No doubt some of you may be considering travelling to Scotland for a holiday and indeed millions do every year and why not? We have some of the finest views in Europe, some of deepest lochs, probably the best whiskies and the oldest cities to boot. Scotland has more castles than just about anywhere else, more Munros than even the most terminally enthusiastic climber could want, huge swathes of forests in which to hide and more glens than a country and western society.
And we rely on you, dear traveller, more than you could possibly know. Each year you brave your way hundreds, often thousands, of miles from the comfort of your own homes to bring us the equivalent of £11 Billion. That’s a lot of money and is £11 Billion more than we would have to find if you all stopped arriving overnight, which is, of course, unlikely because of all the wonderful things we have to offer.
But if you are travelling up here soon, or indeed even if you are a seasoned Highland traveller, wouldn’t it be nice to know a bit more about this land fabled in literature, film and music?
Well, please sit back, relax and let me take you on a tour of some of the things you thought you knew about this country but were blissfully unaware of.
Hang on tight!
The first thing you will notice as we begin the slow ride up towards the higher latitudes is likely to be the weather. Now, I know you were probably expecting a bright orb set against a blue sky, possibly just above the crest of a mountain and if you had decided to visit in summer, it may well have been the sight greeting you through your window.
But its winter just about now, I’m afraid, and things are rather different. The noise you hear, as you look hopefully through the wet glass, is rain. Not the type of rain that falls with delicious sweetness upon a parched earth to refresh and renew both your spirit and your fellow beings, but the type of rain that is so far beyond the laws of gravity that it falls not just sideways but upwards. Were you unwise enough to step out of our cosy little cabin it would appear that every little needle-like drop would steer immediately towards and make a concerted attempt to dissolve you.
I won’t lie, Scottish rain hurts, particularly in the Western Isles, and this is because of the way the whole of the United Kingdom is orientated. The more mountainous parts are generally in the North and West which is the direction, incidentally, from which the weather systems come and being hilly it is rather exposed to the wind. Just how windy it can get here was recorded by a, presumably rather startled, Head of Ski Patrol in the Cairngorms national park on the 8th of December 2008. An anemometer (a machine used to measure wind speed) was inspected and found to have a reading of 194 miles-per-hour, about the top speed of a formula one car, or rather more lift than needed to get a jumbo jet airborne.
Unfortunately due to a ‘technical problem’ the machine failed to print or otherwise record this information for posterity and because it wiped its memory clean every other day, there was no corroborating evidence except for the lonesome ski patrol who happened to come by, presumably heavily chained to a nearby boulder. The fact remains that Scotland is the windiest part of the UK of which the Western Isles, though which we are now passing, is officially the 5th. But the region’s topography is also responsible for the physics-busting rain.
Because air tends to carry moisture up mountainsides, it tends to get dropped as rain, so the more mountainous the area, at least in what is laughingly called a ‘temperate’ region, the more rain will fall. If you do a search on ‘wettest part of the UK’ you would expect a clear result, wouldn’t you? But you would be wrong. Depending upon which website you favour you will learn that it could be the top of Ben Nevis (Scotland’s highest mountain at 1,344.5 metres above the sea and about which more will be discussed later) Cardiff in Wales, Dorset, Dartmoor, Newcastle, Glasgow or just about any Westerly town, city or landscape. Isn’t the internet great?
The combination of wind and rain is why a trip outdoors at this time of the year is an adventure in the realms of both hypothermia and pain in which the word ‘stinging’ assumes a new dimension.
I say this because shortly after moving here (I don’t know why I chose mid-winter, but there you go) I decided to take my children on a day trek down one arm of the many peninsulas that cut a swathe in this region. Their existence is owed to the vast sheets of ice, several miles thick, that once completely covered Scotland and much of England as well. As these behemoths started to melt they were carried inexorably toward the Atlantic, grinding and gouging rock to form the landscape we have today. To get to where we wanted to start the walk required a relatively short drive down a single-track road (about which more later) and the opening and closing of two gates. Here the road ended, although calling a track with some tarmac on it a ‘road’ could be stretching the meaning of the word. The day was gloriously sunny and rather warm for a change. That is one of the beauties of this place because you cannot always tell, even with the most up to date forecasts what the weather will do next. This was going to be one of those days.
