Experiencing the Sound of Silence in Scotland
April 1, 2016
In Scotland, Lisa Abend disconnects from civilization and discovers something much more … civilized.
I was about 20 minutes into the four-hour train ride from Glasgow to Fort William when I realized I couldn’t stand the two men seated in front of me. This realization was based on nothing other than what I could overhear—which was every bloody word—of their conversation. They were traveling to a friend’s house, but before they arrived they would need to stop at the supermarket for cheese and wine, of course; though white, not red, since the carpets were beige and the host had a policy. One of the men also had a sister of whose parenting skills he disapproved, a nephew who would likely end up in juvenile court, a new backpack whose every compartment required minute explication, and a penchant for a Danish television series whose plot twists he could recall in terrifying detail. Did I mention that the train ride was four hours long?
I know. The problem wasn’t Mr. Chatty and his mate. It was me. In the weeks before I went to Scotland, I had found myself increasingly irritated by the constant crush of other people, crowding me in line at the market, checking their phones at movie theaters, coming at me nonstop in tides of emails, tweets, and status updates. This happens to me periodically: The deadline pressures and everyday annoyances that normally pass unnoticed accumulate until even benign human interactions begin to feel like too much, and the only thing that helps is radical solitude. I didn’t have the time for a trip to Greenland or Mongolia or some other distant, empty place, so when I read a British newspaper story about Inverie, the only town on the Knoydart peninsula, one of the most untouched parts of the Scottish Highlands, I thought it might be just the cure for my misanthropy.
The problem? Getting there. Inverie is accessible only by boat or on foot. In my state of mind, the two-day hike seemed the better choice. I planned to start at the nearest access point—a road that dead-ends at a settlement near a lake called Loch Hourn, about 50 miles from Fort William—follow the trail along the lake’s edge to Barisdale Bay, spend the night there, then head over a pass and down to Inverie. It would be a 16-mile trek through steep and rocky terrain, and at hike’s end, I would be in a town with a population of roughly 100 people, no cell phone coverage, and a pub billed as the most remote in mainland Britain.
At last, the train arrived in Fort William. I picked up some granola bars and a map, and checked into a hotel for the night. The next morning, a taxi driver named Jamie picked me up, and we set out for the 90-minute drive to Loch Hourn. I had not a minute to contemplate the hills and sheep as we passed, as Jamie and I were too busy chatting. I learned about Scottish independence (“It’s the football hoodlums that are for it”) and a tiny biting insect, smaller than a mosquito but given to traveling in swarms, that was an annual plague in these parts. “Midgies,” Jamie said. “Worse than the independentists.”
Unlike the self-absorbed man on the train, Jamie was a charming conversationalist, so I didn’t terribly mind the barrage of sound. Still, after he left me at the trailhead, a quiet fell with the abruptness of a tsunami. It wasn’t silence. Birds chirped and water ran in small, stony falls down to the loch. But there was no human sound except for the crunch of my feet on the trail. The weather was gorgeous: bright sunshine, a warm-but-not-hot temperature. The view was even better: wildflower-covered hills jutting down to shiny blue water. And when I went to check my phone for the weather forecast, I had no connection. For the first time in months, I felt relaxed and at peace.