Right 2020, That’s Enough Out of You

Ahhhh……where to begin?

‘Season’s Greetings from Scotland!’ is inappropriately cheery.

‘I hope you’re all well’ appears almost sarcastic.

‘It’ll be better next year’ sounds recklessly optimistic.

Aye, turns out summarising this unforgettable year is no easy task. What a time to be alive as we survey the destruction wrought by the wrecking ball of COVID-19 on our health, our economies, our cultures and our very way of life. I’ll take an unavoidable peek (as much as I can bear) at the damage to the tourism industry alongside a more upbeat look at some hopes for what’s next. I’ll reflect a little on Harris’ debut year as my canine sidekick and about a pretty huge personal change that will direct the majority of my 2021. And I’ll raise a glass in the hope for better days for us all as the holidays approach.

 

2020 – A Year Forever to be Whispered

Fear, intolerance, selfishness, arrogance, duplicity and dishonesty.

What an absolute mess it’s been and these are just some of the words that spring to mind whenever I take stock of the ugly that has been on display in recent months. While being raging furious with a virus is a pretty pointless endeavour, there’s plenty of easy targets upon whom to hurl some blame. Principally, where have the world’s leaders been? Temporarily parking political leanings for a sec, too many high-powered individuals across the planet have been found so desperately wanting, at the time when they’ve been most needed. The media too, so crucial in setting the tone that we all tap along to, have often preferred to fuel unnecessary fires.

Meanwhile, people have died. Businesses have been forever lost. Relationships have been damaged. Everyday, taken-for-granted, freedoms have been stolen. It has been a uniquely grim year for us as a civilisation. For those of us on this continent, the added twist of Brexit’s climax is now also currently upon us, bringing a new wave of uncertainty and depressing, aggressive media rhetoric. It’s been the year we lost Kobe Bryant, Chadwick Boseman, Diego Maradona, Diana Rigg, Darth Vader and Bilbo Baggins. Sean Connery died. A good friend of mine died. Cancer entered my inner circle for the first time, so very nearly taking someone very special. And, just this weekend, Christmas has been all but cancelled.

drone eilean donan castle
Seeing favourite attractions deserted has taken some getting used to

Yes. Individually and societally, it’s been the year of ‘unprecedented’, ‘isolation’, ‘quarantine’, ‘crisis’, ‘lockdown’, ‘furlough’, ‘distancing’ and ‘staying safe’. And it has sucked. So, to all who have suffered this year, and especially those who have lost loved ones, you have all my sympathy.

But we sift, that’s what we do. We seek the other side of the coin, the light at the end of the tunnel and the silver linings when the clouds part. Bravery, resilience, hope, compassion, strength, resoluteness and self-sacrifice. If you look hard enough, there’s been plenty of that on display amidst the rubble too. That’s the stuff that keeps us looking forward to the brighter days ahead.

 

Travel and the state of tourism in Scotland

As I’ve outlined in a couple of posts earlier in the year, it’s very obviously been a catastrophic year for the industry. Grievously wounding the entire season as Covid did by hitting hardest in the spring, a partial summer recovery (for some, not all) faded quickly with the arrival of the second wave a couple of months ago. The winter has brought variations of lockdown back to Scotland’s main population centres and plunged tourism back into icy darkness. At the precise time when we’d all be looking for some excitement and the self-rewards of travel, we’ve been robbed of even that.

five sisters kintail highland hiking
At least the hills haven’t crumbled

All of 2020’s major events have been cancelled, including the lucrative whoppers like the Edinburgh Festival and Hogmanay. International visitor numbers have collapsed and although more locals from Britain are travelling closer to home than ever, they don’t spend nearly as much and won’t come close to plugging the economic void that has appeared. Thus, an industry that was going through huge year-on-year growth has gone into full reverse, backing over a lot of hopes and aspirations in the process.

Even with restrictions lifted in the peak season, some businesses considered the efforts of opening (and complying with the safety rules) to be more hassle than it was worth. It’s been a good year for the cobwebs. Others went for it, but have seen staff have to multiply their efforts to ensure safety. All working in frontline hospitality would justifiably and ordinarily be in line for a generous bonus this year, if only there was cash left in the till.

But don’t jump in the tub with the toaster just yet, folks. Tourism will return, of this we can be sure. The faces will be different, the numbers diluted at first, but the desire to travel is strong within us all. We want and need experiences, memories, adventures and freshness in our lives. We’ve not packed our last suitcase. But, it will be different from now on. Even in the best-case scenario of a flawless vaccine, rapid rollout and no ‘third wave’, 2021 will still see lots of masks, hand sanitisers, social distancing, pre-bookings, reduced flights, fewer accommodation options and high anxiety. We’ve a bumpy time yet.

Tourism too has become about much more than having a nice wee holiday now and then. We’re seeing deep consequences and repercussions from the seemingly innocent act of enjoying ourselves. The second wave here is being attributed to travellers’ holidays taken when lockdown was lifted in summer. Travel-shaming is rife, whether it’s justified or not.

