A Highland Terrier – which is a mini-bus, you understand – whizzes past the Culloden Chinese Take-Away and I realise that my Scotland has changed again – has gone from me still further through yet another of the time-warps which have shaken me ever since I left in 1959. It isn’t comfortable, or reassuring, this blinking through the decades in a slide-show of small, brilliantly-coloured transparencies. But the detail is enthralling.
It’s 1967: a young family bound for the Outer Hebrides, we drive across the moor at Culloden, skirting the plain where long low humps in the coarse grass and stunted heather cover the skeletons of the 1100 Highlanders killed in that April hour of 1746, each clan with its name chiselled into a monument like a rounded milestone – Clan Chattan, Clan Cameron, Clan Stewart. Firs stand about like dark angels. The place seems to have its own weather – permanently overcast ... Blink: October 1990: bound for Hatchards in Inverness to promote a book on people’s hereditary memories of the Clearances, we take the press officer from Cape to see where the old Highland civilisation received its first killing stab. The place has mutated into heritage. Gravelled walkways lead you to one notice-boarded site after another: the well which ran with blood, the positions of the regiments, the old thatched barn where 30 wounded Jacobites hid for two days until the government troops came back on a search-and-destroy mission, nailed them in, and burned them to death. The tarmac road has been rerouted, having at last been deemed to intrude on a mass graveyard. Banners hang from flagpoles, limp in this windless bright October, creating an eerie glimpse of bygone manoeuvres, colours, rallies, debacles. On this ordinary week-day, well past the holiday season, some dozens of people move slowly about in knots of two or three, talking quietly, pausing to look, as though it was Sunday afternoon in a city cemetery. The old state of the battlefield was more atmospheric, less intelligible. We have to be educated consumers of history now. The National Trust for Scotland has built a tasteful visitor centre where you can choose from a great range of glamorously-jacketed and illustrated books about the sublime terrain of the Highlands and their heartbreaking past. In the museum a facsimile of Butcher Cumberland’s orders of the day is displayed: if a comrade-in-arms breaks ranks, shoot him; do not strip or pillage the enemy until the battle is over and they are dead.
It’s 1959: we’re bound out from Aberdeen for Southampton and Colombo, worrying whether a six-month-old baby will be able to stand the torrid conditions in the Red Sea, the Indian Ocean, and what was then Ceylon. From the railway cutting just south of Girdle Ness we peer wordlessly down the chasms of pink granite where my then father-in-law fell a hundred feet into the sea, dismayed at the prospect of incurable cancer. Blink: November 1989: the boat from Lerwick is sliding into harbour past the Girdle Ness lighthouse, bringing us to Aberdeen after long stravaigs from Vatersay north to Lewis, through Easter Ross to Caithness, Rousay in Orkney, Yell and Unst in Shetland, searching for people whose forebears were evicted one hundred and fifty years ago. On the hill slope to southward I look out as usual for the four black pinnacles on the tower of the church where my parents and grandparents are buried, among them my father’s father who brought his trawler, the Strathairlie, past these same cliffs and beaches hundreds of times. Blink: October 1990: I’m coming out of the granite cutting, scanning the city’s southern sprawl. The kirk tower is dwarfed, almost hidden, by an office block clad in bronze reflective glass. The hill I walked with my aunts fifty years ago, through endless-seeming thickets of whin exhaling their summer fragrance of peach and almond, has shrunk to a patch of moor built round by the bastions of the North Sea oil and gas industry. The leggy bulks of the oilrigs, moored and idle till recently as petroleum prices slumped, have gone out to work beyond the horizon again. Now I’m looking up the newish streets of artificial stone where dozens of the men scorched and drowned in the Piper Alpha disaster had their homes. Now I can see the clump of trees in the Garden of Remembrance where we scattered my aunt’s ashes eighteen months ago, a grey drift like melting hailstones on the turf below a larch tree.
This year’s journeys set me rocking again, like a space capsule barely under control, from one age to another, often in the wrong order. I cross the Forth Bridge, bound from James Thin’s bookshop in Edinburgh to Waterstone’s in Aberdeen, remembering one of many student treks from Aberdeen to Cambridge. The train paused, shuddering, early on a January morning. The dark-red cantilevers sloped upward, huge as mountain summits, into a blizzard. Snowflakes blasted and eddied far below, veiling the water. At last we crawled across, balancing like mountaineers on a corniced ridge. For a moment I’m a boy, crossing this same estuary by the ferry in 1939 for a summer holiday in Edinburgh, which was slightly shadowed by the newspapers’ talk of war and my parents’ disquieting reassurances. Today, just north of the bridge, I’m an adult again – sucked backward to the years when each trip saw the great squat capital-ships, the Rodney and the Nelson, sink nearer the waterline in the dock at Inverkeithing as the ship-breakers stripped them down. Fifteen years before, I had pushed them, miniatures made of lead, across the playroom floor, knowing full well that the real ones stood between us and invasion across that undefended-looking sea.
