A voyage of discovery (and recovery)

Glen Garry, Scotland
Some of Scotland. Not much of it. Just a bit.

At the bottom of my soul is a little hole, and jammed in that hole is a small, hard, wrinkled, dried pea.

Every day I go to work, my soul gets soaked in the hot piss that pours from clients into my ear from 9 to 5, day in, day out. As anyone who has soaked dried peas in hot piss (and we all have) will tell you, they tend to go a bit soft after a while, and as a result bits of my soul keep leaking out through the hole, trickling down my leg and vanishing into the drains. It’s most disheartening, and over the course of a year I find myself feeling increasingly hollow and dismal. I need to refill my soul, and the best method I know is to head to Scotland and attempt to build a TARDIS.

I won’t attempt to be cool about this: I love Scotland. It’s like England without all those fucking awful English people. Where Manchester has gangs of pikeys getting fingered by the bins behind Halfords, Scotland has gloaming and heather and vast empty spaces that leak into your heart and make you feel human again. And by “human” I mean “animal”. They make you reconnect with that part of yourself that hides in the corner so you can focus on staring at a screen all day, or cope with the A6 at rush hour. A couple of days in Scotland and you realise how much of you belongs in nature, and how for the first 300,000 years of human existence, all we had was places like this. Only bigger, and with a sign that says “Feral Goats”. I’m not making that up.

Outside, where you belong. Go there you damn fool.

And this is where the TARDIS comes in, because like a Time Lord, I somehow believe that I can cram all of that vastness into a small box with a telephoto lens, take it home with me, and by looking at it can be transported back to that better time and that better place. And I can’t. All I see is 2% of what I could see from that spot, and all I feel is gutted that I’m back at a desk in my pants. From this spot I could drive for 25 minutes in any direction without seeing more than a single house. And there’s something about being in that emptiness that lets you remember what it meant to be a person.

Oh yeah: I could also see my girlfriend taking a piss in a bush.

Because one of the other things I discovered in Scotland is that my girlfriend has a bladder the size of a kidney bean. We couldn’t travel more than 10 miles without a pit-stop, although in her defence these are Scottish miles, which seem to be a bit more generous. But when we drove up from Manchester on the Saturday we had to stop at literally every service station en route. By the time we got to Loch Lomond (thus doubling the number of vegetarians in Scotland) we’d both stopped laughing about her inability to go 5 minutes without a piddle, and were determined to plough on to Fort William without a break. By this point Lorna still wasn’t feeling the essential Scottishness I’d led her to expect, mainly because we’d only just left Glasgow.

Sign as you leave Glasgow: You are now leaving Glasgow. Please take us with you.

But just around the corner from Loch Lomond it starts to get properly massive and windswept, and everybody is called Hamish, Fergus or Morag. This is the Scotland we all want.

Don’t be fooled into thinking Scotland is just one big place. I mean, it is one place, and it is quite big. I certainly wouldn’t volunteer to carpet it, for instance. But it’s got several geographical characters, and you need to go there at once and explore them all. In the borders region it could easily be leafy Hampshire, but as you head up into the highlands you seem to leap all over the place. The moors near Glencoe (that’s Sebastian’s brother) look like Iceland. Glen Garry looks like all of the postcard Scotland you’ve ever seen, all lined up across the front of your fridge like the best cut-and-paste panorama you can imagine. The Cairngorms look like Austria and will kill you if you fuck around. And if you’re bonkers enough to drive all the way to Thurso you’ll find a landscape that looks like the Urals.

Sign as you enter Thurso: Welcome to Thurso, twinned with The Moon.

Actually that’s not fair to Thurso. It’s not twinned with The Moon. It’s more of a suicide pact.

We tried to watch Looper the night we arrived, but it was too complex, Bruce Willis was too scowly, we were too tired and drunk. Plus we’d spent all our energy on driving, pissing, and doing lots of naughty sex the moment we got into the flat. Don’t blame me: we got a free sex toy because we’d spent so much on… erm… sex toys. OK, blame me a bit. But if you’re given a free sex toy, you have to try it out as soon as you can lock all the doors. And without giving too much away, it’s the best sex toy in history, so I’m apologising for nothing, except for this: we later realised the landlord lived upstairs and could probably hear it all. So can I just take a moment to say sorry for how noisy we were, and for that thing I loudly called Lorna in the heat of the moment. She isn’t one of those. She’s never charged me a penny.

