The train journey between Wick and Inverness is approximately 4 1/2 hours long. Taking the same length of time to travel between Edinburgh and London, the journey between the towns in the Far North and their nearest city is double what it would take you by road. Rather than following the A9 road down the coast, the train makes several detours inland and acts as a lifeline travel service for residents in the communities that were left isolated with the building of the Dornoch Bridge at the start of the 1990s, at that time the longest bridge in Europe, and for those in north west Sutherland who make the trek to Lairg to connect with the train as the public transport in that area is so sparse. The Dornoch bridge cut at least an hour off the travel time north by road and was only possible because of European funding as were many other lifeline projects in the Highlands around this time; the Highlands will forever be in debt to Europe as, if it had been left to our own Government, these would never have been made possible. The original bridge plans were to cover both road and rail but the Tories pulled the plug on the rail option. I doubt very much now if it will ever go ahead not least because the communities that add so long onto the rail journey will be left with no public transport option. Already reliant on community transport initiatives for journeys by road, the loss of a train will have a devastating effect on these fragile villages where the nearest school or church or shop or doctor is already many miles away.
As the younger generations move ever south as their needs cannot be met in the communities in which they were raised the vacant houses do not stay empty for long, instead being filled by the newly retired who dream of a lifestyle change. Having holidayed here for so many years, they are truly in love with the beauty and isolation of the Highlands in the same way as those of us who have lived here forever are; they too feel the lump in the throat and the tear in the eye at the sound of a special piece of music or upon catching sight of an imposing mountain range. Their desire to make the Highlands their home is to be embraced wholeheartedly yet, with their arrival, the population continues to stagnate or indeed, decrease. Although they are happy to be without the facilities nearby that they younger generation tend to want, with advancing age comes increasing care needs which place a massive strain on the already stretched budgets of the local NHS board. Everybody needs and fully expects to receive the same treatment options throughout the country but sometimes, if not already raised with the knowledge that for certain services you have to travel, this is a source of disquiet; what recently was quaint and fun to take a day off once a month to do the big shop is no longer so enticing when you have weekly hospital appointments or the nearest care home is several hours away.
The journey north, no matter the length, is truly magnificent. From the more built up areas of the Moray Firth basin leading to the oil rigs of the Cromarty following the coastal road, the route then veers inland to follow the old road as it skirts the Firth for an hour where the cars continue straight onwards over the bridge. The converted train carriages in Rogart, now holiday accommodation, always make me smile and, at this time of year, the fields are full of new lambs. This part of the journey is abundant with trees and birds before you pass under the road bridge at the Mound and hit the coast again at Golspie. At Helmsdale, you again head inland right into the centre of the north Highlands. This time the scenery is bleak, moorland stretching for miles either side of you as you traverse the Flow Country. I’ll never forget the incongruous sight of somebody walking here as the train crossed; this is truly one of the most isolated parts of the country and seeing someone strolling across the moor has been a never repeated experience! Taking this trip south, the moment when you leave the peatlands at the Strath of Kildonan and turn the corner into Helmsdale to be faced with the sea is simply breathtaking.
The train is always relatively quiet, certainly in contrast to those which head south from Inverness. With such a long journey, many people heading north for a meeting take advantage of the tables to complete work or prepare for their meetings on the way and I am always amused by how, caught up in their own little bubble around a table, they forget that they are on public transport. One of my favourite overheard conversations has to be that of several Highland councillors detailing just “what” they were going to say to their Caithness counterparts at their upcoming meeting and how they were going to spin the anticipated negative press attention. It was extremely interesting to hear who they thought were onside and just how they were going to sort out those who weren’t! Another interesting conversation was with an elderly gentleman sitting opposite. We compared photos of Culzean Castle that we both had and he began to tell stories of how he had been evacuated there during the war and the adventures that he and his brother had there. The arrival of two well spoken English boys did not initially go down well with their new classmates but after things had been sorted out in the way that boys did, an uneasy truce developed. The conversation moved onto the current state of politics both past and present. Very dismissive of “Maggie”, he followed that particular insight with the line “Of course, that was when I crossed the floor”; my travelling companion turned out to be an ex Tory MP who famously defected to the SDP in the early 80s. By the time we parted, I was once again left with the feeling that for many whose parties are of the No side, there is actually a lot of quiet sympathy and understanding for those on the Yes from individual members.