How an isolated village in the Scottish Highlands first inspired me to travel
On damp days in July and August, the little settlement of Gairloch on Scotland's north-west coast fills up with families of tourists. Greying middle-aged couples in anoraks browse the craft shops, stand beside their cars admiring the landscape, or linger in the doorways of cafes waiting for the rain to stop. Sometimes the couples are trailed by bored teenagers, glowering sullenly at the scenery and wishing that their parents had taken them to the Mediterranean instead, or else left them at home in front of the TV.
"Cheer up," I feel like telling them. "Your parents have only dragged you here for a few days. Mine made me spend two years here."
The first day I saw Gairloch, I cried. It was midsummer, I was sixteen, and back in Buckinghamshire my friends were relaxing in the sunshine as they celebrated the end of their exams. In Gairloch the students were already back at school. Not that they would have wanted to be outdoors: the weather that day was ferocious even by Scottish standards, with the wind screaming off the sea and grey Atlantic waves smashing at the rocky beach. I ventured briefly outside to explore my new 'home'; I was dressed for summer and returned soaked to the skin. In a west coast gale it rains horizontally, drenching your clothing in a way that an English rain shower cannot.
When the wind dropped, the midges came out. To locals they are only a minor nuisance, but to unacclimatised southerners, these tiny biting flies make outdoor life in parts of Scotland an excruciating hell. Some people suggest rubbing leaves of bog myrtle on your skin to repel the insects, while others recommend Jungle Formula, but the truth is that nothing will keep the 'wee beasties' away. They are a particular nuisance near water (which is nearly everywhere, in western Scotland) and when the weather is cloudy (which is nearly always). It wasn't the midges' bites that bothered me - those were small and painless. It was simply the fact that the creatures existed. It is hard to describe just how agonising it is to step outdoors and feel your face and limbs brushed by thousands of invisible legs and wings.
As autumn approached, chilly winds blew the midges away. Then came the darkness. Northern Scotland lies only a few degrees south of the Arctic Circle and the Land of the Midnight Sun, which means that in midsummer it almost never gets truly dark. However, whilst mid-year visitors enjoy attenuated periods of unnatural daylight, those who stay the winter pay the price. December nights are eighteen hours long, and the fleeting midwinter sun never rises more than a tenth of the way up the sky.
In C. S. Lewis's story The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, four children stumble through a magic wardrobe into the fantasy land of Narnia, where a witch's curse has rendered it always winter but never Christmas. North-western Scotland felt like Narnia. Few places are as chilly in summer, and the climate in winter does not make for a magical Christmas. Winters are cold, of course - sometimes bitterly so - but damp currents drifting northwards across the Atlantic ensure that it is a miserable, rainy kind of cold. Scotland is one of the most northerly places on Earth where it doesn't snow at Christmas.
The thing that shocked my friends in England most, when I described the area in which I was now living, was its isolation. Walking eastwards across the mountains in a straight line from Gairloch (and swimming a few lochs along the way), you could travel for forty miles (64 km) and encounter no sign whatsoever of civilisation, not even a lonely mountain road. (That may not impress readers living in such vast regions as America or Australia, but in crowded Britain, forty miles of wilderness is a remarkable expanse.) Gairloch is a village of a mere thousand people, and although it does have a few amenities - a school, a few small shops, a bank, and a handful of hotels and inns - a trip to the nearest cinema or the shopping mall involved a seventy-mile journey, much of it along sheep-infested single-track roads.
I searched our new house in vain for a magic wardrobe that would transport me to a better place. Or even transport me into town for the day.
There is a mediaeval quality to the Highlands: an ancient wilderness of feudal estates, many of them still ruled by hereditary lords who dwell in castles and ride out to hunt and fish and to collect their dues from the modern-day peasants who farm their lands. The church remains a powerful presence in village life, as any visitor who has ever tried to get anything done in Gairloch on a Sunday will know. Beasts and birds that disappeared long ago from the rest of Britain survive in the north of Scotland: golden eagles circle the mountaintops, and wildcats stalk the moors. (The wildcats - which look like big, bushy tabbies - are secretive animals, and I never saw one, although I did encounter some monstrous pet cats in Gairloch, whose existence may attest to the rampant hybridisation between wild and domestic cats that is slowly destroying the wild species.) A scheme is currently underway to reintroduce beavers to Scotland; wolves may eventually follow. Until recently wild salmon were caught in the rivers, although nowadays the salmon are produced on fish farms, where they churn in industrial cages from which spew parasites and effluent that have poisoned wild fish populations to the point of collapse. Northern Scotland may seem like an undeveloped wilderness, but for those who care about nature it can be an uncomfortable place. Polluting fish farms and promiscuous cats are just part of a long list of environmental concerns that generate protest meetings in village halls and futile letters to faraway MPs.
