To Cromarty, with love
With the Olympics and Queen's Diamond Jubilee, tourism in the UK faces a massive year. The Magazine asked non-British born people to describe the part of the UK that sums up a more unusual aspect of British life. Here Australian novelist Helen FitzGerald explains the lure of Cromarty in Scotland.
Love letters to UK places
Penned by those born abroad
I grew up in a small town 60km (37 miles) north of Melbourne. As in all other Aussie towns, there was a sign as you entered: "Kilmore, population - 2000."
Kilmore wasn't the gateway to anywhere, wasn't a site of historical significance and wasn't oozing natural resources.
It didn't have the world's largest pineapple or a huge concrete merino sheep or a beach or even a lake. But 2,000 suckers from all over the world had ended up living there and in Australia, my friends, that is something to brag about.
Every month or so, my parents would put a picnic hamper and a few of the kids in the boot (I'm one of 13) and head north to Nathalia. For five hours, I'd look out the car window at the view:
Novelist Helen FitzGerald grew up in Victoria, Australia, and lives in Glasgow. Her crime thrillers have been translated into a number of languages.
Blue sky, yellow grass, gnarled trees.
Blue sky, yellow grass, gnarled trees.
Blue sky, yellow grass… gnarled trees.
Our destination was a town consisting of a dusty strip of low-lying shops, a colonial pub, a park and enough houses to accommodate the 1,500 people listed on the sign. It was, in fact, identical to the one we'd departed from five hours earlier.
We'd eat our sandwiches, play cricket on the yellow grass, then drive home.
I live in Glasgow now, and once in a while my husband and I pack the kids into the car and head north to one of our favourite places: Cromarty.
As we drive, I look out the window and marvel at how much the view and the weather change every few minutes.
Grey sky, Glasgow, brown river.
Black sky, Stirling castle, green hills.
Blue sky, ski lifts, brown moonscape mountains.
White and black sky, Kessock Bridge, Beauly Firth.
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Thirty-five more minutes in the car - over gentle hills, ocean views and cute villages with unusual names with bizarre pronunciations designed to trick the unwary traveller (Avoch, for example, is pronounced "Och") - and we reach:
Cromarty. Population - who knows?
It's not just the drive I love. It's the place. Everything about it is so very un-Australian.
Located on the Black Isle north of Inverness, surrounded by rolling farmland, overlooking the Moray Firth and blessed through an accident of geography with unusually mild weather, Cromarty is the Highlands' best-preserved historic town.
Fine Georgian merchant houses and 19th Century terraced fishermen's cottages nestle in its pretty streets. In Australia, any building over 50 years old would have its own national holiday. Here, they are everywhere and they are gorgeous.
It's a place with an exciting and unpretentious mix of people - which makes for a friendly pint in the pub and an extraordinary amount of creativity.
Forties, Cromarty, Forth, Tyne...
Cromarty is one of the "sea areas" and "coastal stations" that feature on BBC Radio 4's Shipping Forecast - to many a mysterious and hypnotic litany of names and numbers and weather forecasters' jargon. Four times a day, weather conditions and forecasts are broadcast, providing precious information to sailors out at sea or those planning to set sail.
Cromarty joins other enigmatic-sounding places such as Viking, Dogger, German Bight, Fitzroy and Rockall - each defining a sea area of several hundred square miles.
This tiny town of 719 (being an Aussie, I had to find out what the population was) has a film festival and a convention centre for writers, where numerous other events are held throughout the year.
The lovely stone houses are filled with writers and artists and film-makers (like my pals Don Coutts and Lindy Cameron) as well as people with "real jobs".
I go home to Australia almost every year, and each time I go I feel that the classlessness we've prided ourselves on is a myth. Snobbery is rife in Melbourne. It's rare you get the sort of mix of people in one room that you get in Cromarty.
But mostly it's a real place, and nothing makes this more obvious than the huge in-your-face oil rig a few hundred feet offshore. Old and new, beautiful and functional sit side-by-side there, proudly and unapologetically.
In the early days, I wouldn't have thought twice about eating lunch then heading back to Glasgow. In Aussie terms, Cromarty is "just around the corner". But I've acclimatised now, so we usually stay overnight.
And it's the sort of place you want to soak in. There's no hurry. Why not stay a while and check out the court house museum, eat at Sutor Creek Cafe (yum), walk along the shore, have a pint, chill out?
My husband's there as I write, working on a TV series. He called the other night and I could hear the place in his voice - inspired, full of ideas, but relaxed and happy.
I did the trip north for the Cromarty Film Festival in December. A week later, I flew home to Australia with my family. Despite the monotony of my childhood trips, the first thing I wanted to do was drive my kids for hours and hours through unchangeable flatness so we could play cricket on the yellow grass in Nathalia.
For me, I guess it's how different these places are that make them so special.