I am writing to apologise for making you cry, twice, whilst you were on stage at the Arts club and we had only just met.
To my considerable surprise I am now sixty four, and whilst I have often made women cry, never twice within five minutes of our first meeting.
You asked me to write. I shall try not to make it a hat trick.
As you may recall the occasion was during the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and I had been stalking various artists in the hope of finding someone to write a review about for an Arts Magazine that nobody has ever heard of. Frankly when I was told that the poetry you were going to read was themed around your inability to move on from the experience of hearing that your drunken Father had died in a car crash whilst swerving his car away from a deer my heart sank.
However it was work so I prepared to witness what I feared would be more self serving pusillanimous pish followed by my usual crass technique of escape; suddenly staring with unconvincing amazement at my watch and then making a clumsy run for the door. I’m not really very good with poets. Usually cant understand what they are on about.
But you were amazing. It’s little wonder you are so well regarded in your field. Toronto University is lucky to have you. As is your partner.
I was intrigued by the Gaelic nature of your work, the constant reference to the great cycles of nature and the inconsequential nature of our journey through life , your fascination with Tilda Swinton’s request to have her corpse staked out on a Hebridean beach to be pecked to bits by the birds, the lilting cadences, economy of words, the measured dignity. All so characteristically gaelic.
It came as little surprise when you told me after the show that your family had hailed from Mull.
Then you gave me the usual nonsense about how they used to live in a castle. Macgregors? Aye right. Who cares.
That’s when I started to make you cry. To your credit. And my disgrace.
I can’t remember what the tear triggers were. Something perhaps about the fact that when your family might well have been cleared in the middle of the nineteenth century there were many thousands of gaelic speakers on Mull and of how due to the clearances, the wars and the misuse of the land that figure had now been reduced to somewhere around a hundred and that the culture that had sired you and yours had now been crushed and disposed of, and the houses that were once their homes now owned by absentee landlords who were jokingly termed Viagras as they didn’t get up nearly as much as they wanted to.
And then, if I remember rightly, the second time I made you cry was when I told you of how when the gaelic archivist John Lorne Campbell’s wife, Margaret Fey Shaw had reached her hundredth birthday someone had rowed over to Canna from the Uists with a present of some new potatoes that had been grown in the very sands where she wanted to be buried. So that she wouldn’t be frightened.
Yes, I remember, that’s when you cried again. And so did I. Which wasn’t very professional. Of either of us. Though I’m glad we did.
Anyhow after you had returned from re-plastering your make-up you asked how to get to Mull and I explained that on the twelfth of September, the start of the stag shooting season, I was due to be crewing a yacht down past Mull from Fort William and could drop you off. And you looked a little nervous. Can’t blame you really. I am quite old, you are quite young and after that initial five minutes my record in bringing joy into our fledgling relationship was weak to say the least.
You said you would be back teaching in Toronto by then but asked me to email you with how I got on with my boating trip. I think you were trying to get rid of me. Extraordinary.
Anyway I’m back now back from my “ Boating trip” and I am glad you didn’t come. I nearly cried myself through fear and terror. God knows how you would have coped.
I think it all started with fear of death. Being young you wont have come across the persistent ghost of mortality yet. After you hit sixty, or have your first heart attack, or particularly like me both, he nudges you awake in the morning and is particularly with you before you sleep, or when you start to feel a little hot and breathless in big seas on small boats.
He was sitting on my shoulder when I looked at the forecast on September 12th just before we set off in the yacht trip to Mull.
A force nine from the south, bang on the nose. We were sitting in the bottom lock of the Caledonian canal in a thirty eight foot sloop that was perfect in every detail and had sailed through hurricanes.
Now normally the skipper and I would have gone to the pub, as we have done so often in the forty odd years we have sailed together, but over a somewhat gloomy breakfast in the Fort William sea lock he explained that the wind was dropping and there wasn’t any rocks to hit between there and the Corran Narrows, the boat was sound and we both had seen worse. My entreaties about the orphaned children of the lifeboatmen that might drown coming to rescue us, not to mention the humiliation for our families if our stupidity was ever mentioned in the Oban Times fell on deaf ears and we were released from the placid sea lock into the mahem of Loch Lhine in a manner that made me realise what it must have been like to be a greyhound racing out of a trap on a particularly wet evening at powderhall. During an earthquake.
You should understand that I am not very good at sailing. Oh I like being at sea but I am too clumsy and fine boned for adventuring and only have a tiny concentration span, so I am usually only taken because I can cook.
Looking back on a myriad of setting off into the teeth of gales my memories always have the background music of that alarming cacophony that always come from below as, no matter how comprehensively you have stowed them every pot and pan, every egg and packet of cornflakes leap terrified from their cupboards and send a clattering message through the deck that going seaward is perhaps not such a good idea.
