Following on from a very successful Creative Writing class run at Gairloch High School in 1996/97, we started a writers` circle. We meet once a month to read our work, exchange ideas, discuss things literary (and non-literary) and drink coffee. The following pieces by local writers are the latest batch to be aired on the web site. Previous contributions including poetry and stories are still available online and these can be read on the archive page.
This page features Pam Shinkins` pilgrimage into the past, Mike Powley`s summery summary, plus insights into local life by Derek Taylor and Anne Solamito, and another short story by Nicola Taylor.
A Peace of History
By Pam Shinkins
I have always been sensitive to portents and the gusty Wester Ross wind seemed to be urging me to reconsider the route I had planned to walk with my dogs that day
So, leaving Loch Gairloch behind me, I turned south on the B8056 towards Red Point. Dogs on leads, I walked briskly for half an hour or so until I came within sight of Shieldaig Lodge. Now I would have to say that it is exceedingly unlike me to ignore a hostelry while out walking - but inexplicably, ignore it I did as I crossed the road, heading up a rough track pausing only to check my compass for confirmation of who-knows-what. I slipped the dogs` leashes and together we began a gentle climb towards what I judged would be the general area of Loch Horrisdale.
An hour later I was huffing and puffing and after a bit of a scramble to the op of a crag, I peered over the edge and found I was gazing down on a most alarming sight. My dogs came bounding behind me and dropped to their haunches in a companionable manner, panting heavily from their own exertions and obviously eager to share in my find.
What I saw before me was some kind of wreckage which on closer inspection, through binoculars, turned out to be an airframe or at least parts of it. Letting myself gently down the easier reverse slope, I dropped out of the wind into a becalmed, sunny, natural basin, with clear water in a shallow lochan with unforgiving rocks all around. (I call my ankles to give expert witness.) People say that they can hear silence and at that moment I began to understand what they meant.
Sitting quietly for a while, with the dogs gently slopping around in the water, I savoured this moment of contrasting surprise and peace. Then my imagination kicked in as I mused that some tourist attractions are more thought-provoking than others. That could certainly be said of this place as I tried to make sense of what was all around me. I know that the Highlands are traditionally a place of extremes; of weather capable of providing all four seasons in a day; of mountains giving way to unexpected lush pasture; of streams becoming raging torrents within the hour; of rare wildlife which thrills and humbles. Above all, I know the Highlands to be a place of quick tragedy and lingering happiness.
As if to illustrate my wandering thoughts, I recalled the story I had read in a local guide book of how a USAAF Liberator was on its way back home to the USA at the end of the second world war, but clipping the summit of Slioch had crashed within sight of the open sea into the Fairy Lochs, where I now realised I was standing, its crew destined never to reach their homes.
It was still possible to discern the path of the fifty year old disaster, as the discarded metal pieces followed a line along the hillside looking for all the world as though some Giant had randomly scattered oversized silver confetti in this special place. The dogs, complementing my pensive mood, snoozed now by the water and I explored further. I came upon a memorial to the crew and passengers mounted on a rock. I saw they had been young people with hopes for the future, with families and friends waiting back home for them; their last look at life taken in the beautiful North West Highlands.
As my dogs and I turned for home I thought of you, Dear Reader. If you should visit this atmospheric place, either by accident like myself or by design, you can hardly fail to be affected by it. It is a place for thoughtfulness and thankfulness not to be missed, if you feel it at all possible, as you make your own steady climb and gentle pilgrimage into the past.
© Pam Shinkins 1999
You can read more from Pam on the writing archive page which also features `Requiem`, Shirley Powley`s poem about this tragedy. For more information about Loch Ewe`s role in World War II, visit our page on the Wartime Trail.
FIRST SUMMER IN GAIRLOCH
by Mike Powley, `Oakwood`, Gairloch
At Midsummer Midnight, barefoot on a balmy beach, it was light enough to read the small print on the bottle as we joined friends to toast the longest day.
This typified for us the summer of `99 - weeks of warm sun punctuated only occasionally by spells of more traditional west coast weather. Our memories will be of long mountain days in shorts and sun oil, kayaking across the bay to Badachro and its real ale temptations and even of swimming in the sea.
The wildflower kaleidoscope has gone full circle - primroses, thrift, thyme, orchids, bluebells, foxgloves, ragwort, scabeus and heather in a time-staggered rainbow. In our own garden things happened less naturally. There was much shifting of topsoil, boulders and aggregate followed by the planting of bulbs, cuttings and cast-off shrubs. Phase one of the three year bracken war is complete and garden flowers flourish in unplanned abundant splendour.
Our new livelihood of `doing` Bed & Breakfast is also flourishing. Guests from 15 countries have come and seldom left without giving us some fascinating insight into their lives. It`s been like doing a world without leaving home. Regrettably, many stay only one night. These we call Tarmac Tourists for whom miles seem more important than memories and schedules more pressing than scenery. The quiet roads are reward enough. Others have stayed to play golf, fish, climb mountains, watch seals, otters and gannets or listen to the fishwifely gossiping of eiders close inshore.
