‘Excuse me, are you from Tain?’
‘What’s it like round here?’
‘There’s bugger all. You’re better off going back to Inverness.’
– Conversation with a man outside Asda, Tain.
Ah, Inverness. You once seemed like the very definition of distance, a remote town that I associated in my mind with a 5pm curfew and snowfall in June. As ever, travel rubs away the ignorant patina that comes with a parochialism I never suspected I had, but no doubt harboured. Visit Inverness? Yes, because it’s not too bad a place.
I awake in the best hostel by far of this trip. The Inverness student hotel is cheap, cosy, and very friendly, and for a mere two quid I get a giant’s breakfast of juice, home made scones, piles of toast and bowls of cereal. There’s free coffee, tea and wi-fi! Sat in the main area, conversation casually flickers between whoever you happen to be sat next to. Young and old people sit about from across the world. I feel like I’m fifteen again, on the threshold of discovering so many different parallel lives, each alive with energy and adventure. It’s dizzying and exciting.
Over a map I meet Abe, who has travelled up from London with a couple of European friends. After talking about the wonders of the landscape, Abe asks me about my own project, and conversation moves onto the possibility of political change. He retains a kernel of hope which I find inspiring.
‘When the shit hits the fan, people can change. Look at the Second World War, in four years people changed the way they lived and worked. It can be done again.’
His friends are unsure of what he means, and he explains the world wars in a nutshell. ‘Lions led by donkeys’ is how he introduces the slaughters of the trenches. But the mobilisation of the entirety of the people into publicly-owned industries indicates that a certain kind of socialism is the most effective way of a state organising (for a war, at least…).
‘People can be malleable, we can adapt, either way, something it has to be done. Places like Bangladesh will disappear in floods, food prices will rise, but when does action start?’
I’m a little pessimistic, and share my fears that the moment for curtailing dangerous emissions has passed through in a series of events of pathetic inaction and self-serving economic aggression. I ask if people in the future will look back on this era as a colossal failure to act. Yet if an industrialised country like Germany can achieve sourcing up to 75% of its energy from its renewables, surely a modern and progressive country (like an independent Scotland…? But the oil) might achieve something similar.
But these speculations rest on two unproven and, to my mind, flawed notions. Firstly, that reason will prevail, and simply demonstrating the contradictions of a thing is sufficient to persuade the distant powers to repair it. Second, that people actually possess the power to act. I mention to Abe the cases of Greece and Ireland and their relations to the EU. Ireland was seemingly coerced into re-voting to agree to ratify the EU Treaty of Lisbon in 2009 after voting no the previous year – no was not the right answer. As with the democratic rights of Greeks in their economic collapse and devastating bailout, well there’s enough in the public domain to demonstrate what a disaster this has been.
So what about a UK referendum on remaining within the EU? The government has already established a clear path to leaving already, aided by years of aggressive anti-EU opinions in the popular press. The dream of turning London into an independent tax haven has become a reality, and recent politicking to prevent the election of a pro-EU integration leader has made the current prime minister deeply unpopular in Europe, and even more popular at home. Often referenda and elections are made to confirm a direction that has already been established. It is this problem for democracy which concerns me most on my trip. As I share it with Abe, I realise I’m no closer to an answer.
Consider the endemic social problems discovered in England and Scotland so far on this trip: inadequate supply and construction of housing, low pay, bad jobs, unemployment, malnutrition, a decline of communities following the removal of industry, a general experience of uncertainty and stress in work, a fear of crime, and a general unhappiness about the state of things. Is it a case of waking all my interlocutors up? Should I help them with grassroots organising or peoples’ assemblies? I’m not sure.
It’s easy to be cynical, as many are, because the established network of power seems invincible. I feel it would require some kind of symbolic victory outside of any current political language to kickstart the belief in positive change without any reference to the past. A march that becomes a riot, or a well-placed symbolic attack like Pussy Riot or Voina. Or take something like the tragic death of Mohamed Bouazizi in Tunisia. A moment like this led to a wave of uprisings across North Africa, many abortive. What if protestors had torched government buildings and police stations instead of themselves? Ah, but it would lead to a void of power which could be filled with armies or paramilitaries, as in Egypt or Ukraine.
