Fall In the Highlands

A buzzard hung on a thermal over the bright canopy of birch and willow. Resting my axe, I recalled distant Pall Mall’s kaleidoscope of marble, silk and glass and was glad to live deep in the inhospitable promontories of Scotland.

This is an island in the sense that Mount Athos is an island: a community of a hundred at the end of a fragile line of communications, uncompelled by the outside world. We are not connected to Britain’s road network, power grid nor (for the most part), legal system.

Of course, not all which defies convention is Shangri La. Unless you are the type to wade into a hurtling mountain stream with a live chainsaw, you might be better off roughing it in the cities.

Only when the last tourists leave the pier in early September, and the Great Silence descends, can you discover whether you are a designated child of the mist.

You would have to walk for three days to come here by land. There is no path and the bothy floors are deep with the bones of rodents, wild goats and overscrupulous DHL couriers.

Once a week, my groceries arrive from the mainland on an antediluvian fishing boat which also brings post and yellowing newspapers. The price of cabbage and potatoes has risen a little (I discern the word ‘inflation’ through heavy LW static), but minced beef has stayed bang on since June this year. Maybe they’ve started to mix sawdust in.

Of course, one shouldn’t trust meat one hasn’t killed oneself.

Mackerel is a very underrated fish. If caught fresh, it can be eaten raw and is excellent in sushi dishes. But they are mostly gone by late summer. That’s when I turn to the hills for sustenance.

My friend and I went out to f*ck up a deer.

Finding that the herds had moved off his land, we turned our attention instead to his own sheep which, for want of a disciplined collie, have gone AWOL and interbred with unknown polycerates of the crags.

When that enterprise also proved futile, we surrendered ourselves to the village pub, where the de facto head stalker berated our generation for being unable to hit a barn door.

The pub holds a tautological record for being the remotest in ‘Mainland Britain’. The local beer, steeped with mica flecked burn water, savours of lyre song under the Aurora Borealis.

The head stalker’s father (also head stalker of eternal memory), was drafted from the Hebrides, captured at Dunkirk and spent five years a prisoner before returning home in 1945. To my knowledge, he never left the remote wilds of Scotland again.

I used to visit the old man’s house as a child. Titanic binoculars reposed under net curtains. Antlers reared over the bookshelves. Both he and his wife spoke to me English, but the radio murmured in Gaelic beside the peat stove. Ghabh Oisean còmhnuidh an so.

His story has bred me a grudging respect for elements of the Scottish independence movement. It is difficult to construct a case for UK patriotism when your main entanglements with the state were a call-up that resulted in half a decade down a Silesian mine and half a century of cosmopolitan encroachment upon the land you fought for. If I could do one thing, it would be to persuade them not to argue (as we did during the Brexit coup), from economic conjecture. Real nations have higher directives than official wealth indices. We are not American.

Once a year, the sheep which can be accounted for are gathered and sent to greener pastures (that’s not a euphemism). This is an operation of several stages. Armed with two telepathic dogs and a book of psalms, the local shepherd disappears for several days into an upland wilderness roughly the size of Kazakhstan. By and by, his flocks emerge from the clouds, winding down through the valleys like mighty glaciers to the ocean. Then, blowing vast horns at dusk, he summons the villagers to help him load the herds onto a landing craft dispatched from the nearest town on the mainland.

We set out to his farm in convoy, well before dawn, to prepare a rickety conduit of fencing from the prehistoric stone folds to the waterline. The gunmetal sky started to spit as the landing craft approached and, with a sigh of the horn, ploughed her heavy bows onto the shingle. All was in place. Local children shrieked with delight as a sluice was lifted and a shaggy white torrent thundered down the channel to the boat until we had her packed like the last chopper out of Saigon.

The engines roared. The ramp started to rise. Volunteers who had goaded the sheep onboard now scrambled back for the beach, fighting through the herd to hurl themselves from bow and gunwale. The shepherd’s daughter turned to me.

Och can you help me to sort the sheep on the way over?

90% of heroism being capitulation to fate, I let the moment pass that I could have reacted and, with a terrible screech of steel on shingle, we were afloat.

We toiled under the spray, wading through the broiling ocean of wool to erect iron barricades across the deck. I wisely decided to start by manoeuvring a little one without horns.

Och no, that’s Wee Snow! You can leave him!’

She was closer than she realised to discovering the limits of my psychological endurance. Here I was, bound for the mainland without my bank card, in the type of boat seen at the beginning of Saving Private Ryan, receiving a flurry of pings from HMRC as the first bar of reception appeared, and surrounded by animals who were starting to shit all over the place. And one of them – identical in form to about fifty others – was apparently called ‘Wee Snow.’

Finally we had them sorted: the tups from the yews from the lambs. I asked how many there were in total and was quoted a number in the region of two-hundred.

Normally there’d be more, but this year we lost a lot to the Eagles.’

