A Journey into Scotland: Part 49
I Can’t Remember My Earliest Memory
It was 1987 and September had become October. You could almost add a month on top of that for how far north I’d pedalled. Twelve of the fourteen newly qualified English teachers, I’d spent the last twelve months with, were banking their first pay cheques and contemplating that it might be all worth it after all. My life was in a crisis. I’d been either brilliant or incompetent on teaching practice and was finding it hard to sign on for a full career. It wasn’t the fear of failure. It was something greater than that. I’d only go into teaching if I thought I could do it better than most who had taught me. As a pupil I’d had a rough deal from the system. It just wasn’t set up for somebody like me and I wanted to make sure that those, of a curious, independent disposition, who followed weren’t let down too. I’d set off to cycle fifteen hundred miles to every place I had ever lived in the hope, that the re-tracing of my life, and the sheer exhaustive scope of the challenge, would clear my head. I had offers as work as an actor, a musician and a composer. I’d grown fond of the idea of marching to my own drum. On the other hand the country was in recession and we had two small children and no dependable source of income.
I’d set out from Barrow-in Furness and spent half a day revisiting eleven of my first fourteen years on the planet. The missing three years were four hundred and fifty crow flown miles to the north. It had taken me eleven days to hit the north coast. (If you weren’t following this in the spring, then you can catch up on as much or as little as you wish in “Journey into Scotland” on my home page.) It had been a hugely enjoyable adventure. I wasn’t feeling the absence of a classroom or a salary. I’d had a scare when a large silver coach from Surrey had knocked me spinning off the road. My initial fear was that I’d torn ligaments or badly sprained my ankle. The fact that I was gingerly riding my bike again within an hour and back on the grand tour within 48 suggested that I’d jarred and bruised it. It hurt but it did little other than slow me down for a few days. I set off earlier and arrived later but I kept to my schedule. (Barring an enforced day off experiencing the palm fringed delights of Plockton and Loch Carron.)
All the way up the west coast (and a few diversions inland) I’d marvelled at a simple magical fact about Scotland. No matter how glorious the scenery, the landscape and the air, the following day would beat it into a cocked hat. The Southern uplands of Dumfries and Galloway made me want to linger but were soon forgotten as I rode along the western shore of Loch Lomond. Rannoch Moor became Glencoe and I was sure I’d reached the peak of perfection. Nowhere, surely, could beat this. And then I rode the road to the Isles from Fort William to Mallaig.
Mallaig was one of a hundred towns and villages, I’d never heard of before, but which I’ve longed to return to ever since. Kilmacolm, Crianlarich, Achnasheen, Plockton, Dalry are all now part of who I was and that makes them a part of who I am.
The moment when I started quoting Shakespeare unprompted,
“Did my heart love till now? Forswear it, sight!
For I ne’er saw true beauty till this night”
arrives in Sutherland. Staggering rough hewn beauty in a landscape so vast it is difficult to conceive of in a country as small as ours. To be here was a feeling of jubilance; to have pedalled every yard under my own steam* was one of my greater achievements.
After 48 episodes, I quietly left this journal aside in June and wandered around England for a while. My 1987 self was left quietly on top of a Sutherland hill brewing tea and looking out over the Kyle of Durness and away towards Cape Wrath and the entire top left hand corner of these islands. I’d pedalled further in a day than I had at any point of my journey. My tweaked ankle made me walk with a John Wayne lurch but was happy to turn pedals for hours at a time. I was back inside the lands of living memories. I know the north coast in that pre-umbra of memory from earliest childhood.
On teaching practice I had a class writing about their first recollections. Writing is the most wonderful of tools for exploring the mind and twenty five heads were bowed over their tables and twenty five pens were uncovering thoughts that they would later share with some pride. One boy wasn’t having this though. He was fearful of writing and saw it as just another of his inadequacies. Another way to fail. He sought reasons not to put pen to paper. He measured his success in lessons by the blankness of his sheet or the subversiveness of his doodles.
“I don’t know what to put.”
“Write about the first thing you can remember.”
“I can’t remember being born.”
“Neither can I. Just the first thing you can remember.”
“Like my earliest memory?”
“That’s right. Your earliest memory.”
“I can’t remember my earliest memory.”
And neither, young Robert, can I. I thought I could. I lived here on the north coast of Scotland between the ages of two and five so I’m pretty certain that my consciousness of who I am and what I’ve done dates back to here. That cold northern sea looked over the change from a thing that ate and slept and cried to one who read and walked and wandered off alone. Who sledged down an icy road and who skimmed stones on lochs and paddled in the surf.
I stayed the night in the youth hostel at Durness. Ironically I can remember very little of this other than a cold floor. In the morning a fellow cyclist and I made our way to Smoo Cave and tested the acoustics by singing into it. He was a fitter and faster pedaller than I was and set off over the hills saying he’d meet me again at Tongue. He was there outside a pub enjoying his second pint by the time I got there. It wasn’t quite mid-day.
Having spent a fortnight at a leisurely pace I was infused with a desire to get to where I knew best. I’d snapped a gear cable and was without the larger cog at the front. It didn’t make a great deal of difference as I turned back south to ride against a stiff breeze along the shores of Loch Eriboll. It was here that some of the greatest discoveries were made that unfolded the geological history of the planet. I had my head down into the wind and was attempting, for the first time on the journey, to ride quickly. The speedometer on the handlebars made a mockery of this. Many of the sea lochs have been bridged but the few hundred yards that a seagull flies to get from one shore to the other is the best part of twenty miles for the cyclist. The uplands between there and Tongue are amongst the most beautiful in Scotland. I confess to missing the opportunity to soak in that beauty. Like a cyclist on the Tour de France, I flew through the grandeur more aware of the desire to reach my destination than take in the views.
I didn’t join in the early lunchtime supping in Tongue but headed in my determined way towards the county boundary that would bring me back to where I once lived. I’d cycled hundreds of miles to reach the most magnificent part of Scotland and all I wanted to do was to get to the flatter, bleaker, boggier, windier lands to the east. I wanted to get to Caithness because that name had been on the very first home address I’d ever written out. The one that ends with Solar System, Galaxy, Universe. The world was huge. Those were the Orkneys out there to my left. I was going home.
*Give or take a couple of ferry rides.