“It’s so remote – you are really in the middle of nowhere here” guests often remark when they come to visit us in Wester Ross, where my partner Rob lives. We smile – through gritted teeth – and correct their ignorance – at length.
Remote from what? The word implies we are far from the centre of the known world. It calls to mind an ancient map with written at the edge the legend – “there be dragons” – or as Chinese maps once had it – “hat-wearing nations”. “Where I live,” the speaker implies, “is somewhere – but where you live – well that is another matter”. It gives living where most people don’t the feeling of being an eccentric, or at least an unconventional, choice.
But where you think the centre of the universe is really depends on your frame of reference. Rob has been climbing the mountains of the northwest Highlands for 30 years. He takes photos of the views from the top that many of us (including me) are unlikely to ever see – some of which I use to illustrate this column. These iconic spots are famous in certain circles.
“Where is it near?” someone asked in conversation at an event down south, in Edinburgh. “Any landmarks?” “Liathach,” I replied. If you are looking for a landmark then the three great Torridon peaks – Beinn Eighe (Gaelic for file mountain, pronounced Ben Ay), Beinn Alligin (the jewelled mountain) and Liathach (the grey one, pronounced Lee-a-gach) are among Scotland’s finest, visible from space, easily locatable on a map and an international draw for visitors.
I have been helping to arrange a joint exhibition of some of Rob’s photos along with our friend Ann Campbell’s watercolours.
Ann also loves the mountains and has spent long periods of her life north of the Highland line. Her husband John once remarked to me that when Rob and Ann and their climbing friends get together they talk about the mountains like old friends: “How is old Suilven? Have you you seen Stac Pollaidh recently?”
These mark territory for us, in the same way the sound of Bow Bells does for Londoners. For the Chinese, China is ‘the middle kingdom” – but for Europeans that area used to be known as ‘the Far East”. We don’t call it that nowadays. Yet, when we watch UK TV, we often find the northwest Highlands when not referred to as “remote” being characterised as “the Far North”. They almost never call London the “Far South”.
Where you are
The sense of geographic dissonance this creates always reminds of the terrific poem by James Robertson, which I first came across in Gavin Esler’s book “How Britain Ends”. Here is an excerpt.
The News Where You Are
That’s all from us – now it’s time for the news where you are
The news where you are comes after the news where we are
The news where we are is the news. It comes first.
The news where you are is the news where you are. It comes after.
We do not have the news where you are.
The news where you are may be news to you – but it is not news to us.
The news may be national, international or regional.
The news where we are may be international news.
The news where you are is never international news –
Where you are is not international.
The news where you are comes after the national and international news.
The news where you are may be national or regional news, however,
National news where you are is not national news where we are –
It is the news where you are.
“Remote” seems to me to have a useful meaning in the IT sense of performing an activity when you are not there in person – eg a surgeon might operate remotely, or a teacher give lessons remotely. I don’t think it is useful to class whole communities as “remote”.
Life in the Highlands has its risks, difficulties and challenges of course, and they are very real. particularly in the winter. Yet people in rural areas may actually be closer to what they regard as key amenities – friends and family, community, fresh food, nature, wholesome leisure pursuits, than people in cities.
Personally, I resent the use of the word “remote” and regard it as metropolitan othering which ought to be firmly resisted.
If you would like to see more of Ann and Rob’s work, pop into the Dundas Street Gallery, 6 Dundas Street, Edinburgh between noon and 6pm on Saturday 9 to Tuesday 12 December.