In Walter Scott’s Rob Roy, Frank Osbaldistone makes a journey from Northumberland north-west to the Highland fault line. In Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped, David Balfour, an east coast lowlander, is a castaway on a west coast Scottish island and subsequently takes a flight through the heather at the time of the Appin murder. In John Buchan’s Mr Standfast, Richard Hannay makes a journey from London to the skirts of the Cuillin, in Skye. It’s a recurring theme in Scottish literature; a lowlander makes a trip north west to the Gaidhealtachd and, on his return, he is not the same person.
There’s something deeply significant about travelling north in Scotland, particularly north-west. And it’s not merely a literary device. It’s not just a concocted “Celtic twilight”. There is a West Highland effect. You feel it in real life.
I’ve always been drawn to the edge of places, the point beyond which you cannot go. I’m not sure why; perhaps there is a sense that if you reach a perimeter, you have encapsulated the experience of travel. It’s not always a comfortable experience. Land’s End I found rather blighted, and in a pub in John O’Groats an unsmiling man told me I was sitting in his seat. Bluff at the bottom of New Zealand’s South Island is okay. I once took a Cessna 172 across from Invercargill to Oban in Half Moon Bay, the only inhabited part of Stewart Island, and then flew down to the southern tip of the island. It’s entirely uninhabited and only occasionally visited by the odd fisherman or trapper. The bush engulfs the landscape which I don’t suppose has changed in 10,000 years. It’s truly a wilderness. I remember as I circled round two granite tors, Gog and Magog, the weather closed in and I got a bit anxious as I was 100 kilometres from Invercargill and the last man in the world.
At the other end of New Zealand, at its north-west tip, lies my favourite place in the whole world, Cape Reinga. Each time I go to New Zealand, I make a pilgrimage. It is a deeply spiritual place. This is the point from which the Maori spirits depart this world.
It’s worth comparing the north-west tip of New Zealand with the north-west tip of Scotland, Cape Wrath. I’ve only been to Cape Wrath once. It’s not an easy trip to make. Frankly, it’s not encouraged. This is MOD land. The RAF use it for bombing runs and target practice. So sometimes the northwest peninsula is just closed to visitors. When it’s open, you take a boat just south of Durness that takes you across a choppy inlet to the edge of the peninsula from where you pick up a minibus. It’s an 11 mile trip to the lighthouse at Cape Wrath. It takes an hour. That tells you something about the state of the road.
When you get there, you find you are really visiting a museum. A derelict building on a headland once belonged to Lloyd’s Bank. They used to watch shipping rounding the north-west corner of Scotland and they would telegraph to London to say so far so good and the insurance premium on the ship would change. It reminds you that the whole business of the British Empire was about making money. You can get a coffee and a sandwich there but I couldn’t find a loo so just used the machair.
There’s something not right about Cape Wrath. It ought not to be like this. It should be like Cape Reinga. People should always be free to travel to the edge.
It has been the greatest pleasure to me to see Click, Double-Click, Impress Prize 2014 winner, between covers. I’ve read it many times, but the experience of rereading it in its published form was different. It might be stretching it a bit to say it was like reading somebody else’s work, but its “official” guise did seem to lend it a certain authority, for which I was, and am, grateful.
A family member read the blurb and said, “Ah! Your protagonist travels north-west.” He understood that the trip north-west is not to be captured on a shortbread tin. You might sing, in a sentimental fashion, “O ye’ll tak the high road and I’ll tak the low road and I’ll be in Scotland afore ye.” And you might never suspect the depth of tragedy concealed behind these words.