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How the crazy thing was born

Just do something, anything…

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You reach your late forties. You’re happily married without kids, you have a great job, a nice house, a consuming hobby (running) and a busy social life. But something’s gnawing at you. Life’s become a bit routine. You sense there’s more out there – more to learn, attempt, explore and experience. Luckily, the man you are happily married to feels the same. The urge to DO something. A Crazy Thing. What Crazy Thing? At first, you don’t know, but you start to talk about it. (All the time). Start a fermenting business? Rear goats in Crete? Open a running store? Run the length of Britain? You don’t know yet, but you’re sure about one thing. You don’t want to stand still. A plan begins to form. You start to clear space in your life for The Crazy Thing (whatever it may be) to happen. A few months later, you hand in your notice at the great job, rent out the nice house and go and live in a tent.

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OK, so it’s not as exotic as island hopping in the Andaman Sea, as glamorous as renting a house in the Catskills to write a novel or as admirable as devoting a year to charity work in Africa. But it’s a way of busting the routine, flexing the adventure muscles and exploring a new way of living. And it’s where our story begins…

 

28 days later

That’s how long it’s been since we parked the van outside our house and put the key in our own front door for the first time in seven months. In some ways, it feels as if we were never away; in other ways it still feels new and lacking permanence.

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Four weeks on, there are still things to unpack and re-assimilate. We are shocked by how much ‘stuff’ we have. When we left, we crammed everything we weren’t taking into the garage and now, bringing it back in to the house, much of it seems surplus to requirements. Do I really need four different pairs of black trousers? Is an entire shelf full of mugs necessary? A PC, a laptop and a tablet? Dozens of pairs of socks? After having just what we needed and no more for so long, the amounts we have of things seem absurd. Equally superfluous is the space we have. Anyone who knows our house might laugh at this – it’s not exactly a mansion – but we’ve got used to living in a small space, be it a two-man tent, a log cabin or a croft. This is the first time we’ve had two floors since we moved out in July. We’ve joked about renting the upstairs out on Airbnb.

Our intention on returning home, but not yet to ‘work’ (Jeff’s sabbatical is until September), was to keep the same routine we had in Scotland, with space for creativity and nature… But it’s been hard not to slip back into old habits when all the stimuli around us are so familiar. I want to get out for early-morning walks with my binoculars and listen to the birdsong, but instead I’m marching Morris around the field worrying about my future… I want to pick up the guitar and practise my chords, but instead I’m touting for work in a panic about money. Everything seems the same but actually, everything is different.

This is not a completely-unfamiliar feeling. I’ve been ‘travelling’ before: twice actually – a year in Australia and then almost two years away in Thailand, Vietnam, Borneo and Australia. I know that coming home can leave you feeling flat and wondering – in the words of the great Peggy Lee – ‘Is that all there is?‘ But I was young then. And somehow, a few months in Scotland didn’t seem to qualify as ‘travelling’ in the same way that backpacking around south-east Asia does. So the coming-home blues have taken me by surprise.

One legacy of our trip is the increased length of the Morris’s walks. It’s led us to explore further from home (I even discovered a new running route). And we’ve started to go to the beach more often – it’s so near (we can see the sea from the bedroom window on a sunny day)

IMG-4780…and yet we’ve never quite made it a habit before. It’s hard to be heavyhearted when you reach the top of the dunes and look out across that vast expanse of sand, practically deserted at this time of year. Morris loves it.

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It feels churlish not to appreciate being home when we live somewhere so lovely. I’m getting there…I just have to wait for my heart to catch up. I think I left it somewhere along the M9.

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Remembering all the things I yearned to do at the beginning of this trip when the vast, blank slate was mine to fill, I spend the first fortnight at Incheoch attempting to cram them all in.

It’s our final month in Scotland. Edging closer to a return to reality, we decide that we need somewhere less isolated than our previous locations in order to re-familiarise ourselves with things like, er, other people, cars, towns and places that boast more than one shop.

We head for Perthshire (or more correctly, the County of Perth) in central Scotland at the start of a snowy January.

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With an expectation of spending more time indoors, we prioritise comfort and cosiness over wild surroundings when we choose the farm cottage at Incheoch as our base. It’s a working farm, and although our next-door neighbours (pictured below) are generally quiet they do occasionally like to lick our windows.

But in a repeat of our experience on Luing, a place that first appeared to be relatively limited in terms of inspiring walking and running routes turns out to be an unexpected gem. From nearby Alyth Hill there are 360-degree views over moors and farmland; the broad valley floors filled with a patchwork of fields in muted shades of green and yellow.

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Our cottage is just a stone’s throw from the Cateran Trail, a 64-mile circular walking route that connects up the trails used by cattle drovers – and cattle thieves – in the 17th century; immediately opening up route possibilities in two directions. A couple of miles away, a precarious path through woodland leads to the waterfall at Reekie Linn – modest in drop, but thunderous in power.