There’s a need then for a new kind of model of change, one that could defend itself against military forces whilst ensuring a cooperative and cohesive participation of the majority. It’d need a clear idea of the kinds of rights and institutions it would establish. Would turkeys vote for Christmas…? No, there’s evidence throughout modern history of progressive change, from the establishment of a mass education system to the welfare state. Small things that were unthinkable even twenty years ago like Fair Trade coffee, or recycling most everyday gods, have become the norm for us. So what’s the first condition of starting change…? A common grievance, a belief in change, a plan for its remedy, cooperation and organisation among people, popular support, and a willingness to break laws to see it through…
This hostel must sound like a hotbed of radicalism! I apologise for digressing, as conversations spanned other borders. I meet a retired couple from New Zealand who have come over to see the Highlands and Skye. The lady I talk to has family from Skye who were forced out by the 19th century clearances. Her partner reflects on it.
‘Today there’s more Scots in Dunedin [New Zealand] than Inverness! But those subsistence farmers, they were cleared everywhere. That whole way of life is gone.’
I’ll explain the clearances a little later. I’m full of food and ready for exploring. Following a tip from Danni, I decide to detour south to Loch Ness, following the eastern side of the great expanse where there’s less tourism and prettier beaches. The road to Dores is around eight miles up and down some slopes but pleasant enough, and well worth it for what awaits. Loch Ness is quite wonderful, and carries with it a gentle atmosphere of peace. I look out at Dores beach, next to a young couple who gaze equally spellbound into its distant waters and mountains for a few minutes. In the distance I spot a dark mound which I playfully note to myself as conclusive evidence of the Loch Ness Monster. Being short-sighted helps one’s conviction in these things.
‘I need to be outside sometimes’, says the girl to her lover, ‘too much time indoors and the stress just grows on you.’
I wander out to the beach, where the Loch’s only full-time researcher lives in a small hut surrounded by makeshift models of Nessie. Steve has been here since 1991. I ask him if the rumours are true.
‘We just don’t know.’
Steve was first convinced that it was some kind of descendant of a prehistoric dinosaur, but now tends to the view that it might be a group of catfish or other large fish. Has he seen it? ‘Once. It was like a torpedo rushing through the bay.’ I ask him if he’ll stay. He’s unsure, and as I talk, he regularly becomes distracted by the puzzle of the Loch, gazing meditatively into the distance. ‘More chance of it being a spaceship than a dinosaur!’ He tells me that the Loch is most beautiful in autumn. He’s another intriguing fellow one finds on these roads.
I head into the Dores Inn for a drink and to catch up with writing. Time in the Cairngorms has put me quite behind with my scribbles, and it’ll worsen in the wilds to come. The only section of the pub with internet coverage is the bar, and as I sit over a stool bashing the keyboard, locals pop up and make conversation. I meet Michael, a young feller who works as a skyliner, a highly dangerous form of tree-cutting.
‘Aye, it’s dangerous but I love it. I get a grand a week, 11 days on, 3 off. Out in the hills, I see new places every day. I love being out on the hills man.’
He used to work in bars, and then as a truck driver for his step-dad. Neither brought him much happiness. The lifestyle of trucking nearly killed him. Gallons of red bull and forty fags a day led to a huge stomach ulcer. Doctors in hospital put it down to constipation until he showed them the green skin around his belly to prove it. An emergency operation ensued, and he spent many days in hospital in great pain, being a little unfortunately allergic to morphine. During that time he fell out with his step-dad, and the experience led him to start something new. Him and his mate Dale buy me drinks and ask about my plans.
‘Wait til ya hear about this nutter going round Britain?’
‘Mate it ain’t as bloody mad as your job!’
He invites me to his work, but the 3am starts and climbing huge trees seems pretty scary. A-roads at 11pm are sufficiently perilous thank you. But it’s just another instance of that wonderful discovery of friendliness and hospitality found in nearly every part of these isles I’ve visited so far.
