My wife’s Great-Great-Aunt Mildred traveled far and wide, long before such a thing was fashionable. Late in life, Aunt Mildred wrote a memoir about her experiences. The title: Jams Are Fun. It turns out that, after seeing so much of the world, Aunt Mildred realized that it’s not always the big museums, the fancy dinners, or the castles and cathedrals that stick with you most. It’s those serendipitous moments when things go awry. And so, in the spirit of Aunt Mildred, this part of my “Jams Are Fun” series about when good trips turn bad, and the journey is better for it, takes place along Scotland’s desolate north coast.
Driving along Scotland’s north coast is treacherous. I’m not talking about the twists and turns, or the distracting scenery, or the endless miles that lull you into a trance. No, I’m taking about running low on gas. On a Sunday afternoon.
Driving up through Wester Ross and finally reaching the open Atlantic at the idyllic, beach-cradled town of Durness (where John Lennon vacationed as a boy), I spotted a sketchy-looking “24-hour fuel” place. But I still had a few liters in the tank. Assured by the tourist office that there’d be gas in the village of Tongue, farther east, I continued on my way. I had a long day of driving ahead of me: 90 miles to John O’Groats, Great Britain’s famous northeasternmost point, and the ferry to Orkney.
About 10 miles out of Durness, the “low gas” light flickered on. No problem, I thought. Tongue must be right around the bend. Then I rounded that bend, and a 10-mile-long inlet spread out before me. I’d have to go all the way around it, and then some, to reach Tongue.
Twenty miles later, with the sea loch in my rearview mirror, the gas light started to flash and beep. Now, I’ve always maintained that carmakers have an incentive to dramatically exaggerate your risk of running out of gas. I’m famously stubborn about driving to work and back — twice — with the “low gas” light on. But on this day, I hadn’t seen any signs of civilization for many, many miles. And now I was starting to get nervous.
Finally, I crossed the long, scenic bridge over the Kyle of Tongue, and started to head up the hill into town. Reaching this tiny community’s lone general store/gas depot, my heart sank when I saw the handwritten sign: “No more petrol til 2 p.m. Monday.”
Two local women were chatting in front of the store. “Are they closed?” I asked. “Yes, just closed at 2 o’clock.” My heart sank. It was about 2:15. “Um, well, where’s the next petrol station?” “You heading east or west?” “East.” Oh, that’s in Bettyhill, I suppose, eight miles away.” Phew. “But,” she continued helpfully, “they close at 2 on Sundays, as well. The next one after that would be Thurso. They’ll be open. That’s 45 miles east. Or you could head back to Durness, 35 miles west.”
My dreams of John O’Groats and Orkney by sundown were at risk. But there had to be a solution. “Do you know of anyplace here where I can get petrol?” They exchanged worried glances. “Well, the shop’s owner lives just up the road.” They gestured to where the gravel road ended, at a walled garden surrounding a grand mansion. Apparently running a general store in a small North Coast town pays very well. “Perhaps if he’s home, he’d be willing to sell you some gas.” She looked at me again, with a flicker of concern in her eye. “Perhaps.”
Perhaps would have to do. I thanked them, hopped in the car, and drove the short distance up the manicured driveway to the mansion. I rang the doorbell and waited. No answer. Just as I was about to ring it again, I heard a car’s tires grinding on the gravel behind me. A curmudgeonly, late-middle-aged Scotsman with bushy sideburns stepped out of the car and eyed me suspiciously.
I amped up the politeness and explained my plight: The Durness TI’s promise of gas here. Needing to catch my ferry this afternoon. Having just enough gas to get to Bettyhill, but knowing they’d also be closed, and certainly not having enough for Thurso. Basically: I am aware I screwed up. I am a moron. And now I throw myself upon your mercy.
At first, he was unmoved…and pretty cranky. “I didn’t realize you’d be closed on a Sunday afternoon,” I said, apologetically. “Sunday is supposed to be a day of rest!” he shot back…I’m pretty sure implying that I was sinning against God by running low on gas in north Scotland on the wrong day of the week.
Finally he relented, and agreed to meet me up at the shop. As I slathered on the gratitude, he began to warm up. “Things are a bit different up north,” he explained, with a gently helpful tone. “People take their time and don’t get out as much. Sundays are very quiet.”
He switched on the pumps, and even pumped the gas for me — and refused to take any extra money as thanks.
He headed back into his shop to close up again, and I hopped into my car. Just as I was pulling out, a German motorcyclist pulled off his helmet and started scratching his head at the same “Closed” sign that had stymied me not long before. I pulled up to him and rolled down my window. “Excuse me,” he said. “Do you know where the nearest gas is?” Now an expert on the topic, I ran through his options. Recognizing the panic on his face, I added, “Well, this guy just closed…but maybe you can talk him into selling you some gas.”
And with that, I took off.
By the way, a couple of hours later, I did make it to John O’Groats: