A Very Long Way North

I’m on my way to the Western Isles, sharing a car with two fellow conchologists.  It is the annual field meeting and I am returning to an island I have visited seldom.  Nick and I first went to Skye in 1982 shortly after I became a member of the Conchological Society.  It was a wonderful trip in many ways, my first experience of serious, enlightened, engaging Conchology.

We are faced with a 12-hour drive allowing for two very short stops.  Sharing the driving with Peter and Steve means that the journey is a very pleasant experience.  It is a chance to put our worlds to rights and catch up on Society business in an amenable forum and we can just enjoy the transformation which happens to the landscape as we travel ever northwards.

From the A1 we shift to the A66 and cross England from east to west.  Then we are in the Lake District with the sun on its gently rolling hills and mountains, cosying up to each other and where they meet and fold into valleys they remind me of great sleeping Labrador puppies.  The geology of the Lake District is a story of colliding continents, an event which melded two very different terrains.  The ancient rocks of the north are bound to the younger lithologies of the south: the geology of the British Isles spans an unimaginable length of deep time.

Once through Glasgow and over the Erskine Bridge the drive along the west bank of Loch Lomond is a joy.  The day is very fine: sunny, warm, still.  The surface of the loch is glinting and almost without movement and we are lucky to find the small ‘Bonnie Braes’ café where we can sit on a wooden bank and enjoy a bowl of a truly homemade soup and half a sandwich for a fiver and gaze across at the solitary dwelling very close to the water on the east side.  Who lives there?  I think it might suit a writer.

Once you leave Loch Lomond the route takes you through Crianlarich, Tyndrum and across Rannoch Moor, over the Bridge of Orchy and all around the height and cragginess of the Highlands, so different from the sleepy mounts of the Lakes.  I have dozed on and off and when I next wake we are in the relative metropolis which is Fort William.

Thereafter we are driving through such wilderness as the British Isles have to offer.  High hills and mountains and lower slopes golden with grasses and sedges on the turn and hazily purple with the heathers.  There are familiar signposts along the way, Onich, Invergarry and on the very final stretch we come to Dornie with its famous castle. With the sun moving to the west the light casts our aspect of the castle into shade, its brooding presence tricky to photograph.

When we arrive at the house we are to share with four others, they are out walking but return soon after we pull up the drive.  The house we are going to live in for the next few days is grand.  It sits in an estate of acres which is largely woodland and has been loaned to us because one of our number is related to the owner by marriage.

There is a lovely drawing room, a library, a smaller sitting room too.  A dining room with a very large table around which we will seat 17 one evening.  I lament the fact that we will be so taken up with our purpose that I will never get a chance to relax in any of these rooms.  My time will be spent gassing around the long kitchen table “around which everything happens” says Rosemary, and I will have a slot which will be my workbench around the ping pong table in the conservatory.

But I get to choose from an array of bedrooms.  Bas, Rosemary, Terry and Sonia have chosen their ‘suites’ and the master bedroom with its four-poster and a view of distant hills is available.  No more!

There is a lamb stew on the stove and when we sit down for supper the seven of us get to know each other, there’s lots of banter and we sort out housekeeping arrangements.  We learn that Mrs MacDonald will come in for a couple of hours every day to clear up after us.  Before supper Bas, Terry and I have already made a quick foray to suss out a possible shore for the next day.  The field meeting proper does not start until Friday.

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