Sep 012012
 

Full moon over Skye

Lullabies and legends, the Isle of Skye, known to its own as An t-Eilean Sgitheanach, where ye cannae tell rocks from ruins, mist from mountains.

I’ve wondered often, driving around the island this past week, around and around actually and around again – where did they hide the lad who was born to be king?

And did he make fair crossing, for those winds do indeed howl, the waves do roar . . .

But not today. Today Skye is still, blue as blue, green as green.

They say the weather on Skye never changes – it is a joke; the only constant about the weather here is that it is always changing.

Speed bonnie boat . . . for some reason, even though the song sings of winds howling and waves roaring, I have always pictured Skye to be blue.

Today she is so.

Skye, where legends are born, not made.

Close your eyes for a moment and I will make for you small pictures of Skye:

Water spilling from sheer striking mountains, too close to be that blue; clouds strung like hammocks from mountain top to mountain top; sheep and cattle so fat they spend half their lives sitting down, like dogs in sunshine with nothing better to do; the hshhhh-shhh of small waves tipping onto a grey pebbly shore; white stone houses, scattered like jacks across hillsides and valleys; vast green hills of purple heather; blue islands lying low like dormant sea monsters; dawn rainbow shooting upwards from the roof of a table-top mountain; ancient trees in wet gulleys twisted with moss; mists pouring from the horizon like steam from a boiling kettle; silent eagles riding the wind, wing tips saluting the heavens; rainbows pouring light into the sea; waterfalls that become pathways and pathways that become waterfalls; tall towers of stone on craggy mountains; black and white collie dogs streaming from a pick up in a paddock; sudden bursts of sunlight that turn purple heather egg-yolk yellow; jumbled stones in labrynthine boggy paddocks; white feathers, precisely two, floating on the air currents of a high mountain crevice; stones chattering as they are resettled by the incoming tide; rain hammering the tin roof of a car (that would be me on the inside sheltered and warm); vaporous mists stealing mountain tops as they run with the wind; black crow holding steady, wings taut and stretched, feathers aflurry in the howling wind, telling me ‘camp here, camp here’ (I have a friend who once told me never to doubt the wisdom of a crow).

Thus I have encountered these past days on An t-Eilean Sgitheanach, and more:

* Uig, a town whose name you can speak without moving a single muscle in your mouth: not your jaw, not your lips, not teeth – Uig must be the first sound ever uttered by a human being, perhaps even the first sound uttered by a single creature on Planet Earth;

* the Amazon College for Spear Welfare (I suspect they mean warfare – see below);

* the Stone of the Chief Church, a sacred site dedicated to the Pagan goddess Annaitis;

* the stones that supported legendary giant king Fionn’s cooking pot;

* a memorial to Mary of the Songs;

* The Giving Shop – great food and generous hearts at Ellishadder Art Cafe;

* and An t-Eilean Sgitheanach itself, the Isle of Skye: where legends are born, not made.

 

THE AMAZON COLLEGE FOR SPEAR WELFARE

Yesterday was wild: grey wind, sheet rain tearing across the landscapes (yes plural) in bursts. I spent the night tucked into the corner of a beautiful estuary on the island’s west, captured by the setting sun in front of a house that would be my pick – the writer’s pick – of homes on the island: a single story black stone cottage with red lintels and blue trim on the roof.

All the other houses are white. In a different story it would be the witch’s cottage.

The house had my back as I slept in the car, encloaked by rain, snug in my sleeping bag, nourished by a landscape that changes with every loop in the road, every shift in the light.

I spent the day roaming the itty bitty roads that stretch across the island, roads remote and tiny, on a treasure hunt with my list of ancient landmarks I’d picked up from the visitor information centre.

I’ll say a few things about Scottish signposting – mostly there is none, in the instance of an ancient landmark, for example, and, where there is, in the instance of a town, for example, there will be one sign, and not another, so you are never quite sure if the turnoff is here or there, this road or that. Also, while planners have kindly allowed for layovers in beautiful areas, to stop and take photographs, for example, the layovers are always somewhere other than overlooking the view – always. And otherwise there is nowhere to stop on Scottish roads.

Thus we have the background to my treasure hunt.

My list says ‘Dun Sgathaich: named after the Amazon who set up a college for spear welfare'; the directions say ‘off the road between Tokavaig and Tarscarvaig’.

There are so many things that intrigue me about this. In no particular order they are: the thought of being up close to anything at all truly Amazon; a college for spear welfare – only a woman could establish a college for spear welfare; spear welfare probably ought to read spear warfare and that ignites inspired pictures of women in training as warriors; Tokavaig and Tarscarvaig, be still my beating Viking heart.

Naturally, the map given to me by the information centre, being a Scottish map, landmarks only Tarskavaig (note the different spelling to the directions above: probably the same typist who memorialised spear welfare).

So off I go around the peninsular known as Sleat, on a mission to find the Amazon College for Spear Welfare.

The road to the Amazon College for Spear Welfare

The road to the Amazon College for Spear Welfare

The roads, as I have mentioned, are miniscule. The landscape is stunning, a patchwork of fields, mountains, water and scattered settlements. The day is wild and wet and windy. I make Tarskavaig and draw the common sense conclusion that if I stick to the same road, which isn’t hard because there is only one, I will reach Tokavaig. The college will be somewhere in between.

Uh-oh, I make Tokavaig without a single sighting. I have missed the college. I turn around at a hand painted sign that says ‘Castle Footpath’, vowing to make that my purpose if I cannot find the Amazon College for Spear Welfare.

A glade where an Amazon might attend to spear welfare

I head back towards Tarskavaig. Along the road I spy a grove of trees, the kind an Amazon looking out for the welfare of spears might dwell.

