A summer to remember in Scotland

Travel writer Jules Brown describes a romance that blossomed during a wet Scottish summer holiday.

Jules Brown

“How come you never mention me in any of your travel stories?” says Elaine.

I’m tempted to say that I just have, and write “The End”, but I have a feeling that won’t go down well.

She has a point. Mostly, I write in the first person. I go to places and report back. There is the occasional “we” in my stories and adventures, and sometimes that other person is Elaine and sometimes it isn’t. But I hardly ever name names and, Elaine is right, she is never mentioned. Though we are up to three times now in the first hundred words, so I’m trying my best here.

Actually, what she really means is, “Look buster, how come you didn’t mention me, when I was there with you on that trip?”

At least it sounds like “buster”. Elaine is and can speak Irish, and the only Irish word I know is sasanach, which if you’re English can be considered more or less derogatory depending on context. If an Irish person calls you a sasanach, you need to check if they are smiling at you or chasing you with a pointed stick.

What she’s driving at is my tendency to pretend that I was on my own in a place when I wasn’t.

She’ll peer over my shoulder as I’m writing sometimes and say, “That’s very funny, only wasn’t that actually my joke?”

Or she’ll say, “Why don’t you put me in that bit? After all, I drove you there.”

It’s true, that this is how I present most of my travels – as if I was there on my own. And quite often I was. For almost all my guidebook days for Rough Guides I travelled solo because, let’s face it, no one wanted to come to the timber-filled towns of central Sweden for two months to watch me copy down restaurant menus and inspect backpacker hostels.

But I’ve also spent thirty-odd years travelling with other people – on press trips, weekends away, city breaks, journeys, excursions and even good old holidays. Yet I’ve written many of these trips up as if I went on my own – even, dare I say, some of the stories in this book.

It isn’t, I hope, an ego thing. It’s not about advertising my importance. The destinations – the places I go – all get on fine without me, I’m sure.

But it is a conscious decision and, without sounding too pretentious, it’s about style. I’ve never been a “my companion and I” kind of travel writer, skimming the surface of a destination. I think my job is to do a bit more than just describe and inform. I enjoy visiting places that provoke thoughts and feelings, and I like to share those. Sense of place is important to me; I want to transmit the kind of details that really help you understand what a place looks, feels and smells like. And while I have lots of my own experiences to draw upon, I also spend quite a lot of time eavesdropping, listening in, overhearing, or watching from afar and then writing down the good bits. 

Presenting it all as a single, personal experience helps crystallise the things that I have understood about a destination. I like to think that my writing has a strength and a flow that derives from this first-person telling – without getting sidetracked by mentions of friends, companions and strangers, whose names and presence you then have to register. With my writing, on the whole you don’t have to ask yourself who this Dave is, who has just made a most excellent joke about Swedish timber production. I just nick Dave’s joke and use it to embellish my own account, because I think it will make for a better read.

None of this butters any parsnips with Elaine, who fixes me with the sort of look she usually reserves for English people who insist – despite her repeated corrections – that she comes from “Southern Ireland.” The sort of look you would receive if you pointed out that, technically, Ireland forms part of what’s known as the “British Isles”, and don’t give me that look, I didn’t come up with the designation, talk to the geographers.

She is not a Dave, Elaine points out. She is my beloved. And it’s about time she got some credit.

So because I know what’s good for me – ie, Elaine – I’m sharing the story of a trip we made together that, in normal circumstances, I might be tempted to pass off as my own singular experience. A story that comes with Added Elaine and that will be all the better for it.

“You pick a place,” says Elaine, “you’re the travel writer and I really don’t mind.”

We have been seeing each other for a few months. Summer’s coming up. A first holiday together has been mentioned.

To be fair to Elaine, knowing that I’m a travel writer, she could have certain reasonable expectations. She knows that I have written books about Sicily, Spain and Portugal, for example. She’s seen the map, she knows how far south they are. We have talked about sitting in cafés, overlooking harbours, eating seafood and drinking chilled wine. We’ve looked forward to long, lazy strolls in Mediterranean towns and nightcaps under palm trees.

“Ullapool,” I say.

“Right,” she says.

“It’s in Scotland. Quite a long way up in Scotland.”

