A Journey into Scotland : Part 52
I remember, I remember
Where I was used to swing,
And thought the air must rush as fresh
To swallows on the wing*
If you go due north from Thurso (the name means Thor’s river mouth) the next landfall is the North Pole. As that is only a floating mass of ice, and a precarious one at that, you must continue, now heading due south, before you meet solid ground on the Siberian Peninsular. That makes a total of 3,500 miles of open sea between Thurso and the next landfall. Of course you could always veer a tiny bit to the east and go to the Orkneys. A ferry from Scrabster to Stromness takes 90 minutes.
It is perhaps the biggest regret of this journey that I didn’t get onto that ferry. Not that I wasted my time by staying in Thurso. It simply would have been nice to visit the Orkneys. George Mackay Brown was still living in Stromness at the time of this cycle ride. I would never have had the nerve or cheek to call on him but it would have been something to have been in the environment that inspired his verses. I’ve long admired the composer Peter Maxwell Davies (Sir) and feel there must be something in the Orcadian air that could only have done me good. I didn’t catch the ferry. I stayed in Thurso and that was the best thing to do.
Before they built the nuclear power station at Dounreay, Thurso was a town of 3,000 people on the banks of a river with which it shares a name. The town is laid out on a classic grid pattern around a central square. In the late fifties the town tripled in size, almost overnight, as first construction workers and then a thousand or more or the country’s leading scientists and engineers made their home in mainland Britain’s most northerly town. Large estates went up overnight, including the one we lived on. Curving street patterns of crescents and circles were added to the nineteenth century north south grid. The town absorbed this revolution remarkably well. It doesn’t look like an old town with a new town attached. It is still small by the standards of important settlements. You can walk across it at a gentle amble and sit on the low hills to the west and watch crows and gulls on the low hills to the east.
This is a town whose Nordic and Gaelic roots are as strong as its British. Stavanger in Norway is as close to Thurso as Newcastle is. I met cyclists who said they were (like me) pedalling around Scotland, but who never ventured further north than Inverness. Inverness is indeed a long way north. Thurso is 110 miles further. It’s on the same latitude as Juneau in Alaska.
All of my earliest memories are here and most of my earliest memories are happy ones. This was a place to explore. Our street was the very edge of the new town. We looked out over fields and moss and untamed bog land. From the back bedroom window you could see miles of open country and the harbour at Scrabster and out to sea. Some said you could see the Old Man of Hoy from the the top of the street. Geographically this is unlikely as the sea pillar is hidden behind Rora Head but you could certainly see a fair chunk of the island of Hoy.
The world I was growing up in was ancient old and brave and new at the same time. The estate where we lived, where we spent a good part of our time was squeaky new. Everyone who lived there had come from somewhere else. There were some strong Scottish accents at the local school (particularly among the teachers) but there were also accents from most other parts of Britain. I spent nearly five years there. Five years in which I learnt to speak, learnt to read, spent twelve hours a day out playing with friends or exploring the local fields and beaches. Five years in which I started school and sang in a Scottish carol service and yet I returned to Furness after all of this with a broad Barrow accent.
I pedalled around the streets I’d known a quarter century earlier and knew not only the main thoroughfares but the back alleys too; the shortcuts, the snickets, ginnels and passageways. I had kept this knowledge hidden, even from myself. Only when I turned one corner did I suddenly know what was around the next. Trees had grown, the houses no longer so new that they smelt of the linseed in the putty and the paint. Apart from this nothing had changed. It was a safe and happy place to be a child. I was only five or six when we left yet I had been used to going out alone, well beyond the confines of where my mother could look out and see me playing. (And, I hasten to add, she was the very opposite of a neglectful parent).
Every father worked at Dounreay. They all came home at five thirty and sat with the paper in the best chair. After tea they would dig the new back garden and grow vegetables one year before deciding that the local climate and the thin layer of soil, left by the house builders, was more suited to a lawn. In the evenings a great deal of alcohol was drunk both in the hotels and in people’s homes. It was a superb place to be a curious and exploring child who didn’t have to go to school. It was not always such a fine place to be an adult used to cinemas and theatres and the life of bigger towns further south. Once the day was done there wasn’t a great deal to do and many filled the empty spaces with drink.
My old house was unmistakable. Seeing it was a peculiar feeling. I no longer had anything to do with it. No right to any of it, yet it was inside me as an integral part of who I was; who I am. I didn’t want to intrude in any way but I did want a photograph to show to brothers and sisters to link us back with our past. Today there is no way that I would knock on the door and ask if they’d take a photograph of me on their front step. In 1987 it took a lot of courage and not a little cheek. The lady was delighted to take a picture of me. Even showed me through into the garden (which seemed much smaller than I remembered) and posed with her baby for a photograph of her own.
Over tea she told me everything about the Thurso of the 1980s. It was good to be brought up to date with Thurso as a living town rather than as a memory. I told her what I could remember but she didn’t recognise any of the names of the people I had known, had grown up with. I suppose they all drifted back to England as well. The house looked well. It suited a young family and this young family seemed very happy indeed.
I thanked her for her great kindness. The house may belong to different people in a different time but there was still enough there to spark the memories. I’m dodging black and white memories of footballs and bogeys (homemade go-carts) from the early sixties as I make my way up towards the shop and the school.
The modest building is still a shop though the name has changed. To my infant eyes this had been a veritable Bloomingdales or Harrods. This was Collett McPhearsons. An emporium that sold everything. I once put a birthday sixpence into the chocolate machine on the wall outside. The coin dropped into a void and the drawer wouldn’t budge. I told the lady behind the counter and there were no questions asked. She gladly gave me a bar of chocolate from the in shop display, patted me on the head and sent me on my way.
The closest descriptions, to the freedom and quiet adventure of my own childhood, that I have read is in To Kill a Mockingbird. There the pre-school Scout Finch seems to have the same licence to roam her home neighbourhood as I had. We never had a Boo Radley but when I got to the gates of my very first school I was reminded of something else we had in common.
I’d longed to go to school. I envied my brothers and sister as they set off each morning. They’d tell me all they had been doing, all they had been learning and somehow, along with being read to by my mother, I had become a pretty good reader by the time I turned five. Like Scout, I couldn’t recall a time when reading wasn’t a part of what I did.
I cannot remember my teacher’s name. I’d waited years to go to school. On my first day I’d forbidden my mother from going with me (she followed just out of sight). I’d been given a desk next to a boy called Scott, and a tidy box to keep my books and counting shells and pencils in. The teacher then asked the class if any of them knew what was on the black board. She had written the alphabet in upper and lower case in the sort of careful calligraphy I have always envied. I put my hand up and on command began to read out the letters.
I thought she’d be pleased with me for saving her the job of having to teach me. She was furious. More furious than I had ever seen an adult get with a child.
“Who taught you to read?” she demanded.
I didn’t know. It was just something I had grown to do. I still don’t know who taught me to read. She held forth for as long as I could stand. If she hadn’t stopped I’m sure I would have cried and that was something I was determined not to do on my first day. I had never looked forward to anything as much as starting school and by lunchtime the fire of that enthusiasm had died. It never re-kindled.
* from I Remember I Remember by Thomas Hood
**in the early Thurso pictures I’m the one by the Austin A30 (my granddad’s car) looking away to my left. In the photo taken on Thurso beach we seem to have gathered an extra to the family group. I’m the one looking down at the sand.