But I do not see a college. High at the top of a hill is a man staring into a pair of binoculars. I stop, unwind the window.

‘Excuse me,’ I say, ‘can you please tell me where I can find the Amazon College for Spear Welfare?’

I cannot keep a straight face. Fortunately he is English and being English and somewhat elderly he understands eccentric; he too laughs.

At Tarskavaig I turn around again and head back towards Tokavaig. There is a camper van parked on a rare flat and grassy spot. Two men are packing away their breakfast.

‘Excuse me,’ I say, ‘can you please tell me where I can find the Amazon College for Spear Welfare?’

Again, I am speaking to Englishmen, somewhat balding, and we all start to laugh.

I make one more foray up a road where fat sheep and cattle can barely be bothered getting out of the way.

I make a right turn for an artist’s studio and pull into a stony driveway. Blue Studio has blue cars parked outside; the artist, a tall elderly druid-like Englishman with no sense of humour, tells me he has no idea where the Amazon College for Spear Welfare might be.

‘The Celts used to elect their queens you know,’ he said.

A-ha, a man who takes the Amazon College for Spear Welfare seriously.

He points to a painting on his wall, tells me it’s Dun Sgathaich.

‘That’s it!’ I say. ‘That’s the Amazon College for Spear Welfare.’

It is the ruin at the end of the sign saying ‘Castle Footpath’.

I turn around and drive back to the signpost, walk across boggy fields filled with fat cows, skirt around an estuary, past a farm house, and onto a tor tipping into the sea.

I am spellbound by my own story, an imaginary world in which Amazons pay attention to the welfare of their spears.

I’ll leave you now to tell your own story; here are the photographs.

 

THE STONE OF THE CHIEF CHURCH OF ANNAITIS

The goddess herself only knows whether I found her sacred site or not . . .

The directions on my list said ‘on the Elgol Road’.

The road to Elgol

Now, the turn-off from the main road to a blip called Elgol is the small matter of 15 miles. Fortunately, that road is so tiny rarely does the speedometer rise above 30mph, which means I can scan the roadside for sites dedicated to ancient pagan goddesses.

Unfortunately, even at such a slow pace, these roads demand attention, not least because 21st century transport makes a habit of barreling down them, buses and 24 wheelers carrying big yellow rolls of hay, the latter having no intention of pulling into a layby to let Hi Ho Silver, my clever little Astra, and me pass.

I scour the roadside, all the way to Elgol, looking for anything at all that might resemble a sacred site dedicated to an ancient goddess.

I spy a church . . . the Christians had a habit of building their places of worship on top of pagan sites, the minor matter of the

The church on the Elgol road

colonisation of anything at all not them and the obliteration of everything feminine on our good Earth.

But no sign of Annaitis.

I stop, somewhat excitedly, for a pile of rocks. A weathered sign stamped into a puddle tells me it is the Marble Road.

I drive on, a stunning stunning stunning drive all the way along the tip of a remote peninsular to Elgol.

On the way home, the opposite direction giving me new perspective, I grind to a halt by the Marble Road and clamber over the sodden grass to an upright stone.

A marble road . . . to an ancient temple – perhaps?

The Stone of the Chief Church of Annaitis . . . perhaps?

 

FIONN’S COOKING POT

Here are the stones that beheld Fionn’s cooking pot. Piece together the legend as ye will.

 

MARY OF THE SONGS

At the foot of the trail over the Quiraing mountains is an information board dedicated to Mary of the Songs, Màiri Mhòr nan Òran, and the lyrics to her love song to Skye’s east, Soraidh Le Eilean a’Cheò.

Mary of the Songs.

Who wouldn’t want to be known as Mary of the Songs?

 

THE GIVING SHOP 

On an island whose people are often terse, clipped at best, pursed like sheeps’ bums at worst, which isn’t too bad when you think about it, unless you’re traveling alone and the kind word or minimum smile of the one to whom you’re about to impart money is the only human contact you’re likely to have all day – on this island, whose landscape and light is its glory, there is a shop I came to call The Giving Shop.

It has several names – Creagan Ban – meaning ‘fine hill’, this would be the name of the house itself, which sits on a plot of land in an open valley between An Storr, the Old Man of Storr, and Cuith-Raing, the Quiraing; Ellishadder Art Cafe is another name, and this would be the name of the sweetest little cafe on Skye whose windows, depending which one you’re looking from, stare directly at An Storr in one direction and the mighty mountains of the Quiraing in the other.

The cafe is owned by Maggie and Stuart: this would be them, outside their home/cafe – which was open when it said it would be, a hallelujah moment on the Isle of Skye.

In the door on a rainy blustery day, tourist after tourist splattered in mud from the mountain, all of us, strangers seeking sustenance in a small cafe, even the fluffy white dog with mud up to her elbows, meet warm welcome from a happy pair of people who not only built their house, cook the food in the cafe, grow the salads and herbs on your plate, paint the art on the walls and weave the soft wool cushions – they have time to talk to their customers. I mean generous talk, valuable talk.

I’m not sure if they chop the wood for the fire.

I had a running tab at Ellishadder over the few days I spent on the island, sometimes not turning up for days at a time.

Maggie brought me fresh mint tea at no charge – and, having spent time in her kitchen, I can say she washes her vegetables and chops out the bad bits!

Stuart welcomed the writer who needed time to chill out, taking up an entire table to catch up on her blogs, charge her camera, phone and computer.

