Published: 01/01/2012 00:01 - Updated: 29/12/2011 17:19

City shop hits the funny bone

John West
John West

CONTINUING our On My Doorstep feature, John West, chairman of the Inverness Civic Trust and spokesman for the Inverness West Protest Group, reveals his love of the countryside and his ideal weekend — a warm September evening with friends round for drinks, a burnt barbecue and a less than intellectual conversation.

How long have you lived/did you live in the Inverness area?

I have lived in Inverness for 35 years having spent my formative years in Helensburgh. My years there resulted in a passion for sailing and climbing. I always had a love affair with the Highlands and the north west coast. We bought the Redcliffe Hotel, raising a family and building a house in the grounds prior to moving to our present house, off Stratherrick Road, overlooking the glen and the river. For a few years we owned a pub at Balintore in Ross-shire but never left Inverness.

Best thing about living here?

There are very many plus points about living in Inverness, the location and environment; the history of the area; the facilities that we now have and the climate. The weather is always contentious but most of the world would happily swap with us. However, the most important things in life are the people that make up your life. Family and friends are always top of the list, but in Inverness I have met so many with gifts, talents and abilities that it is difficult to embrace the self deprecating gloom that we have regarding our society. If the people of Inverness are typical of our nation, especially the younger people, then our country is in good hands. We all remember the odd difficult or objectionable person, but don’t let that obscure the other 99 per cent of people who it is a pleasure to know and to be with. A walk by the river with friends or a chat with a stranger, the ever changing scene of river, trees and mountains means that the people of Inverness are never poor.

Worst thing about living here?

There is a sadness that so many of younger people have to seek their education and careers elsewhere. For families with young children, where else would you wish to raise them? The talents amongst our young people mean that we should be able to sustain sophisticated, progressive and state of the art industries in this area. We have leaders in the private sector of the economy capable of bringing these industries to the area and the transportation facilities are critical to these developments. Lots of interesting people coming to live in the Highlands, enriching the community, but the downside is losing the gifted young people and their future families.

One thing you would change about Inverness

The blue lights on bollards — you see them if look down the High Street from the Town House; the love affair with traffic lights and the floor in the Railway Station which can be very treacherous during the winter and make Falcon Square into a vibrant centre for community events, with the accent on fun and entertainment

Your favourite walk/cycle ride

I used to cycle out to Foyers, across to Errogie and back the high road to Inverness in time to watch the Grand Prix, before Stirling Moss retired. But seriously a stunning run and a sense of superiority for the rest of the day.

Describe your ideal Inverness weekend

It would start with a warm September evening with friends round for drinks outside, a burnt barbecue and a less than intellectual conversation, transmogrifying into a discussion and descending into a friendly argument. Saturday morning, telephone to apologise to last night’s guests, bacon butty, cut the grass under duress and off to Caley Thistle’s early kick off against Rangers where there would be a 3-1 victory (there is a God!). Then off to catch Ross County’s cup replay against Hearts where the hosts would win 2-1 in a close game, but they were always a lucky team. Back to the Heathmount for cocktails and a debrief. Return to the bosom of the family and a few friends for a meal out at the Redcliffe (how much better it is since we left?). On Sunday, it would be off to the west coast, up through Lochinver and Scourie and out to Sandwood Bay all in glorious sunshine. Back via the restaurant at Tarbet, to a soft bed and mellow memories.

Where would you take a first time visitor to the area?

Blackfriars graveyard, the Town House and the Ness Islands, then down to the Clansman Hotel for a boat trip on Loch Ness, followed by a meal in the dining room overlooking the Loch.

Where’s the best place for a first date?

My place! If that’s too quick, in the summer, a picnic to Loch Killin or in the winter and back to my place, with the fire and my Philomena Begley music. Okay, if she’s younger than me and I fancy her, she can choose the music!

Favourite local restaurant?

Loch Ness Country House Hotel. I have to declare an interest as it is run by friends, but still a great atmosphere, good food and just a nice place to be. In the summer it is great to sit outside and in the winter it is relaxing in front of an open fire. The menu is compact but always excellent. It is essentially Scottish but with cosmopolitan touches.

Favourite shop?

No competition — the joke shop in the Victorian Market. The total antidote to all those worthy books for sale at airports: "How to make a million in retailing before your first divorce". The lady is a compendium of knowledge and has a filing system for items which would leave Amazon needing steroids. A pig hat with two tails? No problem. This shop breaks every rule in the book, revels in political incorrectness, defies retail orthodoxy and is an Inverness institution. Appeals to my sense of organised chaos, allied with quirkiness, a sense of humour and two fingers to Harrods. American Express will be totally unacceptable.

Your favourite local building and why

Inverness Town House — an unashamed monument to romantic architecture which is non-functional but gives pleasure and a sense of permanence and a belief that there is more to buildings than utilitarian efficiency. Turrets, scrolls and monumental carvings are seen as totally without merit in this modern age, except by 99 per cent of people that look at them. It highlights the age of patronage when wealthy people donated significant gifts to the town for the benefit of all. The Town House is one such example nestling safely in the bosom of the Common Good fund, but don’t let’s go there. All communities need a focal point which appeals to all and with which all can associate. The Town House is that building for Inverness. It’s quality and grace is highlighted by it’s proximity to the edifice of brutal modernism, the Bridge Street development.

Who is your favourite Invernessian, past or present, and why?

Once again, no contest — Alexander Stewart, Earl of Mar, born in Inverness on the wrong side of the blanket, the illegitimate son of the Wolf of Badenoch, who against all odds became the Earl of Mar by kidnapping his wife, the recently widowed wife of the earlier Earl of Mar, who was murdered on his way home one night by unknown assassins (with Inverness accents!). He became a superb general, fighting for many of the royal houses of Europe, becoming a favourite in the courts of both Edinburgh and London. Controlled a pirate fleet in partnership with the provost of Aberdeen, praying on the English trade with the Hanseatic ports, defeated Donald of the Isles at the Battle of Harlaw in 1421 with 5000 men as opposed to Donald’s 20,000. In between times he renovated Inverness Castle. He became the greatest of the Scottish magnates and died in 1435. He returned to be buried in the Blackfriars graveyard in Inverness. Go into the graveyard and at the back right hand corner you will see him set into the wall, considerably eroded but still a commanding figure. A man that would leave Flashman and 007 reeling in his wake, a figure almost without equal in Scottish history and an Invernessian, first and last.

What is the area’s best kept secret?

That Terry Butcher has joined the SNP and the team are to play in mini kilts next year. On a more serious note, visitors associate the present castle with Macbeth and other local rulers, whereas the original castle was in the Auldcastle Road area of the town. Although there is little to see now, it can be appreciated why this would be an appropriate place for a fortification.

How do you think Inverness is perceived by the rest of Britain?

Brigadoon with attitude. Flits into the news periodically, with the impression that it is at the very north of Scotland. It has a football team with an iconic name, romantic place to visit and is associated with Bonnie Prince Charlie and the dust up at Culloden. A good place to retire, with conservative attitudes and old established values. Surprises visitors with the facilities available as instanced when I was taking one of my daughters wedding guests from the airport. On entering Inverness my ears were assailed by an amazed cry of: "Look... they have a Tesco".

How would you describe Inverness in a sentence?

An interesting town set in a spectacular location, retaining its sense of community and coping better than most with the challenges of modern society.

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