Three Nights in Purgatory – A West Highland Odyssey

Earlier this month I spent three long nights in a tent in Ardnamurchan on a family trip, having initially refused to go camping “at my age”. I’d got out of such a situation last summer and I tried to put them off again by saying that the only one still speaking to me at the end of this endeavour would be the dog. As it turned out, he responded to my departure on the morning of day four with complete indifference as he was having a bit of a lie down at the time.

I set off most reluctantly the morning after the raucous Peat and Diesel concert at Kelvingrove Bandstand where I’d had to be abstemious as I had a half-packed car with me. As well as a great time the night before, those lads had given me a headful of songs which I sang to get me round all those Loch Lomond bends. My own music was silent as I was trying and failing to charge my phone from the car and I had no young person there to keep me right. I had to message my wee sister for advice at the first stop.

That first stop was at one of my favourites – the Bridge of Orchy Hotel. The Romanian lads that we’d seen in May were still working there; they’d been reluctant then to tell us where they were from, initially just saying “Eastern Europe” – a sad indictment of our supposed Scottish welcome. I had coffee plus an orange juice, with the major concession of one piece of ice as it was a hot day, then departed grateful again that they’d come here and were keeping the hotel open.

I was twice in their toilet thankfully as beyond the lovely Rannoch Moor, the road was closed in Glencoe after an accident. I sat in a long queue of traffic thinking I was going to be stuck for hours. There were folk walking down for a look and some were expressing appreciation for the scenic surroundings of their predicament but there was nothing else to do but wait. At one point, we moved about a hundred yards and then stopped again. I was remembering how not that far away on the moor Alan Breck Stewart and David Balfour had been forced to lie on top of a rock in the baking sun, hiding from the Redcoats. Did Robert Louis describe his characters as feeling like “scones on a girdle”? I must have another read of Kidnapped. Anyway, I was very thankful for the wee bit of shelter I got from the car and I could open the door occasionally to get more fresh air in.

Suddenly, tourists out on the road started running back to their cars and we were off again; for me it was over the Ballachulish Bridge and on to the Corran Ferry for the first time. It was also my first time in Ardnamurchan, the Promontory of the seadogs (otters) in Gaelic, which I knew vaguely was the most westerly part of the mainland but I hadn’t appreciated what that would mean in terms of the long and winding road to Kilchoan and my ‘bed’.

After searching in vain through the open but deserted Strontian Hotel for a toilet / afternoon tea, I spotted the Sunart Cafe in Strontian village centre. Maybe it was fairly basic but an oasis for me after I’d decided not to stop at Ardgour. I got Earl Grey tea plus a roll and butter which the laddie didn’t know what to charge me for; I told him he could charge me what he liked as I was so grateful to get anything at all. This fair amused a young couple who were the only other customers.

I remembered what my Gaelic teacher had said about Strontium being a bit of Gaelic on the periodic table; the mineral was first investigated in 1787 by Adair Crawford from Edinburgh after it was found in a local lead mine. David Dorward gives Sron t-sithean (Promontory / Point of the fairy hills) as the Gaelic name for Strontian but for George Mackay it’s Sron teine (Promontory / Point of the beacon).

I arrived at the campsite sweating and almost incoherent, after taking the best part of two hours to drive the final 31 miles, 19 of them on a single-track road with a scary hurl round the back of Ben Hiant thrown in at the end. (It was only on the return journey that I was able to appreciate the fine views of Eigg and of the Cuillins to the north.) I had a vague sense of satisfaction that I’d made it unscathed but then looked with dismay at the bag containing my tent – my only home for three nights. However the others pitched in quite literally and I soon had the contents of the car scattered in untidy heaps about my premises; this led to many subsequent periods of rummaging and much zipping and unzipping of my sleeping compartment.

The others were seasoned camping-lovers who were exceptionally well-organised and I did enjoy just sitting and watching them in action. My wee sister produced a full meal on night one; next morning my brother-in-law handed me a mug of coffee with frothed milk! I’d just brought coffee bags. Cousin Mairi made porridge each morning and drank coffee from a cafetiere; she also made toast over the flame of her stove and slathered it with homemade damson jam and I was the beneficiary of one of these slices. She even washed up her pot the morning she was leaving at 8am; I’d have taken it home dirty and dealt with it later.

There were only two toilets and two showers for folk from 30 pitches so queues had to be anticipated and that was no fun at all. We were near the bottom of a slope so my blow-up bed slid down the tent through the night and my pan of boiling water kept slipping off my stove though there was no leg-scalding incident and nor did my gas canister explode at any point. There were midgies galore though we all had brought head nets. On the second evening, I was cutting up veg in a smirr with clouds of the wee beasties dancing round me and there was no song in my heart at that point.

On the first night I had no sleep at all, just Peat and Diesel choruses going round in my head on a loop; on night two I got a few hours but was awake before dawn. On my last night, at 2am I climbed the wet grassy slope to the toilet by the light of a full moon shining on the Sound of Mull taking an admittedly appreciative look round at the grey shapes of the hills on my way back to the tent where I longed for sleep.

