As a child our family couldn’t afford a car. My dad had to borrow the works van on summer weekends when it was available. So, we became a family that went on day trips instead of holidays. Mind you, my dad, John, always said he already paid rent 52 weeks of the year so why would he voluntarily pay double one week just so he could sit in a bed and breakfast in Rhyll looking out onto a wall and sharing a toilet with 33 strangers and an unreliable flush mechanism? He was blessed with true northern logic.
Anyway, here is a little story about a much more recent day trip failure and my dear sister, Christine.
Scottish Retail Therapy
My sister Christine loves a spot of retail therapy. She gets withdrawal symptoms if she is away from shops for more than a day or two. When we go on holiday she always spends inordinate amounts of time in shops such as Woolworths (sadly now defunct) and Boots. I disapprove of these shops not because of their corporate policies, or the goods they sell or their generic nature (although I do tend to prefer independent shops in the true middle class style.)
No, I only disapprove of them because they are open and available in our home town. Therefore, time spent in them on holiday is time wasted when we could be looking at the unique and possibly more interesting shops at our chosen holiday spot and be supporting the local economy rather than offshore, anonymous non – domicile billionaires.
So, after years of being found waiting restlessly outside chain stores in seaside towns surrounded by the smokers who are banned from the indoor pursuit of their habit, I have banned her from chain stores on holiday. This rule covers any store that is available in our home town or any of the other towns within a twenty mile radius of home. This may seem harsh to you, but at least I am now left waiting outside fairly interesting (or utterly naff) shops whilst Christine spends vast amounts of time perusing lint removers and melamine drinks coasters and I shuffle about in the cold with increasing amounts of frustration.
So, with Christine’s devotion to shopping a holiday staple the more remote locations are not that attractive to her. Sadly though, being reliant upon meagre state benefits means that she is at the mercy of family and friends for donated holidays and cannot always choose. The more remote locations present somewhat of a challenge to her, but as a free holiday they are gladly received and for the first few days she copes. At least until the urge to shop becomes unbearable. The only way to slake this thirst is to take Christine to some shops and let her go off on her own for a while. She will generally surface when darkness falls and the lights in the window displays are being extinguished, with a triumphant gleam in her eye as she shows you her purchases. They may be large, like a handbag, or small, such as a particular brand of pocket tissue. Whatever has been sought and bought will satiate her and restore her to sanity allowing you to continue with your holiday.
So, when Christine announced that she was to go on holiday with her son Chris and his wife to the most wild and northern coast of Scotland I was taken aback. Not only do Chris and his wife abhor shopping but they also do not understand this element of Christine’s character. In many ways Chris actively frowns upon it as he believes that it is unnecessary and somehow contributes to his mothers’ poverty. I contend that her poverty is due to the draconian and miserly welfare system in this country that does not allow for humanity and seeks to destroy all dignity for those unfortunate enough to have to be reliant upon them as my sister is. Chris is of a more disciplinarian opinion and prefers to see his welfare recipients more appropriately clad in sackcloth and ashes doffing their caps and thanking sir kindly for the pennies proffered to them, even if the claimant happens to be his own mother.
Regardless, of these considerations they were to holiday together for a full week in a caravan and go on country drives taking in the fresh air and peaceful surroundings. I chuckled at their prospects and maybe even ventured to ask “are you sure about the isolation?” once or twice but dismissed my own concerns as it was none of my business. Christine was going to find a distinct paucity of retail opportunities in the highlands of Scotland. Off they went anyway.
For the first few days all went well as I received various texts detailing the scenic drives and highland nature they had visited. Christine was apparently relaxed and happy. Nevertheless, by day four the texts had taken on a distinctly darker tone.
“It’s very isolated here. Lol xx”
“I wouldn’t mind the odd shop if there was one. Ha-ha xx”
“I am sick to death of highland scenery. You’d think they’d have some sort of shopping centre somewhere near here!”
The longing for retail had begun as a trickle and had now become an overwhelming flood of desire to shop. I wondered how she was coping as from then on I heard very little, but only a couple more days passed and she was home and almost immediately on her way to the largest retail park in Manchester, The Trafford Centre to replenish her cupboards full of trifling things and feel a part of the consumer economy which is the community she has chosen to belong to in the absence of more conventional pathways, such as work, denied her by her disability.
I heard little about the holiday until eventually we got together as an extended family on one of our Sunday afternoon gatherings. It was here that the story of her desperation at the lack of leisure shopping in the highlands of Scotland finally emerged.
Out for a drive one rain-sodden afternoon on the North-eastern coast, Chris drove fast along the deserted roads. Zooming along in the passenger seat Christine forlornly took in the drab greenery and lashing grey rain. She navigated in a desultory fashion but without warning a brown tourist sign loomed large out of the gloomy prospect.
“Badbea Clearance Village- 3 miles”
Her heart leapt as she imagined a cluster of factory shops full of end of lines. Maybe there would be Clark’s shoes or Radley handbags or Joseph Joseph kitchen gadgets? Her purse had hardly been touched and even if she spent nothing the experience of a prolonged browse would lift her spirits. Her elation soon turned to disappointment as Chris sped past saying airily
“We might call in on the way back if we’ve time.”