It is important to note I wrote all that before this:

Last night I snuggled up to Stuart and Maggie’s gate, sleeping in my car in what has become my experiment with homelessness; I snuggle up to remote gates so I look like my car belongs to a house, and therefore not available for stealing, with varying degrees of confidence depending on where I am and how I’m feeling, and then I lie low, very low and still, so as not to draw attention to the fact there is a human in the car, thus another advantage of a house is that I can honk the horn and someone might come in an emergency (such is the sub text of a conversation I have with my unconscious mind every night).

And so it is that on this night, night 8 in the car, I had found a house where I did not feel quite so surreptitious, not quite as alert to my surroundings, not quite as confined to the shadows; rather, a familiar warmth in the snuggling up to a gate where, if I was not welcome, I was not unwelcome.

Just after nestling down into my sleeping back, the rising full moon over nearby fields for good company, I hear crunching on the gravel, a tap at my window: it is Stuart, come to say hello.

More than that, he and Maggie, who have worked all day cooking and serving, spent the evening baking and cleaning up, will rise early to do the same all over again, have made me a bed and insist – despite the fact I haven’t showered for a week (although in my defence I have gone to some lengths maintain a certain level of personal hygiene) – that I partake of it.

It is a beautiful act of kindness for a woman traveling alone. And anyone who’s read my travel memoir knows the kinship I share with clean white sheets.

The Ellishadder Art Cafe: The Giving Shop.

 

UIG

You can say it without moving a single muscle in your mouth – really, try it: Uig.

Uig, the town whose name you can speak without moving a single muscle in your mouth.

SKYE HIGH:  LOVE SONG FOR SKYE

Bear print!

 

 

 

 

 September 1, 2012  Tagged with: , ,  4 Responses »
Aug 292012
 

There are many homecomings in a human life; and An t-Eilean Sgitheanach, the Isle of Skye, is one such for me.

I felt it in my bones when I left the small, sheltered outpost of Ullapool on Scotland’s north-west coast yesterday – and knew I’d make Skye by nightfall.

Speed bonnie boat like a bird on a wing . . .

It is another of my grandchildren’s favourite songs, a lullaby that, despite their teenage years, they have never outgrown.

When I turned into Loch Aillse, Scotland’s closest mainland point to Skye, a massive mountain across the sea, too close to be that blue, slugged me in the heart.

. . . over the sea to Skye

The bridge crossing was sudden, landing me in a chaotic hum of B&Bs and other tourist facilities. I drove through and on, towards the main town of Port an Righ, which lazy English tongues have renamed Portree.

Late afternoon clouds roll over the island; mists turn the mountains grey, a rainbow bridge pours light into the sea.

*****

It is morning. Scattered showers steal small bursts of sunshine from the sky.

I take the road north, having decided to spend today driving around the island’s topmost peninsula.

At the sight of cows crossing a tidal mudflat I decide this is as good a place as anywhere to stop for breakfast; load a small tub of yoghurt with fresh blueberries and promptly snap the only piece of cutlery I possess: a plastic fork.

Life on the road being what it is I simply turn the handle around and make a game of balancing berries on the tip as I shovel the yoghurt.

I glance at the toy map and that’s when I realise I’m on the wrong road – not that there’s anything particularly ‘wrong’ with it, I just have the strongest sense I’d like to be on the other side of the peninsular today.

So I turn around and drive back through Port an Righe – Scottish distances being what they are you’re never too far out of your way.

And so begins the loveliest of days on a and narrow road.

And now this: the heartstopper, the showstopper.

A mountain, misted with rolling vapour, green, flattish, leaning gently towards the sky, like a stack of pancakes on a tilt – and tall stones standing sentry to the forces of life.

I pull into the nearest layby, and there I sit, staring at a landscape that pitches with sun and shadow like a boat on a stormy sea, making sense of a thunderbolt of knowledge that floods my heart.

And I watch: sunlight races around the sheer rock face of the mountain; bursts of rain shade the mountain grey – but always, always, no matter how dark and low the cloud, the stones stand in clear air.

There is an incantation on my lips, my arms long to stretch for the sky above, the wind and rain are my allies, the mist my touchstone to mystery.

O holy rock of deepest memory . . . utterly untouched by Christian colonisation, by nationhood, parliaments and kings.

A priestess’s mystery, locked in time.

I could sit here all day.

But I do not.

I turn the key and drive on, seeking the pathway at the foot of the mountain. I rug up for any weather, wrap a scarf around my ears and the storm cover around my pack, and step onto the path.

A sign tells me one rock has been given a name: Old Man of Storr.

I laugh to myself: trust Englishmen to see only a wrinkly dick.

The rocks have a Norse name An Storr.

I set off up the muddy path, winding through pine forest, recently felled. The track is boggy, wet; the trees still standing offer shelter against the wind.

Up and up it winds through pockets of forest still standing, a carnage of harvest where they are not. The pines peter out and I am left standing at a gate, craning my neck at a clipped green mountainside dominated by the one the English call Old Man Storr. I stare, wondering if I should spoil my encounter with the rocks by going any closer; if I ought not step back, the point from where mysteries are often best viewed.

Those rocks are a beacon, signaling to the wider universe to which they are interconnected.

The howling wind calls me to me. I climb on, up and up and up. I stop to catch my breath and this time gasp at the sight of the rock: light and perspective shift and indeed I feel the strength of the noble masculine.

I continue to climb, up up up into the howling wind. And then I see him – a man’s face, Viking visage, huge, handsome, mustachioed with a clipped beard, a man at peace, almost smiling, staring out of the rock to the eastern sea.

O holy rock.

I am awed by the Norseman in the rock.

I climb on, but not too far – just far enough to feel the subtler feminine presence, vaster, broader, in the other rocks.

I photograph An Storr.

I attempt to photograph the castle shapes of the feminine rocks and the mists steal her away. When they clear, I try again, and my camera dies.

