Trav­els with my fa­ther

A sen­ti­men­tal fam­ily trip to Scot­land to farewell a muchloved rel­a­tive

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence Praising The Titanic In Belfas - JAMES JEF­FREY

THE cloud-clogged sky over Northum­ber­land looks al­most, but not quite, close enough to touch; a short drive into the Che­viot Hills takes care of that, and all my fa­ther and I have to do to reach the clouds is lower the car win­dows and stick out our mitts.

My aunt Liz was telling me on the phone only the other day how spec­tac­u­lar the view can be from this very spot, but not to­day; we may as well be in­side a pil­low. Dad, only par­tially re­an­i­mated post-flight by a cof­fee down the road at a place billing it­self em­phat­i­cally as THE LAST CAFE IN ENG­LAND, takes his time get­ting out of the rental car.

I watch him co­a­lesce out of the mist next to a boul­der mark­ing the end of Eng­land and the be­gin­ning of Scot­land. A north Der­byshire man with a Scots fa­ther and more than a trace of burr in his voice (late on­set, but that’s by the by), Dad’s long dreamed of us all trav­el­ling here to­gether. My­sis­ter, Olivia, will be j oin­ing us in a cou­ple of days and, while the cir­cum­stances that have drawn us all here are bit­ter­sweet at best, Dad has some­thing of a mis­sion­ac­com­plished look about him.

I du­ti­fully pho­to­graph us un­der the bilin­gual sign (Wel­come to Scot­land/ Failte gu Alba) and then, with piper Fred Mor­ri­son blast­ing out of the stereo, we’re on our way north to­wards Jed­burgh, clus­tered around the mono­lithic ru­ins of its abbey, and be­yond that to Mel­rose, clus­tered along­side the mono­lithic ru­ins of its own.

And j ust be­yond Mel­rose, be­neath the triple peak of Eil­don Hill, the Borders Gen­eral Hos­pi­tal where Liz — beau­ti­ful, brave, fad­ing be­neath the weight of cancer — is wait­ing.

Liz, my fa­ther’s sis­ter, has loomed glo­ri­ously large in my life from pretty much the minute I popped out into the world in a Lan­cashire hos­pi­tal. Even af­ter we left for Aus­tralia, Liz ma­te­ri­alised among us so reg­u­larly and pa­pered over the gaps with such a steady cas­cade of let­ters, it never felt like she was half a planet away. And when I started to go to her, she was only too happy to share her love for her fa­ther’s coun­try and pack me off to Edinburgh and the mag­is­te­rial ma­nia of its fes­ti­val.

There’s a faint echo of that dis­tant Au­gust as Dad and I ar­rive in Mel­rose, the sounds of the lo­cal pipe band waft­ing through the chill dusk air from the foot­ball field. Af­ter check­ing into our room in our B&B, we wan­der out past the flood­lit ru­ins of the abbey loom­ing above us. Robert the Bruce’s heart is in there some­where be­neath the frosted lawn.

We walk the streets in a weird mix of ela­tion and ex­haus­tion, our j et-scram­bled state help­ing to keep us in de­nial a lit­tle longer. The lo­cal mu­sic shop is adorned with posters for an up­com­ing con­cert by ac­cor­dion­ist Phil Cun­ning­ham and Shet­land fid­dler Aly Bain, two of Liz’s favourite mu­si­cians. And to my eyes the win­dow is a trea­sure trove: tin whis­tles and prac­tice chanters, and CDs by the Red Hot Chilli Pipers. I end up spend­ing a chunk of time and money in this es­tab­lish­ment.

Same goes for the King’s Arms, whose ale-scented fug we stum­ble into shortly af­ter walk­ing down the pretty high street.

We slip eas­ily into our brand new rou­tine: lin­ger­ing over break­fast at the B&B (mar­malade and toast for Dad, black pud­ding, a hectare of ba­con and four months’ worth of choles­terol for me), then at­tempt­ing to walk it off by strolling through town and by the banks of the River Tweed. Then it’s off to the hos­pi­tal to be with Liz, fol­lowed by ram­bling around the bor­der coun­try (small lochs, pe­tite towns, fat pheas­ants) and then re­turn­ing to the hos­pi­tal, be­fore slip­ping back to the King’s Arms, where the hand-pulled ales squirt into the pint glasses with the same sat­is­fy­ing noise as a cow be­ing milked. Com­fort­ingly, the ale comes in pie for­mat as well.

