A Journey into Scotland … Part 32
It was one of the best campsites I’d been on. There was an old church and the backs of some houses so I wasn’t completely obscured. But they were some way off. All I could see was what nature had done and all I could hear were the sounds that would have been heard a thousand years ago. The man at the inn had invited me back for a beer but this was too good to leave behind. I sat through the evening time with mugs of tea and when I felt the tiredness descend I climbed into my sleeping bag and fell asleep with the tent open to the night.
At three I awoke in pitch blackness and the sea sounded ominously close. Surely the tide didn’t come in over the grass? Fumbling for a torch I rose to investigate and happily it was just the natural amplification that happens when your ears grow accustomed to stillness. There was no need to panic, the tent was still on the green and the sea was still on its side of the shore. I took a few minutes to just take in where I was. I was a long, long way from the beginning of this ride. I was under a western sky in which one or two stars still beamed through the gaps in the gathering cloud. I was listening to the sound of the sea breaking in gentle curls upon the sand and I felt that every pedal turn had been worth it. I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face but it was marvellous. I went back into the little tent and slept until dawn.
I’m a morning person in my natural state. I’ve heard the chimes at midnight in my time, played the part of Diana’s forester and gone by the moon and the seven stars and not by Phoebus. Even on this journey I’d joined in the Céilidh spirit and drunk my peg. But this was how I was happier. To have slept an honest sleep after an honest day’s ride. To be breakfasting on apples and biscuits in the first light with the populated world still abed and the ocean stretching out to infinity beside me. The waves continued their syncopated long drawn beat and the cries of redshank and oyster catcher. The only sound I added was the enthusiastic quiet roar of my primus stove. And tea never tastes as good as when it is drunk with the taste of salt in the air.
“You found it alright then?”
I’m joined by my guide from the pub.
“Nobody to bother you down here. That’s a pretty good tent. You’re not short of anything you’ve got are ye?”
We chatted amiably. It was only in this conversation that I made the links with the film Local Hero. Had them pointed out to me more like. He talked me back through the sights I had already seen and the ones that were still to come. He had a tale or two to tell and told it nicely. He watched me take down the tent and stow it onto the bicycle.
“Ye wouldn’t think all that amount of tent could fold up so small.”
He pointed me onto the road to Mallaig (told me to pronounce it Malligg) and to watch out for views of the islands and the white sands of the beach at Morar. “It’s where they filmed all of the beach scenes.”
And once again I’m delighted to be on a Scottish A road. They are similar to the A roads I’d ridden and driven south of the border but I have altogether more of these to myself.
I hadn’t ridden far before the Hebrides introduced themselves. Up to now they had only been places on a map or names. And what names! Whoever was in charge of naming the Inner and outer Hebrides should be awarded a double first from the university of nomenclature. I’d already looked over from Ayr to the Island of Arran. Now I was looking out at the four islands that are collectively known as the Small Islands, and which, individually, go under the tags of Rhum, Muck, Eigg and Canna. I canna see Canna but I’ve got a wonderful view of the other three. Rhum is the biggest and is spectacular in the morning haze. It has several peaks over two and a half thousand feet. They have the added romance of being extinct volcanoes complete with calderas: known around these parts as Corbetts. My eye is drawn to to it and held fast. Should I change my plans? It would certainly be something to spend time on all of these. All are populated; two (Eigg and Muck) with native populations and the others with employees and their families from Scottish conservation organisations. Some of the finest views of wildlife in Britain can be found here. A patient cameraman will return home with shots of peregrines and puffins, seals, whales and dolphins, red deer and golden eagles. The sailings from Arisaig have finished for the season but I can still catch a Caledonian MacBrayne ferry from Mallaig.
I am sorely tempted.
The islands stay in view all the way along the road. I don’t hug the shore. On one side a coastal plain that has attracted large scale camp sites and the stuff of holidays, on the other side are the rising fells.
I don’t forget to stop at Morar. I pay homage to Local Hero and walk on the white sands without shoes and socks. Paddling in the sea is the perfect cool down exercise for a bicycle rider. My feet feel wonderful for the next two hours. I add the town to a growing list of places I would like to return to. Places you could spend all summer. The main characters of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse do. It’s a book I’m very fond of and which I re-read with deeper understanding after my return.
I’m afraid I don’t do Mallaig justice. My intentions are to check the ferry times before exploring the town. The ferry is almost ready to sail. I’m helped aboard and shown where to stow my bicycle. and before I have had chance to think about it I’m crossing the Sound of Sleet on a bigger boat than I had expected. And somebody was whistling The Skye Boat Song.
Apart from Bonnie Prince Charlie’s disguised escape to the islands in 1746 this was also the stretch of water that gave the world the ferry glide. Boatmen here would have to be immensely strong to steer a rowing boat against the strength of current that flows through the Sound. It was here that they discovered that if you point your craft at such and angle into the current that you can hold it steady, then the current, that would otherwise send you miles to the south, actually propels you sideways across the channel. Kayakers and canoeists use the technique to help them in any strong running stream when they want to cross or beat against the flow of water. It’s quite a buzz to do it. It seems to somehow be defying rather than harnessing nature.
The crossing takes half an hour, by which time I’ve had to move away from the Roger Whitaker impersonator. At Armadale I’m the first to disembark. The day is brightening and, though Ardvasar and Armadale look worth a linger, I’m keen to get to the Cuillin Hills. A stream of cars passes me with returning locals and tourists all heading into this most storied of islands. Once they’ve passed it becomes beautifully quiet. The landscape is welcoming, the road is straight and I’ve got the wind blowing gently in my sails. The last vehicle to be unloaded from the ferry is a coach from the home counties. It contains the whistler and his mother. It eventually passes me at greater speed than I think it needs to be travelling at. Well, it doesn’t quite pass me. The back end clips my elbow. A sharp pain shoots through my whole body and I’m shot into the gravel edge of the road. This stops me like a trap and I’m catapulted over handlebars and onto my back.
I’m winded and frightened and the pain in my right elbow is matched by the pain in my left ankle. I’d seriously damaged this ankle before. The sensation in my lower leg is familiar. This feels like the end of the journey. I’m in the middle of nowhere with not a soul around. The bus didn’t stop.