‘It was the allure of big money, but it didn’t last. Now things have got worse, for all of us.’ – Jim, Brora.
Journeying across this far north-eastern Scottish coastal countryside has been tough, desolate and trying. Yet the people I’ve encountered and the conversations shared have been like a rubber ring, keeping my mind focused on the pleasure of this adventure. It’s not in reaching the end, but the pleasure in the means. These conversations and journeys are starting to feel like a kind of method for travel that I hope to use after I return to London. It’s about seeking out people and their stories as much as seeking out locations and their landmarks.
One recent pleasure has been the discovery of Scottish hospitality. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve met some bloody fascinating and generous people across the border. Human nature doesn’t cease to delight me. Those that despise other human beings should try instead spending time among them. You’ll be surprised.
But there’s something that feels practised and culturally routine about the kind of warm reception I’ve had from the Scots, be it in Lowland or Highland. Outside Edinburgh and Dundee, it has been a standard experience in small towns and villages to smile at passers-by. It feels rude not to! In smaller villages, people will even shout ‘hello!’ to you as you pass.
Fine, in most pubs I’ve visited the initial welcome has been cold, and there’s nothing unusual about this. Yet stand by the bar and yourself into a conversation. The people around you will rapidly welcome you, banter back, and a few minutes later they’ll be buying you a beer and demanding your stories. Ask a random person in the street about the place, or about their lives, and they’ll speak freely without prejudice. Have I had any acidic reflux for being English, or nosey, or for simply being a rude little upstart barging his way into their communities and lives? Well, I ought to, but no. Strangers have treated me as a friend. This kind of hospitality can easily be emulated elsewhere.
Last night’s hospitality has left me a sore head, and I pack up my tent on what turns out to be a fairly public and obvious location on the edge of a playing field. Luckily no-one’s playing football that morning, and I pack up my gear and sneak away. In nearby Dornoch everything seems to be closed. It’s a Sunday, and I watch elderly men in oversized suit jackets and well-pressed trousers and their wives with neat perms and floral blazers stroll into the cathedral. I wonder about their lives, and whether they’ve always hailed from here, or returned home after some urban career, or struck it lucky in some retirement scoop.
I can’t help feeling uneasy about the swollen political influence of retired voters, who on the one hand take benefits like winter fuel payments, free public transport and a state pension, whilst tending to support a conservative narrative that seeks to punish younger ‘scroungers’, and which seeks to reward the pettiness of savers with low taxes and interest rates. Pensioners consume most of the welfare budget and, fair enough, over the course of their lives they probably paid far more in tax than they now receive. But I’ve met few so far willing to take a position of stewardship about their political obligation to young people struggling today.
I find a supermarket open and breakfast on apple turnovers and watch the wizened congregation wander in, before drifting around the few buildings of the village, a gallery and a pretty library, one of many built by philanthropist Andrew Carnegie.
I want to see the beach. Though the weather’s way too cool and overcast for a swim, the soft sands at Dornoch Firth inject flashbacks into my mind of Kealia Beach, Hawaii, the most beautiful of all places in the world. The beach feels to me like the departure lounge into the ecstasy of some higher joyous existence, one each of us has arrived a quarter of an hour too late for. We wait around for nothing, relieved for a time, but the return to drudgery becomes an inevitable fact once the sun comes in.
‘Faith brings hope.’
I spot the tattered remains of a Christian leaflet on the beach, and wonder who it sought to give hope to, and whether it succeeded. Nearby, men and women in fancy kecks and important-looking caddy bags mill about the manicured lawns overlooking the sands, losing their balls in the dunes. Folk ten years their senior laugh and cheer as the boules they roll clacker against each other nearby. Whatever their pastime, people are enjoying themselves.
A road leaves Dornoch to the north advertising Enbo, a jolly sounding place. I pedal along a narrow road by fields of grass and wheat that passes besides the seaside village and gets me to Loch Fleet. The ruins of Skelbo Castle oversee a flat expanse of sea, sky and forest, as Shelducks and Oystercatchers mingle above the fertile mudflats.
A small bridge crosses the Loch, built by the enterprising Duke of Sutherland in the early 19th century under some scheme to drain these lands and maximise their agricultural profits. This Duke and his wife Catherine, Countess of Sutherland, were some of the most rapacious and ruthless of the English landlords involved in the Highland clearances. But to tell their stories, I’ll need to head further north. For now the view afforded by the bridge is pleasant enough, and I spot a couple sipping from a thermos and picking at cheese sandwiches and feel cheered by a sight of cosy yet puritanical domesticity.
