Friday, January 8, 2010

In Memoriam II

These too have passed .......

Arthur Bolster and Ian Macdonald - the "Old Boys" - had known each other since they were in school together and were still fast friends. Ian and his wife Joy had the cottage next door and helped us settle in and learn the practicalities of village life. Arthur and Evelyn lived further down the road in a lovely house by the sea. The six of us shared dinners by the fireside and evenings of happy conversation ranging from war reminiscences to politics and philosophy. They are warm memories now.

Aggie Ross - irrepressible and bubbly with her red hair and short skirts and warm hospitality. She was a national treasure for her work with the preservation of the Gaelic language and traditions. We would go over for tea and pancakes and she would patiently teach Jack to sing a few songs in Gaelic such as John Alec's favorite "Fear A Bhata" - which Jack learned to sing without his "dreadful American accent".

Sally Drake - our lovely dark-eyed neighbor, mother of our little kitchen visitor, owner of the cat-who-shall-remain-nameless, and later Coigach's district nurse. She was charming and funny, and was taken from us way, way, way too soon. We are so lucky to have known her and had her next door for the years we lived in the village.

Charmian Longstaff - laird of the Badentarbet Estate, artist, mountain climber, explorer and fisherwoman. We'd meet her striding along by the lochs in her fore-and-aft hat and tweeds or at the Anglican church services, which she hosted at the lodge. We enjoyed her company and admired her paintings and spent some fascinating evenings listening to her stories about the London Blitz ("I never felt so alive") and her explorations with her husband Tom in Nepal. She was a rare character indeed.

Stookie was young when we lived in the village - a somewhat troubled but very likeable lad. We spent many sunny days shearing sheep or sharing a dram at the Fuaran. We were very sad to hear that he had died so young after finally getting his life in order. May he rest in peace.

Ian Roll - fisherman, shepherd, tour guide and captain of the Hectoria, his wooden fishing /cum tour boat. His speech was slow and measured and he always had a hand-rolled cigarette dangling from his lips. He had a droll sense of humor but you'd have to listen carefully or you'd miss it.

Ian's wife Hectoria was post mistress and always had a cheery greeting and time for a natter. She knew us well enough to forward a call for Jack, which came in from Ullapool to the Post Office one Saturday afternoon, from an American friend visiting London to Jack's usual Saturday location in the Fuaran pub.

Their son still takes tourists out in the newer boat Hectoria to enjoy the view and wildlife among the Summer Isles - but I would miss Ian's slow drawl and the old wooden boat.

The first time I met Donnie Post (or Roll) he was delivering the mail to Castlehill and I thought him a most handsome chap! He also made a truly ugly stepsister in the village Pantomime during our first Christmas in Coigach.

His wife Hilary was Joan's niece. She sent us a lovely letter when Joan died telling us of Joan's last days. You can read it in the book if you like.

Kenny Campbell - beloved son of Anne Irish and Ian Campbell was just a young lad when we knew him in Achiltibuie. He had moved out of the village after completing his schooling to make his way in the world, and he was taken way too young - the victim of a devestating accident. Our hearts go out to his grieving parents and sisters.

There were others in that graveyard that we knew during our years in Coigach - some young, some who were old when we lived there. All of them were part of a community that was our world during what were the best years of our lives. They made that part of our journey rich with their love and warmth and friendship - and we will always be grateful for the privilege of having known them and for having been welcome in their world for those wonderful years.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

In Memoriam I

The hardest thing about our trip back to Coigach in the spring was going to the cemetery at Badenscallie and realizing how many of our dear friends were sleeping there. We had gotten the letters over the years tolling the loss of each one - but somehow it was seeing the stones and the names of so many of the people we knew and loved all there together that made it so terribly sad. A generation has passed and we realize how very lucky we are to have been there at that pivotal time. What a privilege it is to have known these wonderful people and count them as our friends.

Those of you who have read the book will recognize many of these people and perhaps chuckle when remembering a story or two where they played a part. I will start with Wilf Bell, owner of the flock of pet sheep (Fred of the Roman nose and dear Frieda the love-starved); owner of Seaview Cottage where we stayed on our first visit to Coigach and inspiration for our eventual move to Castlehill. Wilf and his wife, Wendy, helped us settle in during our first months in the village, shared our holidays, gave us time, tools and friendship all along the way. We shared many a laugh and many cups of tea and we all had a special love for Joan and Murdo. I could never thank them enough for their help and encouragement.

Murdo and Joan - our dearly beloved surrogate parents and owners of Castlehill. Their passing hit us particularly hard and we miss them and think of them often. Joan was a mother hen, making sure we were fed and happy and making us endless cups of tea and goodies, and making sure we behaved ourselves. Old Murdo - one of the Three Worthies - spent Saturday afternoons at the pub with Jack and a few good old friends swapping tales and doing justice to a pint and a dram or two - then back to a warm fire for tea and village gossip. May they rest in peace.

