Last year Jon Palmer and his then wife-to-be, Emmy van Kolfschooten, started The Cheese House Cromarty. Here he reflects on the first year and a business start-up that was more of a life-style choice.
I changed my life on 13th October 2012. After five years of meandering – including a 15 month stay in the Netherlands and finding my partner – this was the date I settled in the Highlands, firmly focused on creating a fresh home and starting an entirely new business. Amidst the doubting comments from friends and acquaintances – ‘How will you cope with the cold and the wet?’, ‘You really think people want to buy Dutch cheese in Scotland?’ and ‘I always knew you were mad’ – one voice shouted loudest: ‘The best move you’ll ever make. You will never regret it.’
So, what have I learnt to assuage the doubters? Why am I convinced I have indeed found a place to call home? And why, given that none of us can actually predict the future, am I so confident my friend is right; it is indeed a move I will never regret?
Well, we’ve had the most blissful summer I can remember in the British Isles since childhood – and believe me that’s going back some. Granted everyone is saying the same but why should Scotland be discounted? And why believe it’s a one-off? The myth of Scottish summers, or lack of, and their nightmare plagues of midges just isn’t true of our little haven in the east. A place, incidentally, that registers as one of the driest in the whole of the UK.
Five months enjoying al fresco coffee and fresh Cromarty Bakery croissants most mornings, often still in my bathrobe, with never a look of surprise from the local passers-by…more of that later! And, for much of June and July, sitting outside long after midnight, enjoying never-ending daylight; perhaps with a cozy blanket to hand, but certainly not cold or crazy. That should be enough to convince my friends south of the border wouldn’t you think? Or how about…Supper arrangements speedily altered after a glance at the sky that heralds another stunning sunset. Wood-fired take-away pizzas from the delicious Sutor Creek Cafe and our favourite ‘table’ – a bench overlooking the harbour – enjoying one of the most satisfying ‘simple pleasures’ one could hope for. Not for nothing have we nick-named our new locality the Scottish Riviera – with more a hint of smugness than ribaldry. ‘Good’ weather isn’t just sunshine and blue skies either. Who could deny the magnificence of a ghostly haar tinged pink by the rising sun stealing its way silently through the Sutors? A sight to rival any of the natural wonders of the world, surely.
The beauty and splendour of the Highlands is known to all, but the Black Isle remains, for many, a hidden gem. Not the drama of the mountains but a staggering range of natural beauty nonetheless – gently rolling farmland, sheer cliffs, sandy coves, dense woodland, mossy glens. Tedious to list all the wonderful flora and fauna, and not unique to Cromarty, but it all seems just so…well…natural! And I have to mention the dolphins. EcoVentures offer a great close-up experience and a whole new perspective of the coastline but one can be equally thrilled by a sighting from the shore. Many years ago, during a ‘holiday-of-a-lifetime’ on Bali, I was coerced into a 4 o’clock start for a trip to see these wonderful creatures (very special). Guess what? No dolphins. Here? Well, I’ve seen them leaping and splashing from my sitting-room window at any time of day. Certainly no need for that early call – or flying half way around the world to find them.
Having spent most of my life in an urban environment it was understandable that, when first we moved, I clung to the fact that Inverness was close at hand to provide those additional ‘needs’. As the year progressed we found ourselves travelling less and less and actually avoiding that trip ‘into town’. We’ve rid ourselves of dependency on the dreaded supermarket and increasingly find ways to shop locally, or simply do without. And there’s nothing to beat local meat, dairy, fruit and veg. – which tastes so much better, costs not much more, and has the added satisfaction of knowing its fresh, local and better for the environment. Transition Black Isle is an organisation with a strong ideology that, too tentatively for my liking, is changing perceptions of how we could live our lives more sustainably. I applaud the local Community Markets that should, and could, transform people’s shopping habits – if only they were more frequent and genuinely provided an alternative to the weekly supermarket shop. It’s getting there.
My former career was in the arts and I did wonder if I would be starved of creative culture, far from it! We now see more films, theatre, exhibitions and live music than ever we did in the city. The choices are limited but somehow makes one more appreciative. I feel compelled to support whatever is around (use it or lose it), yet who could question the quality of, say, Mull Theatre – two extraordinary productions promoted by the tireless Resolis Community Arts – and the range of exhibitions and concerts from Cromarty Arts Trust at their spectacular Stables venue. Formerly, I would never have considered a concert of Schubert’s song cycle Winterreise, (and on a dank Sunday afternoon at that!), but I went and felt privileged. Perhaps being surrounded by so much natural beauty adds to the significance of art and makes it more immediate.
Without a small child as an excuse for meeting parents at the school gate and not being part of the dog-walking fraternity (who seem to have their own exclusive community), the next best thing for meeting new people, I suggest, is to open a shop. After only three months we were on first-name terms with about half the population of the town. Some were sceptical, of course, but overwhelmingly the response to our arrival was positive – and many have come, even if only out of curiosity, to talk and make their acquaintance. There is something about an isolated community, perhaps, that appreciates the risks of ‘making a go of it’. No negativity here, more an overwhelming ‘just do it’ attitude. Maybe it is a Highland thing, surrounded by all that space allowing people to be themselves and do their own thing. It’s certainly taken a while to adjust after years of the ‘little Englander’ mentality – ‘you can’t do that’, ‘what will other people think?’, ‘somebody else has already tried it and failed’.
I’ve been surprised by the willingness to be accepted for who I am (which is why I am very comfortable sitting in the morning sunshine in my bathrobe!). The consideration people show towards others and the space and respect they afford is impressive – to be supportive but not to pry; for news to spread (like wild-fire sometimes!) as information rather than gossip; to take a genuine interest in matters and be concerned. It is this element above all others that marks, for me, a distinct difference between my experiences of living in England and moving to the Highlands. It is what gives me an overwhelming sense that Scotland is a land of possibilities – a place where you have a chance to sew seeds, put down roots, and prosper.
Stunning weather, an inspiring landscape, rich culture and generous, down-to-earth people – it all adds up to a pretty satisfying move. No regrets, certainly, and most definitely a heightened level of contentment.
Oh, and to those that doubted the demand for Dutch cheese? We’ve sold over 2,500 kg in these first twelve months – which suggests to me that someone must like it!
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