The hills may be lower, the lochs fewer and the forests smaller but gradually, on foot and by bike, we discover the beautifully bleak moorland north of Kilry, the wooded Bamff Estate, where beavers have been reintroduced (we didn’t see any but there is plenty of evidence of their presence – including gnawed tree trunks and impressive dams), and the riverside trails in the Den O’ Alyth.

Although our intention is to continue with the daily routine that’s served us so well up until now, it feels harder to settle. There’s a slight shift in the atmosphere. We know we’re going home soon and that creates a mix of excitement and anxiety. Are we ready?

Remembering all the things I yearned to do at the beginning of this trip when the vast, blank slate was mine to fill, I spend the first fortnight at Incheoch attempting to cram them all in. One minute I’m on acoustic guitar lesson one, the next I’m mastering some new core stability moves, taking part in a creative writing webinar or updating myself on the latest running coaching science. It’s quite exhausting and unsurprisingly, stressful. One evening I’m lying on the floor, foam rolling my calves when I spot the set of acrylic paints I got for Christmas eyeing me reproachfully from the shelf: you haven’t used us yet, they whisper. Enough already, I scold myself. I make a concerted effort after that to remind myself that I am not going back to a 9-5 job – I still have time, I still have freedom and opportunity. It’s not over.

Perthshire is the most populated place we’ve stayed in Scotland (apart from Edinburgh, of course). So, as part of our ‘unwilding’, we do stuff like drink beer at craft breweries and go for coffee. We go to look at the newly built V&A museum in Dundee, run the Parkrun in Perth a couple of times, go training with Perth Road Runners one evening and do our weekly food shop in the nearby town of Blairgowrie.

One day, we walk into Alyth on the Cateran Trail and, finding no cafe that allows dogs, take a punt on the grand mansion that is the Lands of Loyal Hotel, on the outskirts of town. We end up sitting in our scruffy walking gear in the magnificent ‘Great Hall’ drinking coffee in front of a roaring fire.

Tomorrow, we are packing up. We’ll go for one last dog walk, one last run, and then load up the van with the crates and boxes that have been our mobile wardrobes, pantry, bathroom cabinet and library since we moved out of our house back in July.

We’ll put the kayaks on the roof rack, cram the bikes in, along with Jeff’s snowboard (used once) and my guitar (I’m up to lesson four). On that walk, I’ll keep my eyes open for the hare that crouches in the field at the foot of the hill until we get too close and then bounds away, making speed look effortless. And when I run, I’ll head up to the top of the hill to marvel at the vastness of land and sky in every direction.

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A cabin in the woods

We’re sitting on the balcony of our log cabin, Silver Birch, surveying what will be our view for the next month. There’s an expanse of trees set among heathland, with snow-dusted hills beyond. This will do nicely.

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The cluster of dwellings that make up the hamlet of Ault-na-Goire lies on the south side of mighty Loch Ness, which carves a path so deep through the Great Glen that the body of fresh water it contains is greater than all of the lakes in England and Wales combined. The south is considered the ‘quiet’ side of the loch – and being 600 feet above sea level  means we’re even further off the beaten track of hikers and tourists.

Behind the cabin, bracken-covered moorland slopes steeply down to a burn, beyond which there are acres of forest to explore. It’s dark and quiet among the trees – there’s little birdsong and the carpet of pine needles softens our footfalls enough to surprise Sika deer, which bound away emitting short high-pitched barks that send Morris into a frenzy of excitement.

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With few distinguishing features on the various trails through the trees, I find it hard to get a sense of where I am on our first few walks and runs, or how one trail links up with another. To compound the issue, many of the trails lead on to rough roads created for logging, and these all look the same. So it’s no surprise that on a long run one Sunday, I get truly lost. I’ve already been out for more than two hours when I emerge onto a 4×4 track and have no idea which way to go. I turn left and go for around a mile before deciding it doesn’t feel right. As I make my way back, I see a man heading my way. Thank God, I think, I can ask him where I am. Not only does he know where I am, he knows where I am going, too; it’s Alex, husband of Janet, who rented us Silver Birch, and who lives next door. He just so happens to be the Scottish cross-country and 5K champion in his age group. He ‘runs’ me home (the opposite direction to which I was going, oops), and although he’s nearing 70, I struggle to keep up with the fleet-footed veteran. To add irony to insult and injury, Jeff’s been away all day on a course learning how to teach navigation…

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I discover a new method of finding my way around the area shortly after, on a walk with Morris. Spotting a piece of bright orange tape hanging from a tree, I walk towards it; from there, I can see another, and then another. The tapes take me down a previously undiscovered-by-us trail that is all but grown-over in places. It passes through a magical dingly dell, which wouldn’t look out of place on a Tolkien film set. I keep expecting Bilbo Baggins to come bumbling down the path with a reel of orange tape, but it turns out that it’s Alex we have to thank – he puts the tapes out to mark his trickier running routes.