On the way back from Dores to Inverness the traffic builds up badly, and on the narrow roads, cars struggle to overtake me, and two cyclists ahead, safely. I see my first road accident of the journey when a motorcyclist injures his legs somehow (collision maybe?) with a car in front after trying to overtake a slow cyclist a little ahead of me. The rider carries on, blissfully unaware. I wonder to myself if I’ve ever being the cause of something similar. It reminds me of something Michael told me in the pub earlier, that when they close the roads for logging, cyclists will often go through the red lights and into the path of danger. It’s a little chilling.
I make it back to Inverness, and have chance to see its pretty river and small town centre. There’s a combination of traditional buildings like the castle and some sandstone merchant buildings facing the river, today making a trade as restaurants and cafes, and some more ugly concrete concoctions of the sixties and seventies.
The town is a strange beast. Its centre is too small for the chokehold of suburban houses and bed and breakfasts tightly fastened around it. Its main road north drifts through these to a hideous roundabout and, beyond, the ugly but living guts of the town: great supermarkets, hardware stores and retail barns of modern necessities that people from across the Highlands drive over for. I take in the view, a typically modern mishmash of urban styles, and head over the Kessock Bridge over the wide Beauly Firth. Below me I spy a little boat bearing the Jolly Roger. It’s an omen of the wilderness and desolation ahead.
Find a map, and take a look at what lies north of Inverness. That’s right, nothing.
There’s a choice of two roads that thread over the grim-sounding Black Isle, a peninsula between the Beauly and Cromarty firths. I can take the A9, a gruellingly long track of road that threads along the coast and sweeps over a long bridge at Cromarty Firth. Or I can take the longer route inland via Dingwall (a settlement!), but at the expense of several steep hills. I spot Route 1 directing me towards Dingwall, and decide to opt for precisely the opposite. I hate hills and cycle paths in equal measure.
What follows is a long and tough ride up the A9, along a busy dual carriageway for around twenty miles in the early evening. Much of it is inland at first, and the speed of the traffic means that I pedal like a madman along one straight and flat road after another, sustained by dry roasted peanuts and a desire to reach… anywhere.
In the skies there are no birds, except the odd seagull or crow in a cultivated field. There are no houses, except the occasional all-too-isolated farmstead. I count one B&B about every fifteen miles, and I finally spot a pub after thirty miles. Road signs suggest that there are some settlements here: Alness, Invergordon, Kincardy, but I see no evidence and wonder if these directions are ruses, like the facades of an American far western ghost town, to prevent despair in the passing traveller.
Did I actually die crossing the Kessock Bridge? Is this barren and dismal road, flat, empty and infinite, in fact some kind of purgatory? Under the cold, grey and rainy skies, my mind chews on its inner fat. I rearrange the tunes of songs recently heard on the radio to compose doleful but defiant ditties to keep my spirits up. There’s nowhere to stop, just nothing. In the distant waters at Cromarty I spot the occasional oil rig, and pass by the Dalmore distillery, but the place gives the impression that a hydrogen bomb recently exploded over it.
Earlier in my travels I’d pored through a book about the Highland Clearances by David Craig, lent by Chris in Edinburgh. On the Crofters’ Trail records the oral histories of small-hold Highland and Hebridean farmers cleared off their lands to make way for sheep farming during the early 19th century. As a consequence of the failed Jacobite uprising of Bonny Prince Charlie, the Hanoverian monarchy of Britain was determined to destroy traditional Highland identity, outlawing much of their culture and social structures.
Chiefs became commercial landlords, and some took up their roles with gusto, keen to maximise the income of their estates, though many English aristocrats began to take over the land. Sheep were brought in from the Lowlands, often tended by Lowland or English farmers, dislocating the small communities of families who had worked small subsistence plots inland to grow their own food and graze cattle. The sheep needed the best grass, where the villages were, beginning what would become known as the Clearances.
