Photo by Michael Turek
Photos by Michael Turek
In Scotland, a writer disconnects from civilization and discovers something much more. . . civilized.
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I was about 20 minutes into the four-hour train ride from Glasgow to Fort William when I realized I couldn’t stand the two men seated in front of me. This realization was based on nothing other than what I could overhear—which was every bloody word—of their conversation. They were traveling to a friend’s house, but before they arrived they would need to stop at the supermarket for cheese and wine, of course; though white, not red, since the carpets were beige and the host had a policy. One of the men also had a sister of whose parenting skills he disapproved, a nephew who would likely end up in juvenile court, a new backpack whose every compartment required minute explication, and a penchant for a Danish television series whose plot twists he could recall in terrifying detail. Did I mention that the train ride was four hours long?
I know. The problem wasn’t Mr. Chatty and his mate. It was me. In the weeks before I went to Scotland, I had found myself increasingly irritated by the constant crush of other people, crowding me in line at the market, checking their phones at movie theaters, coming at me nonstop in tides of emails, tweets, and status updates. This happens to me periodically: The deadline pressures and everyday annoyances that normally pass unnoticed accumulate until even benign human interactions begin to feel like too much, and the only thing that helps is radical solitude. I didn’t have the time for a trip to Greenland or Mongolia or some other distant, empty place, so when I read a British newspaper story about Inverie, the only town on the Knoydart peninsula, one of the most untouched parts of the Scottish Highlands, I thought it might be just the cure for my misanthropy.
The problem? Getting there. Inverie is accessible only by boat or on foot. In my state of mind, the two-day hike seemed the better choice. I planned to start at the nearest access point—a road that dead-ends at a settlement near a lake called Loch Hourn, about 50 miles from Fort William—follow the trail along the lake’s edge to Barisdale Bay, spend the night there, then head over a pass and down to Inverie. It would be a 16-mile trek through steep and rocky terrain, and at hike’s end, I would be in a town with a population of roughly 100 people, no cell phone coverage, and a pub billed as the most remote in mainland Britain.
At last, the train arrived in Fort William. I picked up some granola bars and a map, and checked into a hotel for the night. The next morning, a taxi driver named Jamie picked me up, and we set out for the 90-minute drive to Loch Hourn. I had not a minute to contemplate the hills and sheep as we passed, as Jamie and I were too busy chatting. I learned about Scottish independence (“It’s the football hoodlums that are for it”) and a tiny biting insect, smaller than a mosquito but given to traveling in swarms, that was an annual plague in these parts. “Midgies,” Jamie said. “Worse than the independentists.”
It was a relief to turn off all those voices and focus on the path in front of me.
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Craig explained that I could stay in the bothy, the first of several adorable Scottish words I would learn. A bothy is a rural shelter, open to walkers, that affords the simplest of accommodations on a first-come, first-served basis. This one looked like it slept about 12, which was 11 possible roommates too many. I paid extra for a private cottage on the property. A very loud rooster with a poor sense of time crowed with equal fervor at five o’clock in the afternoon and at six in the morning, but otherwise, my accommodations were quiet. Toward dusk, I found myself drawn, out of habit, to my phone. I went outside in search of a signal, but to no avail. Instead of checking email, I settled into the cottage and read some of the guidebooks near the fireplace.
The books agreed there was a spectacular Munro (adorable Scottishism No. 2: Munro = mountain), the tallest on the Knoydart peninsula, several kilometers off the trail to Inverie. I had no intention of climbing it. I used to do a fair bit of hiking, but that was more than a decade ago, and it left me with enough respect for serious mountains that I wasn’t going to waltz up one on a lark. Besides, it would add extra miles to a walk that would already take me the better part of a day.
The next morning I slipped out of the estate without seeing another soul. In minutes, I came to a path that headed to the right and cut vertiginously uphill. I said a prayer of thanks that I didn’t have to tackle that ascent right out of the gate. Instead, I went left, where the trail climbed more gently. I thought of Lord Byron and those other Romantics who sought solitude in the woods. Time alone in nature felt restorative for them. And that was before the Internet. Solitude in the outdoors was surely all the more healing for those of us who had not only the physical and moral pollution of industrialized society to escape, but also the incessant chatter of everyone we have ever known running constantly across our screens and phones. It was a relief to turn off all those voices and focus on the path in front of me.
