A Different Perspective on the Highlands
International communist links, music bonanzas, tales of grand drug busts and enough nationalities to tempt Kofi Annan to hold a UN summit here, it’s what the Scottish highlands are all about. Or more specifically, Ullapool in Wester Ross.
As a city boy from the southern end of this country of tartan and tweed I’d always envisaged the small coastal town of Ullapool as a backwater filled with country bumpkins. When I arrived I was convinced that any female looking my way was analysing my gene pool and sizing me up for fatherhood. However I’ve come to realise that as a child of suburbia, I’m the one that’s led a sheltered life. Ullapool has, in years gone by, been the centre of international attention on more than one occasion.
As a major fishing port it became a popular spot for the fish factory ships of the old Eastern bloc during the 70’s & 80’s. Our commie cousins were lured to the fertile waters of Loch Broom and beyond by the humble little mackerel. The boats came en-masse. At one point it was common to have as many as 70 factory boats in the loch at one time and the resulting mass of fishy folk that came with these vessels became known as the klondykers. These chaps had a huge influence on the town. Not only did the numerous nationalities give Ullapool a cosmopolitan air but the local economy boomed as the materialistically deprived soviets went on retail splurges. Such was the extent of their capitalist outburst that special shopping buses were arranged to take the newly empowered consumers to Inverness.
The good times, however, couldn’t last forever. Mackerel prices plummeted and the USSR collapsed (possibly a connection…?). The klondykers stopped coming. Instead, Ullapool became the focus of one the largest ever drug-bust operations in the UK, Operation Klondyke! A local of the village known as “Crazy Chris” found himself in company appropriate to his name and he became involved in a drug smuggling ring that had connections in Spain, Gibraltar, Venezuela and even Columbian drug cartels. The result was illegal narcotics being smuggled into the UK through Ullapool & surrounds. However, the boys in blue had it all in hand and subsequently Mr Crazy Chris is now behind bars at Her Majesty’s leisure after half a tonne of Columbian cocaine was caught on its way south to London.
These days Ullapool doesn’t offer international drug busts or any solid communist connections. It does however retain a touch of the cosmopolitan. Just the other night I found myself in a local ale establishment being served by a Slovakian barmaid whilst I chatted to a couple of fishermen from Mozambique and Spain. The town is now also a year round music venue with everything from ceilidhs to rock concerts. October sees the town holding its annual guitar festival and 2007 is the 3rd year for the up and coming Loopallu festival, last years headliners being Scottish band of the moment The View.
Drugs and the communist world aside, I’ll settle for some international banter and maybe a wee sing-song. There’s a lot to learn from these “country bumpkins.”