Age Rating: 16 +
The perfect peat bank is one that will yield an ample supply of coke-hard burning material and be sited not too far from home. One such place had been overlooked by generations of crofters, who farm the infertile north coast of Sutherland. And who should find it in the end but a defector, a man who had squandered so much of his adult life down south chasing dreams that he was hardly entitled to call himself a Highlander at all. His highly respected ancestors had been cutting theirs on the same plot since the Clearances but it was typical that he should find the better option. God moves in mysterious ways indeed.
In the Crofting Township of Borganhill, almost every household has its own source of winter fuel. These areas are located ‘up the hill,’ which is local speak for a large valley some distance into the moors. There they toil at regular intervals throughout the spring and summer, cutting, lifting and stacking their peats to ensure a cosy fire when the short summer ends. A trail, fit only for tractors, leads off the Tongue to Thurso road, twisting and slanting its way through heather and over rocks for three miles, before stopping abruptly as it meets the loch that supplies the rambling village with peat-flavoured, whisky-coloured tap water.
But over to the left, just as you leave the main road, there's a rocky mound flanked by a clump of shrubbery and beyond that, hidden from view, a small sunken glen. A lochan no bigger than a duck pond forms a centrepiece, and the level ground around lies mysteriously denuded of heather.
Soon after this prime site was discovered, there was talk of a burial ground there. Wags were saying things about Tarradale's wives. That could've been jealousy of course; he would hardly spread that kind of rumour about himself, but then again they could never be sure, knowing him. He was eccentric enough before he got corrupted down the line, but everyone knew that both women brought John's children back to visit him regularly and you can't argue with that.
Acting on the rumour, Students of archaeology from Aberdeen University, on a working break at Borganhill at the time, meticulously cleared an area of fifty square metres or more. Nothing of any significance was ever found, but the removal of the top divots, the most backbreaking task in peat cutting, uncovered a dark, heavy peat of perfect consistency, that dried as hard as coal briquettes and burned just as slowly. This is Tarradale's bank, the envy of smallholders for miles around.
The crofter and the Canadian first met aboard a minibus at the Kyle of Tongue. John MacKay, commonly known as Tarradale after his family croft, had undertaken to drive some hotel residents on a sightseeing tour, since Dougal, the owner of the little school bus, had had a few too many whiskies the night before.
With the lambing season over, he was glad of the job; choices were few enough since he refused to work at the nearby Dounreay Atomic Power Station, the only source of regular employment in the area. In season, he might have found work as a water bailiff but for his poaching conviction, so he compromised by netting the pools on the river at night and selling his salmon catch to the hoteliers in Thurso before daylight crept in. As he saw it, his options were few.
The landlady at the Borganhill Hotel had briefed John on places of interest he should visit, even rehearsing appropriate remarks for John to recite at each. But the crofter had been drinking with Dougal the previous evening and the resultant hangover was causing him worrying memory lapses.
He parked up at the causeway as advised, but as he pointed towards the towering and majestic Ben Loyal the suggested phrase, The Queen of Scottish Mountains, eluded him.
"Ben Loyal is famous as, as..." he searched the faces of half a dozen passengers for inspiration, then seemed to find it in the features of an elderly couple at the back, "the oldest mountain in Scotland."
Some nodded acceptance and John's eyes twinkled, but he maintained his deadpan expression as he reached for the ignition switch. But the big man in the seat opposite strained against his safety belt in an effort to interrupt.
"That's bullshit! I'm here to tell you driver, you're talking absolute rubbish...and you know it!"
The wealthy Canadian and his wife were living at the hotel while the cottage they had just bought was being renovated.
Stealing an appreciative glance at the passenger's attractive blonde partner, John stayed his hand on the switch. "Ah, you know of an older one then sir? Well, so be it, I bow to your superior knowledge of history."
John smiled broadly, slipped the gear lever into second, checked his mirrors and drove off west across the moor.
At Loch Eriboll the driver invited the passengers to eat their packed lunches, although it wasn't a scheduled stop. It came about because a tourist, his car pulling a caravan, overshot a passing place on the single-track road up ahead. The vehicles slowed to a halt facing each other a yard apart. John indicated the passing place, which the other driver had chosen to ignore, only to be answered by obscenities and abusive gestures. The car driver had killed his engine and lit a cigarette.
While they ate their picnic, with other travellers gradually converging upon the blocked road from both directions, Tarradale entertained his passengers with the story of Donald "Sailor" MacKay, a distant ancestor who, as a youth, had been kidnapped from these shores and press-ganged into service on a pirate ship.
Eventually the car driver relented, but reversed his caravan into a deep ditch dragging the car with it. This mishap left the road and the passing place clear for traffic to flow normally as before.
At Durness Craft Village John described the merchandise for sale as pseudo-Scottish garbage, imported and assembled by failed art student refugees from Glasgow and Edinburgh, existing on a subsidy while pretending to be new age travellers.
Arriving back at Tongue too early, they detoured along Loch Loyal to Altnaharra then swung back towards the coast, along a valley peppered with small, dilapidated crofts, well off the tourist beat.
As the skies clouded over, John stopped at Syre church and spoke to his passengers about this glen, Strathnaver, and of man's inhumanity to man. He told them about the crofters, his ancestors, many of whom died after being evicted from their homes by their landlord, The Duke of Sutherland. He told of the Highland Clearances and how sheep replaced humans. He spoke knowingly about those who perished on their journey to North America and other distant relatives who didn't survive resettlement on the rugged, hostile coast. He ended his discourse with a moment's silence and as he raised his head there were murmurings of approval and appreciation.
The Canadian extended his hand and gripped the driver's firmly. "Put it there fella. I'm Bob Morrison and this is my wife Lois," he said. "OK, so you're no geologist, but you sure as hell know your history."
John shook his hand then started the engine. "That's oral tradition, Bob, there's a difference; history books lie."
Tarradale was less than a mile from the Canadian's rebuilt cottage on the Borgan river estuary, and so it was that in that scattered community Bob and Lois formed an uneasy friendship with John and his daughter Morag. The only thing the two men had in common was an appreciation of malt whisky and the love of a good argument, but for a while those similarities seemed enough to sustain them, whereas the ladies seemed to blend easily.
The crofter would listen with genuine interest as Bob described the life he'd left behind in Winnipeg; how he'd started as a junior accountant in a chain store, made it to general manager in ten years and married Lois. He told John about the many exotic parts of the world they had visited on vacation and how, on returning from a trip to Scotland, he and Lois decided to make a clean break from the rat race and suburbia. With no kids to influence their decision and a healthy share portfolio, they opted for the quiet life by choosing the most sparsely populated place they could find. It was also something of a homecoming, since he had traced relatives on his father's side to the fishing village of Kinlochbervie on the West Coast.
John's own reminiscences amounted to a hard luck story by comparison. The only son of staunchly religious parents, he left home at sixteen simply to escape the strict, stifling home atmosphere. The only thing he shared with his parents was an instinctive distrust of Dounreay, and their largely infertile smallholding couldn't sustain three adults indefinitely. Although tall, strong and eager to please, the young Highlander had been worldly naïve and learned all his lessons the hard way. Now forty, with two failed marriages behind him, he was the father of four children.
He had inherited Tarradale upon the death of his parents. Both his wives had been from the city and failed to adjust to the primitive and relatively impoverished life on the croft. But Morag, from his second marriage, took to that countryside like a true native and refused to leave. The others kept in contact and visited regularly.
When the twelve-year-old malt whisky had hit the spot, John MacKay would often philosophise, not unkindly, about misguided parents, barren soil and fertile women. Where the latter were concerned, he had never abandoned his dream of meeting a kindred spirit, but as the years slipped by, with options dwindling, he increasingly sought spiritual solace in books and the whisky bottle.
The other subject close to John's heart was the ownership of salmon and how a fish that had travelled from as far away as Iceland to spawn, could possibly become the property of a Scottish landowner. It was an issue the Canadian had few thoughts on at the time but would later cause him to make a decision with far-reaching consequences.
