Kirsty Gunn: It is possible to win the regeneration game

The Forsinard Flows Centre brings with it the potential for growth and creative investment in Sutherland. Picture: Paul Turner/RSPB
The Forsinard Flows Centre brings with it the potential for growth and creative investment in Sutherland. Picture: Paul Turner/RSPB
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For anyone who is familiar with the great pleasure of taking the romantically named Far North Line to Thurso and Wick from Inverness, news of the new-look request stop at Forsinard will only be old news, though lovely to be reminded of, even so. I only write about it now because of developments that have been taking place in that particular region of East Sutherland and that bear noting, celebrating, in fact – as are any plans for our more remote parts of the country that bring about regeneration and good for communities. Those words – “regeneration” and “community” – have been sorely misused, of course, by those who have no interest whatsoever in either of them. I am thinking in particular about the huge power companies that talk about regeneration and job creation and all the rest of it in their PR and campaign leaflets but in fact, after the business of erecting their pylons and turbines and laying down their massive stone chip aggregate sites and paying off communities with a Friday night film show and a new set of swings for the children’s playground, only pack up and leave, taking the few jobs that were available for a while with them and leaving behind a ravaged landscape, impoverished infrastructure and the end of a local tourist industry – because who wants to visits a place where everywhere you look are pylons and wind turbines?

Still, there is another kind of regeneration that is the real sort. And you see it, the signs of nice things happening in a place – a real sense of mindful holistic investment – the moment you hop off the train at Forsinard at the Forsinard Flows Centre, home to the Flows to the Future Project, run by the wonderful Caroline Eccles and her associates at RSPB Scotland and the Peatland Partnership.

Forsinard has to be one of the most stunning request stops in the world. I just can’t think of many other train stations that could come close. It sits, a single platform with its signal box and miniature road barrier, in the midst of some of the most achingly beautiful scenery in the UK, the so-called flow country, miles and miles of uninterrupted open blanket bog that constitutes five per cent of the one of the world’s most endangered ecosystems here in the heart of Strath Halladale and that spans Sutherland and Caithness in the largest bird reserve in the UK. It’s towards the end of the Far North Line, this extraordinary stop in this extraordinary part of the world, and I get that train whenever I get the chance – from Inverness where I’ve travelled from Dundee, mainly to go and see my sister in Caithness; and I’ve taken it from Rogart too, another insanely gorgeous request stop on the same route.

Forsinard has always been favoured by walkers and bird watchers, and the Forsinard Hotel, sadly closed down – and let’s get to that later – was a great meeting place for game keepers and estate employees, lodge owners and visitors, in short, everyone who lives around and supports and is supported by means of traditional country living. Linda Cruikshank, formerly of the Ben Armine Estate, remembers great nights at the Forsinard Hotel, legendary Hogmanays and altogether “just a terrific community meeting spot” as she called it, towards which people would congregate at the end of a working week. It was also, along with bed and breakfast options, a place for visitors to stay, those who were on driving holidays or walking and fishing adventures – the hotel had some rights to local lochs and rivers. This is all to say that the area in general has always been not only a part of our heritage but a place where people lived and worked and . . . used. In a fully regenerative way, I mean, where the contract of goods and services in exchange held strong and meant the values of a local community could be protected and thrive.

Like so many places in Scotland, Forsinard could be somewhere now under threat – by the predations of the land change reforms and creeping capitalism that seeks to overturn and redefine the Highlands (see the number of lodges changing hands and being closed down, for example, traditional stalking replaced by rogue culling carried out by hired guns on short contracts, negligent owners with no interest in protecting the waters etc etc, another column in itself, this) – but it isn’t, and why? Because of the Forsinard Flows Centre and the potential it holds for growth and creative investment. Caroline and I have a plan to get some of my writing students up there for workshops and readings, and my sister Merran, who is involved with running the Dunbeath Heritage Centre over in Caithness, has an idea that the two centres will share interests, by directing guests of one to the other, helping each other with mailing lists and awareness events and so on.

My own thinking has been leading me more and more towards ideas of that phrase I just used: “creative investment”. That we might, in the Highlands, follow the American model of establishing more centres for cultural and artistic enquiry from which comes an infrastructure – with further activities spiralling out from those, and a local industry in turn energised and developing. Because if you bring people regularly enough to a place – with residencies, summer schools and so on, tying those activities in with local initiatives – a local industry grows up around it. So the Forinsard Hotel may open its doors again. So the shop there may be restocked, the cafe find itself busy, and maybe, in time, there might be a bookshop, too, and, who knows? A gallery, a restaurant, a craft shop, a local brewery, cheese, game,a delicatessen – the kind of local activity you see all over America, in the most remote places, in Texas and California and Montana. And though it sounds fanciful, perhaps – Montana for Forsinard, after all – really, the principle holds. Start with one good thing, and others follow. We have the Forsinard Flows to the Future Centre with its viewing tower and walkways that can take the young and the elderly on little pathways into the magic of the peatlands... From a little pathway, new vistas may be seen.