The Long Road to Kinlochleven
‘’That’s it Sarah. I have several takes. This one must be the best’’.
It is Nick calling me through the headphones from behind his mixing desk. I have just finished singing. I am at Watercolour Music and we have had a long and happy working day recording a new song. As I hang up the headphones and turn my head to the right I catch a glimpse of Ben Nevis on the other side of the water. I am still humming the song. It is called ‘’The Low Road to Kinlochleven’’. Last night we were performing at the Glencoe Autumn Festival and the musicians have stayed with me overnight. After a short journey on the Corran Ferry across Loch Linnhe here we are in the studio. I have asked everyone to play as if it was their own song, with their own style and be themselves. That’s what the lyrics are all about: being oneself. It is the end of the day and I am sitting next to a silent Nick. His eyes are turned towards his screen. He is arranging a temporary mix so that I can listen to today’s work. I look through the window at Inverscaddle Bay and suddenly reality hits me. I am packing up tomorrow to fly to Brighton and spend eight nights in a hospital. I will undergo what is known as sex reassignment surgery. People think I am ecstatic about it. I am not. This should have happened 47 years ago and is well overdue. I am already missing my Highlands.
My name is Sarah and I live in Kinlochleven a village at the end of a most spectacular glen. Two roads lead to Kinlochleven. One on the South side of Loch Leven offers spectacular views above the water and the Mamore mountains. It is known as the High Road. The other on the North side along the shore is called the Low Road. Sometimes I say that all my life has been about travelling on that beautiful but less visible Low Road while the world was looking for me on the High Road where I was not. I was born 47 years ago with a different name, a boy’s name. As far back as I can remember I knew that the identity assigned to me was wrong. It was an unwanted life with an unwanted script and an impossible journey. I am proud today that I have made the journey possible.
I first came to this recording studio two years ago still carrying the burden of my old name. I presented myself to Nick Turner and Mary Ann Kennedy, music directors and owners of the place using that fake persona. I was here to record a new album. When I left after the sessions I did not know when or if I would be back to finish the project. The title was ‘’In Search of the Celtic Twilight’’. Some searching through a mountain of confusion was definitely needed in my life. I had just been referred to a gender clinic in Exeter. A long and mysterious journey was about to begin. It was a secret I was keeping to myself. I left unfinished tracks behind in the recording studio asking Nick to keep them safe. A few months later a diagnosis of severe gender dysphoria and transsexualism was issued by the doctor. What they call ‘’the transition’’ was about to begin. I stopped contacting Nick and Mary Ann not knowing what to say to them. I had to face a new reality. I was losing my family. It was too much for them so the conclusion was that I should leave our home if the transition was going ahead. One morning we had our last breakfast together. It was agreed that I was vacating the house before 3pm. As long as there was someone in the house no sign of my ‘’chosen’’ gender should be visible. I saw my children leave for school for the last time. One of them left me a little bottle of my favourite whisky and a good luck card. More than two years have passed now. I still have not seen her since. I have never felt any resentment towards her. She has not been prepared for this journey and some adults have shown her that rejecting me is an acceptable option. The ignorance of the adults is what infuriates me, not her confusion. I left in the afternoon to a little holiday cottage in North Devon owned by Rebekah one of my former students who had heard about my homelessness and offered it as a temporary shelter. I was still hoping that my family would have a change of heart and I would see them again soon. That did not happen. I had become unwanted, had to be invisible in the community and spare the family from public embarrassment. It did not take long for me to understand that I had to relocate and start an entirely new life somewhere where I would not have to hide and where people would call me by my name.
Twenty five years ago I first moved to the Scottish Highlands after leaving the cosy prison inside Mum and Dad’s house. That Highland dream only lasted a year. The day when I left Scotland I remember saying to myself as I was strolling along the bank of the river in Inverness that something was not quite completed. I would be back one day if something terrible happened to me. The Highlands would look after me. For years I did not miss an excuse to be back. Excuses included skiing, hill walking and more recently music. This time there was something quite special: At Watercolour Music I had left a big part of myself. I finally wrote to Nick and Mary Ann after months of silence. Their reply through an email was prompt and clear:
What a brave message to send folks and we take this as a mark of trust which we truly appreciate. Please know that we are here for you whenever you are ready to begin the next stage of the album, and that – much more importantly – Watercolour is here for you at all times as a place that is accepting and welcoming in every stage of your new life.
