This summer, I wrote a piece about living on the popular ‘North Coast 500’ route through the lens of my own experience as a resident of Caithness. Entitled ‘Poo, Potholes and Park-Ups – Why Highlanders are Tired of Scotland’s North Coast 500 Route,’ the article was probably more even-handed than the alliterated headline might suggest. Focused on my own experiences during beach cleans at Dunnet, the piece featured the backdrop of research and a summary of some of the benefits and challenges initiatives like the NC500 present for local residents. I knew the North Coast 500 was a controversial subject, and of course did expect a degree of debate around the article. Even so, the response to the post surprised me, and I soon found myself flooded with comments, emails and private messages. Within a week, the article had been shared over ten thousand times on Facebook, and viewed tens of thousands of times on top of that. Someone from BBC Breakfast got in touch to ask me to appear in a segment they were doing on the route – you can view a clip of that below (a longer audible version is available on BBC Sounds via this link). Feedback on all of this was fairly divided (which the comments on my original post probably show). All the same, the vast majority of those who responded were supportive. Less encouraging were a smaller number of responses and messages which were unpleasant in nature.
This came as a surprise to me not so much because of the views themselves, but the vitriol with which they were expressed.
Much of this was linked to North Coast 500 ‘fan’ groups, where one man branded me a ‘miserable Scot’ who wanted ‘peace and quiet’, asserting that ‘anyone who has driven the route knows this is mostly b******* designed to deter tourism.’ Another man maintained that the NC500 was ‘born…nurtured and profited from by Highlanders,’ who were now blaming others for the side-effects, dismissing my piece as ‘gutter journalism’ and encouraging NC500ers to carry on as they were. Other men emailed and messaged enquiring about whether I was a ‘tourist lover’ and making statements with fairly nasty undertones. One man even went to the trouble of unearthing an article I had written some years ago on the virtues of Caithness, posting it on a Facebook group with the implication that having supported responsible tourism to my homeland in the past, I now had no business complaining about people pooing on beaches and lighting fires in fragile dunes. I was dismissed by some as a ‘selfish, moaning local’ and by others as a possible ‘incomer’ whose views were not representative of local residents – both of which were apparent grounds for invalidating the experiences I outlined in my article. A hardcore of individuals who claimed to love the north Highlands seemed to have a lot more difficulty extending their affection to local residents.
They loved the Highlands, yet didn’t appear to love the people who call the Highlands home.
Thankfully, I am more resilient than I thought, and all of this upset me less than I might have imagined (I didn’t engage with any of the above, and also quickly stopped looking at comments on my blog post). What it did show, however, was how polarised views on the North Coast 500 – and indeed most things discussed on social media – have now become. It’s a shame debates no longer seem possible without a descent into name-calling and invective, and I tried to focus my attentions on those who displayed empathy – the fragile thing it is these days. With some people, it seems, you just can’t win, and it felt prudent to accept that and move on. I had to hope my article had achieved something in raising awareness – perhaps encouraging those promoting rural areas to focus less on economic justifications and more on how they could better support and engage with the communities most impacted by the NC500. This article by a Highlander travelling parts of the route this summer offers a more nuanced look at the experience than many of the travel blogs I’ve come across, and it’s helpful to see more discussion on the challenges (as well as the positives) increased levels of tourism bring to place.
As for me, I’ve come to learn that the feeling of sadness about home that has often accompanied me these past few years is something called ‘solastalgia.’ A friend posted an article on this state of being – a term coined by philosopher Glenn Albrecht to describe a feeling of distress about environmental change near home, a feeling of an ‘endemic sense of place being violated’ in a way individuals feel powerless to do much about. I wondered how many other Highlanders feel that sense of solastalgia – ‘the homesickness you have when you are still at home,’ a term with links to the words ‘solace’ and ‘nostalgia’ and resonant of the Gaelic cianalas, which conveys a sense of longing or belonging and is often associated with feelings of homesickness or nostalgia.
At different points in the last two years, I have probably felt all of these things despite rarely leaving my home here in Caithness.
Reading Neil M. Gunn’s The Well at the World’s End this month, I had to smile at 1950’s protagonist Peter Munro’s complaint over the lack of welcome offered to him by a Highland resident in the early pages of the novel. ‘I expect it’s all this tourism,’ Peter comments:
‘It’s the first time I have ever gone to a door in the Highlands for a drop of water,’ he said, ‘and been told to fetch it myself from a dry well.’
Thankfully, even in an embittered 2021, I doubt Peter’s experience is widespread, and the friendly nature of local residents remains a prevailing feature of the Highlands (and if you’ve read The Well at the World’s End, of course, you’ll know that the well Peter was directed to was never dry). I was heartened to hear from a friend who recently visited the far north on holiday, later commenting on the respectful, kind locals – qualities the last two summers have not appeared to dim. I tend to agree with poet George Gunn, who writes in his love-letter to Caithness, The Province of the Cat: ‘Caithnessians are welcoming and kind in the usual Highland manner….their instincts have always been to benefit from the labour of their own hands rather than depend on the vagaries of a (tourism) service industry.’
Whatever local people feel about tourism, it seems the enduring Highland nature still prevails.
Last week, I listened to George (alongside local singer Nancy Nicolson), relay stories about Caithness in an afternoon of poetry and song as part of Lyth Arts Centre’s ‘Northern Lights Festival.’ It struck me – not for the first time – how rich our storytelling culture is here in the far north. I wondered about our stories, how they could better help visitors connect with the places we live in – a landscape alive with people and communities.
Because falling in love with places isn’t just about falling in love with scenery or grand vistas.
Falling in love with places is about falling in love with stories – and learning to connect with the people who call those places home.