Bob particularly admired his neighbour's stack of firm, coal-black peat, built like a black brick windowless shed. Having made a feature of the large open fireplace in their new home, he wasted no time in scouring the moor and claiming a peat bank of his own. From a Thurso blacksmith he purchased a flaughter, rutter and tusker, the standard peat-cutting tools, and worked tirelessly and alone on his project.
On his prolonged absences up the hill, Lois became a regular visitor to Tarradale. She and Morag became close friends and often, while John slept after his dubious nocturnal activities, they would swim together at the sandy river estuary. Occasionally in the early evening, with Bob still toiling on the hill, John would take them both out on his small boat to catch mackerel. Somebody said that Morag sometimes stayed behind and another that the boat was once seen at Coldbackie beach and a couple walking arm-in-arm into the cave there when the tide was out. Such was Post Office gossip.
After a while Bob brought home a peat sample for John's inspection. The crofter weighed it in his hand then poked his fingers into the fibrous stringy texture.
"Depends if you want to use it for burning or for scrubbing your back," he said. "Never dig where you find bog myrtle growing Bob; they'll be lightweight and fit only for kindling."
Some mentioned a bank being fired up the hill next day. Bob said he was just smoking off a swarm of midges, but all the peats he had cut were reduced to ashes and he didn't drop in on Tarradale with the customary bottle of Macallan that week, nor for weeks to come.
As summer replaced spring, the Canadians did their best to become part of the community, attending ceilidhs and fund-raising events at the local hall. On the common grazing land surrounding Tarradale, where chomping Cheviots had trimmed the grass to putting green texture, Bob could sometimes be seen practising his golf swing while Morag showed Lois where to find the wild mushrooms.
It was about this time that Lois told Morag about her husband's mood swings. While she herself felt she had blossomed in the changed environment, Bob was missing the stimulation and companionship of his peers. Their marriage appeared to become secondary to him as his mind leapt from one obsession to another. Once outgoing and open, he now seemed introverted, petty-minded and bitter. At least once a week since the salmon-fishing season started, he would dine with Lois at the Borganhill Hotel just to fraternise with the wealthy businessmen who rented a room and a stretch of the river from the hotel annually.
After a while he too bought a rod and paid for the privilege of mixing with people of his own class, difficult though it was for him, since he lacked the necessary patience for the sport. As if to make matters worse it had been one of the driest seasons in living memory and river pools that normally yielded twenty or thirty-pound salmon were too shallow to sustain them. As his fellow fishermen grumbled about the parched river, Bob would look downstream towards Tarradale and be reminded of another reason for the shortage of fish.
But most mornings the Canadian walked to the hill carrying a packed lunch and he would sometimes stay there 'till dusk. When he deigned to speak, he would tell Lois about an overgrown, disused area nearby where the peat was a rich dark mould. He had cut at least a year's supply and built them into storrows to dry in the wind. Soon he would buy a bottle of Scotch and talk to John about transporting them home.
If Bob's neighbour was concerned about the lapse in their friendship, he showed little sign. There was talk of a falling out and it had been noticed that they were never seen together. More puzzling was the fact that this year John hadn't gone to the hill at all, although he did still have a good winter's supply of peat in the stack. Word was he was preoccupied with other matters and building up trouble for himself in more ways than one.
Jimmy Anderson didn't know his Christian name was Hamish until he moved from Aberdeen to Borganhill five years ago. At first he put it down to mistaken identity although, being the only resident policeman, that was unlikely. He soon realised that everyone in that Gaelic community who was baptised James would thereafter answer to Hamish. Jimmy didn't particularly like the name, but he loved his new posting, so he didn't try to buck the trend.
His first call out had been to a ‘drunk and disorderly’ at the local hotel, where a crofter had been challenging everyone in the public bar to a fistfight. When Jimmy arrived the man was slumped in a paralytic state by the door and it was easy enough, in spite of his stature, to transfer him to the back seat of the police car. The landlady and several customers went to some lengths to explain that the drunk was not a violent person, but had been drowning his sorrows for weeks since his second wife left him. A lift home was all that was called for.
At Tarradale croft, the man came to his senses under a verbal onslaught from his daughter, and was soon pouring liberal measures of whisky as "a token of gratitude." In Borganhill no one knocked before entering a house and to refuse a drink was to insult the host.
