Lockdown clearly put everything on hold for customers and businesses alike, causing real hardship for many i the hospitality industry. Some seem to have used the time productively - hostels being done up or adapted to all en-suite rooms ; pubs getting ahead with their social distancing protections, procedures and plans.
Uncertainty caused us huge worriies in planning our trip. We were unsure of the health risks, the rules, whether we could get on trains and ferries, and what would be open. We were close to cancelling it many times, and even after extensive research we have still frequently been surprised by big gaps in the tourist offering, especially cafes. This must have affected other potential visitors too, and has also affected businesses, who have no idea of how many customers to expect.
Public restrictions limit numbers of customers in pubs and shops, and forbid types of sharing, such as buffet breakfasts, shared hostel dormitories.
Business restrictions behind the scenes limit numbers of kitchen staff and require hugely increased cleaning. Restaurant tables, hostel and B&B rooms require deep cleaning between clients; laundry is quarantined for three days before washing.
In a tourism-dependent area like Fort William, there have been no tourists for half the season, and still many places are fairly empty. Businesses and workers rely on these few months to cover their costs over the winter. They are all worried.
Some businesses have already closed for ever. Others simply couldn't find a profitable way to re-open under the current restrictions. Most Scottish youth hostels will not re-open this year. Others opened anyway, just to survive. Government and council run services, such as community cafes seem to have fared better, as there is less need to make a profit.
The Inn at Ardgour, just across from Corran, faced a choice of going bust or opening with numbers of tables down from 21 to just seven. They also faced community pressures: there have been no Covid cases on that side of the loch, and encouraging visitors invites infection, passed by staff and their families.
There is still a welcome in the hillsides, but it's different... Perspex screens, masks, lists of instructions make it inevitably more impersonal. The cosy hostel I remembered at Inveraray was altogether more spartan, with no lounge area with books and games, just hard chairs around each room's allocated dining table.
It is striking in a place like the Highlands that some businesses focus on what customers can't do, while others have a strong focus on making customers feel welcome while also dealing with the necessities of Covid.
We have found that in remote areas, half or more of the cafes were closed. We had a few days entirely without cafes, but there was usually a shop somewhere, or we could take something with us.
Pubs and cafes that were open were often very busy or completely booked up. This all meant that more planning was essential each day, and this generally worked out well
It was a risk to go when we did, but Dave and I knew that, and I think we both felt we could deal with whatever came up. Some of the more serious risks, such as one of us catching Covid, haven't arisen (yet...), but many of the other risks we thought about have happened. Some of our hosts have been particularly supportive and understanding as our plans had to keep changing, and we're very grateful to them. I guess that is the new normal for them. Despite the difficulties, we have both enjoyed the trip, and we're pleased we managed to make it happen despite everything.