Aug 222012

It was on the train from London to Inverness that I first started humming the famous ballad Danny Boy.

Mm m m mmmm, m mmmm, m mmmm m mm-m-mmmmm

The hum became a strum by the time I was driving from Inverness to Hopeman, the small fishing village where I lived for a year in 1975, which I had not visited since.

Driving along the main highway, carving through the wide gold fields of late summer, I began to raise my voice with the standard . . . Oh Danny Boy, the pipes the pipes are callin’ . . .

I ken, I ken, Danny Boy is widely credited with being an Irish song – others say otherwise, that it is Scottish and the confusion results from it being sung to an Irish tune.

What I do know is that it was written by an Englishman, and driving north for a homecoming that had been brewing for 37 years . . . from glen to glen and down the mountainside it was a Scottish song for me.

Hopeman. I was 16. 1975 was a year of intense friendship and living laughter.

The summer’s gone . . .

As I found my old friends, at first one by one and then a tidal flow, there was a name they all spoke first: Danny Main, a missing son from a village that hugs its sons and daughters close.

With urgency in their voice and tears in their eyes they would say in turn:

Do ye mind Danny Main . . .

Danny’s gone from us . . .

Danny’s nae longer here . . .

Oh Danny boy, the pipes, the pipes are calling . . .

Danny Main was older than the rest of us running wild on the streets of the village.

He must’ve been 18 at the time, tall and dark haired and beautiful, a fisherman’s son born for the sea.

From glen to glen and down the mountainside . . .

We all loved Danny.

He was kind.

He had patient, smiling eyes.

He had time for a word with all of us.

Come ye back when summer’s in the meadow . . .

Aye, I mind Danny Main.

And 10 years after his passing from the village, Danny is here still.

In sunshine and in shadow . . .

He is here on the eternal currents: wind and sea, hearts and minds, friends and family.

Oh Danny boy, oh Danny boy we love you so.

Danny Main, Hopeman

 August 22, 2012  Tagged with: , , ,  5 Responses »
Aug 172012

1975 was one of the funniest years of my life. It was the year my mother packed up her four Canberra teenagers and flew us to Scotland, to a small fishing village on the edge of the North Sea called Hopeman.

On our first day in Hopeman my sister Liz, who was 14, and me, still 15, rugged up and went for a walk through the village. From our back yard you could see the church steeple, its weathered grey stone rising square above the grey stone fences. I never did go inside that church. We walked down the street, past the fields and the Townes farm, turning left into a narrow street lined with fences that led to the church, which from then on we would call ‘the kirk’.

We turned right onto a street where, as is the way all over the British Isles, the front doors open right onto the footpath. As we wandered along we realised we were not alone. Trailing along behind us, about twenty feet back, was a small tribe of boys. Boys of all ages and sizes. Tall boys, small boys. Laughing boys. Curious boys.

We laughed. It was weird. We walked on, turning into the main street. The boys followed. We wandered past the phone box on the corner, down a gentle slope past small shopfronts and houses. The boys trailed along. They threw small stones, designed not to hurt but to get our attention. We laughed. It was nonsensical, a scene unimaginable in Australia.

We felt like wild creatures escaped from a zoo, oddities that were neither dangerous nor domesticated, but unpredictable nonetheless, to be treated with caution.

We rolled on down the street and discovered the harbour, its cold water slapping against wide wet walls. There was nowhere else to go, so we turned and faced the boys.

It is nearly 40 years since we left Hopeman, on a New Year’s Eve my mother will never forget. We were allowed out with our friends – but like Cinderella we were due home at midnight, so Mum could drive through the night to meet the train to Edinburgh, the first leg of our journey home to Australia.

That night it snowed so deeply the roads were blocked, the only road to Edinburgh would take Mum north, in the black end of a near Arctic winter, before she could head south. The midnight curfew was pushing it anyway – and me . . . I refused to come home – until at 3am when my sister found me, tore me drunk and tearful away from my friends, and threw me into the car.

My mother, brother and sisters are delighted I’m making the return journey. I am doing this for all of us, paying homage to a long ago year etched indelibly into the lives of four Australians and a fishing village on the edge of the North Sea.


Loch Ness to the west

And – at the same moment – Loch Ness to the east


This morning I drive from Inverness to Hopeman. Stalling for time, I call by Loch Ness to find the lake choppy and dark, the air cold and windy, and the monster, still and deep.



Findhorn dunes

Still stalling, I drive to Findhorn, the highway slicing through industrial sized fields, my heart aghast for what has been lost.

Then again, I am prone to peering through mythologised time . . . seeking blood spilled on the earth, harking bagpipes echoing from forest and glen, listening closely for ancestral stories on the wind.

I stop for a picnic lunch – wild smoked salmon and herbed goats cheese in one hand, crisp apple and wild smoked cheese in the other; I sit on a bench dedicated to an Australian airman who ‘loved the outdoors’, looking out over a fleet of small boats bobbing about on a pretty sea, and wonder if the airman, who was only 37, drowned in the beauty.

Like Loch Ness, the day is blue and light in one direction, dark and stormy in the other.

Driving on, I can’t resist ducking into the caravan park that sparked the Findhorn revolution. Remember the gardening miracles of Findhorn? Giant pumpkins growing in the sand? I drive in through a very ordinary caravan park, roam around small streets lined with the kinds of quirky houses that used to litter the hills around Byron Bay, only these homes are unimaginably close to each other – like the sheep in Scottish paddocks. I find a garden gnome in a green t-shirt pushing a wheelbarrow. His name is Neil. He gives me directions to the original gardens; as it is, he and his wheelbarrow are heading that way.

