When I made my journey on foot in 2013, I was astounded, though not surprised, by the number of connections there were on my journey – people whose names came up again and again, chance encounters with people I had known and never met, serendipitous events helping me on my way. At walking pace, the whole of you can inhabit a patch as you travel through it: your stories, your intent. You leave threads of both clinging to the places you pass, like fibres of a sheep’s fleece as it brushes past the heather. Down the road as you walk into your intentions, another passer by, it seems, has gathered those threads, and woven them into a new story even better than you could have dreamed, cloaking you in all its pattern and colour.
I expected this journey to be a more isolated one, with less time for such weaving to occur, as much of my time is being spent moving at speed in a metal box called a car. But it is not to be.
On my first morning, waking up at Glencoe Youth Hostel, I waited for the ‘Munroe baggers’ to leave before going to the kitchen (I tire quickly of their competitive chatter). There, sat quietly and alone was a man who was intriguing and somehow familiar. I could not figure out why he was familiar without staring at him more often than was acceptable so I gave up. When his height was next to me at the hob I looked across and suddenly out of my mouth fell the words, “Are you Tall Andy?”. And he was. We were at university together twelve years ago and have not crossed paths since. A five minute summary of the intervening years did not seem enough so I joined him and his friend on the first part of their hike. A gift of a first morning.
Now, at the end of what felt to me like an epic few days of driving (though some would do the distance in a day), I have arrived in the Assynt, in the county of Sutherland – the Vikings’ ‘Suðurland’ (‘South Country’). I am in a tiny crofters’ village on the coast. There is a white sand beach and turquoise water when the sun is shining. The landscape is both wild and intimate, and deer and seals have become commonplace. I was told about this place by some Basque exchange students at the University of Edinburgh, while travelling in Morocco last Christmas. In the irrational way that I choose my destinations, this village became a kind of ‘Shangri-La': A place where I could spend a while, walking and writing, and letting the threads of my intent to reach the Faroes, then Iceland, catch on the heather.
Separately, my housemates from Cumbria have recently completed a cycling trip through Scotland. One of their final destinations was to volunteer on a croft, in the same region as my intended ‘destination’. That much we all knew. Yesterday I found out that that croft is the neighbouring one to where I am. Three people from the same household, three weeks apart, end up within metres of each other with completely different inspirations and intent. Their story threads are still on the heather: I met someone yesterday who had spoken with them regularly and knew where they had gone next. There is no internet here, but word of mouth is loud and clear. Yesterday I walked past the croft where they had been without realising it, and was impressed by the strength and beauty of the horses I saw grazing. I have learned since that they are Icelandic, and that in this village the crofters own a mixture of Icelandic horses and Fell ponies (from Cumbria).
I have been walking not high or far, but exploring the Close-to-Here while the weather is changeable. It seems right to get to know your neighbours first – people, plants, creatures. The perfume of birch is in the air, and here crowberry ling has crept into the carpet, two of my Icelandic familiars. In the shelter of the forest there is the delicateness of primroses and bluebells aplenty, and out in the open the heather stems glisten a translucent red in the wet, the colour of straw dipped in drying blood. They do not live across the sea.
And so it is that that the two places, the two parts of me I which to join up, are pooling into one another like the salty sea into the nearby loch, creating a mix of different strengths around wherever I place my feet.