Alastair West - shepherd, crofter, and patient mentor to a neophyte shearer. He and Margaret shared their home, their work, their fireside, their family and their wisdom with two American incomers. The second of the Three Worthies, Alastair made us feel loved and welcome and gave Jack the chance to learn a new skill without making him feel like the fifth wheel on a wagon. And he was a mean hand with a pool cue. Alastair's children now have their houses clustered around the old homestead next to Achnahaird beach. They can look out their windows and see the ancestral view across the bay of the strange and beautiful mountains of Coigach. Long may they prosper.

The third of the Three Worthies, John Alec Campbell - crofter, shepherd, friend and father of Iain Campbell. A crusty old man and singer of gaelic songs, he had his home in a crofthouse down at the end of the road at Cul na Craig, and even in his eighties he was walking the hills after the sheep and keeping his hand at the shearing.

The three of them are together again now - hopefully still sharing the old stories and maybe a ghostly dram or two.

Donnie Darling - the self professed "Last of the local crofters in Polbain". I will always picture him standing in the pub, draped over the bar singing "North to Alaska" (at least the few lines he could remember). He and Jack shared many a sheepy adventure spending untold hours together at the shearing and dipping. He was irascible and funny, the subject of many good stories - and we remember him with great fondness.

Jim Muir - fisherman, story teller and repository of village memories. Many an afternoon was whiled away in the Muir kitchen or in Jim's shed while he told us delightful tales of past times and characters; and somehow what started out as a short walk to the store would stretch out into hours that passed too quickly, lost in the spell of his stories. He is badly missed by everyone who knew him.

To be continued..........

Monday, July 13, 2009

Some things are gone ......

Sometimes it's hard to see things as they are now - and so it is with the Achnahaird fank. So many memories cling to it - so many good days spent in the warm summer sun working with good friends at the clipping. Warm fleeces leaving our hands soft from the lanolin, sheepy voices from the pens, dogs loafing around in the shade after the gathering, tea and sandwiches - and a dram or two to refresh us during intervals in the hard work.

Now only the memories and ghosts remain. The fank stands empty, the reeds have grown in to cover the green, and erosion has taken its toll. It was hard for Jack to see it this way - remembering old Alisdair patiently tutoring him in the art of the hand shears - remembering all the jokes and laughter and hard work. Those were the special times - Jack's favorites of all our many happy days in Coigach.

The Achnahaird beach below the fank is still beautiful with its view of sea and mountains. But now there is no campground there, so no one would even notice the burial of a certain rather ripe sheep in those sandy dunes (story in the book). There is hope for a new place to be chosen for a new camp site - but that hasn't happened yet this year and the locals are feeling the economic impact of the loss.

The huge rusty floats and large anchors still lie on Badentarbet beach. But the salmon nets that used to dry there in the sun are gone. The boats the village lads used to net the wild salmon that ran along the coast are no longer there and only old unused boats still lie inverted and rotting along the shore. The only salmon taken now are from the farm pens in the Tanera harbor.

Glad we were there when .......

Friday, July 10, 2009

Coigach as it was - and is

When we lived in Coigach 25 years ago it was a different place. The mountains and islands remain unchanged, but the villages along the shore have had facelifts and now are all improved and well kept. B&B signs abound, gardens grace the front yards where green trees and bushes provide shelter from the wild sea wind, and houses that were once in ruin have been restored. The old wooden village hall is now a beautiful new facility with a proper kitchen, a large vaulted space for dances and other activities, rooms for meetings and a well-tended garden.

The Fuaran pub still sports its two palm trees - but is now gentrified and upgraded with a full menu of excellently prepared foods. The upstairs room is nicely furnished with booths and tables and the walls are tastefully decorated with prints and paintings. When we lived there, there was a limited menu of soup and sandwiches and it was all very casual. Now you have to make reservations for dinner. The dinner we had there was wonderful - especially the large scallops, succulent and tender and perfectly sauced.

The pool table now resides in the lower bar, competing with the dart board for limited space. The bar is still there but all the kitchy stuff - foreign bills & pennants etc. that used to cover the walls behind it are gone. It's nice - but sterile. The outside of the building has been completely redone and there is a very nice patio out in front for eating outside with a wonderful view of the sea. The pub is full of tourists because, other than the expensive hotel dining room, there is as of yet no cafe suitable for family dining.

