“These are the guest quarters.” The lady pointed to three slatted box beds draped with rough looking tartan blankets. “Youse are lucky to have the tartans but if you’re not warm enough, you can get a wee warm-up round the fire.” We trailed behind her across the mud floor into another cold dark room where smoke from a peat fire struggled to escape the gloom through a small hole in the heather thatch. “I was going to make some soup but we’ve no barley or meat left so it’ll have to be porridge for breakfast,” she said stirring a sludgy mixture around the blackened cauldron hanging in the smoke above the fire. Do youse waynes like porridge?” She looked at the boys. Matthew and Cameron looked back bemused. “I saw you grinding the oats outside so I’m sure they’ll be enough oatmeal.”
Outside, escaping the gloom and enjoying a rare moment of highland sunshine, another villager sat in the shade of a Scots pine, tartan blanket over her knees, drawing off wool onto bobbins. “We don’t get many days like this,” she said. “It’s so miserable usually, stuck inside in the smoke and dark, huddled round the peat fire, eating gruel. Lot of people think it’s a great job, dressing up, telling folk about the old highland townships but it’s quite bleak really, like it was back then I suppose.”
Three hours in Newtonmore’s eighteenth century living history township was enough for me, as perhaps three hours doing what we’ve been doing might be for many others. Many people have expressed such a sentiment to us when they say something along the lines of “I admire what you’re doing but I don’t envy you in the least.”
It’s hard to explain the complex and contrasting experience that this journey has become. The intensity of living 24/7 as a family, the routines of the cycling, eating and camping; the perpetual stimulus of an ever changing backdrop of landscape, people, places; the peaks of achievement, of interest, fun and laughter; and the demoralising tantrums, set-backs, mishaps and arguments. It’s hard to explain how one morning you can want to give the whole thing up only to find that a few hours later you’re laughing out loud, huddled together in sleeping bags, camping out in the wild, trying to keep quiet, thrilled at saving a camp-fee and knocked out by the distance you’ve covered, experiences you’ve had and memories you’ve made in 42 days on the road.
“Are you gypsies?” asked a group of young boys on bikes who stopped us back in Carlisle. I didn’t know quite what to say to them. “Do we look like gypsies?” I asked. They nodded. Well, we probably did. “Do you have a home?” they asked, not wanting to let the matter drop. I nodded. “So you’re like temporary gypsies, then,” they concluded. It’s probably a fair description, although we haven’t yet acquired the audacity to free camp as publicly as some of the travellers we’ve met. But our status is temporary, even if it feels long-lived. Seven weeks is a long time to live like this, moving on everyday, but we know it will come to an end when the routines of school and work return and the luxuries of home, heating and hot-water are reinstated. And for that we are fortunate for never was it so for those who experienced the hardships of life in the Highland townships, who scratched a meagre living crofting in these wild places, whose homes were destroyed to make room for sheep in the Highland clearances, whose culture was stamped upon after the Jacobite uprising. The beauty and serenity of the highlands has many a sad story to tell, for those with the time to listen.