The coach set off from Inverness and passed Acorn Pets who proudly announced, ‘We have baby bunnies.’ I desperately wanted one, but fought off the urge to ask the driver to stop and remained seated. I was heading to Thurso, spitting distance from John O’Groats. But on arrival, I’d be heading west instead of east, over to Durness, my last stop before Cape Wrath.
We hugged the North Sea coast for most of the trip, and soon I spotted two large cruise ships in a bay. They looked out of place; lost like beached whales washed in with the tide, confused and unable to find their way back out to sea.
We stopped shortly after and a few elderly cruisers climbed on board. They had set off from Tilbury Docks in London, and were heading around the British Isles before ending up in Southampton. Today they were on shore leave and were taking a trip up to Dunrobin Castle. They were a jolly bunch, full of joy, and excited to be on land. But their mood was not reflected in their dull, sensible clothing. It was standard pensioner apparel. They all had plenty of disposable income. They wouldn’t be gallivanting around Britain on a cruise otherwise. But they were splashing out on experience rather than fashion. A wise move, as you can’t take a pair of Day-Glo hot pants when you go.
I wasn’t jealous: my own personal pension will pay around £300 per month – although past poor performance is no guarantee against future lack of returns. I very much look forward to working in B&Q well into my 70s, and soiling myself in the plant aisle.
When we pulled into Dornoch, I noticed a sign that simply read:
It was good to see the museum had a higher status than the abbatoir. And fair play to Dornoch, on a road trip, there isn’t anything more important than a public convenience. Another roadside sign bore the legend, ‘Haste Ye Back,’ I’d see this a lot and promised I would. I was only on day two of the tartan leg of my trip but I’d already fallen in love with the Highlands.
The happy old cruisers limped off at Dunrobin. The coach became quieter apart from a token sulky teenager, whose tinny earphone music disturbed the post-pensioner day-trip calm. He was wearing a red top with the collar pulled up over his mouth. He was young and grumpy, not old and happy. But like the greyhairs, his mood was in vivid contrast to his clothing. I stopped thinking about fashion and drank in the views instead.
When we pulled in to Thurso I was the last passenger, which felt ominous. On the map it looked straightforward enough. A quick romp across the top of Scotland; taking in scenic views as I made my way west to Durness. From memory it didn’t look that far on my Michelin map. The train station was just up the road so I thought I’d try there first.
A train was just pulling into the station. Unfortunately it was heading straight back down south. No train went west from here; it wasn‘t the type of terrain that suited rail. There was too much zig-zagging, no flat plains, and lots of steep gradients. So I turned back and spoke to the first person I came across. A wise-looking white-haired old man with two slobbering dogs, one lovingly licking his face. I asked him about heading west. There was a bus, he told me, but it only went as far as Betty Hill. I could hitch cross-country from there. Or I could take a train heading south west to Lairg, then catch a bus back up to Durness.
I chose the road and once again felt kinship with Kerouac. On the edge of the void, my spirit yearning for wild adventure, ready for anything: hemmed in by mountains and the sea, wind blowing through my hair as I sang ancient sea shanties, laughing in the face of adversity.
But first, I needed a nice cup of strong tea and a toasted teacake. The bus didn’t go for a couple of hours, its destination – Betty Hill Public Toilets. O the glamour of the road.
Cape Wrath 17/24