At the World’s Edge

On Wednesday I had lunch in the Cuillin Hills Hotel, in Portree, with my cousin Rachel.  We had a drink, ordered, and enjoyed the relaxed ambience and the beautiful view over Portree Harbour towards Ben Tianavaig.  The lunch, which turned out to be delicious, was perhaps a little tardy.  I went up to the bar and said something along the lines of, “Excuse me, I hope you don’t mind me asking how our order is proceeding, but we are a little short of time…” etc etc.  The meal arrived a minute later.  Rachel said, “That certainly worked!  What on earth did you say?”

I replied that I had said, “Believe me I’m a mild mannered guy, but see that woman over there?  Trust me, you don’t want to get on the wrong side of her, when the crockery and cutlery start to fly around.”

Rachel laughed.

The following day I was in Ullapool.  It was a dreich day.  More, gruamach, as the Gael says.  But I didn’t mind.  I wanted to visit the Achiltibuie Peninsula on such a day.  I have written a novel, working title Speedbird, currently in the deep freeze.  A significant part of Speedbird takes place on the Achiltibuie Peninsula.  Now I’ve often visited, principally to go up Stac Pollaidh, but I’d never ventured further west.  The road that curves anticlockwise round the peninsula is a dead end.  In Speedbird, something bad happens at that dead end.  Being in the vicinity, I thought I’d better check it out.

It was an unnerving experience to discover that what I’d envisaged turned out to be remarkably accurate.  In the mist and rain, Stac Pollaidh itself was completely invisible.  I kept driving west and at Altandhu turned south.  In the mirk, there was no sign of the Summer Isles.  At Achiltibuie I stopped at the shop for a coffee.  The shopkeeper asked me what on earth I was doing down there on such a day.  “You won’t see anything.”

“No, but it’s atmospheric.”

“Atmospheric!  I think I’ll use that from now on.”

So for atmosphere, I listened on my CD player to a performance of Arvo Pärt’s Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten, because that indeed conveys the atmosphere I would wish to create in Speedbird, and it is the atmosphere of the world beyond Achiltibuie.

At Horse Sound I descended to the beach and found Badenscallie burial ground, abeam the undulating contour of Horse Island, beautifully maintained, but deserted.  Further down the coast the scattering of houses dwindled and then petered out.  At Achduart the old school house was completely hidden in a copse of trees.  This was virtually the end of the road.

But not quite.  I could see the ribbon of tarmac ascending in the direction of Bon More Coigach.  Here at last I was on the very edge of the world.  I continued with extreme reluctance.  The fact is I was spooked.  I forced myself to the end of the road under a state of intense oppression and finally, with the roar in my ears of the watercourse coming off the mountain, I turned and got the hell out of there.

But I’m glad I went all the way to the end of the road.  Now I know how to bring Speedbird out of its deep freeze, and revive it.  Still, crossing back over the blighted moonscape of Assynt, it took some time to regain a sense of equanimity.  What a relief to make the long ascent past Morefield, over the brow of the hill, and to see once more the Caledonian MacBrayne steamer berthed alongside the twinkling lights of Ullapool Harbour.

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