The days were infinitely preferable. We visited the West Ardnamurchan Community Garden which was set up in 2010 to provide local food and reduce food miles. It was an impressive space, tended by some volunteers and a young couple who were living there off-grid. From their unstaffed shop with a tin for change, we got kale in a biodegradable plastic bag and mushrooms in a paper bag which formed part of a mixture-of-mercies evening meal. The number of midgies in the mix was unknown.

From there it was on to Ardnamurchan Lighthouse where we explored each according to our interests. It was designed by Alan Stevenson, an uncle of Robert Louis, and the area around it has been in community ownership since 2020. For more information, have a look at https://www.ardnamurchanlighthouse.com

I appreciated the stunning views out to Coll and over to Eigg, plus the wide paths and all the picnic benches so convenient for taking rest and awaiting the rest of the party. However, the highlight for me was the Stables Coffee Shop which I awarded 10 out of 10 for its good coffee, pots of hot water provided unasked with the tea, the range of snaisters, its excellent selection of Scottish books – Sorley Maclean’s poetry and Seal Morning for example, Scottish music playing rather than some bland pop, cards of local scenes, tasteful souvenirs and absolutely no tartan trock. (See Tartan Trock) The floor was still cobbled and the stour was authentic.

An old iron range in one of the two seating areas in the minimally refurbished Stables Coffee Shop, Ardnamurchan Lighthouse

Cousin Mairi and I ordered scones and we were offered cream with them which we declined with a shriek of horror and demanded butter instead. Our host said they got a lot of “visitors” who wanted cream and I advised telling such folk in future that they were in Ardnamurchan and not St Ives. That got just the ghost of a smile and I appreciated the fact that he was a wee tait on the taciturn side and not fawning over us. In retrospect, I think he was just a bit quick to bung the scones into his microwave for a short burst and I wondered if that had been to freshen them up. Therefore the final mark is 9.5 but maybe I’m being a bit harsh?

From there we drove back several miles and took the road to Sanna where we got to the beach after a walk over the machair; the harebells I noticed had very short stems, adapted to the western winds I suppose. I’d anticipated a long lie down on my picnic rug but the dog kept coming over to check if I was ok and then he howled piteously while his owners went for a swim. While they were struggling back into their clothes, a lad coming over the rocks saw more than he bargained for and I’ll remember for a long time the look of dismay on his face at what he was stumbling into. Soon afterwards rain and mist and the tide came in so it was back to the campsite for us.

Next day our excursion was on the ferry to Tobermory, Mary’s Well in Gaelic, through a morning mist and the dog not quite sure what to make of the foghorn. There was a nice young local lad collecting the fares and I noticed there was a lassie working on the boat too.

The Tobermory Bakery might have fine products but the staff were a bit on the sour side and its sit-in coffee was served in paper cups. There were notices up about it being in the running for Bakery of the Year and Cafe of the Year but they’d need to be a bit more pleasant when the judges come round. By way of contrast, An Tobar Cafe and Gallery in an old school building up the hill had a pleasant and helpful mannie serving, a good selection of drinks and an interesting exhibition on the effect of noise on marine life called On Sonorous Seas.

We ate lunch back on the main street in the Gallery Restaurant which was a converted church, likely ex-Church of Scotland or maybe Episcopalian as it had a round stained glass window. When I went in to ask for a table, I was ignored for several minutes though that was not a lack of staff issue; I think they’re quite newly open so I might forgive them. We eventually got in and had fishcakes, fish and chips and mussels all of which were good but there was then a very long wait for two ice cream portions which came with mint garnishes and an apology but with no explanation for the delay. I approved of course of their fresh flowers on the table but we had a yellow carnation stuck in with a red rose. When I voiced this criticism, I was told off by my sister for being picky. Me?

Doing the journey next day in reverse, I returned to the Sunart Cafe which I’d expected to be hoaching as there was a local agricultural show going on in the jam-packed village but again there was only one other table occupied so I was lucky. I stopped briefly at the Ballachulish Visitors Centre for a toilet before threading my way through the mass of crazily-parked cars and meandering tourists in Glencoe.

The final stop was back at the Bridge of Orchy Hotel where I was speaking to the Austrian receptionist; she said they just couldn’t get any local staff to work there and I expressed my appreciation that she and her colleagues had come to Scotland to help us out. Sitting in the bar, I noticed that the lads there were starting to turn folk away and I asked a woman from the second group this happened to what the reason given was as there were unoccupied tables. She said they were told there would be a 45-minute wait for food and as they were going on to Skye, they couldn’t afford the time; she was disappointed but appreciated the fact that the staff had been honest with them. I suggested they try Glencoe or Ballachulish, and hoped that as foreign visitors they’d get some kind of positive experience on their holiday here in Scotland.

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2 thoughts on “Three Nights in Purgatory – A West Highland Odyssey

  1. Pingback: They talk of little else in Tannochbrae – Splendid, Bella!

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