For a while they worked as wage labourers on crofts or smallholdings, and a boom in kelp harvesting for industrial chemicals led to a boom in population. But this collapses in the early 19th century, and these crofters struggled to pay their small rents. It was more economically profitable for wealthy landowners to farm sheep than support these farmers, , and many were evicted by the thousand, peaking in 1815 and later after the potato famine of 1846. Villages were evicted by force and often torched across the northern highlands and Hebrides in the most abysmal of circumstances. Many fled to Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
It explains something of the sheer emptiness of this landscape. As I’ve left Invernesshire, passed through Cromarty and Ross, and then entered the county of Sutherland, I’ve passed painfully little except sheep. But in 1724, Daniel Defoe had written impressed by the amount of corn that once grew here, and until the Countess of Sutherland’s gangs came along with fire and legal writs to clear the villages, there were around 64 townships in the area of Strath Naver housing 338 families. Families were given a cruel ultimatum: force your sons to enlist in the British army, or face eviction. Without their men, and struggling already to farm, the villages were even easier to clear. This story describes the process at work at nearby Lettaidh in Strath Fleet:
‘She remembered being woken by her mother and taken to the window, and she looked out into the darkness and saw a red glow in the hills opposite. She asked what it was, and her mother said in a grim voice, ‘They are putting fire to Lettaidh. The people have been put out.’ The child was frightened, naturally enough, since they had relatives in Lettaidh themselves, but she was reassured when told it would not happen to her house, since all the men were still there. All the men from Lettaidh had been recruited by the Sutherland estate factors, to go to fight in the Napoleonic wars, and then the factors seized the chance to evict the women and children without fear of resistance.’
In Gaelic, once the first language of the Highlands, they call 1814 Bliadhna an Losgaidh, the year of the burnings. So much for economic progress under the great British empire. These stories and this history have been all but erased from the landscape, but as I go further north, I’ll share further instances. It was an atrocity inflicted by largely English landowning capitalists on the peoples of the Highlands.
So much for the nothingness about. But Cromarty Firth is lovely, and in the sunset displays a pretty golden glow. The names of the rivers around here retain their Gaelic names in places, like Sgitheach and Allt nan Caorach and Allt Graad. Public signs have been bilingual since Forres, with preference given to Gaelic over English. So far at least, no-one I’ve met has spoken Gaelic, but I’m curious to see where this changes.
Tain approaches at last. I’m greeted by a huge Asda, offering the opportunity to buy some flavoured frijj milk and oat cookies that sustain me whenever chips aren’t forthcoming. Both are delicious, and abundant in calcium and protein. For £2 I get around 1700 calories and a piece of respite.
Outside, I’m giddy by the proximity of other human beings. I ask one bald and unhappy man about the town, and am advised to turn around. Another woman is equally disparaging, though much friendlier, perhaps being bound to defend her hometown. ‘No there’s not much. You’re better off going north to Dornoch, there’s a lovely cathedral!’
A young and stocky Geordie asks about me bike, and we get chatting. He works on oil rigs at Nigg, one of those I passed no doubt. ‘It’s alright, pays the bills!’ I ask him about Tain. ‘Ah tonight’s not a great night mon, all the young ones come out, they’re on crack!’
I’m expecting something quite spectacularly grim when I wheel into Tain. Can it top Scunthorpe in terms of obvious deprivation, drug misuse and desolation? Nope. It’s a small high street with a couple of pubs and a few boy racers parked about looking bored. Outside the Saint bar, a man from the north-west of England gets talking to me. ‘Not much here, this is all of it!,’ he says, gesturing with a cigarette to the main road around us. It seems that the rigs are the only real draw. He works refitting them, and the bar’s full of early middle aged men laughing, chasing lagers with whiskies who probably share the same profession. I get a call from my folks home and talk outside over a pint of Tennents, then follow the advice of the good people of Tain and make my escape.
