Tuesday, December 5, 2017

GARVAULT HOUSE DESPATCH No4: Learning the Licensing Trade. Eva and Joe Depart

December 2017

Mid-afternoon and the sun is setting in the south-west behind the white rucked duvet that is Ben Klibreck. Welcome to December in northern Scotland. Yesterday, Eva and Joe set off on their long journey back to Austria, but it felt almost as long on the drive back from Inverness Airport. Long, lonely and slow; at least the last ten miles along the untreated road that runs past the Garvault. With no other vehicle tracks and the whiteness lying like a sheet over the land, I was grateful for the snow markers and Passing Place signs to guide me and then, as I struggled to see the white-painted house against the white snow in the half-light, for the markers Joe and I had put out along the half-mile drive to the house.  Having safely returned, first thing to do: fire up the generator and re-set the boilers so there is heat in the house. A little later that afternoon, I watch the near-full moon rise clear above the land, casting it’s beautiful cold rays over the snow with a stronger light than the faint glow the sun shone in the west.

The moon had reminded me that is had been a month since we had driven down to pick up Joe from Inverness train station. Being the photographer he is (among many other things), Joe had spent a long time outside photographing last month’s Hunter’s Moon. Tonight, I stood in the now empty and cold west wing (the only reliable spot in the house for a phone signal) as my sister and I both looked up at the moon while we talked and discussed when I would come down to Central Scotland and spend a couple of days with her.  It will not be next week, as the first of our British friends is making a visit: Rhys has bravely booked a flight with Logan Air to Inverness. He is hoping he will be in time to catch the last train north….and that it will be running. Which it was not for most of this week and which was why I had to drive Eva and Joe to the airport.  

It was our second visit to Inverness in November; on the 20th I had had to attend a day-long course and sit the exam for my Personal Licence Holder’s qualification; the certificate for which arrived in the post yesterday.  The course itself was conducted by Ramsey Mcghee, an ex-police superintendent and well acquainted with the licensing trade; his only vice was to frequently mount one of his many hobby horses and so lose track of where in the mass of guff (and it was mostly guff) we had still to get through. His biggest hobby horse, a real Clydesdale, was the formation of 'Police Scotland' and the doing away with the regional Chief Constables. Now, he says, the Highlands gets policed as though it was Glasgow. 

For those who might be interested in following me into the pub trade, here is my journal entry regarding the course:

There were 7 of us and it was an interesting mix of people too. I had feared half-a-dozen hardbitten bar room types, but we had Phil and Amelia from Inverness’ theatre; a personable young man from the wine trade; Kasandra, a beautiful young Bulgarian lap dancer looking to move off men’s laps and up the career ladder; and sitting next to me was Ann, a large, peroxide-blond and friendly woman, the long-serving bar manageress of a golf club. Arriving late due to his flight from Stornaway, came eagle-beaked Donald, with the wonderful deep Outer Hebridean voice that made anything he said sound like a prophecy from Ossian.

Of the course matter, it seems the Scottish Government took fright at the rise in drinking in Scotland over the last ten years. After seeing the graph, I could understand why but also could not help thinking it bore a remarkable resemblance to the similar rise of the SNP and the independent movement, even showing a marked fall since the last election. Whatever the reason, the point that came home is that any deviance from the dogma that under-aged drinking is the cause of the problem will not be tolerated: £5,000 fine and/or 3 months imprisonment for knowingly serving alcohol to anyone under 18. Hm; we could be in the good old US of A - and just as wrong about how to tackle the drink problem.

At the end of a long day, I was the first to finish the multiple choice exam. As usual with such an exam, it tested little except an ability to regurgitate often irrelevant dates or statistics, as well as a few dubious 'facts' about the demon drink. I left not sure if I had passed or not, but certain that another half-an-hour pondering over such questions as 'What licence must you obtain if you want to have music on your premise, a PPL or a PRS?' would not change my score for the better.  I was pleased to have a word or a wave from each of the others, but left feeling sorry for poor Kasandra who was obviously struggling with the poor english of some of the questions. I fear she may have to sit on a few more laps before she can make her way up the ladder.