A little north is Golspie, a small coastal village with a few hotels and a couple of little shops flanked along the main road for about half a mile, composed of the same kind of sandstone as Dornoch though less pretty. In one shop I talk to an Indian shopkeeper who has now lived here for thirty years. His accent has become quite Scottish, slurring syllables together poetically and ending each utterance with aye. Another local man with a dog continues the conversation, explaining that the village is starting to expand, the construction of about six houses on the outskirts seemingly compromising its territorial integrity. He leaves me with a warning:
‘Watch out further north, it’s wild!’
Some worthy is poised over a column on a distant hill overlooking the landscape. I’d put money on parasitic aristocracy, as a little north of Golspie there’s more evidence of the vanity and opulence of the Duke and Countess of Sutherland. Dunrobin Castle is a tourist trap like no other. I have little interest in the historic vanity projects of the rich, but I’m intrigued to wander in after taking a look at the castle’s very own train station. Overlooking it is a huge statue of the Duke, thirty feet high, with this dedication,
‘a mourning and grateful tenantry uniting with the inhabitants of the neighbourhood, erected his pillar, AD 1834’.
But who was this ‘judicious, kind and liberal’ figure, and how did he and his wife amass the fortunes required to build Dunrobin Castle? Look around the landscape and one is none the wiser. I follow the tourists down the lane to the castle, a spectacular toytown folly built by the Countess in 1851 from the new profits of their 1.5 million acre Sutherland estate. As a tourist coach arrives in, a man starts blowing I’ll take the high road… out of the bagpipes. The entry into the castle’s pricy. As I look up, a man chewing on a sandwich wanders over and kicks off conversation.
‘You cycled all the way from London on this? Oh my god. It’s not quality!’
He and his family have travelled from Romania to see Scotland, and we trade stories about the road. We hit it off, and his candour is well-meant if blunt. We make the ambitious agreement to either meet again in Glasgow and London, wherever George finishes cycling once he realises his ambition to cycle a journey like mine. As we part, he lets out some homophobic remarks that I struggle to let pass. I’m proud of the hard-fought toleration and liberalism on these isles, attitudes which aren’t universal and always in danger of being corrupted by insecure bigotry. Avoiding a clash, ‘people should be allowed to live as they please so long as it doesn’t harm others.’ He chuckles incredulously.
After Golspie the road becomes quiet and empty again, repeating the empty and flat terrains of the previous day from Inverness. I begin to forget what I pass, and awake on arriving in Brora, another small settlement of a similar size to Golspie, but one suggesting that it was once a more sprawling industrial town. Down in the tiny harbour, I find two local fishermen comparing their catch. Jim and Campbell tell me that one can catch saith, cod, mackerel, ling, rass and coalfish in these waters, even haddock further north at Helmsdale, all with a degree of luck and skill. For both, it’s a hobby, and the only commercial fishing that occurs here is in the odd lobster or crab, far less than the harbour’s heyday. Trawlers of the north seas devour up anything worth catching, whilst local people don’t eat the fish that they catch. Gesturing to the saith he’s caught, Jim says
‘Locals don’t eat them. Same with mackerel. I’ve probably thrown a ton of Pollock back in, perfectly good. Now they’re selling it on the supermarket counter!’
He shakes his head. The town itself has suffered some kind of catastrophic decline, though like the clearances and emigrating crofters, there’s little evidence of even more recent disappearances.
‘It was once large here. There was a wool mill, and a mine. Brickworks, fishing. Offices too. It’s gone.’
Why? Jim blames the oil boom of the 1970s, drawing workers towards Aberdeen and the North Sea where wages were threefold local rates. The only sign of the mine (or mill?) is a large foundation on the southern entry of the town where some speculator is struggling to sell housing plots.
Before the clearances of the 19th century, Highland communities like those that would’ve lived near Brora all spoke Gaelic as a first language. Jim recalls his granddad being able to speak it, but neither he nor Campbell know of anyone around here who can today. I ask them about the bilingual Gaelic and English signs I’ve seen across Moray.
‘Well that’s a bit of a sore point. They’re a waste of money!’
