A Loch on Hikes
Sunday, October 23, 2005
"The air off the mountains and the sea was delicious . . . We two remained sketching, for the view was beautiful . . . such a wild, uncivilized spot, like the end of the world . . . A little further off the road, and more on the slope of the hill, was a row of five or six wretched hovels, before which stood bare-legged and very ill-clad children . . . Hardly anyone ever comes here."
Queen Victoria wrote this in 1877 after picnicking with her daughter, Beatrice, on the banks of Loch Torridon in northwest Scotland. Just over a century later, I was in the same place, enjoying a repast of apple and cheese with my friend, Marybeth, marveling at many of the same sights, though it seemed less like the end of the world to us than the beginning of time.
Marybeth and I have been hiking together for more than two decades. Every November for the past 13 years we've rented a cottage somewhere in Britain, she flying in from Connecticut and I from Virginia. We hike around 10 miles a day (rain or shine) and commune in a way that's impossible with the daily demands of hearths and homes 500 miles apart. We come in November because our children's sports and birthdays are over and to take advantage of low airfares. We also come in November because we have the countryside, swarming with tourists in the high summer season, all to ourselves.
On this day on Loch Torridon, the treeless mountains, soaring from sea level to well over 3,000 feet, loomed around us like primeval beasts -- mastodons, woolly mammoths, giant sloths -- trying to break free from the mire of the valley bogs. The "hovels" the queen noticed are now romantic ruins overrun with bracken and gorse. Without exception, the few inhabited houses are neat and well-cared for, mostly second homes; only some 240 people live here full time.
A 1968 guidebook to the area notes: "You can see that . . . Torridon is country in which to walk, fish, sail, climb or wander, but fast driving, no."
Even now the roads are single lane, with places only for passing. The villages -- their names reflecting the Norse and Gaelic influences on the region-- along the loch have no year-round stores, pubs or post offices. The almost complete lack of human intrusion, bodily or architecturally, had us agreeing with the queen that "hardly anyone ever comes here."
They used to come, according to Jill, the local postmistress, whose mail van doubles as public transportation -- you just flag her down.
"When I first came to the area 30 years ago," said the native Liverpudlian, "a big oil rig manufacturer provided many jobs for the locals. But that closed in 1988, and then the salmon farms, another big employer, cut back and things started to die out here." She calmly swung the van onto the grass shoulder of the narrow road as an oncoming car barreled past. "Awful, really. Most of the houses got sold off as second homes."
Shortly after picking up our rental car in Glasgow, we were winding along the banks of Loch Lomond, where civilization immediately began dropping away and the mosses, ferns, bracken and bogs of the Highlands took over. During a break at Eilean Donan Castle, well into the Highlands but still an hour or so south of our destination, we reveled in the mildness of the November weather but were soon brought back to reality by one of the gray-haired ladies minding the gift shop.
"Ye've been lucky with the weather, ye have," she said. "Usually this time of the year, the wind and rain's a' goin' like this." She swept her hand horizontally.
The other old lady winked at me and pointed to the shelf of whiskies for sale. "That's how we keep ourselves warm then," she said and gave me such a cheeky grin that I could see the flirtatious young girl she'd once been.