“Right,” she says again. “Does it have summer?”

“Does it have summer?”, I say. “You bet it has summer. It has an oceanic climate and an average of 1,105 sunshine hours per year.”

“Have you been looking at the internet?”, says Elaine.

I have. Although it sounds impressive, eleven hundred hours of sunshine a year actually isn’t very much. I have also omitted the part about Ullapool being cloudier than any other place in Europe. That seems to me to be on a need-to-know basis. If you draw a horizontal line on a map, Ullapool is at about the same latitude as Newfoundland, Norway and Estonia, none of which are known for their balmy summers. I decide not to mention that either.

“And why are we going to Ullapool?”, says Elaine.

I’m on firmer ground here. Because it sounds really cool. Because it’s on a deep loch surrounded by gnarled mountains and looks a little bit like Norway transplanted to Scotland. Because it’s further north than Moscow and because Russian fishing vessels used to pitch up and drink the local pubs dry, just like in Local Hero. Because neither of us has ever been and getting there will be an adventure.

Although I don’t know her very well yet, I do know that if Elaine says she really doesn’t mind something, then she doesn’t. She’s positive and enthusiastic about everything. She sees the best in everyone and every situation. Elaine will not be counting the hours of sunshine and examining the cloud layer, and then bringing up the damning facts later in a general discussion about the shortcomings of my holiday choice. If I say Ullapool will be cool, she’s happy to take my word for it and throw herself into the adventure. This wholesome approach to life is one of the innumerable reasons that, many years later, she is still my beloved and getting a whole story to herself.

We drive up to Ullapool from northern England, which turns out to be quite the undertaking, involving driving half the length of the entire UK. That will teach me for looking at the Google map and thinking it looked about six inches away. It takes three hours just to cross the border, after which there is still a lot of Scotland to go. The scenery becomes increasingly dramatic as we skirt the Cairngorms en route to Inverness, barrelling along the A9, the longest road in Scotland. It’s wild, big-sky country, on a route that sweeps over passes and down through broad valleys, past isolated dwellings and hamlets.

By now the road signs are in Gaelic as well as English, which is close enough to Irish at times for Elaine to offer a running commentary on the presumed attractions of the places we pass.

“Let’s see, ‘the bright harbour of the gentle fairy’ is in fact … wait for it, let me look, oh a tweed factory outlet.”

The weather is entirely as predicted, which is to say cloudy. For the last hour of the drive – through bleak moorland and past bare hills and grey-tinted lochs – it gets progressively darker, until the final run along the eastern shore of Loch Broom when the weather basically goes, sod it, and slings sheets of heavy rain against the windscreen. We follow the SatNav to the holiday cottage we’ve rented, high above the loch, and traipse around after the owner through damp-smelling room after damp-smelling room as she points out the wood-burning stove and the storage radiators for “if it gets a wee bit chilly in the evenings.”

If. Wee bit.

You can see your breath in the air outside. Rain is lashing against a window that should, in theory, offer an uninterrupted view over the glories of Ullapool but instead offers an unrivalled view of rain. In the chilliness stakes, the house is whatever the opposite of a “wee bit” is. It’s late afternoon in August. This is our summer holiday.

“Does it ever stop raining?”, I ask.

“I don’t know,” says the woman, “I’m only fifty-five.”

We both think we’re joking, but it’s difficult to tell.

Elaine and I wait until we hear her car disappear down the drive and then switch on every radiator we can find. We locate the wood store and light the log-burner and make a pinkie-promise that it is never to go out, not on our watch, no sirree. We leaf through the binder of information about the house, where there are humorous injunctions against using the heating in summer unless you want to be liable for a twenty-five-pound surcharge. We laugh – laugh I tell you! – in the face of such impertinence, safe in the knowledge that we’ve spent twenty-five quid in the last hour already and there’s plenty more where that came from. Over the next week, our proudest achievement is that we kept that sucker burning twenty-four-seven, until we could bask in the lounge in T-shirts and sip the best – all right, only – cheeky little rosé that Ullapool’s Tesco could provide.

Although I don’t know her very well yet, I am comforted by the fact that Elaine would rather be warm than cold. She doesn’t ask why I have switched the oven on and propped its door open, and I have to say I like that in a person.

