A Journey into Scotland : Part 53
“While we sit bousing at the nappy,
And getting fou and unco happy”*
School started badly for me but wasn’t all unhappiness. I loved singing lessons and learning a clutch of Scottish folk tunes. I can still sing the first line of many before becoming stuck. One day the school was more bustleful than usual. Things were in preparation for something big. I had no idea. My family are not ardent royalists and a visit by the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh didn’t register on the family calendar. It certainly registered on the school’s. I seemed to be the only one of my fellows without a little union jack. I also seemed to be the only one who was surprised when lessons were abandoned for the day to allow us to line the streets of Thurso to pay our homage.
My brother was chosen to lead the crocodile of children. Proud as Punch and adopting the natural leadership qualities of a future Woolf or Churchill, he soon had the rest of the school following him along the main street and, thinking it would save everybody a good deal of time, over the rough ground, round the building site and was just leading his men into the ginnel that was our short-cut home when he was caught up by the first of the classroom teachers, lifting their skirts and running full pelt in a fair impression of Dorothy Hyman and Fanny Blankers-Koen. The crocodile was reversed and my bother found himself at the back as we took our places along the main road to watch the big black car go by. I was very proud to be his brother. He had been within an ace of us missing the royal procession and ending up with two hundred children on the grass in front of our house.
The union jacks were waved. The Thurso streets are not wide and we were right at the front as the procession went by. The smiling female face in the car was very close. We didn’t have a television so I didn’t recognise her. Not having a flag, I drew out a well used handkerchief, and waved that instead. A life-long attitude towards royalty was set in stone in that minute.
On returning to lessons we were led in procession up a back staircase, of the adjoining big school, to take it in turns to view the Royal Yacht Britannia at anchor in Thurso Bay. It was a pointless and cap-doffing gesture. The ship (I was always confused why such a big, sail-less vessel should be called a yacht) was visible from just about any vantage point in the town.
I rode my bicycle along the front trying to find where we must have stood to wave. The most likely place offered a far better view of the entire bay than the pokey window on the second floor of the school. It also showed me a wide stretch of green that already had two tents on it. It was a municipal camp site and it solved my accommodation problems. The tent was up, the tea was brewed and the Scotch pie I’d bought from Collett-MacPhearson’s was enjoyed with a tin of baked beans. The food tasted good, the view was incredible (Thurso has one of the best beaches in all of Scotland; and beyond this, rugged cliffs all the way to Dounreay in one direction and John O”Groats in the other…and that is to ignore the Orkneys sitting out there close enough to be a lure, far enough away to be semi-mythical) and, this being Caithness, the wind was blowing fit to freshen the weariest.
Showered and neat in a change of clothes I set out to explore the old town. My Thurso was the remembrances of a five year old. Not surprisingly they included the estate where we lived, the shop and the school. The town was more of a mystery. I remember being taken in a few times on a Saturday morning by my father and always ending in a wood panelled bar room that smelt badly of last night’s drink. I’d be given a glass of lemonade and allowed to sit rigid and bored as grown men discussed materials for casings and chambers in power stations while downing pints of beer. After a while, having nothing better to do, I’d start to read the front page of the newspaper which drew patronising comments from the drink affected men. “Look at the little chap reading The Times. He almost looks as though he understands it.” And I was confused. And wondered if the understanding I got from the words was some sort of second rate grasp of what the words really meant. Thank goodness for a patient mother and older brothers and sister who encouraged me with my reading. There seemed to be a conspiracy of other adults to put me off the trail.
After a while some well meaning chap with breath like a brewery would take it upon himself to entertain the glum faced child. This invariably meant some demonstration of scientific principles. “Now, would you like to see your lemonade bubble all by itself?” and not waiting for an answer would proceed to drop a teaspoon full of Demerara sugar from a sugar bowl into my drink. It bubbled and the great man would stare at me as though he were Pierre Curie. “Well what do you think of that?” he would ask expectingly. I’d offer up signs of amazed appreciation while thinking that the one compensation of this Saturday ritual had just been ruined. The pop now tasted horrible and was as flat as dishwater.
Thurso is a handsome town. Like New York or Paris it was all laid out to a master plan in the nineteenth century. The streets are narrow and the stone of the buildings shows different colours depending on the weather. In summer it can almost be honey like but under glowering skies it was grey and cold. It seemed self-contained to me. Small shops selling things they probably sold when I was last in town; wool and knitting needles, hardware, guns and cartridges and fishing rods. Up here if you ask someone if they are a sportsman they will presume that you mean hunting and fishing. To take the field means literally taking the field not running onto an acre of mown grass with a leather ball.
Bill Bryson writes about the weekly migration of women shoppers by train to Inverness to experience the delights of Boots and Marks and Spencer. For me there is everything I could need up here. Good architecture, big skies, and a hundred thousand acres of solitude to explore (just so long as you don’t get caught by the ghillies**, which I believe can be very painful!).
I felt proud of my association as I wandered along the early evening streets. With so much of Britain becoming homogenised, here was a place that was defiantly different. Here is a part of the world where independence is part of the DNA. Locals claim to be descended from vikings as much as from anyone coming from the south. It had been an important viking port for hundreds of years and its very name derives from their most famous god.
It is a town where powerful land meets powerful sea. The Romantic poets wandered the English lakes and made excursions to the Alps. They were never up here which is a pity. They would have loved it. We have George Mackay Brown and Peter Maxwell Davies showing us what Orcadian air does for the creative imagination. I’m in search of a Caithness poet who can catch the magnificence of this place. So far I’ve only found ones who use the words ‘bonnie’ and ‘lassie’ a bit too often.
That night I go to the Pentland Hotel and recognise the scene of my childhood torment. I fall into conversation with a nuclear engineer from Princess Risborough and an officer from the United States Navy. (There was a large American military base just outside the town.) They buy me a pint of McEwan’s 70 Shillings. Some fresh blood is readily welcomed into their bar-prop philosophical group. They are extremely intelligent and obviously well remunerated men with a lot to say about the world. They don’t, however, appear to be happy people. I enjoy two pints of beer with them but have the feeling I’m taking part in a discussion that has happened before and will happen again.
As I curl up in my tent two final memories sweep into my mind. One of a band of the Royal Marines marching up our street on an evening in the early sixties. The second of being awoken by my brother to look at the sky at midnight. The sun had gone down but the sky was still showing day. Not quite the land of the midnight sun but a land where the problem is still what to do once the sun has passed the yardarm.
- My big brother’s school: Miller Academy, Thurso
- My granddad on the beach at Thurso. The apparent snow is neither weather nor the age of the film. All pictures taken on my granddad’s camera revealed a snow storm.
- The Episcopalian Church, Thurso
- The Thurso River
- A Caithness landscape with three children and a deer
- The family Johnson somewhere in northern Scotland with new baby and Grandma Johnson (taken in yet another summer blizzard by granddad)
*from Tam o’ Shanter by Robert Burns
**Ghillie: a gamekeeper who may also act as an expert companion when stalking (deer) or catching salmon.