Photograph of South Uist by Islay McLeod
Monday 10 July
Visit my mother in her sheltered house in Daliburgh. Cosy wee hoose. Plates of soup. Cups of tea. Scones. Was it for this the clay grew tall? My wife's granny lives in another sheltered house three hundred miles away in Gorgie. Now 92, she remembers her own granny, born just two years after Napoleon died in his sheltered house in St Helena.
The Gorgie granny is rich in recollections of her Dundee childhood. Her father, blacklegged in the Dundee jute mills for speaking back to a gaffer, was forced to move out of the city to find work. Each Saturday he cycled back to Dundee to visit his mother. One Saturday morning he was stopped by the polis: the king and queen were visiting the city, and no one was allowed in until the royal carriage passed by. Standing for an hour in his sweat-soaked shirt he caught a chill, and died a couple of years later of bronchial complications, aged 42. The story, like a million others, is told without anger or political comment. Scottish women, like not a few Scottish men, have been well conditioned to be emotional minimalists.
Continue to visit relatives' houses, whaur extremes meet: they are either in ruins, or brand new, with huge satellite extensions. Like any good Highlander, I prefer the ruined ones. Every empty cottage I've looked into has an old bedspring propped in the corner of the oh-so-tiny rooms. How small the houses were, how great the poverty. So this is Scotland: a house in ruins, with an old bedspring in the corner.
The radio announces that the Scotsman is for sale, bedspring and all.
Tuesday 11 July
Day on Garrynamonie beach. Miles and miles of sand. No booking of deck chairs. No ice cream. No Cinzanos. Flies. The children rush in and out of the Atlantic, and we take pictures to remember it by.
Observe peat cutting – think I should feel the timelessness of it, but mostly feel the very opposite – how the young men (and it was always men) who drove the tractors when I was a wee boy, are now bald, or white-haired. Fewer do it, and the young do it out of filial duty, not out of need. So that, like all things that depend on a sense of duty, it will ultimately die away.
In the late evening, Colin Bell discusses Cuba, where much the same problem appears to exist.
After days and days of sunshine, a thunderstorm breaks from the north.
Wednesday 12 July
Spend the day hauling peat sacks on my back for my brother in Smerclate. Reminds me of the Skye ferry. When you stood, in January, in lashing rain, waiting for the ferry, the idea of a bridge seemed the most sensible thing on earth. What do these summer speed bonny boat tourists ken aboot it. At this moment, peat sack on back, eaten by flies, the idea of coal or gas or oil-fired central heating seems eminently sensible. Lyndsay reminds me that the thing she remembers most about her last pregnancy was lying in waiting in Raigmore watching an ad for central heating on the telly. She remembers, in between contractions, seeing the image of a man hewing coal at the face, and then a gleaming hoover shimmering across a show house. It was the first time it really struck her that men had died, and continue to die, so that we can hoover our houses. On the radio, Raymond Briggs reminds us that men died for even less in the Falklands. Bags it for me, the Iron Lady screamed at the Tin Man, who wanted to bags it for himself.
Thursday 13 July
Meet a man named Peter John on the road. Once one of the finest athletes I knew, he is paunched and haggard, old before his time, and unemployed. He has nothing to do except walk endlessly between his council house and the shop, for a stamp or a pen or an envelope or a box of matches, or any tiny thing that will keep him in touch with an external world.
Social dislocation is not just confined to the sorry victims of Hanger 13. This Gaelic society, that is increasingly asked to pride itself on its sense of cultural and linguistic identity, shows tremendous casualties: it seems to me that, as in the rest of Scotland, the common people are suffering greatly whilst development schemes of all sorts and kinds emerge at every corner. Does anyone really believe that workshops can heal a broken people? It is, of course, just like the Balkans, where all the world's gathered wisdom is like a spit in the wind against emotions that have been suppressed for centuries. As I speak to Peter John, I know one thing: we all fail to love sufficiently. It will be the death of us yet.
Friday 14 July
Watch the telly news for the first time in months. Shaven refugees file past the cameras in Bosnia. They remind me of Peter John. Mr and Mrs Hopping Mad in Middle England phone John Cole about it.
I glance at the hundreds of books that my brothers and sisters and I gathered when we were students, and which we've left, like the debris from a shipwreck, about the family home. Marx and Joyce and Engels lean into my brother's engineering manuals which lean into my other brother's theological treatises which lean into one sister's nursing volumes and the other's 'Elementary Introduction to Algebra'. Someone smuggled Jeffrey Archer into the house, and he still lies there, unopened, next to 'Being and Nothingness', next to the Scots Magazine.
Saturday 15 July
The children awake all last night. We all sleepwalk all day.
Sunday 16 July
Visit Dad's grave. Next to the cemetery, a sign says '3,000 year old house'. We walk towards it, but never reach it because my brother and his wife and children meet up with us on the way back from it, and persuade us that it is not worthwhile taking the long trek through the sand dunes to see the ancient site. 'It's just a heap of stones,' my sister-in-law says, so we all obediently walk back to our cars and on to the ice-cream shop and the beach.
Angus Peter Campbell is a poet, novelist, broadcaster and actor. He was born in South Uist in 1952
Return to SR Monthly contents page