I have just returned from my own sentimental journey to the far north of Scotland. I went back to Wick, where I was born and brought up, to John O'Groats, which I visited regularly as a boy, to Huna, a few miles away along the coast where my great-grandfather once owned a small farmhouse, to Canisbay churchyard, where my maternal grandparents are buried and a gravestone memorialises other members of my family, to the Castle of Mey, and finally to Dunnet Bay.
We travelled up the A9 – now certainly much improved with long stretches of dual carriageway – and stayed overnight in one of a rather soulless complex of hotels in Aviemore. Then on to Inverness and northwards, on a much less busy A9, through small but quite attractive little towns like Golspie and Brora, over the Ord at Berriedale, and finally into Caithness. (In the old days, travelling south from Wick in the family car, Berriedale, with its fearsomely steep hairpin bend, was the one frightening moment on the entire trip.) My home town was now almost within reach.
I had lived in Wick until I was 16. How many years had passed since my last visit? At least 30 or 40. So my arrival now was not without an element of trepidation. I had no surviving relatives, but how much will the town have changed? How will I feel seeing the house in which I grew up? We got off to an excellent start. The apartment we had hired turned out to sit above Wick River in the centre of the town. Particularly when the incoming tide filled the river estuary, the view was splendid. But it was mid-afternoon on a Saturday, and I was anxious to get out and about.
We were only yards from Bridge Street, in the town centre, and the first thing I noticed was that the Station Hotel was no longer there. (It turned out that the building was now some kind of old people's home.) Then almost next door was the church that my family used to attend – but that building too had been transformed – it had become a graceless furniture store. Walking along Bridge Street and turning into the High Street, everything seemed different. None of the shops I remembered were there. There were familiar names, but only in the sense of local examples of chains one would find in any town in the UK.
But now the key moment had almost arrived. Near the end of High Street, Shore Lane runs up to the left. It is quite steep and at its foot there used to be a Congregational church, but it too I see is now some kind of commercial emporium. My house stood at the top of Shore Lane. Walking up, it seemed shorter than I remembered. Then there I was, standing at the front gate of Mount Hooly House. But it was in no way the house I remembered.
That house had a long path through beautiful lawns and large flowerbeds up to a front door flanked by large flowerpots. There was a glasshouse in the garden and a side area of strawberry beds. All gone. There was nothing to see but overgrown grass. The house itself was clearly empty. The sense of desolation and abandonment was overwhelming. We were able to walk around the house but the back was in even worse condition than the front. This early 19th-century mansion house which, long before becoming my house, had been built and owned by a provost of the royal burgh of Wick, is in desperate need of restoration.
It was sad to see my family home in such disrepair, but it quickly became clear that there was little in contemporary Wick to cheer me up. The outer harbour was empty. The inner section did have a number of yachts and pleasure boats, but there was little evidence of the fishing industry that had once made Wick famous. More disturbing still was the number of houses and properties in the town's streets that were empty and boarded up: the effect was dismal indeed. Such new buildings as there were – including a new hospital near the town centre – were wholly unattractive.
Rosebank, with its tennis courts, bowling green, and putting course – where I and my school friends had spent so many happy hours – was shut down and looked neglected. The two cinemas of my time – the Pavilion in the High Street (where every Saturday morning I used to watch an episode of 'Flash Gordon') and the Breadalbane in Pulteneytown – no longer existed. A vast, ugly car park, down by the river, served a Poundland shop. But there were few cars and equally few customers, which reinforced the sense I already had that, on a late Saturday afternoon, the town's streets were surprisingly empty. Next day, on the outskirts of the town, on our way to John O'Groats, we passed a large Tesco store. So perhaps Wick is just another example of how the fashion for out-of-town shopping has sucked the life out of our streets.
The only entirely positive experience I had during my return to the town in which I grew up proved to be one concerning the past. Wick Society's heritage museum is a splendid example of this kind of institution. Here Wick's past comes vividly to life. Three generations of the local Johnston family were photographers of Wick. Their work, from the 1880s on, provides an amazing insight into the port that had become the hub of Europe's herring fishing industry.
My grandfather often spoke of how he remembered before 1914 being able to walk across Wick Bay – not miraculously on the water, but on the decks of the closely packed herring boats. The museum photographs show exactly what he meant—the hundreds of fishing boats jammed tightly together. Then there are pictures of the fishermen themselves – alongside the women whose job it was to gut the fish, the coopers who made the barrels into which the catch was packed, the fish-curers and buyers. Shot early in the 20th century, film sequences bring to life every aspect of the industry and the period when the vast shoals of 'silver darlings' had brought booming prosperity to Wick.
