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Eddie Bruce
Tarradaleís Option


The perfect peat bank is one that will yield an ample supply of coke-hard burning material and be sited not too far from home. One such place had been unknowingly overlooked by generations of crofters. And who should find it in the end but a renegade, a deserter you might say. A man who had squandered so much of his adult life down south chasing dreams that he was hardly entitled to call himself a Highlander at all, in spite of his highly respected ancestors who had been happy to cut theirs on the customary inland plot since the Clearances. Typical of him to find the better option. Aye, God moves in mysterious ways indeed.

In the Crofting Township of Borganhill, almost every household has its own source of winter fuel. These plots are located "up the hill," which is local speak for a large valley some distance into the moors. There they toil at regular intervals throughout the spring and summer, cutting, lifting and stacking their peats to ensure a cosy fire when the short summer ends. The trail, fit only for tractors, leads off the Tongue to Thurso road, twisting and slanting its way through heather and over rocks for three miles, then it stops abruptly as it meets the loch that supplies the rambling village with peat-flavoured, whisky-coloured tap water.

But over to the left, just as you leave the main road, thereís a rocky mound flanked by a clump of shrubbery and beyond that, hidden from view, a small sunken glen. A lochan no bigger than a duck pond forms a centrepiece and the level ground around lies mysteriously denuded of heather.

Soon after this prime site was discovered, there was talk of a burial ground there. Wags were saying things about Tarradaleís wives. That would be jealousy; he would hardly spread that kind of rumour about himself; then again they could never be sure, knowing him. He was bad enough before he got corrupted down the line, but even so it was known that both women brought Johnís children back to visit him regularly and you canít argue with that.

Students of archaeology from Aberdeen University, on a working break at Borganhill at the time, meticulously cleared an area of fifty square metres or more. Nothing of any significance was ever found, but the removal of the top divots, the most backbreaking task in peat cutting, uncovered a dark, heavy peat of perfect consistency, that dried as hard as coal briquettes and burned just as slowly. This is Tarradaleís bank, the envy of smallholders for miles around.

The crofter and the Canadian first met aboard a minibus at the Kyle of Tongue. John MacKay, commonly known as Tarradale after his family croft, had undertaken to drive some hotel residents on a sightseeing tour, since Dougal, the owner of the little school bus, had had a few too many whiskies the night before.

With the lambing season over, he was glad of the job; choices were few enough since he refused to work at the nearby Dounreay Atomic Power Station, the only source of regular employment in the area. In season he might have found work as a water bailiff but for his poaching conviction, so he compromised by netting the pools on the river at night and selling his salmon catch to the hoteliers in Thurso before daylight crept in. As he saw it, he had no alternative.

The landlady at the Borganhill Hotel had briefed John on places of interest he should visit, even rehearsing appropriate remarks for John to recite at each. But the crofter had been drinking with Dougal the previous evening and the resultant hangover was causing him worrying memory lapses.

He parked up at the causeway as advised, but as he pointed towards the towering and majestic Ben Loyal the suggested phrase, The Queen of Scottish Mountains, eluded him.

"Ben Loyal is famous as, asÖ" he searched the faces of half a dozen passengers for inspiration, then seemed to find it in the features of an elderly couple at the back, "the oldest mountain in Scotland."

Some nodded acceptance and Johnís eyes twinkled and he maintained his deadpan expression as he reached for the ignition switch. But the big man in the seat opposite strained against his safety belt in an effort to interrupt.

"Thatís bullshit! Iím here to tell you driver, youíre talking absolute rubbishÖand you know it!"

The wealthy Canadian and his wife were living at the hotel while the cottage they had bought was being renovated.

Stealing an appreciative glance at the passengerís attractive blond partner, John stayed his hand on the switch. "Ah, you know an older one then sir? Well, so be it, I bow to your superior knowledge of history."

"Geology, for Godís sake!"

John smiled broadly, slipped the gear lever into second, checked his mirrors and drove off west across the moor.

At Loch Eriboll the driver invited the passengers to eat their packed lunches although it wasnít a scheduled stop. It came about because a tourist, his car pulling a caravan, overshot a passing place on the single-track road up ahead. The vehicles slowed to a halt facing each other a yard apart. John indicated the passing place, which the other driver had chosen to ignore, only to be answered by obscenities and abusive gestures. The car driver had killed his engine and lit a cigarette.