Our doors are always open –
MA and Nick xx ‘’
The last two words in Gaelic added something even more touching. I know that for a Gaelic speaker like Mary Ann they are words that come from the heart not from the head. I remember reading the message a dozen times with a few tiny tears of silent joy and relief rolling down my cheek.
It was time to make the big decision. The doctor in Exeter had warned me against moving to Scotland because a transfer from NHS England to NHS Scotland could be complicated and disrupt my treatment. But he soon understood that this transition was far more than just about gender: The Highlands had shaped my identity and only THEY could distract me from the huge pain of losing my family and my home in the West Country. My therapist at the clinic had also spotted how music and song writing were an essential part of me. Shortly before Christmas I found an advert. There was a house available for renting in the new year in the village of Kinlochleven near Glencoe. So I spent the festive season in various places, sometimes sleeping at friends’ on a sofa sometimes back at the cottage when it was available. One morning I decided that there was no reason left for me to stay. Scotland was waiting for me. Rebekah had got up and walked out in the cold to see me off. She gave me a big hug and just said: don’t turn right it is your old life in Cornwall. Turn left and keep driving. A new life is waiting for you in the Highlands. Drive safely. ‘’ It was very hard to leave that very special woman who had given me a roof at probably the worst and most painful time of my life.
So I drove and drove. I can vaguely remember my last night in England in a Cumbrian guesthouse. The following day I crossed the border and after another few hours behind the wheel old familiar places triggered a feeling of home coming: Tyndrum, Bridge of Orchie, Loch Tulla, Ranoch Moor, Buachaille Etive Mor, Aonach Eagach Ridge, Glencoe and then Loch Leven. The magic had not been altered the slightest. Every river and peak, was still there waiting for me. I arrived in Kinlochleven and slept at the MacDonald Hotel near the loch. My house was not ready yet. I spent time in temporary accommodation again and then moved to Glasgow for nearly three weeks to work as a volunteer for Celtic Connections the winter music festival. The work consisted in helping artists behind the stage. One evening an Irish musician invited by Arthur Johnstone for a special concert was waiting in a room. He asked me if I played music. When I told him I was a guitarist he passed me his guitar and asked me to play. He called some friends to come and listen. I was petrified when they asked me to sing. I had never sung as Sarah! What about my voice? Fortunately the stage manager appeared and called the owner of the guitar back to the stage. He disappeared and I went back to making coffee and tea . ‘That’s all I felt I was good for’’.
The first evening after the opening concert at the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall a huge crowd of artists who had performed gathered behind the stage for a drink. I knew so many from seeing them on TV. It felt as if they knew me and would call me by my ‘’old ‘’ name. I was petrified when one of them walked straight to me. I thought he was going to say: ‘’I know who you are, I know what you have done. ‘’ Sadly this is how you feel at the beginning of a gender transition. You think people all around can read you, spot flaws off you. The man simply shook hands with me and introduced himself as James. He was drummer James MacKintosh. He asked me who I was and where I lived. I had no idea what to say. I was still homeless so I replied without thinking: ‘’Kinlochleven’’. He was from Fort William. So we talked about Lochaber and the Corran Ferry which his grand-father used to run in the 1930’s. Another evening I was walking around inside the theatre. I was obsessed and could hear voices in my head calling me by my ‘’old’’ name. Suddenly someone behind me cheerfully and loudly shouted: ‘’SARAH!’’. It was Mary Ann Kennedy walking around with a BBC team interviewing artists. She walked straight to me, gave me a big hug and introduced me to a couple of friends. I cannot recall what she said. It does not matter. Her message was loud and clear. I was Sarah. Mary Ann once again had pulled me out of a moment of insanity and torment.
By early February I was back in the Highlands but my house was not ready. I still spent time in temporary accommodation. That feeling of homelessness became unbearable until the morning I received a phone call. The house was ready. So I left Fort William. At North Ballachulish I turned left and drove the Low Road to Kinlochleven. It was a beautiful winter day in the glen of Loch Leven. There was snow from the top of the peaks to the shore. I passed the place where once the Ballachulish figure, a 2,500 year old wooden statue representing a Goddess was found buried in the peat near the loch not far from the Isles of Glencoe. Behind me was Beinn a’Bheithir the mountain of the Thunderbolt Indeed I was leaving thunder or perhaps my own anger behind me. A few goldeneyes were drifting on the water. Through the snow I could see water falling down the mountains. At the end of the road there was Kinlochleven and an empty house. Sarah had a home now.
