Someone once said ” There are 2 seasons in Scotland- June and winter!”
I should have heard this before I set off to the UK in September/ October this year!
I had grand plans. For my 74th birthday I would spend a week in my favourite town in Scotland, Oban. It’s a little fishing town in the Inner Hebrides and the gateway to the islands of Mull, Iona, and Staffa accessible by ferry. The rail link to Edinburgh and Glasgow makes Oban easily accessible and its a picturesque 3 hour train commute, usually in the company of jolly hikers heading for their weekend “bagging Munro’s.” Before you ask how to cook a Munro… well you don’t…they’re mountains..big ones…. over 1000 metres and there are 282 of them in Scotland. And Jolly Hikers think it’s fun to climb to the summit of them all…. hence ” Bagging Monro’s”
I also had a writers workshop booked on the beautiful island of Iona with its moody skies and spiritual home, The St Columba Benedictine abbey. It was a small novice writers group of 6-8 women who would drink tea, share stories and learn wise things. Then pop back to the mainland of Oban on the ferry and probably create more stories at the pub that evening. The flat I had booked for the week was a lovely old stone building in the heart of town with views of the water and the big ferries shuffling passengers between the islands.
It was raining when I arrived. To be expected. Autumn in the Inner Hebrides. But I was prepared this trip. Lots of layers of puffer jackets, thermals, hats and scarves and 2 umbrellas and sensible lace up boots. I’m ready.
The walk to the supermarket was a short 20 minutes through town. Past the fish stalls selling today’s catch on the jetty, along the main street with its fabulous bookshop, shops selling gear for those Munro baggers, numerous pubs and fish and chip shops, churches and hotels… and the Oban distillery. Oban is a town of 8,000 people, so all aspects of life are well catered for. The population swells to 24,000 people in tourist season..Phew..glad I didn’t come in August!
Settled into the cosy flat, frig full..nice to cook my own food again… still raining…the wind is picking up too..umbrella pretty useless… golf umbrella to be sourced tomorrow… TV news..more wild weather on the way….not too cold just wet, windy, WILD.
Blown to the supermarket the next morning but nothing will deter my morning ritual….copy of The Times, a few groceries and perhaps a dryout at Roxy’s coffee and tea house with its delicious cheese scones, outstanding coffee and always a friendly chat with locals or the numerous dogs they bring inside to sit by the fire. Still raining….. sheets of it..horizontal rain too….. In the bookshop I noticed the Fiddle and Accordian Club is meeting tonight at the Royal Hotel..I love a Scottish singalong so I’ll be heading there later on….
Lovely fresh fish for dinner. Blown to the Royal Hotel but determination will not stop me. Some roads flooded…… medieval drainage! Boots a bit soggy but bearing up. The F and A club is seething with feverish excitement. About 100 locals, many clutching bulky accordians or battered fiddle cases. All generations. Whole families. The Master of ceremonies, resplendent in kilt, looks a tad worried about the responsibility of ushering musicians through a packed program and the first act from a neighbouring village hasn’t arrived yet! There’s talk of road closures…
I sit with a lovely couple from Iona. They have lived on the island all their lives, farming the same land his grandfather farmed. Stuart and Fiona grew up together, went to the same school and church. She left the island for a year to work in Edinburgh but came back to marry Stuart. On Iona Fiona says in her clipped matter of fact Scottish way ” We wouldn’t live anywhere else. Why would we? We know everyone on the island, we never lock our doors…its our home given to us by generations before….”
They seem to adopt me for the night and usher cakes, tea and offers of whisky in between a running commentary of all the musicians and their history…” Oh there’s Morag.. you’ll like her.. she’s a fine fiddler..Johnny’s daughter… soon to be married”
Thundering rain on the roof doesn’t dim the sound of fiddlers..” Aye just turn up the amps..”
After a while all the Scottish songs sound the same but all are heart felt renditions and much loved by the audience. One accordianist is outstanding and varies the repertoire a little much to the displeasure of Fiona..” Huh.. he’s doing it again…. such a fine fiddle player too….”
I’m confused and my mind lurches into dark thoughts…. he’s doing what..? Child molesting? Ingesting illegal substances.. ? I ask Fiona for clarification…. ” He always plays those foreign songs! This one’s French I think..Huh and he’s such a fine man too.”
Walking home in the rain that night these words kept coming back to me. I romanticise life on a beautiful island like Iona. The closeness of community and familiarity, stability and the country idyll. But with it comes the intolerance of outsiders..the “foreign” influence, the resistance to change and narrow margins of conformity. I see island life from a different angle…isn’t that the powerful thing about travel?
All night it rains with a vengeance. I turn on the news…..torrential rain expected and the Scottish understatement of the century.. ” Wild Weather” I hope the Ferries run tomorrow to take me to Iona for my course. So I head to the ferry terminal……… there’s a buzz in town.. roads closed, trains cancelled or delayed.. ” Did ya hear about the McTavishes? Aye landslide they say. Cut all the roads in and out..and him needing medical help and that.…” Sometimes I think I’m an extra in a Saturday night TV program set in a Scottish village.” I check in at the Ferry terminal…. will the ferry run tomorrow? ” Oh aye she never stops.. we’ll get ya to Iona…ya may have ta swim back though” he says straight faced.
That night there’s news at the pub that roads have been cut and the train from Glasgow and therefore Edinburgh may not run tomorrow. and yes more ” Wild weather!”
I head off early with my clothes barely able to dry out overnight..to take the ferry to Iona for my writers workshop… Five excited women clutching their stories arrive on Iona to be greeted with warm tea and soda bread. (Another participant didn’t make it to the island.)We gather in a small room in the sweetest cottage by the abbey. There are 2 Americans, 2 Canadians and me along with Aysha, the group leader. The wind howls. The rain pours outside the cottage and its hard to hear each other at times. I’m also getting anxious. The rain never eases. It’s angry and fierce and shows no mercy. We’re about to break for lunch when there’s a knock at the door and Ayesha returns to say ” Wild weather” is setting in and while the ferries say they’ll keep running the weather bureau are going to issue the highest emergency rating…. a code Red which translates to “possible deaths”
Ok…nice chatting… I’m out of here.. I’m heading to Edinburgh in 2 days.. Birthday tomorrow… see you.all the best…” That was the end of my writing career!
Back in Oban the weather indeed becomes wild. The housekeeper checks in to make sure that I have enough food..it may be a few days ( she’s seen this before) Over the next few days all hell breaks out. I’m glued to the window looking at the rain lashing the streets, the ocean growling and people hanging on to each other as they duck for doorways and shelter. The news reports the worst storms in Oban in the last 60 years. Carparks and the supermarket are flooded. No trains run, as the line in under water. There are landslides, lots of home births, no school, supplies can’t get in and emergency workers and community volunteers do the rounds of older people and those house bound. My week in the flat is extended to 10 days and my daily walk takes in the train station to see if trains are running. Some days even the daily walk is abandoned.
Again my rose tinted view of life in Scotland is challenged by the harsh reality of the weather here. I stop looking for cute cottages in the misty hills as my next home, I stop imagining my Highland laird waiting to greet me and I abandon half baked fantasies of taking up the fiddle. Drying out my clothes is a priority and getting out of here is an urgent need…
I do make it to Edinburgh as the train slowly weaves its way through the carnage of swollen lochs, trampled trees and upended roads. We change trains, take buses for one section of the journey but we make it back to the big city. Being marooned in Oban wasn’t on my itinerary but feeling the brunt of Scottish wild weather taught me humility and broke the delusion that we have power over nature. Travels always teaches us what’s important in life.