Things aunt what they used to be

Country Life Every Week - - My Week - Next week Ysenda Max­tone Gra­ham Joe Gibbs runs the Tar­tan Heart Fes­ti­val at Bel­ladrum in the Scot­tish High­lands (Au­gust 3–5, www.tar­tan heart­fes­ti­val.co.uk)

WHEN the go­ing got too tough for Kenya’s for­mer Pres­i­dent, Mwai Kibaki, he con­cocted a sov­er­eign rem­edy. He took to his bed and found so­lace, said a cabi­net col­league, ‘only in the works of P. G. Wode­house’. Much of the Pres­i­dent’s time was spent es­cap­ing his two wives, who, when not hand­bag­ging each other, con­trolled his di­ary in a Wode­hou­sian auntly way and locked out those states­men who might have of­fered him wise coun­sel in tack­ling cor­rup­tion.

The saga seems al­most more Waugh than Wode­house, but po­lit­i­cal events in Cale­do­nia have made a Kibaki exit strat­egy sound ap­peal­ing. Aun­tie Ni­cola’s chal­lenge to Aunt Theresa to yet an­other duel by ref­er­en­dum has caused con­ster­na­tion among most Scots, even among many of her own party. While the pair of them slug it out and, as P. G. put it, ‘aunt is call­ing aunt like mastodons bel­low­ing across the primeval swamps’, it’s ‘stiff up­per lip, Jeeves’ and bed­time for those who have had enough of the in­de­pen­dence de­bate to last us the promised gen­er­a­tion’s in­ter­val be­fore the next one.

WHEN vis­i­tors come here for the first time, they ex­claim at the view. To the west, it is in­deed sub­lime. We look across the fields to Glen Strath­far­rar and up to the high tops of Beinn a’bhathaich Àrd and Sgurr na La­paich, 25 miles away. To the north is the wide, flat top of Ben Wyvis. When cov­ered with win­ter snows, it re­sem­bles fresh folds of bil­low­ing cloth shaken across a ta­ble by a French waiter. The light changes con­stantly un­der rest­less High­land skies.

When­ever the hosts of Mid­ian prowl around in the guise of threat­en­ing po­lit­i­cal preda­tors from Planet Holy­rood, and Wode­house isn’t to hand, I look on all this and take com­fort. I think that what­ever they might try to take from us, they’ll bloody well have trou­ble tak­ing this away.

HAV­ING rid­den a nag from home in the east of Scot­land through the hills to Ul­lapool in the west, I wanted to in­ves­ti­gate whether a path from there to the town­ship of Achiltibuie fur­ther up the coast was ne­go­tiable by the same means. Dur­ing a well-timed ridge of high pres­sure last week­end, a friend and I set off to recce it on foot.

From the 1860s, the path was used by the lo­cal post­man, Ken­neth Mclen­nan of Blair­buie, who, for two-and-thrup­pence a jour­ney, made the 20-mile re­turn trip twice a week, in a day. Con­se­quently, the route is known by the rather folksy so­bri­quet the Postie’s Path.

Lulled by that, and not hav­ing done any re­search bar look­ing at a map, we non­cha­lantly booked a ta­ble in a rather good Ul­lapool hostelry for a 2pm lunch, giv­ing us more than three hours to make the oneway trip, at the end of which our wives would meet us and ferry us back to lav­ish ease.

How mis­guided we were. The first prim­roses were out and the first sky­lark tune­fully abroad. The day was azure and the views across a still sea to the Sum­mer Isles and be­yond to the Outer He­brides were lyri­cal. How­ever, the walk, it tran­spired, was no Post­man Pat saunter. Although there were oc­ca­sional cairns and way mark­ers, in many parts, the route was pre­cip­i­tous and in­dis­tinct and ap­peared lit­tle used.

In places, we crept along a nar­row path across steep slopes above sea cliffs—‘great care is needed at this point,’ I read later on a web­site, some­what un­nec­es­sar­ily—and scram­bled up rocks on all fours where we had missed our way. At one point, look­ing across to the other side of an in­let where the path must con­tinue, the cliff looked too sheer to ac­com­mo­date it. We cal­cu­lated that we still had time to re­trace our steps in day­light, but, on round­ing to the other side, the path was there af­ter all, thinly sketched into the cliff­side. The time for the ren­dezvous came and went. As for the lunch reser­va­tion, we were barely half­way to our des­ti­na­tion by 2pm. We heard a he­li­copter and the fa­mil­iar red-and-white coast­guard ma­chine came into view. Had the girls pan­icked and called in the chop­per? Oh, the in­dig­nity of be­ing air­lifted out and onto the front page of Mon­day’s lo­cal pa­per! But, no, it flew on west­wards, obliv­i­ous.

In un­sea­sonal heat, we came upon a great rock that Moses might have been tempted to smite with his staff. As in Ex­o­dus, water flowed from a fis­sure through a virid­ian curtain of mosses, tast­ing de­li­ciously sweet. Five hours af­ter set­ting out, we heard, in the still af­ter­noon, the gen­tle trilling of our wives’ voices in the dis­tance. They were paint­ing and sun­bathing, deeply un­con­cerned.

Re­spect to that postie—he’d have been glad he pre-dated Parcelforce. As for tak­ing a horse, it would have had to be Pe­ga­sus.

‘Oh, the in­dig­nity of be­ing air­lifted out and onto the front page!

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