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Our days take on a similar shape at Silver Birch as on Luing. The only difference is that packing in two good walks, creative hour and a run or cycle before the daylight runs out is a race against time. December evenings set in at four o’clock. After so much time on our own, it’s nice to have the occasional company of Alex and Janet. Whenever we pop over to theirs to ask a question or pick up fresh bed linen, we end up sitting beside their Aga, chatting over tea and cake. It’s a bit like having a surrogate mum and dad to look after you.

The cabin itself is small but perfectly formed. There’s one main living area with a cathedral ceiling and windows on three sides – then a bedroom just big enough for a double bed, a single room, in which we keep all our stuff, and a tiny bathroom. It’s warm and cosy (it was imported from Finland, Janet tells us), which is just as well, because a week and a half into our stay we wake up to snow.

It’s dry and powdery – issuing faint squeaks when compressed by our feet and coating everything like elaborate icing. It looks beautiful and, in such an isolated place, remains unsullied for days. On most tracks, our footprints are the only ones, save for those of deer and pheasants (and occasionally, our landlord).

As on Luing, we don’t have a shop or pub on our doorstep up here in Ault-na-Goire – the closest is four miles away, in the village of Foyers. We stay put for a couple of days when the snow comes, but when we do venture down to Foyers for supplies, we’re amazed to find it snow-free at the lower altitude. But on the way home, the now-hard-packed snow and steep gradient prove too much for the van, and we end up stuck in a ditch – blocking the single-track road. We trudge home and sheepishly knock on Alex and Janet’s door. They inform the police and local council that the road is impassable and help us organise a rescue truck for the following day. ‘Don’t worry,’ says Janet, pouring more tea. ‘We once had a lady staying at the cabin who got her car stuck in a ditch twice in a week!’ I’ve had more than my fill of the white stuff after all this. And frankly it isn’t doing my running any favours – my forward progress hampered by my battle to stay upright.

Once the snow melts away, we’re rewarded with some unseasonably warm weather (read: 5 degrees instead of -2). We manage to get in a couple of bike rides – the roads are great for cycling; smooth tarmac, sweeping vistas and barely any traffic.

While Silver Birch is a match for Luing when it comes to setting and views, there hasn’t been much in the way of bird life. But, one morning I look out the window and see a large bird of prey soaring above the heathland. I’m resigned to it being a buzzard (the ‘default’ bird of prey) until I notice the forked tail. Grabbing the binoculars, I can clearly see the rusty underside and long-fingered wings that define the much-rarer red kite. I watch its aerobatics with awe. The only other birds we have a close encounter with are Alex and Janet’s chickens. They go away for the weekend, leaving us in charge of the brood; a responsibility we take very seriously. I’m constantly terrified that a marauding pine marten will get in and leave a blood bath but thankfully there are still seven birds when they return on the Sunday.

On the night of the full moon in December, we take the tent out to the forest and camp overnight. We get a fire going, cook on the stove and drink whisky and hot chocolate. Before bed, we walk out into a clearing and marvel at the giant, gleaming moon. It’s the kind of evening when you say to yourself ‘remember this.’

After a week’s respite, the snow returns and this time, it means business, laying six inches through the night, with no sign of stopping. There’s no chance of getting the van down the hill in this, so when we need groceries, we wrap up warm and hike down to Foyers, treating ourselves to coffee and cake at the Cameron Tea Rooms.

It’s really hard work walking in such deep snow (nine inches now, in places) not least if your legs are barely longer than six inches each. But the wonderland the snow has created is well worth witnessing.

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Given that we don’t have a Christmas tree to decorate at home this year, we decide to dress one of the thousands of trees in the forest and use a photograph of it as our Christmas card. The end result looks good, but the process isn’t as fun and romantic as you might imagine: we bicker in an un-festive manner about which tree to pick and Jeff manages to step in a deep, icy hole while trying to administer the tinsel. Snigger.

 

When it’s time to leave Silver Birch, shortly before Christmas, I’ve finished writing my story (it’s too short to be described as a novel) and learned to run a little better on snow. But I still haven’t got my guitar out of its case, nor read half a dozen of the books I brought away. The end of the year is fast approaching, sending me into a panic about how much I’ve yet to explore, experience and learn and reminding me how precious this time is. We’re going to see our families in Edinburgh and London over the Christmas period and, given that our tenants move out at the end of the year, we debate whether we should call The Crazy Thing a day, and head home to start the New Year. But, we decide – not yet.

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Notes from a (very) small island

We’re at the North Cuan ferry port, waiting to make the crossing to the isle of Luing. The wind is blowing and the dark blue Atlantic swirls and bubbles, but there’s no chance of getting sea sick: the channel of water we’re about to cross is so narrow that we can see the ferryman chatting to locals on the far side. If it were calmer, we could get the kayaks off the roof rack and paddle there. Only we’re laden with shopping – seven days’ worth of food and drink – to save us having to make the 19-mile trip to the nearest supermarket during our first week of island life – and leave more time for exploring.

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The crossing to the ‘mainland’

Luing is part of the Hebrides – famed for their remoteness – but it is one of the innermost Inner Hebrides. Just 280 metres divide it from the North Cuan ferry port on Seil (technically another island, but joined to the mainland by the 225-year old graceful arch of Clachan Bridge, dubbed the ‘Bridge over the Atlantic’).

 

However, as we are soon to learn, remote and isolated are not the same thing. Despite its proximity to the mainland, Luing feels remarkably cut off. The small island – 5.5 miles square, though long and narrow in shape – has just one shop and no pub or hotel or, indeed, any facilities at all from doctors to hairdressers, playing fields to petrol stations. Electricity only arrived in 1956. The ferry operates every half-hour, but outside summer, it stops at 6pm, ruling out evening excursions in search of booze, conversation and other such entertainment.

A single road travels north to south with a spur to the west, where the island’s main village of Cullipool faces the Atlantic Ocean – and one to the east, to the more sheltered coastal village of Toberonochy. This is where we’ll be living for the next month.

 

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The isle of Mull from our local beach

Filling the trolley in the supermarket in Oban earlier today, I’d felt a sudden weariness for life on the road. The idea of actually unpacking our belongings, cooking fresh food and sleeping in the same place every night for a few weeks fills me with glee.

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Our cottage is a traditional island dwelling – long and single-storied with thick, whitewashed walls and a woodburner to keep us cosy. The garden backs directly on to a quiet inlet. At night you can hear the gentle lapping of the water and the occasional honk of goose or squawk of heron. There’s another sound, too: a distant pulsing; a thudding whir. It takes me a while to work out that it’s the nearby wind turbines stirring the night air.

We quickly impose a rhythm on our days on Luing – days that, ostensibly, are free to do what we want with. It’s strange how routine is one of the things so many of us – me included – yearn to escape, yet without it, we can feel a little lost.

After a few lie-ins, we begin setting the alarm clock to wake up earlier – and are rewarded with sunrises that turn the sky pink and orange, below which the dark shapes of other islands loom out of the sea.

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Sunrise from the back garden

Although we’re not hiking anymore we still walk miles every day. It feels necessary, not least for Morris, who looks disappointed with anything less than a couple of hours at a time. At first, we thought the island limited in its opportunities for exploration, but each day we discover new trails, including one that traces a high ridge, like the backbone of a sleeping dinosaur, all the way back to the ferry port.

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Cullipool to the west

There’s a lot to be said for a small island. Before long, we’ve scaled all Luing’s peaks, circumnavigated it on foot, decided on our favourite paths, views and beaches and even discovered a secret quarry. With this familiarity, it feels like one giant playground. As soon as I come in from walking, I want to get back out there running, or kayaking, or cycling. If I’ve been in the hills, I want to walk on the shore, poring over the rockpools and scouting for otters.

We soon get to know the comings and goings of the locals – human and otherwise. Sometimes, people greet us with such enthusiasm when we pass each other along the road, or in the shop doorway, that we aren’t sure whether we’ve met them before or they’re just this friendly to everyone. We even get to know a friendly seal; he comes to watch us from a safe distance when we kayak in the firth.

Bird names have been coming back to me, the way the lyrics of old songs you’d thought you’d forgotten do. Treecreeper, reed bunting, curlew, cormorant… I haven’t watched birds in decades but the island and surrounding water is teeming with them, and it inspires me to buy a pair of binoculars. There’s a fence post just beyond the village where a male hen harrier routinely perches at dusk to watch for rodents. I’ve never seen one so close up. The local gang of crows harass him, cawing and flying at him. These are hooded crows, with grey backs and shoulders as if they’re wearing little boleros.

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Each day after our morning walk, we have ‘creative hour’ (a misnomer, because it’s actually two hours). This is my writing time – I wanted to carve out a non-negotiable daily period for writing, mainly out of fear that having said I wanted to ‘do some writing’ while I was away I’d go home having not written a single word. So now I’ve written over 30,000 of the buggers, though whether they will ever be readable is yet to be determined. Jeff has been using the time to draw (animals, mostly), and very good he is too.

After creative hour, we go running – setting off together, though we usually go our separate ways. Frequently, the island’s weather isn’t what you’d call conducive to running: if it isn’t raining then it’s blowing a gale, or flinging hailstones at us. But all of it – good and bad – passes quickly and we learn that it makes little difference what it’s like when you set off, as it will probably be very different by the time you turn for home.

When we’re back from running, we have lunch, go online for an hour or so, or visit the village shop (too exciting for such a brief mention!) before doing our daily core workout. Then we get Morris out for another walk before darkness sets in, which by late October, is frighteningly early. It makes the evenings long, but we resist the temptation to slump in front of the TV. We haven’t had a telly or a radio since we left home for the campsite at the start of July, and we’re reluctant to let the outside doom-mongering media into our tranquil bubble. We save the TV for special occasions, and instead we read, talk, cook, eat and indulge in our new obsession, Scrabble!

