Pastures new

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.

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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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Hitting the road

After a summer of camping, we leave East Sussex at the start of September. ‘I’m homeless and jobless,’ I think, as we drive north, the van straining under the weight of kayaks, bikes, wetsuits, hiking gear and an immense amount of reading material. My stomach does a little dip; it’s thrilling, but such wantonness feels naughty, too. When my job was advertised, 140 people applied. Will I live to regret quitting?

On the other hand, I’ve met lots of people over the last few months who, on hearing our plan, have revealed their own or others’ Crazy Things. Sometimes their plans are already in motion, other times, they’re still at the planning stage – or even just dreaming. My physio tells me about his intention to drive from home to South Africa in a custom-built Land Rover, when the kids are old enough. My hairdresser confides that she’s quitting the salon and moving to Devon to start a new life. Then there’s a couple touring around Europe in a converted horse lorry; a city high flyer who’s jacked it in to become a baker; and the editor of a highly successful magazine who resigned to retrain as a nutritionist. All these stories show that while much of what we do in our lives is aimed at creating stability, striving for success and fitting in, we also have a thirst for adventure, and a need for change too. I reflect on the fact that the change I’ve created for myself has put paid to two of the strongest ways in which I identify myself – as a journalist and as a runner. When we set off on the Cape Wrath Trail in a few days time, I’ll be neither.