I suspect it’s an age thing, this urge to complete abandoned projects – to leave nothing undone…
I am back in Scotland and busy ticking things off the list as if I was in B&Q and about start on the bathroom.
To begin with, there were the Shetland Islands.
Of course, I had been here before – but only in an air-sea rescue helicopter which doesn’t really count. If you want to know what I was doing in an air-sea rescue helicopter, the whole sorry story is in the book. In fact, it takes up the whole of chapter five and gets worse as it goes along.
Also, last year, I spent 36 hours drifting around off Balta Sound feeding Pringles to a gaggle of seabirds as we washed up and down with the tide, totally becalmed.
So this time, I anchored and went to see the tiny and much-revered boat museum. The Shetland Islanders live very much in harmony with the sea, so it was a particularly cruel trick of nature to award them a weather system which ensured they had no wood to build boats. Trees here tend to blow over long before they grow big enough to cut down.
So the islanders traded with the Vikings – wool for boats – and the Vikings delivered miniature versions of their longships stacked like soup bowls and only needing the thwarts to be fitted – thus establishing the well-known Scandinavian tradition of flat-packed deliveries. It is not known whether their 8th-century customers found the instructions incomprehensible and lost the screws.
Anyway, it turned out that the museum wasn’t actually in Balta at all but a couple of miles away in the next bay. I set out to walk – and just as well I did. Otherwise, I would have missed the UK’s most entertaining bus stop – not to mention the most northerly pub in the British Isles.
Nobody is quite sure who started improving the bus stop but bit by bit the locals have added a chair, a television (it doesn’t work, there’s no electricity) a library, chest of drawers, decorations and a dolls’ house which, on closer inspection, contains all kinds of cakes and pastries for sale by honesty box (it can be a long wait for a bus up here).
As for the pub; how could I turn down a pint in the “most northerly pub in the British Isles”? They don’t mention this but the Balta Light might also be the ugliest.
The most northerly fish and chip shop is at Busta Voe, on the other side of the most northerly headland, the Muckle Flugga (don’t you just love the names?).
Frankie’s is no ordinary “chipper”. It is a tourist destination – not just because of its position but because this is a chip shop like no other. Established 13 years ago by the Johnsons who started just about everything else in Busta Voe, from the garage and shop, to the bus service and hotel; and given the plentiful supply of seafood up here, they added mussels and scallops to the menu alongside the haddock.
I stayed two days so I could have both the pan-fried and then the battered scallops as well as the mussels with sweet chili sauce and then, the following day, à la mariniere. My enthusiasm was entirely wasted on the new proprietor, a dour man named Mark (there is no Frankie – that was the Johnson’s dog). Mark felt the menu was too extensive already. He was stuck with it because of the tourists.
He got his own back by refusing my offer of corkage if he would allow me to open a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc with the mussels. Ginger beer in a can was what I got.
Then there was Suilven. You might remember Suilven, the astonishing mountain that looks just like a pepperpot and which I found myself walking towards last year. Indeed, I walked towards it for two hours without appearing to get any closer. It was only on the way back that a man in the car park told me it was an eight-hour trip, up and down. I resolved to return.
And return I did, anchoring in Loch Inver and setting off at eight in the morning with my walking poles and sandwiches. Just follow the track, the man in the carpark had said.
He didn’t say anything about a fork in the track. But that’s what there was – with a little cairn to mark it (a signpost would have been more useful).
Of course I took the wrong fork and ended up an hour later, having got well into the foothills of the wrong mountain and then, on the way down, falling into a bog.
I say “falling”. Actually what happened is that one walking pole disappeared up to the hilt, I pitched forward and my foot disappeared too, filling the boot with black and foul-smelling goo.
I returned to base camp; resolving, like Hilary, to try again.
The second attempt went like clockwork. I met another man who, this time, gave me precise instructions and sure enough, under a clear blue sky and with limitless visibility, I sat at the top of Suilven, leaned my back against a rock conveniently shaped just like an armchair, and marvelled at one of the most spectacular views I have ever seen.
At my feet was a landscape filled with more lochs than the Sassenach mind can comfortably comprehend. Far in the distance – impossibly far, considering I had apparently walked it – was the sea loch where Samsara lay at anchor, a tiny speck of white amid the blue and green.
I must say, I felt rather good about having reached the summit. After all, the book did say this was a mountain for the “fit hill-walker” and the calendar does insist I am 72.
To celebrate, there would be lunch at Café Fish. This is in Tobermory – quite the most picturesque little town in the islands. Every day at four o’clock the café’s fishing boat lands its catch on the quay outside the front door. Two hours later it is on your plate. When I was here last autumn, they were closed, having just the one door and unable to accommodate social distancing.
I had promised myself the Plateau des Fruits de Mer (and, hopefully a bottle of Muscadet instead of ginger beer) but they were still only doing takeaways so it would have to be The Mishnish restaurant which runs a close second.
Now, those who have been paying attention might find a seafood lunch slightly suspect for someone who watched Seaspiracy on Netflix and gave 18 cans of sardines to a food bank. But shellfish, apparently, is environmentally acceptable.
It was afterwards that the trouble started. I had been banking on the bottle of Muscadet and stowed a lifejacket in the dinghy (not good to be seen off with the headline: “Drowned OAP sailor was pissed”).
But when I rose from the table, somewhat unsteadily after three and a half hours, a very passable Sauvignon Blanc and you can’t very well finish a meal like that without a Drambuie, it seemed prudent to go for a walk in the woods before braving the dinghy.
Can you believe that the fit hill-walker, the man who conquered Suilven, managed to fall over and dislocate his shoulder?
I don’t know when I have felt anything more painful – except when I tried to move my arm and the joint snapped back into place with an audible click. I still can’t lift the kettle with my right hand.
So I am stuck here until it mends. If I can’t trust myself in the dinghy, I certainly can’t sail 500 miles to Falmouth.
Besides, Tobermory is very pretty and there are other restaurants…