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One night, there is to be a film shown in the village hall – the start of a new monthly ‘cinema’ night. We learn about it the way everyone on Luing learns about everything: the village noticeboard. We’re not talking online (the island’s Facebook page is rather out of date) but a physical structure. We can actually see it from our front window, and there’s often someone either looking at it, or opening the glass front to put a new notice in it. The film is Whisky Galore – a fitting tale of Scottish island life and the lengths the residents will go to ensure its whisky supply doesn’t run dry. We go to see it, of course. We even take Morris with us, who watches the first few minutes intently before going to sleep on Jeff’s lap.

I said that everyone stays in the loop thanks to the noticeboard, but I’m forgetting the local shop. Here too, you can find out who is doing what, when and why. The shop manager, who is also the postmaster, is the font of all knowledge and, having quizzed us about our extended stay, probably spends much of his time explaining to locals who the weird couple in the bobble hats are who seem to be out running, walking and cycling in all weathers.

Kayaking is more weather-dependent. If the conditions are right, it takes precedence over everything else. We three don our lifejackets at the first signs of a calm sea and paddle along Luing’s shoreline.

We haven’t ventured to any other islands because the tides and currents can be fierce around here – it’s within a stone’s throw of the famous Corryveckan whirlpool, where George Orwell nearly drowned and which has taken the lives of a few less fortunate. Morris – still finding his sea legs – topples in on our first few outings (he’s attached to Jeff with a bungee lead) but on our final paddle before we leave the island, he managed to stay in the boat the whole time. Go Morris!

The history of Luing lies in slate – it was a thriving quarry centre at one time, and now the beaches are lined with fine black sand and sea-smoothed pieces of slate, the hinterland punctuated by huge water-filled quarries and abandoned stone buildings, some containing giant rusted machinery.

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The domed grassy hills are clipped short by roaming sheep and cattle – the island has its own breed: the rust-coloured long-haired Luing cow. They give a good stare but they’re the most placid cows we’ve ever encountered. Between the hills, there are swathes of marsh and tough long grass, alive with ground-nesting birds, frogs, roe deer and hares, which we inadvertently send fleeing with our off-road explorations.

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A couple of days before we leave, in mid-November, I see my first otter. I’ve been looking every day and I am finally rewarded when I catch a small movement in the sea and track it with my binoculars. A small, neat head appears above the waterline for a few moments, before the graceful narrow body arches and dives under, its tail the last thing to disappear.

Leaving Luing feels like a wrench. I’ve been wondering if we could make a life here. Live in this cottage – or one like it – and spend our days doing…. what? There are just 195 people living here – the majority are retired and many of those that aren’t have to travel off the island daily for work. I can’t see much scope for a town planner and a journalist, nor a running club. Anyway, it’s time to move on. This was never meant to be the real thing, it’s The Crazy Thing.

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From two legs to four wheels

Autumn’s turned since we finished the Cape Wrath Trail. I’m wide-eyed at the colours nature is concocting. Vivid green tussocks of grass are streaked with red. Silver birch trees shudder in the wood, launching a confetti of yellow and rust leaves into the air. The bracken leaves have curled and turned copper, while the heather remains resolutely mauve. It’s all breathtakingly beautiful.

Autumn’s turned since we finished the Cape Wrath Trail. I’m wide-eyed at the colours nature is concocting. Vivid green tussocks of grass are streaked with red. Silver birch trees shudder in the wood, launching a confetti of yellow and rust leaves into the air. The bracken leaves have curled and turned copper, while the heather remains resolutely mauve. It’s all breathtakingly beautiful.

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IMG_3922img_3859.jpgIt’s colder now, too. But we’re travelling by van – not on foot – so we have the luxury of being able to carry more camping gear. When we pitch up I’m grateful for the foam roll mat under my Thermarest and the blanket on top of my sleeping bag – not to mention real milk from the cool box for our hot drinks!

But camping is now a choice, not a necessity. And while that might sound like a positive thing (if it’s a little chilly, why not treat ourselves to a hotel?), the element of decision-making it presents is unwelcome. It’s an illustration of the difference between the hiking life, where your focus is narrowed to a single task, and ‘real’ life, where your attention and desires are pulled in many directions at once, creating conflict that saps your energy.

We drive to Achiltibuie on the remote and sparsely populated Coigach peninsula 20 miles north of Ullapool. It’s a moorland-dominated landscape strewn with lochs and mountains, including the spectacular Stac Pollaidh (pronounced Polly), whose tall jagged peaks are etched against the sky.

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We climb it on a day so windy that I am literally blown off my feet more than once (which doesn’t bode well for the next day’s local half marathon, which we’ve both signed up for). Morris looks otter-like, his ears flattened to his head.

