The High Road, Excerpt Three: The Walk to Sandwood Bay

Callum was pleased to entrust the box of beer he'd been carrying, which he noted wryly was Stella Artois, to the Argocat driver, a man who looked like a caricature of a ghillie on a highland shooting estate in all but the absence of a deerstalker hat.

He then shifted his rucksack to make it more comfortable and turned in the direction people were heading, towards the loch.

'You're Steven Fox, aren't you?' It took Callum a fraction of a second to remember that he was meant to be Steven Fox. He turned around to meet the smile of a woman who had, he presumed, just placed her load in the rear of the eight-wheeled Argocat and was walking over to him.

The woman was tall, perhaps a couple of inches shorter than his own 6ft; and carried herself with confidence. She was wearing a blue Berghaus jacket that was unzipped and revealed a darker blue fleece beneath it. Black leggings and brown Dubarry boots completed the ensemble. She had long brown hair and, he noticed, brown eyes. She also had facial features that looked quite familiar.

'Hello,' he said. 'I'm guessing you are Sophie and Emily Mackay's mother?'

The smile broadened. 'Yes, I'm Jenny Mackay. I'm pleased to meet you. The girls told me to look out for a tall stranger.'

Callum was doing some rapid calculations as the noise made him turn to watch the Argocat head off across country, taking a route well to the east of the path they were following. The Mackay twins must have been eighteen, if only recently, yet Jenny Mackay looked in her mid-thirties, or perhaps her late thirties at a push. No time like the present, he thought. As they turned to walk together along the track he said, 'They look exactly like you, but surely you're not old enough to have daughters their age?'

Jenny laughed. 'Appearances can be deceptive. But yes, I was quite young when I had them. They tell me you have twins, too.'

'Yes, 10-year-old boys called Matthew and James. They're identical, like Sophie and Emily. Their mother could always tell them apart when they were younger. It took me a little longer but I got there in the end. As far as the rest of the world is concerned, they are still indistinguishable, except that we've never dressed them the same. Even with school uniforms, we try to give a clue as to who is who. I suppose when they get older they'll become easier to distinguish.'

'Don't count on it,' said Jenny. 'Sophie and Emily always make sure they get their hair done at the same time and in the same way. Their only real concession to the rest of the world is that Sophie often wears blue or green tops and dresses, while Emily favours red and yellow. I think they like that no one except me can tell them apart unless they allow them to. It's got more complicated since they've been going out with boys. You might have seen their boyfriends last night. They are nice lads who they met at school, but I don't think they'll stay the distance when the girls move on to university. I sometimes wonder if Sophie and Emily swap tops, and boyfriends, without letting on, just for variety and out of mischief.'

Callum wasn't sure he'd heard that correctly and Jenny must have seen the look of doubt on his face.

She laughed. 'I'm pulling your leg, Steven.'

They walked in comfortable silence for a while. Some distance further on, the path passed between a pair of upright wooden posts that seemed to serve no purpose and, a little beyond, it crested a gentle ridge. Callum stopped in his tracks. 'Wow!'

'Yes, it is rather special, isn't it?' said Jenny. 'From here we are looking obliquely along the length of the beach from the south: it faces north-west out into the Atlantic. It doesn't look like it from this angle, but the beach is around a mile and a half long. At the far end, it rises to cliffs, and they continue all the way to Cape Wrath, which is five miles further north. If you look, you can just see the top of the lighthouse at Cape Wrath rising above that headland at the far end of the bay.' Callum could, but would never have noticed it if it hadn't been pointed out to him.

Jenny swept her arm around to the right. 'Over there is Sandwood Loch, which has an outlet across the beach into the sea.'

Callum pointed to a roofless stone building between them and the loch. 'Is that an old house?'

'Yes, that's all that's left of Sandwood Cottage. These days it's often used as a base by people who come here to camp. There's a story that it's haunted by the ghost of an ancient mariner, though accounts differ as to whether he was a sailor on a Spanish Armada galleon that was said to have been wrecked here with its treasure, or whether the ghost wears a reefer jacket and mariner's cap and lost his life a century or two back.'

The noise of the Argocat making its way across the ground below them reminded Callum they still had a distance to walk and he set off again down the path. 'Sorry, I'm keeping you from the party.'

'No, you're not, Steven. The whole thing is the party, really.'

'You talked of ships being wrecked here, is that something that still happens?' asked Callum.

'Not with modern technology, and presumably much less since they built the lighthouse back in the 1820s. But I did read an account by a guy who travelled across Scotland extensively in the 1930s. He talked of being astonished about the number of old wrecks he found just lying on the sand here. I've never seen a trace of a shipwreck in the bay, though a year or two back the tide did uncover the engine of a Spitfire aircraft that crashed here during the war. And long-term locals will tell you that it wasn't all that long ago, maybe fifteen years or so, that a light aircraft crash-landed here. They had to carry it out in pieces.'

'Wasn't there an Argocat handy then?' asked Callum.

'No, and if anyone asks there isn't one here now, nor a Land Rover ferrying people up and down the track. The conservation charity that owns the area would go ballistic if all this was ever drawn to their attention. That's part of the reason why people go to so much trouble to clear up after the party each year. And to minimise its impact on the landscape, the Argocat carries everything but the last-minute stuff a very long way round, using a track to a bothy that lies along the valley from Sandwood Loch.'

Callum could see people ahead of them on the track, and behind them. 'You can't possibly do this every year and expect it to remain a secret! And what happened during Covid?'

'There was a break during lockdown but it kicked off again last year: if anything bigger and better than before. And it depends on what you mean by “a secret,” but it's worked so far. There are a few rules. No posting of photos or any mention of the event on social media, before or afterwards. And no swimming in the sea, however much you've drunk. A corpse would be difficult to explain away, and that's what any swimmer here would rapidly become.'

'So, the landowners never know?'

'Not as an organisation, though I daresay members of their staff are here tonight as part of the local community.'

'What about human waste?'

'It's all very organised. The Argocat will have brought in two portable loos for the ladies earlier today. They are set up out of sight in the dunes. Gents are encouraged to pee in the sea, which can lead to wet feet if they misjudge a wave. Anyone wanting to do anything more serious is encouraged to use the public loos back at the car park before setting off for the beach. The aim is to make sure that no one who isn't here for the party will ever know it has happened.'