2007 - 2021

Removing Bus Tickets from Badgers Ears

clearances-l_tcm4-568063Dear Catherine Graham,

I am writing to apologise for making you cry, twice, whilst you were on stage at the Arts club and we had only just met.

To my considerable surprise I am now sixty four, and whilst I have often made women cry, never twice within five minutes of our first meeting.

You asked me to write. I shall try not to make it a hat trick.

As you may recall the occasion was during the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and I had been stalking various artists in the hope of finding someone to write a review about for an Arts Magazine that nobody has ever heard of. Frankly when I was told that the poetry you were going to read was themed around your inability to move on from the experience of hearing that your drunken Father had died in a car crash whilst swerving his car away from a deer my heart sank.

However it was work so I prepared to witness what I feared would be more self serving pusillanimous pish followed by my usual crass technique of escape; suddenly staring with unconvincing amazement at my watch and then making a clumsy run for the door. I’m not really very good with poets. Usually cant understand what they are on about.

But you were amazing. It’s little wonder you are so well regarded in your field. Toronto University is lucky to have you. As is your partner.

I was intrigued by the Gaelic nature of your work, the constant reference to the great cycles of nature and the inconsequential nature of our journey through life , your fascination with Tilda Swinton’s request to have her corpse staked out on a Hebridean beach to be pecked to bits by the birds, the lilting cadences, economy of words, the measured dignity. All so characteristically gaelic.

It came as little surprise when you told me after the show that your family had hailed from Mull.

Then you gave me the usual nonsense about how they used to live in a castle. Macgregors? Aye right. Who cares.

That’s when I started to make you cry. To your credit. And my disgrace.

I can’t remember what the tear triggers were. Something perhaps about the fact that when your family might well have been cleared in the middle of the nineteenth century there were many thousands of gaelic speakers on Mull and of how due to the clearances, the wars and the misuse of the land that figure had now been reduced to somewhere around a hundred and that the culture that had sired you and yours had now been crushed and disposed of, and the houses that were once their homes now owned by absentee landlords who were jokingly termed Viagras as they didn’t get up nearly as much as they wanted to.

And then, if I remember rightly, the second time I made you cry was when I told you of how when the gaelic archivist John Lorne Campbell’s wife, Margaret Fey Shaw had reached her hundredth birthday someone had rowed over to Canna from the Uists with a present of some new potatoes that had been grown in the very sands where she wanted to be buried. So that she wouldn’t be frightened.

Yes, I remember, that’s when you cried again. And so did I. Which wasn’t very professional. Of either of us. Though I’m glad we did.

Anyhow after you had returned from re-plastering your make-up you asked how to get to Mull and I explained that on the twelfth of September, the start of the stag shooting season, I was due to be crewing a yacht down past Mull from Fort William and could drop you off. And you looked a little nervous. Can’t blame you really. I am quite old, you are quite young and after that initial five minutes my record in bringing joy into our fledgling relationship was weak to say the least.

You said you would be back teaching in Toronto by then but asked me to email you with how I got on with my boating trip. I think you were trying to get rid of me. Extraordinary.

Anyway I’m back now back from my “ Boating trip” and I am glad you didn’t come. I nearly cried myself through fear and terror. God knows how you would have coped.

I think it all started with fear of death. Being young you wont have come across the persistent ghost of mortality yet. After you hit sixty, or have your first heart attack, or particularly like me both, he nudges you awake in the morning and is particularly with you before you sleep, or when you start to feel a little hot and breathless in big seas on small boats.

He was sitting on my shoulder when I looked at the forecast on September 12th just before we set off in the yacht trip to Mull.

A force nine from the south, bang on the nose. We were sitting in the bottom lock of the Caledonian canal in a thirty eight foot sloop that was perfect in every detail and had sailed through hurricanes.

Now normally the skipper and I would have gone to the pub, as we have done so often in the forty odd years we have sailed together, but over a somewhat gloomy breakfast in the Fort William sea lock he explained that the wind was dropping and there wasn’t any rocks to hit between there and the Corran Narrows, the boat was sound and we both had seen worse. My entreaties about the orphaned children of the lifeboatmen that might drown coming to rescue us, not to mention the humiliation for our families if our stupidity was ever mentioned in the Oban Times fell on deaf ears and we were released from the placid sea lock into the mahem of Loch Lhine in a manner that made me realise what it must have been like to be a greyhound racing out of a trap on a particularly wet evening at powderhall. During an earthquake.

You should understand that I am not very good at sailing. Oh I like being at sea but I am too clumsy and fine boned for adventuring and only have a tiny concentration span, so I am usually only taken because I can cook.