Mystery has stolen common sense from my day.

She will not be displayed.

She will not be named.

She will rise and, once risen, shall rise again.

Eternal, gracious.

I turn to slide down the mountain. The wind is so fierce I feel it lift me off the mountainside, the sensation is like that of a space gravity machine I stepped into in Malaysia many years ago.

Down down down I slide, back towards mortal reality, taking shelter in the forest from a hammering rainstorm.

The image of the Norse man in the rock is carved into my imagination. As I burrow my hands into my pockets and bow my head against the wind and driving rain, I wonder if my longing to walk in shoes shaped like tennis rackets across fields of snow precedes the stories of my childhood . . .

 August 29, 2012  Tagged with: , , ,  No Responses »
Aug 282012
 

I wake out of sorts. My pillow of the last three nights (two neatly folded jackets that served just fine nudged up against the car door), was too hard and too high.

I am reminded of the lessons of pilgrimage, the one about meeting each moment as it comes, rather than expecting things to be a certain way – and its extension: not making assumptions based on yesterday.

Ho hum.

I am in Kinlochbirvie. The clear blue day of yesterday has passed and an unholy wind howls about the car. The night was so clear there were stars outside the windows – one of the best reasons I can think of for sleeping in the car.

Before settling in for the night I wandered down to watch the sun set over the water behind the harbour. It was a Peter Pan world, an island cove, sparkling sunlight spiralling on the current; if I squinted just enough I could see Captain Hook and his shadowy pirate ship sailing in on the passageway between the islands.

The evening was still, clear, bright and blue; two boys, aged about 12, were swimming in the evening light. I threw myself into the summer North Sea when I was 16; I know how cold that water is.

By the looks of this morning, grey and blustery, I guess it was the kind of day that doesn’t come this way too often.

I notice the trees I hadn’t noticed yesterday – their leaves grow only one direction. They look like cartoon trees caught in a wind, all their leaves pointed one way.

I clamber into the front seat and drive out of town, marveling at the change in the landscape now mirrored grey, which highlights the rocks, rather than yesterday’s blue, which highlighted the green. I wind my way out of the valleys of Kinlochbirvie, the landscape a hailstorm of rock.

I stop to pee in what looks to be a sheltered corner – and my pee goes the way of the leaves while I do my best to stay upright. This is one wild wind.

I drive into the morning, alive once more to the unfurling landscape of Scotland’s north. The names on the signposts are more Norse now than Gaelic, they remind me of reindeer country with their Ss and Ks.

As I coil around the roads in the howling wind I see sheep pressed close to rocks, birds fly crooked paths, waters whipped like egg white to sharp and choppy peaks.

Each rock thoroughfare unveils a new valley, massive blank canvas settings, each unlike the others, stages waiting for something to happen – in reality, that would be snow.

This land is a landscape photographer’s heaven. I stop the car, again and again and again, to snap the breathless views – even though I cannot hold the camera still in the wind, not even when I lean up against the car, because the car too is rocking in the wind; and even though I know my photos are crap.

I swear two things:

* I will not stop to take any more photographs . . . I just do not have the skill to capture the light (and besides, it’s bloody freezing out there);

** I will do a photography course to better understand my camera.

Naturally, I keep stopping to take the photos, just in case.

I have the road to myself, the wilderness to myself, all of life it seems to myself . . . despite reasonable traffic going in the other direction yesterday: I guess that’s the difference between Sunday and Monday.

Another valley and there is a castle ruin, so startling that again I stop and I stop and I stop to photograph it on my way down the hill. And then I pull in and, lured by the small stone pathway, rug up and run towards the ruin into the wind blistering off the loch.

Round towers have always held a special place in my heart. My inner princess perhaps. I run, because to move any more slowly is to go the way of everything not tied down, and circle what is left of the old walls, high on a small green tor stretching into the loch.

I touch the stone, it’s like touching base with the ancients.

The crumbling stone is their signal to us, we were here.

Glancing up at the mountain, I see the colours that to me are the colours of women’s truth: the purple and green of the heather.

Purple and green were the colours of one of the early women’s liberation movements, the one that gave women the vote. Whenever I see those colours, I am reminded there is another story, an untold subtle story woven into landscapes, not quite as visible as stone castles and tower ruins, but participatory and influential and just as real.

I drive on, grateful not only for having caressed the ancient stone and breathed the ancient wind, but for having warmed my blood with the run.

I am heading south now, down the west coast, away from the Arctic. I have long had a date with the lands of ice and snow in the north, ever since I was a small child smitten with stories that conjured images of shoes like tennis rackets parked at the back door.

Deep in my heart I dream of dog sleds, I dream of white, I dream of fur hooded jackets. To this day I can see the shoes, see the door, see the wood cabin, see the wooden fence surrounding the house and see the snow, all around.

Another corner and another reveal jigsaw puzzle mountains behind green hills, 3D woodcuts in receding shades of blue. Snow country in summer.

I did stand in the Arctic Circle once, when I visited my son in Tromso and his friend took us for a walk inside the circle. Not one to have unfinished business tagging along in my life, and having long dreamed of spending time with the reindeer people of the north (the ones in my imagination), this was a do or die moment, act or quit dreaming. So I sent a call to the universe: if I am meant to return and spend time in the land of the reindeer, give me a sign.

A footstep later I trod on an antler in the damp, yellow clod of grass.

And then, in the distance on a small headland, the prettiest little town I have seen for a long, long time: Ullapool.

I bet that has a viking name.

Ullapool

 August 28, 2012  Tagged with: , ,  2 Responses »
Aug 282012
 

Below the lighthouse, John O’Groats

It took a wee while to settle last night around the stern folk of John O’Groats, who were pleasant enough when they thought money was coming their way but soon turned sour when they realised it was not.

