I'd had my little yellow Vespa 90cc for just under a month when a friend
informed me of a recent trip he had taken to France on his own Vespa. "It
was pure dead brilliant!" he said, slipping the spectacles back onto his
nose with a quick and accurate poke of an index finger. "Paris and the
Champs Elysees!" He went on, with growing excitement and a perpetual spray
of saliva from his buck-toothed mouth, to disclose every detail of that
fascinating city, culminating in a long narration of his last week in
I had no intentions of visiting France, least of all the Burgundy region,
but as I listened to Oscar bestow the virtues of a scootering holiday, I
became increasingly more interested in the concept. In fact, I was so
enthralled with the idea that, even as Oscar spoke, I began to formulate
and plan a similar venture of my own. "Aye, ye canae beat it," Oscar was
saying, "Paris, Le Mans, Toulouse, Marseille. Oh, and Provence. Man, wit a
time I had in Provence!" I had no doubt my friend did indeed have a
wonderful time in Provence. After all, France is a beautiful country. My
own ideal holiday, however, the itinerary of which seemed to germinate
even as Oscar spoke, lay closer to home; Oban, Mull, Inverness, Ullapool,
Culloden, Perth. In short, I would tour the Highlands. The more I thought
of such a trip, the more I looked forward to it, particularly in view of
the fact I would be leaving Scotland soon. A few days earlier I had
recieved confirmation that my application to emmigrate to Canada had been
successful. With that in mind, and the realisation that this would
probably be my last summer in Scotland, it only made sense that I should
tour the Highlands before I left.
Preparation, they say, is the secret to all good holidays. To this end, I
prepared with diligence and in secret, telling absolutely no one of my
plans. I fully intended to make this a one-man trip - no family, no
friends, least of all Oscar and his projectiles of saliva. No. This
holiday would be different - a vocational time out, if you will. I had
just finished college and had now reached an important crossroads in my
life. Should I, or should I not emigrate to Canada? Where better to think
things out than at the side of a babbling brook in one of the great glens,
with the serenity of the Scottish hillside looming upward on four sides.
The more I thought about it, the more I warmed to the idea.
Two days later, with the decision made, I went to the bank, withdrew
forty-five pounds and proceeded to purchase every item I thought I would
need for such a trip. A tent was essential, of course, as was a sleeping
bag, propane stove, first aid kit, and a radio. Refreshment items such as
juices, tea, sugar, milk, etc, along with perishable foods, could be
purchased en route and as required. Last but not least I procured a small
bicycle lamp which I intended to hang from the centre of the tent.
The only thing remaining to do was inform my parents of my holiday plans.
Why I left this all too important item to the last minute I can't honestly
fathom, other than to say that nerves might have played a big part; hard
to believe when you consider that we were such a cloesly knit family, each
of us well acquainted to the others spontaneous and often unconventional
Departure day arrived and I stood in the living room, my palms clammy with
sweat as I broke the earth-shattering news. "Right Mum." I said, "I'm
"You're off, are ye?" she asked as she lumbered out of the kitchen, wiping
her hands on the corner of an apron. "Off on that scooter and no' show
yourself again until three in the morning?"
I changed my footing and braced myself. "Did I no' tell you I was taking a
two-week scooter trip into the Highlands? I'll be off to Canada soon, and
I want to see a wee bit of Scotland before I leave. I'm sure I mentioned
"No," she said softly, her eyes searching the middle distance, "I don't
think ye did. But look here..." She strolled into the hallway in a kind of
hip rocking jog, elbows dancing, and opened the top drawer of a small
mirrored cabinet. "Ye'll need these," she said placing a brown paper bag
into my hands. With a wink she added, "It's replacement batteries for the
lamp ye stole from your brother's bicycle."
Being that I lived in such a small town, wherein the most trivial of
functions inspired a social gathering, it came as no surprise to see the
faces of neighbours peeking, poking, peering and openly gawking from every
window in the street as I stood with my family on the sidewalk and
kick-started the little Vespa into life.
