Ullapool is always lovely, says Mary Wakefield, but one time of year is particularly special …
My mother and I walk east down Argyle street, past the low stone houses, the Ullapool museum, the pub. To our right, above the slate roofs, mast-tops poke up from boats in the harbour beyond; out of a half-open window drifts the sound of a fiddler practising. Ullapool is always lovely — we come here every year, Mum and I, to paint — but this week it’s bright with excitement. The Tall Ships are coming! It’s all anyone can talk about. The Tall Ships are in the middle of their annual race — they’ve cantered across the waves from Ireland and plan to pause for a night in Ullapool before heading to Sweden — and no Viking prince, no triumphant returning fleet, has ever been so keenly anticipated. There will be a string of stalls right along the harbour wall, says Eleanor, our art teacher, there’ll be bunting and a ceilidh and a Highland fling the length of Shore Street. We pause at the far end of Argyle street, by the old graveyard where the Camerons and Frasers lie — all Donalds and their poor Annies, cheek by jowl under a coverlet of lumpy green. We imagine their subterranean whispers: ‘Did you hear about theTall Ships, Donald?’
When the Tall Ships come… if the Tall Ships come. Everything depends on the weather, and how the weather feels about Tall Ships is anyone’s guess. She might creep softly down the hills in the night and smother the town in fog; kick up a jealous storm to keep the ships at bay. On Friday night, the eve of the great day, fishermen are in hot demand as oracles, but all they do is glance upwards and grin, then shrug.
But come Saturday, the weather decides to play it fair: not the best blue she can do, but not a disaster either. There is white in the grey clouds as the Norwegian Christian Radich, full-rigged winner of last year’s race, leads the lordly way down into Loch Broom and is the first to dock.
And before long, the party is under way. The harbour is chock-a-block with pac-a-macs and flapjacks and scented soap. Young sailors from the Tall Ships’ international crews strut up and down, eyeing the local talent. Some are extravagantly handsome with dark skin and pale blue eyes; their peaked caps caught in the crook of their arms. Oh to be a Highland teen!
Each Ullapool institution airs its own particular talent. The Ullapool and District Junior Pipe Band starts up a shanty; the air ambulance hovers low above the loch, making a rosette of concentric waves. The ‘Highlands and Islands’ ferry begins a sort of demented dance, sailing in circles, spouting water from its roof in two uneven wings — one straight up, the other low like a courting cockerel.
On Sunday, the Tall Ships motor off, sails wrapped up, crow’s nests tracing the ridges above Allt-na-h-Airbhe, along the way to the Western Isles. Mum and I follow their lead, heading north out of town to Achiltibuie. We pack our paints and a bootful of sticky bottles of Avon’s ‘skin-so-soft’. Skin-so-soft, by the by, is a genuine Scottish mystery — far stranger than any monster in Loch Ness. It is worse than useless against midges; no great defect in a moisturising oil. But it has, nonetheless, a cult following of crazed devotees who have insisted for decades that it acts on them like mustard gas. Don’t believe a word of it. For any visit to the highlands or islands, arm yourself with jungle juice with at least 50 per cent DEET.
Back to Achiltibuie, where the road is a rite of passage; a test of psychological strength as much as an actual route. Past Ardmair, a left turn off the A835 takes you on to a single-car track punctuated by ‘passing places’. Oncoming vehicles must play a polite game of chicken, deciding who is to give way, and where. After half an hour I snap. ‘Why Mum, why are we pausing in every passing place, every 100 metres, even when there are no cars in sight?’
‘Just in case, darling.’ Of course. Quite right.
Once in Achiltibuie, you’d have to be a psychopath to stay cross. It’s eerily lovely here. Strange washes of light flicker across the bay. The humped whale shapes of the summer isles fade in and out of sight — one minute they’re near-invisible lilac shadows on a cloudy horizon, the next, stark black against the burning blue. It’s impossible to paint, but I have a go, and all afternoon a ringed plover keeps me company, hopping and peeping at my feet.
Mum makes a friend too. When we try to leave, for some odd reason, our battery’s stone-cold dead. But just as we’re reaching hysteria, a man appears with jump-leads and the gentle sing-song voice that marks a Islands man from a Highlands one. He starts our car as if by magic, and, as we lurch off with my wellies on the roof, offers some invaluable advice: ‘Leave things on the bonnet, why don’t you? That way you can see them when you drive off.’ It’s the most useful thing I’ve learnt this year.
As we cruise back into town, the light deepens into an awe-inspiring sunset; a tribute to the last of the departed ships. I won’t and can’t describe it, but almost as strange and moving as the apocalyptic sky are the people of Ullapool themselves. We park along the usually deserted loch-side road, get out of the car and find ourselves standing in amongst a crowd of men and women, not chatting, just watching, keeping a silent vigil as their sun sets.