In the Easter holidays we stayed at the Bunkhouse, a hostel converted from a church in Inversnaid, near Loch Lomond, Scotland. However, by the end of our stay, I was left wondering whether it was not just the church that had undergone some sort of conversion. In the light of its former use, I started to observe the people who stayed there including myself in quite a different light.
On the top floor of the hostel was an open plan restaurant with the original stained glass windows of the church from the 1920s. I noticed the craftsman had paid particular attention to the detail of the undergrowth that the saints were walking upon in their impractical looking sandals. I found it a good motif to photograph and also quite serendipitous for a hostel for walkers to have religious art paying so much attention to the conditions underfoot.
The bunkhouse is situated in a beautiful valley. I said Guten Tag to the many well-equiped German walkers setting off on the next stage of the Highland Way, which runs alongside Loch Lomond. There was also an English mother and son, who had arrived not on foot, but in a red cabriolet. There was a couple camping in front of the Bunkhouse, who had spent the previous evening stretching their muscles outside their tent, lithe in their lycra walking gear, unified in their own celebration of their sculpted and fit walked bodies.
We headed off to see the Rob Roy ‘viewpoint’ of Loch Lomond. My party were also looking for a cache, a small cannister that people hide and you can find via GPS by searching the area it points to. The spot turned out to be too dangerous though, even for the adults. It was too steep, the undergrowth too slippery to walk up and we gave up. So we began searching for the viewpoint instead. We found a large wooden sign that said ‘viewpoint’ which was lying in a bog, propped it up and pointed it in the direction we had ascertained by GPS. The path too promised a way, but we couldn’t walk on it, just on the banks above and around it, as it was so muddy and wet that you would quickly sink down up to your ankles. All around us the moss was an alien green colour, an extraterrestial landscape of small hillocks.
I took two pictures, one light and one dark of the same view of Loch Lomond, pointing my phone at the ground and the sky to get two wrong exposures, over and underexposed. When we made our way back down from the view, the ‘viewpoint’ sign had fallen down again.
When I looked at the series of photographs I had taken afterward, including the pictures of the saint’s feet from the bunkhouse, I now realised, in horror, that they looked very loaded with religious meaning. I had found black humour in photographing defunct signs but I realised the photo series could be easily misinterpreted as a sign of spiritual crisis and lack of direction. It looked as if I had found enlightenment up in the hills around Loch Lomond with my dark image of Loch Lomond followed by an overly light one.
On our last morning, I went back down to our small monk-like room at the Bunkhouse during breakfast. I had forgotten something – I have now forgotten what it was now. As I opened the door it revealed two spandexed legs. Looking around the door, I discovered the legs belonged to a small wiry man, who was rifling through my rucksack. He was ‘searching’ for something, apparently, and in his confusion had ‘found himself’ in the wrong room, and, by coincidence, his bag also looked ‘exactly the same as yours’. We were later told he had arrived at the bunkhouse at 2 am, and the nice guys who run the bunkhouse had heard the alarm go off and found him frozen at the door ‘in a bad way’ and had taken him in.
Back in the breakfast room, I met the lady with the red cabriolet again who told me she had bought the car because, ‘it was fabulously expensive, overpriced for its range, according to Jeremy Clarkson, but too slow around the bends for his liking, so perfect for her then’. Her other son had stayed at home with her husband, ‘very probably playing computer games’. ‘Scotland won’t know what has hit it’ was the phrase her computer-playing son had sent her off with or some such comment on her purchase and newly found wanderlust. A second hand purchase, it was the only decent car she’d ever owned, and now she was running around Scotland in it, having a great time.
The mother and son said goodbye, the shiny red car folding expertly in upon itself to become a cabriolet. ‘Basically I wanted a comfy leather sofa on wheels’, she told me as before she left, wielding a rather large and rather expensive looking telescope for stargazing in her hands.
I sat in my usual spot on the bench outside the bunkhouse, taking in a few rays of sunshine before it was time for us to leave. I started chatting to a man with a bike, who liked to ride down Munros (hills over 3,000 feet in Scotland), at top speed. He smoked his roll ups, and drank his coffee, as if he was waiting for the right moment when there would be enough nicotine in his lungs to propel him down the hill again. He fingers were markedly black, not nicotined stained, but industrial dirt so engrained that it looked like it was part of him. He wrapped them around his mobile as he told his mum his whereabouts and plans for that day. He looked weather beaten and content. He told me to look out for the flats where he lived, ‘next to the tower block when you get to Anniesland’ as you take the bus down from Tarbet to Buchanan Bus Station in Glasgow.
On my return home, I was reminded of the saints in their sandals as I picked out two ticks from my younger son’s arm and searched the Internet, ruefully reading instructions to tuck trousers into socks and use insect repellent. I thought of the man whose hobby it was to fly down mountains at break neck speed over the undergrowth, detailed so well on those stained glass windows, finding peace in a roll up and a coffee. Some of us had been searching not for meaning or something hallowed as the original visitors to the original refuge may have done, but a metal tin or ‘cache’ in which you could sign your name to prove you were there. As for myself, I had tried to photograph my surroundings and what lay under foot with my mobile phone, not really having a clue about what it was that I was looking for. And another women had decided to give the undergrowth a miss altogether, choosing to search the skies for stars with her telescope and finding earthly comforts in the leather finish of her cabriolet.