I paid no heed to them, of course, these inoffensively curious faces
behind bulging drapes and ceramic cats. I could deal with them and their
haunting stares. The obtrusive, however, those standing on the sidewalk,
arms akimbo or hands in pockets, were there awaiting one thing and one
thing only - a disaster in one form or another.
What bothered me, as I kicked started the Vespa a second time, was that I
had a feeling I was not going to let them down. I've often heard of
Murphy's Law, that well known phrase which states that If anything can
go wrong - it will. For me, that law could not have picked a worse
moment to affect itself. With all eyes fixed on my heavily laden scooter,
it was hardly surprising that my little engine that could, chose that
exact moment to decide that he couldn't!
People are strange, I've often found, but it never fails to amaze me that
no matter what might go wrong, there's always someone who knew that it
would. Frank Devlin, for instance, elbowed his wife and let out a chortle
of laughter that would carry to the next street. "What did I tell ye,
Sadie. Did I no' tell ye that little Vespa would never start under such a
I certainly did have the little machine loaded to the hilt. There were two
large plastic boxes fastened pinion style to the side, a third and
much larger one on a rack to the rear. Over this went the rolled up tent
and sleeping bag. On top of it all, securely tied, yet giving the
impression of impending disaster, was a cumbersome, navy style knapsack
containing a fair amount of clothing.
The front end of the Scooter faired no better, for my hamper of groceries
took up it's position on a rack above the front wheel where an assortment
of pots pans and tin plates dangled and clanked like cowbells. Smiling
awkwardly, I pumped my foot down on the little starter once more, giving
the engine a throttle of petrol.
Usually, when things go wrong for me, they often occur in series, and
always in the worst possible sequence. Not this time, however, for after
another chortle of laughter from Frank Devlin and a rather desperate kick
on the starter, the little engine, who was just being finicky to begin
with, coughed and spluttered into life amidst a plume of gray-blue
On The Road.
For the first time that day, and probably not the last, I began to wonder
if this scootering holiday was such a good idea. Just maybe I wasn't ready
for it, in spite of my preparations. After all, my naive concept of a
perfect campsite had been a patch of flat green grass in the moonlight. In
the centre of this would be my tent, so well erected that it might
resemble a setting for a camping commercial. The interior of the
adequately lighted tent would be neat and orderly, music playing softly.
In addition, a thick luscious sleeping bag would serve not only in the
manner for which it was designed, but also that of lounge chair and
general underfoot comfort. In short, my expectations of a perfect campsite
were that I remain dry, warm, and comfortable.
What bothered me now was the realisation that I had been fooling myself.
The truth was I had no aptitude whatsoever for roughing it in the rain,
nor an affinity with tents, least of all how to erect one in the midst of
a force eight gale, and the thought of unduly paragliding in the dark
Scottish Highlands terrified me.
Having said this, naive concepts and a spot of rain notwithstanding, I
would continue, if only to prove to myself that I could. I had all too
often been known to head for shelter, given to deal with the slightest
inconvenience, shelter being definitively formulated as home as far
as I was concerned. It was for this propensity of mine to avoid
discomfort, stress and anxiety in any form, that I resolved at that very
moment to put as many miles as possible between myself and my cosy bed
before the days end, thus lessening the attraction of that fluffy pillow
and the possibility of a premature end to my holiday.
Falling In Love.
Doubts, fears and intended plans evaporated in an instant as I passed the
open doorway of Wee MacChips Fish and Chip shop on West Sinclair Street
and inhaled the aroma of their tantalising deep fried fish. What I
wouldn't give for one of those right now. Fish and chips, smothered in
salt and vinegar. Oh, boy! Plenty of vinegar. So much vinegar, I promised
myself, that the newspaper-bound supper of fish, chips and pickled onion
would literally saturate my lap. The suspicion that there was a pickled
onion or two in there with my name on it only intensified my hunger. And
why not, I thought, as I accelerated into the next immediate turning in
order to encircle the block. It was, after all, almost suppertime.
That all too familiar aroma hit my face like a slap as I stepped into the
small, extremely warm fish and chip shop, the sizzle of a new batch of
chips being dumped into the deep fryer as an added welcome. I glanced into
the display case before me, my fingers tracing the warm glass. Cod and
halibut, black puddings, sliced ham, sausages, and haggis lay steaming in
their crispy golden batters. Deep fried steak and kidney pies, mince pies
and buckets of finger sized chips took up a second cabinet! Oh, boy, I had
died and gone to heaven!
