Here’s our second guest post, from Robert Livingston, Director of HI~Arts, and someone who has spent many years criss-crossing northern Scotland in his work supporting artists and communities in their creative lives.
Where is the most remote community in Scotland? Surely the island of Unst, the most northerly of the Shetland Isles, must be a strong contender—Unst that is, that has a primary school, a swimming pool, a campus of Shetland College, a festival, and good broadband coverage. Plus a very regular ferry link to the rest of Shetland. Doesn’t sound very remote to me.
OK then, what about Durness on the far north coast of the Scottish Mainland, one of the few remaining communities in Scotland only accessible by single track road, sixty miles from the nearest rail station? It describes itself, on the durness.org website, as ‘the most remote area in Great Britain’, and ‘the most sparsely populated parish in Scotland’, with just 2.4 people per square mile. Looks like a shoe-in. But Durness has two food shops, a petrol station, a golf course, a pub, a restaurant, three hotels, and of course the famous Balnakeil Craft Village. Plus a mobile bank and mobile library make regular visits. Sounds like a positive metropolis, doesn’t it?
No, I’ve been to both Unst and Durness and neither feels remote when you’re there—on the contrary they both have the air of lively, active and well-connected communities. Unst, after all, has just been shortlisted for a Creative Scotland Creative Place Award. So if ‘remoteness’ is about perception, not distance, then the place that I’ve felt myself to be most ‘remote’ recently is the Cabrach, a tiny rural community on the border of Moray and Aberdeenshire, just over ten miles from Dufftown and 17 miles from Huntly—both sizeable communities with a lot of facilities and many tourists.
The Cabrach is a shadow of what it used to be, with 75% depopulation in the last 100 years. In the nineteenth century it was home to the largest lending library in Scotland outside Edinburgh. There were once:
‘two schools, two churches, two post offices, two livestock markets, blacksmiths, joiners, shoe makers, a miller and a tailor. There was once a sweet shop and a large enough community to encourage Rizzas Ice cream from Huntly to make the long trek once a week to the Cabrach’.
The Cabrach Community Enterprise Ltd.
Now the Cabrach has a resident population smaller than that of the island of Eigg. Yet everyone has heard of Eigg—that tends to happen with islands—but until I went there for the first time last year the Cabrach was unknown to me. It is a scattered community, with no obvious centre, only a couple of key buildings—the Grouse Inn, and the Acorn, the base of Cabrach Community Enterprise (who’d invited me to meet with them)—and a series of isolated homes spaced along a glen of staggering beauty. What really makes the Cabrach remote is that most of the area has neither mobile phone nor broadband coverage. In today’s world, that is true remoteness.
My point is that ‘remoteness’ and ‘rurality’ are states of mind. Moray and Aberdeenshire have a density of population five times that of the Highland Council area, and twice that of Shetland. And for much of the area Aberdeen City is like a huge centre of gravity exerting immense centripetal force on the surrounding communities. Yet, my experience of travelling and working in Aberdeenshire is that much of it feels much more ‘local’ than most of the Highlands, where I’ve worked for the past twenty years. Communities need be only a few miles apart to feel very distinctive and separate. Many small villages and hamlets nestle hidden in woods along winding single track roads. It’s very easy to get lost. And my perception is that the gravitational pull of Aberdeen City means that there are many fewer connections made within or across the Shire. That’s partly a function of administrative boundaries of course—that the present ‘Shire’ is an abstract construct carved out of three former District Councils with historic associations, and a chunk of the old Grampian Regional Council. But it’s also about attitudes. I get the same sense about the Scottish Borders—fiercely strong local loyalties to specific communities, and sometimes equally fierce rivalries with neighbouring communities.
My conclusion, surprising to me at least, is that you need a certain density of population, a certain critical mass of distinct communities, to generate a truly deep sense of being ‘local’, with the associated senses of also being ‘rural’ or remote’. Paradoxically, the fewer the communities, the more scattered the population, the greater is the likelihood that people will work harder to look outwards, to make connections, to open themselves to a wider world, as Unst and Durness have done, and as the tiny population of the Cabrach are working hard to do, against the odds.
What does that mean for the ‘warp and weft’ of Aberdeenshire? That cold statistics will tell only a small part of the real story, that perceptions are crucial, that local diversity is a great strength, but may also sometimes be a barrier to more joined-up thinking and working. That you can feel ‘remote’ in the centre of a large housing estate, and ‘global’ in the most isolated farm cottage. That it’s the stories we tell ourselves, and about ourselves, that really matter.
Robert Livingston is the Director of HI~Arts, the cultural development agency for the Highlands and islands, and host of the Growing Audiences North East programme, based at Woodend Barn, Banchory.