Monday 31 October 2011

The Stranger's Tale: a True Story

The stranger in the bothy had been largely quiet up to this point. The rest of us had been bouncing stories off each other, stories of ghosts and vampires, of weird happenings in lonely bothies, the traditional stories we knew and loved that gave the familiar smiling shiver on each telling. These were stories best told by the flickering bothy fire, tales for whisky fuelled good humour and forgotten in rational daylight. The stranger was not really with us. He sat slightly apart, preoccupied.

"And what about yourself?" we asked indulgently. "Do you know any good stories?"

He leaned forward, facing the firelight. Focused on something else.

"I had a boat. I ran cruises for people who paid. It was a good business."

We listened.

"One day a girl hired me. She wanted to take pictures of her boyfriend surfing. Action pictures. We followed him in the boat."

"We did a couple of runs. On the last run she set the camera on automatic motor drive. She would get a good action sequence. Each shot less than half a second apart."

"She chose her moment and fired. Suddenly he seemed to be in trouble. He fell off the board into the sea. I stopped the boat. We were all worried. I know that a few people have - disappeared off this bay. The undertow we thought. We searched around for a while but couldn't see him. I called coastguard."

The stranger made eye contact for the first time.

"They never found his body."

The atmosphere was quiet, tense. This was not a ghost story. This was real.

"The girl was put in an institution. I am not allowed to visit her. No one can see her. There is nothing wrong with her, I'm sure of that. At least, there wasn't."

"But.......?" The stranger saw our incomprehension. It was time to finish his tale. I wish I could laugh off his story as ridiculous invention, oh, how I wish! But when faced with the evidence of the stranger's eyes.....

"When she showed me the pictures - the last one - the pictures of the surfboard..... he was surfing along, and then there was nothing but waves....."

He leaned back. All we could see were his haunted flickering eyes. The bothy was an uncomfortable place. His final words were just sinking in.

"The last picture of the man on the surfboard. The edges of the board were surrounded.... hands.... grasping hands, coming out of the sea........"

Wednesday 19 October 2011

Hitch Hiking Tales: Part 2

I stood at the lay-by near Balloch hoping to catch a lift on a Saturday evening. A man stopped. "Where are you going?" he asked. "Fort William." I replied. "Aye OK," he said, I'll go there!"

I got in. His wife was abroad with the kids for three weeks at her mothers and he had taken to going for long drives at the weekend, no particular plan in mind. He talked away, glad of the company. He loved cars, the BMW M5 being the greatest car ever made. He had had the priviledge of driving one. He also loved motorbikes and was in a bike club. He was easy to chat to, open and engaging and without side. When he offered dinner at the little thief in tyndrum I happily accepted. A hillwalking friend had been similarly well treated whilst hitch hiking, except his encounter had ended with a proposition. I had no apprehensions on that score tonight. He dropped me off in Glen Nevis with a cheery wave and a mind to drive over to Aviemore or maybe Inverness. It was midnight and not quite dark yet. I decided to climb Ben Nevis.

Halfway Lochan, 1am:

An hour later I was halfway up the Ben, but the last of the light was fading. There would be a couple hours of darkness. I settled down in my bag on the zig-zags, woken an hour later by boots going past, the shine of head torches and German voices. I did not see them again.

It was already light when I awoke. An hour later, around 5am, I was on the summit, alone on the roof of Britain early on a glorious summer day. The bright clean air filled me with hope, happiness and freedom.

I lingered at the top, wandered over the rocky Carn Mor Dearg arête above patches of snow, and toiled up the Aonachs with the heat of the day already on me. I decided that the Grey Corries, basking in haze, would have to wait another day. It was too warm. I bathed in pools in the mountain stream on the way down, drying my body on warm naked rock, and walked down to Polldubh where I boldly asked a woman if she would give me a lift down the Glen. She said yes, and I talked to her son. He told me he had been up Aonach Mor and Cairngorm. I was impressed. But then he told me he had taken the chairlift. I refrained from telling him that was cheating - he was only seven.

I don't remember the other lifts that got me to Crianlarich, but I do remember the ladies who took me onward. They were retired, sprightly, full of life and heading for a bowls tournament they were competing in. As luck would have it their tournament was in Helensburgh, my hometown. I went home to mum for a slap-up dinner before getting the train back to Glasgow. A walk in the hills in good weather had set me up for the grinding dullness of the working week ahead.

Thursday 13 October 2011

Hitch hiking Tales: Part 1

I used to hitchhike regularly, as explained in an earlier post, the advantages being meeting interesting people, and not having to wait on a bus. If a bus was due in the next hour, it was always worth hitching: perhaps a lift would be procured and I'd get home sooner and cheaper. Here are some of my encounters from the lost art of hitchhiking...


I picked him up near Ballachulish, heading south from Fort William. "Thanks for the lift," he said. He was a bald-headed Buddhist from Kilmarnock. "What's meant to be is meant to be is my philosophy," he explained, "although that can be hard to accept when I've failed to get a lift and have to sleep in a ditch by the side of the road!"