"Can I help you?" I lifted my face to the voice behind the counter and
fell in love. She was about twenty-one, certainly no more than that, with
the most beautiful face I had ever seen. She possessed soft, well rounded
cheekbones, a heart shaped face that rounded to the most delicate of
chins, and lips that could only be described as incredibly kissable. Her
eyes were beautiful, black and white, large and shining like a child's. As
I looked on, my heart racing, those kissable lips opened and offered an
enormous smile, dimples showing. "Can I help you?" she repeated.
"Fich and dips?" I muttered, my face reddening. "I mean, um. Fish! You
know fish? And, ah--"
"Chips?" she asked.
"Aye!" I blurted emphatically. " I mean, yes, chips. To, um... to go with
the beautiful fish." Oh, heavens, I thought. Did I just say beautiful
She gazed at me then, taking me in as if I were some kind of idiot. As my
senses melted, causing me to drop my handful of coins onto the floor, she
asked. "One order of fish and chips, is it?"
"Yes," I told her, very much aware of the fact that she was addressing my
backside as I stooped and spun on my heals to determine the whereabouts of
the wayward coins. "I mean, no. Well, yes. But I'd like tuh, tuh, two."
With the coins in hand I straightened up and declared. "Pickled," Just
then, my visor fell over my face. With my eyes darting nervously from side
to side, and surely resembling two little minnows in a goldfish bowl, I
muttered, "Tuh, tuh, two Pickled Onions, please?"
Oh, what a fool I had made of myself, I thought, as I watched the Plexi-glass
steam up before my eyes. Whatever had possessed me not to remove my helmet
on entering the store! She would never go out with me now. I just knew it!
And who could blame her. There I was, standing in the middle of that well
lit, extremely warm fish and chip shop with my crash helmet on, visor
down. I don't think I ever felt sillier in my life than at that moment.
Just then, the love of my life bellowed to a presence in the back room.
"Hey, Tony! Lei vuole che io chieda a Lei ogni giorno Io ora ho bisogno di
pesce. Lei lo fa meglio ora. E Lei ascoltandomi." Turning to me she smiled
warmly. "Mariti inutili."
I slipped the helmet from my head as a certain despondency crept into my
heart. Mariti, I thought, realising only then what a fool I had
made of myself. Mariti? Wasn't that from the Latin mari,
meaning to marry. Marito being the Italian for husband. It was only
then that I noticed the wedding ring. "You're married?" I asked, though
where the devil I found the courage to ask such a question I'll never
She offered yet another enormous smile. "Uomini inutili."
Uomini inutili? I figured that one to be useless men. How about
stupid and useless men, I thought as I placed my money onto the counter.
How about stupid, useless men who make a fool of themselves, for surely
there was no man more foolish than myself at that very moment. Face
reddening, I offered something of a smile, picked up the small warm bundle
and made my way out of the store.
I rode to the edge of town, turned onto a single track road and headed
toward the river. I had fallen for her, that much was obvious. She blew me
away. Isn't that what they say? Blew me away like paper from a fan. I
tried to tell myself that we were really as distant as two ships that past
in the night, albeit one oblivious of the other. It was true, I knew that,
but I also knew I would never forget her. I would never forget that smile.
I would never forget those eyes, and as I pulled up to a spot near the
lapping waves, feeling the salt spray on my face, I wished I was not so
impetuous. Life goes on. The holiday goes on, and with the aroma of fish
and chips wafting into the air, I smiled and realised I couldn't have
picked a better spot to do just that.
Wildlife and nature seemed to surround me within this scenic beauty spot.
Milk wort was everywhere. Scarlet pimpernel, mountain everlasting,
silverweed, tormentil, yellow flag, heath spotted orchid and early purple
orchid. Farther off to my right, gorse bushes were afire in their
distinctive yellow bloom. Midges were everywhere, of course, and it would
not be long until mayfly season.