Soon the trail crossed a stream and became so vertical that it wasn’t long before I was playing little mental games with myself to keep moving: Walk to that boulder, then you can rest, I told myself. Walk 100 steps, then you can rest. The good thing about hiking alone, I decided, is that there is no one there to see you humiliate yourself.
I had no one to ask, no GPS to orient me.
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I awoke with a start. Something—I couldn’t say what—made me think I needed to look at the map. The trail had been so clearly marked that it hadn’t occurred to me to take it out earlier. Now I spread the map and traced my path. There was the climb up from Barisdale, there was the pass, there was the descent to the—I stopped. The map had me coming up to the lake on its right shore. I had arrived on the left.
I tried turning the paper, to see if I had somehow gotten the orientation wrong. I walked back up the trail I had come in on, to make sure that it was indeed a trail. And here is the part that, even now, I can’t explain. Absurd as it sounds, instead of admitting I had made a mistake and turning around, I convinced myself that the map was mistaken.
I had no one to ask, no GPS to orient me. A stone path lay across the shallowest end of the lake and I took it, convinced it would lead to the jeep track, and hence to Inverie. And sure enough, I found a trail on the other side. I followed it until it disappeared at the edge of a fast-moving river, beyond which lay another loch. The prospect of going back seemed so horrible that I persuaded myself that if I just kept going, I would soon come across that track.
I followed what I took to be a trail, then lost it again amid the bog and grass and sheep droppings. I walked for another hour, trying to make sense of my location. Finally I came to the far shore of the loch. I saw no trail. It was after 3 p.m.
I gazed at the sun, trying to determine where it would set, but the days were so long in July that it was still straight overhead. Without a mobile connection, I knew the compass on my phone wouldn’t work, but I pulled it out and clicked the compass anyway. Amazingly, the needle began to spin. I lay the compass on the map and watched as it hit north—exactly opposite of where I thought it should be.
But, motivated mainly by shame, I had my feet bandaged and my pack on at seven the next morning. I walked out along the same trail I had the day before, but this time stayed to the right. The trail turned steeper than the previous day’s. I didn’t even try for 100 steps; I barely managed 20 at a time. The climb seemed endless. If I hadn’t just learned that I could get myself out of a bad situation—even if it meant trekking 20 miles out of my way—I might well have given up. But I kept going.
Finally, I reached the summit. There, as promised, was the pass, and down below, on the other side, a loch. I nearly ran down the hill. Sure enough, the trail came in at the right side. Sure enough, it turned into wide, flat, track. Ninety minutes later, I faced another bay surrounded by peaks. To the right, the white houses of Inverie hugged the shore.
I went first to The Gathering, a bed-and-breakfast where the owner, Cara Gray, welcomed me with a glass of wine. This, I remembered as I sank into her sofa, was one of the benefits of humans: Frequently, they will give you alcohol. Gray told me a bit of the town’s tragic history. It was never an easy place to live. “People used to bleed their animals and mix the blood with oatmeal for protein, then sew them back up,” Gray said. During the Highland Clearances in the 19th century, Knoydart’s population was obliterated. Landowners decided it was more profitable to turn the land over to grazing sheep than to let crofters (tenant farmers) continue to work on it. All of the peninsula’s nearly 1,000 residents were evicted; some were sent to Canada, and others were left to fend for themselves.
Gray, like most of today’s 100 or so Inverie residents, was drawn to the spectacular scenery and found the town’s remoteness a lure, not a disadvantage. She saw the lack of cell phone towers as a good thing.
There isn’t a grocery store or a doctor in Inverie. To get to those requires a trip by ferry. But Gray can depend on a hundred other souls when the cupboard gets low. “It’s ironic, though, isn’t it?” she said. “Here I was drawn to the isolation, and I end up getting a stronger community than I would have had in the city.”
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