At the gateway to the miracle gardens Neil tells me it is Findhorn’s 50th anniversary year. He has only been here four months, he’s not really a gardener but the caretakers have gone away, so he’s the resident garden gnome in the meantime.

Neil, current gnome at Findhorn’s original gardens












I drive on, through the small village of Kinloss, startled by the abbey ruin in a paddock not far from the road. I turn in, scramble over the old rock wall and roam through the past.


I drive on towards Burghead. The village is twice, three times bigger than I remember, not that I remember it all that well. It is only three miles from Hopeman, but the whole of our lives were lived in the opposite direction – Lossiemouth for school and Friday night discos and Elgin to get drunk on babycham and cider at ‘the Chinkies’ (the Chinese restaurant) before the disco.

I laugh out loud as I stare at the late summer fields, gold with the stalks of the harvest gone. I got so drunk one night in Burghead I lost my shoes and walked home through those fields by the light of the stars.

I drive around the headland and see Hopeman in the distance sliding down to the sea. I sit in the car and stare. The past is closing in on me . . . I wonder about the pot I am stirring . . . and whether or not memories are best left where they belong: in the past.



Aug 152012

O flo’er o’ Scotland, when will we see your likes again
Who fought and died for, each wee bit hill and glenn
And stood against him, Proud Edward’s army
And sent him hameward, tae think again.

Of all the songs I have sung to my grandchildren over the years, as they lie in their beds and I sing them to sleep, this one – the Scottish national anthem – is my grandson’s favourite. He is 13; it still is, perhaps in part, but only in part, because of the broad Scottish brogue I summon to my throat for the occasion.

Go’orn, you think I googled the words? I didn’t even look them up. If there are any mistakes, they’re my own. I can roll those rrrr’s with the best of ’em and I could even give you the other verses, but I’ll spare you – okaaay, they’re at the bottom.

It’s funny, isn’t it? Surprises me too. Och aye, I can hear you noo, wondering how I came to know all the words to the Scottish national anthem.

Actually, I’m really not sure.

Except to say it was one of the quirkier legacies of the year I lived in Scotland with my family when I was 16.

1975. One of the funniest years of my life.

And here I am again! In the highlands at Inverness, heading further north and east tomorrow to Hopeman, the small fishing village that was my home almost 40 years ago.

I caught the train up from London on Monday, Inverness being as far from Edinburgh as Edinburgh is from London. The first thing I noticed is that north of Edinburgh, the signs at the train stations are these days bilingual. And where the Welsh use lots of Ps, Ws and Ds, the Gaelic of the Highlanders is more gutteral, loaded with Gs, Hs and Ms. No wonder I couldn’t understand Hilary Jack’s father in 1975!

In both cases, if you close your eyes to linguistic common sense, you can hear English tongues wrapped around the strange words and find the old word in the new. Or the new in the old.

That year among the Scots taught me something incredibly important about the English language that I have never forgotten – and that is an explanation for the strange spelling of English, words like night and taught and two, for example.

The Scots pronounce every letter – English is actually phonetic.

They don’t say nite – but n-i-g-h-t. Not tort – but t-a-u-g-h-t. Not too but tw-o. Even ing on the ending of words – i-n-g.

I remember Inverness in 1975 as being a grey, wet city of small shops with bells that tinkled when you walked in. Inverness today is bright with the intermittent sunshine. Then it begins to rain and the old city looks just as it always did, only today’s streets are filled with meandering tourists rather than women in scarves scuttling by for their daily bread. And I’m not so sure the hand-knitted woollen shop that is my mother’s sharpest memory still sells hand-knitted jumpers . . . certainly the gloves are not wool, but synthetic fleece.

I wander along the River Ness, gentle and wide – and yes, Loch Ness is down the road; I spy the castle peeping out from behind new developments on the main street and wander up the road towards the keep, past old churches heralding a parade of Christian fashion, and there, outside the castle door, I find Flora MacDonald, large and bronzey green.

Flora! Flora is extraordinary because she is an 18th century woman with a sensible dog, both enshrined in statue. Flora is strong and she is clearly a woman on a mission. Flora is her own person. And the fact I am making such a fuss about Flora indicates how often I see my own reflection, and the reflection of women I know, in public art. Such women have always existed; rarely are they exalted as fine examples of womanhood. Flora is today’s s/hero.

I google Flora: hers is the honour of acceptance by men for her courage in helping princes escape and standing tall in the face of privateers’ demands. I didn’t look very hard, but even so found no mention of the dog.

The castle, the current version of which was built in the 18th century, is the last in a long line of castle forts that have held Inverness for various invaders stretching back to the 12th century. Mary Queen of Scots was here, so too Robert the Bruce.

I hear bagpipes filling the air with the ancient call to life that has sounded in these hills forever, and follow my heart down the hill.

Scotland. As the train rattled north the other night I was surprised to find tears welling in my eyes for the hills of heather outside the window, for misted mountains, for anticipation of what I will find in a small village that is as much home to a wanderer as anywhere; a highland homecoming that has been nigh on 40 years in the advent.

The hills are bare now, and autumn leaves lie thick and still
O land that is lost now, which those so dearly held
And stood against him, Proud Edward’s army
And sent him hameward, tae think again.

Those days are past now, and in the past they must remain
But we can still rise now, and be the nation again
That stood against him, Proud Edward’s army
And sent him hameward, tae think again.