Since to the Northern Isles Sutherland is the southern land, you'd think that southern Scotland would see Sutherland as northern. Such a perspective would seem to be supported by weather forecasters in London and Glasgow. When they point vaguely to the top of Britain they tend to tell us that while most of the country will enjoy a fine day, northern Scotland can expect stygian darkness accompanied by wailing and gnashing of teeth. Actually, that seemed a fair enough assessment of how things were on a stygian November night with the wind wailing round the Forsinard Hotel in the middle of Sutherland's nowhere.
It certainly didn't feel very south that night. On the other hand, 'north' seemed hardly suitable either, northerness having been appropriated by the English as a label attached by the Home Counties to anything between Birmingham and those dangerous fells of the Pennines where wolves and vampires roam.
Sutherland is a different planet. It may be true that a few southern English are more acquainted with the Highlands than the average citizen of Dundee, but if they are busy fishing and stalking and owning things, they may not notice quite how alien the environment is. Indeed, how many lowland MSPs in their Edinburgh upturned boats will ever have surfed the dark vibes of a Sutherland winter with nothing around but a dervish wind raising the hackles of the surrounding moorland?; and therefore will they have the foggiest idea of how to legislate for this huge area of Scotland's land mass?
At Queen Street, I boarded the Glasgow-Aberdeen sprinter which I was to take as far as Perth. It was as packed as an Ibiza charter flight, though perhaps faster. While waiting at Perth to join the Edinburgh-Inverness service, I had time to gaze at the grandiose station, preserving in stone the dimensions of the railway age. Once it resounded to huge day and night steam trains. Now it tolerates two-coach diesels, like a once great house playing host to mice.
After the tiered galleries of autumn leaves round Dunkeld, our thrumming Sprinter climbed on to the roof of Scotland, a snow-covered land not so much hostile or benign as indifferent, a lonely place, treacle-black under the snow, rising to support hulks of unpointed mountains, left-over fossils of the Ice Age.
The elderly Inverness couple opposite me were asleep by then, tired out by a 2am fire alarm and by their telling me how the man's father had spent his life on the Highland line painting its stations and how his wife ran Loch Ness Cruises. As they snoozed together I began to notice the two boys behind them, students or sixth formers. Their faces were English or perhaps Edinburgh, and they were close and comfortable with each other. Here were two couples of different generations and lifestyles celebrating the same miracle: human comfort in an oasis of light and warmth on the route of an ancient drove road at 1,500 feet on a cold November afternoon.
It was in darkness that we swept past Culloden down the steep slope to the Beauly Firth and Inverness, where I changed trains.
The Sprinter for Thurso and Wick was full. A good Saturday in the Highland capital had apparently been had by all. Now sated by its excitements, the survivors were going home to towns, villages, hamlets, all the four-hour way up the coast to the Pentland Firth.
Two men were unable to get on the train without assistance. Their helper addressed us: 'Please make sure these gentlemen leave the train at Tain.' Well, that was my destination too. I braced myself for good works, though as it turned out there were more than enough Good Samaritans aboard.
Opposite were two Highland lads with navy-blue T-shirts. I knew they were Highland before they opened their mouths because they were as different from the two boys in the Edinburgh train as hard cheddar from crumbly Stilton. One had a chin like a shovel and the other hands big enough to bend a girder. Across from them was the only person in the carriage I had doubts about. He had the bevvied look of someone who might just take an unfancy to someone – me, say. He addressed the two boys.
'Wake me at Invergordon.'
He thought that insufficiently cordial. 'Where are you getting off?', he asked.
'Where've you come from?'
'Not much sleep?'
He reflected. 'Invergordon? Shit-hole.' Satisfied, he fell asleep just as two golden spaceships floated past the window. They were oil-rigs moored off the shit-hole.
By now the two men who'd had to be pushed on to the train at Inverness
were asleep nose to nose like kittens. The sprinter coming to rest at
Invergordon raised their level of consciousness to the extent that they staggered off the train only to be pushed back on again. The whole world seemed to know they were cargo for Tain.
A young man and woman swayed down the coach to occupy the seats
vacated by the Invergordon Tenerifens. Both were high as kites, the girl's eyes scintillating with mischief. The young conductor informed them that it was £20.60 each to Thurso, it would be three and a half hours, and no, they couldn't smoke. Tennent's Extra was extracted from the catering trolley and good humour reigned.
I stepped on to the platform at Tain and inhaled the sweetness of a Highland evening enfolded in a carapace of chips and cordite. It was fireworks Saturday.
The station car park was humming with cars like a new cow-pat with flies. A jolly man took my case.
'Would there be an off-licence open?' I asked. 'The hotel will provide drink for meals, but one requires a night cap.'
'Say no more,' he said, standing the cab on its back wheels.
I must say I felt remarkably sober for a man descending from the legless express, but when the off-licence turned out to be closed I felt soberer.
'He'll be off for his cup of tea, it'll have to be the Spar.' But just then he arrived, carrying his cup of tea.
The Royal Hotel was the kind they don't make any more. Bang in the centre of town, with a grand staircase up to the front door, over which two pigeons were celebrating, the female mildly hysterical and the male cooing, 'there, there.'
The bar restaurant was not a shadowy canyon with mini-tables to chop off your knees, but a large busy room with blazing coal fire. From a comfy nook I sat looking out the window at the opera-set street with town clock. It must be medieval Nuremberg in die Meistersingers. On cue, a chorus of young men and women strolled by. Less predictably, a woman in a kilt led a dog on a lead with a half-chicken in its mouth.