How pleasing, after all, that history can be perceived through your own senses, not just read about! In your own domicile change can be stalagmitic, too gradual to be striking. Visit somewhere with long enough lapses of time and it’s like those film sequences which show clouds avalanching down the sky or shadows swinging round each object like spokes in a wheel. Edinburgh had been school trips to Murrayfield to see Haydn Tanner and Bleddyn Williams outclassing Scotland in the Forties – hundreds of hours in the Fifties copying from manuscripts in the National Library – brief trips ever since to visit a son who worked there for a time and a Henry Moore who is still there, leaning calmly on one elbow. This autumn the new or newish style of oilmen commuting on the Shuttle has taken over. Here in this bistro on Cockburn Street near Waverley a beautifully typical quartet of managers carries on, over seafood and claret, one of those conversations that vary little from one chic pub to another. It can take an hour’s devoted eavesdropping to suss their actual line of work, decoding it from the almost abstract hi-tech-speak of the white-collar worker.
‘I think it would be in your self-interest as well as ours,’ Dark-suit No 1 is saying, ‘if you could see your way to this before too long, because he is one of the key councillors.’
‘If we don’t discuss the pros and cons of what’s been happening,’ Dark-suit No 2 replies, ‘then Backstop is going to leave us.’
‘Leave it with me, Amstrad,’ replies Dark-suit No 1, ‘and I’ll get back to you a.s.a.p.’
What do they do – sell land? hours? space? money? ‘State-of-the-art’, I just catch, followed by ‘option’, ‘parameter’ and ‘maximal’, all inside four minutes. The light, aromatic food of the Nineties is more to my taste than the roasts and gravies of the Fifties. The vocabulary is more science-based, less legal. In those days the Dark-suits would have been advocates, the conversation about cases rather than deals, the eager-achiever (No 1) would have felt called upon to mention his fishing or hill-walking rather than his jogging. The conversation turns concrete briefly – they’re from British Rail, and I’m left reflecting that in a year or two one or other of them may well be writing me (like his counterparts in electricity and water before him) to offer me shares in Rail-North or BritTrak. I’ll reply in righteous fury, How can you find it in your conscience to sell off the commonweal? He’ll reply wearily and almost impersonally, I am discharging what is required of me by recent legislation.
Forty years ago, bound for a friend’s home in Gateshead, I saw a red flag flying over a newly nationalised coalmine near Dalkeith. Now I’m gliding past the about-to-be-privatised Naval dockyard at Rosyth, the oil-rigs under repair between Dundee and Barry which we the people no longer own even 51 per cent of since Lawson sold the family silver. Near Arbroath the hillocky golf links and sandstone skerries haven’t changed but a long brick wall, blank for decades, now flaunts a carefully-painted white graffito: EVERYTHING STARTS WITH AN E ECSTASY. By the time the letters are too bleared to decipher, will ‘ecstasy’ once again mean ‘spontaneous delight’? The whale-backed mountains west of Strathmore are the only ageless-seeming thing until I see a team of women thigh-deep in a field of Brussels sprouts, bent double, headscarved – they could be any time in the past hundred years, anywhere between Angus and the Urals.
Almost at Aberdeen, near Portlethen, home of my father’s people, I look seaward to see the haven, not even a built harbour, where they launched their boats down shingle between cliffs. My granny’s father was crushed to death under a keel. His wife never told the children who else had been there so as not to stir up bad blood between the families. The fields inland are solid building now, wholesale deep-freezes, hypermarkets, hangars for Texas DIY. In my father’s boyhood, as North Sea storms blew the roofs off the cottages, the fisherfolk moved north to the Victorian suburb of Aberdeen beside the trawler port, the ‘Father’s Occupation’ on the birth certificates evolved from ‘Whitefisher’ to ‘Trawler Skipper’. As the train slows to cross the Dee, leafy branches of family are threshing and rustling all around me – teacher and fisherman, doctor and professor, needlewoman and clerk. I recall as usual John Betjeman’s astonishment at this point when he saw that Britain had not tapered to a finish between the mountains and the sea, that a city spread before him full of bookshops and colleges and modern businesses. The poor man might have had a brainstorm if he had travelled another hundred miles to Inverness, 250 more to Stromness and Kirkwall, 14 hours again by boat to Lerwick, and found at each stage a compact semi-urban culture with its newspapers and publishers, novelists and poets, historians who are crofters and teachers in the daytime, industrious intellectuals in the evenings and holidays.
Whenever I travel up to north-east Scotland it feels like ‘the last time’. Old friends have dispersed, only two close relatives are left. I’m starting to feel invisible there. When my old school burnt out to a granite shell a year or two ago, I went to look at the majestic ruin. Through an intact window of the room where I sat for years learning Latin and then Greek, I could see a blackboard with the declension of ‘miles, militis – a soldier’ still chalked on it. Such continuity of culture over 45 years seemed to mock the ageing revenant who stood there, scarcely noticed by the students flocking to their classes in the Portakabins nearby. Why rub one’s nose in one’s mortality? My books (novels, travelogues, oral history) go on setting themselves in Scotland. However much I censure myself for this long backward look, there is a limit to how much you can dam or re-channel your own nature.
This time more than ever, as I slid back out of my past into the present time – which seemed to happen just north of the Tay – the country was dewed over with the purest regret, palpable as white sea-fog against the face. Such journeying sharpens to wincing-point our habitual awareness that everything streams from us, that the twenty or so years left me are more laughably insufficient than ever to let me glut myself on the full of what the world offers. Down here in England such realisations bite less deep, perhaps because it was not here but up there that I came to myself, thrilled for the first time, first mortified, first loved and loving, first proud, first homesick. These feelings have come to inhere in that land, in those river-mouths, sere flanks of hills, white or grey stone houses. They gather there like its own waters – a romantic illusion, of course, since it is all about to outlast me.