The next day we went to the local supermarket, which was showing off because they had a pineapple and a coconut in stock. People had travelled all the way from the deliciously named “Rest And Be Thankful” to see them, and some of the Fergus’s were queuing up to see the local witch doctor to have their shots before being introduced to such radical fruit. So we did the usual thing you do when visiting a strange supermarket – bought a “paint your own meerkat” kit – and then left. To fill up the rest of the day we went 10 miles outside Fort William to a place which isn’t quite the middle of nowhere, but if you stand on a chair you can see the middle of nowhere from there: it’s called Glen Etive, and is such as good-looking collection of nothingness that they used it for this bit of Skyfall.

Glen Etive/
Glen Etive. This is Scotland showing off.

It might sound like “middle of nowhere” is an insult. Not so. It’s fucking beautiful. No special effects, just 22 miles of that, petering out into even more nothing at all. And because it’s the winter there’s snow and waterfalls, and a hell of a lot of deer wandering around the place, keeping warm near the bottom of the valleys. OK, it was -7, but it’s still warmer than up in the hills. Deer are gnarly, and we took dozens of photos of them standing not 10 feet from us, being wild and cool and just a little bit amazing.

Deer are certainly gnarlier than His Popeness, who decided to jack it all in because he thinks the church needs someone else at the top. Well, not the top, obviously, because presumably that’s God, and it’s hard to replace something which doesn’t exist. But old Ratzinger finally had enough foresight to realise you can be too old to do a job. Sorry, did I say foresight? I meant Forsyth. Anyway, his announcement said he’d realised his “age means he hasn’t the strength to do his job”. Which is weird, because everyone else gets even better at talking nonsensical bollocks once they’re over 85, and that, surely is the Pope’s job.

Later, he did a follow-up announcement that he’s giving up Poping so he can dedicate his life to prayer. Being Pope isn’t religious enough for some people. Fucking nutbag.

The next day we decided to head up to the highland zoo, which is (as you’d expect) entirely populated by animals that die if they get above freezing, like yaks and polar bears and people called Fergus. Lorna, quelle surprise, was treating her miniscule bladder to rare trip to the ladies, and I was looking at a map of the zoo so I get my bearings (my marbles having vanished some time before). So I looked left to see how far away the enclosure was, and lo and behold, there was a red panda. Not in a cage, just standing on the path 10 feet from me, staring back.

An escaped Red Panda at the Highland Zoo
An escaped Red Panda at the Highland Zoo

I thought it must be one of those places where they let the tamer animals wander around freely, like Ford Open Prison, so when Lorna’s bladder was eventually persuaded to exit the toilet she joined me and we took photos as the panda ambled around in front of us. A Fergus and his Morag joined us to take snaps. It was very pleasant, but after a few minutes we all started to feel strange about it. Surely a red panda would have run off by now – there was no fence to keep it in the zoo, it could just walk to Drumnadrochit if it felt the need, although frankly, why would it want to?

So we wandered back into the gift-shop to ask an Angus if it was their policy to allow red pandas to walk around freely. I’ve never seen an Angus move so fast. In 30 seconds the zoo was in lock-down, and everyone was ordered back into the gift shop (presumably in the hope we’d spend enough money to allow the zoo to buy another padlock or two). At this point I overheard the first Fergus saying he’d already sold his photo of the escaped wild animal to a Scottish tabloid for £200. It probably ended up as a hysterically terrifying story of rampant animal fury, but the reality is that the red panda is as large and terrifying as a spaniel on prozac, and in any case it wandered back to its enclosure on its own.

Even so, the lax attention to minor details like locks and fences made me slightly nervous around the polar bears, especially as they appears to be held behind chicken wire and were fucking gigantic. And brown, oddly. I suspect the zoo was cheating, as they clearly were about their beaver display – there wasn’t anything sexy about that.

Afterwards we pressed on up to Aviemore and the amazing ski slops and unutterable beauty up there. Heaven, except that it killed 4 people while we were there, and did terrible things to my hair. I’m not a preening twat, and generally don’t care about my hair at all. But hats are essential in Aviemore, and hats do bad things to any head, even one as massive and impenetrable as my own. So I finally understand why people who live in the coldest, most exposed and windblown part of Britain all have shorn heads like an warm sheep or Frankie Boyle. It’s so they don’t get hat-hair. This was a revelation to me, and probably the only time I used my brain all week.

