It?s a b*stard. It?s a b*stard. It?s a b*stard always trying to hook the audience within the initial displayable number of characters. Even worse when you?ve been away for a while and forgotten all the tricks. Okay, tricks apart, I spent five months on this one. December 2001 Crazy, prancing horses dance towards the shore, moonlight glancing off their white, frothing backs like reflected light from gems more precious than mankind has ever known. The wind turns, picks up, and whips sand from the dunes, stinging my face with an oh-so-gentle pain. A gentle pain, which echoes the effect of this moonlit seascape upon the soul. It is one thirty am, on a December Monday morning. Normal people are abed. I have walked the half mile of car-less single track road which separates me from Dunnet Bay, equipped with woolly hat and hip flask. I am seated on the dunes, the frosty December night air coursing through my lungs, as my heart absorbs the raw power of the Pentland Firth in winter. There is nowhere I would rather be. I have felt at home in Skye. I have a great affinity for Glenelg and Arnisdale. I have a rapport with Sandwood Bay. And I am comfortable and at one with many parts of the North and West of Scotland. But when I first walked the sands of Dunnet Bay, one sunny, but wild and windy afternoon; when I watched the waves breaking towards the shore, with the wind whipping the spray from their crests, and trailing it behind them like the smoke from a flotilla of steam trains hurtling towards the shore; I knew I must return by moonlight. And now I have. And on a frosty, moonlit winters evening, this is an incredible place. To the west, the frothing waves break over Castlehill Harbour, now derelict, but whence, in its heyday, sailing ships departed for Argentina, Spain and Africa, bearing cargoes of Caithnes
s flagstone, the designer material of its day. Ermm, next time you?re in Euston Station, cast your eyes downwards, if you have time. What are you walking on? And to the east, the majestic cliff formation which is Dunnet Head. We don?t get frost this close to the sea, do we? So explain the ghostly shimmering grey-white profile, of the most northerly point of mainland Britain. Sorry, John o? Groats, but the truth must come out. B*gger me, I didn?t know the St Ola sailed so late. I can see the lights of some pretty hefty vessel out in the Pentland Firth. Maybe it?s not the Ola. After all, this is one of the busiest shipping lanes in Europe. As well as being one of the most fearsome. I open the hip flask, and reflect on how lucky I am to be frozen rigid, sitting on the dunes in such a wonderful environment. As the moon sheds copious light on the sparkling breakers, eclipsing the fading lights of the passing ship, I know where I?d rather be. May 2002 Far on the North West horizon, a solid hand of cloud rises, and like the claw of some enormous prehistoric bird, separates into webbed fingers. The fingers of steely grey stretch over my head, into the unseen east behind me. The webs start translucent, then become transparent, revealing the indigo of the evening sky. Somewhere behind it all, the sun is setting. Each webbed finger bears a halo of russet. It is 10.30 on a May evening. Almost half a year since I wrote ? but didn?t post ? the first part of this op. The intensity and clarity of the evening colours is overwhelming. The grey of the fingers blends to indigo, then romps through a spectrum of reds and oranges, to arrive, finally, at something almost cream in the middle. I wish I was an artist. Maybe then I could describe all this to you without contradicting myself, and confusing my hues. Sadly,
I?m not, but I know what I see. I lower my eyes from the sky to Dunnet Bay, wherein all which is happening above is reflected. The steely greys and indigos are reflected beyond the Bay, on the fringes of the Pentland Firth. Closer to shore, the breaking waves catch and reflect the dying embers of soon-to-be-yesterday?s sun. A gilt edge on the silver surf. All of this is in the distance, of course. In the middle ground two lush green fields play host to fifty cows, each with a calf. And each calf born within the last fortnight. Most of them born easily, in these calm mild nights, and all of them romping without a care in the world, as the dying sun heads for Orkney and beyond. One or two not born easily, though. Being a handyman ? of course I?m handy, I just live round the corner from the farm (he writes, skating perilously close to a very old joke) ? I get called upon to help out at any time of day or night. I now have fetching and carrying down to a fine art. And the utmost respect for a vet, who can perform a caesarean section on an old cow with a bad delivery history and the temperament of a Serie A central defender, and a kick which could crack reinforced concrete at twenty paces, and at the same time keeping up a patter of jokes which rendered me, the farmer, and the stockman incapable of lifting a hand to assist. And it was all done with his right hand. A fag seemed permanently attached to his left. The following morning, mother and baby were both fine. Baby is now one of those gambolling between me and the sunset. Frank, if I wore a hat, I would doff it to you. But I may not eat veal again. I?ve digressed, haven?t I? Better summarise then. Above is the sky. It goes on for ever. It contains every hue in the rainbow, but it?s not raining, and you have to be here at sunset to appreciate it. Ahead is Dunnet Bay. The windsur
fers have enjoyed their day, but have now retired to the pub. The inshore fishermen are still there, though. And so are the auks. And various ducks. And at low tide, dunlin, redshank, plovers, turnstones, oystercatchers, and more wading birds than you can shake a stick at. And the colours. Let?s not forget the colours. Lest I become repetitive, refer above. And in the middle distance, and in the dying sun, gambolling calves. Again, refer above. And to complete the picture, in the foreground, a disused silage tower of nineteen forties vintage, precluded from demolition by a local heritage society?s conviction that even the recent past merits preservation. It has for many years been colonised by pigeons. The vertical trail of faeces, leaching downward from the turreted apex, becomes almost luminescent when the last rays of the setting sun turn it a whiter shade of pale. And if all of the rest of the foregoing failed, the last few lines must have reminded the oldtimers on this site, that Aspen may be long gone, but still lives. Of course, a travel opinion is incomplete, without expansive details of where to stay, how to get there, what does it cost, etc, etc. I could cheat, and enhance my chances of a crown, by copying such details from other websites. But I can?t be a*sed. Any t*sser can cut and paste. Wanna great holiday in the North of Scotland? Check out www,caithness.org. And if all else fails, email Aspen. Post Scriptum (inevitably) I must confess that I have in a previous life subscribed to a ?Writing Magazine?. One major article was on travel writing. And the absolute rule was never to write a travel feature in the first person. Oh well, broke another one then. What?s new?