Helen Moat ponders upon one of life's great imponderables. Why are the Scottish Highlands so empty?
There are some things in life that are a total mystery to me. The fact that the Highlands of Scotland are so empty of tourists (outside of the hotspots) is one of them. But I’m not complaining. The expansive, empty landscapes of Scotland are the nearest thing we have in the UK to wilderness.
Last week I rented a shack (the website, advertising it as a lodge, was over-stretching itself a bit) at the end of a three mile dead-end lane high above Loch Ness. There was a gap in the front door, and the single-glazed windows constantly steamed up with condensation, but it was paradise. Surrounded by moor and birch trees, I woke up every morning to the sound of cuckoos. I can’t remember the last time I’d heard cuckoos.
The nearest town of Inverness was recently awarded the accolade of ‘second happiest place to live in the UK’ - and I can see why. It takes just an hour to get to Ullapool from Inverness and a couple to reach the Isle of Skye. Then there’s a whole coastline of wide golden strands on the town’s doorstep, along with moors and lochs. This was brought home to me as we drove through the suburbs of the town when we had to hit the brakes for a young fawn that raced out onto the road. That it was at least a quarter of a mile from open countryside was slightly puzzling, I have to admit.
Just up the east coast, we happened on some grey seals lounging, as only grey seals can lounge, on a sandy spit near Dornoch. And although the east coast is Scotland’s poor relation, the coastline between Brora and Dornoch is the cyclist’s, walker’s and wildlife enthusiast’s haven.
Over in Ullapool we bathed in sunshine whilst further south in Britain it tipped it down. Ullapool will now be my place of eternal sunshine. I ate my lunch overlooking the harbour enjoying the warmth on my skin, remembering another summer’ evening in Ullapool when I’d watched the local kids fishing on the harbour wall. Kids knee-high to a grasshopper without an adult in sight, and I remember thinking, what a place to grow up. I was puzzled when I saw they were throwing their catch back into the water. It was then I realised that they were feeding seals bobbing up and down in the sea below them, and my envy of their idyllic childhood deepened. That summer we’d eaten one evening at the Arch Inn and almost suffocated in the heat.
Back in the present, we drove on to Achiltibuie, surely one of the most beautiful places on God’s earth. On the single track road, Stac Pollaidh came into view, a strange conical mountain rising out of the moor from nowhere. Other mountains around rose up from the moors like isolated fangs. It’s a strange landscape with a wild beauty. We drove on past sea lochs, laced with pale beaches until we reached the edge of the village. I walked down to the shoreline as a group of kayakers paddled towards the shore.
“A massive starfish,” one of them shouted.
I wandered across to them to have a closer look.
“It’s lost one of its arms!” exclaimed one of the kayakers.
It was a brittle star, a pale sandy hue with four – or was it five? – long ‘hairy’ sinewy arms. The fifth or sixth detached arm floated at its side.
The kayakers gathered around the sea creature, intrigued.
“This is how the starfish reproduces,” one of the kayakers said knowingly. “Another starfish will grow from the detached arm.”
He looked over at me, smiling. I gave him a half grin, not sure if this was another ‘haggis story’.
Not being an expert on starfish, I looked it up back home, and did indeed discover that asexual reproduction can take place in starfish, alongside more conventional spawning, and indeed a severed arm can reproduce a whole new starfish.
The kayakers dispersed and I wandered on along the shore, carefully picking my way through the pebbles, afraid of treading on dunlin eggs camouflaged in the rocks. All around me the dunlins piped and chirped, dipping and rising close to me. Once on a pebble beach near Fort William I had almost tread on their eggs, being so close in shape and colour to the rocks they were nestled in.
In the village, I sat in the beer garden, drinking a glass of wine while looking across to the Summer Isles and Skye beyond. This place is hopelessly romantic, even the names. I sat on the bench looking across the water, sparkling white, to the islands and the smudged blue hills beyond, wondering yet again why this part of Scotland is so empty.
But that’s okay.