The mainland town unfolded behind a tapering headland: a small transit hub straggling at the remotest end of the ‘Harry Potter’ steam railway, serving islands with grim utility and tourists with wry austerity. A drowsy hoot floated over the pugnacious forepeaks rafted in the stillness of the inner basin. The air sharpened with coal smoke. Our engines slackened to a low rumble as we rounded the mole. Several telephoto lenses peered down at our rustic company. An obstinate gull bobbed in the feather of our wake. With an ugly snarl of the stern thruster, we came starboard-to along the rebar bastions, laced the warps through the bullrings and cleated her off.

It was interesting to be back for the first time in five months.

I went to the Co-op, which felt like Fortnum and Masons of Mayfair. You could buy exotic and extravagant food like oven ready pizza. Grabbing a bottle of Malbec and some Doritos, we shared them out on the way back.

I arrived home in the early afternoon and stood in my kitchen, still slightly shaken by my encounter with an automated checkout machine and the sight of a touriste in a niqab. Enveloped by the ticking of the clock, I made myself a cup of tea.

In late October the lilac dawn broke over the first platinum beatitude upon the hilltops. Recalling the dashboard of distant Ferraris, I filled with gratitude for colleagues who plough the drifts of paperwork in the European office, allowing a slow-coach like me to WFH. My boss is a good man to allow me this life. A bad man, yes, but a good man.

Natural beauty thrives mostly on its own neglect, but the community have been very proactive in reforesting hills so shamefully stripped to feed Iron Age forges during one of Scotland’s early spells of independence. The head forester tells me that Wild Boar are now back in residence. This is excellent news. I hope in due course to present them with two breeding pairs of European Bison and a pack of wolves.

Fuel isn’t really a problem here, provided you are physically fit. Our electricity comes from a lofty hydroelectric dam which remains unaffected by global markets or events in the Ukraine: an insight which our local energy mogul rashly provided to the BBC. When the segment aired, mainlanders swamped the estate office with petitions to settle here, apparently under the impression that our lives are accompanied by a Ukulele soundtrack. The reality is a bit more ‘brass and timpani’: frequent blackouts, 3am dashes to generator sheds, swearing at Excalibur crank handles, great cascades of sparks from fuseboxes, firelit fireplaces, candlelit candles, and cold porridge by moonlight. I sometimes wonder if our houses are connected in one huge series circuit, a single short plunging us all into darkness.

Welding, seamanship, logging, animal husbandry, electrical and mechanical engineering, joinery, brewing, programming, building and felling, apiary, gardening and hunting: I don’t know anywhere where so many people work so constantly at the limits of human skill – yet virtually no one has a scrap of paper to certify them in what they do. The whole place is one huge ‘f*ck you’ to credentialism and managerialism.

Like the Cubans, we mend rather than replace our automobiles. The first car here was a 1939 Morris Ten, which is still in daily use.*

Christmas came; that time when the unsolicited provincial relative returns to town for the annual rematch of his uncalled for views. It is a journey of at least 48 hours (more if trade unions get involved).

I boarded the dawn boat. Roads wound between the snow-poles in the great glens, turning to rail, thence to rail-replacement service. Long after dark, survivors were disgorged into the bowels of Edinburgh. Smoke and steam rose in high salutation from the gables and castellations of Waverley.

Unfit as I was even for borstal, I reingratiated myself with the Balmoral Hotel. Questing through the lobby like a sullied instrument of archaic dentistry in the mouth of a Victorian tycoon, brass gleamed, enamel dazzled and all was thick with cut flowers, damask eiderdowns and starched linen. Distant dreams of childhood floated over the torpor of the traffic and the Christmas markets in Princes Street far below.

Then came the morning dash from tailor to barber to tram. The swearing at airline checkin staff and security as they sequestered a brace of geese here, a pocketed shotgun shell there; the dignity of man everywhere. The jewel liqueurs and frosted rieslings at the departure Wetherspoons. The boarding ultimatum piped over the Christmas muzak in the urinals. The roaring ascent and two hours’ doze, turbofans churning the dark stratosphere outside. The ember glow of cities, hoving into view under the windows. The thud, screech, and back-thrust roar. The muffled clang of the ladder. The tannoyed apologies at the baggage reclaim. The fretful parent waiting under epileptic festive lights. The COVID warnings and American coffee chains and the gonfalons of sexual sectarianism. The parking ticket machine. The radio news bulletins. The traffic. The Albanians. The unchaperoned women wandering around after closing time. I was casevaced through all of it like Wee Snow.

Of course, urbanity has its diminishing rewards. A few days later, crowned in paper glory under the mistletoe, I had the opportunity to poll an open minded undergraduette on some hot-button issue or another and watch, with a dissipated snigger, as the drawing room erupted into factional chaos.

*as a rare bat sanctuary.