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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
"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
"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
"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."