After hugs on the doorstep, I start up the Land Rover and begin my last journey of the year to the Highlands. Do I leave with a heavy heart? If truth be told the answer is no because this November journey to Ullapool is undoubtedly my favourite drive of the year. On the way I will be seeing so much autumnal splendour, but it is not just my eye that is in for a treat. Driving on your own for 400 miles means you can play a lot of music and be as self-indulgent as you like, especially when there are no teenagers in the back seats to moan about your choice.
And being in a Land Rover, which is not the quietest vehicle ever designed, it means you get to play it LOUD. I always split the journey and stop overnight near Callander so I can experience the glens, lochs and mountains the following day in daylight. I take the long way round, spurning the faster A9 to Inverness and enjoy instead a slower but more scenic route via the Trossachs, Glen Coe, Glen Garry, Glen Shiel, Glen Carron and then on to Ullapool.
Overnight there has been heavy rain and the forecast is for sunshine and showers. A mile outside of Callander the high hills come into view for the first time. I am thrilled to see that they have fresh snow on the ridges and from the tree-line down to Loch Lubnaig is an avalanche of colour. I have done this journey so many times that I know every twisting mile and I’m convinced the Land Rover enjoys it as much as I do. All that’s missing is the music. I pull over and select my “driving” playlist, set it to shuffle and then head off on what is going to be a memorable drive.
As I approach Rannoch Moor, the great driving songs just keep on coming…George Thorogood’s Bad to the Bone; Insomnia by Faithless; Neil Young’s Rockin in the Free World. Next up is surely the greatest pop song ever: Teenage Kicks by the Undertones. When I pass spellbound alongside snow-topped Buachaille Etive Mor and drop down into Glen Coe, an Audi screams past me breaking the sound barrier. As I have to plan about three weeks in advance if I want to overtake anyone, I decide instead to turn the volume up even further.
I cross the Ballachulish Bridge and slow down to sneak a glance at the Pap of Glencoe, then press on to Fort William. I’ve forgotten about the volume level and get the shock of my life when the opening riff of Lenny Kravitz’s American Woman bursts out of the speakers. It's so loud I nearly leave the road.
Next comes the finest section of the journey, through Glen Garry where the birches are dripping with so much autumn colour that it is like driving through a ticker tape parade. There are potential photographs around every bend, but I push on as I want to get to Ullapool in daylight. To compensate I play a game with myself where I try to frame up images as I drive. The Land Rover’s wing mirrors are 5 x 4 format; the rear-view is 6 x 17 panoramic; and the windscreen itself is 16 x 9. I endeavour to bag all three in the photographic equivalent of a Scottish MacNab.
As I reach Glen Shiel and the Five Sisters, the Land Rover is now as warmed-up as it ever will be and is running on auto-pilot and cruise control. It doesn’t have cruise control of course, but if I do go over 70mph then my teeth start to fall out, so it’s the next best thing. Then Ian Drury’s Reasons to be Cheerful comes on and I think of a life that burned twice as bright, but sadly for half as long. Next is Lou Reed’s Walk on the Wild Side and now he too is sadly missed. I join in the chorus out of respect…and the coloured girls go do di do di do. Luckily, in Glen Shiel nobody can hear you sing.
By now the road signs are in Gaelic and I see a shinty pitch for the first time. As I turn east for Glen Carron there is the briefest panoramic glimpse of Skye in the rear-view mirror. With my journey starting to come to an end I begin to slow down so I can savour every last mile, even though the road to Garve has to be one of the finest driving roads in the Highlands. I pass the Corriesalloch Gorge and Loch Broom and start to lose height. The white houses that line Ullapool’s foreshore come into view, along with the ferry terminal to the Outer Hebrides and the end of my drive.
One of the last songs to play is a live version of 5.15 by The Who. As I accompany Roger Daltrey and get out of my brain on the train, my mind wanders back in time to the period in my life when I was a reluctant commuter and it was the size of my mortgage that dictated the direction I had to travel in. As a photographer I may not earn anywhere near as much as I did then, but these days I head where I want to go, and that means more.