While they ate their picnic, with other travellers gradually converging upon the blocked road from both directions, Tarradale entertained his passengers with the story of Donald "Sailor" MacKay, a distant ancestor who, as a youth, had been kidnapped from these shores and press-ganged into service on a pirate ship. Eventually the car driver relented, but reversed his caravan into a deep ditch dragging the car with it. This mishap left the road and the passing place clear for traffic to flow normally as before.

At Durness Craft Village John described the merchandise for sale as pseudo-Scottish garbage, imported and assembled by failed art student refugees from Glasgow and Edinburgh, existing on a subsidy while pretending to be new age travellers.

Arriving back at Tongue too early, they detoured along Loch Loyal to Altnaharra then swung back towards the coast, along a valley peppered with small, dilapidated crofts, well off the tourist beat.

As the skies clouded over, John stopped at Syre church and spoke to his passengers about this glen, Strathnaver, and of manís inhumanity to man. He told them about the crofters, his ancestors, many of whom died after being evicted from their homes by their landlord, The Duke of Sutherland. He spoke of the Highland Clearances and how sheep replaced humans. He spoke knowingly about those who perished on their journey to North America and other distant relatives who didnít survive resettlement on the rugged coast. He ended his discourse with a momentís silence and as he raised his head there were murmurings of approval and appreciation.

The Canadian extended his hand and gripped the driverís firmly. "Put it there fella. Iím Bob Morrison and this is my wife Lois," he said. "OK, so youíre no geologist, but you sure as hell know your history."

John shook his hand then started the engine. "Thatís oral tradition, Bob, thereís a difference; history books lie."

Tarradale was less than a mile from the Canadianís rebuilt cottage on the Borgan river estuary and so it was that in that scattered community Bob and Lois formed an uneasy friendship with John and his daughter Morag. The only thing the two men had in common was an appreciation of malt whisky and the love of a good argument, but for a while those similarities seemed enough to sustain them. Lois and Morag, on the other hand, were kindred spirits.

The crofter would listen with genuine interest as Bob described the life heíd left behind in Winnipeg; how heíd started as a junior accountant in a chain store, made it to general manager in ten years and married Lois. He told John about the many exotic parts of the world they had visited on vacation and how, on returning from a trip to Scotland, he and Lois decided to make a clean break from the rat race and suburbia. With no kids to influence their decision and a healthy share portfolio, they opted for the quiet life by choosing the most sparsely populated place they could find. It was also something of a homecoming since he had traced relatives on his fatherís side to the fishing village of Kinlochbervie on the West Coast.

Johnís own reminiscences amounted to a hard luck story by comparison. The only son of staunchly religious parents, he left home at sixteen simply to escape the strict, stifling home atmosphere. The only thing he shared with his parents was an instinctive distrust of Dounreay, and their largely infertile smallholding couldnít sustain three adults indefinitely. Although tall, strong and eager to please, the young Highlander was worldly naÔve and learned all his lessons the hard way. Now forty, with two failed marriages behind him, he was the father of four children.

He had inherited Tarradale upon the death of his parents. Both his wives had been from the city and failed to adjust to the primitive and relatively impoverished life on the croft. But Morag, from his second marriage, took to the Highlands like a true native and refused to leave. The others kept in contact and visited when they could.

When the twelve-year-old malt whisky had hit the spot, John MacKay would often philosophise, not unkindly, about misguided parents, barren soil and fertile women. Where the latter were concerned, he had never abandoned his dream of meetingthe right one, but as the years slipped by, with options dwindling, he increasingly sought spiritual solace in the whisky bottle.

The other subject close to Johnís heart was the ownership of salmon and how a fish that had travelled from as far away as Iceland to spawn, could possibly become the property of a Scottish, or quite commonly, English landowner. It was an issue the Canadian had few thoughts on at the time but would later cause him to make a decision with far-reaching consequences.