I began to realise that life in Gairloch did have its good points, however. The local people were overwhelmingly welcoming, and our family were by no means the only southerners who had made Gairloch their home. Even before I had made friends there, I was being greeted with a cheerful "hello" from passers-by. The upside of a Highland village's isolation is that it fosters the old-fashioned sense of community that has proved nearly impossible to preserve in the anonymous sprawl of suburban England. Not the kind of community in which neighbours agree to watch each others' houses in case of burglary, or help escort one another's children to school to ensure that they are not abducted or run over, but the kind of community in which nearly everyone is either a friend or a friend-of-a-friend (or, in some of the more intimate corners of the Highlands, a cousin), and is treated and trusted as such. You can spot the tourists in Gairloch by the fact that they lock their cars.
This friendly spirit is most evident in Gairloch's secondary school, an improbable institution whose two hundred pupils are bussed in daily from a vast catchment area of no less than 700 square miles (1800 km²). As much of Britain's comprehensive school system becomes grim and overstretched, Gairloch High School stands out as one of the last bastions of unquestionably good state education in the country. Some attribute the school's genial atmosphere and excellent results to its ethos, or to its visionary former headmaster, or to the fact that the sums of government money lavished upon it are enormous in proportion to its size. (Providing public services to a community as scattered and isolated as Gairloch is an expensive business, and rich taxpayers in faraway cities subsidise the lives of Scottish Highlanders to an astonishing extent.) All of these things undoubtedly help, but the overriding reason why Gairloch High School succeeds where so many modern schools fail must surely be the intimacy of the community to which it belongs. Of course, there are times when the community becomes claustrophobic and incestuous. Pupils who go out on Friday evenings to get lasciviously drunk (a habit that begins in Scotland at the age of about thirteen) often find themselves drinking in the same establishments as their teachers. Under such conditions, scandal and misbehaviour - by adults and teenagers alike - are hard to hide. Juicy chunks of gossip are passed from pupil to parent to teacher to parent to pupil along a thick village grapevine that strangles any attempt at privacy.
The reputation of the school was one of the features of Gairloch that had first attracted my parents, who did care about their children's happiness, even though I may not have appreciated it as my teenage life was bundled into removal vans and driven to the far corner of the country. The other attraction was the scenery. Although the barren brownness of a Scottish landscape can be relentless at times, and I could name a dozen countries in which the mountains are sharper and more spectacular, it cannot be denied that in many ways the Highlands are beautiful. Our new house stood at the tip of a peninsula jutting out into a shining loch in which seals and porpoises swam. In the distance there were hilltops and islands. The moorland around bloomed purple with heather and yellow with gorse, and on still days a sweet evergreen scent filled the air.
Even the climate was not unremittingly bad, and at certain times of the year it was almost pleasant. May, for example, is a beautiful month in Scotland: the weather is sunny (at least in comparison to the rest of the year), the summer troops of Swedish campervans and German motorcyclists have yet to invade the area, and the year's crop of midges is still pupating in the ground.
The long winter nights were the hardest thing to get used to. I have met many other immigrants from lower latitudes who came to Scotland fully prepared for the weather, but not for the darkness; they became depressed and homesick as the nights drew in. Not that the nights in Gairloch were completely dark. Without the haze of light pollution that suffuses urban skies, the stars were breathtaking, and amongst them we could very occasionally make out the shimmering streaks of the northern lights. When the moon was full it rippled on the water, and from overhead it illuminated the stark landscape like a floodlight streaming down from the sky. Sadly, such cloudless nights were an exception. The things that generally streamed down from the sky were raindrops and hailstones.
Ironically, the best thing of all about Gairloch was the fact that it drove me away. Upon turning eighteen, I expended the money and agitation that I had saved up during my time in the Highlands upon a glorious 40,000-mile (64,000 km) round-the-world journey, stopping for a few months on a tropical Pacific island almost as far from Scotland as it is possible to get. My desire to escape the Highlands led me to travel and to experience the world in a way that I would never have done if I had not first been uprooted from my English childhood home. For that I am immeasurably grateful. I never found any magic wardrobes, but in a rather metaphorical way, Gairloch did provide a doorway into distant lands.
Of course, my round-the-world trip eventually took me back to the place from which I had started. Yet I found that didn't hate Scotland any more. Four years later, I was still living north of the border - although I moved down from the Highlands long ago, and still consider Gairloch a place best experienced only on short holidays. Summer has yet to come to Narnia.