I CAN’T help but wonder if there is some unwritten rule for travel writers and journalists dictating that the word “remote” be used to describe any Scottish place beyond Edinburgh and Glasgow. Communities in the Highlands and Islands especially cannot escape the label, tacked on like a template.

So, what does it really mean? Perhaps we need a term for this phenomenon. I suggest “Schrödinger’s remoteness”. Look within the community labelled “remote” and you’ll not find a trace of the word anywhere. But the moment you consult external sources it becomes omnipresent.

A quick Google search of “Scotland” and “remote” brings up dozens of articles from the past month alone with alleged remoteness, often used together with “wildness” as the narrative hook.

Sometimes it is a framing device for romanticisation of Victorian magnitudes – behold, the “lone enraptured male” (to borrow Kathleen Jamie’s spot-on invective) discovers inner peace far from the rat race in the remote wilds of Skye. Why, you can barely even see the hotel and carriageway in the background!

The National: The Isle of Skye

Sometimes it functions as a byword for hardship, inaccessibility (for whom?), and antiquatedness (by what metric?). Both perspectives are skewed, yet share one thing in common: subjectivity.

The use of “remote” as a descriptor says much more about the perspective of the person using it than it does about anything inherent to a place. It is quite possible to experience physical and emotional solitude and disconnection, two attributes lauded as virtues of “remoteness”, in the middle of a city.

So, too, is it possible to feel crowded out by modernity in places oft-described as “remote” – just ask anyone who has visited Glencoe in peak summer season.

In Landscape to Light, Caithness-born writer Neil Gunn pinpointed this relationship: “Always the scene has something to do with the mind of the character who finds himself there … There is a sort of oblique traffic between the two …”.

Gunn does not refute the distinct character of rural communities, saying that to grow up in an island is “to grow up in a special world” but he also spends several pages viscerally critiquing how many visitors relegate such places to what we might today call a Disneyfied fantasyland.

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We can recognise that a community exists on an island or has a low population density (relative to what?) without falling into the trap of value judgments contained within “remote”. No-one would argue that there is no material difference between metropolitan Glasgow and Papa Westray. Yet, defaulting to “remote” in describing the latter brings with it three centuries of connotations and biases imposed on a place rather than ones arising from within it.

“Remote” internalises the 19th century poet waxing lyrical about a supposedly “wild” landscape which only 10 years before had been cleared of its people and which had been intensively farmed for thousands of years.

It uncritically accepts the narrative of the modern travel writer who “does” the North Coast 500 in three days before returning to their “real” lives, believing themselves to have glimpsed some Edenic, primordial state of being free from the mundane anxieties of our fast-paced times.

The same writer is almost certainly unaware of, or perhaps indifferent to, the housing crisis and resulting drain of people to which such fantasies systemically contribute.

This illusion, wrote Iain Crichton Smith in Towards the Human, is a kind of protective mechanism without which the fantasy of a “wonderland” that is “perpetually unchanging” is unmasked as a place as earth-bound as any other.

The National:

It sacrifices the realness of the “remote” place in order to cover it in a version of reality which never actually existed. For all their talk of seeking authenticity, many writers’ words and the things they wanderlust after too often erect a Potemkin façade overtop actual communities.

To escape one’s own overburdened, overcomplicated life it is often necessary to construct an illusion of a different kind of living. We fetishise “remote” places as just such a carefree, mystical alternative.

Unlike the subjects of storybooks or fantasy films, however, they already have their own messy, often tedious, and equally complex lived realities, which terms such as remote flatten or outright ignore.

I am not saying we cannot find wonder in places different from those which many of us, especially in cities, inhabit day-to-day – I firmly believe, like Gunn, that you can and I have spent much of my own life doing just that for research and leisure. However, we must beware how such projections can consign rural communities to the realm of the unreal and, implicitly, the unimportant.

“Remote” is not a synonym for “rural”, however interchangeably those words are used. Nor does “remote” inherently mean a place with challenging or unreliable connections to other places. The lack of such connections is, as residents of Scotland’s islands well know, more often a product of political neglect than geographical fact.

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Not to mention that many places which we now call “remote” used to be deeply interconnected, especially by waterways, and are only “remote” from the car-centric perspective of the 20th and 21st centuries, or because of the disappearance of the many other communities which once surrounded them.

Supposedly “remote” places are also not necessarily rural or sparsely populated. My round-up of Scottish places designated as remote by headlines in major newspapers and travel websites included Kirkwall, Stornoway, Inverness (a city!), Oban, Brodick, Aberfeldy, and Portree.

“Remote” is, in fact, a descriptive judgment from the perspective of people outside the community it refers to, typically from a place which is highly urbanised but, more importantly, where political and economic power are concentrated. It is also a one-way designation from centres of power to places which are, relatively, less powerful.

Any attempt at in inversion is treated as deliberate snark – the classic retort, for instance, of a resident of the Highlands and Islands referring to “the remote city of London” or to the decisions of a Parliament located in the wilds of a faraway land called Dùn Èideann.

The National: Kirkwall, Orkney

Why should this be so? If remoteness has little do to with geographical or material reality, and is merely a relative descriptor about a place one does not inhabit, surely a resident of Lewis or Shetland can describe the central belt as remote with just as much sincerity?

A common response from my many conversations with people on this topic is, “Remote to where?” and, vitally, “Remote to whom?” To the resident – the person who is keenly aware their environment is not some idyllic play-park – seeing home as “remote” is a non-starter. It’s just home.

There is good reason why many members of island communities in the Gàidhealtachd say they are “in” the island, not “on”. You’re not “on” Barra, existing on a different plane from the locals like a Victorian ethnologist believed themselves to, but “in” Barra, participating in and contributing to the pulse of it.

This gets to the crux of the problem with “remote” – it reinforces a hierarchy, which the user of it stands atop of and the subject of it is unwittingly beholden to.

There's a self-deprecating irony in all this, given the countless historical references to Scotland as a far-flung “remote” corner of north-west Europe. Many key historical documents include this language. In Tacitus’s Agricola, Calgacus says Caledonia’s “very remoteness in a land known only to rumour” protected his people until Rome’s legions arrived.

Even the Declaration of Arbroath, written by Scots in Scotland, tells the Pope that Scots “dwell in a poor and remote quarter and seek for naught but our own, to dwell in peace.”

If we would rightly bristle at Scotland being written off as “remote” by other European nations today, why should we internalise that language when conceptualising parts of ourselves?