For the second day of my holiday last Autumn, I got up – again! – at a ludicrously early hour and drove from Tongue round to the Assynt peninsula, to my favourite viewpoint for sunrise.
It was some drive.
All the way from Tongue to Loch Assynt without seeing another car. Bliss.
Take the A838 road (abused as part of the ghastly NC500 coastal route) via Durness at 5am in the pitch black, the wind blowing a gale, rain + windscreen wipers on full speed.
Picture avoiding a herd cows intruding across the road. Avoiding more than 10 deer.
At that surreal pre-caffeinated hour of the morning, seeing a signpost advertising “serving local seafood” makes me picture a restaurant waiter taking a scallop’s order at table. The music of choice was Arcade Fire Mountains beyond Mountains – a song bemoaning city life with its world so small – a mental image contrasting with my surroundings, passing rural Scourie, pop 132 – the sort of place that takes longer to say the name than drive through.
And so I arrived at Rhicarn – the landscape black, clouds a grey plasma, just a little bit windy…
And the sun rose. Quite spectacularly, casting brilliant crepuscular rays from the horizon and underside edges of clouds.
Throughout the sunrise, the light was spectacular – brightly illuminating colourful clouds.
…and casting a subtle hazy glow over the morning fog across Little Assynt, outlines of hills receding into the mist
Perhaps my favourite image from the morning has to be Suilven, the unmistakable mountain on the horizon, catching a subtle patch of oblique sunlight on a flank.
Once the sun rose, I explored the Falls of Kirkaig outside Inverkirkaig. A nice long walk through lumpy landscape, to a large thundering waterfall.
Returning to above Rhicarn, clouds had flowed in obscuring the mountains on the horizon, so I experimented flying the drone to admire the surrounding landscape.
There’s something about finding a thin strip of old tarmac that obviously used to be a road – it makes a connection with the story and heritage of a location. From researching on Pastmap, it appears there was not much road here at all throughout the 19th century – presumably a cattle drovers’ track or similar. Then the old tarmac was laid, following a circuitous path around the gneiss rock hills. Finally, some time after the 1960s, a new road, now the B869, was laid through it in a boring straight line, the old route relegated to a carpark yet visible and walkable either side of the road.
Behind this scene, on the way to Clachtoll, lies some beautiful Karst landscape (cnoc’n’lochan or knock-and-lochan), formed by underground erosion of softer rock, leading to a classic pattern of rocky knolls interspersed (almost 50-50 by area) with lochs.
Further along the road lies the Maiden Loch, of which I’ve been very fond since first catching sight of it years ago. That first view was on a sunny afternoon, the sky blue reflecting in the water. I flew the drone over it, to admire the gneiss landscape all the more…
On a recent excursion elsewhere, a friend tipped me off to the existence of the gorge at Craighall, through which runs the remains of the abandoned A93 road from Blairgowrie to Glenshee.
It’s funny to think that the bridge was constructed in 1994 and the road decommissioned in 2008, both of which are well within my lifetime – and given how I visited Glenshee several times in my early years having just moved up to Perth in 2004/5, it’s entirely possible I might have used the old road unawares.
These days it’s little more than a 40-minute saunter for dog walkers – almost like wandering through a woodland but with crash-barriers beside and the occasional painted stripe of a white line former road marking peeking through the inch-deep mud and moss.
With the leaves turning gold in autumn, it’s a post-urban delight in its own way.
A classic location for long-exposure night-time photography: standing on the bridge over the M90 at Rhynd, with the road snaking away into the distance… and a clear display of noctilucent clouds above Kinnoull Hill.
Night clouds or noctilucent clouds are tenuous cloud-like phenomena that are the “ragged edge” of a much brighter and pervasive polar cloud layer called polar mesospheric clouds in the upper atmosphere, visible in a deep twilight. They are made of crystals of water ice. Noctilucent roughly means night shining in Latin. They are most commonly observed in the summer months at latitudes between 50° and 70° north and south of the equator. They can be observed only when the Sun is below the horizon.
They are the highest clouds in Earth’s atmosphere, located in the mesosphere at altitudes of around 76 to 85 kilometres (47 to 53 mi). They are normally too faint to be seen, and are visible only when illuminated by sunlight from below the horizon while the lower layers of the atmosphere are in the Earth’s shadow. Noctilucent clouds are not fully understood and are a recently discovered meteorological phenomenon; there is no record of their observation before 1885.
It was disconcerting to hear the noise of plastic clattering on tarmac and look around to see this mains timer switch bouncing along the road. Fortunately it didn’t get far. Glad it didn’t hurt anybody – it could have made quite a dent in a tyre.
In the course of this morning’s walkies, Dog & I passed a police van with blue lights flashing, finishing-up at a small scene of wayside destruction.
I’ve been mulling over the nature of interactions with road users for a few months. Every day, we walk along roads (single-lane A- trunk and B- country, such as this), all national speed limit (max 60mph for cars). Being dutiful citizens, we tend to follow the Highway Code and stroll along the right of the road facing into oncoming traffic, as one might expect.
Being logical, I like to think in terms of a table of combinations of possible encounters:
A given oncoming vehicle’s speed may be such that they pass way too fast, pass at a comfortable speed, or dawdle slowly past. The distance they pass can be too close (ignores me standing in the gutter), smoothly swerved round to give an extra meter gap, or they can indicate and cross to the other side of the road. Degrees of interaction vary from car-occupants who gawp and stare, to those who appear to consciously avoid eye-contact, a few who nod, some who raise a finger above the steering wheel, some who smile, to those who wave, sometimes even enthusiastically.
My normal dog-walking position is along the side of the road, with Dog on the grass verge beside. According to circumstances, I can variously hop onto the verge myself, I can stop to help them pass (particularly if the road is narrow or there’s traffic coming in both directions), and/or I can nod, smile or wave (sometimes even enthusistatically if I recognize the driver).
So, what combinations constitute the happiest encounters? To be clear, I don’t find comparatively high speeds inherently worrying – otherwise I wouldn’t walk beside roads with a 60mph limit; within reason, driving briskly only minimizes the encounter time, which is fine – we’ve all got places to go. I do find it horribly rude when drivers slow down so much and stare, as though Dog & I were some kind of roadside exhibition for their tourist pleasure, especially if I’ve paused to let them pass – it’s a presumption on my time. Considering the combinations of possible action and response above, I notice that happiness is maximized, not in simple direct proportion to the magnitude of a gesture (a wave beats a nod, etc), but rather when a gesture is present but middling (pulling out a yard beats overegging it and crossing the white lines to the other side of the road – what kind of an obstacle am I?!).
Those are the minutiae of decisions. Returning to the bigger picture, to reduce encounters to a simple matter of speed and law would be to neglect a vital other dimension: in acknowledging when other parties show consideration, however small, we acknowledge their humanity. We do not exist in islands made of metal boxes, but we live in relationship to a community of all road users; therein enjoyment can be found.