After an early autumn visit to the Scottish Highlands, the anonymous writer YY has some advice on how to have a restful holiday. He warns never to take a map or a car – his experience has taught him that to go anywhere with both is to become an “unpaid chauffeur plying along unknown roads till the fall of evening”. He is enjoying his visit to the island of Oban – which he describes as “Paradise”, with its bright blue bays and “oyster-catchers whistling along the shore” – when his curiosity tests him. He picks up a map of the surrounding areas and cannot fight the temptation to travel the extra hundred miles – and ferry ride – to the island of Skye. Then disaster strikes.
There are two principal means of securing a restful holiday. The first is not to possess a map. The second is not to possess a car. To go anywhere with both a map and a car is to invoke the spirit of unrest and to become the slave of the place where one is no longer an idler but an unpaid chauffeur plying along unknown roads till the fall of evening. I should have been perfectly happy at Oban if I had not bought a map, and, even after I had bought a map, I should still have been reasonably happy if I had not had a car.
On the back of the menu at the hotel at which I stayed Oban is described as “the Charing Cross of the Western Highlands,” and even this enthusiastic phrase fell short of doing justice to the beauty of the place. A blue bay and the land rising steeply around it, a medley of mainland that looks like island and of island that looks like mainland, inlets of the sea bordered with golden seaweed at low tide all along the coast, the heights of Mull appearing huge and unsubstantial in the quiet of evening, a little golf-course where it is possible to play badly almost in secret towards the end of September, good weather, oyster-catchers whistling along the shore — what more is needed to induce a man to settle down in peace as one who has reached the end of his journey?
“This,” I said, looking round me at the fourth tee, “is the most beautiful country I have seen.” I had said it of other places, but never with profounder conviction. The ball sang into the air, and by a rare and curious fluke fell on the not distant green. “This,” I said to myself, “is Paradise.”
Desiring to learn something of so exuberantly beautiful a country, I returned to the town, entered a shop and bought a map. I knew when my eye caught the island of Skye that peace for me was over. Just to set foot on that little corner of the island nearest the mainland would be enough. It was only about a hundred and twenty miles away by road — an easy afternoon’s journey. We should return to Oban almost immediately, but to have come so far and not to go on as far as Skye was impossible. I fetched the car round, and within a few minutes we were crossing the metal bridge at Conall Ferry with hearts so full that we scarcely grudged the ten-shillings toll that we had to pay at the farther end.
It must be admitted that the scene at every turn on the northern journey is intoxicating. It must also be admitted that the further you advance the more unspeakable the roads become. To drive along them at more than twenty miles an hour is like sitting in one of those unpleasant machines in which one paid for being shaken to a jelly at Wembley. They are scarcely roads at all, but infernal devices for turning a motor-car into a bucking broncho. Still, when we arrived at Ballachulish, the tide was flowing out of the loch in the colours of a peacock, and the whole world seemed perfect except the uninviting little ferry-boat on which we had to cross in the car. Gingerly I drove the car down the sloping jetty and swung its nose round so as not to miss the ramshackle-looking boards up which we had to climb aboard.
It was my first experience of this kind of ferry, and I reflected that I should not like to bring a car down those slippery stones on a wet day. Then down the boards again and up the steep stones on the other side, and off along a road which ultimately became a kind of strip of bombed battlefield which should have been marked as passable only for tanks. The men who are now at work on it have made it temporarily even less of a road than it can originally have been. We moved slowly from red flag to red flag, now bumping through mud, now crawling over sharp-pointed boulders, through scenery that my companion declared was magnificent but at which I had no time to look. Then a night at Invergarry, with its water-ousels and its crossbills along the borders of its wooded glen.
Then, next morning, over the mountains along roads compared to which the earlier roads were masterpieces of human efficiency. Even at a pace of fifteen miles an hour the car rattled and shook as though something were tormenting her, and she were attempting to get rid of all her screws in order to secure relief. I had seen potholes before, but here there was little else but potholes till we reached Dornie Ferry and once more crawled down the jetty and up on to the barge. Then a few more miles to Kyle of Lochalsh, and another ferry across the half-mile of water to Skye, and off along a better road than we had seen since we left Fort William.
Scarcely had we landed in Skye when a gloomy blast of wind descended from the mountains. The evening, however, was extraordinarily beautiful, and the peaks on the mainland stood up in the last light of the day like islands in a dream. We had intended to go as far as Sligeachan, but the little whirlpools of wind that came down from the gaps in the mountains suggested that a storm was coming, and we were content to spend the night above Broadford pier, amid the entrancement of hills seen beyond the sea. I had been told of a week of rough weather in which it was impossible to work the ferry, and if a storm was brewing I had no wish to spend a week under drenching rains on Skye.
