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.
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.