Visiting the Assynt area in the North West Highlands last week was a wonderfully refreshing experience after months of Covid travel restrictions. This area has become more popular in recent years, since the concept of the NC500 (a circular 500 mile route around the north coast of Scotland) was floated in 2015. However, for much longer than that, this area been a mecca for hill walkers, climbers and geologists. Here it is still possible to enjoy the solitude of one of the most memorable areas of the Highlands with the characteristic shapes of the mountains like Suilven and Canisp, the broad swathes of moorland, the splintered assortment of lochs and a coastal mixture of sandy beaches and rocky headlands. The sense of discovery is still there with single tracked windy roads that open up to a succession of new vistas.
It was the first time we had been out of Edinburgh for 8 months and our first holiday on our own for a considerable time. We certainly were in need of a break. It helped that the roughly 250 mile journey from Edinburgh to Lochinver was a fitting prelude to the wilderness of Assynt, passing through beautiful countryside and skirting popular destinations in their own right, such as Pitlochry, Aviemore and the Cairngorms National Park . We have spent several summer holidays in the Newtonmore – Aviemore region when our children were young but this time the driving rain, mist and snow on the peaks was a reminder that weather in the hills can change rapidly.
My first experiences of the open space and the joy of hill walking in Scotland was way back in the 1960s when we drove up from Cheltenham in an old army truck as part of a school trip to Skye to complete our expedition for the Duke of Edinburgh Gold award, which included overnight camping. I remember the journey as being long and uncomfortable but we had a wonderful week with rock climbing, walking the Cuillin Ridge and, of course, the hike. There was one point where there was heated debate on which direction to take next, as with no roads or habitation in sight we had to use the compass to realign our map and choose the bearing on which to continue. The memory of this area made a deep impression, so that when I revisited Skye in 2017 the countryside round Sligachan and the shapes of the peaks seemed familiar rather than strange.
Being in these wild areas is a reminder of the fleeting time mankind has spent on earth, a few thousand years compared to the millennia ago when the mountains were first formed. In the 1960s there were many fewer visitors to Skye and more opportunity to enjoy the remoteness and the beauty in peace. In 2017 camper vans and large mobile trailers were parked on the roads in swathes. Often there were jams as the road was too narrow to accommodate two such large vehicles and occasionally vans got hopelessly bogged down in the peat edges and had to be winched out.
By contrast Assynt, though popular, still exudes this aura of remoteness. Rising so steeply from the surrounding land, the mountains, though not particularly high compared with others in Scotland, dominate the landscape and imprint strongly because their distinctive shapes make them easily recognisable and because they are visible from so many different angles and locations in the area.
They exert almost a hypnotic effect because one’s eye is constantly drawn to look up at them again as the colours and shadows change depending on the time of day, the quality of the light and the weather. Even in a couple of minutes the tops may disappear under a layer of cloud and then remerge in sunlight.
Early in the week we did a round trip across the peat moorland from Stoer lighthouse to Stoer Point, which offers great views of the chunky slabs of the Old Man of Stoer, standing in the seas off the point. For most of the day we were on our own, occasionally meeting couples like ourselves or seeing a group highlighted against the skyline near the trig point. For the rest of the time we were alone in the solitude of the moor but surrounded by the loud sounds of the birds, a mixture of sky larks, meadow pipits and pied wagtails. Apart from skua and some cormorant skimming low across the water there were few seabirds around and the rock ledges, known breeding sites for fulmar and kittiwake, were not yet populated. The overall feeling engendered by this walk was one of contentment and of being in touch with nature not least the lichens and the bog plants of the moor.
Being alone is a physical state: alone on a mountain peak, a moorland, down a country lane or sitting at a desk in a study. For some solitude is a necessary component of well being: for example we have a friend, who has a strong need to spend time on his own camping outdoors in unfrequented spots and this makes him feel better in himself. Loneliness is different from solitude. Being lonely is a mental state, in which an individual has feelings of isolation and a belief that the problems he/she faces are not understood by others or cannot be resolved. For many, loneliness has been a big factor during the current Covid pandemic but loneliness has been a problem many have faced as long as communities have existed.
