It seems like summer has finally arrived in the Highlands, and it’s certainly better late than never. Some of us had begun to sink into a closed-in, resigned kind of depression as if already curled up for a long winter hibernation, believing we had been bypassed this year in favour of just about everyone else in the British Isles… and all they were doing was complaining! Yes, I know, I know, climate change is very real and extremely scary and the stickiness of central London is not something I’d enjoy (I wouldn’t enjoy central London in any weather, actually, but that’s by the by). But if we could just have had a little teensy weensy heatwave… just a few days? Or at least a little weak sunshine? Well, now it’s here, and although it may not stay long, I truly appreciate every delicious second.
Last weekend I made what has become my annual pilgrimage to Portmahomack, to see my friend Barbara. I always look forward to my visits over there; I love the drive, watching the scenery change from rugged West to gentler East; over heathery moorland, through sunlit oak woods, alongside meandering rivers until finally reaching the glittering Dornoch firth and, usually, brighter weather. Then on through the ancient borough of Tain, which still manages to feel like a backwater despite being bang on the dreaded NC500, and along the quiet, narrow road across a finger of farmland before finally reaching the straggle of whitewashed fishermen’s cottages, long curve of sand and rockpool-studded coastline which form the Port, as it’s affectionately known.
I find it curious that I had never discovered Portmahomack until Barbara moved there. I’d heard of it, of course: Maureen, my once sister-in-law, and her husband regularly visited his father there and she always made it sound magical. I suppose it was just a bit out of the way; somewhere you would never pass through on the way to somewhere else, and perhaps not far enough, at under two hours away, for a longer escape.
I believe its tucked-away location has saved it from what has befallen many of the Highlands’ coastal villages. There’s a caravan site and the beach is family friendly, yet from Barbara’s end of the village it feels peaceful even in the height of summer. Her home is in an incredible spot right at the very end of the single road which winds through the village, and at the start of the walk along the rocky shoreline towards the lighthouse. Each time I visit I dream of living in such an idyllic spot. Just yards from the sea with unbroken views across to Embo and Loch Fleet, with a constantly-changing light-show that keeps one permanently mesmerised.
Barbara is a painter, although she’s nearly blind now. She can still see the shifting light, though, and pick out the colours of the fishing boats as they chug past to lift their creels. She knows which belong to which, and the time of day they’ll come by. She encourages me to walk, to paint and, last weekend, to swim, which I could scarcely have resisted in any case. The most difficult decision was which perfect bay to drop into; the sea was flat and – yes – warm, and once in I didn’t want to get out. On the way back I picked a handful of fresh field mushrooms which I cooked for our lunch; now I can’t wait for my next visit, to do it all over again.
I’ve often wondered whether Barbara has found the most perfect place in which to live. Then I think of the mountains, the birchwoods and the tumbling streams of the West. Somehow, even without the weather to enjoy them, they keep calling me back. But it’s lovely to have such a rejuvenating little bolt-hole, so near and yet so different, whenever I feel the need!