Bob particularly admired his neighbourís neat stack of firm, coal-black peat, built like a large brick shed. Having made a feature of the large open fireplace in their new home, he wasted no time in scouring the moor and claiming a peat bank of his own. From a Thurso blacksmith he purchased a flaughter, rutter and tusker, the standard peat-cutting tools, and worked tirelessly and alone on his project.

On Bobís prolonged absences up the hill, Lois became a regular visitor to Tarradale. She and Morag became close friends and often while John slept after his dubious nocturnal activities, they would swim together at the sandy river estuary. Occasionally in the early evening, with Bob still toiling on the hill, John would take them with him on his small boat to catch mackerel. Some said that Morag sometimes stayed behind and another that the boat was once seen at Coldbackie beach and a couple walking arm-in-arm into the cave there when the tide was out. Such was village shop gossip.

After a while Bob brought home a peat sample for Johnís inspection. The crofter weighed it in his hand then poked his fingers into the fibrous stringy texture.

"Depends if you want to use it for burning or for scrubbing your back," he said. "Never dig where you find bog myrtle growing Bob; theyíll be lightweight and fit only for kindling."

Some mentioned a peat bank being fired up the hill next day. Bob said he was just smoking off a swarm of midges, but all the peats he had cut were reduced to ashes and he didnít drop in on Tarradale with the customary bottle of Macallan that week, nor for weeks to come.

As summer replaced spring, the Canadians did their best to become part of the community, attending ceilidhs and fund-raising events at the local hall. On the common grazing land surrounding Tarradale, where chomping Cheviots had trimmed the grass to putting green texture, Bob could sometimes be seen practising his golf swing while Morag showed Lois where to find wild mushrooms.

It was about this time that Lois told Morag about her husbandís mood swings. While she herself felt she had blossomed in the changed environment, Bob was missing the stimulation and companionship of his peers. Their marriage appeared to become secondary to him as his mind leapt from one obsession to another. Once outgoing and open with her, he was now introverted, petty-minded and bitter. At least once a week since the salmon-fishing season started, he would dine with Lois at the Borganhill Hotel just to hobnob with the wealthy businessmen who rented a room and a stretch of the river from the hotel annually.

After a while he too bought a rod and paid for the privilege of mixing with people of his own class, difficult though it was for him since he lacked the necessary patience for the sport. To make matters worse, it had been one of the driest seasons in living memory and river pools that normally yielded twenty or thirty-pound salmon were too shallow to sustain them. As his fellow fishermen grumbled about the parched river, Bob would look downstream towards Tarradale and be reminded of another reason for the shortage of fish.

But most mornings the Canadian walked to the hill carrying a packed lunch and he would sometimes stay there Ďtill dusk. When he deigned to speak, he would tell Lois about an overgrown, disused area nearby where the peat was a rich dark mould. He had cut at least a yearís supply and built them into storrows to dry in the wind. Soon he would buy a bottle of Scotch and talk to John about transporting them home.

If Bobís neighbour was concerned about the lapse in their relationship, he showed little sign. There was talk of a falling out and it had been noticed that their paths seldom crossed these days. More puzzling was the fact that this year John hadnít gone to the hill at all, although he did still have a good winterís supply of peat in the stack. Word was he was preoccupied with other matters and building up trouble for himself in more ways than one in the process.

ooooOOOOoooo

Jimmy Anderson didnít know his Christian name was Hamish until he moved from Aberdeen to Borganhill. At first he put it down to mistaken identity although, being the only resident policeman, that was unlikely. He soon realised that everyone in that Gaelic community who was baptised James would thereafter answer to Hamish. Jimmy didnít particularly like the name but he loved his new posting so he didnít labour the point.

His first call out had been to a drunk and disorderly at the local hotel, where a crofter had been challenging everyone in the public bar to a fistfight. When Jimmy arrived the man was slumped in a paralytic state by the door and it was easy enough, despite his weight, to transfer him to the back seat of the police car. The landlady and several customers went to some lengths to explain that the drunk was not a violent person, but had been drowning his sorrows for weeks since his second wife left him. A lift home was all that was called for.

At Tarradale croft, the man came to his senses under a verbal onslaught from his daughter, and was soon pouring liberal measures of whisky as "a token of gratitude." In Borganhill no one knocked before entering a house and to refuse a drink was to insult the host.