The view from the top is awe-inspiring so we’re glad we went up but I mentally add tired quads to my list of excuses (pre-race sleep in a tent, 40mph wind, post-trail fatigue, fearsome hills) for any forthcoming poor performance in the race!IMG_3879IMG_3876

Jeff needs no such list of excuses, winning the race comfortably in 1hr 19 mins. I hate him. I love him. I run 1.47 – which I think is my second-worst half marathon time ever.

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But I console myself with my list of excuses and a generous share of the selection of sandwiches and cakes being doled out in Achiltibuie village hall. In true Scottish style, the race celebrations also include an evening ceilidh – surprisingly good for loosening up post-race muscles. After Stripping the Willow with vigour (while Morris hides under the table in embarrassment) we’re relieved when we get back to the campsite to find the tent hasn’t blown away. However, there’s much talk of Hurricane Ophelia winging its way towards this part of the west coast and the next stage of our adventure involves a ferry crossing…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

To the lighthouse

We start our 18th day on the trail with no inkling of the decision that lies ahead.

Leaving our plum camping spot, we find ourselves almost instantly on tough pathless terrain alongside Loch Stack. Progress is slow, so it feels as if we’ve hardly got anywhere when two hours is up and it’s time for our morning break. After that, we hit a lovely 4×4 track, which I’m just getting used to when Jeff announces we have to step off it and make our way across 1km of bog to the head of the next loch, Loch a Garbh-bhaid Mor. My boots fill with water within minutes. Even when we reach the loch, it doesn’t get easier; the path along its east bank is faint and rough.

After 2km we have to cross a river that flows in to the loch. It’s too fierce to cross where we are, so we have to trudge half a mile upstream to find a better place. Jeff makes it across holding Morris, using half-submerged rocks as stepping stones, but the bank on the other side is too steep for him to get up, so he has to come back. Meanwhile, I’m halfway across and have to make a tricky reverse manoeuvre! A bit further along, we manage to cross without mishap and walk back down to the loch to resume our slog along the shore, muttering to ourselves that ‘if the whole CWT was like this, we’d have given up and gone home’.

Fortunately, it isn’t. Gradually, the ground gets drier and firmer, the path more defined and the scenery gentler, with the river Rhiconich taking pride of place. I see a huge salmon leaping out of the water only minutes before a chap coming the other way asks ‘Have you seen any salmon leaping?’

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It’s mid afternoon by the time we reach the remote hamlet of Rhiconich, and we’re more than ready for a drink at the hotel before looking for somewhere to pitch the tent. But the hotel door is locked and there’s no one in sight. Nor does it appear that there’s anywhere remotely suitable to camp. It’s all bit of a blow – the last few days have taken their toll and we’re craving beer, fish and chips and some friendly banter. What to do?

We decide to carry on a further four miles to Kinlochbervie, a fishing port with more amenities, and try our luck there. But along the way, a little cafe The Old Schoolhouse appears like a mirage at the roadside, offering cakes, teas and sandwiches. When I go inside to order (we sit outside because of Morris), I bump into our fellow CWTer, Daniel. He comes out to join us and we eagerly swap stories of our trail experiences since we last met.

We also learn from Daniel that two giant spanners have been thrown into the works of our progress to the end of the trail. The first is the tail end of Hurricane Lee, predicted to cause havoc across the north-west of Scotland over the next couple of days, bringing gale-force winds and torrential rain. And second, the military (who own much of the land around Cape Wrath) are starting ops on Monday (this being Saturday), rendering part of the territory we have to cross a no-go area. Daniel has decided to wait it out but we’re not keen to follow suit, and wonder whether we can use the remaining window of good weather to make it the whole way to the lighthouse. It’ll mean cramming two days’ walking in to one, so we’ll have to start early, but we’re up for it.

Jeff makes various phone calls to see whether our plan is feasible. He calls John Ure, the chap who lives at Cape Wrath and looks after visitors (a CWT legend) as well as the man who drives the bus from the ferry to the relative civilisation of Durness. It all seems doable – John says he’ll feed us when we get there and that we can stay overnight on the floor of the cafe and we’ll be able to get off the Cape the day after, either by ferry or on foot.

Suddenly, it feels as if our journey is rushing towards its conclusion. We bid Daniel farewell and continue on our way to Kinlochbervie, the evening sun casting a beautiful light on the lochs and mountains.

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It’s dark when we reach Kinlochbervie, and we walk around for some time trying to find the heart of the village. (We later decide it doesn’t have one.) We find the hotel and go in to the bar, which is full of drunk and slightly hostile locals. The unfriendly bartender says we can’t get food because we’re not hotel residents. We have a desultory drink and a packet of crisps before heaving our packs out into the night to find somewhere to camp. The best we can do is a field just off the road that climbs out of the village. There are lots of cow pats – we just have to hope they aren’t recent ones.

