Saturday, 26 December 2009

Same Auld story

Jimmy Shand and his Band, Kenneth McKellar, the lovely Moira Anderson - all these will be familiar to people of a certain generation, and forever associated with Hogmanay in the Highlands of Scotland, where they really DO know how to party. The above image is of Clan McDonald tartan (so I'm told!) and chosen because it may be probably the least offensive to most of my Scottish chums here in the south, apart from the Campbells.

I spent one New Year's Eve in the Western Highlands some years ago, but I had to drop out after about three days, due to exhaustion and alcohol poisoning. It carried on for another two weeks without me, and I don't think I was missed. It began one day shortly after Christmas, when my girlfriend and I packed up the old Amazon Volvo with what we thought would be enough stuff to keep us going in one of Britain's most hostile environments in winter, where a large but ancient caravan awaited us at an open field in Argyle. We made it as far as Shap Fell, where - on a snow-bound motorway just south of the service station - the timing-belt started to pack up, forcing us to spend the night in Carlisle. We hitch-hiked or bussed it from then on.

I can't remember the year, but to put it into chronological context, it was about two weeks before the launch of Channel 4, and one of the first programmes to be shown was a Scottish historical drama which had been filmed in a purpose built wooden fortress on a hill about 5 miles from our caravan. This film became famous as typically 'Channel 4', because the dialogue was entirely spoken in Gallic, by non-Gallic speakers.

Not only could the actors not speak Gallic, but they couldn't act either. The hero (and he really was a hero in the film, though I can't remember the name) became a drinking companion of ours during the entire stay. How on earth they chose him to play the part, I do not know. He was about five foot six inches tall, with long, lank hair, and had the typical physique of an ex-heroin addict, which is exactly what he was. He lived on the notorious housing estate of Drumchapel in Glasgow, which is where we dropped him off on the way home, after his 15 minutes of fame had elapsed.

Arriving late to the farm near Crinnan, we located the caravan, and lit an enormous fire in the wood-stove. I cracked open the first of many bottles of Famous Grouse, and we settled back to listen to the wind trying to overturn the flimsy structure. The bedding was damp, and stayed damp for the entire two weeks. My girlfriend had stayed there a few years before, which is how she knew of the existence of the caravan, and the land-owners who owned it, the Bose family.

The next night was New Year's eve, and at around 1.00 am on the morning of the 1st of January, my girlfriend said, "Right. Let's get going". It was blowing a blizzard outside in the pitch-dark, and if you have never experienced the darkness of the Scottish Highlands, far away from the glare of Glasgow nights, then you must take my word for it that it was dark with a capital 'D'.

I asked her where the hell would we be going up here, on a night like this, and she said we were going to 'first foot' the Boses, at their large house about 2 miles away, up a steep and pot-holed track. She explained that - at this time of year - it was customary to turn up at complete stranger's houses at 1.00 in the morning, where you would be welcomed with open arms, hot food and music, just so long as you brought some whiskey with you. You could be forgiven for not bringing a lump of coal, but not the whiskey. I didn't believe her.

I still did not believe her as we trudged to the house up the pot-holed track. The house could be seen in the distance about a mile away in the gloom against the snowy sky, and there was not one light to be seen in any window. She assured me that all would be well, and this was normal behaviour in this part of the world. I had a vision of us hammering on the door until the elderly land-owners were forced to rouse themselves from bed in order to either tell us to fuck off, or let us in to a freezing sitting-room, where polite conversation would ensue between the four of us, as the clock ticked ominously on the mantle-piece, over an unlit fire-place with snow gently falling down the chimney. I decided that I was going return to the caravan, and leave her to upset the landlords on her own, and as I turned to do so, I beheld a strange and uplifting sight.

About a mile away at the beginning of the narrow track, a convoy of about 30 cars was snaking up toward us with their headlights ablaze as they splashed and trundled their way through the semi-frozen water that filled the holes in the lane. They soon overtook us, and we were - in the event - the last guests to arrive at the house which was transformed from a set for a Hammer Horror film into a riot of light, music, shouting and carousal by the time we set foot over the threshold. The local equivalent of Jimmy Shand was in full swing in a corner of the hall, and there was even a bag-pipe player ready to pipe in the piping hot food which lay spread out on a huge table next to the room that had been cleared for dancing.

Sometime after dawn, Mr Bose signaled that the time had come to leave by throwing a bucket of cold water over our hero, who had fallen asleep in a large armchair near the fire. The hero turned from comatose to upright in one second flat, thanked the Boses for a wonderful evening, then walked out into the snow and ice. I daresay he didn't drip for too long before his clothes became solid.

We did the same thing next night, after a few hours sleep and a fried breakfast, and this time we paid a visit to the local Laird at his castle - a fortified house set in acres of rhodedendron bushes, somewhere in the locality. It was impossible to say what the house was like, because - at the time of our arrival - there had been a power-cut, and we sat around the kitchen table with a few candles, drinking whiskey and talking to him and his young, beautiful girlfriend.

I survived about three nights of this, then gave up, but like I say, everyone else carried on for another two weeks. I actually met someone a week or two later who had not slept and not stopped drinking for the entire time. I learnt this after we got into his car for a lift somewhere. He had not stopped driving between venues either, and it is the only time I have physically stopped anyone from driving long enough to jump out to safety. I would have rather walked the few miles in the sleet than drive into a loch with him.

If you have never experienced 'ordinary' life in the Highlands, then watch any episode of 'Monarch of the Glen'. That series was the most accurate depiction of modern, Highland life I have ever seen, and 100% believable, right down to the kilts and leather-jackets.

Happy New Year.


  1. But the midges man!
    What race of people, with the highest population of midges per square millimetre and with scrotum height thistles decide to wear skirts and with no underpants?

    I'll tell you what sort of people, pissed ones

  2. Aye, ye could be right, Reggie, but I have nae been to Scotland in the summer time.

  3. Your blog has motivated me to write a Scotland blog (or two) which I will do in time for Hogmoney, ochi ye noo

  4. I look forward to it Reggie. The last time I was in Scotland, it was for a wedding of an old girlfriend of mine, who - having divorced my erstwhile best friend who I had introduced her to about 25 years ago - married a really nice bloke from another land-rich and titled family. Her mother owns an entire village and an entire loch, and the massive Victorian mansion overlooks this loch. The estate includes two castles, the habitable one of which is occupied by her brother. There are the usual feuds between land-owners, tenants and employees, but - all in all - they rub along quite well up there.

    I was sitting in the library with her mother one day, and noticed a number of portraits of worthy looking gentlemen adorning the walls. Her mother said'

    "They are all from my side of the family. We started the National Westminster Bank, you know".


  5. P.S. When Jimmi Hendrix was alive and at his height, Jimmy Shand brought out a record called 'The Jimmy Shand Experience'...

  6. I used to leave all my money at a pub on the south coast that had a juke box which played nothing but Jimmy Shand records. Dire.