There were signs everywhere proclaiming no overnighters and the hotel carpark was packed, so I parked up around the corner, nestling in to a fence so as to look like I belonged to the house.

I snuggled down in the back seat, popping my head above the window to inspect a sudden noise – to find a big moon just risen above the horizon, like a golden wafer snapped in half.

Nothing settles me more quickly than the sight of an old friend like the moon, and in the morning I noticed I was parked up against the Coast Guard.

I woke pleased, happy to have slept well, thinking ‘this is what it must be like to be homeless, looking for somewhere to sleep that does not disturb others, yet is safe and sweet just the same'; followed by, ‘how quickly we adapt, night three in the back seat and my knees don’t mind as much that they can’t straighten up and my back is content against the back seat’. Unlike previous nights, I have slept through the entire night.

I drive up to the lighthouse in the dawn light, a narrow road through sheep paddocks that I’d discovered last night when I was looking for somewhere to park, and stop in a dip for a quick wash and change of clothes (change of clothes being a relative term).

Ducansby Stack

I spy tower rocks in the distance, park at the lighthouse and rug up against an unholy wind. There is a sign that points across the fields to Ducansby Stack; and so I set off, a scarf wrapped around my ears, into the howling grey morning; a shower of sunlight bursts from the sky, like rain pouring from a distant cloud.

It is a glorious start to what will be a glorious day.

My first stop is the Castle of Mey, a great stone monolith surrounded by ribbons of high stone walls overlooking Harrow Harbour – I wonder if the harbour name has anything to do with the tall cairn with a cross on the top in the middle of a nearby field; and I wonder who the hell had to build those walls

The castle is closed and I meander on into the morning, through the surprisingly vast and flat northern lands of the Scots.

Mid morning the cloud clears to the west, opening the day to a most heavenly blue, brightening the purple heather and turning the dying brown stalks of summer weeds to hazy pink.

I drive through villages, the houses scattered like buckshot around the fields; I drive through towns too small to boast a cathedral; sheep hide from the wind behind spindly glades of grass; and just as suddenly as the day turns grey, so too the drive turns hilly until there is a serious blue mountain on my horizon.

That mountain is every which way I turn, blue and shapely; I can see how the ancient ones mythologised features of their landscape; it is a steady presence, its mood shifting with the glory of the day.

A heartbeat later I am in the mountains. Breathtaking mountains. Everywhere I turn I am scuttled by beauty. The landscape is choppy: large, jutting, deep, narrow, and the colours, the humbling colours, the awe-smiting colours whose beauty is in their light – I do not attempt a photograph; I would need a paintbrush and palette to begin to uncover those colours.

There are myriad mountains in the distance now, like kingdoms of legend and myth. The road is a single lane trail. I climb in and out of hill and glen. The day is grey and blue above, purple where the heather meets the treeline and sweetest green where the waters run down the mountainside.

This is wilderness. Startling, eternal wilderness. The moment, endless, is intimate; I am north, at the top of the island they once called Albion, an outpost of cold.

I wonder how many Scots have driven this road? If they drove like an Aussie it’d only take a couple of days from anywhere at all – jeez, with the amount of summer daylight in this country you could leave at first light and be home by dark!

I drive through Tunga and the road inhales as it threads around an estuary of blistering beauty. There are crude laybys to dive into for oncoming traffic – of which, thankfully, there is none. The world is all mine.

There is an eagle, brown and white, sitting on a fence post. She flies off when I stop to say hello; though now it’s her turn to smile at me, as she flies above, keeping steady company with the car.

Ages later, I notice a bridge in the distance. With cars on it. I begin to laugh. At a T intersection I laugh louder – I have missed the main road; and so I give thanks for Scottish signposting, because I wouldn’t have missed my emaciated road for all the shortcuts in Christendom.

I drive on and on and on, those mythical valleys unfolding in spectacular glory; it is easy to see the source of stories about lost kingdoms. At a corner, a sign on a large stone says ‘Welcome to Geo Park’ and I chuckle out loud, because that’s exactly what it is: a theme park of rocks and grasses.

And then another corner and the blue ocean slugs my reeling senses; another corner and the mountains turn silver.

And another and another and another: colours, landscape, textures, light, shades of light, shapes, forms, angles, coves and caves, waterfalls and waterways. It is so pretty. So very very pretty. I would need a cinematographer’s eye, and lens, to capture it; beauty blasting at 360 degrees; exquisite loveliness, all around.

I stop at Smoo Cave, captivated by the name; only to find it is the English name; the Gaels called it Smudha. It has quite a history that cave: massive, gaping; the old clansman MacKay dumped 18 murdered bodies into the cavern, convinced no-one’d ever find them because local legend had the devil biding there; then there were the bobbies looking for an illicit still who were rowed beneath the waterfall, where they drowned. And so on.

I look at the map and notice my glorious landscape has a name – it is Kyle of Tongue. I think of Kyle of Sandilands (Australians know what I mean).

I drive on from Smudha to find the glory is not over – you could set any adventure epic at all against this landscape; I wonder, have I driven a more spectacular road? This is me – I have driven a lot of roads. I cannot bring to mind one that has unfolded over and over and over like this one.

For a long while – which is actually a short while, I’m allowing for the fact I’m in Scotland – I have the road to myself: just me and the wilderness, snow country in summer; majesty untouched, in an ancient kind of way.

The drive is not over.

Kinlochbirvie Harbour

I have pulled in to Kinlochbirvie, eight twisted miles off the main road, haunt of the Hopeman fisherman of days gone. Here I sit, having a cider in a pub high on a tor overlooking ocean-going headlands.

