A postcard from… Lochaber, and some thoughts on slow travel

The first few days it rained almost solidly. Between cups of tea and chocolate-sunk biscuits, we turned pages of books as the raindrops tapped the caravan windows. Reading Kathleen Jamie’s Findings, I imagined myself in an alternative weather reality hoping that, in a few days, I’d be able to get outside and note all the intricacies of the summer season like she had in her novel.

This part of Scotland is known for being wonderfully wild.

On the third day, the cloud broke. Between then and when we left, we saw Scotland wearing its summer best — albeit under an lengthy blanket of heat. Yet, despite the climate change question causing its familiar twist in my stomach, we embraced the decelerated pace that fairer weather brings to a break in rural Scotland. Sofas were swapped for barnacled rocks; showers became wild swims in deep lochs; and hot beverages evaporated into cool beers on the picnic bench.

This part of Scotland is known for being wonderfully wild and, rightly so, is a favourite haunt of those wishing to forget their weekday routines. There is but one place where we remember our pervasive digital lives and that’s Glenfinnan — but if you focus on the landscapes, the changing clouds, the moment, and not on capturing content for social media, the viaduct simply curves by in a blur of waterproofed tourists and a bulging car park. Never, in all my years holidaying in Lochaber, have we ever stopped for photos.

Here we’re in search of silence, not selfies.

Part of this district is called the Rough Bounds, a term I was introduced to earlier this year in another book I got from the local library. Neil Ansell’s Last Wilderness is explored slowly, repeatedly and lovingly by its author, and that’s exactly how we explore this place too. My family and I have spent weeks here each summer since I was a baby — so, over a quarter of a century.

Although the terminus of the ‘Harry Potter train’ line is undoubtedly busier than it was years ago, as are the accessible beaches along this coast — in 2019 the tourists’ rise reportedly linked to the fall in the pound — they still call this the Rough Bounds for a reason. Out here you can stumble upon bays unspoilt by footsteps; the oil-black scalps of seals coming curiously close to our lonely dinghy; and seas clear enough to wash away all thought of headlines.

Each time I return here I remember the sweetness of travelling slowly.

Year upon year of wandering without aim, noting the landscape, the tides, really getting to know a place… That’s Lochaber to me. I could draw you a map of the nearest beach’s rock-pooled architecture; tell you exactly which shops have opened and closed in the village since last year; I could recount to your surprised face all the names of the shells, tiny fish and crustaceans below the strand line.

Being in one spot for an extended period, breathing it all in, getting to know a place like a new friend (or old, in this case) is surely the essence of what it means to travel at the deepest level. If only more of us were encouraged to seek this out on our doorsteps rather than globetrot, ticking off an interminable, edited list of ‘best places’, then we might be some way to reversing the tide that’s swamping the environment, our photogenic cities, our lives with this race to travel which we mirror through our online behaviour.

Get to know your favourite place like a best friend.

This is a simple suggestion, one which I scribbled into a small notebook as my commuter train crossed the Forth Bridge back to Fife, returning me to my weekday routine. A world away from letting my days be ruled by the weather, the passing rain showers — a world away from the unfiltered wilderness which calls me back each year, without fail.

Where in the world is your Lochaber?

Note: As I’m trying to be more thoughtful with where I’m ‘promoting’ and geotagging, I refer to the wider district we stayed in, rather than calling out specific locations.

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