I do like the ingenuity of remote places to find a way, when there is a will. In my experience, these communities around the world are resilient, adaptable, & resourceful; strong characters with big hearts as my short residence on Scoraig was to reveal.
Global community – Scoraig Peninsula - An Introduction
This totally ‘off grid’ community is on the far north west of Scotland near Ullapool nestled between Loch Broom and Little Loch Broom. A peninsula that is wild, windswept, mountainous and remote. In terms of people, there are actually three small village communities on the south side of the Scoraig peninsula (the sunny side);Scoraig village, Carnach, Rireavach and two families living on the north side at Achmore within Annat Bay, which overlooks Loch Broom and the Summer Isles out into the Atlantic. My life’s journey to Scoraig started some time ago when I lived in Tanzania, I just didn’t know it at that time. My journey to Scoraig today started from Inverness.
Inverness is an interesting northern Scottish city that is full of surprises both in beauty and location, with a sense of hope for the future it is undergoing a rejuvenation. Some years ago, I supported a new community funded venture that was to become a music bar and restaurant called MacGregor’s Bar, but I had never seen it or visited. I wanted to stop over on my way to Scoraig and immerse myself in the culture and people of this amazing city on the Moray Firth as the last outpost of the ‘modern’ world. I was not disappointed with the hospitality, vibrant music and community support in this venture. Set up by Bruce MacGregor, a renowned musician and BBC Scotland Travelling Folk presenter, he and his partners have kept the helm to steer this project in becoming a beacon of future community development. Its style, furnishing, quirkiness and exquisite service is testimony to the aspiration, vision and attention to detail that Bruce and the team have for this project. But I was destined to leave this last post of ‘civilisation’ for the self sustaining community of Scoraig, and so the next part of my journey begins.
My introduction to this close knit community (in both senses of the words - they are close and knit) was through Michel. A proud Frenchman and cabinet maker by trade who had lived in Scoraig for many years. He had built his own Finnish style wooden house on a small croft within the community of Scoraig and the neighbour to Hugh Piggott with his croft and workshop towards the pier. The majority of the Scoraig dwellings have power that is generated by a combination of wind turbines (designed and built by Hugh) and solar panels. More on this in later blogs for those that are interested in this complicated and fascinating subject.
I met Michel at Inverness bus station and then drove through the glens and past mountains on the Ullapool road, we chatted about the people, beauty, history and challenges faced by Scoraig inhabitants. The last time I was in this area it was the winter of 1999 and took the time to climb An Teallach, Suilven and Foinaven mountains, visit the magnificent Corrieshalloch Gorge and the fishing town of Ullapool. At that time I remember watching a tender from a Russian boat just off the harbour come into the port whilst eating the local catch of the day freshly fried and battered b y a local chippy. Loaded to the gunnels with what proved to be vodka, the tender and it crew headed into the harbour only to return to the mother ship a few minutes later loaded to the gunnels with whisky! Whilst on an evening visit to one of the local Scoraig inhabitants, I later found out that this was perfectly legal as they were simply exchanging their ‘tax free quota’ based on the number of crew on the boat. At the time it reminded me of one of my favourite films, Local Hero, in which the local post lady and shop keeper excitedly exclaims ‘the Russians are coming’ to the local publican (from where all news travels fast) and getting ready for a big night out.
I do like the ingenuity of remote places to find a way, when there is a will. In my experience, these communities around the world are resilient, adaptable, and resourceful, strong characters with big hearts as my short residence on Scoraig was about to reveal so many ‘local heroes’.
It takes about an hour to drive from Inverness to the mainland pier at Badluarach where the Scoraig ferry lands. Michel called ahead at the road junction to check the ‘ferry’ was still running and not stopped by weather as it so often is. On the weekdays, the older children go to school in Ullapool via the ferry and bus, staying with ‘foster families whilst they are there and coming back to Scoraig for the weekend. On the Monday of my stay, the weather had cancelled the ferry, much to the delight of the children I was told, having to spend the day on the peninsula.
As we drove down the single track road that only goes to the pier, the true wilderness and beauty of Scoraig came into view and my first introduction to the some of the inhabitants as we watched the ferry slowly make its way across the narrow but windswept loch with a slight swell, but thankfully no white horses. A father and son from Scoraig were fishing and crabbing on the pier and before we had time to introduce ourselves the son proudly showed me two large crabs he had caught in a bucket of salt water and kelp. When I asked him if they were for eating, he said they were not big enough and were going back into the sea!
A smiling, young looking Pat greeted us as our ferryman for the crossing. His small clinker built boat with an outboard motor looked just big enough to carry the three of us and our belongings across the water. When Pat then loaded the boat with a variety of other ‘belongings’ that had been ordered by the community for the crossing, our fate was in the hands of the Kelpies and Aphrodite whether we would make it. But I soon realised Pat was an expert; the owner of a fishing boat that was out of the water for repairs and painting, his skill at reading and riding the waves made it an exciting but pleasant crossing. We chatted about the fishing season and whether it had been a good one. Pat seems to take things as they come, a trait that I can whole heartedly relate to and soon began to like Pat and his down to earth way (or the sea if it was to do with fishing). It would take a week or so for Pat’s fishing boat to be made good again, so I was quite glad he did the ferrying when needed.
Michel and Pat caught up on news, people, gossip and happenings as we surfed the waves across the loch and I took in the landscape, connecting their conversations with the scenery around me with the occasional need for explanation on who was who as we went. It was a joy to be part of the conversation and already accepted as being here.
