Exactly a year ago, on the Sunday before the UK entered lockdown, I was out walking with my son here in Caithness when a man pulled over in his car and rolled down the driver’s side window. He asked us where he could find a place to eat and have a cup of coffee. The man’s accent – and the roof rack piled high atop his vehicle – suggested he had travelled some distance, and he didn’t seem to know much about the area. At the time, there was an end-of-days feeling about the world and his eyes darted about with the look of the hunted.
I explained politely that apart from the nearby supermarket, most places were in the process of shutting.
‘Is that because it’s a Sunday?’ he asked, a note of hope in his question.
‘No, it’s because of the virus,’ I replied.
The man seemed utterly perplexed that such worldly things could penetrate the boundaries of the north.
It’s a reaction I’ve encountered many times before, in response to different questions, other answers. The idea that here at the very top of the Scottish mainland we are able to live separately from the various turnings of the world. A narrative that trumpets the far north as an escape and a wilderness propels this idea forward on the wheels of social media posts and tourism campaigns that bear little resemblance to reality. Yes, the far north can be wild, but ‘wild’ is not the same as ‘wilderness.’
Wilderness – noun, an uncultivated and uninhabited area. (Oxford English Dictionary).
The language of ‘escaping to the Highlands’ works to the detriment of both local people and visitors, allowing expectations and behaviours to be clouded by the sense of a place that exists outside the bounds of ordinary life.
This is highlighted, perhaps, by the machine that is the North Coast 500. The last few years have reshaped my thinking on this endeavour (on the ‘about’ page of the official North Coast 500 website, visitors are encouraged to ‘take the road that never was, that suddenly appeared, as if by magic!’ – effectively wiping out the lived experience of modern north Highlanders pre-dating 2015.) The people who live in such places become sidelined to the periphery of their own stories, unable to enact much agency, while being dragged along by a narrative of ‘what’s good for them.’ Road signs erected in our town distil home to NC500 East, NC500 West, and just for good measure, a third arrow for NC500 placed above our local place names. In all of this, there is the sense of something being eroded, without understanding quite what that thing is – the manner of progress. In my forties, I find myself leaning to this quote by Lizanne Henderson and Edward J. Cowan*:
All generations seem to have been possessed of the belief that as the present slipped into the past they lost a little of themselves.
Much of this relates to notions of ‘remoteness’ and the romanticism that has long pervaded travel to northern regions. Remoteness, though, is a matter of perspective – what might look to one person like the middle of nowhere is to someone else, the centre of the world. London, Edinburgh – and sometimes Inverness – feel remote to me, but that doesn’t make them remote places. The idea of the centre depends, I suppose, on where you are standing.
What feels like the frontier of wild exploration to one person is to someone else, called home.
What all of this means for travel, and sustainability, and people, is of course, uncertain. Perhaps it starts with a dialogue on the nature of places, and how we convey those messages to the world. In glossing over people, with all their stories and experiences, we lose something vital in the process.
Perhaps in the language of ‘escape’ we have become imprisoned.
Perhaps in the framing of a ‘wilderness’ we have become incrementally less free.
Not so long ago, when I posted about Caithness on social media, a local person commented that it was ‘the fowk (folk) who make Caithness.’
I couldn’t agree more – folk make places what they are.
Caithness can be wild, but it’s no wilderness – it’s a place of folk and stories. We live here.
Perhaps in the shaping of stories about places, at their centre, should be the folk.
*Quoted from ‘Scottish Fairy Belief,’ Lizanne Henderson & Edward J. Cowan, first published 2001.
Thank you for writing this. I had heard there was some controversy about how the north was framed but wasn’t aware of the details. This cleared that up nicely. My instinct is to preserve wilderness at all cost, and I still believe that. But it turns out my definition of wilderness needed some adjustment.
Thankyou Dave – I’m glad you found the article useful. It’s interesting how language shapes perception – the last year or so has made me think a lot about the way I talk about and engage with places (not just here at home, but also in terms of places I might visit one day myself.) In that sense it applies as much to me as anyone else reading. Thanks again for taking the time to share your thoughts.
Thanks for writing this Gail. I couldn’t agree more with you.
