Postcards from Scotland 8
Alastair, Sheila and Mary in Arran, 1982
Most memorable Scottish holiday? Impossible question, really – memories blend into one – childhood holidays, when we went for a month every year to destinations such as Morar, Struan, Glenfeshie. The years when my children were young, when we spent whole summers at an isolated cottage on the shoulder of Schiehallion, looking down over Loch Tummel. We loved Tombreck for six years, furnished it from odd items bought at Love's saleroom in Perth. We had our own standing stone on the hillside, our own burn running into the swift-flowing Allt Kynachan. Jane, Lindy and Angus played in the barn, guddled in the burn, went fishing. We shopped in distant Kinloch Rannoch or Aberfeldy.
Years later, widowed, married to Alastair and having acquired four step-children (Tom, Alex, Lucy and Mary), of similar ages to my own, wonderful summers were spent at the cottage in Arran. Alastair insisted that a house diary should be kept, with all residents and visitors adding a daily record. Yesterday I looked at pages from a summer of 30 years ago.
Sheila, 3 March
Alastair and Sheila woke early, to the sound of rain hurling itself against the window. Alastair said it had been correctly forecast – and to that extent it gave him satisfaction (Alastair loves weather forecasts). Slept again. Alastair got up about 8am. Sheila stayed in bed to think about something. (Is Alastair right in his contention that man should not ask imponderable questions, since he can never arrive at satisfactory answers? Is it not necessary to quest, even if the answers are shadowy, inconclusive or non-existent?) Finding no answer, she slept again. Phone rang, and woke Tom, Carey, James and Sheila, who drifted into the kitchen for breakfast. Alastair went to fetch a newspaper. The sky, landscape and sea had merged into a dismal sheet of water, but the horizon to the east held a faint promise of hope.
Alastair, 13 June
Shock horror...Sheila got me up at 4.20 believing the time to be about 6.30. She said it was a nice morning and we were going up Goatfell. Not actually raining, but cloud about 1,800 feet. Summit exactly 6.30. Nothing to see except mist. Started back approx 07.02, cloud lower. Arrived home 08.12 to very large breakfast. Still recovering (9pm).
Alastair, 22 July
Heavy rain all day. Much reading and some writing. Chapter V now complete.
Alex, 19 August
Sheila, dad, Angus, Mark, Mary, Antonia and Alex (me) all arrived by various means on a wet Tuesday. Wind was blowing miles and miles per hour, but we got the tent up in the garden so that Angus and Mark could sleep in it. (Note: They didn't, but came to seek shelter indoors at midnight).
Alastair, 22 August
Alex said in a matter of fact way last night that we were going up A'chir today. We did. Excellent day, after our first abseil, at the big cleft south of A'chir summit.
So much more, so many entries, so many memories. Lest readers think that the weather was always dreich in Arran, let me assure them that there were wonderful days of sunshine, with the sound of swallows, larks, cuckoos. In the autumn, red deer came roaring round the cottage during the night. Idyllic, really.
July 1956, Liverpool. Billy Liddell was my hero, Scotland my football team, 'Kidnapped' my favourite book, and Glasgow my grandfather's birthplace, yet I'd never been to Scotland. My friend and I took rucksacks, a change of clothes, a tent and bicycles, and went by train to Lockerbie. The rain was falling. Cycled over Beattock, across to Glasgow, rattled over the cobbles up Sauchiehall Street and took refuge from the downpour in Loch Lomond youth hostel. Dried out by the log fire and had a country dancing lesson from an agile, large lady. On to Gareloch, mothballed warships in the mist, then to Oban, where I left my rugby socks in the hostel. Glad of them back if you found them. Over Rannoch Moor, freewheeling down Glencoe, driving rain in our faces and mountains hidden in the clouds. Thought of the McDonalds, too wet to visit the site. Took ferry at Ballachulish over to Fort William, where again we dried out.
