Every year, I go on a solo camping trip to the West Coast of Scotland. So ok, the longest I’ve actually spent away is four days, and I don’t technically pitch a tent, but sleep on the back seat of my mum’s car instead. After all, a few sheets of tarp aren’t exactly going to protect me from night monsters. So sure, by most standards my trips aren’t exactly a wilderness adventure. Yet I couldn’t care less.
Last summer, I borrowed my mum’s car and drove five hours past stoic whisky towns to a secret bay of pure white beach called Achnahaird. Well, not that secret. There’s usually another car or bike or camper van parked there by the sea. Still, in those quiet moments when there are no hikers or dog walkers, I feel free. Here are a few of my notes from on the road.
Evening of Summer Solstice, Achnahaird Bay (car park)
Freedom. Freedom is no pollution, no news or people’s thoughts popping into my inbox – just this light and this beach which has remained the same for thousands of years. Freedom is feeling strong, clear, alert, alive. Pushing my body into a run in the quiet summer light of country roads, for no reason other than because I can. Wildflower cliffs billowing high above the sea. Salt and sunshine in my bones, the air, the earth. Taking all my clothes off and hiking in old boots, because the sun’s warmth on my winter white body is medicine. Diving into the great roaring ocean, belly white and rotund over the top of my swimming bottoms.
Freedom is Stac Pollaidh – the mountain’s call, pulling me, dragging me to the top of crumbling mystic pinnacles named ‘Lobster’s Claw’ and ‘Madonna and Child’; huddling behind the limestone peaks of its summit as a sudden wind whips the dark North Sea to a roar, the once blue sky a memory as freezing rain smashes hard into the lochs and mountains below. Freedom is not caring a jot because I can do anything, can scramble from the top like the sheep who seem closer to mountain goats than the bleeting herds who wander dully round the pastures of my childhood home in Grampian.
Freedom is the sound of the tiny skylarks who burst from clifftop wildflowers to sing their sweet song, fluttering and glinting gold in the sun. It’s the oystercatchers with their long red beaks peeping “kleep kleep kleep” as they soar over rocky beach. It’s the curlew’s cry like a shrieking baby – no wonder these parts are filled with folk tales of monsters and faeries. The red-mouthed shrieks of tiny gulls as they curiously surround my blanket while I burn sausages on a paraffin stove for tea.
Freedom is taking an evening walk to the village on the other side of the cliffs: a little shop, some crofts, a quiet campsite with a pub. The Summer Isles beyond look like Norway, Iceland, Scotland. They look like Home. I sit down on a pebble beach at the end of the village, close my eyes and listen to the ocean. It sounds like cars rushing by. I worry about what living in cities has done to my perception.
Freedom is curling into the duvet in the back of my mum’s car, dreaming of being aged four on a family holiday to the isle of Eigg and being mesmerised, paralysed by the romance of the wild-haired gaunt-cheeked man standing at a perfect sunny cove, sea turquoise bright and sand as white as Hawaii’s.
Freedom is falling asleep with the aching sigh of the sun. Freedom is a whole other way of living. It’s solitude, a feeling, a lightness, a truth. It’s going to the edge of the world where the cacophony of humanity is less than a murmur, technology and modernity buffered by the sea.
Freedom is easy – it’s being outdoors all day, eating well, sleeping well, maybe getting a few hugs once in a while. It’s lightness and holiness, sometimes boredom and loneliness. Never self-consciousness. It’s boiling tea on the paraffin stove for breakfast, and reading Zadie Smith on an old blanket by the sea. Millions of endorphins bursting like glittering bubbles every time I read a line so good I have to stop, smile, and breath.
Freedom is writing, pen to paper, the words falling out like hot stardust in frantic meditation. Or is it? Just like photography, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter; writing drags you away from the moment you’re in, forces you to acknowledge your vanity and desire to have yourself and your work recognised by others.
Freedom is pure. It’s greasy hair and no make-up for days, rushing into the North Sea and out of freezing dark waves into the glittering morning sun. Everything washed away – the blonde highlights and bronzer, the clumpy black mascara – to be claimed back by nature, pale and salty clean. Freedom is stomping around the wildflower bogs of Scotland in a fleecy pink Primark dressing gown and crumpled Panama hat, because why not?
Freedom is being on the edge of the world by the great roaring ocean, lungs full of sea air. Mind fresh, body alive as Marram grass dances faint in the sunlight. It’s a tiny patch of land by the sea which I can call mine for a few days. I am Queen of the Hills, King of the World, the Laird of Achnahaird!
‘Tap tap tap.’
Something at the car window. I drop my pen, jolt up from the embryo position I’ve been writing in from my stuffy cocoon of duvet and crumbs and crumpled paper, and roll down the car window.
“Allo? Allo? ‘Ot tea and cake?”
A benign-looking man with a thick French accent and rosy red nose, his short grey and black hair patted under a woolly black hat, “Cake? ‘Ot tea?” He says, holding a plastic beaker of milky tea and a plastic-wrapped shortbread in one hand, smiling awkwardly while the sunset fades on the bay behind.
“Oh, uh, thank you. Thank you so much,” I smile, my tongue hot and limp from not talking to anyone for three days.
“Are you ok? You are ok?” He says.
“Yes, yes. Thank you” I smile.
He thrusts the beaker and biscuit through the window and walks away. I sit up under the duvet, take a sip of hot weak tea and wonder about what he sees – pink dressing gown, crumbs, pale face. He doesn’t see a wilderness explorer at all, does he? Just a kook, a weirdo, a strange young woman sleeping in the back of her car on a lonesome road.
Does he think that I’m homeless? Battered? Mentally ill? What 25 year-old woman chooses to spend her summer holidays sleeping alone in the back of a car? I wish that French man could see me on a normal day. I wish he could see me in a sundress, mascara on. I wish he could know that I live in Berlin, where the wild and free drink and dream and collide in the streets and exhibition openings and all-night bars til dawn. I wish he could see the real me. Except he just did, five minutes ago, sitting alone in a crumpled Panama hat by the sea.