Van lady meets Ghillie.

I’ve done it again, writing my blog later than I had intended, please forgive me!  

If you recall; I was at the very top of mainland Scotland and as it stood I had achieved my main goal: finding the origin of my name. In addition I discovered amazing creative people, done things I hadn’t done before, like injecting sheep and meandered through wonderful scenery. But, mentally I was none the wiser and emotionally I was feeling vulnerable. In fact you could say I was more confused as I had no purpose or goal to pursue. The thing with constantly moving on was that I was always on the outside looking in, never on the inside, never belonging to a place or person or people. 

Someone on my travels told me about a small community that lived on Mull opposite the tiny Isle of Iona. I contacted them and asked if I could visit – it was a destination. To get to the island of Mull I was given a couple of options. One was to drive down as far as Oban and take the ferry from there. Or, head via Fort William for Lochaline on the Morven Peninsula, from which the ferry crossing to Mull is shorter and therefore cheaper. I chose the latter.

I was still enjoying amazing weather; warmth, sunshine and very little rain. I was later to find out just how rare that was in Scotland especially on the West Coast of the Highlands. I decided to get to Fort William by following the coast as much as possible via Ullapool. As I drove along I had started to notice that my van started to overheat on steep roads, which meant I had to make frequent stops to allow the engine to cool down. I checked the radiator and the water level was fine. I had no idea what was causing the problem, but I trundled on living on the hope it would keep going. 

I got to Fort William and found it disappointing, a rather ugly town. It had been redesigned to cater for a new rail station, tourism and coach trippers. I stopped at a petrol station and asked about Lochaline. I was told that it was only about one and half hours drive if I took the ferry from Corran (9 miles south of Fort William) to Ardgour thereby avoiding driving 33 miles to Ardgour if I drove around Loch Linnhe. My van seemed to be okay and Fort William didn’t appeal as a stopping place, so I decided to continue on to Lochaline using the Corran ferry. I had assumed that as Lochaline had a ferry to Mull it would be like Ullapool with shops and more importantly a garage. However, I didn’t check this theory out.

Corran Ferry

The ferry crossing to Ardgour is short and stunning. It offers passengers views up and down Loch Linnhe and on clear days even views of the top of Ben Nevis. I disembarked from the ferry going left towards Strontian.  I had only driven 2-3 miles when I realised I was again entering remote territory, very beautiful and akin to parts I had seen much further North. The road was so quiet that sheep crossed it safely at will, that was until the holiday drivers arrived.

Before reaching Strontian I took the one and only road that would take me the other side of Loch Sunart and onto Lochaline, positioned at the very end of the road. It was also a single-track road all the way, 20 miles, with occasional passing places. The road also has one of the steepest inclines I was to come across. Though the ‘climb’ was compensated by the most wonderful view when you got to the top, it was the last straw for my old van. The road not only got higher but so did the van’s temperature gauge!  We made it, just! I pulled into the viewing point, parked, turned off the engine and waited for the engine to cool down, praying that when it did it would start again. A couple of hours passed, it was late afternoon, I took a deep breath, turned the ignition and much to my relief  it started! I was off to Lochaline again

The road seemed endless and luckily there were no further steep climbs but even so the engine started to overheat after only a few miles regardless of whether we were going up or down, that meant  frequent stops. I had not passed a phone box since Ardgour, 20 miles back, and there was certainly nothing as far as the eye could see, so I had no choice but to hope the van would keep going. I had passed only 4 vehicles since I turned onto the single-track road so I started to wonder just how big the place called Lochaline was! 

To my relief I passed a sign which indicated I had about 2 miles to go.  I passed a few houses (they turned out to be the homes that had been given to the Islanders from St Kilda when the Island had been evacuated). To my left I looked down on Loch Aline at the top of which sat the most enormous grand house. I could also see Mull in the distance as the road started to descend. I then passed a terrace of houses as I drove into Lochaline. My spirits rose. That was short lived! Where were the shops? I saw one which had a couple of petrol pumps but it was closed. Where was the garage? I continued till I could go no further, the last building was Lochaline hotel. I parked up, went in and asked where was the nearest garage. I was told that the only one was in Acharacle, 32 miles away on the same road I had come in on! I explained my situation and was told I could try Ian, a mechanic, who works on the Ardtornish Estate.  “He sometimes does odd jobs for people” His workshop turned out to be at Ardtornish House, the big grand house, I had seen from the road. 

Off I went not realising that to get the estate office and workshop which were situated beyond the large house, I had to go down a steep road. Going down didn’t worry me but I had no idea how I would get back up if the guy at the garage couldn’t help.

Ardtornish House ,Morven.

I drove down and across the end of Loch Aline bay, it is stunning, continued driving into the yard/reception area of Ardtornish Estate. My goodness I had landed in a 1930s film set! There was an office for the Estate’s Factor, an office which acted as a reception, an ancient wooden box which housed the only petrol pump, stables, and other outbuildings, it was deserted! Everything was so quiet I thought I was in the wrong place. I had no choice but to wait it out till the next day in the hope that the place would come to life and help would be at hand.

I parked near the wooden box. It was still light so I went for a walk, found the market garden, which was closed, walked up the track passing the three terraced houses which marked the end of tarmac and the start of a footpath which takes you into the wilds beyond and a well used bothy. I returned to my van, made supper and turned in for the night.

