A young man felt so moved by his experiences one summer that he wrote about them for the world to read. That man we shall simply call, Jon.
“In Invergordon by the sea
They’ve built a new distillery
And all the gulls are on the spree
That live in Invergordon”
My dislike for sea-gulls had always been slightly vague, their heads were too small for their bodies or their screaming irritated me, I wasn't quite sure. I was about to discover why I really hated them.
It’s 5.30am on a driech September morning as I drive into Invergordon, a small town built on the shores of the Cromarty Firth. Since the closure of the smelter in the 1980’s the town has suffered, but I’m here to see one of the town’s success stories.
I’d been told to meet a man at the end of the pier, he’d introduce me to the gulls. A disembodied yellow hard hat emerges from the gloom – Jack, my guide for the day. Behind him thousands of gulls rise leisurely into the night.
Jack is not an ornithologist. Infact, Jack despises birds. He works for the Port Authority and spends most of his time cleaning the pier. He unravels huge lengths of rubber hose and begins to blast the guano into the Firth. The stench is incredible. There is a cruise liner due at 8am and seagull droppings are not mentioned in the Port’s glossy brochure. They have to go.
The Silver Wind is the last liner of the season. There’s been more than 20 since May (including the Q.E.2) and more are due next year. The firth is full of rigs in varying states of disrepair and with the decline in the oil industry the port is trying to diversify into the cruise liner market. The venture seems to be paying dividends.
By 7.15am the liner is clearly visible at the mouth of the firth. She’s a beautiful ship – a symbol of glamour and decadence unattainable for the crowds of local people who come to show their kids what a cruise liner looks like. By the time Jack’s rolled up his hoses and given the pier a quick sweep we’re close enough to see individual figures. Soon we’re joined by the mooring gang, the Deputy Harbour Master and a piper in full Highland dress. He looks out of place amongst the hard hats and boiler suits and he seems faintly embarrassed.
The liner is very close now, as the pilot directs operations from the bridge the Filipino crews prepare to toss the ropes to us. While the pilot makes some final adjustments Jack tells me about a Filipino crew who, anxious to sample the flesh-pots of Invergordon, asked for directions to “the ladies”. Jack (in all innocence, he claims) sent them to the public toilets in the High Street.
The ropes are thrown to the mooring gang on the pier. It takes three or four men to haul the sodden rope up and over the bollards. Finally the Engineer nods in approval and signals to his minions to take in the slack. The other moorings are made fast and the Deputy Harbour Master gives the thumbs up to the pilot.
That’s the heavy work over, now the boiler suits make way for an army of PR people with clip boards and Californian smiles. The passengers begin to disembark to the strains of “Scotland the Brave” and the piper no longer looks out of place.
There’s a definite air of superiority about the men who work here. Most have left the sea after years of working on the rigs or in the fishing industry. They’ve all got families now and every one of them says the same thing; “It’s a great life but it’s only for the young lads.” Some of the stories about the brothels of Marseilles and Hong Kong would make your hair stand on end, it’s an unashamedly male environment. The ships are the only females allowed.
On the pier taxis jockey for position with the tour buses. The couriers quickly herd the passengers onto the buses to be whisked away to the tourist Meccas such as Dunrobin Castle. Many locals have complained that the passengers are not encouraged to visit the town, but the taxis do well from the liners. It’s not unusual to get fares for Ullapool, or even Portree.
9.30am. The buses have all gone. I talk for a while with an engineer of a grain-boat which has just arrived. He’s from Hamburg, twenty-four and he’s already seen the world. We shake hands, “Good-bye, Scottish.” It begins to rain again. In a few days he’ll be in Barcelona and I get that inevitable pang of jealousy.
4.30pm. The tour buses arrive back at the liner and the passenger returns to the ship. I speak to a couple weighed down with boxes of shortbread and tartan for the folks back home in Ohio. “We’d always wanted to see the Highlands since I’m a Campbell and my wife is a Ross,” he says. They seem to be delighted with their trip, which is good news for the port. Satisfied passengers means that Invergordon should be on The Silver Wind’s itinerary for next season.
6pm. Our resident piper stubs out his fag and strikes up a tune as the gang-way is retracted. The mooring gang shoulder their way through the crowds and take up their positions. There are some camera flashes from the ship, some applause and that’s it. They let go the ropes and The Silver Wind glides out into the darkening firth. Amazing Grace. Tomorrow it’s Kirkwall and then on to the Norwegian fjords.
7pm. As night falls the pier empties of people and the gulls begin to arrive.