Most alarming for me is the impact on our rural communities, especially those on the isles. The flood of interest this year in buying property in scenic locations (often for the purposes of second and holiday homes) has seen an astronomical rise in both property valuations and housing that sits empty for the vast majority of the year. This also means that locals are increasingly unable to afford the vastly inflated prices now needed to live there. Young people of working age – a large percentage of whom would work in tourism incidentally – certainly can’t. And, if no-one of working age can live there then, obviously, no-one can work there. And if there are no services or businesses operating there, no-one (regardless of age or financial means) can realistically live there, unless they are entirely self-sufficient. It’s an alarming circle and has become relatively big news, chillingly being referred to as ‘The Second Clearances’. Think about that for a moment. A Clearance. The prospect of numerous islands going the same way as St Kilda and being evacuated completely of residents, doomed to abandonment and the end of a unique culture and way of life. It’s no longer unimaginable.

 

What I’ve Been Up To

I chose early on to sit the summer out entirely, only restarting on the travel writing and blogging stuff when the calm of autumn brought with it a small window in which to safely remind you good people that Scotland will be waiting for you on the other side. With business opportunities reduced, it wasn’t a difficult decision economically or ethically for me to focus on other projects. It’s a bad time to be a travel writer and fortunately I have alternative sources of income to fall back on.

It’s also presented me with the opportunity to pen my first ever novel. With the first of what could well be a trilogy now halfway towards completion, I have dived into the medieval world of Scotland’s Wars of Independence in the late 13th Century. The world of publishing is in a very complicated state at the moment so I’m not entirely sure what the future holds for its distribution (negotiations are on-going) but it’ll hopefully be available for consumption later next year.

Wallace Statue Scottish Borders
The Wallace Statue near Melrose. The Big Man will feature in the novel.

Travel-wise, I did cram in various promotional trips in September and October to Aberdeenshire, Inverness-shire and Loch Ness, the Lothians and the Scottish Borders. Not as much as I’d have liked of course, but more than I’d envisaged back in the spring. And hopefully just enough to keep Scotland prominent on your travel radar.

corgarff castle drone
I still found time for some castle bagging, such as at Corgarff
urquhart loch ness castle
…though even Loch Ness was eerily quiet

I felt I had to turn my back on all of our islands this year, a gut-wrencher.

However, spiralling misery aside, I’ve also been working away on the really important stuff. Life stuff. Taking the opportunities that have come with this damn thing to step back, reflect, reset and focus on what’s most important. It’s all there is for it, along with reading and the odd stint going back in time to take frustrations out on the PlayStation. But things were missing in my life and I’ve made it a very busy year making some big changes.

Harris has been the biggest. I’ve wanted to have a dog companion for my travels for years, but the timing has never been right. Puppies especially require an enormous amount of attention and consideration, the kind you can’t fairly give when running businesses on your own and spending a lot of time on the go. He’s brought plenty of challenges but he’s also been a delight for us, a joyous new member of the family and he’s only going to improve as a Scotland travel buddy in the years to come.

golden retriever scotland
Majestic poses in majestic places have begun already

It’s also been the year when I’ve taken the steep steps to make a bold geographic move. The Highlands have had an emotional grip on me since childhood, but the challenges of rural living (and of leaving Glasgow, my home) always blocked any prospect of making the jump. Covid (and the deafening absence of any objection from Harris) gave the push. As of March, I’ll primarily be based on the west coast of Lochaber. Doon by the watter.

 

2021 – A Year of Change

This would usually be the point at which I’d rattle off a to-do list for the year ahead, make some predictions and outline my proposed travel plans. A room full of people laughing hysterically at me has just entered my mind’s eye. So, I’ll just say that it promises to be interesting. Challenging yes, but hopefully with unusual and unexpected opportunities for us all too. In many ways, it’s hard to imagine things getting worse, but there’s no question we’re not home free yet.

travels with a kilt scotland blog

I’ll still not be blogging or social media’ing with 2019 levels of frequency I expect, but hopefully more so than this year. Nature and the outdoors will take priority in all that I publish because that’s what folk, myself included, are crying out for more than ever. Mountains, hills, beaches and lochs seem likely to feature heavily as I get exploring my new Highland neighbourhood. There will definitely be west coast islands to visit close to my new base, just as soon as it is safe. History will be there too no doubt, although may be less attraction-based than usual. I’ll probably waffle on about the vivacious, life-affirming power of nature and the mental importance of a good roamin’ in the gloamin’. Harris will bounce along in the heather with me I’m sure. I’ll spend more time in the water than I’d previously ever considered sane. The first novel will hopefully be completed. I may learn a little Gaelic. I’ll listen hard to what Scotland enthusiasts crave, and I’ll try and deliver.

And I, like Scotland itself, will be waiting for the chance to welcome you all back again.

Merry Christmas, and stay safe.

Sláinte.

road trip with harris

 

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