So now I am a fully qualified publican, who probably knows less about the practical aspects of actually running a bar than most locals. Whereas although I am not a qualified butcher, I have learned, under the expert guidance of Badanloch’s Head Keeper, how to butcher a deer.  Brian kindly gave us a deer as a 'welcome to the strath' present, but only on condition that we butchered it ourselves. So, while Eva bagged up the meat into ’stew', ’soup', 'fillet' or 'roast', I hacked and sawed my way through a recently shot hind.  Eva also brought home more venison after helping out at the local charity market, where the surrounding estates provide produce (mostly game) for the people of Helmsdale to buy, with the proceeds going to the local hospital.  Should you visit - and we hope you will - you will be sure to have venison on the menu. And rest assured there will be legally poured drink too.  

But what about the Land-Rover’s gearbox I’m sure you want to know: has the Green Knight got a (workable) reverse gear? Yes is the quick answer, although it took a lot of work and it still feels like poking a stick into a pile of rocks, but I can get reverse gear. Getting it out is a little more difficult; as though there is a gin trap among the rocks, but at least it works.  A happier Land-Rover tale occurred yesterday when I had stopped at the garage in Kinbrace to try and fix the Green Knight’s current problem: the drivers door would not open. For the last ten days I have been practicing my yoga by clambering over from the passenger side and, while it might be good for my flexibility, it had lost any novelty appeal and I was keen to have it fixed. In case any of you find yourself with a similar situation with a Defender, let me tell you the secret of how Stuart, as a qualified and experienced mechanic, fixed a problem that had defeated me. Brute force.  

So, after much sanding and waxing of floors, painting of walls and other chores, it was with some sadness that Eva and Joe left the Garvault for the last time this year. Eva should be back sometime in January and Joe is also keen to return. As we took one last walk around in the sunshine, the eagle chose that moment to make an appearance. We have not seen him for a week or so, but it was as though he wanted to come and say goodbye. 

Your Man in Sutherland


Sunday, October 29, 2017

GARVAULT HOUSE DESPATCH No 2: Land-Rover Trials, Eagles and Ghosts

October 2017

After two weeks had passed, we were still here, at Britain’s most remote hotel. A lot happened in the meanwhile, not all of it at the Garvault. Betty returned to the States as planned, but fully committed to join us again next year; we stopped over with family and friends in and around Edinburgh, bringing a little bit of chaos into their lives; and we agreed to buy some dinning room chairs from antique dealer friends near Inverness, but did not find the opportunity to collect them (Mike and Ben eventually delivered them five months later, but well worth the wait as they are so comfortable you could sit talking at the table for hours - and we often do).  

The reason for not stopping to pick up the chairs, and for testing the patience of my sister and friends, was due to the venerable old Land-Rover 130 - the 'Green Knight' (actually more my stubborn refusal to buy a newer, boringly reliable vehicle).  The gearbox had packed up on the long run north and it had been left in Edinburgh to fit a reconditioned 'box. Unfortunately, no reconditioned gearbox was available, so we (I) took the risk of a second-hand one. Sometimes these things pay off, sometimes they don’t.  This time it didn’t and after only 50 miles I saw the transfer 'box dripping oil like a icecream in a sauna. More immediately problematic, the gear lever refused to go into reverse. With it’s poor turning circle, a Defender without reverse gear is like an ocean liner in a crowded port without a tug, but when pulling a trailer, it was like two ocean liners in a crowded port…. Which is why we could not stop to pick up the antique chairs.

Enough of the Land-Rover and mechanical stuff; more than enough for some of you I suspect. What about the Garvault I hear you clamouring to know? Does it rain all day every day? Is it really really cold? Are there any neighbours other than sheep? If so, are they friendly and do they speak english? Is it spooky, or is there a strange man lurking in the shadows with a spanner/wrench?

The Rain. After the West Coast of Scotland, anywhere is comparatively dry and sunny, and so it is here. In fact, we have only had a couple of days where we have felt disinclined to go for our afternoon walk, but even then it has cleared up enough to go out later. Early days I know, but encouraging. Nor is so cold; a Geordie would be happy here in a T-shirt and shorts. And there have been the most glorious sunsets. However, as anyone who knows this part of the world will tell you, it is windy. Apparently in Austria at the weekend people were advised to stay indoors due to storm force winds. Here, such winds are a regular occurrence and, on even a mild day, washing is blown dry before you have finished pegging the last shirt to the ¼ inch thick washing line. That is, if it hasn’t wrenched itself from the grip of the pegs and gone chasing sheep. 