It’s not as if the Captain and I don’t have a full understanding of the ghastliness of drowning at sea. Forty odd years ago the Captain served on the Fittleton when she capsized with a loss of twelve lives and around that time I did a fortnight on the Marquesa before she too capsized with a loss of seventeen. We have both known good men who have drowned. In truth our trip on the twelfth wasn’t really too risky, our boat was pretty bombproof, the course to run clean as a whistle , the wind dropping, but that didn’t stop our memories of dead men that had mattered to us.
It’s strange approaching Mull when your soul has been sand-papered by a few hours of head butting a gale and your mind has been dwelling on good friends lost and your own limited time on earth.
In some ways being made to feel frightened and lost is the right way to approach Mull, that place of tears.
During the nineteen fourteen war my father was an adjutant in the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders and spent many an evening writing letters of condolences to the Mull families of children who had died following his orders. He had known many of the families, many of the Mull kids killed , his own Father had been a recruiting officer, sending men over to France for his teenage son to dispose of as he made out the lists of who would go over the top and who would stay in the warm.
When the war finished Dad spent a summer wandering the island visiting their homes to help in their crofts. He was twenty two. He said the days were usually fine. It was the nights that were awful, usually lying on straw in barns waiting for the dawn. No candles were allowed in those straw filled barns as he lay in the inky darkness fighting to come to terms with what he had done.
This last summer I have spent many days walking to the places he would have walked to. Visiting some of those homes. It’s been a somewhat depressing experience. For a start there are few records of those who have died. Oh the war memorials on Mull list them in their hundreds. Hundreds? Yes hundreds. But once you start tracing the more intricate records you find that in the main it was only the officers whose deaths were recorded in any detail.
The men who died are often recorded only in family legends.
To find the details of the Jocks who died you have to knock on doors and ask, but it’s mostly tourists who answer and the land lies ragged.
For me the most harrowing part of my researches has been discovering that there are a number of records of some officers, perhaps not Argylls, being detailed to walk behind the men as they marched forward into a rain sewn with hot bullets and shooting their own men if they ran away. I could scarcely believe it when I first heard of this. And then I found three separate stories. From separate sources. It’s little wonder my Father found sleep difficult in those hay barns. I wonder what he saw in his four years at war? I think it broke him, or perhaps made him.
Sometime in the early evening we passed a bay on Mull called Loch Bhuie. I visited there in in the Spring. There’s a house there that my Father once took me to. Lived in by a family called Gorrie. Three sons, all killed. During the war one of the locals took a chisel, waded into the sea and carved the word Gorrie into a rock near their house. I’m told it’s gone now. Maybe that was the point. All things pass, and they did honour to the line in their manner of passing.
I found this story about the Gorries when I was on Mull. Evidently their house was so small that there was no room for all the beds of the children so the bedroom door couldn’t even be opened and they had to climb in and out through the window.
I went to that window. You could still imagine the laughter.
Three dead. Pity really.
As night fell on the yacht I looked along the Ross of Mull and spied at the headlands that marked other townships similarly castrated of their young men. Carsaig, Uisken, Erraid. Dad once told me he had visited t all those villages and cut the peats their sons would have cut and sold any of their boats that needed selling. He said he had often thought about the lives they should have lived, of how we sleep a long time and of how those boys would sleep too long and for little reason.
Night fell as we were off Oban, Crinan our final destination. We were eating mostly oranges. They work when your face is constantly being splashed with sea salt that the warm wind soon crusts on your lips. It is recorded that when Nelson was in the battle of Trafalgar his secretary, who was standing beside him, was cut in half by a cannon and the Admiral was splashed in the face with his friend’s blood. They gave him an orange to suck to take away the taste. When I am at sea I sometimes think about the orange that Nelson ate, only hours before he too was shot through the spine and died drowning in his own blood.
What a busy day he must have had, the volume turned up on his life.
By two in the morning we were both very tired and talking gibberish.
We have been to sea so often that we ran out of small talk sometime in the nineteen eighties and now have to trawl new grounds of imagination to find something, anything, to say to each other.
Around two in the morning the Captain reported that he had heard that a survey had been made of people’s ability to have imagination and the comparative question put by the researcher was what was the most interesting thing you could do with a key. The best answer was that a key could be used to remove bus tickets from badgers ears. We laughed and had another orange. Dear God we were cold.
We got to Crinan at three thirty in the morning and fell asleep without removing our oilskins.
I hope you go to Mull Catherine, and I hope you go in a storm.
I hope you resist going into the tourist shops but instead walk amongst the remnants of the villages that once housed your people.
I hope you find a hay barn and lie down and cry there. It might break you, and it might make you.
It’s good for the soul, good for the perspective, good for the imagination, good for the anger. It’s like sucking an orange when our face is crusted with salt, or blood, it turns up the volume on your life, makes you taste reality.
There is much to be done in this war ridden world of ours and we need good poets to explain what we are on about.
And we sleep a long time.