The day is still here, sheltered now, like it must have been for the fishing boats seeking refuge from a tempestuous North Sea.

I look out over the small harbour, the sunshine through the big window warm and sleepy.

I raise my glass to glory.

 

 August 28, 2012  Tagged with: ,  No Responses »
Aug 282012
 

Cairn of Get

There is a quality of person I really cannot stand and it is those who smile while being a complete sarcastic bitch. They are usually women and there are an awful lot of them way up here in the far north-west of Scotland.

Which, by the way, is surprisingly wide and flat.

The drive from Inverness to John O’Groats was gorgeous; though the rain came and went, the clouds shifted only in tints of grey.

There are towns obviously settled by wealth and privilege; others, a stone’s throw away, settlements of small stone cottages belonging to (or once belonging to) the working people who make privileged lives possible.

The road north is a ribbon of bitumen, the traffic slowly peeling away until there is only me and the patchwork fields of late summer framed by stone walls and moody mountains in darkening shades of green and grey.

The road finally surrenders the company of the endless water that is Cromarty Firth, the lifeblood of a valley that must have been the prize of kings for millennia

There were three lovely surprises on the drive.

Loch Fleet

The first was Loch Fleet, an utterly stunning waterway tucked beneath the roadway whose breathtaking beauty my photograph failed to capture;

that beauty lay in the deep peace of water that is timeless and bold, enduring splendour.

Dunrobin Castle

The second was the best castle I have seen in a long long time. The gateway, a small squat turret, snatched my breath; I turned into the long tree-lined drive and crunched to a halt on the gravel courtyard of an immense stone chateau.

Who could not clap their hands with glee?

Walking through the arched entryway I felt like visiting royalty (really, I did); although . . . even though my travel clothes are designed to make me not look like I’ve been sleeping in the car, the fact I have been probably dents my confident facade. I skip up the stairs and ask the smart young man at a desk if I have to pay to get in. He assures me I do – ten quid.

Ten quid!

There’s a reason I am sleeping in the car.

I ask him if I can quickly use the loo. I can. I take advantage of the moment and slip out a side door – and behold the gardens.

Dunrobin Castle

The gardens. My photo of the castle failed to capture the enormity of its presence, but my garden photographs go some way . . . although they do not do justice to the attendance of the sea.

From there, the drive was a spectacular smile of stone walls, bare hills, twisted trees and sheep spread about lime green fields like patches of clover.

For all the world, there is just me and the northbound road.

Stone cottages are everywhere, a hundred, two hundred years old, they do not impress me – unless they are abandoned, in which case they become a story and so enter the realms of mystery.

What does interest me, really interests me, other than castles, are signs of those who came before.

And that brings me to my third surprise.

I’d been driving all day, stopping here and there in byways for pointless photographs that seemed not to capture the light, the breeze (actually make that the wind), the subtle intensity of beauty.

And then I saw a brown sign to the Cairn of Get.

The Cairn of Get.

I turn off the highway into the smallest of small lanes and wind my way around farm houses and barns to a small parking bay beside the Watenan Loch.

The Cairn of Get.

I pull on shoes and socks still wet from yesterday’s adventure in the heather; not one to leave my computer in the car, I hoist it on my back in my pack, rug up and zip up, thrust my hands deep in my fleecy pockets and wander back up the road to the sign pointing into a paddock.

I stomp through the grass, bright green and pockmarked with mud; a cow stops to gawp as I make my way over a boardwalk and, for the second time in two days, I give way to the cow’s glower and look at my feet . . . just in case. Besides, I am happy to bow to a cow. It’s the least I can do after all these years of cheese and milk.

I walk through stile after stile in the cold and bitter wind, wondering what makes people settle in country like this . . . inheritance probably, exile perhaps, dislocation and desperation. They must have been deeply grateful for all that stone to buffer them from the wind.

On and on over bumpy fields and small hills – I’m in love with the right way laws that envelop private land in Britain, and then I begin to wonder where the Cairn of Get might be, let alone what it might be.

The Cairn of Get.

The words claw at my imagination.

The Cairn of Get.

Cairn of Get

The Cairn of Get is a 5000 year old sacred chamber, probably for ceremony and burial.

It is from the world of the Pict people.

It is tucked into a bright green mound.

It is stunning.

I enter the ritual passageway, pass sentry rocks that mark my progress and stand in the circular chamber

Before.

Before you. Before me. Before.

I make it back to the car before the rain hammers down and drive north – then slide down a long slippery dip of a road where I see, without warning, islands.

Long islands. Big islands. Misted islands.

The Orkneys!

OMG, I am staring at the Orkneys.

Okay, so that was a fourth surprise. I had no idea they were so close to the mainland.

The Orkneys

 

Aug 252012
 

The Cairngorms

In 1975, my mother packed up her four Australian teenagers and flew us to Scotland, where we lived for the entire year in a small fishing village in the far north-east.

During that year, she took us on little excursions around the region – I remember castles, I remember delicious soup in those castles, I remember stone bridges, I remember grey mist.

And I remember paying not much attention at all to her enthusiasm for the historical icons scattered about the landscape, nor the stories behind them . . . I was more interested in finding somewhere to smoke (usually under one those stone bridges) and rolling my eyes anything at all that might have been of interest to her.

Oh cruel daughter!

In 1975 the world was vast and distance was forever, there was no internet, cell phones did not exist, and north-east Scotland was a splash of isolated communities rarely visited by outsiders.

Yet my mother, who was younger than I am now, piled us into the car for adventures that would light her heart and drove those dark and icy roads alone.