Eilean Donan castle.
Eilean Donan castle.
By this time we’d done Eilean Donan castle and many of the best views, so we felt we had no option but to go to Loch Ness. If you ever go to Scotland and feel like Loch Ness should be part of the itinerary, take my advice: burn your itinerary. Loch Ness is pointless. Don’t get me wrong: if it was in England it would be the prettiest place for 500 miles, and would be swarming with bikers and hikers every minute of every day. But in the highlands of Scotland it’s just the background, and you drive past it with barely a glance.

And after Eilean Donan, the dismal Castle Urquhart is, frankly, garbage. It’s a broken-down wall by a pond, for which you pay £27 entrance fee. There’s a sign outside Castle Urquhart which says: Welcome to Castle Urquhart. At least we didn’t put it in a bag, set fire to it, and leave it on your doorstep.

Much better by far is the nearby town of Drumnadrochit, which is such a bustling metropolis that they advertised their traffic-calming measures from 2 miles away: it was a single traffic island on an empty street. We went to the pub, which said “Closed until mid-March”. We wandered into a courtyard because it said there was a tea-shop and a pet-shop. The tea-shop was also closed until “mid-March”, and the pet-shop was closed, had no pets, but did have a sign in the window saying somebody had found a lost cat. In Glasgow. Which is 120 miles away.

The welcoming face of Drumnadrochit
The welcoming face of Drumnadrochit

We had fits of giggles and fits of panic, because the general ambience was similar the start of a horror movie – naive townies wander into desolate village and end up bent over a desk being abused with something mechanical. But it wasn’t quite that bad: we just found a cafe which was open, and which prominently displayed the signature of James Bond’s favourite torturer, Mads Mikkelsen. He was a regular, it seems. So that made us feel much less vulnerable to a violent death.

There’s a sign outside Drumnadrochit that says: Welcome to Drumnadrochit . This is why Herbie went bananas.

We made our excuses and left. Actually, we had to get going: it was Valentine’s day, although I think I’ll avoid telling you too much about that because it wasn’t part of the Scottish plan: just an accident which happened while we were up there. All I’ll say is that it wasn’t like yours. We don’t do romance. The card I gave to her had “With sympathy” on the front, and a photo of lilies. I wrote a rude poem in it. Not sexy-rude, just abusive. She got me a card that said she more or less loved me, with some caveats that weren’t fully explained, but I can guess. We had a meal at a local restaurant that that was pretty nonsescript to be honest, but I suspect it’s hard to find a great chef in a town with 19 permanent inhabitants. After that went home, not in the most romantic of moods, and had some sex. The sex wasn’t anything to write home about, either (which is a pity, because my mum used to really enjoy those letters).

And so, sadly, to our last day in Scotland, and the only occasion in my working-class life when I’ve needed skiing clothes. We went to a rock-and-ice-climbing centre, and I needed to wear something that is – or perhaps are – called “Salopettes”. It says much about the limitations of my class background that I still have no idea whether a salopette is plural or singular, but it matters not a jot because mine lasted about 3 minutes. Salopettes don’t react well when you drag razor-sharp crampons down them as soon as you start to scramble up a wall, and I had to be held together with duct-tape as I attempted a 25-foot ice-cliff. Although to be honest, by the time I got to the ice I was already knackered. The rock-climbing did me in, and I realised (not for the first time) that the results of my cancer surgery are pretty much permanent. I don’t have much strength left in my stomach muscles these days, at least not compared with old me. And I found it very hard to bend myself into the shapes necessary for scaling a wall.

I also discovered that I’m pretty bad at heights. Embarrassing, especially when you find out about this only when you get to the top of the 50-foot high rope-walk. I was the very definition of “chicken out”, and swiftly abseiled down, feeling light-headed and delighted to be back on terra firma. Just watching Lorna skipping around up there made me feel wobbly. Hey, where in this blog does it say I’m a real man?!

And so that’s it: my soul is refreshed and filled up with Scottishness for another year, and here I am, back at my desk, being slowly emptied again. I can’t wait to go back and do it all again.