This year we went on holiday to the north west coast of Scotland. We were looking for some respite from overcrowded parks, bad news and the frenzy of disconsolation, and had heard good things. The drive was long and twisting but it didn’t disappoint. With every dark loch and crag from Fort William, and what felt like the last of civilisation, our disposition improved until, cresting the final cloud-swathed incline before the Atlantic, the mist cleared and we were enveloped in a translucent light.
It got better. Our holiday home overlooked an inlet of white beaches enclosed by low hills. The water was placid, shimmering. The only human intrusions into the idyll were a tiny jetty and a handful of cottages. After unpacking, we walked down to the beach, in-and-out of coves, towards the ocean. There was a sea eagle. Horsetails and thistle and fern. Three jackdaws flew overhead, and one of the children pointed excitedly at what might have been a seal; the only people we saw were wild campers, a family kayaking in the sunshine, another becalmed on bodyboards, a long way across the hazy stillness of the water. Later, with the sky a full moon-bright, a family of long tailed mice came up to the open glass doors of our patio.
That first night, as we sat and looked out across the inlet, we spoke about what we’d seen. The landscape was glorious, the restorative qualities of unsullied land and sea and air unmatched. And then our considerations turned, as they do these days, to privilege. We knew that here was a place an almost unfathomable distance from the quotidian experience. We also knew that anyone who had the time to research its unspoiled exclusivity – and the money to pay for it – was lucky. Extraordinarily so.
The conversation was comforting, in its way. But as our reflections rippled further out into the world, as they do these days, we drifted into more troubling territory. Was there a correlation, somehow, between the privilege we were enjoying and the condition of the environment? Between the pristine nature of the place and the numbers and demographic of its visitors? Was it unspoiled because of its exclusivity? And, if so, what were the implications of this relationship for the conservation of such spaces? And for more, much more besides?
Any discomfort was passing. How could it not be? We slept a sea-air sleep and the next day, the view from the house was breathtaking. The sun glittered off the surface of the inlet and the seaweed around the jetty was an impossible green. When the tide finished sliding out to sea we retraced our steps along the beach, growing more elated with each step.
And then, at the far end of the inlet, before the beach curled round the headland to the ocean, someone saw it. On a tussock, almost like a plinth: a discarded can of coke. Not washed-up, but left there. Thrown away. In itself pristine, its metal bright and proud; a symbol, an exhibit, maybe a corrective. Either way, a threat.