Postcards from Scotland 6
R D with his future wife
It counts as a holiday, though I only discovered Arran because I was chasing a girl. She took a vacation job in a Whiting Bay hotel. I went westward in pursuit, signing up as a youth hosteller to get somewhere to stay.
But temporary receptionists in 1950 worked long hours. Camp-followers were discouraged. After her first day off it was gently suggested I should get lost for a bit, which is why I tramped round the island, stopping off at Brodick and Lochranza hostels. They were simple places and my fare was simpler, mainly Co-op biscuits. I remember frying something – possibly sausages, for meat and bacon were still rationed and for 'registered customers only'. Whatever restaurants Arran had were beyond me, though I mustered 3s 6d on a Sunday, when shops were shut, for a dull lunch in a Lamlash hotel.
Yet to be young in Arran's sunshine was very Heaven. We construct heavenly notions from metaphors and memories, and my celestial geography still includes a castellated mountain-heartland, great caverns like Glen Sannox, still waters like Lochranza's, and pastures as green as the ones I eventually found round the far side of the island. For I got back to Whiting Bay, that long way round, for her next day off.
Maybe she wondered why I was in such good spirits and had borne our separation so well; but, after later travels to many of the listed, distant wonders of the world, I can't think of anywhere surpassing that emotional impact of Arran and only two experiences matching it: Lake Louise in Canada and the 'View of the World' in Zimbabwe's Matopo Hills.
Yes, we've been back. We took our children. We ought to go back more often, but both road and rail to Ardrossan are troublesome; and that decent Ayrshire port-town is now a depressing gateway to paradise.
R D Kernohan
John Smith's grave. Photograph by Islay McLeod
When the Scottish Review asked me for memories, lighthearted or otherwise, of a memorable holiday in Scotland I agreed, naturally assuming I'd actually been on one. On reflection, however, I don't think I've ever been on a 'staycation' in the mother country. Not, I hasten to add, because I don't like the idea, but there are too many other countries to explore first. My own backyard can wait for retirement.
I have to reach quite far back to identify something that even comes close. There were holiday camps in Ayr and wet weekends in East Kilbride when I was a kid, but otherwise there was a week in Iona when I'd just finished my first year at Aberdeen University. It was youth week (I'm not religious, and wasn't then) and my brother knew people who were going (as was he), so I tagged along.
The accommodation was basic – bunk beds in a dorm – and the food similarly so, but my student self thought nothing of such privations at the time. There were a range of 'spiritual' activities on offer, but I opted out of much of the God stuff and did my own thing. I remember seeing John Smith's grave (he had only died two years before my visit), exploring the gorgeous abbey and going for long walks across the island.
I also remember the weather being (mostly) gorgeous. The only exception was the boat crossing to Staffa, a small island inhabited mainly by puffins and tourists keen to see Fingal's Cave, the 'other side' (so to speak) of Northern Ireland's Giant's Causeway and the inspiration for Mendelssohn's splendid 'Hebridean Overture'. The experience instilled a fascination with islands; Islay and Jura are on my to-do list, but more than 100 countries have priority.
When our son was young, we used to have an annual village camping trip to Loch Ken in Galloway. We took tents, boats, canoes, barbecues, fishing rods, lots of food, lots of drink and hot water bottles. Mostly we went in June, before the schools finished for the summer. The event snowballed until one year there were about 50 of us: adults, children and dogs as well.
Although the sun often shone, it could be cold, wet and even scary – like the year of the great thunderstorm when we piled all the kids into our transit van for safety and then stood in the biggest tent, while lightning flashed from pole to pole and thunder bellowed.
The kids had a ball. (So did the midges.) Loch Ken is shallow, long, narrow and very beautiful. Powerboats are sensibly restricted to one area, so the water near our campsite was safe for rowing, canoeing and sailing in small boats. We made up names for certain places – the Octopus lagoon was particularly magical. Some of the parents, my husband included, were experienced sailors. One was a canoe instructor, so lifejackets were worn and safety rules observed. The kids – of all ages – played and squabbled and made friends again. The big ones looked out for the small ones. The dogs looked out for all of them. They sailed and rowed and swam. They ate quantities of barbecue food and fell into their sleeping bags at last, grubby and exhausted. Then the adults sat around wrapped in quilts, inhaling the toxic fumes from citronella candles, drinking wine late into the night and watching those amazing Galloway dark skies. Nobody ever did a risk assessment.
Many years later, our son remarked, 'I thought everybody had adventures like that when they were kids. Turns out hardly anybody else did'.
Chris (middle) in Elie
I have fond memories of our family holidays in Elie. Each one is an episode revolving around images which, with time passing, become retrospectively poignant. Happiness then as a young child in the 1950s came from encounters and a sense of those I was with, my family enjoying themselves.
I consumed 'Dracula' in bed at night. It was my first book. I don't recall thinking of it as a book, but as a living thing that by looking at the pages you saw into another existence. A parallel was my perception of families living near us, also on holiday, but in the 'big house'. They seemed different, very confident and busy, but I had no words for class back then. My dad sat all day reading books from the local library in a deck-chair in the garden. He never played with us. Looking back, maybe fathers in those days did not. He sat there in the sun and in the evening went in smart clothes to the golf club on his own. Sometimes he did have fun with us. He threw pennies into the grass on the way to the Chain Walk. My brother and I loved this game of find and keep. Often we went to the church hall to see a film. I remember seeing classic war films shown on an old projector which made a noise.
We still go to Elie on family holidays with our own children and grandchildren. Today it is more commercialised. Most houses there are second homes. I've compared it to 'The Prisoner' series on TV where the landscape was planned and everyone watched. It's a bubble holiday village. An entire beach at the harbour is a water sports centre where children with rather posh English accents take 'risks' watched by mums and dads on bikes.
Cars line the streets now. It is a destination for Glaswegian and Edinburgh professional middle classes moving about in tight family groups looking at each other carefully as a way of assessing how well they were doing by using comparators. It is not the magical place it once seemed to be, but perhaps that was childhood, not Elie.