A black Mercedes in the fog

The Lairg Affair: Road-trips in Scotland

Where we went: 2 week driving tour of Scotland

When we went: Summer 2017

We fear that we may have given the impression that travel is easy and nothing ever goes wrong. To celebrate our blog’s second birthday, we would like to set the record straight. Here is the story of our drive from Orkney to Lairg, in which a great many things went wrong – starting with the hotel we were originally booked into closing down, and us being urgently relocated to the last remaining room in all of the Scottish Highlands.

A winding road on the North Coast of Scotland in Summer.

We were travelling from Orkney to Lairg in the sleek, black Mercedes Benz that the hire company had upgraded us to (we spent a lot of money on insurance because it looked exactly like the kind of car that would attract trouble). Catching the ferry had been a fraught experience; the travel agent had assured us that we would be able to buy ferry tickets once we were in Scotland – and he was right – but we had to pay extra for last minute tickets, and also were forced to take the last boat of the day, which ran rather late at night). You have to be at the ferry terminal 2 hours before your ferry departs, this was not a thing we knew when first embarking from Scrabster to Orkney, and we almost missed the boat entirely. Having learned this lesson by the return journey we were utterly flabbergasted when we turned our phones back on after a tour of the Scapa distillery to learn that we were cutting our time very fine indeed.

The Ring of Brodgar, Standing Stones on Orkney

Barrelling along the narrow, winding Scottish country roads (admiring the standing stones scattered through fields) the Merc. informed us, very politely, and in German, that it was running low on fuel. Sommelier informed us, less politely, and in English, that we did not have time to stop for fuel and that fuel would be cheaper on the mainland anyway. The GPS informed us that the nearest fuel stop was at –ominous static sound. The GPS could not pronounce Scottish place names, and I strongly suspect it was also possessed.

A seabird

We made it to the ferry with enough time to wait for what felt like an eternity. It was long enough for Sommelier to learn the lyrics to ‘Danny Boy’ as a means of entertainment. By the time we were loaded on to the boat we had moved on to researching an in-depth explication of the lyrics to ‘Danny Boy’. We now know that ‘Danny Boy’ is only sung by women, there is an alternative ‘Eily Dear,’ which is for the boys to sing. The Catholic dioceses banned the ballad’s use during funerals, due to it being secular in content, which highly offended the Irish-American community. The Irish claim the song as theirs, although it was written by an Englishman, while he lived in England, and it makes no reference to any specific part of Britain.

Puffins flew past the ferry windows, their brightly coloured beaks juxtaposed ludicrously against their drab coloured bodies. 

The ferryman asked where we were headed and we said, “Lairg” in what we hoped was an inoffensive approximation of the correct pronunciation.

To which he responded “Lairg???? But that’s miles away!”

And, internally, we reflected on how we have no point of reference for how far away any miles actually are.

A River estuary in North Scotland

It was past 7 at night by the time we got to the mainland, but night doesn’t fall until around 11pm in Scotland in summer. We were too sea-sick to eat with any gusto on the boat. Still lightly sea-sick, but once again travelling by car, we ignored the polite German reminder that we were low on ‘treibstoff’ – we relied mostly on the dash-symbols and my 4 years of German study to communicate with the car. Never did manage to communicate with the GPS; largely because it was definitely trying to kill us by luring us down twisted back country roads into the hands of the evil spirits that controlled it.

A sunset near Altnaharra

We passed a petrol station on the mainland, and Sommelier was right, fuel was cheaper outside of Orkney; however, the station was closed, it now being dinnertime in the far North of Scotland. The GPS promised us that it could get us to another, better service-station if we just turned off the highway and on to the terrifyingly narrow stone-wall bordered back way. We got a long way down this road before we began to suspect that we might be in trouble. Luckily we had already called the Overscaig hotel to inform them that we had only been able to get on to the last ferry from Orkney and we wouldn’t be in until long after the advertised latest check-in time (to which he had responded “Orkney???? But that’s miles away!” and we mentally responded with, “*shrugs* what even is a mile anyway?”).

The Altnaharra Hotel

After an age of winding road, interspersed with the sporadic sighting of a presumably-hermitical houses, we arrived at the hamlet of Altnaharra (or, as the GPS triumphantly announced, al—ksch—na—-aaara) which both the GPS and Sommelier were confident would contain both food and fuel; our sea-sickness now having given way to hunger.  As we crossed the bridge and rounded the corner into the centre of the hamlet known as al—ksch—–na—–aaara two petrol pumps loomed before us like gilded, glimmering ciboriums above the alter of worship for petroleum gods. We gratefully spluttered over to them. It wasn’t until we were outside of the car and unscrewing the petrol cap that we thought to question why there wasn’t any obvious manned booth at which to pay. On closer inspection we realised that the pumps-previously-mistaken-for-ciboriums-above-the-alter-of-the-petrolium-god were rusty, covered in cobwebs, and very definitely no longer in use. Glumly we climbed back into the still politely insistent Merc. and drove across the road to what we assumed would be the most recognisable landmark for our as-yet-uncontacted rescue-party, the Altnaharra Hotel.