It was a long and dull afternoon as Christine feigned interest in yet another area of outstanding natural beauty. She secretly determined that she would not miss out on this opportunity and would do everything in her power to get to that clearance village.
Mid-afternoon saw them setting off for home and Christine set up a vigil to ensure that she didn’t miss the brown sign that had now become a beacon of hope to her. Her anticipation built and when she spotted it Chris reluctantly took the necessary turning. Christine’s spirits soared as she glanced at her watch and realised she would have perhaps as much as two hours to take in the delights of the clearance village.
The road wound through the drizzly landscape, across moor and vale and became perceptibly narrower as they progressed. Silence reigned in the car as Chris made clear his disapproval, but he drove on anyway, sensing his mothers need. Christine began to wonder where the other cars were. Surely shoppers would be leaving at this time of the day? Doubts began to creep in but she disregarded them, unwilling to let go of her vision.
After the requisite number of miles they reached a small, deserted gravelled area with a large tilted sign to enable visitors to read. Warily, Christine left the warmth of the car and crunched across the gravel to the sign. In the distance she noted some scattered, disconsolate looking black stones, heaped up and in disarray. This was all she could see, which was strange. She wondered where the shops were as she looked at the sign in puzzlement.
The sign read
BADBEA CLEARANCE VILLAGE
As the agrarian revolution throughout England took hold in the eighteenth century, farming and agriculture were systematically modernised, creating greater returns on investment by improving farming methods and machinery. Great wealth was created for the English aristocracy as the Enclosures Act saw the abolition of common land. There was much revolt from the peasantry as they witnessed the death of ancient rights and privileges as well as their rural way of life. Following this success (although arguably a disaster and source of ruin for millions of the English rural poor) the aristocracy turned its attention to Scotland seeking to improve the financial return of their extensive land holdings there.
At the forefront of this group was the Duchess of Sutherland, Scotland’s largest and wealthiest landowner. She consulted with experts and assiduously learned all the newest methods and techniques, eventually reaching the conclusion that sheep were the way forward and would provide her with even more wealth. With thousands of properties tenanted by subsistence farmers, many of whom were reliant upon highland cattle, the Duchess knew that only drastic action would gain her the financial return she desired. She instructed her men accordingly and so began
THE HIGHLAND CLEARANCES
The farms and villages of Scotland were methodically and violently cleared from the land to make way for sheep. Families and communities that had lived and farmed the land for many centuries were viciously uprooted as they were evicted from their ancient lands. Crops were burned, animals slaughtered and villages raised to the ground. The stones you see here today are all that remains of Badbea village, a once vibrant and self- sufficient rural community, ruthlessly destroyed in the pursuit of wealth.
Needless to say, as Christine read this, the full truth of Badbea Clearance Village was revealed to her. The consumer community which she sought was not here and never would be. There would be no browsing or shopping for trinkets amongst artificial window displays and piped music. Just sheep and piles of broken stones in a dull and dreary landscape as far as the eye could see. She was overwhelmed with disappointment.
She walked angrily back to the car as it began to rain once more, Chris and his wife asking, “ What’s happening then? Where is it?” and Christine having to explain that it wasn’t a shopping centre after all but a site of special historic interest with a past full of pain and conflict that resonates still now down the centuries for the Scottish nation. She was fraught with anger and frustration as she became unreasonably furious at what she believed to be a misleading brown tourist sign that had thwarted her dreams of an afternoons shopping.
However, on that Sunday afternoon, together as a family, we were overwhelmed with laughter as we pictured her with excited anticipation glowing across her face as she advanced down miles of country road only to be faced with an empty landscape populated by gulls and sheep and absolutely no shops of any description and a complete absence of shopping centres in the howling emptiness of the Scottish Highlands. We roared with laughter as she recounted her story of woe and the misunderstood meaning of the brown tourist sign. We howled as we imagined the miles out of the way they drove and the utter incomprehension at what was not there. We cried with laughter at the slow dawning of reality that must have spread across her hopeful face as she read the sign detailing the history of the Highland Clearances. We knew that she was as disinterested in history and chuckled at her being forced to learn Scottish history rather than while away a few hours wandering the meaningless aisles of vacuous consumerism. Underneath I worried about an education that carried with it such significant gaps whilst loving my sister all the more.
Many months later, it is with a certain irony that a little research reveals many of the large and profitable shopping centres blighting the landscape throughout this United Kingdom have been financed and /or built by the same aristocratic families who cleared the highlands so thoroughly. Where once they destroyed genuine communities in the pursuit of wealth, now they build in order to create artificial communities in pursuit of yet more wealth. Where once the vast peasantry immediately recognised the deep injustice done to them and revolted against it, now that same class collaborates with those who seek to milk them of their money, denude them of their land and keep them ignorant of the wrongdoings enacted upon them in the past.
Badbea Clearance Village is nearly gone but yet lives on, with every town and village high street undergoing its own modern version of clearance. The minds of us, the villagers, are cleared too as great chunks of education are sacrificed to whatever subsequent governments deem unnecessary via the national curriculum. These are then replaced by the relentless rise of consumer fantasies and the idea of retail as a kind of therapy, soothing the nation whilst the clearances continue and Badbea Clearance Village becomes just another brown tourist sign to be misremembered or driven past.