Only the sheep will be glad to see the end of summer. Then they will reclaim their undisputed right to that most des. res. - the strip of tarmac that connects us to the rest of the world.
LOCH EWE SKETCHES
In memory of Roddy, who is sadly no longer with us.
by Derek Taylor
For an area which relies upon tourism for much of its economic wellbeing, Wester Ross is particularly reticent about advertising its charms. Roddy was asked yesterday by an American couple to explain exactly where the Cove cave was, after they had spent a couple of fruitless hours searching for it from the cliff tops at the end of the loch. `Did you not see the sign?` he enquired, implying by tone of voice that short-sightedness must be endemic in the United States.
With gentle patience he went on to describe how, if they kept an eye out for the wee croft with the green caravans at the side which were sometimes let out to the tourist, they could park in the passing place at the end of the lane and the sign was to their right, nailed to one of the fence posts in the dip.
`You can`t miss it,` he added helpfully. `It`s the lid from a margarine tub. The yellow type. Just follow the track across the field and you`ll find where there used to be another sign. The track goes left and right at this point. The cave`s down there.` The Americans drove away, bemused, perhaps reflecting that this is not the way things are done back home.
Popular misconception has the native Highlander wearing a kilt, playing the bagpipes and surviving the harsh winters on a diet of porridge and herrings. No doubt this image serves the tourist circuit of Edinburgh, Loch Ness and Loch Lomond well but the reality of daily life in Wester Ross is very different.
Take the clothing of the working man: blue boiler suit, black wellies, yellow oilskins and flat cap or deerstalker. The crofter, the roadworker, the salmon farmer and the forester all sport this modern national dress.
The nearest set of pipes skirls at the overseas visitors from beneath the walls of Inverness Castle. Elsewhere, in hotel bar and village hall, the fiddle is supreme.
Porridge and herrings? You can get them if you really want to, but the local shop does a nice Cafe Renoir, there is a Balti Curry Takeaway at Gairloch and the Chippy Hut has just re-opened for the season in Poolewe.
`Aye, we`ve become very sophisticated up here recently,` agrees Roddy the crofter, removing his deerstalker to scratch his head.
© Derek Taylor 1998
Derek has written a brilliant new novel Scotch Mist which has been entered for the International E-Book Award Foundation, to be awarded at this year`s Frankfurt Book Fair.
BACK TO THE LAND
by Nicola Taylor
It was like coming home.
The white cottage nestled into the hill, its back turned against the prevailing westerlies, its face to the glory of the sunrise over the loch. And I felt I wanted to nestle there too.
While mother was organised and fussed over by the bustling neighbours, stopping her attempts to hand round sandwiches and cut cakes, I walked up the brae, the wind whipping my hair from my eyes, and thought about grandfather.
`Hair like bracken in autumn,` he`d said, smiling down at me. `Eyes the green of a rainwashed glen. Born to wear the plaid.`
Mother had snorted then. `Aye, she`s a throwback, right enough.`
`Like a weedy trout,` giggled little brother, casting imaginary flies in the living room.
`The croft`s for her when I go,` he`d said.
`Over my dead body,` spat mother. `I escaped for the sake of my children - they`ll not be dragged back to the bogs and the busybodies.`
`Over mine,` he`d corrected her gently.
That was years ago, on the one occasion he`d visited. He took me on his knee and told me about grandmother. `She had your hair, your eyes.` He told me how he cried when she died. `Of a broken heart,` he said. `My bonny Mary. She was never the same after your mother left.` `My bonny Mary,` he always called her, as tenderly at the end as when they`d first met.
`Don`t go filling the girl`s head with such melodramatic nonsense,` said mother. `It was pneumonia that killed her - no wonder either. She worked herself to death, tending sheep and cutting peats all her life in the damp and the cold.`
He returned to the croft soon after. `Can`t stand that smoke in my lungs,` he`d complained as he breathed in the city air. Him who`d smoked twenty a day for all those years.
`Send her up to visit me,` he`d implored mother as I waved goodbye.
`When can I go?` I asked.
`You wouldn`t like it,` was all she said as she hustled me indoors.
Now at last I was here. In time to pay my respects - too late to respect his wish. Now at last he was lying beside his bonny Mary once more. Home again. In the midst of life we are in death.
At last I was here. And everything mother had said was right. The wind blew strong and cold, the rain fell solidly, there was mist on the hill, nothing to see but green and grey, hills and sky and sea. But such greens, such greys they were - and then the clouds lifted. The sun beamed down like a nursery drawing, every ray distinct, and the shock of the change made me feel like a child again. It was like opening my eyes on the first day of the holidays, like the first sight of the sea from the car, the first breath of air when we ran down to the shore.