Two deer

We explained our predicament to the staff at the Altnaharra Hotel and asked after petrol. They very helpfully informed us that the pumps that we had stopped at had been out of service for decades but that there was fuel to be found just 40 miles down the road in Lairg. We, in turn, explained that we didn’t really know what miles were, but we were confident we couldn’t get another 40 of them from what was left in the tank. In the end we negotiated to use the carpark as a wait stop until rescue and asked after some dinner. Their coffers were empty in regard to food, but they could give us a cup of coffee and a biscuit, which we gladly accepted. We also managed to haggle for the right to use their toilet, but we thought we might be pushing our luck to ask to use their phone so we walked up the road a little way to the red phonebooth we’d seen on entering the hamlet.

The entry to the Altnaharra Hotel

There was a dirty, laminated sign taped to the water-swollen, chipped red-painted wood of the door. Water had found a way in so much of what was written was smudged, but we could make out that this particular booth, due to lack of use, was scheduled for demolition in 2 weeks’ time. With a quick sign of gratitude at our timing it was with unreasonable excitement that we wrestled open the disused phonebooth door, swept away a few leaves and spiders and dialled the actual British red phonebooth phone. We were so thrilled at the prospect of using this iconic piece of British architecture that, despite the fact that making phone-calls makes me break out in a stress rash, I insisted that we both squeezed into the very-decidedly-a-one-man booth to make all the calls we needed to make, starting with the hotel in Lairg.

Apologising profusely we informed Martin, the owner of the Overscaig Hotel, that we were running even later than we originally planned. To gauge our arrival time he asked where exactly we were.

“Altnaharra,” we mumbled in what we hoped was an inoffensive approximation of the proper pronunciation.

“What on earth are you doing there???” Martin asked, indicating that there definitely was a more direct route to Lairg than the one the GPS had lured us onto.

“There was a mix up with the GPS…” we offered by way of explanation.

Having agreed to contact Martin once we were travelling again we called the number for free roadside assistance that the hire company provided and informed the surly Scot on the line of our situation. He seemed as perplexed as Martin as to how we had wandered into what I assume is the middle of Scottish nowhere. So deep in the depths of nowhere were we that no one could get us out for at least 2 hours.

A Sunset near Lairg

“ah,” we said, “oh dear,” we said (only we didn’t say ‘dear’) and we grimly trudged back to the Altnaharra hotel to wait. The little stream from which the hamlet derived its name burbled merrily as we crossed it, utterly impassive to our plight.

We were able to scrounge a few crumbs of haggis flavoured chips and some crackers left-over from a picnic we’d enjoyed on Orkney, and we sat in the cooling summer evening and waited.

A Packet of Mackie's Haggis flavoured crisps

highland hills rolled all around us, bathed in the golden-red of sunset. Swallows by the hundreds twittered and flapped frantically about, swooping the bugs in the grass. The dropping temperature trapped the evening in a velvet haze that blanketed us in the heady scents of hay and nature. As dusk marched ever closer a herd of deer came in from the paddock and watched us as we passed the time with sketching and lolling on the dewy lawn. By the time our 2 hours were up and our knight in oil-stained overalls arrived it was uncomfortably close to midnight and actually starting to get dark.

A Sunset in Scotland

Sir Brought-us-fuel, in making casual conversation, asked us where we were coming from and we told him, “Orkney.” In what we were quietly confident was far-too-English a pronunciation for this particular Scot’s liking.

“Orkney!” he exclaimed, “that’s miles away.”

We nodded, by now, well aware that we were several miles away from Orkney.

“Why on earth are ye in Altnaharra?” he glanced up from the caddy of petrol he was carefully pouring into grateful car.

“GPS said there would be fuel,” we mumbled, bashfully aware of the trouble we’d caused, “thought it would be cheaper on the mainland.”

“Och, ne,” he grunted, “ye should’a filled up there.”

A stag

Back on the road again a very sheepish Sommelier apologised profusely for misguiding us on the petrol front. The dusk-lit road snaked along, darkness just lapping at the edges of it. A stag leaped across the narrow-road a long way ahead of us and we were able to stop and watch it amble away with a mild “hurumpf” in our general direction. We had never before stayed out past dark in Scotland, and I assured Sommelier that I’m a firm believer in the notion that if you can honestly say that you will laugh about something someday, then you may as well laugh about it now.

A selfie of Sapphire and Sommelier

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