Rethinking Rain in the Scottish Highlands
The first time I went to Scotland, I had a stack of Italian guidebooks sitting on my kitchen table. I had researched where to find the best pesto, I’d mapped out routes to off-the-beaten-track hill-towns northeast of Lucca, and I had jotted down the names of several campsites offering a view over the Mediterranean Sea. And then, I checked the weather. Rain. Who wants to go to Italy in the rain?
It was September, and we had some spare time to go exploring. Show me the sunshine, and I’ll show you the way, was my holiday mantra. Keeping an open mind to possibilities, I broadened my weather map to include a full European scan. No sun. None! Europe was a mass of swirling greyness. This wasn’t looking good. And then, it came to me. Uhm, I said to Arthur, not quite believing what was about to come out of my mouth, what do you say we head to Scotland for a couple of weeks?
I’d always steered clear of this suggestion. Why? Well, for one thing, it doesn’t fit my holiday ideal of sunshine. Scotland is known for damp, and drizzle. And another thing? Roaming on other peoples land in Scotland is a right, and when wild-camping is encouraged by the nation we are visiting, my argument for a campsite, sporting toilets and warm showers, disappears into the mist more quickly than Ben Nevis on a September morning. But, I had to concede, if one had to holiday in the rain, then one should go somewhere designed for rain. Scotland, here we come (sigh).
It would not be an understatement to say that, at that moment, my travel partner was the happiest man on earth. Arthur had spent childhood holidays in the Highlands, and as our holiday weeks approached, he was reminiscing about one-track roads, camping wild among the blooming heather, and hiking through the rugged highland terrain. I had done my best to ignore these subtle hints and gone ahead with my Italian planning, but now, as we drove across Belgium toward the ferry that would take us across the Strait of Dover, I was reading the history section of my Scottish guidebook, and my interest was piqued. I am after all something of a Scottish lassie thanks to my Inverness born great-grandfather, Duncan Cameron, and my great-grandmother Christina MacLaren.
On day one, we scootched through London for a blurred view of Big Ben and Buckingham Palace, raced up the M6 past Manchester and Liverpool, camped the night in the Lakes District, and on day two, we crossed into Scotland. Arthur was on a mission; Highlands or bust. We skirted Glasgow, drove north along the shores of Loch Lomond, and finally, near Fort William, the car slowed, Scotland came into focus, and my jaw dropped.
Scotland scenery, as it turns out, is remarkable. Oh yes, it’s grey, and it’s damp, but it’s also purple, orange and rugged and rocky, and mossy, and oh so fascinating with wide-open glens, rushing rivers, and tumbling ruins. The tumbling ruins had my immediate attention. Who were these people that eked out a living here in this harsh landscape? Whoever they were, they left their chimneys behind when they departed.
Cottage ruins dotted the countryside, each one the same, but different; two grey stone end-walls facing each other a few metres apart with a heap of stones in between where other walls once stood. The cottages stood in rocky fields, on rocky shores, in small groups on windblown cliffs, and sometimes alone, and remote. I had to make my way across the uneven and hilly ground, into every ruin I saw, to stop in stillness and ask the emptiness, who were you?
At Inverlochy we veered west toward Arisaig. We stopped the car and followed a small trail a few hundred yards to the shore of Loch Nan Uamh to look for a camping spot. The shoreline here was inhospitable. Sharp and uneven stones (surprise!) left no spot for our tent. We turned to go back when I tripped over a pillar on the shore, mounted with a brass plaque. We had stumbled, really, stumbled, onto a cairn erected to commemorate the place where Charles Edward Stuart (aka Bonnie Prince Charlie), after losing the Battle of Culloden, “…embarked for France 20th September, 1746”. I didn’t have to look for history in Scotland, history was finding me.
High in the northwest of the country, in the village of Stoer, we found the farm where Arthur’s family had set up camp when he was a child. We knocked on the door of the farmhouse, and a small reunion ensued. I took the opportunity to ask my gazillion questions. The farmer told me that professional stone builders had traveled throughout the highlands, building the end pieces of the cottages with local stone, leaving the remaining walls and the roof to be built by the farmers. That explained the everlasting chimneys! Sometimes, families grouped their cottages, working together to support one another, others were solitary. In the mid-seventeen hundreds, the Highland Clearances began. Farmers were forced from the land they occupied, when wealthy landlords set up sheep farming as big business. Many people had to walk away from a lifetime of work, and they sailed for the new worlds of Canada, the United States, and Australia.
Walking through the seaside town of Ullapool a few days later, I let myself through a black iron gate into The Mill Street Old Burial Ground. I planted myself on a weather etched stone tablet, my back to a ruined stone chapel, and I looked out over Loch Broom. Ancient gravestones surrounded me, each tilting to one side or another, some etched with the name Cameron. And sitting here, I had a rare moment of retrospect. I had to admit to myself that I had fallen for Scotland. How could this be? I was sleeping in a damp tent at night, bathing for the most part in cold creeks and lakes because most of the campsites were closed for the season. I hadn’t seen the sun in days. And yet, I felt at home. I sat for a while in thought, but not for a long while. If I had learned anything in the past few days it was that we Scots do not wallow in sentiment, we get on with the task at hand. Mine was to meet Arthur at the lively pub, Ceilidh, to drink a cider and listen to some fiddle music before heading out of town to set up our wet tent in a wet field beside the rushing river that would be my morning bath.
This trip took place in 2008, when we were still camping out of a station wagon with our little orange MSR Mutha Hubba tent. We returned to Scotland a couple of years ago, to pick up some of our favourite people at the Glasgow airport and retrace many of these steps, this time with a focus on paddleboarding. (You can watch a great little award-winning video made for Hakai Magazine during our paddleboarding trip, here) Did it rain? Why yes, it did, and let me be the first to admit, there is no better place to be in the rain than the Scottish highlands.
Not convinced? Hover over the images (or choose landscape on mobile) to find out more about my Scottish adventures.