Dehydrated meals have been invaluable on this trip – but tonight, I can barely stomach yet another dinner of chilli con carne with rice. We go straight to bed after eating – exhausted after a tough 15-mile day – and I sleep fitfully, dreaming of marauding cows and drunken locals searching us out.

The longest day

The alarm wakes us early. Not only do we have a long way to go – we’re also in a race against the weather. The rain is forecast to begin at 10am, with high winds to follow. I crawl out of the tent to an incredible sunrise.

IMG_3758We don’t bother with breakfast, planning to stop once we’ve got a few miles under our belt. The first section is all on road, winding up and down between treeless hills dotted with solitary houses. Then we get on to the track signposted to Sandwood Bay, one of north-west Scotland’s most famous beaches and something of an institution on the Cape Wrath Trail.

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The track is wide and well made, if a little featureless, so we get a good few miles in the bag with ease. By 10am we are brewing tea at Sandwood Bay, sheltered by the dunes that back the beach. Just as we take our first sips, it begins to rain – right on cue – so we don’t linger for long. We have to make our way along the beach to pick up a path at the northern end; the pearly-white sand is strewn with amazing rocks and pebbles but we have to concentrate on leaping over the many fast-flowing rivulets (we don’t want to get our feet wet this early in the day, even though we know they’ll eventually be sodden). We climb up and away from the beach on a rocky path; at the top there’s nothing but a vast expanse of low-hilled green and rust bogland that we need to find our way across to the next ‘landmark’ – Strathchailleach bothy.

IMG_3799Jeff takes a bearing and we set off into the pouring rain. Herds of deer huddle in the mist, scarpering at our approach. When we reach the bothy, 90 minutes later, we go inside for some respite from the weather. I’m feeling a bit spaced-out and Jeff is worried that I won’t make it. I devour a tin of sardines and an oatcake while rain beats down on the metal roof; then we head out to continue across the same trackless and deceptively hilly terrain, that seems to go on for infinity. Every step is an effort and I feel as if I’m running on empty, being buffeted around like a rag doll.

The barbed wire fence of the military zone comes into view. Red flags are flying even though the military operations are not meant to start until tomorrow. It’s disconcerting, but we climb over anyway and press on. I keep thinking I can hear helicopters, but it’s just the sound of water gurgling under the bog, mingled with the wind. After reaching the top of another hill, we finally see the road in the distance – it’s the only road on the entire Cape so we know it’s the one to the lighthouse. It’s still a way off but it’s heartening nonetheless.

I’m tottering and slipping and dragging myself up what seems to be an endless uphill gradient in the wind, rain and mud, wondering if we’ll ever get to that bloody road, when Jeff and Morris, 25m ahead of me, are suddenly standing on flat ground. It looks like a magic trick. But then I’m there too, and there is a mere 1.5km (uphill of course) along this pot-holed track between us and the lighthouse.

We don’t see the Cape Wrath lighthouse until we’re almost upon it. It’s partly the weather, but also a quirk of the way the land lies that it only comes into view at the last moment. There are steep drops on both sides of the final approach to the lighthouse lined by crumbling drystone walls – or nothing at all – and copious signs warn ‘UNSAFE’ (which doesn’t seem to deter the sheep from grazing dangerously close to the edge). The Cape is indeed a wild and desolate place, and arriving here in such extreme weather feels fitting.

The dilapidated buildings next to the lighthouse have an abandoned feel, and it’s difficult (fanciful even) to imagine that someone is going to be standing behind the counter of a cafe awaiting our arrival. At first this does appear to be the case; all the doors we try are locked and there doesn’t seem to be anyone around. Does John Ure really exist, or is it all a practical joke played on CWTers, we wonder? But then we push another door,  and find ourselves inside the Ozone cafe. It’s deserted, but we ring the bell, as instructed by the sign, and wait.

Nothing happens. We stand there, shivering and dripping in our wet clothes. Our elation at reaching the Cape is gradually replaced by anxiety that we are the only ones here – we have no food left, limited water and there’s neither a phone signal nor electricity. We change in to dry clothing and are just considering crawling into our sleeping bags to get warm when we hear voices and dogs barking outside. It’s John, thank God!

He brings us a gas-operated heater and a clothes horse for us to hang up our sodden gear and invites us to come in to his house next door when we’re ready, for some hot soup and to warm ourselves by the fire. I feel like crying with gratitude.

When we turn up there, a few minutes later, he opens the door to the living room and we go in, assuming we’re alone. We are stunned to find it crowded with bizarrely-dressed and high-spirited men in a cloud of smoke. The source of their high spirits – beer and whisky – is spread out on the table and we’re poured drinks before the introductions are even done. This – it turns out – is the annual general meeting of the splendidly quirky Kearvaig Pipe Club, whose dress code for the year’s event is Crap Suits.