However the museum is about much more than the herring industry. The life of the town as it used to be is evoked by material of all kinds. For me, however, the most surprising and moving moment came when I saw some radio equipment. Why was it there? Because in 2000, Wick Radio, which had begun operating in 1908, was finally closed down. So my father's workplace was now part of Wick's past. Strange to think he could even have used the equipment I was looking at.
John O'Groats, which I visited regularly in my youth, is famous only because of its location as the northernmost habitation in the UK mainland. The landscape around it is flat and treeless like so much of the county of Caitness. The seascape however is another matter. On the shore of the Pentland Firth, which stretches between the mainland and Orkney, one looks out on the stormy meeting point of the North Sea and the Atlantic Ocean. The island of Stroma is a few miles offshore, the smaller island of Swona is just in view, and on the horizon the outline of Orkney is clearly visible. Duncansby Head, jutting out into the Firth, is a short distance to the east. (Dunnet Head, some miles to the west, is in fact the northernmost tip of the mainland.)
Inevitably John O'Groats turns out to be not at all as I remembered it. The strikingly gothic John O'Groats hotel, with its two lofty towers, is still in place, but now the hotel is surrounded by all the familiar trappings of a modern holiday resort: a large car park, gift shop, cafes and other eating places, and an information centre. At the centre of the tourist area is a large white signpost indicating how far John O'Groats is from Land's End, Edinburgh, Orkney, Shetland, and New York.
One thing, however, did disappoint. In my day John O'Groats was mainly its lovely sandy beach. Many a time I walked there, searching for 'groatie buckies' – tiny pinkish seashells of special delicacy which were much prized. Now that beach has gone, replaced by a small jetty surrounded by only layers of rocks and boulders. No doubt it is progress to be able to take a ferry from John O'Groats to Orkney, but a price has been paid.
It was time to move on to Huna, a few miles along the coast. It was here that my great-grandfather had built the little farmhouse that my family had inherited and used for brief visits or holidays. The house had no running water or electricity. Peat fires and oil lamps were the order of the day. Water had to be carried in buckets from a well a field away – and the only toilet was in an outhouse. But the beach where I played so freely was near at hand.
I was anxious to see if the house was still there. And once again I was disappointed. The cottage on the site was clearly modern. Huna too had changed. The one little shop had gone, replaced by a phone booth and a letterbox. The lifeboat shed I remembered was still there, but entirely ruinous. Even in my time the lifeboat itself had already gone, but the railed slipway from the shed's door down into the sea was then still functional.
Small motor boats from Stroma, only three or four miles away, would use it to land catches or pick up supplies. But here too a major and saddening change had occurred. The slipway was still there, but a warning notice now indicated it was not safe to walk on. Looking over to Stroma, it used to be easy to see the island's single road, its scatter of houses, and its cultivated fields. Now there was nothing to see. Stroma's last inhabitants left in 1962. Is anyone out there thinking of buying Stroma and bringing it back to life?
My sentimental journey was almost at its end. Fighting a powerful wind, we managed to locate the family gravestone in Canisbay churchyard. The saddest name it bears is that of my cousin Alistair, lost at sea in the Royal Navy in 1944 at the age of 19. The same wind was responsible for the great waves rolling in on the vast stretch of Dunnet beach – surely its miles-long sands, dominated by the grandeur of Dunnet Head, are on a scale scarcely matched anywhere else in Europe.
However, with the Castle of Mey closed, it was time to return to Wick and prepare for the long drive south. (I know there are people for whom the north begins at Watford; for me in Wick, all of the UK was the south.)
Robert Louis Stevenson visited Wick in 1868 to inspect the work that his family firm had carried out on the town's harbour. He did not relish the experience, describing Wick as 'one of the meanest of man's towns,' on the 'coldest of God's bays.' In a letter to his mother he wrote: 'Certainly Wick in itself possesses no beauty: bare, grey shores, grim grey houses, grim grey sea…' Well, Mount Hooly House was neither grim nor grey, and growing up in Wick was not at all the dismal experience that Stevenson implies.
Some readers may know that not so long ago Wick regained its world-leading status – not this time for the herring fishery, but for the world's shortest street. In 2006 the 'Guinness Book of Records' announced that Ebenezer Place in Wick was exactly that. The street's one door leads into Mackay's Hotel No.1 Bistro. We had dinner there and enjoyed the one outstanding culinary moment of our entire trip: its rhubarb and gin soufflé was a triumph of delicacy and flavour. What a pity that my home town struck me as falling a long way short of matching that achievement.
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