I remember Aviemore – actually I remember three things about Aviemore:

* at the youth hostel where we stayed, the only human inhabitants that mid-winter night, my sisters and brother and I piled every blanket we could find onto our bunks – I had 27 – and still we froze to death;

** despite my disinterest in my mother’s fascination for local history, I swore I could hear bagpipes in those forests and glens;

*** we went skiing: bundled ourselves out of the car, hired skis and – five people who’d never skied before in their lives – we clambered aboard the chairlift that would take us to the top of the mountain. We thought it would stop to let us off; it didn’t. One by one we rolled down the ramp to land in a jumble at the feet of some seriously well-dressed, experienced skiers. I can still recall the look of disdain on their faces: as they stared in horror, we cacked ourselves laughing while attempting to disentangle limbs and skis.

And I remember the treeline – everywhere we drove, my mother would say ‘look at the treeline’. To this day, the treeline is a family joke.

And I remember Glenfiddich – not the brewery, but my mother’s passion for both the palate and the process.

And now, here I am, driving Scotland’s north-east – without planning or forethought – when suddenly I realise I am retracing my mother’s footsteps.

Glenfiddich – my mother never drank till she tasted her first dram

Recently she told me she’d never had a taste for alcohol – until she tasted Glenfiddich.

I call into the brewery for her.

And there, in Dufftown, I spy one of those old stone bridges.

I drive the highlands, mid summer now, and stop on the top to admire the treeline. I am alone at the top of the world, a handful of

The treeline

black faced sheep staring at me, a wispy rainbow shining from the valley in the distance.

I drive down the mountains to Aviemore, still admiring the treeline, and that is when I realise I have driven this road before – only in the opposite direction and in a different season. I remember the road as icy, dark and slippery; I remember crawling along in the grey sheet mist.

I can no longer hear the bagpipes in the forests and glens around Aviemore – probably because the white noise of tourism has colonised the airwaves and

Stone Circle, 4000 years old: The new nudges up against the past in Aviemore

new settlers have felled the forests for their homes and business ventures.

It is only now, with the hindsight of middle age, that I recognise the adventurous spirit that resides, to this day alive and well, inside my mother.

What courage did it take to pack up her children and relocate to a distant pocket on the other side of the world? To drive narrow icy roads for the sake of a castle?

At Glenfiddich I buy a wee dram and raise my glass to my mother – and the curiosity and courage of women everywhere, who allow their spirit to be their guide.

 August 25, 2012  Tagged with: , , , ,  No Responses »
Aug 212012
 

Hopeman village

Scotland’s north-east is a series of jagged headlands and broken bays. I sit in the car at Burghead, on a promontory of the Moray Firth, staring at a stretch of distant houses on a long finger of land pointing into the sea; the water all around is a deep blue, rare in a world so often grey; the small waves pound at the rocks, keeping time with random thoughts.

I used to live in that town, the laughter of those years rings still in my bones. I unwind the window and let my spirit loose on the currents of time, eavesdropping on the wind for the footsteps of those who came before.

Never in the 37 years since I left Hopeman had I hesitated about the thought of revisiting this world, lost in time to me. I have had a date with this moment since our family left in the wee hours of a bitterly cold New Year’s Day in 1976.

Yet as I stare across the landscape at the small stone village, I wonder if I ought not turn back, leave the past where it rests easy, bequeath hearts and minds – particularly mine – to unsettled peace.

But turning back is not my way. I turn the key instead, and drive. A blink puts me in Cummingston – the Colach . . . already the old language is playing with me – I had forgotten completely about this small stone blot on the map. And then I am on the outskirts of Hopeman, marked now by a brown sign in a flower bed. I drive past the old hotel that still looks like it ought to have bats in the belfry, The Newk, somewhat abandoned and for sale; across the road is our old house: 59 Forsythe St. I still remember the phone number: 284.

The Newk, Hopeman

Oor hoose

I look for the Townes farmhouse up the road, but it is gone, so too the old barn, although the fields across the road are still varying shades of green and gold, late summer farmland; the paddocks behind the now non-existent house are a cul-de-sac housing development.

I turn left into the main street, Harbour Street, and look for the cafe, Miele’s Cafe, a meeting place for the village’s teenagers and the sole source of our entertainment in 1975, that and under-age drinking.

Then again, I’m not so sure there ever was an age limit to drinking.

I learned to play pool upstairs in that cafe . . . the 1975 Hopeman Pool Champion, that would be me . . . a small supermarket stands where the cafe ought to be . . . but two doors down I see a sign advertising Miele’s icecream. And a larger sign: The Primrose Cafe.

There is no better place to start . . . I pull up outside, walk through the door . . . the juke box is gone, the icecream counter is facing the other way, the red booths are now pine tables and there are no stairs leading up. I am disappointed – not that the cafe has changed, but that the demographic of its clientele is no longer the laughing, hollering village youth.

Three young women are behind the counter. I am hesitant, I do not know what to say to their pretty, expectant faces and step back out onto the street, staring down towards the pier.

The town is different. There are nae wifeys standin’ aroon blatherin’ outside the butcher or the bakery or the post office. In fact there is naebody on the street at a’. But there are so many cars parked on the side of the road that two cars can no longer pass at the same time – and I have to wait to cross the road.

There is a high stone wall across the road from the cafe: clear as the blue day I can still see the boys leaning against it, all in a row; now there are vines draped over the wall and flower beds on the corner – I wonder if they are meant to stop people standing around.

The phone box is still there, now silver; kids used tae call down to the phone box and if naebody answered, then the wee phone at the other end of the street would ring.

Beside the cafe are the stairs that lead up to the street of my best friend Linda Main’s hoose; they are cold cement covered in rubbish, no laughter there.