Because it’s our first night and it’s freezing, we pile log upon log for later and call a taxi to take us the short distance into town for dinner. Because, drinking. And rain.

We get a very chatty taxi driver who fulfils all the possible impenetrable-accent clichés you could want by being virtually impossible to understand while sat in the back seat of a Skoda Octavia. As she turfs us out in a backstreet in Ullapool, she hands us a card that says “Pam’s Taxis” and says, “Gi’ us a call, when you want a toksi, ask for Pom.”

I have never heard anyone do that to vowels before. Pom, needless to say, is our go-to gal for toksis for the rest of the week.

Dinner is in The Ceilidh Place, which is recommended far and wide but is on the wee bit chilly side too. I’d say that I’m overly sensitive – born in Africa, fan of the Med, constitutionally averse to cold weather – except that Elaine is from County Wicklow where, as far as anyone knows, it has never stopped raining. And she thinks they should switch their heating up too, so we finish dinner quickly and walk around the harbour to The Ferry Boat Inn for a nightcap before summoning Pom.

To me, a nightcap is another glass of red wine and an espresso if they have one. I don’t expect to sleep, don’t worry. But the bar in the Ferry Boat Inn prides itself on its single malt whiskies and, if you like that sort of thing, you’re in for a treat. The Scots do love whisky, it’s a fact. They bang on about the distilleries, the peat and the smoky taste, all night if you let them. The Ferry Boat Inn has about a thousand different varieties on little shelves and a very keen barman who can tell you at which remote waterfall they collected the water and what side of the valley the peat was dug.

“Will you have a wee dram of whisky?”, he says. “Our single malts are very special. You should have one. Here, let me recommend one for you.”

He has no idea.

What you have to understand about an Irishwoman of certain opinion is that she has endured eight hundred years of being told what to do by non-Irish people, mostly English it’s true, but anyone in the UK basically has to watch their step.

“Do you have a Jameson’s?”, says Elaine. She pronounces it “Jemmeson’s”, like it should be pronounced and not like the way English or Scottish people say it.

“I don’t think I’m familiar with that name,” says the barman boldly, for he has no idea.

“Well, I don’t really like Scottish whisky,” says Elaine. “So I’d prefer a Jameson’s, the Irish whiskey, I’ll have one of those.”

He looks aghast – “not liking” Scottish whisky has clearly never occurred to him as a concept. Also, he has no idea he’s just been schooled in the use of the extra and correct Irish ‘e’ in the word “whiskey.”

Because I don’t know her very well yet, this is a revelation to me. I would have drunk the Scottish whisky, just to be polite. I’m English, and if there’s one thing an English person is more afraid of than making a fuss in public it’s upsetting a Scottish person. It usually ends badly on a battlefield somewhere.

But Elaine is proudly Irish and, as she has pointed out, she doesn’t like the peaty, smoky Scottish stuff, however much you bang on about it. She wants and gets a proper whiskey by simply asking for it, and I can see that this confidence is a useful skill to have. I make a note to stick closely to her, on the basis that if I find myself being too English for my own good, I can always get an Irishwoman of certain opinion to do my asking for me.

The next day it’s overcast and drizzling, which is a distinct improvement in the summer weather, so we take the chance to look around Ullapool between showers.

It’s only small – a couple of thousand people all told – with a grid of white-painted houses spreading across a small promontory sticking out into the loch. It wouldn’t be exactly right to call the town attractive, but that’s not exactly fair either. It’s a working port, with all that that entails, and it doesn’t have anything to prove to the likes of us. But the location is stunning, on a narrow fjord hemmed in by mountains that are the very definition of sullen and brooding on a day like today. A Viking called Ulla probably settled down here some time back in the ninth century – I dare say the terrible weather reminded him of home – and for hundreds of years afterwards Ullapool comprised just a few crofts and farms clinging tenaciously to both sides of Loch Broom, making the sort of living that never bothered anyone.

