I’d long heard of Clachtoll beach. It is often referred to as one of Scotland’s best beaches, with a stunning location on the west coast of Sutherland. I was vaguely aware of there being a good campsite too, but I’d never been to the area and didn’t really know much about it.
Then, when planning our Easter weekend camping and hiking trip, I twigged it was in Assynt. And I’d certainly heard of Assynt. In fact, anyone with a basic knowledge of modern Scottish politics has heard of Assynt. A sparsely-populated crofting community that seen its fair share of the effects of the Highland clearances and oppressive landowners, the rather haunting remains of the old mill at Altan Na Bradhan and the many ruins of stone houses (below) speak of the harsh conditions of past generations.
The area continued to suffered in recent decades from negligent and absentee landlords, until – to cut a long and fascinating story short – the community bought out the estates. The first buyout, in the 1990s, was a landmark move, and two more followed in the following decade, aided by legislation brought about by the then quite new Scottish Parliament that aimed to help communities buy their own land.
The purchase allowed the community, through the newly formed Assynt Foundation, to better manage the economic prospects of the land. It was now, after all, no longer just a private estate but one owned by the people – and decisions about its development could be made more sensitively, locally and appropriately.
The small museum at the back of the tourist information centre in Lochinver, the main village of the area, is a great way to find out more. It explains much of the general history of Assynt but of course also focusses on the buyout and the impact it has made.
I couldn’t help thinking that there was a rather positive aura about the place, one often lacking in Highland communities. There were plenty signs of new and half-built houses around the area. There seemed to be lot of people around. Lochinver was a bustling and lively village with, among other things, a cracking pub. The people we spoke to, including the chatty and cheerful campsite manager, seemed to exude an “can do” air of optimism about the place. I wondered whether there was something in the buyout that had made people more positive about the prospects for their lives and their community.
If so, it’s potentially a very powerful story of how local ownership and decision-making can really make communities thrive and be proud of themselves. As we discuss here in Scotland the future political direction of our country, it’s worth looking to places like Assynt for some clues about how to answer such questions at a micro-level too.
Of course, it’s hard to reach any firm conclusions based on just a couple of days as a tourist, even if I do live comparatively close by.
And my sense that Assynt was a great place might just have been the weather and the fact it was a beautiful part of the world. From the Stoer lighthouse (above right) to the magnificent views of the mountains via the stunning coastline, it was an area that positively sparkled in the sunshine.
But I think there was something deeper too. A quiet confidence. And that’s a refreshing thing to find.