Hands wrapped around a mug of hot tea and wool-clad feet propped on the dashboard, I peered out of the windscreen as the sign welcoming us to Scotland appeared out of the low lying mist. We pulled over and jumped out to take a couple of pictures, running back through the rain to stand on the Scottish border. Behind us, the clouds lay heavy and blackened across mountain tops laden with thick, wet snow; the road snaking away between them amongst fields that swayed with golden grasses in the driving wind.
There are people who would see choosing to drive around Scotland in a camper van, wild camping in the depths of winter as unusual, but I couldn’t imagine exploring the deep forests and dark sweeping moors any other way. I loved the independent nature of it; the freedom afforded by being able to follow the road and simply find somewhere to stop, out in the Scottish wilds, and make camp at the end of the day. There’s something about the notion of a road trip, besides; such a literal interpretation of travelling, of the journey being more important than the destination. This resonates with me strongly, and it has long been one of my favourite ways to travel.
And so a couple of days after Christmas, in the last lingering days of 2014, we loaded up our rented camper van with food and blankets and set off on the long road North, on a blustery winter morning full of bright, cold sunshine that broke through the clouds to glitter against the frozen fields. As we drove, the sky curled closed like a fist and by lunchtime it rumbled grey and forbidding overhead, fat drops of rain lashing against the windscreen.
‘Bloody Scotland’ Rikki growled, brow knitting as he squinted at the road ahead.
We should’ve set off earlier, or stopped for the night further back. The fog had settled in, shrinking the road to just a few short feet in front of the van, and the inky blue-blackness that had been sinking through the trees ever since the sun disappeared now enveloped us completely. Tree trunks appeared out of the gloom as we drove, bone coloured in the darkness, thick fog swirling soupily around the beams of our headlights. Outside the steamy windows of the van, the wind howled into the night. I clicked the door lock down with a cold forefinger.
We wound further upwards, an occasional glint of moonlight rippling on the surface of the loch far below. A hundred horror film storylines flashed before my eyes as the headlights swept briefly over a lone house set back from the road, the strings of shells hanging around the peeling door jangling eerily in the wind. It occurred to me that we were alone up here; we hadn’t passed another car in an hour. I checked my phone – no signal.
Finally, an open space ahead, clear blackness unobscured by trees. We pulled in and set up camp, popping the top and pulling the bench seat down flat to make our bed. With the light on and the heater warming our toes, the dark drive through the trees was forgotten and we fell quickly to sleep.
We woke to find ourselves parked in a deserted visitor centre carpark, the trees rolling away in a patchwork blanket of russet and evergreen to the loch below. The mist still hovered, thinned to cobweb strands in the early sunlight; but any lingering dread from the previous night evaporated with the steam from the kettle. Stretching cramped limbs in sleep-damp sweatshirts we headed for the cafe, hoping for an indoor bathroom; but it was low season and the place was locked and deserted at that early time in the morning.
A large sign board informed us that we were at the Queen’s Viewpoint, a place frequented by Queen Victoria on her many trips to Scotland. Wandering up the trail past the building, we were rewarded with a view of a pink tinged dawn lingering over Loch Tallow, which snaked away for miles towards the distant purple mountains. We packed up the van and ate breakfast outside, watching the sky change colour in the reflection of Queen Victoria’s favourite loch.
Our days in the van fell swiftly into the normalcy of routine; one of simplicity and a responsiveness to the land through which we drove, letting our fingers trace routes on the map but largely following the open road wherever it took us. We woke early with the sky, pulling on thick socks and warm jumpers before crawling out from under the duvet to brush our teeth outside, the ground still sparkling with frost. We boiled water for tea that we would carry in a thermos the rest of the morning, and put the frying pan on for bacon; eating handfuls of granola from the box while we waited for it to turn golden and ready to be devoured between thick slices of bread.
