” Perch where the wind comes at you full-force. Let it blow you apart till your feathers fly and you look like hell. Then abandon yourself. The wind is not your enemy, Nothing in life is. Go where the wind takes you- backwards- higher, lower. The wind to carry you forward will find you. when you’re ready. When you can bear it.” Margaret Wheatley
I’ve always love this quote from Margaret Wheatley. Give yourself to the possibility for change. It’s never easy. You’ll look and feel like hell. But in that wind of change there is transformational growth, when you are ready to take that step.
So what does this have to do with a 5 day tour of the Scottish Highlands and the islands of Skye, Mull and Iona? Ah, a tenuous link perhaps but the wind does a large part to play in this tale of two 70 year old friends from Australia who say “Bugger Covid, we haven’t got decades left… we’re going travelling!”
Let me set the scene. It’s day 3 of the tour. Lesley is still on the look-out for Jamie, the superbly handsome, kilted character from the Netflix drama ” Outlander. The closest we get is Nick, our tour guide who is a lovely maybe 30 or late 20’s, super fit and handsome. He does not wear a kilt but we make allowances. He’s terrific, full of stories, knowledgeable, experienced, attentive and passionate about the highlands and the beauty of Scotland. He’s a keen adventurer.
Lesley and I are novice travelling companions… an unlikely combo. Lesley is warm, engaging and a raging extrovert where every person she encounters is an opportunity for conversation. I’m reserved, introverted, spend a lot of time in my head and find hours of people time exhausting. My idea of hell is a cruise. Tours and tour buses are closely related cousins of the cruise hell hole. Boat trips in my narrow world, need to be short, on never a ripple, calm water and with plenty of alcohol to steady the nerves.
So here we are on Day 3. The minibus seats 16 but there are only 7 of us on this tour, all in our 60’s and 70’s. One person has knee injuries, another has recovered from serious illness and is adventuring again. Lesley and I have been training for this trip and we are confident of our fitness and agility. Every Wednesday, we have been walking the 6 kms of flat ground around Lake Wendouree in Ballarat. We used to have to stop for coffee half way but for past months we have taken our fitness training very seriously…we’re ready for the Highlands and what ever challenges are thrown at us. Bring it on!
We’re told that unfortunately, the weather prediction is for wild weather and choppy seas and our scheduled boat trip to the island of Staffa has been cancelled. We’ll miss seeing the Puffins, those curiously cartoon – like birds, that live on the island of Staffa. Not a problem- it’s all about safety. But Nick tells us that as we’re on the Isle of Skye, we have to see the magnificent Black Cuillin Mountains and have a bit of a walk. A boat will take us there, we’ll have 3 hours to explore the lochs and mountains, do a bit of walking, take photos, have the lunch we bought with us and then the boat will pick us up, at 3pm, after a healthy day in the beautiful Scottish Highlands. (My brain does not generate the question..why is it safe to go on a boat to the Black Cuillin’s and yet its not safe for a boat to go to Staffa?)
Lesley has on her shiny, black gumboots that she bought in Australia. I tease her about he ” magic boots.” Her raincoat and multiple layers of jumper and thermals keep her warm. I wear my leather boots which match my puffer coat… more city slicker than well- equipped hiker… did I learn nothing walking the lake in Ballarat?
We arrive at the boat ramp where a caravan serves coffee and sells lobster rolls. as well as oat cakes and other treats. I shove a few snacks into my handbag. The boat arrives and I look at the wooden, slightly battered, ex fishing boat with some concern. The sea is grumpy and the rain has been gently falling all morning. The skies are moody and dark, The seats on the boat are wooden planks and I listen closely to the safety drill but the Scottish captain’s voice gets lost in the wind. Nick is jolly and I anticipate a gentle walk on a well- defined “granny path,” with many beautiful photo ops and perhaps even a little pub serving whisky by the open fire where we can shelter from the rain and look at the mountains. Nice.