When he awoke late next day, Jimmy had no recollection of travelling home. He had vague memories of a once inebriated crofter gradually drinking himself sober; a phenomenon he had heard of but never witnessed, while he himself became increasingly mellow in the convivial company. He recalled Morag with her disapproving glances and rebukes, the warmth of the peat fire flame, the oft repeated phrase "one for the road" - and nothing else. He found his car keys on his table and his vehicle parked neatly out front.
If he chanced to meet John MacKay in the days that followed, they would nod and exchange knowing looks - but nothing more.
When Jimmy got the tip-off he spent the whole day worrying about it. While John MacKay was the only person he knew who made a living from poaching, he did go about his business discreetly and any conflict was between the poacher and the water bailiffs, with John always one move ahead. Jimmy only became involved if an arrest was necessary and he was aware that an offender's car could be confiscated as part of the penalty. He knew he had to contact his colleagues in Caithness and pass on the car registration number, but before that he made a local call.
They'd finished their evening meal and Morag was clearing up in the kitchen while John watched the news on commercial television. For years he had refused to pay the licence fee because homes in Borganhill were unable to receive BBC transmissions. Indeed the only signal they could pick up came from the Orkney Islands across the Pentland Firth. When the Northern Times published a picture of a TV detector van arriving at Wick harbour, the local post office did ten times its normal trade next day. Tarradale remonstrated with his MP, but to no avail, then waited six months until the van crossed the border into Sutherland before making his receiver legal.
Bob walked in more tentatively than previously, cleared his throat then placed the bottle on the table with a thump.
As John looked up, the first thing he seemed to observe was the whisky, which, unusually, bore the brand label of a common blend. He indicated the easy chair opposite while switching off the television set. "Have a seat Bob."
Morag came through, smiled at Bob and brought glasses from the cupboard.
"No, this won't take long. And I won't have a drink, thanks Morag."
The crofter's brow furrowed as he scrutinised his visitor's face, which twitched a little as he moved his weight from one foot to another.
"Yeah. Well John I only have coupla things to say, then I'll leave. It's best you hear this from me, I owe you that.” He cleared his throat once more. “You remember you asked me once who owns the fish in the river? Yeah? OK, well I thought about it, and it sure as hell isn't you! There's fishermen out there paying big bucks to catch salmon and the pools are empty. With the drought they have to fish for sea trout on the club stretch here on the estuary. How does that make you feel?"
"It makes me angry that they're allowed to do it."
"That all you can say?"
"No, but it'll keep. What was the other thing?"
The Canadian's expressionless face adopted an ironic smile as he shook his head. "You don't get it, do you? I had to report you to the police John. I'm sorry, but what you're doing is wrong by any standards, can't you see that?"
Tarradale maintained his quizzical expression. "And the other thing?"
His guest took some time to answer. "I have some peats on the hill, he said, still shaking his head, "I'd like you to bring them home for me with your tractor. I'll pay the going rate, but I'll understand if you'd rather I asked someone else. Your call fella."
"They're legally mine Bob. You've been cutting my peat bank."
The other shook his head once more. "You're crazy! The ground was overgrown with weeds; the site was abandoned."
"That happens over winter. You should've checked out crofters' rights before you started digging. Anyone could have told you about Tarradale's bank. I have plenty for my needs this year though; you can keep them. Just ask somebody else to take them off the hill."
"I don't get it John. Why are you taking this so well, eh? I'd feel better if you punched me on the jaw. I've put an end to your poaching operation, taking away, I would guess, half your income? Now you tell me I've been cutting your peat bank and that's OK. I play the stock Market and I know about options. I'd say yours have ran out. If I were in your shoes man, I'd want revenge."
"There's damned few fish left now. Besides, netting a river isn't all it's cracked up to be; you can catch your death out there. We were friends once Bob, but you've broken the boundaries and got involved in matters that aren't really your concern. I don't like to admit it but I envied you once. You had everything going for you when you came here; all you had to do was learn to live and let live. You're going to need that drink now."
"What? No, I'm fine. Why d'you say that?"
"Because Lois is leaving you. She's moving in with Morag and me."