A book that explores loneliness is the novel “The heart is a lonely hunter” , by Carson McCullers, written in 1940. I first read it at school as part of a course in English literature and it has remained in my possession ever since, with a somewhat tattered cover. Over the last year, with libraries shut, access to books has been either through the Kindle or from our own bookshelves. I have tended to the latter as my partner is both an inveterate reader and collector of books. About fifteen years ago we bought a large bookcase to accommodate these books and now I reckon we have somewhere between 3000 and 4000 books in the house. In lockdown this has been a wonderful resource to browse and to choose a book to match a mood. I have found it a great solace to become immersed in a different world and to cheer myself up, when down.
Browsing the bookcase one night I was drawn to this book and read it again. Set in a small town in the American South, the novel describes the lives of a group of disparate individuals, each of whom in their loneliness is drawn to enjoy the company of a deaf mute, John Singer. He seems to understand them because he listens patiently without interfering or imposing his own views. One character is Mick, a teenage girl; she has a family but is in that transition stage where uncertainty dominates. It is a summer where she discovers listening to music coming from a radio outside someone else’s house brings her a sense of peace and she starts composing in her mind. Listening to Beethoven’s third symphony lights up a spark of joy and the notes are imprinted in her brain, so she can recall them.
During this period she comes to the realisation that her Dad is “lonesome” too. Two of the other characters are Dr Copeland, a black doctor and strong advocate of the rights of “negroes” and Jack Blount, an educated but easily angered drunk, who moves periodically from town to town. They try and engage in conversation with each other but neither can relate to the other’s point of view. In the centre of this no one realises that Singer might be lonesome too. Graham Greene wrote that Carson McCullers was one of only two writers since D.H. Lawrence who had a sense of poetic sensibility; he admired her for her clear writing and for the fact that “she has no message”.
What the novel does portray is that there are different sources of loneliness and that it affects a wide range of people. This view is echoed today by many charities working in this sector. In 2019 , almost a year before the Covid pandemic, articles in newspapers averred that “ it is no secret that the UK is in the midst of a loneliness epidemic”, following a YouGov poll that reported that 75% of 18-24 year olds felt lonely.
Loneliness, I am sure, has always been an issue in societies but has lacked official recognition or action to alleviate it. Before her death in 2016, the MP Jo Cox initiated a commission to look at loneliness; the report was published in 2017 (‘Combating loneliness one conversation at a time’ ) and included a call to action. Following this there was a brief period when the ‘Minister for Sport’ became the ‘ Minister for Sport, Civil Society and Loneliness’. There has been action from 2019 with the setting up of the “Let’s talk loneliness” campaign , the establishment of the Jo Cox foundation, more connections between charities and those involved in community work to combat loneliness, and analysis of loneliness through surveys conducted by the Office for National Statistics.
However this Minister has now been redesignated the Minister for Sport and Tourism in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. So has the emphasis changed and has the commitment to tackling loneliness been downgraded? The answer is hard to tell. It is well recognised that loneliness has been a major problem during the Covid pandemic and newspapers have highlighted some of the problems, for example 25% of University students feel lonely, and the effects of loneliness on mental and physical health. It is unsurprising that young single people, people living in inner cities and in areas of high unemployment are more likely to feel lonely. Many of these people are also stressed, depressed and facing financial difficulties.
Lonely people suffer not necessarily because they are socially isolated but because the their connections with other people are not sufficient to enhance their sense of well being. We all need a friend or two but that friend is a friend because they understand us, empathise with us and connect with us.
It is clear that many charities such as Mind, Age UK, Silver line, and the Co-op Foundation are working to alleviate loneliness and their action plans emphasise connectivity, getting people involved in activities and projects.
There is also the benefit we can get from connectivity when we are alone; for example enjoying nature, reading books and listening to music. Anything that contributes to well-being alleviates loneliness. This is the second year that I have looking and listening to the blackbird in my garden; his song and his positivity brings me solace and peace. The photo below was taken this week in a short interval during his regular evening concert.
Listening to the blackbird works for me but there will be many small activities that can achieve the same result. In addition it seems that getting involved as a volunteer or helping a charity can bring as much benefit to the giver as the receiver.
Written between May 21st-31st