The Highlands might start just 20 miles away from the creaky old house in Glasgow that I grew up in, but 20 miles is a long way in a country that’s only 37 miles wide at its narrowest point.
In fact, for a substantial part of my childhood, I didn’t even know the area to the north of my hometown was called “The Highlands.” We didn’t go to the Highlands for weekends, we went to “the Caravan”—an approximately two-square-mile area north of Crianlarich and just short of Tyndrum, around the fern-filled clearing where our decrepit 13-foot-long Sprite caravan sat rusting into the mountainside. The ferns acted as helpful camouflage against Forestry Department sightings of our illegally parked accommodation, as helpful insulation against the weather and as consummate breeding grounds for a particularly voracious subspecies of Highland biting midge. At the Caravan, we would while away the occasional sunny spells with our own Highland games—complicated battles based on skillfully knocking empty Tennent’s Special beer cans off rocks on the banks of the Cononish. My mum would amaze us all by skimming stones right across the river, often to the alarm of a sheep innocently grazing on heather on the other side. At night, we would perform great feats of strength by attempting to topple Mark out of his bunk whenever he had just nodded off. It was like tossing a snoring caber, but far more dangerous and infinitely more amusing. Traditional Highland food consisted of extremely burnt potatoes and charred sausages, cooked on an open fire on the riverbank when it was dry, and cans of Spam and McVities Digestive Biscuits when it rained. We could not have dreamed up food more delicious or exotic. Traditional music up there, far from plug sockets and Strathspey Society CDs, was my mum singing My Lagan Love, my dad singing The Loch Tay Boat Song, or Brian, the youngest, breaking into peals of his sudden and delighted laugh, while the rain battered the roof of the aged fibreglass trailer and the midges multiplied endlessly outside.
The Caravan and its environs were a magical place where, if we lay still long enough, we would see deer loping down to river for a drink, where we could scamper along hoof-trodden sheep trails through the heather to explore the ruins of 18th century villages, abandoned during the Highland clearances, and where we could plant a rowan sprig one season and by the next, the relentless rain would have propelled it to truly impressive heights. Today, a tree planted by my sister Ciara towers 60 feet above a bristling profusion of lush green ferns and the rusted base frame of what once was a much loved 1970 Sprite caravan.