I will admit I was relatively new to this part of Scotland and in my naivety I assumed that because it was brightly sunny now it would probably remain so for at least a few hours. This was more than enough time in which to visit the Kiells Peninsula, the tip of which pointed like a finger about 2 miles out into the Sound of Jura. So I didn’t bother to encumber myself with a coat. I laughed gently at the sight of a more seasoned tourist and his partner returning thence, covered in an array of articles that may have included emergency rations, flares and an SOS beacon location-finder.
We left the car and headed out West. The strip of land although quite long was just over half a mile wide. On either side, the crystal clear waters abounded with sea-birds and the occasional glimpse of a seal, wary about showing too much of themselves above water. Way out on the horizon we could see the edge of the island of Gigha, abutting its more massive neighbour Jura, a place with perhaps more red deer than the average Scottish town and dwarfing the island’s human residents of 200 by about 30 to 1. Beyond Gigha, way beyond, was a tiny sliver of dark cloud, so far away as to be partially eclipsed by the earth’s span; absolutely nothing to worry about.
The land was surprisingly hard to cross. What had looked from a distance to be short grassland was, upon closer inspection, a mass of gully’s, pits and hidden marsh. The latter were rather tricky to negotiate because of their habit of looking just like ordinary grass. Stepping confidently into them I found myself suddenly ankle deep in a clinging, oozy mud which did its’ damnest to hold onto my boot before reluctantly letting go with what can only be described as an organic, alien-esque belch.
Both my children thought this was the height of amusement which only goes to show that youth is wasted on them.
After a while the land began to dry up somewhat but by which time my boots had a thick layer of mud across them. Bits of moss and unnamed varieties of plant adhered to this and poked jauntily out of my, by now, very wet socks.
Still, we couldn’t be far from the end and the vision of a blazing log fire at home afterwards along with a good sized dram of Islay malt warmed my soul and lengthened my stride. I topped a ridge, confidently expecting to see the end of the peninsula and the small chain of islands leading out to the Atlantic only to be greeted by another long mass of land, rising gently. I looked back in dismay to the hill from which we had come. Distance is deceptive here because the landscape is so big and because of the sometimes tortuous routes one has to take to get from here to there.
I now guessed we had only come about halfway, even though we’d been walking for about 45 minutes. Given the length of this strip of land that meant a speed of about one mile per hour, or about 14 times slower than a red squirrel can run. In fact, if there had been one with me it could theoretically have made the return trip in about 6 minutes and by now be lying cosily in its dray wondering if it was going to have acorn for dinner or be more adventurous and go for the hazel nut. But of course there wasn’t a little red companion with me. Red squirrels like trees and out here the tallest plant was less than a foot high (with good reason, as I was to find out) and anyway reds are much too sensible. In fact the whole landscape was eerily without movement or sound apart from the occasional gull and even that fell more distant as we walked stoically on.
At the crest of the highest part of the walk we stopped for a moment and gazed down upon what seemed to be a lush meadow of very short, very green grass. The change in topography from boggy moonscape to hidden valley was both startling and very welcome. I positively bounded downwards, momentarily glad that gravity was actually helping me for a change and headed joyously over what I thought at the time was a tiny hillock but was actually an 8 foot drop.
The rate of fall an object achieves is scientifically proven to be the same for anything else on this planet which is 9.8 m/s squared. This means that in the first second of a fall, an object can travel 4.9 meters. Well, call me Mr Sceptic because I was convinced I was falling for about 10 times as long. Ok, yes, my body was helpfully hindered from a free-fall by various helpful objects like tussocky (and very sharp) grasses, rocks, slightly bigger rocks and a small pile of sheep droppings, but as I rolled to a halt, picking what I hoped were small plants out of my teeth and hair I felt sure I must have broken something. Later on my children, looking at me rather sadly, would tell me that a 10 second free fall would have resulted in me hitting the ground at 115 miles per hour, so I was clearly being hysterical about this.
My mind racing, I wondered how long it would take for my kids to walk home, call the emergency services and get a chopper out to me or whether, having got home they would just forget to call and plug themselves into Total Annhilitaion 3 instead.
As it was I need not have worried. Standing up slowly I discovered that apart from a few scratches I was otherwise unhurt and my children were staring in disbelief over the crest above me.
“Didn’t you see that, Dad?” one of them cried incredulously.
“Yes of course,” I called back lightly. “It was just a bit steeper that I thought, ha ha.”
As they wound their way down in more careful fashion I looked about me at yet another surreal landscape.
See part two of this post.