I woke up early and saw a jeep go past but it didn’t stop and then another which did and out stepped the Factor for the Estate. I knew this because he had the keys to the Factors office! I approached and explained my situation and he told me, Ian, would be in later as he had gone to Fort William to get some parts. I was given permission to stay where I was till his return.

Having nothing to do I walked along the lower road which takes you along the side of the Loch and out to the sea overlooking Mull. It was beautiful, sunny, and I even saw an otter!

By the time I had got back Ian had returned and said he’d take a look at my van the next day, it was too late and he was busy. It was while I was talking to him that the jeep I saw earlier went past again but this time it stopped. Out stepped a rather striking man with beard, very twinkly eyes, smoking a pipe. I reckon he must have been in his 50s, slim with a smiling confident presence.

“So, who do we have here Ian?” Smiling in my direction.

Ian had never asked my name so simply explained my van needed a repair.

“Well, I am Jake, pity about the van”

“Yes, it is, I’m Johan”.

“Catch up with you later Ian” and off he drove up the hill in the direction of the three houses.

The next day Ian checked the van and the news was not good at all! I had apparently been done! Whoever had fitted the reconditioned engine hadn’t put in a thermostat and therefore the engine had blown a gasket and may be a write off! 

What to do?  No money, no van and I’m in the middle of nowhere!

My options, according to Ian, were carrying a lot of water and try to see if the van got me home! (He didn’t know the van was my home and had no idea where I originally travelled from.)  Or get to a garage in Fort William. I have to say it; Ian was your typical dower Scot! Not friendly, not talkative, and quick to make assumptions! As far as he was concerned I was a stupid woman, a type of gypsy, potential trouble and worse, I was English! As far as he was concerned he simply wanted me out of his hair!

I thanked him and patiently, firmly and as politely as I could explained that those options didn’t make sense as there was no guarantee my van could get me up and out onto the road from Estate let alone all the way to the ferry! As for home ! My base was London but my flat was rented out so there was no home for me to go to!

“So, any other ideas?” 

It’s odd, but another thing about dower Scots, and Ian in particular, they quiet like assertive females! Ian actually smiled!

It was decided that I would stay around while Ian, when he had a moment, would enquire about the cost and the possibility of getting another reconditioned engine. Bearing in mind how remote we were, if one was found it would have to be brought or collected from a very long distance!

I went to the Factor updated him on my circumstances and asked if I could park my van in the field next to the stable till a solution was to be found. I also asked if there was anywhere I could get a shower. The field was agreed but the only utility I could access was the washing machine in the big house which had been converted into holiday flats. Therefore, the only shower or washing facilities on offer were in the stables which meant me in my knickers (a necessary modesty as jeeps, walkers, holiday makers etc often went past) under the stable yard tap, goodness the water was cold.

It soon became obvious that Ian was in no hurry to sort out my van and, besides, I didn’t have enough money to fix it anyway. 

I was also getting desperate for a warm shower. I tried to barter my labour to the market garden owners in return to use their bathroom. They weren’t keen on me sharing their toilet facilities but did offer me some paid work which I took. It was weeding the strawberry beds and in the poly tunnels. 

I settled down, enjoying my riverside view and arranged for my sons to join me for a holiday. I walked the 4 miles to the only shop in Lochaline for my shopping and would stop for a snack from the van on the pier.  There was no public transport at all, not even to Fort William! If I needed anything other than basic supplies. The only town I could get to by foot was Oban via the Isle of Mull. That meant the 4 mile walk into Lochaline, the ferry to Mull, a bus on Mull  to Craignure where I got another ferry to Oban. 

As it was summer, especially whilst I was working, I had to cover myself from head to foot in garments plus a netted hood over over my head and face to avoid being eaten alive by midges! I ended each working day very dirty and very sweaty. Getting access to a bathroom had by then become a fixation. I had to get access to a bathroom somehow!


I went and asked in the estate office if there was anyone who worked on the estate I could ask as all the cottages nearby were let to holiday makers, so I couldn’t approach them. Janet who worked in the office had one suggestion. Jake.  By then I had become a sort of trusted eccentric – The Van Lady – made official by The Royal Mail who had the postman deliver the post direct to my van. I was also about to be employed by the Estate as a ‘Rhody Basher’. A clearer of rhododendrons to enable the native plants to thrive again. 

It turned out Jake came originally from Cumbria (worked it out? – hmmm, not a soft southerner nor a rugged dangerous sheep shearer from the far north, but from the borders, so maybe just right, thought Goldilocks).  He had been a member of the mountain rescue team in Glencoe and a very respected mountain climber. He did all the maintenance for the estate and was a member of the local volunteer fire brigade as well as a volunteer coast guard. He was a well-loved character. His wife had died from cancer two years before and, according to Janet, the house was a mess and he was not managing well at home.  In fact he had had a fire in his kitchen six months before I turned up and he’d done nothing to clean it since. Janet reckoned he needed some help so I should go and try there. I found out later that there had been some discussion on the estate that Jake and I should get better acquainted.

Jake lived in the end house of the three on the hill. I knocked and called out. He came to the door and smiling invited me into the blackened parlour which was off the kitchen. By what I saw, he certainly did need some help and I certainly needed the use of his shower, even though that too was broken. The Van Lady had met the Ghillie. It was going to be a very testing relationship, as we were both unlike anybody either of us had ever met before!

Next time: the relationship, my son Simon and Australia.