5495 miles already walked

Living the ‘High’ Life

Before my tendon injury ‘grounded’ me for a few days at Sango Sands, Durness, I was reminded of my childhood in rural Devon as I travelled through the northern Highlands.

Small communities residing in remote villages and hamlets make a modest living from a variety of occupations.  Some residents have more than one job out of necessity, others out of choice.  It is also clear that a growing number have moved here to experience a less frenetic pace, seeking out ‘the Good Life’. Inevitably this comes with some drawbacks too. 

Without large retail parks, petrol filling stations and department stores, residents rely much more on their local village shops.  The nearest supermarkets back at Thurso entail a lengthy, wriggly drive and as yet do not offer their on-line shopping facility. Therefore, the general stores scattered across the area provide an all-round service, and although more expensive than chain stores and outlets, local inhabitants are prepared to pay for this service.  Internet shopping (which wasn’t around in my childhood!) fills the gaps for larger household goods, and book readers benefit from a travelling library that runs on a three weekly cycle.

Another drawback is that of public transport provision, which is minimal or nil. Owning your own vehicle is essential, but fuel is noticeably more expensive.  Most of the general stores sell fuel from 2 pumps sited outside the shop. Interestingly, I’ve seen more electric fuel points than on any other part of my journey.  Scotland is already looking to the future and must also make provision for the many drivers undertaking the North and West Highland Tourist route.

Communication of any form is definitely more uncertain. Phone masts have appeared on some of the high summits, but that doesn’t guarantee a signal when down at Lochside level.  The once familiar red phone boxes seen in England still regularly appear in the Highlands, some now faded and others are damaged and partly obscured by nearby vegetation.  It’s a bit of a lottery as to whether they are still meant to be working.  Investigations have shown that some are disconnected, but confusingly the handset remains!  In others there is a dialling tone because local residents have fought to maintain a service with the outside world.  Use of the internet is widespread, although broadband width and speed are reported to be noticeably slower.

Huge swathes of moorland are given over to sheep farming. I met an elderly man who told me he was a shepherd and had spent the past winter looking after a flock of 1,700. At the other end of the spectrum there are still many people managing smallholdings; a traditional croft homestead would have been about 8 acres, but this is no longer economically viable so holdings have increased in size to at least 20 acres.  Much of the land is hard to till but owners make a living by keeping a few sheep, chickens, pigs or goats, for example.  Some grow potatoes and the harvesting of peat is a regular sight.  Cut in June, the peat blocks are left drying in stacks and are still widely used as a natural fuel source during the winter months.

Walking through some of the more remote settlements I am always struck by the well-maintained war memorials each with its long list of local men who never returned.  Often erected alongside the local church or chapel, it is now distressing to see so many closed or condemned places of worship.  Speaking to local residents it is evident that some worry about what will happen to their war memorial when the local church is sold off.

Many of the local men who failed to return after the Wars were either involved in farming or fishing.  Today, most of the tiny village slipways or harbours are not used for fishing.  For the few that do still go out to fish, their method of sale and distribution has changed.  I encountered the mobile fish van which, unlike the ice cream van that plays ‘Frosty the Snowman’, the mobile fish shop’s rendition was ‘When the Boat Comes In’.  As a child I remember old Mr Lobb delivering fish to our door but without any musical accompaniment! 

Without doubt, one of the mobile fish van’s customers in Kirtomy will be the local doctor.  By day he runs his surgery, by night he has diversified and runs an upmarket restaurant from his house for three nights a week.  The house is the old village school where a maximum of 8 diners enjoy their meal seated in what was once the main classroom!

The doctor is not the only person who has diversified in response to changing demands.  Evidence of a village’s reduced bus service is in the clever re-use of its bus shelter. It now serves as a greenhouse (plants for sale), and a shop window for the sale of locally produced wooden chairs and craft items!  On the Kyle of Tongue estuary I noticed a large oyster farm where I was told that initial cultivation takes place before they are shipped over to France.  Meanwhile, on the shores of Loch Eriboll I spied a large ceramics studio where a potter has built a pottery and sells, among other things, vast glazed balls to the passing public!

Tourists, particularly those undertaking the North Coast 500 circular road route from Inverness, have also helped boost new business opportunities.  The obvious ones have been wayside cafes, pubs, new B & Bs, campsites, and bicycle repair facilities.  One of the more adventurous enterprises that caught my eye was the Zip Wire Experience placed across a beautiful sandy bay. At £12 per head how can anyone refuse to be zipped!

See Photo Album No 40 - Living the 'High' Life