For a change I’ve just headed north, a rare cardinal point for me despite my Scottish ancestry. So instead of golden sunlight and cossetting temperatures, I’ve been revelling in mists hovering over the Highlands which suddenly break apart to reveal absolutely stunning landscapes and limpid blue skies. Not cornflower, cobalt or French blue here; the blue is the colour of Scottish eyes – kind and ever discreet.
I only came this way once before – aged 11 or 12 – so it’s a shock to rediscover the great wide open spaces, fast-flowing rivers, mercurial grey lochs, vast swathes of purple heather, lichen-clad trees and smooth mossy ground or jagged clumps of bracken. Shaggy horned cattle and woolly sheep peer upwards from their sheltered valleys, then another pine-forest interrupts the view and the undulations take off again. Above all it’s the skies with their moody, ever shifting cloudscapes that create the magic. Plus clear light unlike anything I’ve seen except in the far south of New Zealand, in Milford Sound. In fact I keep thinking of New Zealand. It’s extraordinary that the Scots managed to find a country so like their own on the far side of the globe – then set about colonising it in a much wiser way than the English did elsewhere. The only thing the Scots found lacking was pine-forest so they remedied that by uprooting the native bush and planting great tracts of it, creating New Zealand’s big visual anomaly, some might say curse. Even some South Island lakes are artificial, no doubt a result of loch-nostalgia. Lochtalgia?
Anyway, back to the Scottish Highlands, its succession of picture-postcard views (you can hardly take a bad photo up here) and huge estates, here we are in mid-August and smoke spirals out of croft chimneys. The temperature dives to single figures at night and one bed-and-breakfast actually has the heating on. But the climate is just one of those things that you accept, along with pretty dire food (haggis excepted). As one chic French woman says “Everything’s fried, stir-fried, pan-fried, deep-fried – there’s no choice”. There are one or two exceptions, but most of the ‘quality’ restaurants are over-priced and not great. And I won’t comment on the interior styles; tartan carpets begin to take on a repetitive je ne sais quoi. So it’s back to the great outdoors: clean air, walks and stunning scenery of the Cairngorms.
The other striking thing up here is the number of B & Bs. Now I know the Scots are supposed to have a head for figures (like the Basques, they’ve always been good bankers – think Gordon Brown) but I had no idea that virtually every Highland home runs a bed and breakfast business. From solid grey granite Victorian manses to modest bungalows, all have a B & B sign dangling outside. And at the moment they also unanimously display ‘no vacancies’ – so business is obviously booming.
It’s the Dutch I say. Car after car has Dutch plates – those flat-landers clearly hanker after the rolling hills and mountains. Italians, French and Germans also follow, to the extent that at moments you feel far more European up here than down south. Talking of mountains, another surprise is to discover that Britain’s highest mountain, Ben Nevis, is a mere 1344m. A midget! – walkable to the summit in a 7 hour round-trip, but no, we didn’t do it. No time and possibly not quite enough lung capacity. But close by came my strongest moment when, revelling in the last golden light of a pristine afternoon as it faded over Loch Linnhe, I smelt the sea and kicked shells and seaweed on the pebble shore. That’s when the topography became clearer and I knew the Atlantic was just round the corner. Later, as the galaxies blinked at us from above, came the crowning moment – a shooting star that plummeted into the dark outline of the hills.