On the Road
On the Road

With an old bike ...
... by Bill McLaughlin.

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Loch Maree
Maid of Norway


The hostel looked strange at first, kind of 'out of place'. I'd seen it something like it before, but not here, not in this wilderness, not sitting at the foot of the granite giants.
Then it struck me! This house should have been in Glasgow - the posh bit. It looked like a smaller version of one of the mansions in Glasgow's Southside. It was definitely a Victorian villa. In an early school term, I had done a project on old Glasgow, and had came across a lot of this kind of building I just didn't expect to see one here!
The building nestled into the hillside and looked overpowered by the hill at the back.

I went through the front door and looked for the warden. Nobody. Nothing. Silence!
I looked in the front rooms, one either side of the main hall, expecting some kind of sitting room or common area - but no! There were five beds in each, obviously dormitories. I was glad to have worked that one out. Through to the back, and another dormitory, and an empty room. No Kitchen, no stoves, nowhere to heat up my 'scabbie dug'!
I walked back outside, and ran into a guy who yelled "Hello!", as if I was deaf. He was probably about 23-24, had a black bushy beard, and looked as if he was dressed for fishing - from a whaleboat!

"Aye!" he shouted, and I wondered if perhaps it was so quiet here that he had forgotten how to talk normally.
"I'm the warden. I'm here for the summer, and everybody makes the same mistake - coming in here instead of up to the office, up the hill."
He thundered on not, stopping for breath, or pausing.
"This is the men's dorm, you see. Look out the window, up that track about half a mile, you'll see the little white house that's the ladies dorm, and the office, and the kitchen. Leave your bike here, and I'll book you in later. Before you do, pick any bed - we're quiet just now, any bed's ok. Leave your bike here, and just walk up."
Then he was gone.

I picked a bed in the front, next to the window, with a great view right up the loch. Then I took my saddlebag, and trudged up the hill.
There were four men and three women, climbers by the look of them. The stove was on, and I was immediately offered a cup of tea.
"We were about to eat." said one of the women. "Join us. There's plenty grub."
"No, thanks." I said. I had some food in my bag.
"Well, keep it for another time." she said, laying a plate of stew in front of me!

After dinner, we all sat around talking and a singsong developed. I joined in where I could, but eventually just listened. This crowd were so used to each others company, that one song followed another. Mostly quiet songs, with one of them singing a verse and the rest joining in.
I was getting hooked, and thoroughly enjoying the camaraderie, when the door blew open! It was the young warden. "Good evening!" he bawled. Atmosphere gone!
He had been fishing and wanted to share his catch. He produced the biggest fish that I had seen, outside of a fish and chip shop! It was duly gutted and cleaned, filleted expertly by him. He cooked it on the stove, and shared it around. I have never tasted fish like that again, more's the pity.

Pretty soon after, we all decided it was time to turn in. I had forgotten that the men's dorm was back down the hill, in the village.
We all said goodnight to the women, and went outside. It was 'as black as the Earl of Hell's waistcoat!' A Highland night, where the cloud cover comes out and blots out the stars. No lights anywhere, except the one from the comfortable kitchen we had just left.
"Not a problem!" yells our warden. "I know the track like the back of my hand. I'll get in front, we go down in single file so put your hand on my shoulder."
He reached out and grabbed my hand.
"There! Can you find young Billy here?"
I felt a hand on my shoulder, and we set off, laughing and giggling like schoolboys. Here I was, second in line, a file of six guys tramping down a hill in the pitch-black night. It was like something from the Marx brothers.
"Right!" the voice in front of me shouted. "Stop! Stop! There's a slight drop. Go careful ,put your foot out slow and you'll feel it."
We negotiated the drop, and, as the hill started to level out, we began to walk faster. There was a little two-plank bridge, across a burn, that cut the path in two. The shoulder in front of me disappeared, the ground swallowed me, and I yelled as loudly as the warden, when four others followed suit, landing on top of us.
We, or rather the warden, had missed the bridge, and walked right off the edge of a five foot drop! Like dominoes we had followed - screaming and laughing, as we landed in the burn
"Bloody hell!" he shouted. "I do that every time!"
' My sides were sore, my knees were skinned, and I was laughing fit to burst. I was soaked to the skin, but I had never felt so happy!

Loch Maree

Next morning I carried out my chore - collecting some wood for the stove up the hill.
I hung about for a while, taking in the scenery. My new mountain-climbing friends took off early, to the hills. The warden stamped 'Torridon' on my membership accommodation card, with a flourish, then took off toward the jetty.

It was a bright morning; the clouds that caused the havoc the previous night, having done their damage, moved on.
I sat on the shore for a while. The water was flat calm; not a soul about. I saw something move in about twenty yards offshore, then come towards me. I couldn't believe my eyes when I realised it was an otter!
I sat perfectly still, ase I imagined the descriptions in some of the books I had read, would have told me. The otter came nearer and nearer, then rolled over; firstly floating on its back, then twisting under the water. I was spellbound.
I waited for a while, but it didn't reappear. Eventually I decided that I had to move on to my next destination.