Braced against the backrest, my feet on the handlebars, I stuffed my face
and took in the three-ringed plovers as they darted about on the sandy
shoreline, snapping up small aquatic invertebrate animals for food.
Through mouthfuls of steaming hot fish, I listened attentively to their
high-pitched melodious whistled calls.
Children were at play on the lee of the hill beyond the old priory,
singing verse after verse of Who Will You Marry as their little
hands slapped and clapped a patty cake in perfect rhythm. I could see farm
workers in a distant meadow, their immeasurably small tractors cutting
perpendicular swaths of black earth across a field of winter-burned straw.
Nearby, in Promenade park, a group of teenage girls squealed and chuckled
at their efforts on the crazy-golf course. Farther on, towards the pier, a
young couple walked hand in hand, their black lab running to scatter a
flock of seagulls. Into the air those seagulls soared, hovering and
jostling for air space not ten feet from the grinning and thoroughly
satisfied Lab. Through it all I could hear a train far off on a distant
shore, it's unmistakable rhythm of the rail carrying across the wide
expanse of water.
Daylight was fading slowly, but time for me was standing still as I
devoured every morsel of my deep fried delight. Through every succulent
wedge of fish and between every vinegar saturated chip, I took in the slow
progress of the Waverly paddle steamer as she rounded into the Firth of
Clyde, bound for her home port at Anderston Quay. Yes, I thought, she was
indeed a lovely boat, The True Love.
Back On The Road Again.
Forty miles later, motoring along on a single track road overlooking the
still and tranquil waters of Rosneath Bay, I realised something was
terribly amiss. I really ought to be heading west on the A819 to Inverary
at this point, not skirting the hillside above this particular scenic
beauty. What's more, if I were to continue on my present course, I'd soon
find myself skirting the opposite side, heading in a southerly direction
towards the village of Cove. Somewhere along the line I had taken a wrong
I cursed my stupidity. How successful was this trip going to be if I kept
making mistakes like this? The obvious now hit me like a slap. I would
have to retrace the last twelve miles and reconnect with the Invarary
road. Just then, the first drop of rain from the impending storm hit my
visor. Five more droplets splattered at an angle across my windscreen so
as to look like five little bullet holes. Within seconds the skies opened
to a torrential downpour. "Oh, wonderful!" I yelled to the heavens as my
clothing darkened under the onslaught, for Murphy's law once again raised
it's ugly head with the realisation that I had not added a waterproof
rider's cape to my list of necessities.
As I said before, when things go wrong for me, they often occur in series,
and always in the worst possible sequence. Perhaps this is why the
rainfall only intensified from that moment on. It was now bouncing off the
road in solid lances, and as George MacCrae's Rock Your Baby boomed
from the radio, I began to see the funny side of things. What a ridiculous
start to a vacation, I thought. Could I possibly have chosen a worse day?
No doubt Frank Devlin had predicted such a storm. No doubt he was staring
out the window at this very moment, declaring, "Did I no' tell ye, Sadie?
Did I no' tell ye the Gibson boy should no' have set out before such a
As I throttled up and drove through the village of Kellgreggan, Rock
Your Baby echoing loudly from the speakers, I just had to have a good
laugh at myself, at my current situation, and at how others must see it.
Indeed, what a site for those people sheltering in shop doorways to see a
fully-laden Vespa 90cc scoot along the high street in a torrential
downpour, it's sodden rider, upright and proud, as he and Rock Your
Baby disappear over the hump of River bridge, pots and pans clanking
A Spot Of Trouble.
A dry-stone wall bordered each side of the road for the next four miles,
offering no access whatsoever to the lush green fields beyond where a soul
like myself might pitch his tent. Murphy again? Or was it just sheer bad
luck of me to come across the only four mile stretch of unbroken dry-stone
wall in the whole of Scotland!
As the skies darkened, threatening only worse to come, I thought seriously
for the first time of turning around. After all, that very cosy number
fifteen, winter warranted goose down duvet was only some fifty miles away.
Given that I had run into the storm of the century, surely no one could
blame me if I were to postpone the vacation for a few days.
