendly. The facilities are good. But it lacks what I have come to see. My hostel exists in that other country we call the past. I’m not deluded but my fantasy wants it to be 1963 and it is twenty four years later. A greater time has past from my cycle ride to me typing these words but only in measurable seconds and minutes. The time between the four year old being in Ullapool and the twenty eight year old returning is three centuries.

I’d wanted to ask if they knew what happened to the warden (a kind woman who I’d guess was in her early thirties at the time) and her daughter, who would be my age. I want to ask. But I don’t. And I really don’t know why I didn’t. My awkwardness in not doing so wasn’t down to shyness: it would have been in 1963.

Ullapool 1

I’m unhappy from the moment I lean my bike against the front of the hostel building. There’s another cyclist there to greet me. In fact there are quite a few cyclists. Round Ullapool you’ll find some of the very best pedalling country in the British Isles. The roads are wild and rugged and freer of cars than anywhere else. Congestion is two cars waiting for a pedestrian to cross the road. But this cyclist is the boasting type. The numbers type. The better at everything type. The tedious type.

His opening gambit kills off my deeply felt nostalgia and warm happy feeling of reaching an important personal destination.

“Kalkhoff? Inferior sort of a bike isn’t it. Mean to say you’ve ridden here on that? Where’ve you come from?”

“Barrow.” I say in a semi-truthful way.

He mis-hears and, like all people of his disposition, doesn’t allow this to interfere with what he already knows about me. These people make up what they think you said and then have a sincere belief that you said it. The irony would be completely lost on them.

“Barra eh? Come over on the ferry?”

This is actually possible and wouldn’t have been too far away from my original route. Barra is one of the most southerly of the Outer Hebrides. Island hopping could have taken me from there to South Uist, Benbecula, North Uist and over to Harris, through Lewis and over the sea from Stornaway to Ullapool. It would have been a remarkable and worthwhile journey. But it wasn’t where I’d come from. It actually had the effect of diminishing my own journey in my own mind. Other people either make you feel better or feel worse. It is important that we choose our company according to this precept.

“You could have come the other way of course. If you’d taken a boat from Barra to Oban you could have come up through the mainland. Some good cycling that way. S’pose you can see that on the way back.”

“I came up the mainland. I’ve just pedalled from Achnasheen.”

“No, you can’t have done that. If you’ve just come off the boat you must be confusing it with some place on Lewis. Suppose all these Scottish names sound the same to you.”

There doesn’t seem a lot of point in putting him right. He knows exactly where I’ve been and what I’ve said without actually listening to a word. It was a trait I was to come across an awful lot in the teaching career that followed this journey.

I booked in and stowed my bags under my bunk, took a shower and strolled out onto the pebble beach I remembered so well and so fondly. And that is exactly what I do. I find ways of remembering. I sit on the pebbles and count them. When I’ve counted enough I look out over the loch and watch the boats at anchor and a single boat further out. Our father took us in a rowing boat. It was choppy and, by modern health and safety standards, decidedly hazardous. No life belts or jackets and more than one of us suddenly standing up to petition for a go with the oars. Once out in the middle he produced a fishing line and proceeded to catch several fish. He was no fisherman but had a golden touch that evening. Once he had three mackerel safe in the bottom of the boat he threw out the line again. There was no rod, just an orange coloured line on a little frame. The sort you’d find on the end of a kite string. He gets a bite. A bigger bite than the mackerel had offered. This is something he has to struggle with.

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Fear and excitement gripped us in equal part. My father was a strong fellow. If he was struggling then we were in for something to delight or scare us. “I think I must have caught a whale” he joked and I, for one, believed him. The more he pulled on the line the more we appeared to be sailing across the loch. This was the kind of whale that Sinbad encountered. When the large red bouy knocked against the side of the rowing boat he realised that his hook was securely fastened to the anchor rope of this navigation aid. He had to cut the line. It was the only hook he had.

He surveyed his catch with rueful satisfaction: three black and silver mackerel and a bouy.

He cooked us the fish for our supper and we enjoyed them. Over the meal he became quite serious and made us all agree that it was probably best not to tell our mother about the boat adventure. With hindsight I think this was wise. Wiser perhaps than taking four little children out on a sea loch in fading light with a swell going. I believe in the spirit of adventure but if it had been my own children I think I would have taken a few more precautions. I’m glad he didn’t. The fish, as I remember, tasted good.

As evening fades into night I wander back to the hostel where I find I’m sharing a dormitory with my knowledgeable friend. The conversation picks up where it left off.

“You can go back through Glencoe if you want and then back down to Oban. Sailings will be pretty regular I expect from Oban.”

“I actually came through Glencoe on the way here.”

“How’d ye manage that then? Oh well. I’ve climbed most of the tougher routes in Glencoe. You know all the diffs and the v diffs.”

I didn’t know the climbs in Glencoe but my outdoor education course had let me know that diffs and v diffs were the sort of climbs a relative novice like myself could have a go at. He rattled on.

“Bonnington!” he snorts with great disapproval. “He’s just a scribe.”

“I thought he was quite a good mountaineer.”

“No. He can only write about it. Scribe that’s all he is.”

loch broom

I have the feeling he has a lot left to talk about. I hadn’t been planning on going to the pub. But I do. Once there I spend a half hour over a pint of golden bitter beer and watch the walkers and tourists and regulars. I’m slightly intrigued by a sign by a collecting jar with the letters YCHJCYFP written on it. Eventually I ask the barman what it means.

“Hand over fifty pence then.”

I do so.

“It means, Your curiosity has just cost you fifty pee.”

The joke goes down hugely with the barman. I’m happier to make his night than make his acquaintance and when the great rock climber comes into the bar I quietly finish my drink and take a walk along the night hidden waters of the lake before retiring to bed.