Pandemic travels: The Scottish Highlands and Hebrides, July 2021

My friends were arriving in Inverness later that afternoon. Having a few hours to wait, I had a crispy chicken sandwich, on a terrace in town. We were all staying in a hostel that first night before our camping adventure began. After we met, we repaired to the Eden Court Arts Centre, by the river, where an outdoor BBC concert was being held. We had no tickets purchased, so bought some cider from the bar and listened to the music from a park bench. After dinner we headed to Gellions bar where a trad music gig was underway. These were my first live music events since the Bjork concert in December 2019. It was magical.

Before we set off the next morning, I discovered something impressive – a reusable metal can of water. This looked preferable to plastic water bottles – which I have no truck with. I bought the can and sealed and resealed it repeatedly. Until my friend M told me to stop. We headed out of town for breakfast to the burgh of Dingwall where under the hot summer sun, we had breakfast on the terrace outside Batty’s Baps. I had a mini-Scottish breakfast. I have no idea what the difference is between an Irish and a Scottish breakfast. Both are tasty, very occasional treats. The waitress asked us where we were headed. When she heard about our camping trip, she advised us to invest in midge masks. Summer is midge season; we would be eaten alive by these critters were we to expose any skin to the elements. We took her advice.

We had no precise destination in mind. We set off in the van, three in a row and crossed the land bridge to the Isle of Skye – the largest of the Inner Hebrides. My reusable can was full. That evening we reached the remote fishing village of Elgol in the southwest of Skye – which had a permanent population of 80 people. We set up my tent in the hills overlooking the village and settled in. M and D were sleeping in the van. The midge masks had been a wise investment. Those lads were demonic in their persistence. As long as there was a slight breeze, or rain there was no concern as these eliminated them. Our first evening was dry and calm however. These beasts attacked.

The next few days were very special. There was no internet connection for my Irish phone, so I was off grid. The scenery was breath-taking – with the mountains and sea and fishing boats looking like a postcard. D went to a fishing boat at the harbour as it returned one evening, and acquired two massive sea-crabs for a fiver. None of us had a clue how to cook them. Boiling would work we thought, so the bonfire was lit, the baseball bat wrapped in a tea towel and those bad boys’ shells were smashed and the fish consumed. One of the nicer meals I have ever eaten. On day three we took a ferry to the Isle of Soay. The scenery was like something out of Tolkien.

We got back on the road. My reusable can was looking slightly worse for wear. A thin aluminium can starts looking pretty battered after a couple of days of relentless use. It might be more biodegradable than single use plastic but it’s not as user-friendly. I explained the concept of ‘road frontage’ being of primary importance in farm ownership in Ireland, to my traveling companions. I suspect this might be of similar importance in rural Scotland.

The next night we stayed in a campsite by the sea. I can’t remember the name but I believe it was called Staffin. We had an interesting and drunken evening with an older fellow camper who claimed to have single-handedly murdered 18 people. Then again he also claimed to have caused the downfall of multiple African dictatorships; and overseen the fall of communism in Eastern Europe at the end of the 1980s. At first I semi-believed him but as his yarns became ever more elaborate I started thinking ‘Walter Mitty with tattoos and a Scottish accent’. It was an enjoyable evening and his tales were entertaining (even if delusional).

The next day was my last day in the van. We drove about the island in a desperate effort to find some toilet facilities. For me. The others found my predicament quite amusing. The Isle of Skye is large and sparsely populated and we were remote. Finding a flushing toilet was proving to be a challenge. Once this issue was resolved we stopped for a fish lunch in a microbrewery and then dashed to the Kyle of Lochalsh on the mainland side of the Skye Bridge. My camping trip was over. M and D were continuing their expedition. Bravely, I left them the reusable can (which I am certain was not instantly binned) and took the ScotRail train through the Highlands back to Inverness. Getting back to the hostel I was impressed by the fact that I smelled of bonfire. I felt so outdoorsy. It had been years since I’d had a camping holiday like this. I had a shower and made my way into town where I ate an Indian meal, before having an early night to catch my early morning flight back to Belfast. As my trip to the Highlands ended, I made a pledge to return. This trip was outstanding.

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