Highland Archives

STRAY LEAVES FROM THE TEA BOWL

By Stephen Cashmore

There’s a sense of adventure attendant on going into a bar. Being public sort of places, anyone could be lurking in there; friends, enemies, old flames, past figures you’d rather avoid, forgotten embarrassments just waiting the right moment to spring out and tell the whole wide world . . .

You breeze in, dry as a slice of melba toast, expecting the Saturday afternoon regulars; husbands awol from shopping, fugitive losers from the bookie’s, domino veterans, and in the corner a hard-working man sat bolt upright in front of a very flat pint of beer, fast asleep. But there’s someone else. Too late, he’s seen you first.

"Hey, you grey-headed old b---d! A double for that man! I remember when he came here, the backside out of his breeks."

"He’s no’ changed much," a friend observes, his wit submerged under the barrage of rough compliments, storming gale force 8 from the mouth of my old mate, Big Tam, fresh home from Canada to visit his sister. It’s been ten years at least.

"See this man," Tam tells the barmaid, "Me and him was boozing buddies before you were even thought of. And me just a boy, and his hair was going grey, even then." All this endorsed by spine breaking thumps on the back.

Tam’s had a skinful and must be indulged - just for old time’s sake. The barmaid suffers in smiling silence. She’s heard worse, and sure enough there’s worse to come. "See her skirt?" I nod my head. There’s not much of it, but it’s a skirt all the same. "What’s wrong with it? Tell me – what is wrong with her skirt?"

"Its too long (?)"

"Haah! You dirty old dog! No. I’ll tell you what’s wrong with it. It should be lying on my bedroom floor." And Tam backslaps me halfways into next week.

There’s a saying locally that if things seem bad, don’t worry – they will surely get worse. Who, I ask, would care to admit that they were of an age to have stood their hand in the Mainbrace bar? And who among you remembers the alternative name for that venerated establishment? If you don’t know, then you won’t find it here for, as the News of the World so often states, it cannot be mentioned in a family newspaper.

Tam leaves, full steam ahead, inviting me to join him in a pub crawl. "Come on man, we’ll show these young chiels how to chat up the women." At four thirty in the afternoon, such schemes are really not practical, so I take my sore ears elsewhere, envious of the hard working man who had slept on through all this bedlam.

In a café I meet another old colleague – Peter, up on a déjà vu reunion with his home town. He’s been away so long his tea ‘n a bowlie accent has all but vanished. But Peter’s a quiet man, and teetotal. Nevertheless, he has a sense of humour. How did he travel north? By train. It was a memorable journey.

At Inverness a happy individual boarded the last train to Wick. His luggage was uncomplicated – six cans of extra strong lager to add to whatever had already passed down his neck. Peter knew what was coming. The man sat opposite him – and promptly passed out. He remained in John Barleycorn’s arms until Golspie, where he surfaced, wide-awake.

"See that castle?" The train was passing Dunrobin. "That’s Balmoral." Then he went back to sleep, geographically disorientated by alcohol Peter reasoned. At Helmsdale, our man woke up again. This time he had a longer lesson to deliver.

"That track up there on the hillside. See it?" Peter nodded, thinking it bad manners to disagree with someone apparently blessed with the Second Sight. "That’s the Highlander’s road. It was made in one day when ten thousand came down from Strathnaver, driven out of their homes by the Duke of Cumberland. They all went to America from here in a fleet of ships."

Being a disciple of the Revisionist School, friend Peter kept an open mind on history. Perhaps it was true – but he doubted it. Were there to be any more historical revelations? There certainly was.

A row of roofless lineside railway cottages near Kildonan were pointed out as examples of "Burnt-out Clearance crofts," while that splendidly situated Gothic pile, the former Lochdhu Hotel, was confidently described as "Dunrobin Castle, where the Queen Mother stays when she’s up for the grouse shooting."

"Are you going to Wick, by any chance?" Peter asked his travelling companion.

"Nay, nay. I’m bound for Thurso, same as you are. You’ve never been there, but let me tell you - it’s a right bonnie toun."

As they stepped down from the train, Peter helped his unsteady friend onto the platform, shook his hand and bade him farewell. "No, I’ll not join you for a dram. My mother’s here to meet me. And," he added as he left his astonished comrade; "You’re dead right about one thing – Thurso is a right bonnie toun . Goodnight."

 

Highland Archives Index

 

Steven Cashmore 1999


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