Two seasons past I found myself driving north. It was late August, the tail end of the fishing year, and with each hour the sun traced a lower path in the southwestern sky. Passing through Fife, then Perthshire, Highland and beyond, the fields were studded with farmer’s bales, each casting a long shadow over the stubs of harvested wheat. This east road gathers light from the across the width of Scotland, before it pours out over the North Sea. The sea air seems to give it an electric quality in late summer and early autumn, which far exceeds any chemical stimulant in exciting the traveling fisherman as he drives north.
The road traces along the western edge of the Cairngorm mountains. Dropping down into Aviemore, they rear up behind the town in Tolklein glory, frequently bathed in swirling cloud that rolls blue and grey in the afternoon light. Their remarkable character is tempting to the hillwalker inside, but today is not for the hills. It’s for the north, for the big sky and for the lochs.
The road meanders west then northeast before a long descent into Inverness. Even here, we’re not in the north. Not the real north. Pushing the throttle to the floor, the Moray Firth becomes a shrinking silver sliver in the rear view mirror. From here the road opens up into one of the most wonderful drives in eastern Scotland. It pushes east, then north along the sea’s edge. Up and down it meanders, each new crest revealing the wall of coast stretching away into the distance.
What I remember most was the light. By the time I reached this final northern corner of Britain it was streaming across the green rolling fields on my left, and warming my cheek. Good light makes any day interesting. When you’re driving north to go fishing, fishing for a week, fishing to live and living to fish, it lifts one’s spirit to a rare new height, one I never even glimpse down in the city. A completely open road, a completely open window, the sea on my right and warm golden light on my left. In my car, music. The Blue Nile, perhaps the greatest ever Scottish band. Every time I put on one of their CD’s, I’m instantly back on that northern road, and the magic light is back on my face.
The fishing towns of Brora and Helmsdale lie far to the north of Edinburgh, but still they’re south of my destination. There are some famous salmon rivers up here, the Helmsdale is certainly one of them, and I stopped several times to gaze down into their peaty waters. Helmsdale is a lovely wee place, particularly when the sun streams across the bridge as you drive over. Thank the Lord for no parking meters up here, no checking over my back for the yellow-clad gentleman looking to catch me out. I’m sure the parking police have an important job to do in the city, but it doesn’t stop me being delighted at my new-found northern freedom.
It was warm, I wore a T-shirt and my official fishing trousers. It may make me simple, but I love to have specific clothes for fishing and walking. When I pull on my crappy old army combat trousers, bought for a tenner down on Leith Walk, I undergo an instant mental transformation into fishing mode. Suddenly I can smell the air more subtly, see deeper into water, feel every contour of the earth under my feet. City-boy-goes-outdoors romanticism I’ll readily grant, but let me have my moment.
The hour was pushing eight-o-clock and there were still fifty miles to go. The light began to redden, and the chill of the wind through my open window began to question the manliness of the silly city-boy. I put on the next album in line, and smiled a big happy smile at its glorious atmosphere of beautiful vocals, wash-walls of synths and admittedly cheesy 80’s drum beats.
By this time memories of the previous year’s glory were flooding back. My pulse was thudding in my neck, my hands tapping on the wheel and inside I was gigglingly excited. It was a wise human who once commented on the superiority of traveling with hope than actually arriving.
Eventually I turned the car left off the main road, and struck out through the heathered moorland. Within five minutes the visibility was 150 feet. Thick evening fog was pouring from west to east across the open hill land, totally enveloping my road and vision, and instantly putting an end to the magic-light induced euphoria of the past few hours.
I passed dozens of deserted old farmhouses, each sitting quietly in the thickening gloom, and each a monument to a time past before I was born. I find their desolation to be oddly warming, almost enticing. Perhaps it’s my imagination at work, running away with the stories I imagine they might have to tell. The way they all sit there, staring blankly at each other and at the hills. It’s like someone slapped them on the face and they’re still sitting up in shock.
I was now close to what would be home for the week. I drove up over one of the last long climbs, and pulled the car over for a toilet stop. Through the gathering gloaming, dozens of giant wind turbines throbbed. In the dense fog it was a surreal experience. Each turbine made a slight swishing sound as the rotor blades sliced through the air. The heavy atmosphere damped the sound a little, leaving the most bizzare effect, a sound not far from a chorus of far-off human groans. Stopped there, I knew I was close to a wonderful trout loch. I imagined being stuck out on a boat in the middle of the loch, a couple of dry flies on my leader, surrounded by deathly groaning from the turbines beyond the fringing forest.
Ten minutes later and I was sipping a cup of streaming, milky tea. An electric fire burned orange in the corner of the static caravan, and my sleeping bag lay sprawled out on the floor. Tomorrow would be for fishing.