I was heading for Taynuilt but made the short detour to drop him off in Oban. He'd been good company. His best lift ever had been from Chamonix to home. Expecting to take a week or so to get home, he walked to the outskirts of Chamonix and stuck his thumb out. Fifteen minutes later a lorry stopped. It was going to Glasgow. "Do you know what," said the driver two days later, "I've brought you this far, I might as well take you all the way," and dropped him off at his front door in Kilmarnock.


I'd walked through the hills from Kintail to Strathcarron and had hitched from there to Auchtertyre. One more lift should see me back at my car. An old green Volvo stopped and out stepped an extraordinary-looking man.

He was tall and dressed head to foot in black. Black shoes, black trousers, black shirt, black coat, black leather gloves, with a clammy, unhealthily pale complexion. He looked like one of the Addams family. At first I hesitated, my instinct being to refuse his offer. But then I saw a large black bible on the back seat of his car. He looked weird, but was probably harmless enough.

"Are you a priest?" I asked by way of conversation once we were underway. His head swivelled around and gave me an owl-like stare, his attention off the road for two disconcerting seconds.

"I do not hold with the scriptures of Babylon." Aha! A minister of the Free Kirk. He was going to a Free Church conference in Inverness. "Have you ever thought about God?" he asked.

"I grew up in the Church of Scotland," I replied, but now the hills are my church." I may as well have confessed to being a Catholic! He pursed his lips and gave me a leaflet, and attempted to make friendly conversation. It felt like the first time he had ever made small talk in his life. How did such a man become a minister? It was with relief I got out at my car.


I had a problem. I counted my money again. Re-counting had not increased the amount. Before leaving home, I had budgeted how much money I could afford to spend in the pub, and the night before I had spent it. But foolishly, in my calculations, I had only allowed for the fuel money for the journey up. I had forgotten to allow for the journey home. I had just a couple of pounds and a third a tank of petrol. However it was a fine summer day, I'd had a fantastic weekend in Torridon, and wasn't going to allow something small like this to bother me. Something was bound to turn up. I set off, driving slowly.

I saw them standing by the side of the road in Kintail, a couple with backpacks. They were delighted to get a lift: young, happy, and full of the joys of their holiday. They were Dutch and going to Glasgow and then home and we chatted in English all the way down the road. Just before Tarbet, with the fuel gauge reading empty, I dropped the bombshell. I'd happily drive them wherever they were going in Glasgow - but had no more fuel. Could they spare a few pounds? The woman said "of course," and started rummaging in her purse. In my rear view mirror, I saw the man's brow knitted with thunder. But they coughed up, we all got where we were going, and they had a tight Scotsman story to tell their friends once they got home.

Tuesday 4 October 2011

The Hugh MacDiarmid Memorial

Christopher Murray Grieve was a complex and thrawn man. Born in 1892, he came to maturity as a writer in a Scotland that was experiencing an identity crisis. Both the Empire and the Depression were at their height. More Scots than ever were out of work and Catholic Irish immigrants were popular scapegoats. Meanwhile emigration of native Scots to Canada, the USA and Australia was at its highest ever rate.

In 1935, Edwin Muir in his Scottish Journey lamented that:
'Scotland is being gradually emptied of its population, its spirit, its wealth, industry, art, intellect and innate character.'
Grieve had already decided that he would be in the vanguard of a Scottish cultural fightback. Changing his name to Hugh MacDiarmid, he championed literature written in Scots (or as he called it, Lallans), that he synthesised for the page from various regional dialects for the first time. He was a founder member in 1928 of the National Party of Scotland (a forerunner of the SNP - that he inevitably fell out with as a 'bourgeois secretariat') and wrote in Lallans. He also wrote poetry in English:
Scotland small? Our multiform, our infinite Scotland small?
Only as a patch of hillside may be a cliche corner
To a fool who cries "Nothing but heather!"
Scotland Small?
He was ever restless, boasting "I will aye be whaur extremes meet." Communism, fascism, and nationalism were all fanatically embraced at one time or another, his Who's Who entry listing Anglophobia as his hobby. I suspect he would have found a kindred spirit in the disputatious Alexander Selkirk. His output was prodigious, much of it worthless, but the best of it of the very highest standard. A Drunk Man Looks at a Thistle was one of the best Anglophone (with apologies to MacDiarmid) poems of the 20th century.

His memorial, in the hills above his natal town of Langholm, is an intriguing sculpture, rusted red and decorated with emblems from his life and writings. On the way back from the Lake District, I stopped to experience it.

The MacDiarmid Memorial:

Grieve died in 1978, with Scotland seemingly on the eve of devolution. In the end, this was to be delayed for 20 years. Next time you are in the Borders, stop off at his memorial and read some of his work.
The rose of all the world is not for me
I want for my part
Only the little white rose of Scotland
That smells sharp and sweet - and breaks the heart.
The Little White Rose