Travels with my father
A sentimental family trip to Scotland to farewell a muchloved relative
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.