The modern town dates back around two hundred and fifty years, to when herring started to be landed here in huge numbers. The British Fisheries Society planned for grand things and laid out orderly streets, public buildings and a large harbour with curing sheds and warehouses. What they hadn’t bargained for was the disappearance of the herring shoals from the whole of the west coast, which ruined the new town within twenty years. It wasn’t until the 1970s that Ullapool was a successful fishing port once again, this time attracting Russian factory ships.

That era has gone too now, leaving tourism as the mainstay, though life still revolves around the deep-water harbour. While we watch, ferries come and go to Stornaway in the Outer Hebrides, and tons of other smaller boats flit about in the mid-distance, doubtless doing complicated things with fish and nets. I’m always rather in awe of people who make a living from the sea. Fair play to them. On any given day, I can think of many, many things that I would rather do than ride the swell in a freezing sea with chaps in yellow oils manhandling a great deal of ice and fish.

We make a discovery, which is that there is a little man in a car park with a fresh fish stall. He sells us a slab of hake off a boat and half a dozen enormous scallops, which he claims have been hand-gathered by a man in a diving suit. Which is entirely the sort of thing I might tell two tourists if I was trying to get them to part with their money. To give him his due, the fish and shellfish are amazing – beautifully firm, fresh and sweet – and a trip to the fish stall becomes a regular occurrence. By the end of the week we are flash-frying scallops in butter for breakfast, just because we can, and although I don’t know Elaine very well yet, it seems to me that I could spend more of my days with someone who will gladly eat hand-dived scallops for breakfast.

Over the next few days we venture further out, driving on wild and winding roads to places with extraordinarily alluring names – Achiltibuie (‘field of the yellow-haired boy’), Inchnadamph (‘meadow of the stags’) and SasanachEejit (‘missed turn by the English driver’), although I think Elaine is making one of those up. When the clouds clear, we look out from the fractured coastline to the uninhabited Summer Isles and idly wonder how much an island costs these days. By the lonely, waterside ruins of Ardvreck Castle on Loch Assynt, we brush through wet heather to stand in the shelter of five-hundred-year-old stones and idly wonder how much a castle costs these days. Idle wondering is very much the pastime du jour on these drives, on account of the rolling mist and the ever-present sound of the pattering rain.

“Is this still my summer holiday?” says Elaine, pointedly emphasizing the word “summer.” I assure her it is and switch the heating up in the car.

At Lochinver, an hour’s drive from Ullapool, we see a sign saying “Pie Shop”, which is a very cheering thing to spot on a Scottish summer holiday. We stock up in the Lochinver Larder and then drive further north around the coast on a precarious road to Achmelvich and Clachtoll. Even in the rain, we can see that these deserted beaches are something special. Grassy mounds and black rocks tumble down to perfect arcs of white sand, and despite the half-light of a rain-soaked August the water has a hint of turquoise in it. We dare each other to stand barefoot in the freezing surf and then, before I know it, Elaine has gone one further. She strips down to a concealed bathing suit, strides in and dips her shoulders under, swimming in water that is turning my feet blue. I resist every entreaty and threat because I’m laughably and reservedly English – no it’s freezing, don’t be daft, what if someone sees us – and not outgoing and Irish – ah sure it’s grand, you big eejit.

We sit under blankets in collapsible camping chairs that we have wrestled across the dunes, and eat pies and drink thermos-flask tea under an umbrella that is really only big enough for one. We watch dark clouds roil the sky and warm our fingers on hot plastic cups.

“Is this still my summer holiday?”, says Elaine. I assure her that it is and wipe drops of rain from her cheek.

Even now, years later, I can’t guarantee that I can tell you what colour Elaine’s eyes are, how many cousins she’s got or what her confirmation name is. She’ll have a favourite colour, I’m sure, but I couldn’t tell you what it is. I’m only a man after all.

But I remember every second of Ullapool in all its glorious, rain-spattered, log-fire-burning, breath-chilling, toksi-taking clarity. And I can recall the point at which I stopped not knowing Elaine very well and started thinking about the future. About travelling together, finding our place in the world and growing old in each other’s company. About making each other better by being together, sitting hand in hand on remote white-sand beaches, and hoping for the sun but never minding the rain.

If you’d like to read more travel adventures, this excerpt comes from Never Pack an Ice-Axe: Tales From a Travel Writer’s Life by Jules Brown.