The roads are empty. The sky is cloudless and blue. Arthritic fingers of the occasional sea loch reach through gaps in hills and mountains. The heather-clad moorland stretches to an indescribable infinity. Inland lochs excite the eye, glimpsed dazzling with reflected sunlight like jewels set in mud and wind-whipped wavelets froth their surface as we sail serenely by, untroubled by traffic or the slight disappointment felt by reneging on a day’s fishing for wild brown trout.
Our road runs alongside Loch Assynt and we’re headed for Ullapool, when the tumbled ruin of Castle Ardvreck heaves into view, standing still-proud on an islet reachable via a sandy beach, so we have to stop. Afternoon sunlight is still powerful overhead in a cloudless sky, and behind us we spot a tumbling sparkling waterfall, which we choose to explore in preference to the slightly more populated castle ruins. The water runs crystal-clear – perhaps whisky-tinged by a hint of peat – but a clean, pebbled stream-bed lifts the heart and spirits with its delicious crystal flowing clarity.
We stretch our legs onwards beyond the waterfalling stream, rounding a dimple of hill to see an exquisitely positioned whitewashed three-storey house, standing proud but apparently somewhat bemused not to be overlooking the glistening loch. We veer right on a track, espying a stone circle sheepfold in the middle distance, en-route to which we leave the track to stumble upon a macabre shallow pit, full of what appears to be bleached sheep skulls, scattered bones and dislocated, teethed jaws.
We realise on closer toe-of-boot inspection that these skeletal remains are in fact not sheep but the skulls of deer, as it’s clear that each has two cleanly sawn stumps where antlers used to be, and in fact a single antler is also found nearby, as if convincing evidence was required. Slightly unnerved by this discovery, we retrace our steps back to the track, now eyeing the lonesome house with suspicion that it may, in some impersonal way, have been complicit in this perceived evil practice.
Warm sunlight dispels both the cold wind on our faces and our slight discomfort as we return to the Knumptywagen, peel off now-unnecessary outer layers and join a small gaggle of other tourists to scramble around the base of Castle Ardvreck. From its raised vantage point we can also see the road ahead of us, where – adjacent to what appeared to be a ruined chapel – an unusually large gathering of people could be seen, along with a spattering of hi-vizzed individuals and – as our attention became more focused – the incongruous presence of two ambulances (where on earth had they come from?) parked nose-to-nose at the adjacent roadside.
Too distant to be of anything but passing curiosity, we returned to the van and headed onwards, rounding the next bend to find two cars ahead of us at a standstill, and clearly attendant on a road accident of some sort, the outcome of which was clearly focused behind the ruined chapel, thus obscuring our view.
There was no obvious road-block although the paramedic activity between the road and lochside clearly involved motorbikes, four of which were visible parked at the side of the road, with an undamaged car between them. As we waited obediently and stationary, the driver of the seemingly involved car walked our line to explain that there’d been a motorcycle casualty and we needed to wait where we were to keep the road clear for the arrival of an air-ambulance.
Over the next hour or so, a sum total of eight other vehicles joined us in solemn watchfulness as the air-ambulance did indeed duly arrive, bizarrely electing to land on greensward alongside the loch (and some 500m distant from the assumed epicentre of the accident.) No-one seemed to be in any sort of emergency-induced hurry so we assumed the accident did not involve any immediate danger to life. Eventually, a close-knit posse of people, some hi-vizzed and some in motorcycle leathers, emerged from behind the ruined chapel, carrying between them a stretcher towards the waiting helicopter. After yet more seemingly interminable deliberations, doors were closed and the air-ambulance took gently to the air, languidly heading off in the general direction of what we assumed would be a major trauma hospital, Lord alone knows where.
Ambulances remained; blue lights continued to flash; police had arrived in force and an officer visited the first car in our line, conversed through the window for several minutes then wandered off back towards the scene of the accident. This leading car then conducted a perfect three-point turn and, followed by the second car, returned past us in the direction from which we had come.
Slightly bemused by this scenario and lacking any form of other communication or instruction, official or otherwise, we availed of information provided through our open van window by a woolly-hatted and unnervingly over-enthusiastic pedestrian bystander who ghoulishly informed us that there ‘may have been a fatality and they’re gunna cloose the rood’, the veracity of which left us pondering our dilemma.
Officialdom was now swarming around the scene of the accident, and a handful of vehicles from ‘the other side’ had already been allowed to pass through, so we tentatively (and maybe just a little bit precociously) edged our way forward, passing the epicentre of the accident without let or hindrance from officialdom (and by-the-by glimpsing the tangled wreckage of what we presumed had once been a motorcycle, now half embedded in the turf a good 50 yards from the road-edge, draped with what appeared to be motorcycle outerwear, cut, we presume, from the also-presumed shattered body of the poor unfortunate motorcyclist, who appeared to have simply misjudged – at speed – the bend around which we were now tentatively progressing.)
No-one so much as raised an eyebrow at us as we cleared the melee to round the next bend only to be abruptly halted by a police car parked at right-angles across both lanes of the road, so as to block our onward direction. A youthful, slightly quizzical officer approached us and with barely disguised rising anger informed us that the road was blocked, didn’tweknow? Well, yes Officer, that’s abundantly clear from the position of this Police car – but that’s certainly not the case at the other side of the accident and we’re very sorry but none of your colleagues saw fit to inform us of such as we passed through their midst not thirty seconds ago. “ Aye, well, we hannye had time to get the signs oot yet” came the officious reply, “Ye’ll just have to wait here” as he stormed off to erect his long-awaited and cleverly expandable fold-out ‘Road Closed’ signs.
Thankfully, his female colleague then joined us at our open window, to whom we apologised again in the way of the grovelling English when confronted by persons of authority – in the face of which she smiled semi-indulgently and said “Och, dinna mind him, if ye’ll hang on just a moo, I’ll move the car and ye can go on your way.”
I don’t believe I’ve ever kissed a police officer before and thankfully, her lack of any remedial cosmetic dentistry prevented such an impulsive thought even entering my head. So it was with a suitably deferential and grateful wave, we were duly let pass, much to the consternation and clearly-rising but wholly passive objections of everyone sitting in their cars in the substantially longer queue on the ‘official’ side of the roadblock.
Lord alone knows what happened to the sorry motorcyclist (or his travelling companions – as we offered silent thanks that the rider hadn’t appeared to have been carrying a pillion passenger) and when we subsequently Googled motorcycle accidents in that vicinity for any news of the casualty, there was revealed a slightly sickening catechism of them, so frequent as to be wholly unremarked in local press coverage and therefore demonstrating yet another sound reason why my own mid-life crisis was deferred to the acquisition of a guitar rather than the throbbing two-wheeler I thought my little heart desired.