We drove throughout the mornings, the land outside the windows a riotous watercolour, darkly romantic and redolent of wilderness. The road stretched ahead through fields the colour of honey, patchy with purple heather and dark moss, meandering along the shores of windswept lochs. It took us around sharply curving hills and past salt-slicked coastlines waving with sea grass, through lonely moors and vast forests and towards an ice capped horizon that clawed and tore at the wild sky.
Lunch would be alfresco; one day a loch-side picnic of cold roast chicken and fresh bread, the next Scottish pies, eaten in a bakery in a tiny fishing village whilst the curious owner quizzed us on where we were from and where we were going. One afternoon we picked up smoked mussels from the deli on Loch Fyne and ate them, salty and delicious, with our fingers. As the shadows lengthened at the end of the afternoon, we would begin to search for somewhere to sleep, although despite our best intentions we never did manage to make camp before nightfall.
Falling asleep each night to the rushings and rustlings of the outdoors I thought how strange that we would adapt so quickly; our days falling into new patterns easily, new routines established based around eating and sleeping and living on the move. I felt at home on those dark roads, the wild unencumbered beauty of the land rolling away into the mountains beneath an enormous sky. The feeling remained with me after we returned home; something of that wilderness lingering on me the way that bonfire smoke lingers in my hair for hours after the fire has burned out.
‘It’s somewhere around here’ Rikki murmured, forehead furrowed in concentration as he hunched over the steering wheel to peer out at the twisting road. We were chasing memories, hunting for a place remembered from his childhood; a castle that floated on the surface of a loch surrounded by hills and forests.
The road unfolded down the hillside, slanting afternoon sunlight flashing through the evergreens. I folded my legs underneath me in my seat, sipping tea and flicking to the next song on our road trip playlist. I had no doubt he would find it, he has a nose for finding things that are lost.
He saw it first, appearing through the trees as we rounded a corner. Perched on a tiny outcrop that jutted from the shore, the castle turret appeared to float above it’s own reflection as though standing in a puddle of melted bronze, a monument to childhood stories of hidden princesses in lost valleys.
Jumping out of the van, we tramped across the field, our boots sinking into the soft mud. We found a large rock by the waters edge and perched on it to look out across the loch, tilting our faces towards the sun like flowers. I skimmed a stone, shattering the mirror surface of the water into a cascade of ripples, and we stood with our feet in the shallows, silently absorbing the beauty of the place. I knew that Rikki felt the strange displacement that comes when you take someone you care about to a place that existed for you before they did, new stories building onto the old ones and subtly changing the way that you remember things.
We stood for a moment longer, watching a hunting bird swoop through the sky, then turned and squelched back up the hill to our rolling home.
On the last day of 2014, the clouds parted and allowed dawn to wash cold and clear over the frozen ground. We had found a hook-up in the yard of a working stables somewhere near Loch Ness, and woke to the sound of the horses being led out to graze on the open fields, their breath snorting and sparkling in the sunshine and their hooves clattering over the cobbles.
We drove all day, through villages of chalk coloured houses lining wet streets strung with limp fairy lights, the last vestiges of Christmas hanging like scraps of wrapping paper abandoned once torn away from the promise inside. We passed local families preparing for their New Years Eve parties, hanging bunting and building bonfires, and we drove on, headed for the place where the road stops and greets the sea. We stopped to pick up supplies in the late afternoon, parking on the beach and sitting with our toes buried in sand to watch the sun go down on a year of beginnings and adventures and change.
It didn’t let us down, setting the sky ablaze in rose gold fire that washed over the sand. We watched until the sun fell finally into the ocean, and then headed up the last stretch of road in darkness, the distant lights that dotted the coast our only guide.
We spent NYE in our van, parked by the beach, with food and music and lots of wine; and in the morning I got up early and blew away my hangover with a swim in the North Sea. Afterwards, as I sat and towel dried the salt and sand out of my hair, the van full of the sizzle of bacon and eggs and the smell of fresh coffee; I thought that only good things could happen in a year that began like this. A new year of adventures, beginning with wildness and freedom and a morning swim in the freezing sea.