Living in the Scottish Highlands – Is it for you?
Three months have passed since I made the big move north. I’ve had the extremes of snow-sprinkled beaches in February and of flip-flopping my way around an increasingly luscious garden in early summer. There’s been desolate whispers during lockdown, and excitable buzz as tourism reopened. And I’ve relished in equal measure the stony silence of a dram across a mountain view and the internal carnival brought out by Atlantic submersion amid ‘wild splashing’. The early days of living in the Scottish Highlands has been a perfect whirlwind. But, is it for everyone? Most definitely not. Which brings me to answer some of the big questions – answers which I hope might even trigger something special for all the Highland lovers out there.
Of course, the Highlands is a huge area and where you base varies things significantly. The far north of Sutherland and Caithness could find you living several hours away even from Inverness. Whereas Highland Perthshire is within easy reach of Perth, Dundee, even Edinburgh. In my case it’s somewhere in between the extremes, living in coastal Lochaber, around three hours from Glasgow and an hour or so from Fort William. Despite some obvious variations, many of my below musings and experiences would still apply regardless of your geography.
It’s a pretty obvious observation, but you’ll find yourself having a much closer relationship with the weather when living rural. In the city, you’d stare out the window, note the rain and decide nah (or grumble a bit and dig out the brolly if you had to). You’re aware of what’s going on in the sky, sure, but it’s peripheral and not a determinant to your daily life. Here, you constantly have one eye angled upwards and your weather app becomes your addiction. If it’s nice you are outside in a flash, gobbling up the rays. You plan around the rain but, unless it’s proper pelting it down, you still find yourself preferring to be outdoors anyway. Being inside all day watching TV just seems illogical and out of place, like malt whisky and coke. You’ll find it’s all about the other side of the glass.
In Scotland, mixed is what we do best weather-wise. Even the most dismal morning can transform for an hour to two here and there (and by god you seize that window). Rarely do you find yourself with a start-to-finish-dreich day, and when living in the Scottish Highlands you’re primed to make the most of what you get. Winter saw the quite awesome spectacle of getting battered by the Atlantic storms, while spring brought sunny days that don’t darken until 11pm (and remain eerily light through the night).
Then there’s the sunsets (and sunrises). Needless to say your appreciation of them is much more intense than you’d ever feel in a city, and they play an important role in your mental daily plan. I’ve yet to see the Northern Lights (there’s been too much cloud on the rare times they’ve been hovering overhead) but crystal clear starry nights are frequent and me sitting ominous and silent in the dark shadows on the decking in my house coat has become a regular feature. Disturbing stuff.
Kids, Pets and Wildlife
It seems entirely clear to me that the Highlands are a great place to raise kids. It depends on the parents’ values and priorities of course but for someone like me who’d insist on the outdoors being paramount in their upbringing, you can’t do better. The schools seem excellent, and the opportunity to learn the famously difficult Gaelic language from a young age could be a real incentive for many. It’s also safe, folk have that community look-out-for-each-other protectiveness going on and I think you’d be much more at ease as a mum or dad. Of course when they get to teenage years, you may encounter more problems….
As for pets, I think Harris will let me speak for him. It was an interesting transition. In the city, as a Retriever, he’d often present lovely old tissues and crisp packets for me to enjoy. Good boy, I guess. Other dogs would get him riled up, every second required alertness and on-lead walks were fast becoming a very unpleasant chore for the humans. Some challenges still linger (street waste was quickly replaced by seaweed and driftwood) but there’s no debate, he’s much happier here. We were able to accelerate to off-lead very quickly, he’s been great around the sheep (somewhere between big wuss and too cool to be interested), he loves splashing in the sea every day and having a garden replace a tenement flat is night and day for his routine.
Ticks are a huge issue in the West Highlands in particular so great vigilance required there, but that has been the sole major issue so far and the local vet seems very good. Not that he seems to want to talk about it much, but he’s a very lucky laddie.
Dogs aside, though, wildlife becomes another important consideration in your day-to-day. We have a heron that flies over the house and pokes about in the field next door, there’s recently been a very vocal get-up-its-dawn cuckoo in the garden, deer and rabbits are everywhere, I’ve even spotted a couple of distant otters and sea eagles. Crabs and jellyfish mean I have to keep a wary eye on the wee guy and I can’t not mention the midges, who are a forever-nuisance (although they are less prevalent on the coast than further inland).
Spending has rocketed. Part of that is down to buying a house with bespoke and pricey needs, but even still thank god for paperless banking. Where we are is also an area of low supply and high demand, popular with retirees in particular, and therefore house prices can be alarmingly high. More on that later.
Deliveries cost more, given the distances for couriers. Amazon Prime’s Next Day Delivery is no such thing. Fuel costs are up, a car is pretty much essential. Local tax costs are a little higher than the city. Energy use is up (although an environmentally-friendly air source heat pump will prove to be an efficient long-term saver). If you can have some funds set aside for the transition, that’d be wise.
