Given the mission – to preview a festival named after a late, great Beatle – I tried not to use the phrase "Magical Mystery Tour". But by the end of the UK's strangest bus ride, it was hard to resist.
Bus stations have never enjoyed as cherished a place in the travelling public's affections as railway stations. New York's Grand Central Terminal is a cathedral of transport, while the Port Authority Bus Terminal is an aesthetic disaster. The Lancashire location for Brief Encounter was Carnforth railway station, not Preston bus station. And while people waiting for trains in Inverness can relax in the sophisticated bar at the Royal Highland Hotel, bus passengers must make do with a pub called The Bus Stop.
Yet bus terminals have the potential for a much wider range of destinations. The schedules at Inverness bus station offer journeys that will take you just across the River Ness to the local superstore in about five minutes, or across Europe to the Estonian capital, Tallinn – a three-day trip. Inverness is also the starting point for a long, lonely ride from the northernmost city in the kingdom to the most isolated village. And through the windscreen, the wide-screen spectacular of Scotland's West Highlands reels through five glorious hours.
The bus has 29 seats, which is 27 more than I and the only other passenger, a young Canadian working in a remote hotel, require. Once the industrial right flank of Inverness has been shrugged off, the bus takes the leap across the Kessock Bridge to the Black Isle. At Dingwall, its population doubles for the exquisite journey from east coast (Cromarty Firth infiltrates thus far from the North Sea) to west, in the form of Loch Broom, a sweep of the Atlantic.
The beautiful south of the north of Scotland initially looks gentle, wheat fields rippling in tune with the breeze. The roadside is punctuated with monuments to battles fought and lost. At Strathpeffer, the struggle is to thrive in an era where the average Londoner can enjoy an Evian fling more easily than a trip to this handsome Highland spa.
Soon, we start racing a train that is on the parallel line to the Kyle of Lochalsh, gateway to Skye. We lose, and shortly afterwards part company with the railway and strayed north to territory where the ornamentation – crops, woodland – is steadily stripped away, leaving an elemental land of rock and sky. Loch Glascarnoch reflects these bare essentials superbly as we glide past – though this sharp, steely tongue of water has man, not nature, to thank for its existence.
Time for breakfast. Seriously: the bus schedule allows half an hour in the 18th-century fishing port of Ullapool, which is endowed with a competing pair of fast-but-fine-food restaurants: The Chippy, whose fish has won the BBC Food Programme award, and The Tea Store, where you can order a venison burger with redcurrant jelly and coleslaw. I settled for a black-pudding bap and a cup of tea.
In the grounds of the church that Thomas Telford built, gravestones grieve over loved ones who perished far from home: "Lost at Sea, Agnes Harris Wallace, Nurse SS City of Benares, September 1940"... "John Douglas, Flying Officer, Age 21, May 1943. Buried in Venlo War Cemetery".
There is also time to visit the tourist office for something of a metaphysical experience: "YOU ARE HERE", insists a bright orange arrow on the freely available map of Ullapool, pointing to the bureau. True, at the moment when I picked the map up. But back on the bus to continue on our Arctic trajectory, I am no longer where the map asserted me to be. I looked at it to see where we were heading, then glanced out at a sign that confirmed it: "North" was all it read. Yet from the point of view of the Vikings, who once controlled this wilderness, it was South.
Enough philosophy: reality demands attention. Diving down to Loch Assynt, the wreckage of Ardvreck Castle is attached only tenuously to the land. The bus swings off the main road and sways down to Lochinver, a perfect fishing village where the bus stops for seven minutes: long enough for me to develop a longing to return. It is a land to fall in love with, and – apparently – to fall in love in: back at the bus, the driver and the Canadian woman are canoodling. Love at first bus?
The ice age tore through here at imperceptible pace, yet with formidable effect, carving the mountains into tortured shapes and scooping out basins for lakes that gleam beneath a sky bursting with benevolence.
Back on the main road, the engineering highlight is the bridge that arcs across from Kylesku. It unites the far north with the rest of Scotland, replacing a free ferry. Perhaps the redundant mariners ended up at Kinlochbervie, our next stop – and a chance for lunch in the Seamen's Mission. Much more of this and I shall enlist in the merchant navy.
The 10-mile-by-10-mile rough diamond of Lewisian gneiss that contains Cape Wrath and Durness is noted for its microclimate. Almost as soon as the last drop of Mission tea has been swigged, the clouds close in to consume the view. The A838 for the final miles to Durness becomes a narrow farm track with passing places that would not allow two buses to pass. Just as well, then, that only one bus runs each day (except in autumn, winter and spring). Use any excuse you can to take this tour of mystery and magic, but be warned: if you miss the last southbound journey next Saturday afternoon at 3.15pm, you face a bit of a wait: seven months.
Magical mystery tourist
Thank you, Mr X. With only one bus a day from Durness back to real life, and with plenty of sights to see and people to meet (see pages 16 and 17), I chose to miss the only return bus of the day. It was due to arrive in Inverness shortly before the overnight train left for London. I explored Durness for an extra hour before I hitched my fortunes to the roadside, and stuck out my thumb beside the Lazy Crofter bunkhouse, hoping I would be able to catch up.
For half an hour as the bus meandered towards Inverness, I stayed put by the roadside. Driver after driver overturned the principle that the more remote a location, the higher the propensity of motorists to give lifts.
Eventually, two cyclists stopped. Handily, their bikes were strapped to the roof of a car, so I climbed in and chatted to David and Irene Finlayson. After half an hour of driving through thumbprint-like swirls (well, that is what the Ordnance Survey map resembles), they dropped me at Laxford Bridge – whereupon Mr X promptly appeared.
Because he is not allowed to pick up hitchers in his company van, I cannot tell you a thing about him except that the nature of his work is specialised, and he – like I – could not believe our good fortune at being paid to travel through the astonishing contortions of far-north Scotland. We sped through the glens and over the hills to Inverness, enjoying convivial conversation and arriving just ahead of the wayward bus. He left me with a parting prescription for a pre-train pint at Hootenanny's: just the place retrospectively to reflect on the risks of travel, calculated or not.