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Life in the Highlands with all the time in the world

One of the problems of modern living is to know how far you can adapt to primitive conditions, how far you have become the bond slave of comfort. Several years ago a friend offered us her cottage in the Highlands of Scotland for the summer. Handing us the keys, she added the warning words that things were on the primitive side up there. We took this as our chance to find out how deep our desire for the simple life really went.

We filled the car with paraffin, candles, a primus, and water containers. Then we drove off from Lowland Renfrewshire, passing the silvery shimmer of Loch Lomond at daybreak, on to Crianlarich, then across the Moor of Rannoch. The air we breathed smelt of heather and bog myrtle and peat smoke. We were in the Highlands. We passed through the Glen of Weeping, Glencoe, scene of the massacre of the MacDonalds by the clan campbell, under towering Buchaille Etive More.

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The cottage lay beyond Glencoe village, a whitewashed shepherd s croft. Behind it rose the Pap of Glencoe and the rough slopes of Garbh Bheinn. We unlocked the door and stepped into simplicity. There was no electricity, no running water; there was an open fireplace and four small rooms. In the field beyond the garden fence a shepherd was shearing his sheep; birds, whinchats, pippits and gray wagtails treated us a fellow birds, hopping in and out of the cottage.

In this corner of Argyll you are encircled by the Mamor hills, look down over Loch Leven and Loch Linnhe and beyond to the islands. We began the day washing in the burn, carried water to the cottage, cooked breakfast on the primus, then set off for the day. The car was our one concession to the machine, to be taken only so far, then abandoned while we went on by foot. We had our sea days, hill days, river and glen days, woodland ones walking along the twisting larch-lined forestry tracks in the heart of the hills.

Sea days were at Kentallen swimming from the steep beach in crystal clear water, then walking round the headland to the sandy beach and clover-filled meadows of Duror, still further on to Appin that we loved best of all. There is Castle Stalker, rising up, superb, on its rocky island, and one of the most beautiful views in all Scotland, looking down the blue length of Loch Linnhe to Coran Ferry, then across to Ardnamurchan and, still further, to the even bluer mountains of Mull. At Port Appin the ferry boat waits to cross to the isle of Lismore, while round the corner, in Aird's Bay, you can call seals to you with a song, and hear them calling to one another from rock to rock.

We explored the glens -- Glen orchy at Tyndrum, Glen Etive beyond Glencoe, and Glen Nevis beyond Fort William, where a rocky path twists high above the river until it reaches meadowland and the foot of the mountain called the Botach -- the Old Man. All along the road to Glen Etive the river tumbles down into the most wonderful pools we have ever swum in, deep and golden-brown, with pebbles glinting in the peaty water.

We took in the many drawbacks, those chill mornings when bathing in the burn was less idyllic, blustery days when the fire smoked, and still days of mist when the midges and clegs devoured us unmercifully. There were days when the limitations of primus- cooking were irksome, eerie nights of storm and thunder when the wind whimpered and whined at the cottage door, as if the ghosts of the Highlanders who had once lived here were crying to be let in.

Against all that we set those afternoons at Appin when the sea and sky met in a hazy golden shimmering and the sea was warm, evenings of sunset over Ardnamurchan, scarlet and gold, those white nights of July when there was almost no darkness, and nights sitting close to the peat fire, sniffing in its perfume. It was then that we realized that we had entered into what the French family called a small corner of heaven, and that, for all its disadvantages, this was the life for us.

We moved around in a country where Robert Louis Stevenson's Alan Breck and Davie Balfour walked in "Kidnapped," we followed in the footsteps of Boswell and Dr. Johnson, and in Onich and Corran Ferry, in those of Queen Victoria, who adored Scotland. "The solitude, the romance, the wild loveliness," she wrote in her journal, "all make beloved Scotland the proudest, finest country in the world."

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Interwoven with the delights of walking, swimming, and climbing were all the encounters we made with native Argyllians and tourists, with a French family who came back year after year to what they called un petit coin de paradis. There was always something going on in Fort William and in Glencoe village -- ceilidhs , concerts, and piping contests. We met trout and salmon fishermen, farmers, crofters, all with a sense of leisureliness. The phrases we heard over and over were: "There is no hurry whatever. Och, you will not be leaving yet awhile. There is all the time in the world."

Almost best of all was the evening return to the cottage, the lighting of a fire of driftwood collected along the shores of Loch Linnhe, cooking the main meal of the day on it or on the primus, then reading by candlelight. As time went on the desire to continue this simpler style of living increased.


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