"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."
The first people to inhabit the shores of Loch Torridon arrived 8,000 years ago, though this wild Highland area, Wester Ross, a five-hour drive northwest of Glasgow, has never been heavily populated.
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.
It was almost sunset when we dropped down into Glen Torridon, the mountains going dark, the air heavy with the sweet smell of unpolluted streams and thick vegetation.
"It's so glacial," said Marybeth. And it was. We could feel the forces that scoured out the broad valley and sculpted the mountains, which once were as tall as the Alps.
At the head of Loch Torridon was our home for the week, Stalker's Cottage, a single-story white stuccoed 19th-century farmhouse on the original Torridon House Estate. It's one of more than 50 properties available for rent through the National Trust for Scotland, with prices ranging from about $265 to $3,100. Accommodations include cottages, castles, manor houses, the former gatehouse to a monastery, author Thomas Carlyle's birthplace and several lighthouses.
The key to Stalker's was in the door when we arrived, so we let ourselves in like Goldilocks. And like Goldilocks, we felt as if we'd walked into someone else's home. Until we made it ours with a fire and supper eaten in its glow, we half expected the owners to burst through the door and demand an explanation.
Marybeth and I had fortunately stopped in nearby Locharron to provision ourselves for a few days, suspecting -- correctly -- that Torridon wasn't going to offer much shopping opportunity. Locharron had one grocery store where we bought some essentials and a very fine whiskey, a 10-year-old Ardbeg from the Isle of Islay just offshore from Glasgow.
The next morning I was awakened by rough barking. When I opened my curtains, I was looking into a herd of red deer. The males, in crowns of horns, were roaring out their warnings to each other during this mating season.
One day we hiked through the grounds of the Torridon estate, a Victorian country manor built in 1876 on the north shore of the loch. Behind Torridon House rose the great form of Liathach, or "Gray One," at 3,456 feet the region's tallest peak.
In 1838, John Mackenzie sold the property to Col. MacBarnet, who earned a reputation for being the most hated landlord in the Highlands. When he took over, he immediately demanded that the tenants of three small villages under his care leave their homes and land so the lairds could consolidate their land into large sheep farms. Our walk that day took us past the ruins of numerous stone cottages with empty windows, like sightless eyes staring out to sea.
Duncan Darroch, a Cambridge-educated barrister, bought the estate in 1873 and built Torridon House. Instead of clearing the people out, he got rid of the sheep, returned the farmers to their original land and employed them on his estate.
In 1967, the estate's 14,000 acres, including Stalker's Cottage, were taken over by the National Trust. Appropriately, adjoining the estate is the 11,000-acre Beinn Eighe National Nature Reserve, Britain's first such property established in 1951 to protect and study a 700-acre remnant of an old Caledonian forest with 350-year-old pines. Later that week, we walked through it and felt like gnomes in a magic forest of giant trees, mosses and ferns.
As we got closer to Torridon House, we could see its multi-gabled stone edifice through the trees, but a sign -- "strictly private" -- warned us off. We followed the road around to the farm buildings, crossing a rocky creek that gurgled down to join the still waters of the loch past a herd of highland cattle.
The sound of a rake being drawn across rocky ground led us to Aaron, a young Dutchman who had been visiting the Torridon region since he was a child and now worked on the estate. He, too, was reveling in the atypically mild weather.
"As long as the wind is from the east," he said, "the good weather will hold. If it shifts around from the west, it could rain all the time for two weeks." He grimaced.
He assured us there was a path around the coast to Daibaig, the last village seven miles west and our destination for the day. "Then you can catch the post bus back," he said. "It leaves Daibaig at 5:15. You just flag it down."
This sounded simple enough, so off we set into the weakening sun.
Walking in Scotland is like walking on a sodden sponge. To listen is to hear the gurgle of creek in symphony with the splash of waterfall. To step is to sink into wet moss, springy as a mattress.
Our path was not entirely mapped out for us. When trails disappeared, we spent an hour and a half at Torridon bush-whacking around the hills in semidarkness, stumbling over rocks, sinking into bogs and skirting high, small lochs -- lochans -- where the kelpie, a spirit in the shape of a horse that delights in drowning travelers, is said to lurk. We didn't see a kelpie, though a great stag lifted its head from drinking at our approach, then bounded away.
Despite our plans, we arrived at Diabaig, a handful of houses clustered around a cliff-lined harbor, long after the post bus was scheduled to leave. Thoroughly disheartened, we walked down the empty main street. Through the lighted windows of the cottages, we could see the inhabitants of this tiny village at the end of the road going about their evening routine unaware of how interesting they appeared to two tired passers-by whose day had been anything but routine.
"I suggest we hitchhike," Marybeth said, after we'd trudged along the unlit road for half an hour. "We're at least five miles from the car."
On we walked, our footsteps loud in the silent night. Then the sound of an engine, and around the corner came headlights, leaping and swaying on the curvy road. We stuck out our thumbs and the vehicle stopped. The post bus!
"You're lucky," said postmistress Jill. "I stopped for a cup of tea with a friend, so I got a late start back." We gushed our thanks and hopped in.
Our last walk of the week was along a burn (creek), the Coire Mhic Nobuil, that wound between four mountains, a few of their peaks dusted with white quartzite. For most of the way the track followed the old stalkers' trails, broad and rocky, constructed a century ago (and currently being restored) to provide easy access in the mountains during hunting season.
Midway along the trail, we passed the burn's headwaters, then started down another creek. The day was blowing up cold and the clouds played around the tops of the mountains like restless spirits. In the distance Loch Torridon was a sheet of silver.
No one in the world knew where we were at that moment. We had come to this far-off corner of the world just south of Iceland, on the same latitude as Siberia, knowing nothing of it at all. Now we'd hiked its hills, learned its contours and textures, talked with its people, read its history.
But the wind had shifted overnight, and we knew our fair weather was over.
Sarah Clayton last wrote for Travel on cooking with Lady Claire Macdonald at Kinloch Lodge, in Scotland.