Setting off from the north-eastern outpost of John O’ Groats recently I had a bold new strategy which was essentially not to have one at all. Just walk joyfully and mindfully and try not to be goal-driven, which for me is harder than it should be.
I didn’t even check mileages before setting off, which must be a first. And I tried not to curse the fact that I was often unsure of the best way to go, having minimised my research and deliberately left some maps behind.
Mostly the strategy worked. The walking weaved its usual magic and each new day was especially exciting. I love being out in Nature in the early morning and first light is invariably the most tender and loving caress of the day. It’s also normally car-free.
Despite a route mostly comprising roads, including the busy A9, I was in a wonderful headspace, although some pain in my feet persisted. Sadly paths have been a rarity on this part of the walk although a pilgrim accepts what is without judgement. It just is. Where possible I followed minor country roads, feeling increasingly at peace.
When I reached the historic Grey Cairns of Camster around 7pm on a cold, blustery evening, I knew I’d found a perfect home for the night. This had been a sacred site for 5,000 years, the ancestors creating giant cairns of rocks which housed chambers big enough to accommodate pilgrims or bodies (I’m not sure which). Today these rank among the best-preserved cairns of their kind in the British Isles.
I sheltered from the wind alongside the biggest cairn and slept peacefully, setting off cheerfully at dawn, despite a bitter cold wind. My gloved hands were so cold they hurt and I had to remind myself this was technically still summer in Scotland. (Note to self: Find better gloves before winter!)
Joining the A99 and A9 I began dodging more and more cars, periodically escaping into little villages like Dunbeath, where I met such charming locals. An elderly dear with a dustpan and brush was sweeping a public space and invited me to sit on the bench and take in the view. I did gratefully while happily licking on an ice-cream. It felt like a holiday!
I loved the sentiment on a nearby gravestone – our loved ones are never more than a thought away.
At the hamlet of Berriedale I was drawn to the peace of the cemetery and adjoining church, enjoying a leisurely snack of fruit and nuts while resting my feet. Hey, I like this place, I thought, and wondered if the kindly reverend suspected my intentions when he asked me to close the gate when I left.
I said a prayer for those still mourning the passing of loved ones and found a quiet, windless corner that trapped the last rays of the setting sun. What followed was the comfiest night of camping yet and I loved the sentiment on a nearby gravestone – our loved ones are never more than a thought away. I thought fondly of mine, living and deceased.
Using run-off rainwater captured in a barrel beneath the church eaves I washed in the morning and was off very early, feeling fabulously refreshed, apart from those still tender feet. Mercifully, strategically placed plasters were helping and there were no new blisters. It turned out to be one of my most satisfying pilgrim days yet.
After Helmsdale I alternated between walking the railway tracks and barefooting it down the beach; taking a dip in a clear stream and laying in the sun in a remote and secluded little bay. I hope the spectacle of a naked wrinklie sunning himself wasn’t too much for the passengers on a train that suddenly clickety-clacked onto the scene, waking me from my midday slumbers.
I notched up 47km (29 miles) without really trying after more than 14 hours on the move, equalling my previous biggest mileage in a day.
Back on the A9 the next morning I confronted hectic weekend traffic and eventually felt physically and emotionally battered after stepping out of the road for the thousandth time. Was my lifelong love affair with cars fading?
Leaving the picturesque town of Tain, where I enjoyed the delightful hospitality of the McLeans at their cosy Northfield B&B, I braved driving rain and high winds, choosing quiet backroads to the Nigg Ferry crossing. I felt good and wasn’t fussed by the deteriorating weather and storm warnings.
Funnily enough I enjoyed pondering the ravaged landscape. As someone who’d had a lifelong passion for fast cars and jet-set travel I figured I had qualified as a major oil consumer and had played a part in transforming a once pristine coastline into an eyesore like this one.
I tried to visualise the scenario when the oil eventually runs out and found it strangely comforting, remembering what had happened to Cuba when its Soviet oil supplies dried up with the collapse of Communism. Of necessity, people turned to healthy organic farming (there were no more chemical fertilisers) and a wonderful sense of community was created. What looked like a disaster actually showed a positive way forward for all of humanity.
The charming English couple offered me a lift back to the A9 I’d just walked from, and then insisted they take me to Inverness, finally volunteering to drive more than an hour to Findhorn to see the place I was so enthusiastic about.
Communities like the Findhorn Foundation demonstrate another way of living that is joyful and sustainable, and Jacqui and Andy seemed delighted by what they encountered, snapping photographs and thanking me for an unexpected adventure. I felt richer for meeting them and proud to be part of this inspiring community.
After taking a day out to catch up on writing and emails I was back at the ferry crossing, notching up my millionth footstep since starting from Iona on July 7. The latest tally is 903.3km (561.4 miles) of walking, 1,157,650 steps and thousands of words written and spoken. Hey, but who’s counting… I’m not supposed to be goal-driven any more!