Postcards from Scotland 2
Clyde ferry. Photograph by Islay McLeod
I was born and bred in Ayrshire. So looking back it was perhaps no great surprise that my parents should have chosen Bute for the annual family holiday – and a farm in the middle of the island. Our first holidays there were in the early 1950s. Rationing was still commonplace. Foreign holidays had yet to be discovered. But there was nothing austere or second best about Bute. And after decades of subsequent holidays to exotic and far distant places, nothing can replace the magic and allure of my childhood holidays on the island.
We stayed on a farm called Barnauld. Its rampaging cats, dogs and hens made it instantly lovable. It was gloriously sunny, the food was superb and the porridge the creamiest I have ever known. Decades have been spent trying to recreate it.
The days sped by too quickly. Mornings were spent on the tractor. In the afternoons we piled into our Morris Oxford for magical visits to Ettrick Bay, Scalpsie Bay and Kilchattan Bay. It didn't seem to matter in which direction we went, for the views of the Kyles of Bute from every aspect were spectacular and the skyscapes unforgettable. In the summer evenings the sun never seemed to set. We went wearily to bed in a room warm from the afternoon heat.
My sister Susan now lives on Bute. Visiting her last year, glorious memories came flooding back. But I was not prepared for the forlorn and rundown state of Rothesay. Its abandonment in favour of foreign destinations is a story familiar across Scotland. But given everything that Bute has to offer I am astonished it has not enjoyed a glorious renaissance. For the scenic beauty alone, Bute must be one of the appealing destinations in the UK. Add in the creamy porridge, and Bute is to die for.
North Berwick beach. Photograph by Islay McLeod
For the last eight years or so I have been on holiday with my daughter and her two sons renting a flat in North Berwick. We don't have a car but North Berwick has a bus and train service. We haven't always had the same flat but for the last three years we have the ideal one, just at the back of the promenade, with a walled garden whose gate leads out onto the putting green and tennis courts. It has a full-size snooker table in the house.
As the boys have grown older each year we have found that North Berwick offers what they need. First it was toddling and playing on the beach, collecting shells and making sandcastles; then swimming and body-boarding and skim-boarding; then tennis and golf. The seabird centre provides an alternative when it is raining, as does the indoor swimming pool. Now wet suits make swimming in all weathers possible and bad weather makes for big waves in the sea which the boys love.
A boat trip around the Bass Rock is a highlight, when you come close to the gannets and puffins and other seabirds, as well as seals. Walking along the coast in either direction is very pleasant too, and a different experience on every occasion. Climbing the Law or visiting Tantallon Castle or the Museum of Flight are also favourite activities. The North Berwick shops are delightful, especially the Sugar Mountain, full of all kinds of delicious sweets, tablet and wonderful ice-cream. The fish and chips are good and there are excellent Indian and Thai restaurants. We always have one Indian carry-out and one fish and chips supper during our week. Friends come down for the day too, so it is a happy sociable time as well as quiet and beautiful.
Tennis and golf predominate now. The older boy plays in the tournament and we have fun watching the exciting matches. The children's golf-course is an ideal little nine-hole course, completely open to all. One of the boys hit a ball over the wall into the car-park of the Marine Hotel, miraculously not damaging any of the cars.
One year I came into Edinburgh during the week for a friend's 70th birthday lunch. She was up from England as were some of her relatives, many of whom had been on holidays abroad. I was quite tanned too. Just North Berwick, I told them.
The younger boy plans to be rich one day, when he will buy a Bugatti car and a house in North Berwick, he tells us. I wish I could live to see the day.
It was a day as still as a wish, the sea glassy and flat. I was walking on that dead-end road along the south shore of Harris. Skye lay hull down, clear across the Minch; you could see all her south-west coastline, almost to Eigg.
Wild flowers were in bloom for it was summer. Orange-flamed montbretia and purple orchises spread themselves along the verge. Two sea eagles floated in the sky. Past Strond I came upon a magnificent, rococo garden; pots embedded with pebbles and seashells, wrapped in brightly painted ropes and overflowing with sunburst Livingston Daisies.
A gentleman popped up from the foliage. 'Ah now,' he said, 'you look like just the sort of man who would like to buy my house'.
This brought me to a stop. 'I don't know,' I replied, not wishing to offend him. 'I don't think I could afford such a magnificent house as this.'
'Och,' he said, 'I'm sure you could; a man of your circumstances. And where else in the world would you ever find such a view?'. He pointed across scattered skerries to North Uist; to the triangle of Beinn Mhor on South Uist, far down the horizon.
'It's not always as clear as this.'
'True, but there are other compensations when the sun is away. This may be as close to heaven as you'll get,' he added.
'And where will you go if you leave this beautiful place?' I asked.
'And where would you live in a town like Stornoway?'
'I'd get a flat there probably; I'd live in a flat.'
'You wouldn’t like that,' I said. 'Not after a place like this, with all the space and the spirit it has.'
'No,' he agreed, 'perhaps not. Perhaps I won't sell the house after all'.
Largs. Photograph by Islay McLeod
Uncle Willie, the kids' travelling evangelist, owned the most luxurious personal bus…ever. Painted grey and green with gospel exhortations running around the middle, 'Judge not, lest yea be judged!'. He convened his church daily, across from Nardini's during the long summer holidays. Rows of small-kids' chairs and a low wooden stage with a standing microphone awaited his eager congregation. A theatre where simple hymns were murdered by a procession of child assassins.
I was judged to have no need of Uncle Willie's ministry, whose obvious American training my presbyterian Grampa thought deeply suspect. However, one day I found myself inside the magical personal bus where no other kid had ever been. Graham, my best friend, and I were arguing over which paddle steamer was thumping its way across the Clyde to Largs from Rothesay bay. He shouted 'Talisman' but I knew it was the Caledonia. So we had to rush down to the pier to settle things.
Nardini's terrace was full of tourists, loudly trying to catch an Italian waiter in his perfect white jacket. At the zebra crossing the road was busy but there were gaps in the traffic wide enough for me to dash through...I still don't remember the car hitting me. I remember blood dripping in front of my left eye and Graham looking at me, terrified. But I simply banged my head on the tarmac, nothing else. As if I were steel and the car velvet. Then I was lying on the couch in Uncle Willie's bus thinking, 'Wow, this is Uncle Willie's bus!'. He was talking in his warm voice...'sturdy lad', 'tough', 'seems okay', 'God' and 'doctor' circled the sanctum; and the wail of a kid torturing another song, 'for the wee boy who had the accident'.