IT looks like 2019 is going to be no less lousy than 2018, so let’s at least start it off with a laugh. Among the UK state secrets released during the holiday, after the statutory wraps had been lifted, was correspondence between Prime Minister Harold Macmillan and his Secretary of State for Scotland, John Maclay.

Perhaps the most colourful thing about Maclay was that he had been a member of the victorious Cambridge Eight in the Boat Race of 1927. But by the standards of his time, this minister with the charisma bypass was all the same not too bad at his job. From the end of the 1950s, the Tory government started to get seriously worried about the steep decline in the Scottish economy. Their man on the spot could therefore become the sponsor for three supposedly game-changing industrial investments: Ravenscraig for steel, Bathgate for trucks, Linwood for cars. Any successor in the hot seat today would give his right arm to be able to do as much. Unfortunately, all these projects are now “no more”, so there is not going to be any successor with the same kind of political leverage.

It may have been, however, that Macmillan himself was the driving force in all this. Though he was the immediate offspring of millionaire publishers, once in the mood – usually in front of Scottish delegations to Downing Street – he liked to recall how his family had originated in a humble croft on the Isle of Arran. In public he had little to gain from obsessing about the ancestral homeland, but he did what he could from behind the scenes to aid the old country.

I don’t suppose the two toffs knew too much about trucks or cars, so they had to draw on their personal experience when it came to a more imaginative range of projects. Macmillan wrote to Maclay: “We were talking the other day about the future of the Highlands and I think you accepted the view that tourism in its widest sense must play a great role. I do not believe that the great forests and grouse moors can last much longer.”

Nul points for foresight to the Prime Minister, as the grouse moors are one thing that survived the intervening period, there being not much else to do with the type of terrain they cover. And I wonder just what great forests he was talking about: the Highlands were then, even more than they are today, largely treeless.

Details, my boy, mere details … “What we want to do is to popularise sport, making it widely available and fill the country with simple but comfortable hotels for this class of people. We ought also to spread tourism in its more popular sense.”

While the Prime Minister waxed lyrical about the prospects for “this class of people”, his Scottish Secretary stood ready with a cold douche. After all he had actually been to the Highlands, whereas it is not clear Macmillan had, grouse moors apart.

Maclay retorted: “The congestion on the Highland roads, nearly all of them single-track, in July and August is appalling and there is a real danger that tourists will decide never to return to some of the most beautiful parts of the Highlands because of the inconvenience and delays they have suffered. I sent the chancellor before Christmas a comprehensive programme of Highland development in which the encouragement of the tourist industry and the necessary improvement of the road system, including the construction of some new roads to open up areas at present inaccessible to tourists, were the main ingredients.”

A subsequent report proposed the Highlands should look for touristic examples to follow in the Rocky Mountains, in Scandinavia and in the Alps, where indeed resorts such as Aspen, Hemsedal and Cortina offer facilities that Scotland, even after half-a-century of development, is unable to offer its visitors.

And some things have hardly changed at all: “Sea lochs which should have been bridged years ago can be crossed only by means of erratic ferry services.”

The same report called for the construction of caravan parks as well as new hotels and restaurants, but thank heaven we have been spared that. A Highland region with caravan parks as the scenic backdrop to today’s new wave of windfarms could, I think, wave goodbye to tourism for good.

Be that as it may, Macmillan seems to have been happy with the outcome of his little run-in with Maclay. When he got the report, it pleased him: “This is good. I am sure there is a future in tourism in the Highlands.”

And he was right, we can say after the lapse of years. There were also a few quite different proposals at the time which, with the Invergordon smelter and the Corpach paper-mill, might have transformed bits of the Highlands into passable imitations of Bathgate and Linwood. Now they too are “no more”. Tourism has indeed stepped into the gap, and today it is by far the region’s most important economic activity.

One of the places I know best is a typical crofting community, with a couple of dozen houses straggling along the road round a lofty headland. Only one is still occupied by indigenous Gaels, all the rest by white settlers who at best pretend to croft. What they actually rely on, amid their numerous odd jobs, is bed-and-breakfast in the high season. Strange that Macmillan and Maclay never mentioned this as the hope of the future, but they probably did not know what bed and breakfast was.

There are of course one or two spots – Inverlochy Castle Hotel, Kinloch Lodge – which even the most raddled habitués of Lake Tahoe or Klosters might not disdain to visit. They will find the going a bit rough if they venture outside into the real world of Scottish tourism, but at least these places show we are not entirely incapable of reaching the highest international standards.

Yet as ever in Scotland, no blessing goes unmixed. We might fairly describe the Isle of Skye as being in the vanguard of Highland development. Since it was joined by a bridge to the mainland, its facilities, not to say its way of life, have vastly improved. Long decades of decline in the population have come to an end. It bottomed out at 7000 in the 1970s, but now more than 10,000 people live on the island. Complaints about house prices are of the same degree of pique as might be heard in Morningside or Newton Mearns.

As for tourism, however, it is on the way to becoming a curse rather than a blessing. The summer of 2018 saw heavy congestion on Skye’s roads, nowhere to park, warnings not to cross to the island without accommodation already booked.

The summer of 2019 will be worse, now VisitScotland has issued an official guide to film locations. It would have been better to provide more public toilets.

In short, will the Highlands this year start to become totally insufferable? Not because the facilities are so primitive and poor, as they were in the days of Macmillan and Maclay, but because they are still for the most part just mediocre and cheapskate, attracting the type of tourist which no respectable community would wish to see loitering in its midst. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Courchevel should be our model, not Benidorm. Let us aim for the highest common factor rather than the lowest common denominator.