These desolate scapes show little mercy or sympathy for the countless souls swept out of homes and existence.
I’m glad to eventually reach Helmsdale, the next village some miles further up the road. It’s another cramped village attached to a harbour, though some efforts have been made to build in a civic identity to the place, with a small lattice of streets surrounded by sleepy homes, and a gallant clocktower overseeing daily business. Scratch around though and a story of stagnation and decline returns.
I talk to Ros, a local woman out walking her dog. It’s a very quiet place, she tells me, but quickly shares her fears about the future.
‘There’s not much for the young people. They all go to university – they have to. The problem is they don’t come back.’
She describes the unemployment in the town, another place suffering a kind of disorganised shrinkage. The main hotel is for sale, as is one high-street shop and several nearby homes. Her daughter has a five-bedroom house on the main-road. How much would it cost in London, she asks me, pointing to the sturdy-bricked townhouse. ‘I dunno, half a million?’
She smiles a little sadly. ‘It’s on the market for £120 000’. I don’t get the impression that buyers are taking the bait, but her daughter plans to move south to Golspie. Ros is thinking of heading even further south. ‘There’s just not much here. It’s isolated.’ Would political independence help? She’s unsure.
‘Voting Yes will help the likes of Glasgow and Edinburgh, but what about here?’
Following her tip, I pop into Timespan, the local museum of the town, and find out some more about the clearances and the wider area. This county, Sutherland, is the largest in Europe, but has the smallest population. It’s on the same latitude as Moscow and Stavanger, yet the warmer airs of the Gulf Stream imbue north-east Scotland with a slightly warmer climate. Echoing the cosmic wonder of the sage of Lichfield met earlier, a museum sign whirls dizzily around the thought that everything in the universe is expanding at the speed of light, 12 million miles a minute – even Helmsdale.
It’s the stories of the Highland clearances in this area that are more interesting. In my last entry I told how the British crown outlawed the Highlanders’ culture and the autonomous power of chiefs over their clans following their involvement with Bonnie Prince Charlie’s uprising. Highland life before then wasn’t some idyll: life was a struggle, where famines, miserable weather and local feuds were the norm. But the clans system connected communities to a more benign, paternal rule, with a shared focus on communal farming. Land was held in common by the clans, and was not private property.
But… after the attack on the Highlanders, chiefs became property-owners, and many took on the culture and values of the English. Elizabeth, Countess of Sutherland and her husband the Marquis of Stafford (later the Duke) wanted to improve the incomes of their estate. Sheep farming was one new way to do this, but they required the better grasses of the glens. There was the troublesome issue of all those tenant farmers living there though. The Sutherlands’ ingenious move was to evict in masses these poor farmers and their meagre rents, shunting them first to bleak crags on the coast to fish, like the newly-built Helmsdale, or eake out some kind of farming, like in the abandoned village of Badbea just north of Helmsdale. Some 15 000 people were evicted by the Sutherlands.
The choice became one of starvation or emigration. Aided by other greedy entrepreneurs in Canada like Thomas Selkirk, the many Highlanders were recruited into colonies in Manitoba, Canada, or travelling elsewhere to New Zealand. The factors who evicted them, burnt their homes and occasionally killed them escaped without punishment. Timespan tells this story, and I’m chilled by the brutality and violence that Dunrobin Castle is built upon. A pile of visitors’ comment cards expresses a spectrum of opinions from outrage to resignation. Something awful happened here.
I take a breather in the local Belgrave Arms. One funny feature of these remote villages is they always have two pubs. I wonder if locals go between either, or if some moment occurs around the age of 17 where young sons (women are rarely seen in these places) are initiated by their fathers into the drinking rites of The Local. Entering the other boozer would be as transgressive as changing sexuality or football team. At the bar, local lads banter about the football. A man beside me with a Godfather cigarette tin slaps his hand on the bar and makes an announcement:
‘Right, I’m off to put on a bet.’
‘You spend all your life now betting.’
Where to sleep tonight? I have no fixed plan, but after this series of sorry settlements my instinct compels me to push further north. On the lonesome road I spy a walker with a large backpack striding towards me in the distance. Phil Winter is walking all the way from John O’ Groats to Lands’ End to raise money for Coppafeel, a Breast Cancer awareness charity. Please donate some money if you can to a good guy and a superb cause, and follow him @gingertom52.