Last summer after lockdown restrictions were eased, we went on a boat trip close to home. Numbers were limited and it’s a smallish boat so it was easy to see and hear everyone’s conversations. Everyone else was clearly a visitor to the area. A man near us was regaling another with stories of his many adventures in the Highlands. He used the words ‘it’s been our playground for so many years’. This statement has stayed with me all year and I think it sums it up doesn’t it. A playground: a place to have fun, a place to come and go from, to use and take advantage of what it offers. I wish it wasn’t this way but it seems to be the predominant attitude.
Our experience of over tourism is nowhere near as extreme as folk experience on the NC 500 route but I admit to dreading what the next few weeks will inevitably bring. Sending solidarity from the West Highlands.
Thankyou Jillian – and yes, that word ‘playground’ does have uncomfortable connotations (and seems to flow naturally from these ‘wilderness’ and ‘escape’ narratives.) I hope in the future we see a shift to a more people-focused discourse that better manages the expectations of all concerned. I’m feeling a lot of support and understanding on how unhelpful this kind of messaging is becoming, so that is really heartening. It’s such a simple thing really – the reminder that our travel destinations are also someone else’s home.
Wonderfully put yet again, Gail. I agree with every word of this post. I always remember a Facebook post on one of the ‘nc500’ groups in the last lockdown – the guy asked if the ‘nc500 was definitely closed for lockdown.’ There are genuinely folk out there who think it’s mostly uninhabited, and that it’s literally just a route for touring around on. And using language such as ‘wildnerness’ and ‘escaping’ really doesn’t help. It makes me sad as I’ve always been very pro-visitor, but now I dread them, and I also also dread that dread turning into resentment! At the end of the day, it’s not their fault, they’ve just seen an advert and responded to it – NC500 Ltd have a lot to answer for, and I’m sick of them passing the buck onto the Council and the locals. Phew, that turned into a bit of a rant! xx
Thankyou Andrea, and I understand – it’s home, and it’s emotive. I agree – for visitors being marketed people-less landscapes it must be a surprise to find that people, communities and day-to-day life exists. I read an article recently which blamed last year’s poor behaviour on lack of understanding rather than willful disruptiveness. If that’s the case, the organisations promoting the route should really be stepping up to get the message right. x
I am astounded that people still think this way. I am glad you have written this and I hope people take the time to read and take note xx
Thanks Susan, as always I appreciate your support. X
Much covered here. (1) it can be wild in the north – especially if the weather has turned against you. But as for wilderness or rewilding these seem to me to represent a perplexing misuse of language. (2) We need tourists here on the west coast but not tourists who respect neither the place nor the people. I have taken delight telling how people lived here in times past. However, recent incursions have turned me against tourism per se, which is unfair on those I would have once welcomed. But it’s difficult to welcome those people who bring us nothing and pass through leaving their detritus behind. I have no wish to defend the NC500 organisation but I suspect our troubles were beginning before they hit upon the idea. That said their attitude leaves much to be desired. PS the Highland Council Tourism Team are responsible for the b signs.
Thanks for your comment Malcolm. I get the sense that many local people who might once have looked forward to the arrival of visitors now feel like this. The word ‘dread’ has been used several times – both in response to the article here, and on social media – which is an unfortunate situation for all concerned.
Thank you for the detail you have outlined here Gail. As I have been a tourist to Caithness, the NC500 and Orkney several times and will be again in the future, I do find both the reports and locals’ comments concerning. We have always travelled with the ‘leave only footprints’ motto and collect memories with photos (and maybe an occasional sea shell) and I would like to think that wherever we go, at home or abroad, we show only respect for local people and the area they live in.
I can certainly understand the frustrations you all feel. We live on the outskirts of a major city and very near to a local tourist attraction and it really annoys us when both visitors and locals leave litter and dog poo bags lying around and also when we have off road motorcycles causing damage and real hazards to public footpaths and walking areas.
I love visiting Caithness and Orkney and some of these comments make me sad, as I know how friendly and welcoming most people are and I do hope we can continue to visit without any animosity.
We are keeping fingers crossed that all goes according to plan for the road map out of COVID so that we can visit in September and I can promise you that the only impact you will see from us is our photos and our custom to local businesses.
Thanks for your comment Linda – and I hope you enjoy your visit in September. I agree, it’s an unfortunate situation for everyone, and as I’ve mentioned in other posts, anti-social behaviour happens at a local level too. I hope responsible visitors like yourselves will always be made welcome in the Highlands. Aligned with that, I also hope we see a shift in strategy that puts sustainable, community-minded travel front and centre in the way the area is represented to the world. x