We climb on board the slippery deck and I slide, with the grace of an orangutan into a vacant part of the bench seat. carefully estimating where I have the highest chance of survival when the boat overturns. As we round the cliffs the wind picks up, and the captain tells jolly tales to distract us from the waves that are lashing over the side of the boat. Lesley laughs and chats to the others making jokes. Facing impending death, I shout to Nick ” Did I ever tell you I don’t go on boats smaller than the Britannia?!” The wind catches my words and throws them overboard. As we bounce over the thrashing waves I only have one thought…..don’t vomit.. remember this is supposed to be fun.!
The boat spun around and surged forward to take in a seal colony having a morning get together, with an occasional yoga stretch for the pesky tourists. Photos taken, the boat surged forward again and we settle into a rhythmic movement of rising with the waves and lurching back as they crash. My face feels wind-burn but mostly an icy- cold numbness. The scenery is staggeringly beautiful as the theatre of rain, wind and the ballet of clouds plays out before us. The captain announces we are nearly there and I look around for a pier or port to disembark. Nope No pier and certainly no port, just wilderness and ferocious highland weather. The wind is howling and the rain has shifted gear into torrential, as we are helped from the boat on to a ladder clinging to the cliff with ropes as the balustrading. I hang on to the ropes and step gingerly from one rung to the next. I’m shaking. Don’t look down just ahead. My puffer coat seems to have inflated in the wind and I am certain I will be airborn at any moment. The Canadians in our group are seasoned hikers and I hear the wind carry laughter from their midst. I think only of whether I made my will.
As we scramble up the ridge of the mountain- well it was probably a hill…. the wind and rain are unrelenting. It’s every man for himself here. Nick is bringing up the rear as this bunch of people with neuroses and knee replacements scramble to reach the summit. There’s no granny path.. no path at all but shiny, slippery jagged rocks interlaced with boggy, slippery grass that you soon find is actually peat bog. My leather boots sink into the icy wet, boggy ground and dank slime seeps into my socks. I cling to rocks to secure my balance as the wind pushes at my back. There’s a cry ahead of me as one of our party loses her balance and falls. I am frightened but also angry…this was not what I signed up for! I’d reached my risk in nature threshold. I saw Mary stumble and fall. I said to Nick..OK I’m staying right here. This is silly and too dangerous. If I break an ankle there’ll be real problems and Mary has already fallen over … she’s Ok but shaken..”
Three others decide they too have exhausted their adventurous spirit and we perch on a rock in the wind and try to keep warm. Then I look around.. Where’s Lesley? What a woman! Magic boots has joined the Canadians and they are continuing the hike further along the ridge. Nick has joined them. So the group becomes 2 tribes.. the intrepid adventurers who incidentally, found more shelter further around the ridge and the group who sat, huddled together surrounded by the Black Cuillin Mountains, the wind and the unrelenting rain. We had 3 hours until the boat returned to pick us up. There was of course no pub and no whisky. That would come later that night. The group of 4 sat is quiet contemplation trying to keep warm. After an hour or so the wind died down and the rain eased a little. We were safe, if wet and weather beaten. We talked quietly, unsure how to make sense of our experience that day. We started to clamber slowly back down to where the boat would meet us, sliding over rocks but with less wind it felt safer. We took photos but the mood was subdued. The other tribe joined us and they were chatting happily.
As the boat came into sight we scrambled down the rope gang-plank ladder without a second thought. The crew gave us hot tea and biscuits and we made our way home….with feathers flying and looking like hell! Much whisky was drunk that night in the warmth of a cosy Scottish pub.
And a post-script………
While the day ‘s experience made for a great story I have learned in future to closely check the plans for each day of touring. This was not advertised as an adventure or hiking holiday….. I’m sure the tour company’s insurance would have tripled if this was the case! A young, passionate Scottish adventurer tour guide took a group of people in their 60’s and 70’s in wild weather, for a hike in the Scottish Highlands. There was no plan B or alternatives available. There was no mobile phone reception or Sat phone, no first aid kit, no houses and no way of getting help if someone had been seriously hurt in the 3 hours we were marooned in the mountains on that part of Skye. We were dressed for a day of touring and ill equipped to deal with wet, wild Scottish weather on a mountainside. So my friend ask questions and look for tour plans with options catering for all fitness and anxiety levels!
WORDS AND IMAGES BY NORA VITINS