No Wilderness: Reshaping The Way We Talk About Far North Places

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.  

Coastal scene with daffodils, Caithness

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.