Sheep. Yes, there are sheep. Good looking North Country Cheviots. Most effective lawnmowers too. Being hardy hill sheep, they even trim the tufty grass around the stones, which is considerate of them. Deer, plenty of them as well, often mixing with the sheep in a friendly neighbourly way. Human neighbours? Ah. The nearest are not so far, about four miles away. Badanloch Lodge has a cluster of cottages as well as the lodge itself (currently let to an earl) and houses the Head Keeper, the Under Keeper, the Student Keeper and the Husband and Wife shepherds; the river gillies live elsewhere. We had a visit from the Head Keeper and his assistant last week and returned the call over the weekend.  Brian has been at Badanloch nearly 40 years and is a good man to know.  

Eagles. We seem to have a resident eagle. All the usual superlatives apply when it is a golden eagle. I’ve seem plenty of eagles in Africa and there are sea eagles further down the strath, but the symmetry, as well as the size, makes the golden special.  Eva spotted him (her?) first, soaring over Ben Griam Mòr, before quartering the ground around the Garvault and then passing lazily away westwards towards Cnoc nan Tri-chlach and on to Ben Klibreck. Although the natives are english speakers, the hills obviously aren’t, the names a mix of gaelic and norse. From the prehistoric stone circles above the house to the ruins down by the loch, there seems to have been habitation at the Garvault for millennia. I bet if they could talk they would have a few stories to tell. Even ghost stories.

Ghosts? Not so far. Although there is a strange sound of a child’s swing in the small sitting room (soon to be the Library), which you cannot hear in any other room or outside…. but for a large rambling house in the middle of nowhere, the Garvault feels surprisingly un-spooky. It is Halloween, but I don’t expect anyone knocking at the door demanding 'Trick or Treat'. The chap with the spanner/wrench has not put in an appearance either. But you never know. It's late at night now, and I need to go and switch off that generator….

Your Man in Sutherland,


Sunday, October 15, 2017


October 2017

The remotest hotel in Mainland Britain has new owners. According to Forbes Magazine, the Garvault is not only the most remote on mainland Britain, but one of the ten most remote in the world. That’s some claim, and not one I feel should be put to the test, but still, it helps make the point: Eva and I, along with our friend Betty are the owners of a pretty remote place. 

Remote but not isolated. On our second day, we met Mark the Postie, doing his daily round from Bettyhill, thirty miles north. After chatting for a while, we were confident that by teatime half the county knew that the Garvault had been taken over by the 'Triple A Team': the Anglo-Austrian-Americans.  

For anyone who does not know Britain, the most remote part means northern Scotland, above Inverness, in the county of Sutherland. Known as the Flow Country, the bleak rounded hills and frequent lochs and lochans were formed by the last ice age. Apart from some ill-judged forestry efforts in the last century, it is largely unchanged. What little human habitation there is clings to the coast, in such small towns and villages as Dornoch (Madonna’s castle, Skibo is nearby), Bora & Clynelish (whisky distilleries) and Helmsdale (a fishing village and our nearest shop). Head inland from Helmsdale for 25 miles and you will see in the distance a white speck on the bare hillside. Coming closer, you see it is a whitewashed building, surrounded by a cluster of dilapidated outbuildings. This is the Garvault.

On a sunny day like today, the views stretching for miles in all directions across barren hillsides, with a good imagination it could be the South African veldt. A little more imagination and, in autumn, the sound of the stags in rut could be the roar of distant lions…. 

This remoteness brings a certain self-sufficiency too. Not only does it have it’s own water supply off the nearby hill, and a reed bed soak-away sewage system, but the electricity is provided by a bank of batteries charged up twice a day by a generator. 

Every night I go out to turn off the generator at around 10 o’clock. Sited some distance from the house due to the noise, it is a short walk away. On the first night, as I crossed over in the darkness, with the throbbing sound of the old diesel coming from the lonely generator building, I had a feeling of being in a typical Hammond Innes novel about wild or remote places. Or maybe an Alistair Maclean thriller as I half-expected a heavy spanner/wrench to come out of the darkness and hit me on the back of the head.  One can have too much imagination in a place like this.

On the return, in the now silent night, I stopped to look up at the stars. The milky way stretched like a celestial belt of jewels across the sky. Later, the same heavens would shine with the glimmer of the Northern Lights.