Postcards from Scotland 4
Arran. Photograph by Islay McLeod
My early memories of holidays in Scotland are all a bit of a blur. There are a few photographs of me standing between my parents with my face screwed up because of the sun. Being of a fair complexion I burned easily and hated it. One holiday however emerges from the blur of memory. I suppose it must have been during the second world war. What I remember clearly, and have occasionally thought about ever since, was a particular incident.
We were on holiday in Whiting Bay in Arran. I was with my mother who was sitting away from the shore reading a book, while I was playing around the sea and the rock pools. Something floating in and out with the tide caught my attention, and I went to investigate. It turned out to be the mainly decomposed body of someone wearing what was once a uniform. I must have been around 10 or 11 years old at the time and was well aware, at least in theory, of what the war meant. But this body, gently moving in and out like seaweed, filled me with horror. I shouted to my mother who came over to look and then rushed off to notify the police.
While she was away I was able to see that there was no head left, and that the limbs were largely bones protruding from fragments of uniform. I think it would have been difficult or impossible to identify the body. Over the many years since that time I have sometimes wondered who it was and thought about the family receiving the message 'Missing, believed killed'. When I feel discontented with my life I think of that incident.
In 1987, our family (me, my wife Christine, and four children – a son aged 11 and three daughters, aged 9, 8 and 6), along with our golden Labrador, spent an idyllic week in Skylight Cottage, Glen Livet, Banffshire, not far from the River Avon (pronounced A'an).
Skylight Cottage was well-named with a series of rooms upstairs where the kids scrambled to claim their bedrooms and thought it a grand adventure. It proved to be so, with a 'Haggis Hunt' organised by my wife, walks by the river and various adventures through forests and across bridges. I recall beautiful days of pleasant sunshine, with a cool breeze off the river in our faces as we trod the paths alongside it. Cows in a nearby field poked their massive heads over the dyke to check out the motley newcomers and we found a little church on Sunday where we enjoyed a fine, homely service.
My funniest memory is finding out that the wooden bridge across the Avon had little spaces between the slats, through which the river glinted bonnily for us, but not for our golden Labrador. The dog was alarmed by the flickering under his paws. Big as he was, he would not cross. So, Dad (whose four children could not bear to think of their best friend being left behind), had to lift the massive lump like a baby and carry him to the other side. There, his tail wagged as he burst free, to go racing among ferns and trees without so much as a backward glance.
Now, the children are grown up, married with children of their own, but we still speak about Skylight Cottage and our soft doggie, gone long ago. It was a perfect, shared family experience and our best holiday ever.
Fiona with Tidy the cow
All childhood holidays were spent in Tiree – I have not holidayed in Scotland for anything other than short breaks since then – so they all roll together in my mind, making it difficult to distinguish one year from another. Memories flood back with ease. Standing still staring at the familiar view, marvelling that at last, after counting down the days, I am here once again. Pet lambs tugging on bottles. Collie dogs. New potatoes fresh out of the ground that day and eaten with butter (oh the potatoes...the incomparable taste of Tiree potatoes...). Fat whelks gathered from rock pools, boiled and eaten with a needle (not something which would appeal to me now). Ghost stories round the fire. The terror of walking home in the dark if they were round someone else's fire.
Card games in the evening (no television reception then – we heard of the moon landing from the radio). Mists rolling in and distorting rocks and thistles into mysterious shapes. My mother's voice calling across the machair, yet again, to tell me to come and put on a jumper against the evening chill. The smell of the hay. The smell of the seaweed. The smell of calves' meal slopping around in a bucket. Screwing up courage to let a calf suckle on my fingers. Scattering grain for the hens. Watching the grocery van making its way from house to house at an agonisingly slow pace and anticipating the sweets on board. The disappointment on finding that there are no sweets on board. Tea and sandwiches in a hayfield. Playing in sand dunes. Hares leaping in front of us on our way to the shore. Cows cooling off on the beach on a hot day.
Warnings – dire, dire warnings – about the sea's tides and currents and admonishments about paddling above our knees (swimming being completely and utterly out of the question). Calling to seals bobbing offshore to see if they can be persuaded to come closer. Stones on the beach which turn out on close inspection to be of every hue. Tiny, perfect, colourful shells decorated by the most intricate of patterns. Limpets and sea anemones in the rock pools. The machair festooned with buttercups, daisies and fat pink clover. Conversations above my head in a language at once familiar and unintelligible. The buzz of grasshoppers and my brother's ambition to catch one. The calls of the peewits and the corncrakes. Endless daylight. Cobalt blue seas and silver sands. If there were any bad days, I don't remember them.
Orkney. Photograph by Islay McLeod
My attitude to holidays is somewhat akin to Scrooge's view of Christmas before he has his life-changing experiences. I keep hoping for a similar conversion but so far it hasn't happened. It is not hard to identify the reasons: a deep-seated Calvinism (unconnected to any religious belief) which makes me feel guilty about enjoying myself; a lack of pleasurable anticipation – I perceive a forthcoming trip as a looming threat rather than an exciting prospect; an aversion to hot weather, crowds and the sheer hassle of travel. As you can see, I am a bundle of joy in the summer.
Despite this, I have taken various holidays in Scotland, generally in the form of short breaks rather than extended visits. I recall three days of torrential rain and gale-force winds in Orkney. Then there was the splendid suite in an up-market hotel in Galloway, where the average age of other guests was 95 and the menu dated from the 1950s.
More positively, I can usually be persuaded to return to St Andrews and the coastal villages of Fife where the pace and landscape suit my temperament. When I visited Mull and Iona, I even managed to acquire the beginnings of a suntan. Back on the mainland, I stayed at a fine B&B above Oban looking out on the island of Kerrera. Sometimes the idea of retreating to an island sanctuary is quite attractive but I suspect it would turn out to be an illusion where, instead of tranquillity, one would encounter the usual human frailties.
I fear my inability to enter into the holiday spirit is beyond even the most sophisticated form of cognitive behaviour therapy. It is just as well, therefore, that my favourite destination is home.