An unusual choice of place to visit on the last day of one’s holidays, but an important monument to Highland/Caithness history nonetheless, and one ideally suited to a bleak cold foggy day, too.
Forced off the land as part of the Highland Clearances, people from the surrounding areas (Ousdale, Auchencraig) sought refuge at Badbea. Not the most hospitable area to try and make home, situated right on perilous cliff-tops in a location so windy the cattle and even children had to be tied down to stop them being blown away.
Then came the churches, then came the schools
Then came the lawyers, then came the rules
Then came the trains and the trucks with their loads
And the dirty old track was the telegraph road
Then came the mines, then came the ore
Then there was the hard times, then there was a war
Telegraph sang a song about the world outside
Telegraph road got so deep and so wide
Like a rolling river
– Dire Straits, Telegraph Road
I’ve known of Altnaharra for many years, gradually accumulating little facts about the area. Situated in the middle of the far northern Highlands, it doesn’t get much more remote. Jointly with Braemar, it holds the record for the coldest recorded temperature in the UK – at -27.2ºC I’m glad I wasn’t there at the time.
However, last November on holiday – gravitated north as always – I found myself with a not-completely-planned day where the best weather indicated a visit was indeed possible.
As habitations go, it doesn’t occupy much space in the landscape.The high street (there is none other) is the A836, a single-lane road with passing places. Within about a 200m radius it boasts a handful of houses, an outsized hotel, couple of petrol pumps and a primary school. The village centre is barely a bend in the road with a pleasant Scots Pine tree and the Allt na h’Aire burn from which the place takes its name. I do love the little epiphanies when one makes the connection between the Gaelic names and their anglicised equivalents – in this case I was wondering if the burn in a photo had a name, looked it up, saw the gaelic and the pronunciation dawned on me: “that IS Altnaharra”.
Of course it is also very much Runrig territory; sitting at the end of Strathnaver, it suffered in the Clearances – I wonder what size of catchment area is required to keep that primary school active.