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A Journey into Scotland … Part 20


Kilmacolm gets its name from St Columba who established Christanity in this part of Scotland from a base on the island of Iona. Religion has played a big part in the history of the town in the past. John Knox celebrated his first protestant communion here and it was an important centre for Covenanters. Religious meetings in the area had a reputation for leading on to the taking of a glass or two and this in turn leading to acts of a more riotous nature.

The town grew rapidly in the nineteenth century. The arrival of the railway and its position on the line between the mighty city of Glasgow (then second only to London in terms of population and wealth) and the port of Greenock, made it an ideal dormitory town. The population was asked what it thought of the consumption of alcohol and in 1913 voted (by referendum) to make it a dry town. It remained publess until after my bicycle jaunt. For a town free of beer and spirits it has proved attractive to supposedly hedonistic rock stars. Jim Kerr of Simple Minds lived here. I’m not sure if this was during their rock gods days or during the slightly longer period when they were ‘big in Lichtenstein’. Chrissie Hynde of The Pretenders also made Kilmacolm her home and, perhaps most surprisingly of them all, given his well known fondness for ‘the good drink taken’, Gerry Rafferty was a one time resident.

I’m feeling nervous because I’m not only staying in someone else’s house; something I have never been fond of doing; but I’m staying in the house of people I have never met. I’d spent an hour or two at a makeshift camp outside the town pondering whether I couldn’t somehow get out of it. In the end it couldn’t have been pleasanter. When I ring the number I’m surprised and delighted that my friend Nicky answers the phone herself. I’d expected her to be back at University in Exeter. She tells me to wait where I am. This was 1987 and I’d rung from a phone box. Within a few minutes she’d greeted me and was walking me through the rather elegant streets to a smart Victorian building that was the family home.

A room has been made up for me and, feeling my wind and weather-beaten state, I accept an offer of a bath. Nothing could tempt me more. I’d love a deep soak. Not more than a foot or so of deep, foaming, piping-hot water and for not more than two hours. Once in the bathroom I can’t help feeling a little intrusive, a little presumptuous, more than a little cheeky to be paying a call and immediately tying up the family bathroom. I’m conservative with hot water and work on leaving both myself and the bath as clean as I can leave them before presenting myself downstairs for what I fear is an inspection.

I couldn’t have been made more welcome. The family dinner table is a place of friendly conversation. My journey plays its part but there are other things to talk over. The food is tasty and plentiful and I’m soon relaxed enough to accept the proffered second helpings.

The family are not Scottish. Nicky’s dad works for a large corporation with tentacles that spread throughout Europe. He’d seen his transfer to the Glasgow Office as something of a sideways move that he had accepted reluctantly. They were London people but had adapted to Scottish life with relish once they realised how wonderful it was.

I’d met Nicky through a drama friend of hers. At St Luke’s I’d found an outlet through acting. I’d done a couple of plays as favours to friends. The drama students were always looking around to cast the plays that they had to produce for their exams. I was sitting in the coffee bar with my mate Jon engaged in the completely non learning-how-to-teach task of drawing our own map of the fictional village of Ambridge (the centre of life in long running Radio 4 soap opera The Archers) when she nervously approached and asked if I’d play the part of Eric Satie in a play she had written. At first I thought she must have got the wrong man. Jon was leading man material. My acting suits me to be ‘an attendant lord, one that will do
to swell a progress, start a scene or two’. It was no mistake and I had found the whole process of working with this intelligent and rather brilliant writer and director a very special part of my time at Luke’s. I think I learnt as much about teaching from her, and her boyfriend Sean, who played Alphonse Allais as I did from many a lecture or seminar. (That is to praise these two; the quality of learning at Saint Luke’s was astonishingly high). It had been a very special time.

We adjourned to the sitting room where her dad told me about his Scottish discoveries and made a few recommendations of places to visit on my northern travels. He had reluctantly come north and had found a happiness that had eluded him in the busier world of London business life. He told of a trip to the Hebrides to check up on how the company’s employees were handling a particularly urgent order. While he was up there talking to the foreman the telephone rang. It was obvious that on the other end of the line was someone in a pinstriped suit and red braces who lived in a world of export targets and prioritised objectives. Nicky’s dad couldn’t hear what was being said from the London end of the line but whoever it was dominated the conversation; the Hebridean limiting his role to the occasional “aye” or “I see”. Occasionally the word “Urgent” spilled out from the earpiece.

“I’d heard this conversation a thousand times from the London end, but I’d never seen it from the other end of the line.” explained Nicky’s father. “Down in the city we thought we controlled the world. A phone call here and a phone call there would stir up the troops and keep the wheels of industry moving. It was on the Island of Lewis that I realised that we weren’t quite as important as we thought we were. The man in London finished his rant about needing things done yesterday and hammered down his receiver. I was able to see the actual effect of his call which was first a wry look at the telephone, a quaint smile and the signing off words to the executive “Aye now. Don’t you worry. I’ll get onto that right away.” He put down the receiver and smiled again. “Well now”, he said. “How about a nice cup of tea.”

“The man explained to me that we work mostly in the Gaelic up on the island and that having given it some quiet reflection had concluded that the demands from the high powered business people in London needed to undergo a little translation.” “And you know.’ concluded the Hebridean, ‘That I could find no word or term in the Gaelic tongue that conveys the same pressing need for things to be done so quickly. There is no Gaelic word for urgent.””

We talked long into the night. I felt quite at home in this house in Kilmacolm among some very good people who had found a better balance by moving their life up into Scotland. In the morning I was served a good Scottish breakfast and waved off by people who had made a very big impression on me. I never met them again. I moved away from Exeter not long afterwards and lost touch with both Sean and Nicky. It’s not everyone you miss. But I would very much like to find out how they are doing.