Looking back on a myriad of setting off into the teeth of gales my memories always have the background music of that alarming cacophony that always come from below as, no matter how comprehensively you have stowed them every pot and pan, every egg and packet of cornflakes leap terrified from their cupboards and send a clattering message through the deck that going seaward is perhaps not such a good idea.

It’s not as if the Captain and I don’t have a full understanding of the ghastliness of drowning at sea. Forty odd years ago the Captain served on the Fittleton when she capsized with a loss of twelve lives and around that time I did a fortnight on the Marquesa before she too capsized with a loss of seventeen. We have both known good men who have drowned. In truth our trip on the twelfth wasn’t really too risky, our boat was pretty bombproof, the course to run clean as a whistle , the wind dropping, but that didn’t stop our memories of dead men that had mattered to us.

It’s strange approaching Mull when your soul has been sand-papered by a few hours of head butting a gale and your mind has been dwelling on good friends lost and your own limited time on earth.

In some ways being made to feel frightened and lost is the right way to approach Mull, that place of tears.

During the nineteen fourteen war my father was an adjutant in the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders and spent many an evening writing letters of condolences to the Mull families of children who had died following his orders. He had known many of the families, many of the Mull kids killed , his own Father had been a recruiting officer, sending men over to France for his teenage son to dispose of as he made out the lists of who would go over the top and who would stay in the warm.

When the war finished Dad spent a summer wandering the island visiting their homes to help in their crofts. He was twenty two. He said the days were usually fine. It was the nights that were awful, usually lying on straw in barns waiting for the dawn. No candles were allowed in those straw filled barns as he lay in the inky darkness fighting to come to terms with what he had done.

This last summer I have spent many days walking to the places he would have walked to. Visiting some of those homes. It’s been a somewhat depressing experience. For a start there are few records of those who have died. Oh the war memorials on Mull list them in their hundreds. Hundreds? Yes hundreds. But once you start tracing the more intricate records you find that in the main it was only the officers whose deaths were recorded in any detail.

The men who died are often recorded only in family legends.

To find the details of the Jocks who died you have to knock on doors and ask, but it’s mostly tourists who answer and the land lies ragged.

For me the most harrowing part of my researches has been discovering that there are a number of records of some officers, perhaps not Argylls, being detailed to walk behind the men as they marched forward into a rain sewn with hot bullets and shooting their own men if they ran away. I could scarcely believe it when I first heard of this. And then I found three separate stories. From separate sources. It’s little wonder my Father found sleep difficult in those hay barns. I wonder what he saw in his four years at war? I think it broke him, or perhaps made him.

Sometime in the early evening we passed a bay on Mull called Loch Bhuie. I visited there in in the Spring. There’s a house there that my Father once took me to. Lived in by a family called Gorrie. Three sons, all killed. During the war one of the locals took a chisel, waded into the sea and carved the word Gorrie into a rock near their house. I’m told it’s gone now. Maybe that was the point. All things pass, and they did honour to the line in their manner of passing.

I found this story about the Gorries when I was on Mull. Evidently their house was so small that there was no room for all the beds of the children so the bedroom door couldn’t even be opened and they had to climb in and out through the window.

I went to that window. You could still imagine the laughter.

Three dead. Pity really.

As night fell on the yacht I looked along the Ross of Mull and spied at the headlands that marked other townships similarly castrated of their young men. Carsaig, Uisken, Erraid. Dad once told me he had visited t all those villages and cut the peats their sons would have cut and sold any of their boats that needed selling. He said he had often thought about the lives they should have lived, of how we sleep a long time and of how those boys would sleep too long and for little reason.

Night fell as we were off Oban, Crinan our final destination. We were eating mostly oranges. They work when your face is constantly being splashed with sea salt that the warm wind soon crusts on your lips. It is recorded that when Nelson was in the battle of Trafalgar his secretary, who was standing beside him, was cut in half by a cannon and the Admiral was splashed in the face with his friend’s blood. They gave him an orange to suck to take away the taste. When I am at sea I sometimes think about the orange that Nelson ate, only hours before he too was shot through the spine and died drowning in his own blood.

What a busy day he must have had, the volume turned up on his life.

By two in the morning we were both very tired and talking gibberish.

We have been to sea so often that we ran out of small talk sometime in the nineteen eighties and now have to trawl new grounds of imagination to find something, anything, to say to each other.

Around two in the morning the Captain reported that he had heard that a survey had been made of people’s ability to have imagination and the comparative question put by the researcher was what was the most interesting thing you could do with a key. The best answer was that a key could be used to remove bus tickets from badgers ears. We laughed and had another orange. Dear God we were cold.

We got to Crinan at three thirty in the morning and fell asleep without removing our oilskins.

I hope you go to Mull Catherine, and I hope you go in a storm.