Gairloch beckoned. I jumped on the bike and left Inveralligan hostel behind. I had mistakenly thought that was the name of the house - it turns out that it was the name of the village as well as the house. Torridon, the village proper, lay about 3 miles along the single track road!
So much for research! Ah well, it was only a Highland mile anyway.

The upper loch came to an end, on a seaweed strewn, shingle beach. It seemed a shame, that such a magnificent loch should stop like this.
I passed through what had been my original target in seconds, whizzing past the crofts like a man demented, and on into the little road with signs marked 'passing places'.
The road through Glen Torridon was wild, with sudden changes of direction, steep climbs and even steeper descents. The builders must have decided to simply follow the contours of the land, lay a strip of tarmac, and call it a road. It made for fun cycling, since there was no traffic, except sheep. I could veer all over the place and behave like a madman.
Perhaps I was a madman. I was around 200 miles, by road, from home. As far as the eye could see, there were no people in front of me, and precious few behind. I was on a bike that probably shouldn't have been used on a simple daytrip, and I was running out of money!
I started to frighten myself, and stopped the bike. Silence!
The shriek of a buzzard broke the quietness, and I laughed, and shouted some obscenity at it.
Perhaps this was why the last warden shouted all the time?
Shout, and you hear your echo. You're not alone!

I moved on, and came within sight of Beinn Eighe - a big, bald, white mountain. I had been told that if I wanted to see eagles, this was the place. Sure enough, as I got nearer, I spotted what could only be an eagle, lazily circling high above.
My day was made. If this was madness, I wanted to keep it!

The road took me by Kinlochewe, and northwest to pass by Loch Maree with its little islands. It was breathtaking. Each bend showing more beautiful views than the last.
Today was to be an easy day; I had only planned about 35miles to Gairloch, so lots of time.
I stopped and hauled out the faithful Primus, intending to make some tea by the lochside. Before that operation, I took my bag and walked up the hill, a little way, to get a better view. At the top of the ridge, I looked to the other side and spied a terrific waterfall. Turned out that Queen Victoria had beat me to this place, as the falls were named after her!
It was a great place to drum up. I still had some cheese sandwiches, since people that I met, had been refusing to let me eat my own food. I found a place by the river, made tea, ate sandwiches and thought I was in heaven. A mad heaven, but a heaven for sure.

Maid of Norway

Back on the road, I made my way to Gairloch. At first sight, it seemed obvious that the old Queen had visited this area. She had left a lot of old Victorian building behind!
The village stood near the end of an inlet, which was about a mile wide and a couple of miles to the mouth. The hostel sat on a little hill facing out to sea; originally a holiday home for some toff from London? It had the usual provisions shop, office, and separate dorms. In keeping with the rules for Youth Hostels, it was closed.
'Closed from 9 am until 4 pm.'

With a couple of hours to kill, I walked the bike around the back, looking to find somewhere to leave it. I almost tripped in surprise!
Three of the most beautiful blonde girls, were sitting on the back wall, bronzed skin and hair bleached by the sun' I had just had my first encounter with 'Scandinavians'; Norwegians! I was corrected later.
My first words weren't exactly inspired ...
"Is it awright, if a park ma bike here?"
They all laughed: probably at this strange accent, maybe at the question, maybe at me?
Three sets of gleaming white teeth nearly blinded me, and I stumbled to make proper conversation.
"You steyin here the night?" Stupid!
"Ah've just arrived." More stupid.
They just laughed.
"You are correct!" said the smallest one.
By this time, they had jumped from the wall and joined me at the back gate. All three were taller than me, which wasn't too hard. The phrase 'towering came to mind. And that was Margarethe - the smallest one!

I established that they were not sisters, as had been my first impression, but classmates who had finished the Norwegian version of our secondary-school, and were taking a year off to travel. I was impressed.

The hostel opened up at the usual time, and the warden reminded me of My Auntie Isa - a big-bosomed woman, with long 40s-style hair. I offered to do a couple of chores in advance of the next morning, hoping she would give me a few things to do, then reward me with a free night board.
Not only did I get the nights lodging, but she had some tins of soup she couldn't sell, and said I might as well have them.

That night, we all sat around the kitchen area. A couple of guys had arrived from Ullapool, where I was headed in a couple of days. We had come from all points of the compass it seemed.
The Warden called us.
"Look outside!" she said.
There was not a cloud in the sky. It was one of those long, long Highland days, when the sun doesn't set till very late, and even then, you can see echoes it all through the night. The sky was pale blue, verging on mauve, with a great pink tinge at the edges as the sun was dipping.
Margarethe and her pals had been the subject of some heavy chatting up by the other guys who had arrived, and all had decided to go down to the beach and watch the stars.
I had been kind of quiet; checking out Margarethe, and wondering ...

She smiled. Disappeared upstairs, then reappeared with a couple of the Hostel blankets.
"For you, for me, we sit under the stars, yes?"

The next day, we parted reluctantly, exchanged addresses, promised to keep in touch - but never did.
I never met her again.

   Go to Chapters ...
Loch Maree
Maid of Norway

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Original story and material © 2005 Bill McLaughlin
Layout, editing and additional material © Dave Sloan 2005, 2016
'tachras' and 'Winding Yarn' © Dave Sloan 2005, 2016

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