It’s his second day, and as he scoffs a bag of cookies, he warns me of a hideous hill ahead: ‘it’s a killer!’
Sufficiently warned (the chaps in Gospie had told me similar), I scoff a mountain of dry roasted nuts and cross over into Caithness with some trepidation. Filled with enough kilajoules to power the Hubble telescope, I launch up the steep zigzagging heels, and … quickly crumple up into exhaustion. I revert to my usual weedy method of huffing fifty metres up, then taking a break. ‘It’s steep going down!’ says a man I meet in the ruins of Badbea village, taking a breather, giving me enough hope to carry on.
These flutters of conversation keep me alive, but all day I’ve missed the conviviality of towns and conversations. Dunbeath, Latheronwheel, Latheron and Lybster are even more desolate, ghost towns absent of laughter. I take comfort in the abundance of life that lies beyond humankind, in the musical whistling of the wind, and in the buzzard that nearby attacks me after its young nervously runs across my path. I pass a young black stallion that races me across a field, and in the evening hillsides, rabbits pursue each other, hued brown, black, and other mixtures. I spy a Friesian cow and realise how rare these cartoon cattle are round here. Most cattle, and there is an awful lot, tend to be brown or black. So the journey continues.
Eventually I reach the last town on this northern road, Wick. I have visions of a huge supermarket selling cut-rate ice-cream, of pubs serving fresh flagons of beer and malts, and the most excessively Scottish of chippies serving artery-popping piles of hot chips coated in brown sauce and vinegar….
The entry’s a little underwhelming. A large retail park shares the road with a huge cemetery. I spot a living human being walking along the road with an air of preoccupation, and I ask the feller of a similar age to me about the place.
‘It’s a shithole!’
Kevin is originally from Elgin, near to Forres. He tells me he’s here now because of family, but wants to get out. Sadly he feels that having a family has bound him up here, but he gives the air of a man trapped, resigned to an unlucky hand. He gives me some extremely detailed directions for the town’s best pub in his estimation, a Wetherspoons, and we talk for some time on the differences in dialects across Scotland.
There’s no way I can get lost (well, Wick is small enough as it is), and I follow the suggested landmarks of curry-houses and takeaways and drift towards the suggested boozer by the harbour. This was once the largest herring port in the country, and home to a huge number of shipbuilders.
Today among the grim and empty scene, a distant banner announces with haughty insincerity (or hope lost?) that ‘Christ died for our sins’. The day has come full circle, book-ended in the unheard appeals of a rabbi who claimed God is love. I ask a young lad walking a dog what he makes of the place. He looks around, then looks about me. ‘There’s nothing. I’m getting out.’ He hopes a college place will be his rubber ring. Mine is the bicycle. R.L. Stevenson described the place as ‘the meanest of man’s towns, situated certainly on the baldest of God’s bays.’ I don’t quote this to the lad of course, but I share the words of Kevin. He laughs for a moment, looks serious again, and agrees.
I’m parched, and pop into in the quiet Alexander Bain, named after the local inventor of the electric clock. I get talking to the staff who are more positive, well, balanced, about the place. Over a pint of Hambleton’s Nightmare, a short of local Old Poulteney, and a bowl of kids’ ice-cream (oh yes!), I replay the mind’s cinematic reel of the day’s journey. There’s been something oddly pleasurable about passing and surviving the bleak expanses of Sutherland and Caithness, and the scenery has been intriguing. But I don’t know how many more days I can hack it.
All this sadness does not impress me. The more I discover, the more the crimes of the past weigh on me. Human motivations are always more conflicted and ambivalent than they appear, and that is why we keep turning back to dramatists like Shakespeare, Seneca or Goethe to understand the dead weight of tragic futility that bears a line across histories. But these stories, histories or yourstories, are what we choose to tell about the past. These stories indicate the violence, the crimes against humanity that occur when economic profit, and the priority of private property over social welfare and equality, are allowed to govern people’s lives. Today, yesterday and tomorrow.
So, in a final squeeze, I press on. It’s about 10.30, and I decide to head north until it becomes too dark to go further. In the setting sun, I pass an airport and then a string of settlements bearing the name of Keiss. It gets too dark thereafter, though the road’s as empty as my stomach, and eventually I spot a large ditch by the road that may hide a tent. Where am I? A few miles south of John O’Groats, possibly. It’s only the next day that I realise just how far I’ve gone.