I hate the word “remote”.
It is patronising and culturally biased, because inherent in the use of word “remote” is the rarely added follow-up “…from…”.
In other words, somewhere is deemed remote only in the context of another place. And there lies the flaw: because if you swap starting points, it is the other place that is remote. Therefore any remoteness you perceive is merely a consequence of the viewpoint you start with.
For instance, it’s a lazy cliche that the Highlands is full of remote communities. What people more precisely mean when they say that, is that the Highlands is full of communities that are remote from London, Edinburgh, Glasgow, or some other starting point. Yet if you are in one of these communities, then it is London, Edinburgh or Glasgow that is remote. The journey takes no less time to travel in one direction than the other.
So why don’t you ever hear people say that London is a “remote” city? Sure, it’s one of the world’s best-connected cities in transport terms, but it’s still well over a day’s journey from some parts of the UK. If parts of the Highlands are “remote” from London, then London is itself equally remote from those places.
It’s especially nice when writers from so-called peripheral areas turn these concepts of remoteness on their heads. Kevin McNeil’s The Stornoway Way, which I reviewed here, fixes its centre of gravity very firmly on what it refers to as the “Hebridean metropolis” on the isle of Lewis. As if to prove the point the book contains an upside down map of Scotland. The mainland is portrayed merely as the place over the water, and indeed the main character sets the tone early in the book by saying “we do not live in the back of beyond, we live in the very heart of beyond.”
Meanwhile, one of my favourite other books along these lines is Popular Music by the Swedish author Mikael Niemi. The novel tells the story of a boy growing up in the village of Pajala in Tornedalen, a Finnish-speaking community in the far north of Sweden. The author is quoted in the blurb at the back as saying:
No one in Sweden goes to Pajala – most people here have to leave and go south to find jobs or go to college. So I decided to turn the whole world upside down and write it very locally, as if Tornedalen was the centre, the natural state, and pretend that Stockholm and the rest of southern Sweden were these exotic places.
It’s refreshing when we get to see the world upside down like this. And to view such places not as “remote” but rather as “the heart of beyond” as MacNeil has it, or “the centre, the natural state” to quote Niemi, the best thing to do is simply go to them.
One such place is Scoraig, a small village in Wester Ross at the northern shore of the mouth of Little Loch Broom. it has no road access and no mains electricity, so is ripe to be described by those from elsewhere as “remote”.
I have met one or two people from there, and it always sounded like an intriguing place. A small but thriving and sustainable population, Scoraig is cut off from the road network and is accessible from elsewhere only by boat across the loch or by a five mile hike along the shoreline. It was a place, I had variously been told, of pioneering use of renewable energy, a strong sense of community, a healthy degree of self-sufficiency, and more than a little hippy culture. How true all that was, I didn’t know.
Then came our two nights’ camping at Badrallach, the nearest village along the coast and on the closest overland piece of the road network to Scoraig. To fill part of our one full day at Badrallach, Nicole and I walked to Scoraig and back (five miles each way) in beautiful, warm sunshine; not entirely sure what to expect.
The first thing we were rewarded with as we left the tarmac and hit the rough path hewn through the heather, was a magnificent view across the still loch to the mountains of the southern shore, including the imposing beauty of An Teallach. As we walked, it turned into a lovely panorama back along the full length of the loch.
Old ruined crofthouses, piles of modern concrete blocks and wind turbines were the first signs of our reaching Scoraig, and they represented a good metaphor for the regeneration of the area. Passing a few snug houses nestled among trees, the next major landmark was the Scoraig lighthouse that doubles as a visitor information centre. Curiously far inland (I have since discovered it was moved from a more conventional location at the end of the peninsula in the 1950s), it is a nice welcome to the visitor, explaining as it does something of the history of the community and its modern existence (the Scoraig Community Association website also provides a lot of interesting background).
Scoraig had been inhabited for a long time, but a real revival seems to have happened in the past few decades, with a range of people moving there in enough numbers to justify a school. Many people croft and grow their own food, but other home-based industries exist as well. The sea, obviously, is a defining factor for the village, and the jetty is lined with an array of motorboats with which people travel across the water and back, bringing vital supplies.
All the houses seemed attractive, presumably great labours of love. The jetty, though quiet when we stopped just past it to rest and eat lunch, showed evidence of much life. The few people we passed were cheery in their greetings, though they included a fair number of other walkers and visitors too.
On that beautiful, sunny day, Scoraig didn’t seem remote at all. It may have been a long-ish walk from the main road, and no doubt the village was a success only due to the ongoing hard work of its people; but it felt a quite happy, content place. As every place should be, I suppose.