And a storm was brewing. It began to howl before I was asleep. The blinds rattled, the floods poured down, and Oban, more than a hundred miles away, seemed like a wilfully deserted Eden among my melancholy forebodings. It was no better when we reached the ferry for our return journey the next morning. The wind was blowing and the rain falling and the waves rising. The ferrymen were wearing oilskins and sou’-westers. The ferry looked but a frail craft to face a rising storm, and the stones of the inclined plane of the jetty, overgrown with seaweed towards the bottom, looked infinitely slippery.
I went into a small shop to buy cigarettes and, in order to encourage myself, said to the girl, “it doesn’t seem so rough, after all.” “No, ” she said, “it’s just nasty and horrid.” In case we should get swept out to sea, I decided that it would be well to provision ourselves before starting, and, after a tour of the shops, returned with two packets of biscuits (4d.), one slab of chocolate (ls.), four packets of cigarettes (4s.), and a half-bottle of whisky (6s. 6d.). Then to the wheel, and down the slippery-looking jetty and off across the half-mile of water. This now seemed a very much greater distance than it had seemed on the previous evening. Still, to be back on the mainland was worth the journey, and the very potholes on the roads had the appearance of familiar friends.
After leaving Kyle of Lochalsh, however, I tried to avoid a worse one than usual, drove along the very edge of the road, which was a mere slither of mud, and, before I knew what had happened, the car had skidded into a deep ditch, heeled over, and hit a stone wall a terrific thump which sent the broken glass of the windscreen splintering into the car. “That,” said I,” is the threepenny bits,” for my companion had told me that threepenny bits are unlucky, and one is always being given them in change in Scotland. The car, having struck the wall, then partly righted herself on one wheel in the ditch, and with the help of bottom gear and many groanings she at last struggled back to the road with a jerk. As we knew of no garage where the car could be examined and the injuries repaired, there was nothing to be done except to go ahead. With the feeling that the brakes might have been damaged or that a wheel might come off at any minute, it is not an ideal journey over the water and over the mountains from Kyle of Lochalsh to Invergarry, and the wind on the mountains blew upon us as if with particular spite at our escape. No other human being, no other car we met on those barren solitudes, and we arrived back at Invergarry drenched with the water that had poured through the windscreen.
It was on the next day that the real floods fell. The storm had swollen to a gale, and the water came down in cold avalanches. To sit at the wheel was like being a helmsman on a wild night at sea. Through the broken windscreen the tempest of rain swept in, poured itself up one’s sleeves, drenched one to the backbone, and before long one was sitting in a pool of water. White waterfalls were gushing down the mountain sides. Here and there along the road one had to drive through lakes of water that leaped over the bonnet of the car like waves over the bow of a boat, and blew into one’s lap. I thought enviously of Dr Johnson travelling in Scotland in the comparative comfort of the eighteenth century, and, when we reached the hotel on the north side of Ballachulish ferry we went in and changed our clothes while waiting for lunch.
On the previous day, we learned, the ferry on one occasion when bringing over a car, had made three attempts to land, and in the end had been driven back to the jetty on the other side. The wind in the telephone wires, screaming and yammering, suggested that sort of thing. It was scarcely possible to open the hotel door against its fury. The swollen rivers pouring into the loch, too, had set up a strong current that as it met the tide tossed and whirled in the wind. There were moments in which I thought of settling in the hotel for the night, but other cars were crossing, and Oban was a magnet. Once more, then, out into the raging tempest, our torn hood flying and flapping, with a sound like bursting tyres, down the steep jetty, up the rickety boards on to the wet deck and off to sea. We hugged the shore for some way, and then struggled slowly across the swirling waters, then hugged the shore on the other side, feeling as though we were about to be beaten on to the rocks at every instant, and with no sense of certainty till the ropes were out and the barge bound to the jetty.
Now that it is all over I will confess that the steadiness of these ferries in a gale is wonderful. But somehow one does not quite trust them. At least, I didn’t.
And so on, with the billows of the rain soaking us, and the storm rushing at us, and our hearts happy in the knowledge that, if a wheel did not come off, we should be dining in Oban, and that we should be able to get a new windscreen. The next morning I went out after breakfast and spent all the threepenny bits — there were more than a dozen — that I had in my pockets. Then I opened the map and looked at Skye and the far north of Scotland and felt a strange longing to go back – someday —and see some of the things I had missed.