Though a great shiver heaved through my body, I managed to fully immerse in the crystal clear, very chilly sea off Staffin Bay, on Skye, when I spied a seal’s head bobbing out of the water, spying on me like a periscope 50 yards away. We stared at one another for a minute until it dived down, and I wondered if it’d reappear next to me, like a great nautical labrador, but soon enough it resurfaced in the same place, noted I’d not moved either, then disappeared for good.
It was all so wonderfully otherworldly, the rush of endorphin from the cold water, the barren plocks of volcanic rock hundreds of yards offshore yet it appeared one could wade neck-deep out to them, and the sun shone upon a beach seemingly untouched since the beginning of the Earth. Only a 100 yards away is what makes Staffin Bay famous, the trail of giant bird-like footprints left embedded in fossilised mud by a troupe of dinosaurs tens of millions of years ago, all overlooked by cliff faces of neat, geometric columns of basalt.
Apart from the seal I wasn’t entirely alone, a few dozen other visitors were trying to distinguish the dinosaur prints from rockpools, but there were nowhere near the tourist numbers you’d expect from the explosion in tourism Skye has seen in recent years to take in its beaches, winding valleys, towering hillsides where clouds cascade of the ridge tops of the hills. Particularly with coach tours for Chinese tourists of a certain age and income. But with the world in lockdown there were of course none, nor any of the fleets of campervans from mainland Europe, all the vehicles having British plates.
Again, just up the coast at the Old Man of Storr, a vast obelix hewn from the cliff-face, had just a handful of visitors were killing their thighs hiking up and down, and they were all Brits, sticking to the UK, or stuck in the UK, keeping to their social bubbles.
The missus and I had opted for Scotland when the chaos of Covid lockdowns, quarantines, no-fly lists et al ruled out Canada, Italy, Iceland. Even so, we feared last-minute lockdowns could hamper our fortnight through Glasgow, Mull, Skye, Aviemore, and Edinburgh, either trapping us in one place or locking us out of another. For someone who has had Covid-19 and works with Covid-19 suffering patients daily, a real holiday would mean escaping the plague, and to be honest, an England plagued by Brexit (the trip was partly a reconnaissance for a potential move). But it’s on holiday that the measures to contain the disease manifest all the more acutely.
Hence our first few days being in a semi-locked down Glasgow, we became acutely aware of a vibrant and vigorous city, sparkling in sunshine, struggling under a surreal and frustrating cloud of lockdown claustrophobia. So many venues, like the Museum of Modern Art, were closed, while remaining sites had reduced hours with slots you have to book so they can spatially cope with the visitors they do get. But the fewer places with reduced capacities see these slots filled days if not weeks in advance. Otherwise, a website might say something’s open, but upon arrival it isn’t.
There was no heaving breakfast buffet at the hotel, instead we got a bag of croissants and yoghurts left outside our room by a maid in PPE more robust than seen in A&E. On holiday you’re always eating out and in the pub, but where’s open all have slots that book out, too, when half full, so every meal and drink has to be planned, all the spontaneity of just rocking up is gone, and potential disappointment factored in. Many restaurants had removed the pictures and mirrors, making the places all the more anonymised with the staff all masked (though invariably always so friendly) and with every other table taped up, it was like everyone was just moving in, or out.
But Glasgow is an incredible city just to look at, with its incredible mix of architecture, and history as told atop a open-top bus, vast murals covering the university buildings and tenements, and the fantastic view from atop the Necropolis, where Glasgow’s Great and the Good are interred. But even it’s a view appreciated from a city of the dead.
So hitting the islands was very welcome. Off Mull, we watched seals watching us aboard a whale-watching boat tour, that took in Minke whales blowing and breaching, porpoises shyly showing their fins, and leery dolphins. We were treated to the whales, dolphins and flocks of seagulls and gannets cooperating to massacre a shoal of fish, the whales going deep to herd the fish to the surface, the dolphins corralling them, the gannets dive-bombing into the water at 60mph. For four hours we marvelled at all this, and were escorted back to shore apace by dolphins hammering alongside the boat, their pure energy and power rippling beneath the surface, before they’d breach and hurdle waves like race horses. And on Mull, and Skye, and in the Cairngorm in the central highlands around Aviemore, we had the most epic five, six, seven-hour hikes up the 3,000-foot peaks (known as Munros), where we either disappeared into the cloud crowding the summit, or could see for scores of miles under open skies.
But even in the remoteness the abnormal times were redolent. One day in the car, we were bombing to Aviemore, with a vast, immovable purple-brown hill dominating the sky in front of us, as we hurtled past towering screens of spruce, pine and birch trees shimmering in the sunshine alongside, I opened the window to get a face-full of the smell of sun-wakened leaves, flowers, mulch and heather. But there was nothing! I’d had Covid-19 back in April, and though this was September my sense of smell was still gone, which I’d mostly forget, but then got this subtle, quite poignant reminder. Everything is plagued by this disease, and you want it all to end. Everything to end, to go back to how it was.