North Coast 500 – industry and nature side by side

The first of a five-part series in which Calum Davidson, director of energy and low carbon at Highlands and Islands Enterprise, looks at how energy developments – and the people who make a living from them – coexist with the nature, culture, heritage and landscapes that are making the North Coast 500 road trip such a tourism phenomenon

 

ONE of the cleverest marketing concepts I’ve seen in recent years has been distinct in its simplicity, and has been promoted almost exclusively through social media. It’s deceptively straightforward, at its core a rebranding and repackaging of existing features of the north of Scotland. In this case it’s the network of roads and their associated landscapes and peoplescapes that define the coast and hinterlands of the Highlands north and west of Inverness.

It is, of course, the North Coast 500 – or, for the Twitter-savvy out there, the #NC500.

Dreamt up by those clever people at the North Highland Initiative in Caithness and billed as Scotland’s answer to the USA’s Route 66, the North Coast 500 has only been around for just over a year and already is recognised as one of the world’s top 10 coastal road trips. Facebook, Twitter, TripAdvisor and YouTube are all full of people’s blogs, reviews, videos and photos of their travels along the route. Vintage car convoys, TV teams, endurance cyclists, walkers, runners and old-fashioned tourists have all recorded online their experiences of Inverness, Wick, Durness, Ullapool, Applecross and all points between.

I must admit I’ve watched this developing phenomenon with real interest, as I’d consider myself a real north coast boy, born in a house that looked north over the Pentland Firth, and apart from brief sojourns in Shetland and Glasgow I’ve lived and worked on or by the blue line of the NC500 for all my life. I guess I’ve also driven all its 519 miles (some sections many, many times), often flown over it en route to Stornoway, Benbecula, Wick and Kirkwall airports, taken ferries to the islands from Scrabster, Gills Bay and Ullapool, walked large chunks, and climbed quite a few of the hills and mountains that overlook its network of A and B roads.

For someone like me who lives and works in the north Highlands, reading or viewing people’s experiences of northern Scotland through the prism of the North Coast 500 is a fascinating experience. Words such as “landscape”, “heritage”, “whisky”, “sea”, “sun”, “beaches”, “archaeology”, “remoteness”, “drama”, “roads”, “local produce”, “midges” and “green” tend to predominate. There is also a lot of discussion about “wild land”, “wilderness” and “living on the edge”, as you would expect from a group of visitors who are mainly from urban areas and for whom the attractions of the Highlands and Islands are often nature, culture, heritage and landscape.

Yet I guess I’m not alone in having a number of “mental maps” of the roads and byways around the northern Highlands. When I think about the view of the Cromarty Firth and Black Isle from the Fyrish monument above Evanton, I’m also thinking about the ranks of oil rigs marching up the firth towards Nigg, and the distant wind farms on the Struie. When I think about the vista of Caithness sea cliffs marching north from the Ord, I’m also looking east to the Beatrice offshore turbines. The road west of Thurso means those huge north coast skies, and flagstone dykes, but also Dounreay’s famous dome. Lochcarron is the gateway to the Bealach na Ba but also Kishorn Port. Beauly is a delightful Highland village, great for shopping, and is close to the most accessible hydro dam and fish ladder in the area.

Yet one thing I’ve noticed is that, in all the online reviews of the North Coast 500, I’ve yet to come across any real negative comments or observations around these human additions to the landscape, almost all designed to produce the energy without which any modern 21st-century society cannot function. Wind farms always come in for criticism, but I’ve not seen that evidenced widely in visitors’ reaction to the landscape of the north coast. There is the occasional letter in the local newspapers about the “clutter” of rigs in the Cromarty Firth, but I’m always surprised by the number of positive visitors on the photography sites I frequent, raving about the dramatic visual impact of large man-made structures in a natural environment.

I guess what I’m seeing is perhaps a growing maturity in visitors’ interest in the whole of the north of Scotland. Of course folk want to visit Smoo Cave and climb Suilven, and whale-watch at John O’Groats, but many of the visitors I speak to are just as interested in how people live and work in the Highlands and Islands. So when they learn that I’m involved in the energy industry in the region, I tend to get bombarded by questions. How do tidal turbines work? What happens when the wind does not blow? Why do people cut lumps of turf from a peat bog? Are those oil rigs fixed to the sea bed?

It’s evidence that there is a dramatic energy story right around the coasts of northern Scotland, and one that people – both visitors and folk who live here – are fascinated by. Let’s just list a few…

  • Brora, site of the UK’s most northerly coal mine
  • Kishorn, where the world’s largest moveable structure, the Ninian central platform, was built
  • Helmsdale and Dunbeath, where North Sea oil installations are visible from the shore
  • Loch Eriboll, where huge 19th-century limekilns produced agricultural products exported across the Highlands
  • John O’Groats – MeyGen, the world’s largest tidal stream development, is under construction nearby
  • Invergordon, where a combined heat and power plant also produces biomass pellets, using local timber
  • Scoraig, a completely off-grid crofting community accessible only by boat
  • Dounreay, the site of the UK’s nuclear fast breeder reactor programme that transformed Caithness during the 1950s
  • Applecross, where the community-owned filling station is run completely by volunteers
  • Forsinard, the heart of the Sutherland peatland flow country, one of Europe’s largest potential carbon sinks
  • Novar in Easter Ross – home to the Highlands’ first commercial wind farm, and one of the first with a dedicated community benefit scheme
  • Kylesku, where a modern run-of-river 4MW hydro scheme is almost invisible within a highly scenic landscape
  • Wick, once home to hundreds of sail-powered fishing boats, now home to an oil and gas pipeline fabrication facility producing bundles up to 8km long

 

SO, over the next few Energy North editions, I’m planning an energy journey around the North Coast 500, from Inverness to John O’Groats, onwards to Durness, stopping off at Scrabster, then down to Applecross and back across to the Highland capital. I’m not promising to travel sequentially, but I hope to give an insight into how the impact of people, and how they gather and use energy of all types, whether it’s the muscles of people and their animals, peat, coal and wood, wind and water, oil, waves or the power of the tides, has shaped and will continue to shape northern Scotland.

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