To a background of fireworks I turned my attention to the menu. Escargots? I'd come north to eat snails? One starter was 'Chef’s pate.' Huh, we all know what that means. But I like toast. It came, and I was shamed. It was the best pate I'd had since a memorable terrine in France 25 years ago; beaten only by a meat loaf my uncle George's mother used to make. When a young assistant manager drifted up, I opined on the pate. 'You have a terrific chef.' He smiled. 'He's French. Been here 12 years.'
As I rose from the table, I saw across the street a recessed gate with arched iron lettering. 'Pilgrimage' it said. I walked out of the hotel (now only the male pigeon was drunkenly muttering) and turned at once into Saint Duthus Street. I hadn't remembered, though later leaflets in my room reminded me, that in medieval times Tain was one of the most pilgrimmed sites in Scotland. Then it was due to the angelic St Duthus. Now it may be due to the angelic Glenmorangie.
The next day, as I waited for the taxi, I looked through the hotel window up the high street of this civilised little town and pondered a mystery. Rather as Perth station was once the dynamic centre of a rail network which was a great national resource, so Tain was once in the centre of a network of spiritual and educational energy which produced national figures, bards of a culture, architects of souls and society. Where did it all go?
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.
My mother, for reasons I know not of, was reticent about the past. My whole experience of her was that she believed life was meant to be lived forwards not backwards. She was a woman of actions, not a player with words. Her youngest sister was different. Auntie Jean was a distiller of history. A dozen years ago I had a cautious conversation with her.
'It's odd,' I said, 'that whereas my genetic ancestry is rooted in Wester Ross, I feel this psychic pull to Sutherland, where I have no roots.'
She lasered me with a look. It was as if she was seeing in me a ghost.
'Are you telling me,' she intoned, 'that your mother has let you live out your adult life without any idea...?'
She spoke flatly. 'Your ancestors came from Sutherland. During the Clearances, they were victims of economic genocide. To make room for sheep, their croft was set on fire. They fled to Braemore, south of Ullapool, and settled there for a while. Then they moved to Easter Ross where eventually your grandfather was born, and then in Achnasheen your mother...'
Put to the torch, were they? Vietnam, Bosnia, Kosovo. What's new? Now I know why Sutherland scares me. It's not God, it's not mountains, it's man. It's the genes of ancestors scared by cruel men, and fire, and homelessness, and some Calvinist ministers who stood around in transcendent landscapes accepting human brutality as the predestined will of God.
I hope Holyrood will do something economically rather better for the Highlands. And I hope that the ecclesiastical successors of those ministers will one day cease polluting the infinite landscape of the heart with the limiting logic of dogma.
But now I turned west for the ghost I had promised myself to visit. She would be at Achnasheen.
The Skye train swerves left off the far north line at Dingwall and immediately tackles rising ground. Owing to the bloody-mindedness of the then landowner Sir William Mackenzie, this railway manages to bypass the only town on the route. Owing to the equal bloody-mindedness of the railway entrepreneurs, the engineers cocked a snook at Strathpeffer and climbed a four-mile 1 in 50 gradient to Raven Rock, making a hole in it, before rattling down to Garve, a hamlet.
There was once to be a railway branching off at Garve to Ullapool, but money failed so now passengers who fancy pitting their stomachs against the Minch have to pollute Loch Broom with carbon monoxide. Whereas we, being a train, are about to pollute the way to Kyle of Lochalsh merely with diesel fumes. One prefers to forget that the age of steam, in all its glory, was an age of dirt and smoke. One prefers to forget a lot of things. I'm here to find out if I can forget Achnasheen.
Achnasheen is where two ancient routes meet: the north one by Loch Maree from Gairloch, where my father was born, and the west one from Kyle of Lochalsh and Skye. The railway only goes west, but the mail buses from the north meet here. My great grandfather ran the Achnasheen mails, and he owned and ran the hotel which stood solidly on the actual platform.
It was a famous hotel in its day. Queen Victoria patronised it – or tried to: he wouldn't allow her to change her horses on the Sabbath. So many ministers were up fishing and shooting that Lloyd George once held a cabinet meeting in its dining room. More recently Kenneth Roy ate dinner there (and wrote about it in a book). But three years ago it was burned down. I had to see for myself if even a ruin remained. It didn't. Not a wrack behind. Only a Railtrack shelter standing forlornly on the platform, the wind moaning down the strath.
Why did I have to see this? For the most intimate of reasons. My mother was born in that hotel. When she died aged 95, I scattered her ashes across the nearby loch. But also, unknown to anyone, I left some ashes in the hotel, to complete her life cycle in peace. Maybe I shouldn't have done that. Now she had been twice put to the fire. Not her, you say; ash to ash.
I waited in the shelter pounded by sleet for the train which would return me to the safety of the familial fort I have built with my life against the chaos that is never far away. How can one be comfortable with one's history? Because it is history, and the clock ticks on. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
But it can be dust to life. From the ashes of a burned croft my grandfather was born to look at the Sutherland hills across water from a more fruitful land. From his youth came my mother, and from her came me. They're all ashes now. But my daughter has this year given birth to a boy. The human torch is lifted again and again for good or ill.
And when the earth finally incinerates...well, there's a big universe out there.