The warmth drew the coconut scent from the gorse, suddenly blooming into gold. I crushed bog myrtle between my fingers and breathed in the cinnamon air. A pair of wagtails swooped and soared playing catch amongst a patch of bog cotton, fleecy heads nodding as the wind dropped.
`In the midst of life we are...` I whispered to the sky, my hand resting gently on my belly. There was one last wish I could respect. `Aye, I`ll make the croft my home. For your sake, grandfather.` Under my hand, a nestling fluttered. `And for yours, my child.`
© Nicola Taylor 1999.
Writing tutor, Nicola Taylor has further stories of local life on the writing archive page and on her own web site.
by Anne Solamito
Five years of city life and I was desperate to get my hands in the soil again. Moving to Loch Ewe on the west coast of Scotland where the climate was mild if somewhat wet, I was totally unprepared for the horticultural challenges ahead.
Warnings of strong westerly winds had been brushed aside, and on arrival in February, I casually dismissed the knee-deep snow as a freak one-off event. March came and I was not too busy decorating and settling in to notice how the wind, not content with whipping daffodil flowers off their stalks, had whipped the bulbs out of their pots too. The winds, I was forced to admit, might be a problem.
Spring confirmed my worst fears. Leaves appearing on the potted shrubs I had brought with me were shrivelled up and torn to pieces in the strong gales. One memorable night, the car, which had stood obedient and stationary all day where I parked it, was pushed by the wind through the front gates and straight into the wall of the house.
On another occasion, while climbing out of the car with my hands full of messages, the wind tore the door from my grasp and slammed it back against the front right wing.
The wind, however, was not the only problem I would have to deal with. Those trees which had survived the annual storms were not only stooped and bowed, but bonsai-ed to perfection by the continual pruning of free range cattle. Looking through the kitchen window, it became quite normal to watch cows, bulls, sheep and rabbits wander at will along the roads, all, as it seemed, with their eye on the main chance.
Returning from shopping one day, I noticed that visitors had heedlessly left the gate open. A considerable number of cows had grasped an opportunity and were contentedly grazing on the lawn, leaving it so full of holes it resembled nothing so much as a golf course.
Later on, I observed that it didn`t really matter whether the gate was open or shut as one determined cow had high-jumped into the garden anyway. In desperation, I rushed to my neighbour and borrowed a number of wooden pallets. Armed with these, I was able to fortify my defences and offer a more serious challenge to the marauders.
Another morning, I awoke to find an enterprising black sheep had found the weakness in the fence and had squeezed through to be followed by all her mates. As bold as brass, they sat basking in the early morning sunshine, obviously content with their feast of vegetables and strawberry plants. They had polished off the grass too at least it would not need mowing that week. Not blessed with sheepdog skills, it was some time before I managed to herd them all out through the front gate.
By mid-summer, I was suffering from severe horticultural depression. Serious thoughts about packing up and shipping out crossed my mind. July came with warmer weather and these thoughts dispersed as I noticed nature`s amazing and speedy recovery. Wind-blasted perennials and animal-pruned shrubs defiantly straightened themselves out and blossomed again. Heartened by this show of resilience, I resolved to take up the horticultural challenge again.
Autumn came and it was time for serious decision making. Survival as a gardener, I realised, would depend on strategic planning. Most of the shrubs and roses had to be transplanted beyond the house in the lee of the wind. The first line of defence was to be a new barbed wire fence. If bovine curiosity breached this, they would be repelled by a second line of thorny sea buckthorn, holly, berberis and a few other prickly customers - a useful tip which I had picked up from a crime prevention leaflet entitled Home Grown Security. This leaflet, published by a splendidly practical constabulary south of the border, offers various green solutions for deterring intruders.
Working on the `better safe than sorry` principle, I opted for a third line, this time a wind barrier which would consist of evergreen griselinias, escallonias and olearias. No matter how strong the wind, the vision of sunning myself in privacy from both two and four legged passers-by did much to restore my spirits.
With plans firmly made, I settled down for my second winter intent on cultivating a little patience.
Anne Solamito has 2 other tales of her experiences living by Loch Ewe.
You can read them on the writing archive page.
A Highland Man In Minnesota
The following poem was sent us by Michael W. McDermott, a cyber-highlander in the US.
In honour of Alexander Macrae, Grandfather, born September 26th 1896, in Lochcarron, Ross-shire.
I stand like the beasts I love
gentle of nature,
quietly fighting the elements of the seasons.
I stand firm against winter storms,
winds blowing, cold breaking steel.
Standing true, I battle daily.
Not with sword or advance weapons,
But with water hose or wrench frozen in hand,
Repairing ancient machinery.
Like the beasts I love,
I wait ... for the sun to shine,
The grass to grow,
New life to be born.
I am proud at the end of the day
to be alive, to battle yet another day...
True to tradition,
a Highland man in Minnesota