Thursday, 14 February 2013

My Heart’s In The Highlands

It’s been a year since The Big Flit from Nairn to Musselburgh and this week we’re back north visiting family and friends. Given the amount of time that has passed and the relatively few visits we’ve paid over the last twelve months I had expected any homesickness to very, very mild. But no. I am almost literally hurling.

Despite originally being an East Lothian boy it seems my heart’s in the Highlands, as Dylan put it.
Maybe when I’m back to work on Monday the sickness will have passed and I’ll wonder why a few days in Inverness and Nairn created such a wave of emotion.

Meantime it’s worth observing how our old patch has developed and what it is we miss - and don’t miss - about it.

Inverness is in many ways the pinnacle of the consumerist society. The whole city centre is a big pile of shops - mostly national chains with a smattering of international tax dodgers. But there seems to be a wee revival of local indies going on. As HMV struggles, and Dixons and Jessops lie empty, there are signs punters are happy to spend what little money they currently have on something a bit special and in the right atmosphere.

As a Highland Cycle Campaigner (I don’t think I cancelled my membership when I moved - I hope they’re making good use of my annual tenner or whatever it was) I used to badger councillors, officials and agencies to capitalise on Inverness’s potential to become a cycling city. So it’s great to see something like Velocity operating at the top of Stephen’s Brae. Those bike racks that were installed as part of the multi-million pounds “Streetscape” project some years back are no longer unloved. Velocity provides space to learn how to fix your bike and serves a great cappuccino, which I’m guessing helps pay for the fixing lessons and overheads.

It’s a wee bit of bike heaven in a city so dominated by car culture - retail parks, malls, suburban sprawl, and constant demands for 120 miles of dual carriageway to Perth. On my visit I happened to read this great article about England’s chief medic calling for cycling to be integral to planning as a public health measure. If only Scotland understood. Instead we’re led by an SNP government ramping up spending on new roads rather than fixing the ones we’ve got and making them easier for cyclists to share.

The snatches of conversations I caught drifting over from the other tables were all about bikes. I really hope Velocity is the start of something big.

The old Melven’s bookshop (latterly James Thin and I think a Toymaster for a while) is now an indoor market called The Village. It’s a low-fi mix of jumble sale style stalls, retro clothes rails and sk8r dude gear. Upon entering the shop the girl at the front till was slipping a Talking Heads LP onto a turntable. If that’s not a positive sign I don’t know what is!

The Bairn got some emergency toys (In every sense - we were out without her backpack of Octonauts gear so needed some stand-ins and for 50p we got a couple of Matchbox metal vehicles including a rescue snow plough lorry) and I came dangerously close to buying a sports jacket football commentator Archie Macpherson would have been proud of.

I’m also delighted to see the real ale boom is causing one new business to brim with goodies. Up Castle Street there’s a wee shop selling over 200 varieties of beer. I stocked up on some new-looking Highland brews including Speyside (beer from malt whisky country?) and wonder if this could be a decent rival to the Highland capital’s whisky purveyors. Tourists flock to Inverness to see the monster, visit the battlefield, buy cashmere sweaters and shortbread at James Pringle Weavers, and as it’s the Highlands it makes sense to buy a bottle of whisky. But a bottle of beer is cheaper and at least you can be sure the local economy will truly benefit from your purchase.

In terms of development I see the UHI Beechwood campus is taking shape and the pedestrian/cycle bridge over the A9 is about to slot into place. This link has enormous potential to make walking and cycling between Raigmore/Drakies/city centre and the city suburbs so much easier. It’s still a shame the UHI development doesn’t include a halt on the railway line that passes through the middle of it.

And speaking of public transport one thing that hasn’t changed is the shoddy bus service. Information is almost non-existent, shelters are tiny and grim, and tickets are ludicrously priced. To get from Raigmore Hospital to the city centre (a ten minute journey at most) is £1.55 for a single. It seems like only yesterday it was 55p.

Earlier this week we had to make a few bus trips across the city so opted for a “Dayrider” ticket. The sides of the buses state these are £3.20. When I asked for two and offered £6.40 the driver paused and asked if at any point we were likely to need to go to Culloden (part of the eastern suburbs). Erm, yes. Ah, well you’ll need the “other” day ticket. That’ll be £7 in total, thanks.

It’s been great visiting old chums and slipping back into old habits - like a pint of Red Kite in Hoots and a fry up in Rendezvous - but one of the big differences we notice is the lack of anywhere to take the Bairn if the weather’s lousy. Anywhere that isn’t a shopping mall or a retail park. Living so close to Edinburgh we’ve become used to using the National Museum in Chambers Street to fill a grey day.

Whatever happened to the plans Highland Council drew up to establish a decent museum and art gallery in Inverness? I recall public exhibitions and talk of using the college buildings in the Crown or the Royal Mail depot behind the library in Farraline Park. I guess the Age of Austerity put paid to it. At least we’re not in Moray where it seems complete philistines are running the show.

In Nairn our old house is proving to be a great home for someone else and one of our friends has secured a plot on the allotment site where we had ours.

And Nairn is perhaps where the biggest difference worth commenting on is. Brace yourself. The Nairnshire Telegraph (still only twelve pages long with cracking front page leads such as “Lack of directional signs in temporary car park elicits mixed reaction from public”) is in COLOUR!

I think I’ll have to crack open one of those local beers to settle my nerves.

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