The romance of the old derelict petrol station is the subject of a thousand photo streams. Usually situated in the American dust bowl or down a French backroad, they sit overgrown and decaying, the pumps still standing but long since dry, an abandoned car slowly returning to the earth as the decades pass with nothing but the wind for company. But I don’t subscribe to such hipster romanticism and, as photogenic as dereliction can be, the real significance of a forgotten filling station is social change and businesses pushed into extinction.
Since 1970, the number of petrol stations in the UK has reduced by 80%. There are more cars on the road than ever before, but consolidation in the oil industry, higher land values and the rise of supermarket filling stations putting pressure on margins means that many old locations ceased to be viable. In most parts of the country this has been occasionally inconvenient for the motorist, but ultimately made little difference as their purchasing habits changed and they learned to fill up on cheap fuel whilst doing their weekly shop. Better fuel efficiency and larger capacity tanks in cars mean that finding fuel whilst on a journey normally isn’t as pressing as it once was, and on the occasions the needle really is in the red there will usually still be somewhere within striking distance. Finding Super Unleaded can still be a problem in places, but that’s what a bottle of octane booster is for. However, there are regions where the lack of fuel halts still requires some planning ahead, and one such area is the Scottish Highlands as a recent 500 mile circumnavigation of the northern fringes from Inverness to Inverness revealed. Here is a small selection of my findings.
The A9 is the main trunk road on the north east coast, carrying all human and freight traffic up as far as the land allows. You would think it would be well served for petrol but you’d be wrong once you approach the upper reaches. There is a filling station in the small town of Brora and it’s advisable to fill up if you’re running low, as ever since the station at Helmsdale closed it’s a 42 mile fuel desert from Brora to the outskirts of Wick. That would be a long way to walk with a jerry can. We’re looking at Brora’s old petrol station here though. Standing on the edge of town, its simple wooden construction would be unrecognisable as a fuel halt if it wasn’t for the rusting 1950s Avery Hardoll pumps standing sentry by the pavement. There is no forecourt as such and it harks back to a time when the A9 was quieter and stopping at the side of the road wasn’t a problem. The pumps bear BP lettering and pre-date the all-conquering march across the Highlands of the Gleaner brand. It’s not clear exactly when time was called, but the dials show that fuel was dispensed in gallons until the end. None of that metric nonsense here. The old station now sits quietly as the world passes by, but it really deserves a second life while there’s still a chance.
The A9 continues onwards for an hour to the A99 junction and Wick, where you can branch off 20 minutes further north to John O’Groats. Despite what every tourist believes, JOG is not the most northerly point on the mainland. The true most northerly point is Dunnet Head but JOG prefers not to talk about it. Its claim to fame and reason for continued existence lies in the fact that it’s a long way from Land’s End at the south west tip of Cornwall, but so are many other places. My house is a long way from the Moon but I’ve not opened a gift shop to shout about it. I’ve been to JOG more often than strictly necessary but there’s not much to do at this veritable Disneyland of Caithness. A local bylaw mandates that you legally have to have your photograph taken at the sign that tells you how far away you are from interesting places, but most tourists completely miss the one genuinely interesting place in town. This time it’s the Post Office that does the honours, with two pumps standing out front. The building is typically pebble dashed to protect against the climate, and whilst there’s no shelter (this could be a general statement regarding Caithness) there’s no indication that the pumps are about to blow away just yet either. You won’t see a sign with the price displayed as you approach, you need to read the pump for that, but you’re not exactly in a position to shop around. Although the pumps are not conspicuously historic, they are older than you’d normally see further south (ie. nearly anywhere). They make the shapeless 21st century jobs look rather impersonal. Damn your modern technology.
Also in the remote settlement of Bettyhill is the petrol station combined with other services.
Carry onwards and westwards and you’ll eventually come through the small settlement of Bettyhill. Fuel is available at the combined Post Office, General Merchants and Licenced Grocers (it’s a rule of mine never to use an unlicenced grocer). The pumps here are unbranded and payment is made in the shop, but there are bonus forecourt chickens and space to pull off the road. Many of these small locations have closed but Bettyhill is a survivor and somebody invested in new pumps within living memory. Compared to many in the area they are positively flash.
In Tongue, you can opt for the full retro experience by ringing a bell for service.
The pump a few miles down the road at Tongue is a bit more like it. Tucked away off the main road in front of the Spar shop, it’s a 1970s twin headed dispensary, the pump body resplendent in full technicolour. A handwritten note advises you to ring the bell for service and the adjacent shop provides all you could ever reasonably want for your quick pit stop. Cards are accepted but with payment at the counter you can still use cash for the full retro experience. The village shop / fuel combo is distinctly more common than the dedicated forecourt in these parts, and much more appealing than the brash and brightly lit chains found elsewhere.
24h petrol availability in Durness.
Next stop on our brief tour is the village of Durness. It has a real claim to fame of being the most north westerly village in the country (JOG, take note) with only the uninhabited headland of Cape Wrath being further. There’s a good pub to shelter in but don’t go expecting too much else, the spectacular Sutherland landscape should be enough for you and the single track roads will keep you on your toes. Fuel wise, you’re in luck too. The wooden cabin sits opposite the village shop, and service used to rely on ringing the bell at the pumps whereupon an attendant would appear and serve you. Durness may look trapped in time but look closer and you’ll now see the arrival of Chip and Pin credit card payment, which means availability of fuel 24 hours. This was really revolutionary for remote communities and changes the game entirely for locals and visitors alike – not what you’d expect to find at the actual edge of civilisation. In the spirit of adapt and survive, the Durness filling station is also home to a Hair, Massage and Art salon. Being out of season, I was not able to test this service.
Our final halt is at Applecross at the foot of the fearsome Bealach Na Ba mountain pass that climbs 2,054 feet (626 metric meters) in five single track miles. Looking across the bay to the Island of Raasay, we have fuel with a view, and a free automotive art gallery thrown in. Prior to 1982 the mountain pass was the only means of accessing Applecross village meaning it would regularly become inaccessible in heavy weather. The completion of the coastal road eased matters somewhat but the village still needed to be self-sufficient, and fuel was a key part of that. The nearest alternative fuel is a 36 mile round trip and the roads don’t allow for rapid progress, so the dual fuel Applecross pump is a real lifeline. Such was the need that when the station faced closure in 2010, the business passed to community ownership and to ensure the costs of manning wouldn’t be a barrier, automated payment was introduced allowing fuelling around the clock. The new pump may not be retro, but there’s no mistaking the heritage as large archive photographs decorate the site showing the pass and pumps from the dawn of motoring through to the 1970s. If you thought you’d had an exciting trip over Bealach Na Ba, at least you had tarmac and some Armco. It was gravel up to 1950. The day we crossed the pass the snowdrifts were over 6 foot deep and the fog shrouded all beyond the end of the bonnet, but sometimes it’s best not to look down anyway…
Traditional fuel halts are always more satisfying and you may have your own local favourites to tell us about. Caithness, Sutherland and Wester Ross are dotted with old filling stations, some derelict and some still operational. Attended service may be nice where it still exists, but it’s modern connectivity that has really changed the game and kept them alive up there. Paradoxically, whilst fuel coverage may be sparse but in many places, it is now more available than ever. I bet you weren’t expecting that when I started out. Neither was I.