North West Scotland is as close to wilderness as it is possible to be in the UK. A land of mountains, water, forests and rough moorland with a fractured coastline of sea lochs and remote peninsulas protected from the full might of the north Atlantic by the double-layered island archipelago of the Hebrides.
A few days here and the normal assumptions about the ease of modern life start to shift. Nothing happens fast. Distances are stretched by the time it takes to navigate the few narrow twisting roads that snake through the area subservient to the topography of mountains and lochs. Here the landscape not the motorists’ convenience takes priority.
Connection with the outside world is momentarily possible as you climb a hill and fleetingly a few bars flicker into life on your phone only for the path to turn a corner or dip back down into the glen and the door on to the outside world is slammed shut. Stopping in one of the few pubs in the area with public Wi-Fi, refugees from the metropolis clamour not for a drink but for the access code, like junkies in jail queuing up for their daily dose of methadone. Once hooked up, they scuttle off into a corner greedily relishing the sudden glut of craved-for connectivity. But after a few days the urgent need to stay in touch with the ubiquity of instantaneous information starts to recede and this land with its different rhythms and altered priorities starts to take hold.
This is a place with a lot of weather. And most of it takes the form of rain. This time blown in on the tail end of a hurricane that started – like the Gulf Stream that keeps this part of Scotland surprisingly mild – far to the south on the other side of the Atlantic. On a wet, blustery day when the low cloud clags in the trees by the shore like smoke from a bonfire, it can feel quite desolate.
This is a landscape laden with lament for a lost time. A time when now ruined castles were built on islands guarding the loch from invaders or neighbours. A Gaelic time before people left or were forced from their homes – the bare stone traces of their houses still visible among abandoned fields- to make their way to the far corners of the world leaving this remote and tough land to mourn for itself. Like many places that have suffered sudden de-population, history here seems ruptured with no reassuring sense of continuity. At times like these when the weather presses in on you, the past hangs dolefully in the air adding to the pervading melancholy.
Then the rain stops and the sun comes out and the sadness lifts like a great weight. The colours of the heather, the bracken, the pines, the oaks, the lichen on the rocks all ignite to lift your spirits. This is no longer a land of ghosts but of majestic eagles, elusive sea otters, pine martens and somewhere deep in the ancient forest, the secretive Scottish wild cat – seeing but rarely seen.
Now you realise why it rains so much: because such dazzling intensity can only be absorbed in short bursts. That sense of pure joy when you lift your eyes as you come over the brow of a hill and before you is a sight so beautiful that your spirits soar. It is not picturesque. This is not a passive appreciation of prettiness but an imposition on your senses that absolutely commands your attention, which energises the fibres of your body but calms your soul.
Then it is time to head home, ironically just as the rain stops. And as the car eats up the southward miles, the rest of the world violently forces its way back into your consciousness. The car radio recounts vivid descriptions of dead passengers from downed airliners, video-taped executions, and battles between rival militias, horrendous bombings and civilian casualties. It seems that the world has gone even madder than usual. Momentarily, it is tempting to turn the car around and head back into the hills and pull down the shutters on all this lunacy. But the process starts to work in reverse – the addictive need to know what is happening in distant places resumes its grip – and the wild therapeutic vistas of northern Scotland will remain a memory for another year.