When he awoke late next day, Jimmy had no recollection of travelling home. He had vague memories of a once inebriated crofter gradually drinking himself sober; a phenomenon he had heard of but never witnessed, while he himself became increasingly mellow in the convivial company. He recalled Morag with her disapproving glances and rebukes, the warmth of the peat fire flame, the oft repeated phrase "one for the road" Ė and little else. He found the car keys on his table and the vehicle parked neatly out front.

If he chanced to meet John MacKay in the days that followed, they would nod and exchange knowing looks Ė but nothing more.

ooooOOOOoooo

When Jimmy got the tip-off he spent the whole day worrying about it. While John MacKay was the only person he knew who made a living from poaching, he did go about his business discreetly and any conflict was always between the poacher and the water bailiffs, with John always one move ahead. Jimmy only became involved when an arrest was necessary and he was aware that an offenderís car could be confiscated as part of the penalty. He knew he had to contact his colleagues in Caithness and pass on the car registration number, but before that he made a local call.

Theyíd finished their evening meal and Morag was clearing up in the kitchen while John watched the news on commercial television. For years he had refused to pay the licence fee because homes in Borganhill were unable to receive BBC transmissions. Indeed the only signal they could pick up came from the Orkney Islands across the Pentland Firth. When the Northern Times published a picture of a TV detector van arriving at Wick harbour, the local post office did ten times its normal trade next day. Tarradale remonstrated with his MP, but to no avail, then waited six months until the van crossed the border into Sutherland before making his receiver legal.

Bob walked in more tentatively than previously, cleared his throat then placed the bottle on the table with a thump. As John looked up, the first thing he seemed to observe was the whisky, which, unusually, bore the brand label of a common blend.

He indicated the easy chair opposite while switching off the television set. "Have a seat Bob."

Morag came through, smiled at Bob and brought glasses from the cupboard.

"No, this wonít take long. And I wonít have a drink, thanks Morag."

The crofterís brow furrowed as he scrutinised his visitorís face, which twitched a little as he moved his weight from one foot to another.

"Yeah. Well John I only have coupla things to say, then Iíll leave. Itís best you hear this from me, I owe you that. You remember you asked me once who owns the fish in the river? Yeah? OK, well I thought about it, and it sure as hell isnít you my friend! Thereís fishermen out there paying big bucks to catch salmon and the pools are empty. With the drought they have to fish for sea trout on the free stretch here on the estuary. How does that make you feel?"

"It makes me angry that theyíre allowed to do it. That stretch is for local people."

"That all you can say?"

"No, but itíll keep. What was the other thing?"

The Canadianís vacant face adopted an ironic smile as he shook his head. "You donít get it, do you? I had to report you to the police John. Iím sorry, but what youíre doing is wrong by any standards, canít you see that?"

Tarradale maintained his quizzical expression. "And the other thing?"

His guest took some time to answer. "I have some peats on the hill, he said, still shaking his head, "Iíd like you to bring them home for me with your tractor. Iíll pay the going rate, but Iíll understand if youíd rather I asked someone else. Your call fella."

"Theyíre legally mine Bob. Youíve been cutting my peat bank."

The other shook his head once more. "Youíre crazy! The ground was overgrown with weeds; the site was abandoned."

"That happens over winter. You shouldíve checked out croftersí rights before you started digging. Anyone could have told you about Tarradaleís bank. I have plenty for my needs this year though; you can keep them. Just ask somebody else to take them off the hill."

"I don't get it John. Why are you taking this so well, eh? I'd feel better if you punched me on the jaw. I've put an end to your poaching operation, taking away, I would guess, half your income? Now you tell me I've been cutting your peat bank and that's OK. I play the stock Market and I know about options. I'd say yours have ran out. If I were in your shoes man, I'd want revenge."

"Thereís damned few fish left now. Besides, netting a river isnít all itís cracked up to be; you can catch your death out there. We were friends once Bob, but youíve broken the boundaries and got involved in matters that arenít really your concern. I donít like to admit it but I envied you once. You had everything going for you when you came here; all you had to do was learn to live and let live. Youíre going to need that drink now."

"What? No, Iím fine. Why díyou say that?"

"Because Lois is leaving you. Sheís moving in with Morag and me."


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