That’s nearly two years ago now and I know I will never forget that day. Since then I have timidly started playing music again. I have finished the album ‘’In Search of the Celtic Twilight’’. Entering the studio as Sarah was emotionally draining. I remember falling asleep between takes. Once Nick who normally never makes reference to my story briefly said: ‘’ Remember Sarah. Music has no gender.’’ I launched the album at a poetry festival in Glasgow. The aim was not to make money but just reassure myself that I could still perform. A week before the launch I had my first practice with the musicians in a little room at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. It was a gruelling practice. Several times I was unable to finish the songs and was out of breath. I had to sit many times. Sally the fiddler looked after me and bought me a coffee. On the way back home I stopped by Loch Lomond and cried. I wondered how I would ever stand in front of an audience again and sing. That’s exactly what I did two weeks later as Sarah at the Tron Theatre. I played, sang, told the audience stories and jokes. They laughed and I laughed . The mission had been accomplished. I had convinced myself that Sarah could play music.
Winter came with emotional exhaustion but stronger determination. I used the cold and dark months to rest at home. I had to accept that I was just like a majority of people going through gender reassignment. Depression is a huge part of the journey. Suicidal thoughts are very common in the transgender population. I had to stop lying to myself and think that everything would be OK. I was no exception. On 16 December 2015 my car broke down near Crianlarich as I was driving to Dundee to a medical appointment linked with the gender reassignment process. I had to phone and cancel. An excrutiating feeling that the transition would never succeed filled my head. The car was fixed and all I could do now was drive back to Kinlochleven. Back home I shut all the curtains and stayed in the dark for 24 hours. I switched on my computer and found websites listing the best and easiest ways of ending one’s life. I am still shocked today that such materials are so easily available. Some options felt more attractive than others. I fell asleep on the sofa. I woke up 12 hours later in the dark in a cold lounge still wearing my coat. It was 5 O’ clock in the morning. I was scared by what I had done and considered. One thought convinced me that it was worth continuing to live. If I died now family members who still misgendered me may get my body back and bury me under my old name. That transition had to be fully completed for that not to happen. Little by little I found reasons to continue the journey. A few days following that horrible moment, I walked out and saw the mountains above Kinlochleven full of beautiful burns. I looked at Loch Leven and thought about the reason why I had come and lived here in the first place. The same evening I walked to the MacDonald Hotel with a pen and my notebook. It was one of those quiet winter evenings in the room they call the Bothy Bar. A bothy was just what I needed after the tumultuous storms I had travelled through. I sat and remembered that winter day I drove the Low Road to my house. I pulled the pen out of my bag and wrote the first lines of the song: The Low Road to KInlochleven.
‘’ Are you ready to listen Sarah? ‘’ Nick is ready. In the space of a quiet few minutes he has put together a temporary mix so that I can hear the track for the first time. During that short time I have been somewhere else travelling through two years of torment. I pause and with a smile answer. ‘’Yes I am ready. Play the track’’.
White blankets slope down to the shore.
It’s morning, water glitters through the trees.
Winter will stay whitening the day.
From the isles to the ridge of Binnein Mòr.
Darkness now lifting, goldeneyes drifting,
Above the narrows thunder’s rumbled through the night
Water is falling, mountains are calling.
It’s the low road to Kinlochleven.
I‘ll find a house with empty rooms.
Light a fire and warm its heart out of the gloom.
Now I’m alive and I will drive,
Drive the low road to Kinlochleven.
Songs will now no longer feel the same,
No more room for torment fear and shame.
From Blackwater to the bridge they all call me by my name.
There was a goddess under my feet.
They stole her wooden body from the peat .
I‘ll carve her name on every tree.
On the low road to Kinlochleven
Abide with me, journey with me.
Let the goddess fill the glen with mystery.
We’ll write the story of life and glory
On the low road to Kinlochleven.
Indeed we will write the story of life and glory. When I have recovered I will start writing new songs for an album about the beautiful glen of Loch Leven and its people who have welcomed me without asking questions. It will be called ‘’It Happened by Loch Leven. ‘’
To an Isle in the Water:
This is an extract from I Am, a new book of stories from transgender and non-binary people around the world, created by the Mental Health Foundation and the National Theatre of Scotland, with support from Freight Design. The book can be purchased online from the National Theatre of Scotland’s website.
Photo Credit: Pete Dibdin