When Olivia turns up, she slots straight in as though she’s lived here all her life. Ex­cept when they screen tele­vised darts; no one should look at home around that.

For Liz, the plan­ets lined up when she met her fu­ture hus­band and part­ner in crime, Peter, a man mad for Scot­land and bird-watch­ing, and the pair of them were soon tear­ing off out of Der­byshire and into the High­lands and the He­brides armed with binoc­u­lars and zoom lenses, at­tracted by ev­ery­thing from the ludicrous puffins to the sea ea­gles pa­trolling the skies like feath­ered hang­glid­ers. And above it all was that land­scape: some­times brood­ing and ragged, some­times soar­ing, some­times as se­vere as a Calvin­ist preacher, some­times as light and bright as a soap bub­ble. Then there were the peo­ple; I al­ways got the feel­ing it was the peo­ple who sealed it for Liz.

Ar­rayed re­gally on her hos­pi­tal bed, she rem­i­nisces with me about when I joined them on one of their ex­pe­di­tions north — be­fore they fi­nally saw the light and moved north for keeps. We set up base in Oban, from where the huge fer­ries lum­ber out into the He­brides. We ex­plored the Isle of Mull and the ar­ray of basalt col­umns known as Staffa, home to Fin­gal’s Cave; and then, as we ap­proached in the gen­tly rolling ferry, a won­der­ful ac­ci­den­tal striptease un­folded: an old man us­ing the loo had failed to latch the door prop­erly and ev­ery time the ferry rolled to star­board, the door swung open, then swung shut on the roll to port.

How he didn’t no­tice was a mys­tery, but we were treated to the sight of ev­ery­thing from his but­tocks, as pale as cave fish, to the care­fully ob­served tuck­ing of sin­glet into un­der­pants. I’ve never seen such a stud­ied si­lence and mass star­ing out of win­dows as I did the mo­ment he came out. Liz and Peter roar at the mem­ory.

Then there was Iona, the prob­a­ble birth­place of the Book of Kells and, iron­i­cally for a place once pop­u­lar with Vik­ing raid­ing par­ties, pos­si­bly the most serene spot I’ve vis­ited.

That trip also took us to Fort Wil­liam and Ben Ne­vis, In­ver­ary and Glen­coe, on boat trips across lochs where seals bobbed fatly be­neath us and buz­zards soared al­most as fatly above. It also fea­tured my first ceilidh, a merry evening in a farm­house where I first saw the bag­pipes lib­er­ated from the strait­jacket of a band and played wildly for a frenzy of dancers. Stum­bling home af­ter­wards, pos­si­bly a lit­tle the worse for wear and mes­merised by the star­ri­est of skies, I also lib­er­ated some sheep of their wits when I blun­dered into a sleep­ing flock.

Mem­o­ries of that trip over­whelm me as Dad and Olivia walk ahead of me to the pub at Cri­an­larich, part of the brief taste-of- Scot­land pro­gram we’ve planned for Olivia with Liz’s hearty en­dorse­ment. Moun­tains with white veins of snow rise around, but my eye is caught by the sign: This Way to Oban. I even­tu­ally j oin the oth­ers for lunch amid stuffed bad­gers and stag heads.

Dad hasn’t been to Scot­land for 40 years and Olivia’s never been, so I ham­mer them with a rapid pro­ces­sion of tea-dark lochs and shaggy gin­ger high­land cows, vil­lages filled with the singing of wa­ter­falls or dwarfed be­neath the rus­set and pur­ple flanks of moun­tains. We stand be­low the Robert the Bruce mon­u­ment at Stir­ling Cas­tle and a stone Wil­liam Wal­lace at Dry­burgh, and find our way to the grave of Rob Roy and his fam­ily at Balquhid­der. In Edinburgh, we traipse up and down the Royal Mile one af­ter­noon, our brains all but dancing at the beauty and fleet­ingly re­treat­ing from re­al­ity. In­evitably, though, re­al­ity in­trudes and the time comes to say good­bye. We­leave in a gen­tle flurry of snow, yet dawn’s glow steals over the hori­zon through a break in the clouds and for a mo­ment I’m back in Oban with Liz and Peter, watch­ing the heav­ens turn scar­let over the is­lands. There are no doc­tors, no hos­pi­tals, just a magnificent sky and the beauty of Scot­land — and life — laid out be­fore us.

Su­san Kurosawa’s De­par­ture Lounge col­umn is on a break.


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