Slightly shell-shocked, after almost three weeks in splendid isolation, we join in with the banter as we thaw out, and before we know it, the evening light is fading and it’s time to retreat to our mattresses, which John has put down for us in the cafe. It’s only then that I realise Jeff has drunk more than his fair share of wee drams (not to mention smoking a pipe) and is, in fact, monumentally pissed.

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I, however, am in no mood for nursing him. My guts are in turmoil and I’m having to run out with the cat shovel to duck behind the precarious drystone walls at regular intervals – I must have drunk some contaminated water earlier. My woes continue through the night, and we both wake up the next morning feeling terrible in our own ways.

The bad news is there’s no ferry, so the only way off the Cape is on foot. The good news is that John is giving his friends from the Pipe Club a ride to a place that will make the journey shorter (though it’s still 6-7 miles of walking). Fortunately, they are regulars here and know the way across the pathless bog that leads to the road to Durness, so we can tag along.

Jeff and I both force down a fried breakfast (we’ve not eaten a proper meal since that dehydrated chilli in Kinlochbervie) and pack our stuff. At around 11am, we crowd into the minibus and set off along the bumpy road. The views are stupendous, though my insides are still too miserable to allow me to appreciate it properly.

IMG_3811John stops the bus next to a steep, rocky slope that water is trickling down. It’s the path, apparently. We say our thanks and goodbyes and set off,  quickly spreading out as we labour up the hill in a new deluge of rain and wind strong enough to blow us off our feet. At the top, a vast expanse of moorland unfolds, swathed in uneven tussocks, bog moss and heather. We slip and slide our way across it (me having to stop for emergency toilet breaks at frequent intervals).

There’s a river to cross – sometimes it’s gentle enough to wade across but at the moment it’s a raging torrent and in a replay of yesterday’s rigmarole, we have to walk upstream for half a mile to find the bridge, and then all the way back down on the other side to continue towards Durness. I feel as weak as a kitten and thoroughly miserable.

At last, though, we start to see the odd car or lorry speeding along on the horizon – the road, the road! When we reach it, one of the Pipe Club members kindly squeezes us into his car and takes us the final few miles into the village of Durness. He drops us off outside the local shop and bids us farewell. Jeff enquires about accommodation in the area for the night while I buy Imodium, shampoo and new toothbrushes. Less than half an hour later, with the utmost gratitude and relief, we are opening the door to a warm, clean room with ensuite bathroom at the Wild Orchid guesthouse. 

We’ve made it.

Epilogue

We walked the Cape Wrath Trail in September and October 2017. (John Ure reckons that fewer than 1000 people have completed it.) The blog had to come later, since we had no mobile phone reception or wifi access almost the whole way. The blog entries are based on the diary and notes I kept during the hike, and the photos are all taken on my iPhone. I’ve continued keeping a diary and taking photos for The Crazy Thing since we finished The Cape Wrath Trail – so stay tuned for the next stage of our Scottish adventures.

Mr & Mrs

Even though Jeff and I have been married seven years, it is a new experience to be together 24 hours a day – much of it in just a few square metres of space.

The mundane intimacies of hiking à deux become our new normal. We know each other’s cat shovel habits, we inhale each other’s unwashed skin when we undress, check each other for ticks like a pair of grooming monkeys – we even share a toothbrush.

img_3786.jpgIt’s not just the being together that is novel, it’s the absence of anyone else. Some days, we walk in virtual silence for hours, lost in our own worlds; but it never feels awkward (unless one of us is sulking). Other days we talk incessantly or we play games, like Mr & Mrs, Who am I? or The A to Z of… fruit/sports brands/songwriters/positive adjectives (the options, as Jeff will attest, are endless).

We learn a lot about each other, and some of what we thought we knew before the trip is challenged. Jeff is a surprisingly good motivator (‘we’ve broken the back of it now, Sam’ ‘Just over this hill and it’ll get easier…’). The more I wane, the greater use he makes of his Mr Motivator act. But he’s also more of a worrier than I expected – and I learn early on that he operates best with a firm plan and goal for the day (or any given time period). Being the sole competent navigator, he feels a weight of responsibility for us out here. My tendency to vaguely hope for the best in a non-committal fashion drives him nuts.

He also finds me stubborn (especially when it comes to the consumption of caffeinated drinks) but is surprised by my resilience and my ability to cope with situations that I know in advance I’ll find difficult (see Pride comes before The Falls for an example).

One of the more challenging things is being under each other’s constant observation. It’s not intentional, but when you only have each other for company, you become hyper observant of every nuance of the other’s mood, every aspect of their behaviour. ‘What’s wrong?’ ‘You’re in a funny mood…’ ‘Why are you doing that?’ we say to each other.

Morris is our saviour, because he gives us a different – external – focus and, quite frequently, makes us laugh our socks off. All three of us have become closer on the trail. I just wonder how we’re going to wean him off crawling under the bed covers when we get home…

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Get up? No chance, mum