It was two years since my last visit, north of Edinburgh that is. I go to see ‘Big Dave’ regularly enough, but we don’t usually stray much further than his home town, Linlithgow. He and his wife have lived there 11 years, and are comfortably ‘Scottish’. By that, I mean they have merged with the local community and scottish culture generally. They do ‘Scottish’ things, like country dancing. Joan plays a Scottish harp, Dave sings in a Scottish choir, and they listen to Scottish folk music. This is no outpost of disgruntled expatriate Tykes.
We met 22 years ago, playing rugby in Northallerton, when ‘Big Dave’ would pour over Ordnance Survey maps of Scotland in the bar after the match. He’d been a bandsman, you’ve guessed it, in The Scots Guards, and making the most of the opportunities a life in the forces can offer, he’d fallen in love with mountains.
Now Dave has one problem that comes between him and his passion: he is 20 stone. A very light-footed dancer, I have to say, and stÛill semi-mobile around the squash court, but not built for the long haul. And yet, he persists bravely, walking and scrambling up Monro’s as often as he can. Mind you he claims to need a lot of artificial aid. A short list includes ankle supports, various creams and powders, head bands, ski poles and a range of the latest designer fleeces, waterproofs and boots. A well-equipped walker and just possibly a bit of a serious poser.
I too enjoy the outdoors, mostly the Derbyshire and Yorkshire fells and dales. In my youth they were a small corner of the physical and intellectual challenge, and the fun, that a complex mix of school, sports and the boy scouts can provide. Today, middle-aged, I still appreciate walking as a physical challenge, b¸ut now the outdoors also give me permission to put off my boring household jobs, and temporarily unclutter my brain. Inevitably, only a short respite, but welcome nontheless.
I do have one distinct and major disadvantage: a fear of heights. I noticed it originally, when I clung to the floor at the top of the World Trade Building in New York. It recurred on Ben Lawyers, two years ago, when feeling ill, I mistakenly put it down to my gout pills – another of my disabilities. Between times, leading a lowland life, I’m not aware of the problem, and I forget.
So, one morning in May, to avoid the midges, two middle-aged men, with their hopes and their doubts, set off for the west coast of Scotland. We parked Big Dave’s caravan at Morvick, more or less on the shores of Loch Duich. The site sits at one end of The Five Sisters of Kintail, a long ridge walk which, on the day we arrived, was covered in mist. As it was raining a bit as well, Big Dave became despondent. He’d had an unfair share of washed out Scottish holidays. I was just happy to be there.
We got the routine caravan stuff done and drove down to the local shop and hotel, about 6 o’clock on a cold, wet and windy evening. We passed a guy, walking very slowly, as if at the end of a long and difficult day on the hills.
For some reason I didn’t write any more, which is a pity. I was and still am to a certain extent, torn between writing as a record of events and the craft of writing fiction. I am trying to learn the latter, whilst storing first drafts of things that happen and interest me until such time they can be made up into a coherent whole.
The memory is dim. The chap we met that night was going round the Monros for a second time. What was he going to do when he’d finished. Go round for a third time.
The most striking thing was my fear of heights, when overlooking sheer drops. The first two days were fine, but after that I became a mess. However those first two days were terrific, especially Beinn Sgritheall, over 3000 ft starting from the lochside. The village where we parked is Arnisdale, somewhere to return to – I have the website for a couple of cottages. Across the sealoch is Knoydart, an empty place. Walkers hire a boat and man from Arnisdale to get them across. In fact water is a good way of getting around, if you want to be on the coast that is and go out to the islands.
The campsite was at Morvich, not busy in May, surrounded by mountains, and as usual for Dave and I the weather was excellent all week. We watched the rugby league cup final from Murrayfield. I phoned my brother for his birthday and he was answer machine, again. Most days, after walking we had a few beers, made a meal and listened to tapes, two in particular. Bill Bryson’s account of trying the Appalaichan trail and Prebble’s book on Culloden and its aftermath. There couldn’t be two more different things. There was a trip to The Kyle to get a view of The Skye Bridge and then Plockton.
Perhaps the nicest spot was Glen Elg and the pub.