Spell bound

As a child, Alex James was enchanted by Scotland's wild west coast. This spring, he fell for its charms all over again

In the Seventies, the Volkswagen camper van was the 4x4 of its day. We had an old VW and Mum drove us to school in it while Dad could fix it whenever it broke down. We all loved that van. We even went on holiday in it and spent two memorable summers in Scotland. We would catch the overnight train (you could put your car on it), that ran from Brockenhurst in the New Forest and it would take us as far north as Stirling. Then we just drove around exploring, stopping wherever we fancied. Fantastic.

In the Seventies, the Volkswagen camper van was the 4x4 of its day. We had an old VW and Mum drove us to school in it while Dad could fix it whenever it broke down. We all loved that van. We even went on holiday in it and spent two memorable summers in Scotland. We would catch the overnight train (you could put your car on it), that ran from Brockenhurst in the New Forest and it would take us as far north as Stirling. Then we just drove around exploring, stopping wherever we fancied. Fantastic.

The van towed a trailer full of my father's toys - an inflatable dingy, outboard engine, diving gear, picnic table, toilet tent, badminton set, side awning for the van, spanners and spares. In later years, when we started to go to warmer countries, we took a 12-volt fridge modification, which was a big hit, but before then we used freezer blocks. After bumbling around for a week or so, checking out Ben Nevis and the Loch Ness monster, which I remember being particularly interested in at the time, we settled for a campsite at Ardmair, just north of Ullapool.

Ullapool is an old fishing village, north-west of Inverness and a long way from anywhere. Even now, when you can fly for 99p, it still takes a day to get there. The campsite, which had been ravaged by a hurricane in the winter, was on the shores of Loch Broom, a large saltwater lake. The water was very clear and full of sea urchins and starfish, which terrifyingly shod limbs when you took them out of the water. They can regenerate themselves, we discovered. In fact, there were lots of things to discover as a child. And a real sense of isolation.

Pitched up next door to us on the campsite in 1978 was a family who we've remained friendly with ever since. The Coppers, from the Orkneys. Nice people.

Returning a couple of weeks ago with Claire, my wife, I felt a gathering excitement. Trying to picture the landscape, I could remember a real eeriness and beauty. I wasn't sure if it was my imagination, or because I was so much younger and everything seemed other worldly and strange then.

We were staying, not at the campsite, but at the lovely Summer Isles Hotel in Achiltibuie, the directions to which did sound like some kind of a spell. "Ten miles north of Ullapool, take the twisting single track road that skirts Lochs Lurgainn, Badagyle and Osgaig, under Stac Pollaidh..."

I bought a local map, but there was really only the one road, so the hotel was quite easy to find. The route got narrower and narrower. Single-track roads are proof of the profound goodness of humanity, and indeed the total wickedness of man. It's a jolly business, though, pulling over into a passing place to allow the passage of oncoming traffic, or being flashed and waved on by an approaching vehicle. How we loved waving at the other cars.

We drove through hail and snow. We hadn't known what clothes to pack as the weather is so changeable at this time of year. It was freezing when we got to the hotel, but there was a log burner in the room which had been prepared so that all we had to do was to light the touchpaper. Soon we had moved the furniture around so that we could sit in front of it to toast our toes.

When it's cold outside, sitting in front of a fire is a fine way to pass the time. There was also a beautiful vista of the Summer Isles through the window, beyond the grazing deer on the heather. The heavy seas and rain showers were mesmerising in the way flames are. Watching the fire or gazing at the view seemed like plenty to be getting on with, and that's how we spent the afternoon.

We were summoned to the dining room promptly at eight. The chef was a little nervous that the soufflé would collapse. It didn't, and was very good indeed, with a little bit of crisp green salad for some crunch. A soufflé was quite a contrast to the food that I'd eaten the last time I'd been here, although we did eat well. The smell of bacon frying in the morning on a campsite is the best smell there is, and I remember eating freshly caught salmon, although as a child I would probably have preferred a burger.

The dining room at the Summer Isles Hotel was pleasant, though, and the food was excellent. An impressive cheeseboard delivered a local classic, a prize-winning Ross-shire cheese. It was all very relaxed and cosy and, as we sank into the big sofas in the lounge with a coffee, all of a sudden we felt free. I suppose that's why we go on holiday, to try to remind ourselves that we can be who we want to be. It was a good feeling.

The local superstar is Staic Pollaidh, a mountain pronounced "stack polly". It looks like Kilimanjaro, rising up magically and dominating the landscape. I quite fancied climbing it, having been told I was too small the last time I was here. On a good day you can scramble right to the top. However, today, we couldn't even see the summit and it had snowed in the night. We went back to bed after breakfast. Why not? It's a good strategy on holiday to try to do nothing, rather than everything.

Late morning, we took a stroll along the beach. The old crofters' cottages, each with their couple of acres, run all along the seashore. Claire was appalled at all the flotsam and jetsam, but I like investigating the random things that wash up. And there by the sea, I felt the same sense of eerie beauty that I'd felt as a child - that rare feeling of being alone.

Sadly, the boat belonging to the hotel had been damaged in a storm. It wasn't exactly boating weather anyway, so we were unable hunt for sea urchins. In the afternoon, Claire and I made for Lochinver and its acclaimed pie shop. We stopped off along the way. There are so many lochs, tarns, rivers and streams and they're all worth looking at. We drank the water from one brook and it was delicious. It was a shame the weather wasn't up to a bigger hike, but having said that, we were having a great time. We bought some books near Lochinver and took them back to the hotel for a cosy night by the fire.

The next day started with sunshine and kippers. Then it was off to the beach - miles and miles of beautiful nothing and no one. The little islands in the bay are mysterious and promising. The waves come rolling in and there are all kinds of exotic birds gliding around in the breeze. I recognised a puffin and a cormorant, but failed to recognise many more. Killer whales can be seen here too, but not today. We wound our way along the coast, stopping for tea in a shop that was someone's front room. Far out.

I had a lesson on the bagpipes at the Achiltibuie Piping School later in the afternoon. It's tricky; the instruments seem to spill the music all over the place. Excellent teacher and school, and they keep an archive of local folk music there as well. It was very enjoyable and awesome to hear a good set of bagpipes played well. So stirring.

So was it as magical as I remembered? Northern Scotland lived up to all the memories and, if anything, it was even more beautiful and more mysterious.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

Alex James travelled to Scotland with easyJet (0905 821 0905; www.easyJet.com) which flies to Inverness from Luton and Gatwick. On 2 July, easyJet will launch flights to Inverness from Bristol and Belfast. Four days' hire of a Ford Ka or similar through National Car Hire (0870 400 4560; www.nationalcar.co.uk) costs from £47.

STAYING THERE

Summer Isles Hotel (01854 622282; www.summerisleshotel.co.uk), Achiltibuie, near Ullapool, Ross-shire. Doubles start at £119 per night including breakfast. The hotel opens from 23 March until 16 October 2005.

EATING THERE

Lochinver Larder Pie Shop (01571 844356; www.piesbypost.co.uk), on Main Street, Lochinver, Lairg.

VISITING THERE

Achiltibuie Piping School (01854 622220; www.highlandpiping.co.uk), Loan Cottage, Wester Ross.

FURTHER INFORMATION

Ullapool Tourism (01854 612135; www.ullapool.co.uk), Argyle Street, Ullapool.

Visit Scotland (0845 2255 121; www.visitscotland.com).

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