The writer and broadcaster Ian Mackenzie, who died 10 years ago, was for many years a regular SR contributor. In the second part of this Scottish journey, first published in our Christmas 1998 edition, Mackenzie heads for the far north after an overnight stop in Tain
Part II: To Forsinard
My exit from a town of human and divine order was marked by the arrival of disorder: the Furies descending. The forecasters had warned the north-west to take cover from storms with 100mph gusts, and as my taxi driver said, they’re always right when it’s doom. As he was saying this, he was dodging recently emptied wheely-bins flying through the air.
On the unattended station platform I was alone, very. The train failed to come. I doubtfully eyed a free yellow telephone. Suddenly I was not alone.
Two teenage boys with east Highland accents you could cut with a dirk whirled onto the platform on mountain bikes and a tail wind. They cycled round me several times. Apparently I was an interesting specimen. I felt lonelier than ever.
The one with the helmet asked me accusingly, ‘Were you in a war?’ So that’s
what I look like. I thought I’d better co-operate. I was outnumbered.
‘I was bombed but I didn’t fight’. That bored them.
‘Where’s the train?’ barked the fat one.
‘I don’t know. Do you?’
I shouldn’t have said that. They took it in turns for the next 10 minutes to use the emergency phone. They were resourceful, putting on voices and varying the questions. But when the helmeted one asked the fare from Tain to Paris, he got short shrift. At that, the Lords of the Flies went as suddenly as they’d appeared.
Helmet re-appeared. ‘We’ll be back in half an hour. If you’re still here, we’ll go and get help’. At last the train came. Pity they missed the drama of a man who was almost in a war boarding a Sprinter. But why weren’t they at school? I should have asked.
In the late Sprinter all was camaraderie. As we hugged the North Sea between Golspie and Helmsdale, waves curled up into the air, threw out spume and crashed onto our sprinting wheels. We escaped inland, but that was not safe either. In a wild quarter of an hour between Kinbrace and Forsinard, pagan violence took over. Hurricane force screechie-gusts rocked us like a model in a wind-tunnel, dusk-coated hills slid eerily by, and rain pelted us like bullets.
Passengers began to twitch. When I put on my coat and took my baggage to the door, I met anxious eyes. Would I be gone some time? In the sleet blizzard, a car arrived. The young husband from the hotel advised that there had been a power cut since early afternoon.
He took me into a parlour avec peat fire, lurcher dog, labrador dog, lurcher-crossed-with labrador dog, wife and mother-in-law, plus two candles. We were the order of creation, ring-fenced against chaos. I entertained no very decisive hope of emerging from this, but after tea and flame-flickered chat, I took steps to maximise my survival chances.
For half an hour I stood in a freezing upstairs bedroom becoming illuminated within by three toothglass tumblers of the Famous Grouse, and without by two wee night-lights in saucers. As I beheld through the rattling window pane the horizontal rain and howling wind, I came to the conclusion that London and Glasgow weather forecasters are not always wrong. I then descended to the parlour avec peat fire, and a whole new lot of human beings.
Given the power cut, the hotel, like a monastery, was feeding far-flung neighbours. As you’d expect in a monastery the kitchen had an Aga not dependent on electricity. Suddenly at 7pm, engineers at distant Tongue did magic, and we had light and hot water as well as venison casserole and vegetable soup. Vegetables are not all that common around here, but deer running across the road are 10 a penny. The road is not too perilous to run across, as Forsinard is only a station, a hotel, a scattering of dwellings and a post office liable to be closed.
The next morning we were hammered by unnerving assaults from sleet and NATO aircraft targeting the hotel roof. I tried to remember why I’d come here. Mavis, who owned the hotel, had a germane story. She’d called in at the Inverness Tourist Board and asked innocently about hotels in the Forsinard area. ‘Oh, you don’t want to go there
. There’s nothing there
’, said the hapless saleswoman for Sutherland.
Although Mavis and her daughter and son-in-law came from Staffordshire, she’d first met her husband on Nairn station platform, and her father-in-law came from Tongue, so she had some understanding that ‘nothing’ is the attraction for those who do come: apart from stalkers and fishermen, and a few who find an unlikely business to pursue; like the convivial Scot from Airdrie I met in the bar. He comes to Sutherland to collect left-over trees and sell them as Christmas trees to folk in Bolton.
By now I was remembering why I’d come to Forsinard. There were two reasons. This was the Flow Country which joins west Caithness to east Sutherland. It is special enough for the RSPB to have bought large chunks of it to protect valuable birds. I find a personal centre of gravity in the Flow Country. My genes are west, and my birth and upbringing are east, so my psyche flows naturally in both directions through this gate of nature.
The east coast is the territory of order: town after town has surprisingly fine Georgian architecture. They’re not military forts like Fort George, but they became forts of commerce, trade, learning, work, and a belief in common-sense logic, even in religion.
The west is something else. Apart from the weirdo mountains like Ben Loyal, Suilven, and that truly dreadful crop of malignancy that broods over the old Applecross drove road, the west is less amenable to order. Celtic religion and poetry suffused nature’s barbaric disorder with images of light and hope, but the paradox is that while much of the lowland east took its Calvinism with a grain of salt, Calvin’s systematic theology, where it gripped the romantic Highland soul, went too deep for logical detachment.
Here, between the two, I rest my soul in neither.
But the second reason I came was simpler. This is the landscape of the Clearances. One of the reasons for there being plenty of nothing in these parts is that what flowed out of Sutherland not many generations ago was a lot of humanity.
In Part III next week: To Achnasheen. Ian Mackenzie turns west in search of a family ghost
Click here for Part I: To Tain