Rich and poor

I've been relatively rich whilst owing plenty and relatively poor whilst owing nothing. Which is best? Well, I guess I've treated those two imposters just the same. (Sorry about that, Rudyard!) But for the first time in many years our first months in Mellon Udgigle, Aultbea, Wester-Ross needed to be - to say the least, frugal. I  recall checking the outside electricity meter of Peace Cottage daily in all weathers, hypnotised by the steady tick tick ticking away of our slender resources. We rationed telephone calls to our distant family and collected as much wild fare as we could to supplement our food shopping. Succulent mussels from the rocks and cockles from the beaches that fringe our sea lochs, juicy fat blackberries from the wild tangle (within two months of arrival Dee had twenty or so jars of bramble jelly in the store cupboard) and four kinds of mushrooms from the local woodlands. What kind of mushrooms? Hedgehog, chanterelle, oyster, and most precious of all those fat penny buns (or porcini, or ceps, depending upon what part of Europe you're in). I would have liked to add fish from the sea and the lochs but, as you will understand later, other things had to gain time and cost priority over fishing, Besides, we had no boat.

Two things we never economised on: the right food for our beloved pair of hungarian vizslas, Mati and Sorosh, and our daily one to two hour walks in all weathers, every single day without fail. Because Sorosh was not overly other dog friendly and because Dee had a horror of upsetting other dog owners we never walked the pathways, preferring to set off across the unknown, trackless terrain of which there is a great deal around here, knowing not how far we would go (or be able to go) or what we might find along the way. Over the next years we were to 'discover' many places without sign of human presence, places where we would sit on a favorite river or burnside bank or great boulder or fallen tree to eat the sandwiches and drink the soup or coffee we invariably brought with us. Often we would sit in a contented silence, much affected by the sheer beauty of what most would call the wilderness. After my lady died I commemorated these walks - for myself if nobody else - in a poem called I see her still ...

I see her still



I see her still, and will
so long as I have seeing eyes alive
to the hills we walked,
with those beloved dogs.
So many, many lovely days;
so many, many trackless ways.
The hills are winter muted now,
their lovely colours sombre
as if in respect or tribute
to she who, leaving me alone,
embarked on that adventure
that all that lives must know,
this harder, emptier year ago.

I see her still, and will
so long as I have seeing eyes alive
to the stony, bouldery shores
or riverside woods
where we would each day
in all weathers find a seat
to eat our picnic lunch
often in silence, content
to watch the play of light,
oft-times the drift of rain or snow
on hill or moving water, smile at
the play of otters, divers, others,
listening to the crying of the gulls.

I see her still, and will
so long as I have seeing eyes alive
to the crystal seas of Wester-Ross
cold, clear, summertime blue,
‘remote’, where she would
take off her clothes and, breathless,
slip nymph-like in to swim,
framed by deep, dark-waving weeds,
laughing at me, at the cold;
or for the simple joy of it,
lithe mermaid in a perfect zone,
the one, forever gone
that we had made our own.

After our move to the Highlands in September 2002 we slowly learned to adjust to this place. We learned about a different dimension of time that's imperceptible as a holiday visitor. No point in dashing out for a loaf of bread or a newspaper. Once you're in the village store or the post office conversation is near bound to ensue. And hey, such dalliance may seem inconsequential but it is never a waste of time for it is how you live. We already knew that if one is not to offend the local folk there's to be neither sight or sound of any kind of working on The Sabbath.

After three months came our first Christmas and the much more important New Year's Eve (Hogmanay to we new Scots). We sent out to the family a lot of home made Christmas presents - boxes of the local delicacy known as 'tablet' - a kind of fudge that Dee became a past master at making. Max and his Spanish girlfriend had come across to stay with us over the holidays. That first proper Highlands Hogmanay was a memorable experience. The routine here in Aultbea is quite time honoured. About nine pm you go to the hotel for a pint or several then wander across the road to the village hall - a relic of WW2 when this area became home to thousands of servicemen in need of rest and relaxation. The hall was jam packed with people from age about ten to about ninety, all rocking and highland flinging in wild abandon fuelled by wine and whisky and beer in plastic cups. Good home baked cakes as well as traditional neeps and tatties (mashed up turnips and boiled potatoes - delicious!) was on offer.

At about one a.m. Dee realised there had been no Auld Lang Syne, linking of hands, stomping in and out etc. Most puzzling until, the following night, we took Max and his Ava to my favourite Badachro Inn. The party seemed to be still going strong there. We got into conversation with a young soldier on leave, a lad from a local family. Dee asked him about this lack of a midnight Auld Lang Syne. Where were you? he asked. Aultbea we said. He shook his head; On no, that's a Jacobite song. You won't here it over there. Of course none of us realised that Rabbie Burns, who wrote the famous song, were supposed to be secret Roman Catholics - or for that matter that Aultbea was a strongly Protestant village. I still don't entirely believe it. But neither would I disbelieve it.

I had set to with much vim and vigor to make Peace Cottage our home. By that first Christmastide we were well and very comfortably settled. Time then to find a way to bring in the pennies and the pounds if we were ever to lift ourselves above subsistence.




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