Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

Letter from Europe

  • — Issue 2007/10 posted by hidden europe on

Take Da Böd, a café at Hillswick in Scotland's most northerly island group, the Shetlands. This really is the end of the road, a tiny fleck of a community on the shores of Ura Firth. There was a time when Hillswick was an outpost of the Hanseatic League, and the name of the café, Da Böd (The Booth in English) recalls the old trading post of the Hanse.

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Dear fellow travellers

One of the enduring delights of travelling Europe's lesser known trails are the deliciously eccentric people and projects that make our continent so diverse. Five star luxury is pretty much the same, be it in Milan or Moscow. But there is an art to travelling in a way that catches the spirit of the local, and the highlands and islands of Scotland still offer many opportunities for perceptive travellers to escape from the dull blanket of homogeneity that envelops too many regular tourist spots.

the Shetland Islands

Take Da Böd, a café at Hillswick in Scotland's most northerly island group, the Shetlands. This really is the end of the road, a tiny fleck of a community on the shores of Ura Firth. There was a time when Hillswick was an outpost of the Hanseatic League, and the name of the café, Da Böd (The Booth in English) recalls the old trading post of the Hanse. The traders are long gone, and the herring fleets that once filled Ura Firth are just a memory. Nowadays Pete and Jan Bevington, assisted by Silver - a seal in long term residence at Da Böd - run Shetland's most distinctive café. Casual by day, but morphing into something smarter by night, Da Böd has no price list. Guests are invited to leave an appropriate donation, a scheme that evidently works for it has been in place for many years. All profits go to the Hillswick Wildlife Sanctuary Trust, which is also run by Jan and Pete.

the Hebrides

Visitors to Scotland's Outer Hebrides will find another remarkable non-profit organisation in Urras Osdailean Nan Innse Gall Gatliff (The Gatliff Hebridean Hostels Trust). This independent initiative was founded by an English eccentric, Herbert Gatliff, whose eclectic liberal interests included a passion for the countryside. Nowadays, the trust runs four hostels in parts of the Outer Hebrides where accommodation for visitors is sparse. The hostels are in traditional Hebridean buildings, and each affords easy access to some of Europe's wildest landscapes. This is another world from the Scottish mainland. Here in the Outer Hebrides, there is the magic of the machair, with its corncrakes and lapwings; rock strewn summits where golden eagles watch for their prey; wild places with the whistle of the wind, the sound of surf breaking on the sands, and soft Gaelic voices. For more information on the Gatliff hostels, see www.gatliff.org.uk.

Places like Da Böd and the Gatliff Trust are refreshing because they are driven by local values, local concerns, rather than global hype. They work because they are so very different. Eccentric maybe, just like the Glenelg Ferry that wins hands-down over the Skye Bridge as a sensible way to approach the Isle of Skye. Opened a dozen years ago, the bridge from Kyle of Lochalsh to the Inner Hebridean island of Skye might well have spelt the death knell for the tiny ferry that crosses the Kylerhea Narrows. Happily the Glenelg Ferry has survived, a monument to slow travel and to the tenacity of the communities on each side of the Narrows that have raised funds to ensure its continued operation. More details on www.skyeferry.co.uk.

Scottish local media

Thriving locally in spite of pervasive global tendencies has a lot to do with having vibrant local media - newspapers and radio that reflect local accents, local interests and local aspirations. Scotland's highlands and islands are replete with such initiatives. Take West Word (www.westword.org.uk), the community newspaper for Knoydart, Loch Nevis, the Morar coast and the Small Isles. It, and a score of other small newspapers (from the The Orcadian to the Ileach) catch the spirit of some of Scotland's small communities. The region is also seeing a welcome renaissance of interest in radio. Community radio initiatives have taken off in many parts of Europe in recent years, but their brief has been, in the main, to appeal to niche audiences in urban areas. Nowdays, the licensing authorities in Britain are considering applications for very rural areas - such as a proposal for community radio for the Loch Fyne region of Argyll in western Scotland (www.radiofyneside.co.uk). This is a region of engagingly beautiful glens and mountains, terrain where it will not be easy to secure a good radio signal. But thriving locally in the global economy is never easy. It takes initiative of the kind shown by Da Böd in Shetland, the Gatliff Hostels, the Glenelg ferry, West Word and the nascent Radio Fyneside. Five star luxury is easy; the spark of the local is an affirming flame that must be cherished.

Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)

This article was published in Letter from Europe.

About The Authors

hidden europe

and Susanne Kries manage hidden europe, a Berlin-based editorial bureau that supplies text and images to media across Europe. Together they edit hidden europe magazine. Nicky and Susanne are dedicated slow travellers. They delight in discovering the exotic in the everyday.