The road is now deserted, compounding the limbo-like feel to this desolate and flat stretch of abyss. I pass the Glenmorangie distillery and head over the tranquil Dornoch Firth, entering into the county of Sutherland, and leaving behind the cultivated and dull plains of Ross and Cromarty. Here the roadsides are coarse and scrubby, pocked with the same dark array of light and dark greens and, in the distance, sweeping glens that look over such barren vistas with the fatal resignation of abandoned gods. Occasionally I pass great wheels of wheat silage that stand with the poise of Easter Island Moai.
There is nothing here except my mind and its increasingly disconnected body. My stomach feels like another part of myself entirely, feasting infinitely on dried snacks and powering my weary knees with the patience of a casualty nurse. In the strange psychodramas that animate this last leg of the evening journey, I become just one character in a play that involves my bicycle, tent, sleeping mat and bag, each struggling together to make it to some place of refuge and relief.
In the morning I’d discovered that my waterproof poncho had disappeared – I suspect on the steep and rainy road from Culloden to Inverness the previous night. Each piece of this odd team feels increasingly vital. The aches in my knees and legs, the oscillations between euphoria and despair, the midge bites on my calves and the cuts on my hands, the joy in the company of others and the great pains inflicted by my bike saddle, everything felt the necessary cost of discovering the edge of the island.
Ah! At last, I reach Dornoch. It’s only been a fifteen or so mile journey between both villages but exhaustion had crept in, and leaving Dores at around 5pm after hours drinking and writing in the pub hadn’t helped. I wheel around the small but very pretty village, a series of about three or four sandstone building-flanked streets with a 12th century cathedral, grotty Chinese takeaway and a couple of pubs. I ask three local young women about the place. They’re giggling and jovial on this Saturday night out, and they happily tell me about the place.
One works in Inverness, and another is now a student in Glasgow. They tell me that many have to leave to go to university, and often don’t return at all. ‘Very quiet, there isn’t much to do!’ Jobs are few and far between, like the settlements, and the nearest town of any kind is Dingwall, ‘a mini Inverness…’ ‘but rough!’ ‘Aye it doesn’t have a cinema!’
They point me to the cathedral and give me advice on a good place to camp nearby, before directing me to the better of the two bars, the Eagle Hotel. I follow their advice, peaking around the glorified little church. Its graveyard was once site of a large three day farmers’ fair which often became the pretext for a local piss-up. There’s an old prison and some other pretty structures that have taken on graces and gentility over the passage of time. Pleased with myself for struggling on this far, I dive into the pub for a nightcap.
Over a Glaswegian West4 lager and a deliciously peaty Ladaig whisky, I sit back and watch the locals. It’s lively here and dance music improbably plays in the relatively traditional bar. Good whisky has a narcotic effect for me, suffusing calmness and cotton softness across my nerves. My face feels so relaxed and the pressure lifts from my temples.
In the loo, a somewhat-refreshed and enthusiastic Finnish-Glaswegian spots that we share the same kind of bike pannier, and immediately strikes up conversation. Tommy cannot believe what I am doing, and insists on buying me a whisky and a pint to congratulate me, before inviting me to drink with him and his two buddies, Dave and Alan. They’re up here to play golf for the weekend (‘sixth best course in the world!’ ‘Aye, but it’s tough!’) It’s an excuse to escape the stresses of modern life and spend time together laughing at the world and enjoying themselves. The drinks flow, and more Ladaig and Talisker land on the table. Tommy and Dave have lost the day’s game and been given the unfortunate forfeit of running into the freezing firth of Dornoch in their undies.
They’re superb company. Alan tells me about his love of these wilder parts of Scotland.
‘I need the escape. As a Scotsman, we have a pride that you can only know from seeing these places. The western coast, from fort William to Oban. I need to go out there, the mountains, the air, it changes you. I don’t like my job, but the stress is gone.’
I wish in London we had something similar. For these Glaswegians, they have Loch Lomond so close by, and further north-west, the wilderness towards Fort William and beyond. They each offer to put me up in Glasgow, and I very much hope to take up their offer. As we leave, the young women I met earlier spot me and we each depart with warm conversation and spirits. Though fairly pissed, I wobble out to the edge of the local playing field (I think) they suggested and, with a good degree of practice now, set up camp for the night.