The spirit of a community, in my experience, comes from two things; the connectedness of the individuals and living within the landscape. Connectedness of the individuals in the sense of their relationships, an understanding of and acceptance of each unique character and a care for one another that comes from the heart. The connectedness and ‘at one’ nature of them being part of the landscape and surroundings is another facet of this relationship, one that often requires a resilient character, steely on the outside with a survival attitude, that comes with knowledge, a practical way of living in tune with the seasons and a degree of experimentation. Scoraig is one of those many communities from around the world that did not disappoint.
On arrival at Scoraig Pier, we were greeted by the owners of some of the goods Pat had brought across, including the lovely Aggie who, a few nights later, would ‘close the circle’ of my story about the Ullapool fishing incident from so many years ago. One of the many visits to Agie with Michel, taking beers and a bottle of red wine as conversation flowed at the same rate as the wine, hearing stories of the people and places I had begun to know.
We were also met by Malcolm who had a quad bike and a trailer. Within a moment of arrival, my rucksack and belongings were quickly on board and before I knew it on their way to Michel’s gate. The surprises just kept coming and I knew this was going to be an interesting stay.
Jack and Jess were out walking with their three year old past the pier too. The three year old, whose name I forget, was getting too big to carry, so was sat in what can only be described as a all terrain pushchair made for the environment and was happily chatting to all the locals we met as we slowly walked slowly along the track for the next hour to Michel’s croft gate.
Beinn Ghobhlach rises high into the clouds most days on Scoraig and is the highest point of the peninsula at 635m. A volcanic remnant of a turbulent past, this mountain is like a mini An Teallach, also an ancient volcanic crater from the period when we were closer to the Americas and when Iceland was still forming. It has the shape and form of a crater that has blown its top but slightly to one side, a bit like Mount St Helen’s. A wanderer hiking up the rocky ridges of this majestic mountain will soon find themselves rewarded with incredible panoramic views that could better many an alpine peak. Looking across the whole peninsula and out to the Summer Isles, the true wilderness and beauty of this remote landscape can be appreciated.
The peninsula is topped with boggy peat areas and scattered rocks with the occasional cattle out grazing the ‘common land’. One day I climbed over the saddle to take in the scenery and get a feel for the landscape. As I followed the paths between the crofts of Scoraig, I came across a ruined dwelling made of stone. As I took in the remnants of this once lived in place, I imagined the stories the walls and fireplace had to tell. A fire at each end gave a clue to its former use, one end for cooking and living, one for heating the bedroom in this two room dwelling. The view from the front porch looked across the loch to An Teallach, there was no mistaking where you lived as you walked out that door to tend to your animals and crops.
On passing numerous lived in dwellings of all shapes, sizes and construction, I crossed the deer fence that bounded the crofts and onto the moor. The wind was whistling through the many turbines strategically placed on the ridge of the saddle to capture their maker. Occasional lochans and bogs hindered my way, but the cattle hoof prints gave away the best and safest route forward.
As I watched the next storm moving in across the loch, I took shelter behind one of the many scattered rocks, thinking how glad I was to have come prepared, I took in the beauty of this wild and majestic place.
I had been introduced to so many people along the way before we had even reached Michel’s croft, that I already felt at home. There was genuine interest in someone from across the water that was reciprocated in my conversations with many of the residents as the days went on. Here I have tried to capture some of those moments that give insight into a community that is genuine, caring and living on the edge.
Young people often give a ‘true’ version of the community spirit, they say it how it is when asked and it shows in their happiness and well being. There were only a few young people I met during my time on Scoraig as it was term time and missed the opportunity to visit the local school ‘Open Day’ as it occurred on the only day Hugh Piggott was available for me to meet him and able to fix Michel’s wind generator.
But it was through the eyes of adults that I was welcomed and given a canvas of freedom; the freedom to roam, play and grow in this wonderful landscape.
If Aphrodite is the goddess of the sea, Hugh is the human god of the wind. It was incredible to watch him create in his ‘off grid’ workshop with bench drills, arc welding machines, lathes, UV ovens, halogen heaters, mini hydro generators, turbine blades and generators in various stages of incompletion. A true pioneer of possibilities through necessity and I admired his spirit, sharing of knowledge and sense of collaboration. This mild-mannered man was a joy to meet and to find out which of the key elements drove his passion to design and engineer such amazing creations. The afternoon was spent discussing how he came to build and develop a machine that now drives the majority of small scale wind turbines around the world.
Throughout his life, Hugh has helped many wind projects and people develop the skills to understand and build turbines through workshops and online communities in such places as Zimbabwe, Peru and Wales, sharing his knowledge freely. Brian Cox OBE was right when he said it will be the scientists who will find the right solution to the current climate emergency, and I believe Hugh is one of them. For anyone interested in the details of how to make a wind turbine, he has written many books on the subject and has kept them updated with his many modifications as prototypes and designs develop.
Michel’s wind turbine had worn through where the tail is connected to the main generator housing. After ten years of ‘toing and froing’ in the wind to find the optimum output, the steel piping had finally had enough. Hugh’s knowledge and skill soon came to the fore with a simple and cost effective fix that involved numerous welds. An upgraded electrical unit was added to the fix and the generator was ready to go back up in a matter of hours.
As daylight turned to dusk, Michel and I returned to his house to cook up an evening meal and for me to hear further stories of the people and places that make this community what it is; a self sufficient peninsula community that happens to be off grid and beyond roads...more to come...
Some photos courtesy of Hugh Piggott - Scoraig Wind