I hope you resist going into the tourist shops but instead walk amongst the remnants of the villages that once housed your people.

I hope you find a hay barn and lie down and cry there. It might break you, and it might make you.

It’s good for the soul, good for the perspective, good for the imagination, good for the anger. It’s like sucking an orange when our face is crusted with salt, or blood, it turns up the volume on your life, makes you taste reality.

There is much to be done in this war ridden world of ours and we need good poets to explain what we are on about.

And we sleep a long time.

Comments (24)

Join the Discussion

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. orderofthings says:

    This is lovely, evocative and funny. Thank you.

  2. Elaine Fraser says:

    Wonderful, evocative, moving , memorable.

  3. John wilson says:

    The most entertaining and emotional piece to date on Bella. Lovely writing that reminds me of Laurie Lee, high praise. Why am I not surprised that the names of Senior Ranks only are commemorated…….

  4. Rob Bradley says:

    A masterclass in letter writing, the art of which is gradually being lost in a blizzard of comments as trite as my own. Thank you Mr. M.

  5. Alastair McIntosh says:

    This is Sir Maxwell MacLeod of Fuinary (Mull) at pretty much his very best. For years, he’s been privately plying friends with this quality of writing. He must be one of Scotland’s most interesting unpublished (in book form, as distinct from ephemerae) writers. Will somebody just land him a whopping big advance, clap him in irons until delivered, and get that beautiful, beautiful book extracted, and out there? Scotland expects. Are you listening, Maxwell?

    1. Rob Fairley says:

      Max … are you listening … have just e mailed you with a similar request to Alastair’s.

  6. Fay Kennedy. says:

    Words fail me. Heart wrenching and funny. More please.

  7. Helayne says:

    Mhaith thú!

  8. Mary MacCallum Sullivan says:

    I second Alastair’s plea: more, please, and wider access to Maxwell’s wonderful communication of what it means to be an aged, wrinkled, vulnerable human being full of wisdom, compassion and poetry.

  9. Justin Kenrick says:

    For me the most harrowing passage:

    “For me the most harrowing part of my researches has been discovering that there are a number of records of some officers, perhaps not Argylls, being detailed to walk behind the men as they marched forward into a rain sewn with hot bullets and shooting their own men if they ran away. I could scarcely believe it when I first heard of this. And then I found three separate stories. From separate sources. It’s little wonder my Father found sleep difficult in those hay barns. I wonder what he saw in his four years at war? I think it broke him, or perhaps made him.”

    Beautiful terrible writing Max

    Have realised the same about my own father. Though he was a medic in the Parachute Regiment and told us he didn’t use his gun, those experiences of war, of murder all around (sanctioned, year after year murder) overflowed and broke the surface more and more over the years. His passion and commitment to change the world for the better probably overflowed from it to: a burning desire to make amends, to make men whole.

    And here we are in such a similar world, after that big long space of peace for us while waging war far away. Those wars draw ever closer, as every attempt to solve a problem with a gun, every attempt to impose order rather than nourish humanity, begets another wave of artrocity.

    But mostly you remind me of taking the ferry back from Craignure on that dark night, coming back from one of the boys funerals after the terrible drownings in the Sound of Iona . . . coming back from Craignure the winter sea was fierce but nothing that a huge CalMac ferry couldn’t handle, until we got to Oban. There, the harbour was boiling with waves and swell so huge the massive ferry couldn’t dock but had to turn round back across the Sound of Mull to Craignure for the night.

    Sometimes, just when you think you are coming into the safety of harbour, the crossing becomes unbearable.

    Here in your poetry and story, where salt tears connect the remembrance of smashed communities with the person in front of you (one whose family left, one who stayed), are laid bare the times we live in: where to be nothing less than honest, nothing more than humane, is a task of herculean and intimate proportions.

    1. maxwell macleod says:

      I remember writing your Father’s obituary. I had always seen him as something of a hero of mine, firstly because he founded Shelter and secondly because he chose to live his summers in a tent on the north end of Iona writing interesting books and teaching his kids to canoe.
      I also loved the way he actually answered any questions you put to him straight as a die, not wriggling like so many of the clerics I met.
      I suppose I also envied you the time he was able to give you. And then I started to unpeel the onion as an obituarist has to do and came across the blemishes that tell of pains and agonies. I never really was able to nail the reason behind those blemishes but today you have opened a window into a remarkable man. Perhaps its those who have been wounded who go on to fight the best. We should drink beer together in the new community Kirk of Portie if you get the grants to buy it.

      1. Justin Kenrick says:

        We will

        And now that’s another one you’ve reduced to (or should that be: blessed with) tears.

        There’s much much more to talk of, but not here and now.

