JOHN PRESCOTT is still the main topic of conversation at breakfast. The outrage is tangible. Meanwhile, after enjoying a second bath to discourage any remaining deer ticks (I find another behind my right knee), I strike up a conversation with the lady from Kent while her husband is dressing.
She is fascinated by my account of the Cape Wrath Trail and the mountain wilderness around us, her knowledge being limited to the salmon-fishing beats along the banks of the Oykel. It will take me almost two days of rough walking to reach the next village – Kylesku – I tell her. Tonight I will sleep beneath the stars in the folds of Ben More Assynt. Like Robert Louis Stevenson traversing the Cevennes with his donkey, I shall find a grassy hollow, make good my shelter, and be at peace with the universe as the night wind blows the heather.
The guests are dressed in fishing gear this morning – brushed cotton shirts, tweeds, muted sweaters, a smattering of corduroy – but no fishing is allowed because it’s Sunday. This is an ancient Scottish tradition enshrined in ancient Scottish law. The sinners and righteous alike shall discard their tackle and open their bibles instead, because the Lord’s day shall be observed. No fishing for anyone, not the laird on his estate nor the poor man at his gate.
The more sceptical will note that when these laws were laid down, the honest working man toiled six days a week, Sunday being his sole day for recreation. No ulterior motive there then. No conspiracy by the rich and landed law-makers to keep the noble toilers off the salmon. I feel I should point this out to my fellow diners, who are still banging on about the absurdity of Prezza being propelled into the Upper House. To be quite frank, it’s beginning to get me down. And now I’ve got the measure of things; now I’ve worked out on which side of the divide we all stand (basically, me on one side, the rest on the other), I’m feeling a bit bolshie.
A voice inside me yearns to scream across the dining room: “If John Prescott called for the nationalisation of the obscenely vast tracts of privately-owned land outside these windows so that the ordinary British man and woman could enjoy the heritage that is rightfully theirs, your bloody newspaper would be calling him a political dinosaur intent on reigniting a class war that was discredited decades ago. In fact, it would probably argue that the class war existed only in the minds of left-wing loonies and was a product of their misplaced envy. And here you sit, you smug, self-centred lot, utterly outraged that John Prescott might be elevated to the Lords, not because he isn’t fit for office, not because he does not possess the wherewithal – and let’s face it, there were plenty of inbred, inept and dangerously-bonkers hereditary peers running the show for long enough – but because he is an ordinary working man with ordinary working-class principles and aspirations. And that’s what rankles. That’s what really gets under your skin. Are you pillocks so incapable of forming your own opinions that they have to be spoon fed by the press? Are you so shot-through with insecurities that your prejudices require massaging by a group of puffy-handed invertebrates in a newspaper office – the very people you would not hesitate, under any other circumstances, to heap scorn upon at the drop of a top-hat?”
I say nothing of the sort, of course, because I’m a polite fellow who seldom makes a fuss. I just sit there smiling pleasantly at the lady from Kent and pour another cup of Earl Grey (no milk, no sugar) while she enthuses about her garden. Through the window the sun plays on the hills and fluffy clouds drift across the sky. The river sparkles and the birds sing. This really is a pleasant place.
Breakfast, by the way, is porridge, followed by bacon, eggs, sausages, fried potatoes, mushrooms, and the most delightful haggis it has been my pleasure to sample – and being the son of a Scotsman I’ve sampled a few. This is followed by toast with honey and raspberry jam, and coffee. Splendid breakfast. Makes a welcome change from muesli and a pan of tea. The bill comes to £85 for full board and lodgings. I wouldn’t pay this much as a rule (the campsite at Newtonmore is £5 a night, for heaven’s sake), but the room was comfortable, the service excellent, the staff charming, and the food exquisite. The entertainment was worth a tenner at least. Yes, I would certainly recommend a stay at the Oykel Bridge Hotel. A word of caution: don’t jump in the bath before testing the water. You could boil an egg in it.
TEN hours later I am sipping hot tea from a billy can, eyes squinting into the glare on the choppy waters of Loch Carn Nan Conbhairean. I have found my grassy hollow and made good my shelter. I’m listening to the sigh of the breeze in the heather as the sun sinks behind the dark mass of Ben More Assynt.
Climbed the Ben and its twin, Conival, in May 2004. Pleasant day. Made the ascent from Inchnadampf, as most people do, then treated myself to fish and chips in Ullapool.
Now I’m back on its eastern slopes as night floods in across the wilderness. And this is a wilderness in the true sense of the word. I am alone in the mountains, a day’s walk from the nearest main road, surrounded by a vast expanse of featureless peat bog on one side, and the heights of Ben More Assynt and Conival on the other.
This is what it’s all about. This is the essence of mountain walking.
Notes on deer ticks and Lyme disease
ON my return to England I was treated for Lyme disease after my knees seized up and I developed flu-like symptoms. There remains some doubt as to whether I had the infection or not – but it was bloody painful whatever it was.
There is an extremely vicious infection lurking out there in the hills, and I advise anyone contemplating a walking trip in Scotland to take precautions. These include wearing long trousers at all times and applying an effective insect repellent to legs and exposed parts before setting out.
Even then, the little black bastards can penetrate every defence. Only three weeks ago (September 2009), while walking in the Cairngorms, I plucked a deer tick from my stomach. Fortunately, not all ticks carry the disease.