Overcome by a wave of ordinariness, I turn away and wander up the narrow street towards our old house, past the kirk with its grey stone tower rising square above the toon, past B&Bs where families and aul’ folk use tae bide, past Jordie Townes’s non-existent farm. A small group of children chatters loudly as they walk by. I am startled to realise they are not speaking the old dialect; I can ken every word of their easy English. Perhaps the new sub division was built for them.

I turn back down the lane to the kirk. It is an uncommonly blue day for the north of Scotland, at least to my mind, which remembers only the grey mist of winter.

… although I duv mind a warm summer’s day where my sister and I excitedly pulled on our bikinis and ran down to the pier, alive to the welcome sunshine and memories of Australian summers, and threw ourselves into the North Sea.

Well, we never did that again.

I slide down the wall across fae the kirk to sit on the damp road. I dinna ken where I am. It is a strange toon tae me. A child bumps along the pockmarked lane on his scooter. I want to stop him, demand ‘who are your parents?’

And I want to weep for mythologised pasts, for my family and me. For Hopeman is our story, the best of our fun and laughter, our shared ‘remember when’. Perhaps my longing to weep is for the passage of youth, rather than time and place; for the invincibility of the young, in any hemisphere.

I slide back up the wall and wander back to the cafe. Two of the young women sit at a table with icecreams and I sit down with them.

‘You’re not gonna believe this,’ I tell them with my broad and obviously Australian accent, ‘but I used to live here.’

Their eyes pop as they lick.

I start rattling off names, most of them ending with More or Main. The youngest tells me she is a Main, but I dinna ken her parents.

The woman still behind the counter wanders over, wiping her hands on her apron. I ask about the cafe; she tells me that the little string of stores in this part of the village burned down about 15 years ago.

‘We used to be two doors up,’ she says.

‘You’ve still got Miele’s icecream,’ I say.

I laugh.

I say: ‘I remember Mario stirring that icecream with his bare arm, right there behind the counter.’

Now it’s her turn to laugh.

‘I’m a Miele,’ she says. ‘I’ve just been upstairs stirring the icecream.’

I am staring at Mario’s daughter, who coincidentally is the same age as my own daughter.

I blink as I stare into the passage of time, at vivid memories now dust.

Perhaps this is what it’s like to be elderly: the past is more tangible than the present . . . nae, the past is the present.

The girls cannae help me, although knowing the village as I do, they will tell aboot me, so I let them know I’ll be back in a day or twa.

I head down to the beach and wander along the grassy path, certain that the row of bright beach huts used to be on the other side of the pier, shaking my head at the fickle nature of memory.

It is strange walking along the beach, smiling at people I may know with the courtesy of strangers when we ought to be wrapping our arms around each other with warm salutations: ‘old friend, how are you?’

I dinna ken fat ta dae. I eat the last of my wild smoked salmon and goats cheese in the easy glow of late afternoon sunshine, watch families making the most of it with picnic suppers by the beach, glance aboot for a flat grassy spot to camp for the night.

I was 16 years old in 1975, my sisters and brother 15, 14 and 12. We are now all in our 50s – I stare at the families: how do you find teenage faces in a middle aged world?

Try as I might to peer through veils of time, I cannot find them.

At 6 o’clock I head up to the Station Hotel, to charge the computer and chill out until darkness comes and I can pitch the tent. I lean over the bar and order a whisky.

‘Australian?’ says the barman.

I nod, leaning further over the bar; being funny, I say, my voice a sharp beam of light, ‘I used to live here’.

‘Stephanie!’ he cries, as he hands me my whisky.

I nearly fall off my chair and knock down the drink.

I stare into his unfamiliar face.

He tells me he is Stanley Murray. He was ages wi’ my youngest sister, Virginia. Stan and I start exchanging names in the village – it is then I realise that the women I was asking for in the cafe have married and changed their names.

I knew Stan’s sister Sandra. He tells me she married Jenso. He asks if I know Linda Dixon. I say OMG, she married Sandy. I ask about Ginny’s best friend Hilary Jack; ‘aye,’ he says, ‘the Jacks are still up the top o’ the street’.

I ask about my sister Liz’s old boyfriend Dobbin, which snatches the attention of the younger men at the bar. They call him Dobs now and one o’ the younger ones calls him up on the phone. Dobs and I laugh straight up as we always did. He’s nae longer in the village and we arrange to meet in Elgin after the weekend.

I pack up my charging computer, tell Stanley I’ll be back and head off into the evening, up the street to find Hilary Jack. I can vaguely remember where Hilary lived, on the road through town across from the fields, down the street from us. Hilary was 12 years old when last I kenned her; she had laughing eyes, bright and brown, and she could stuff her whole fist inside her mouth. I remember her in a knee length dark blue skirt, a white blouse and a wild red satin jacket with silver stars on the back – the latter completely incongruent with the stark blue uniform.

As I neared her old hoose a woman with bright silver hair came onto the street. I asked if she knew where the Jacks lived.

Hilary Jack and her mother, Mrs Jack

‘And fa might ye be lookin’ for?’ she asked, and as she smiled I knew I was about to tell Hilary Jack that I was looking for Hilary Jack.

*****

I have tears in my eyes as I tell this story, just like Kathleen More did when I caught up with her in Elgin yesterday. The tears are for an innocent time, the happiest times, for love of deep friendship and a village certain of its place in the grand scheme of things.

The moment Hilary kenned fa I was, she whisked me into her mother’s hoose and put on the tea. The following day when I called by, the Jacks wouldna hear of me camping down by the beach and so they settled me intae oor Audrey’s upstairs room.

And so, once again, I enter the life of the village.

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

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.