My travelling partner is Sarah. She's a serial bagger of Munros, Scotland's distinct peaks of 3000ft or more, and I'm a mug, drawn by a promise of this emptiest of lands at the end of a country I know less about than I realise. Her car is a mirror of her. Unstoppable, practical, tireless, driven. Other, lesser, cars, will surely yield. We wild camp near Inchnadamph, Oyster catchers feel free to talk again once we're zipped out of sight in our tent. Musk of red deer, wet footsteps. Does Scotland want me here?
Limestone Valleys of Inchndamph
Sometimes, when the river loses the will to go on, you'll see it stumbling and falling forward, straight through the soil. Honeycomb banks, dry passages stack over flowing basements. The limestone is a ceiling, not a floor.
Where the stone isn't a bare fluted thing, scored by acid rain, then the grass covers, and flowers rise in great numbers. The orchid, a flower so rare it is protected by legislation, is baffingly unavoidable, and you dance around the stalks. Primroses sit arrogant and self absorbed on shelves, votive offerings to themselves.
Bird songs surround you. Small, round, vibrant, resonating masses. It's a chorus with no structure to my ear. My friend can resolve them all to singular points. Stonechats, Wheatears, Larks. The Stonechat makes a sound like two rocks banging together. But so does the Wheatear, as they're related, but it's a little different. The Lark cannot stop singing. It's a compulsion.
We can hear the cave before we see it. Roaring, but constant, an untuned radio. A raised eyebrow in the hill. It's a cave with the lid missing, the middle of a sentence. Water comes from the dark, and dances quickly out of sight, blinking, afraid to lose its night vision. The hill above is loose, and sounds alarmingly hollow to a firm footstep.
A search of the area finds a high and dry way in. Head-torches light our squeeze through a sequence of holes. Water calls us, and we find the river safe under her blanket, tucked in and cosy. Old courses radiate up and away from the gossamer mist of our breath. We climb a crawl path into a ceiling run. Caves in these valleys have yielded bones from end of the last ice age. Sabre toothed beasts, furry freaks. Fire debris from our deep ancestors. Sat there in this closed space, I break the sacred silence with 'You're probably wondering why I called this meeting'. Outside there is a German couple from Dresden in matching spotless cheque shirts. They are surprised to see us clamber out, orange-stained, and resonating with the joys of rare spaces in our eyes.
Dusk is a long period in June, this far north. Darkness starts gathering in the sodden peat and builds in strength, before rising in furious insectile clouds to forcibly close down the fading day. We splash through cotton bogs. Deep and distant mountain shepherds take their ships to safe night harbour in the heart of iceberg clouds. Tomorrow's stragglers can chip them free from the wet wool.
The bothy is vivid and complete. Firm and square, smiling, and surefooted on the soft, malleable land. The door is on the latch, for she knows you are coming, and always has. Roof a perfect array of slate, gutters regular. Windows one ply, without the vanity of filter. Inside, lectern and desk crown a disarray of wooden outcasts. Foam mat on sleeping shelf, cache of essential black feathers. Observant jury of sheep skulls. The East wall is a pure stone blank, green on the inside, as here, even the bog turns in and takes shelter for the night. In a world of modernity or dereliction, this place is neither.
There's a visitors book. The bothy commands both honesty and truth from the writers, and trust from the reader. These words are sacred knowledge, only to be read here. Bothy baggers must be a breed apart. I imagine gills secretly evolved and free here to protrude past goretex lapels. People who only really come alive when no one else can see, this book the only clue and only confessional. I write the date and 'Maybe I'm an experience vampire', and draw a monster to illustrate. We are told by the preamble that the previous bothy book is now stored in the Crask inn for those who wish to see it. Let's hope nobody tells Freud. It's an intense read.
Sarah finds her inspiration here too. The fourth and last room has two bare metal bedsteads, and nothing else. For her, I play the character of despair, arms folded over my head and round my knees beneath the foot of one metal frame. Her camera faithfully records her experience. The blank and bare space is an echo chamber for the moods you channel.
This is the perfect place to find inspiration and creativity. Between 4 greening walls, so far from anchorage, the mind isn't disturbed, and can float freely. Half an hour later, all I've come up with is a new TV show called 'Sphagnum P.I.'. Oh well.
At the desk I drink wine, search again for inspiration, and instead write odd, sheep-stained poetry that makes no sense a week later. Outside, the bleak and lost curves of two distant mountains are the only meaningful shapes on the darkening of summer's fade. I've never stared for so long at so little. Yet it's not possible to be bored.
We are joined by another guest. A Snipe is passing above the bothy. Far from vocal challenge, the evening bird has a deep ululation, electronic and hard to place.
Darkness arrives, for a few hours at least. The world is made of the great spaces and round, confined sheep pens. In my square gated home, I corral myself to sleep on an oblong platform.
On the drive home, the witch's hat is still there, but the pasting table has been turned 90 degrees.