The hotel in Achiltibuie is still operating - still expensive but offering the haute cuisine that has given it an international reputation since before we lived in the village. The bar is pretty much the same, but the patio where mothers and kiddies used to meet for a pint and a natter on Sunday afternoons has been enclosed with glass. This gives comfortable dining sheltered from the wind and with great sea views all around - but it's not got the same feeling. We indulged ourselves with a lunch of delicious dressed crab (large crabs simply called "edible crabs"). I have visions of cooking these beasties as my first experience with dealing with live seafood in Castlehill. They were often on our menu, both hot and cold and always yummy.

Sheep are still a common hazard on the roads and new lambs skipped in the crofts and dotted the hillsides. Jack went out with Iain a few times to check the field enclosures for possible lambing problems and was lucky to see the very newest of arrivals. But there are new animals to be found now - deer grazed below us in the croft below Tigh-Abbie and highland cattle turned their backs to the wind in a field along the road. There were shetland ponies and more cattle - it was fun to see the new additions.

The town of Ullapool has also changed - more and larger pubs and restaurants line the harbor and parking lots accomodate large touring busses. We were there on a holiday weekend and couldn't find a place to park anywhere near the harbor. The town was packed with tourists and there are more boats offering sightseeing and bird/seal/dolphin watching cruises. There was a large cruise boat anchored off the pier offloading tourists into rubber dinghies to deliver them to town. But the town still has the same white buildings along the waterfront and is a lovely town in a spectacular setting. It's still a thrill to come down the hill through the brilliant displays of rhododendrons lining the road approaching Loch Broom, and to see the white curve of the town laid out along the sheltered harbor full of bright fishing boats. It's a view I love.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Riding the Wee Mad Road

For the first 6 days of our trip we'd had typical highland weather - windy, cold and intermittent rain - so on the first sunny morning we decided to drive the length of the Wee Mad Road - turning off the main highway to the town of Drumbeg and then along the coast through Lochinver and down to Achiltibuie. The road to Drumbeg is wild and beautiful and the Wee Mad Road is as we remember it -
except that the sign is gone and if you didn't know where it was you could easily miss it.
The day was perfect - cool with sun and dramatic clouds casting ever-changing shadows over the mountains. The road would disappear completely over the top of impossibly steep hills and on that very narrow road you'd have to take it on faith that you wouldn't reach the top at the same time someone else was coming the other way - and that the road would actually be there somewhere on the other side. The gorse in full bloom cast a golden glow all along the roadsides and the sea and mountain views were spectacular. I still get the old thrill - I love every turn and twist and never tire of the beauty of familiar scenes!

A few miles down the coast from Lochinver is Inverkirkaig, a small settlement where the Kirkaig River runs down to the sea. There is a charming book store and tea shop there and we stopped for tea and scones and to deliver some books to the owner, Alex Dickson. His wife, Agnes, was also there and we found that she is a Gaelic singer and used to sing with our friend Pete Taylor at the Ceilidh Place in Ullapool. They both were very gracious and Agnes was kind enough to give us a copy of her latest CD, Ceol, Mo Chridhe - she has a lovely voice and the recording is a treat. If you're ever lucky enough to be in this area, be sure to stop by to enjoy browsing through this delightful shop - I love their selection of books.
Then back to the welcoming view of the Summer Isles spread out in the sunshine - and at the end of the road - home.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Tigh-Abbie - way back then and now

During our time in Coigach we had the privilege of staying in Tigh-Abbie, a lovely house resurected from the ruin that was John Alec Campbell's family home many years ago. Iain lovingly restored the house and made it into a beautifully furnished comfortable place where family can stay when visiting, or that can be rented out as self-catering accomodation (Google Tigh-Abbie for pictures and description).

John Alec was one of our favorite characters - a crusty old crofter who in his late seventies still worked at the sheep, and loved his pint. He was one of the "Three Worthies" pictured in our book - sharing a pint and a dram at the Fuaran, nattering away in Gaelic and telling old tales. All are gone now, those three old friends - and we miss them. How lucky we were to have been there at that time - to have known them then and to listen to their stories.

This is the house where John Alec was born in the early 1900's. By the time we lived there in the 80's it had fallen into a picturesque ruin that sat in the croft below Anne and Iain's house. At the time we left Coigach, Iain (a skilled mason and builder) was just beginning to plan its restoration so we had never seen the completed building.

Now Tigh-Abbie incorporates the old stone walls of the original house. Inside, the airy lounge holds copies of old family photos, bringing to mind the faces and history those walls have seen. The view from the large windows is the same beautiful view of islands and mountains enjoyed by generations of Campbells.

The house has every comfort - a beautiful kitchen with everything furnished that one could possibly need; a den with stereo system, TV, books and a fireplace to curl up by; two cozy bedrooms and a bath upstairs - and always the view.

We felt at home immediately - and Anne and Iain could not have been more giving and gracious. Thank you, thank you, thank you dear friends for making our stay a happy and comfortable one!