Couldn't see Ben Nevis; followed the signs and walked up. Pushed bikes with us (mountain bikes hadn't been invented so ours were originals). Think we got to the top, though couldn't see it through the clouds. Down again, another drying session in the hostel. Next day we debated over the washing and cleaning whether to carry on or abort. We had been in Scotland exactly a week. The positives were the drama of the Highlands, the human warmth we encountered, and well, the rain had kept the midges down. The negative was fighting for a place near the fire each night. The cold and rain won. 'We must come back when the weather's better,' I said. I was lucky. Over my 35 years here the weather has, on average, been better than it was that week.
When I was young, paternal illness and limited income meant that long holidays were out of the question. Ever resourceful, my parents were masters of days (or even just afternoons) out, and we happily explored Edinburgh, the Lothians and even the Kingdom of Fife. For a time, there was also the added thrill of whether our somewhat unreliable car would get us safely home.
So, when I was about 13, my mother's decision to invest in a week's holiday in a caravan on the northern shore of Loch Ness was somewhat unexpected. Nor was I particularly enthusiastic about the lack of television reception. Still, I was rather taken with the idea of there being 'something' ancient and prehistoric lurking in those murky depths. It was, allegedly, the home of a monster.
My fading memories of that week are of good weather; of miles-long treks to get to the nearest little shop selling my then-favourite brand of ice lolly; of once waking up to see my mum frantically pulling my brother's trousers down (a table extension had collapsed, dropping boiling tea onto his lap, but he was only singed); of the uncanny atmosphere of the loch at night, and of helping my brothers build a small harbour out of stones from the beach. And, most memorably, of a dragonfly. On the morning of our departure, my brother and I were making a farewell inspection of our handiwork. As we turned away, the biggest insect I'd ever seen — wingspan over a foot, body a rainbow of refracted sunlight — flew past us down the beach before disappearing into the trees. Both my brother and I were speechless, and a little bit awed by its lustrous beauty.
I left content; that was enough of a wondrous Loch Ness monster for me.
Perhaps the most memorable Scottish holiday I know of was not mine but someone else's. Once, I took a taxi in Coatbridge driven by a man with a fund of stories. A couple have stuck in my mind. Once he was booked to take an elderly resident to Asda. He waited for her in the car park on a sunny day and when she emerged, hot and laden with bags, she said to him: 'Take me to Largs, son, take me to Largs'.
The normally thrifty OAP's extravagent afternoon at the beach reminded me of a friend's fantasy of getting into a taxi late at night in Glasgow and saying: 'Monte Carlo please, driver'. But the taxi driver's best story was of the time he was booked to collect at the airport a glamorous lady of a certain age who had left her native shore for LA more than 20 years before. On their journey homewards she asked him – in an American accent – to pull over please driver. She got out and stood for a few moments by the side of the road in the grey drizzle. Then, climbing back in, she remarked: 'Isn't it great to feel the rain on your face?'.
I have been thinking of this as I attempt to readjust to daily life in Scotland after a most marvellous week in France. There, on a trip for regional journalists as a guest of the French tourist board of the Midi-Pyrenees, an area around Toulouse, I had a wonderful time. Each morning we cycled along the sunlit canal in the shade of the plane trees and each afternoon we toured the sights. At dinner and lunch we were entertained by the proprietors of local restaurants and hotels anxious to promote their excellent fare.
I knew I was back in Scotland when I spotted a wonderfully ripe melon in Scotmid. Delighted, I took it to the counter. The cashier shook her head. 'I can’t sell you this,' she said. 'It's expired'. She binned it. When I protested she and the floor manager agreed that they could lose their jobs if they sold it to me. It made me want to weep. Or emigrate – if it wasn't for the sheer joy of being able to feel the rain on my face.
Light on a country I never knew before my father, my parents perhaps decided to drive us all to Skye – all five of us children, both of them, and my grandmother, who had failed in a few weeks to teach me piano despite her wonderful efforts. Skye was bright, full of colour, green and flourishing above all, also reaching high, the mountains changing hue as we travelled north. The facility for the journey was that my father had to run in the VW van (a poor mark in those days) before taking it to Pakistan, which he did. On the way to Skye it broke down. We camped, for hours. Granny had brought her own tartan rug. On the way up I tasted salmon for the first time– it was fresh, delicious, lively in my taste. Supremely cooked by my aunt and perhaps never to be repeated, however I search.
Holidays – what is wrong with life?