        I’ll hold you to it – first drinks at the Bell in Bellfield Street should we succeed. And that reminds me of a mad midnight crosssing in canoes to first foot Cammas, whisky and coal stowed, the big moon shining, waves growling, with Mark Jardine when he was postman and we were all immortal.

  10. MBC says:

    A wonderful piece of writing, searing with humanity. There is a deep ache in this man. He longs for the grave yet equally defies it. He stands at a crossroads.

  11. C E Ayr says:

    I was moved to laughter and tears.

  12. maxwell macleod says:

    I am very grateful for these kind words. I suspect that desperate men reach the zenith of their creativity when they suddenly realise that they are now becoming old and delude themselves that they might have perhaps have one final chance of charming the drawers off a younger woman. Not that that was my actual intention at all of course, we are talking subconscious motivations here. Ah but your old men shall dream dreams. Anyhow Justine here’s a piece about the Iona drownings that I did in an hour for the Indie. A bit imperfect, but aren’t we all.http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/the-lost-sons-of-iona-1191467.html

  13. MBC says:

    Once early on in an excavation in windswept Orkney in the 1970s, when the organisation of the dig was in its infancy, without a site hut for shelter, in the pouring rain, unable to work and unable to shelter, our crew were thoroughly dejected as we sat waiting on the only bench we had for the hopeful return of the site van to effect a rescue, when suddenly one poor sod burst spontaneously into that famous anthem of British stoicism, ‘Land of hope and glory’ and the rest of us followed, its words and meaning seeming to ironically echo the pain and the futility of the moment, as well as our defiant fortitude of spirit. The words, ‘Ours is but to do or die, and not to ask the reason why’ floated idly through my head.

    And then I had an epiphany. That was it! That was exactly what Britishness and Britain meant to me.

    Pointless. B****y. Waste.

  14. John D Winter says:

    To lose one of your children is bad enough, but to lose three gives one the numbness of death. Your father must have been driven to the edge of his mind. His faith must have been so exposed. I feel that Christianity has been in retreat since 1914, because there are too many questions left unanswered by those appalling four years.

  15. Maxwell says:

    John Winter
    Assuming you areJD!
    You knew my Father and I duringshouumany of your years as a teacher of religion,sometimes in war zones, so your words have gravitas.
    My Father certainly had a fatherly feeling for many of those he saw killed and yes I think it drove him mad,though only in the way that RD Laing defined madness-the release of rational thought into a zone that Lama Yeshie once defined as gaining healing through viewing your madnesss as if it were a television programme.
    There is currently a theory being explored by Yvonne at Edinburgh University that Scotland is still ill as culture as it hasnt gone through the necessary grieving for the trauma of the first world war,viz it hasnt gone through its healing madness due to our traditional emotional repression

  16. Rob Whiteman says:

    I found this because you were tagged on facebook. A lovely piece – might one use parts of it (suitably acknowledged) in sermons. Hope you are well. I am now in the Cotswolds.

    1. Maxwell says:

      You need not ackknowledge anything Rob. I stole most of the good bits myself. Come home soon

  17. Alf Baird says:

    Great story, reminds me of quite recently sailing in rough weather between Oban-Crinan and bein seek as a dug. I’m currently re-reading the excellent ‘Decisions for War, 1914-1917’ (Hamilton & Herwig, Cambridge Univ Press, 2004). A small coterie of elites made that decision, much as they still do today, though the authors found no convincing reason/need for the UK to enter the war. So, why did it happen? To quell the likelihood of civil unrest at home was high up there, as was the role of the newspaper barons who ‘whipped up a frenzy’, the arms industry who supplied it, and the banks who financed it all. We are far too nice to these despicable elites, who control much of our lives even today.

  18. Marcia Blaine says:

    Give this man hown own column in BelCal, PLEASE

  19. David McCann says:

    Dont know which I enjoyed more- Max’s article or the lovely comments!
    More please.

  20. Shahid Khan says:

    Max we met many years ago. Too long for me to remember, through a mutual friend, David Cooper. Your writing confirms the power of words, their juxtaposition screaming agony and the acceptance of life and death. As has been mentioned by many already; there are few of us on this beautiful planet that convey thoughts clearly and succinctly; you are certainly one of them. If I maybe bold enough to say, you must write every wakening hour so that the rest of us can ‘cry’ to become whole once again.

Help keep our journalism independent

We don’t take any advertising, we don’t hide behind a pay wall and we don’t keep harassing you for crowd-funding. We’re entirely dependent on our readers to support us.

Subscribe to regular bella in your inbox

Don’t miss a single article. Enter your email address on our subscribe page by clicking the button below. It is completely free and you can easily unsubscribe at any time.