While there was an initial trepidation that this would be a step towards off-grid, the reality in our case was nothing of the sort. The Wi-fi speed is almost as good as Glasgow, there’s multiple train stations within a short driving distance and there’s neighbours about for emergencies.
There’s no phone signal in the house, but that hasn’t been much of an issue, and the wider area has pretty good coverage. In general, the last few years has seen a massive improvement to coverage across the Highlands & Islands. Of course, island living brings with it different challenges again, not least a very heavy reliance on the ferries. That personally felt like a step too far at this point, given working needs and family ties in the Central Belt.
Goods and Services
Getting the full weekly shop has been a challenge, though not as much as I’d feared. Fort William is the nearest big hub (and has excellently stocked supermarkets, I was delighted as I like my fancy ingredients) but that’s quite a trek and Mallaig, Arisaig and the like only have small supermarkets that are much more basic. Supermarkets do now deliver from Fort William (which is amazing and saves an unsustainable round-trip) but you have to book well in advance, which is not ideal. Some sacrifices, and dietary tweaks, should probably be expected for anyone making the jump.
Getting support from local tradesmen has also been a challenge – plumbers, joiners, electricians etc. They exist, but are few in number and high in demand. Most seem to have major backlogs compared to what you’d experience in the city, and getting work done takes time.
There are some delightful local perks, such as fresh fish deliveries (literally to your door), excellent independent bakeries and honesty box eggs.
Obviously, there’s not as many work opportunities as you’ll find in the big smokes. Trade workers will do pretty well and will always be needed. There’s farming, and fishing. Some remote workers such as myself can now often just about get away with it (COVID has, ironically, gone a long way to further normalising and facilitating this). But the world of work is a completely different beast.
Tourism is, unquestionably, the biggie. While a lot of it is seasonal, there’s a sea of flexible opportunities out there whether it’s in hospitality or activity-focussed work. For folk of working age, if you are able to find somewhere to stay, that is the most obvious route in.
The Health Benefits
Physically I’m much more active. I don’t feel the need for a gym membership any more and Harris has me on the beaches and the hills every day without fail. You may also find yourself much more hands on around the garden, through necessity. Chopping wood, trimming vegetation, putting down soil, wrestling the bear…..
Mentally too, I’m in a very different headspace. Everything is slower and somehow more logical – the hurry-up-and-do-nothing-very-important approach to urban office life in particular is not something I miss. You just do what needs done, when it fits. Not that I’m saying I’m always thrilled that things take so much longer to complete (patience was never a virtue of mine) but, in the grand scheme of things, I’m taking the view that an awful lot of the stuff that works us up probably isn’t worth the extra blood pressure. You’re on Highland time now, boy, simmer down.
The Highlands’ Big Issue in 2021
Here’s me singing the praises of Highland living but, while the remote working mindset has become a terrific new enabler and opportunity for many of us, there’s still a whopping financial barrier for any prospective uprooters to knock down. And aside from the huge three of COVID, Independence and Brexit (and the worldwide issue of the Environment), I’d put the critical issue of rural depopulation topmost on Scotland’s current priority list. I’ve touched on this previously, but it comes up in conversation on a daily basis up here. Sadly, money is at the heart of it.
House prices in the Highlands and Islands have rocketed and recent years have seen a dearth of affordable housing. This has been due largely to people from further afield buying up property at enormous relative cost and, in many cases, not actually occupying the property, instead keeping them as holiday homes or firing them semi-permanently onto AirBnB. That’s quite sad in itself (no-one likes to see an empty home, especially in an idyllic location) but the bigger issue is that as a result of these inflated prices, local people simply cannot afford to live here. Young people departing the family home have no option but to leave the area completely. Even people on solid incomes in their 30s and 40s are finding themselves priced out of the market.
That clocks up and in time you’re left with a wealthy and elderly population without residents of working age and therefore, naturally, no jobs and no services. In the extreme, people living in the remoter reaches are either going to need to become almost entirely self-sufficient or areas are going to end up simply being abandoned, St Kilda-style. Although it wouldn’t be the first time for the Highlands, it’s a big worry.
Fortunately, the Scottish Government have also joined in the concern and numerous initiatives are in the making, including a pledge to increase affordable housing and bring in legislation to curb the free-for-all of often exploitative short term letting. It’s a moving beast, you can keep up to speed with the legislative side, and contribute your thoughts, here.
Is Living in the Scottish Highlands for you?
These are strange days. We have all revised our needs and perspectives and if there’s an opportunity to make a positive change in your life, it’s probably never been more timely. I’ve been more than a wee bit fortunate in that it hasn’t negatively impacted my work life, my family and close friends are still easily reached if I need them and I knew the area well in advance, well aware of its beauty. It’s easy for me to say I don’t regret it in the slightest.
If you love the area and the outdoors, have a bit of ready cash and feel the lifestyle and community focus is something you can be part of and contribute into, it could just be the best decision you ever make.
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