To make matters worse, tour busses and other assorted traffic flew past in
the opposite direction, sending their swells of spray with such a
buffeting force as to almost send me into that very same wall I had come
to despise so vehemently. How I cursed those drivers and their lack of
consideration, at the same time cursing myself and my own stupidity.
Wasn't anything ever going to go right for me? Just then, the back tire
Almost immediately, a wave of adrenaline coursed through my veins. I could
feel my face burn as I applied the brakes, the first a fraction before the
rear. Too little, too late, however, for with the scooter sliding towards
a gutter which was literally blanketed in the decaying remains of last
years leaves, I feared the worst possible outcome. A crash was imminent.
From that moment on my life was in God's hands.
For thirty terrifying yards, my front tire grazed and buffeted the devil's
face of that curb, ever threatening the scooter's already critical
stability. Wobble and fishtail as I did, however, I would nevertheless
gladly stick with what precarious stability I had at that moment over what
was on offer if I should ever strike that curb and not recover. What a
thought! My entire life before me, Canada on the horizon and I was to be
killed on a desolate country road in the Scottish Highlands!
It wasn't meant to be, of course, for in that same instant the brakes took
a firm grip and the bike began to slow. Looking back on it now, I could
not at that moment fathom, nor later determine what had saved me from that
treacherous curb, only to say that, as the scooter rolled to a shaky halt,
I once again believed in angels.
The Perfect Spot.
In spite of the fact that I was badly shaken by the near tragedy, I could
only but marvel at what a perfect spot in which the scooter had come to
rest, for there could not possibly be a more luxurious patch of green
grass in the whole of Scotland on which to erect my tent. I smiled then,
ostensibly due to a sense of relief having narrowly cheated death, but
perhaps more pertinently at the incredulity of such a thought. How quick I
had been to forget the last eighty seconds! Such is youthful nature, I
supposed, this ability with which one can trivialise the severity of an
incident, based on a favourable outcome.
I wondered also at that moment if Murphy hadn't spared me an ounce of
goodwill, for it was a quiet little spot, nothing but trees on either side
of the road. Slightly off to the right, at the bottom of a fifteen foot
gully, was my babbling brook. I was yet to find my great glen and the
serenity of Scotland looming upwards on four sides, but two out of three,
all things considered, was better than a poke in the eye.
With a great deal of effort I hauled the scooter onto the grass verge,
hastily pitched my tent, laid the ground cover and unrolled my sleeping
bag. Within minutes I had everything in order and ship-shape, only the
radio's static breaking through the incessant drone of the rain. I
undressed quickly, dried and warmed my body in front of the small Coleman
stove, then began to determine what dry clothing remained within the
It was a washout, of course. Everything was drenched. The knapsack and its
contents resembled something that had only recently been fished from a
river. I had no choice but to select a half soaked towel with which to
cover myself. Thusly dressed I lay on the groundsheet, gazed into the
torrential downpour and contemplated my situation.
My Seagull In The Rain.
I would have to say that it was the oddest thing to see outside of my
tent. A lone seagull, miles from any body of water! As I surveyed my
samples of sodden laundry, I watched it stroll back and forth some twenty
feet in front of the tent. "Hello, friend." I said. The seagull fluttered
it's wings, momentarily rose from the ground and let out a series of
squeals. Dipping into my bread bag I tossed it a crumb or two. "Is it a
chat you're after, my friend?"
Within a few moments I struck up a conversation with my seagull in the
rain, telling him of my journey so far, of my encounter with the lassie in
the fish and chip shop, of the wrong turning I had made which had brought
me onto this particular stretch of road. Between feedings of bread
particles, I expatiated in great detail the story of my most recent brush
with death, and though I received no response from my gray-backed friend,
it somehow mattered to me to perceive him as having a certain sense of
acuity, an ability, beyond that of all other birds, to comprehend and
understand, with reason and logic, exactly what I was talking about. Quite
a stretch of the imagination, perhaps, but such was my unsophisticated and
naive character at the age of eighteen.
Consequently, and being that I was camped in the middle of nowhere, in the
middle of a most torrential downpour, I went on to tell my seagull in the
rain of my life to that point, of my hopes and dreams for the future. I
told him of Canada, that land of one million horizons where policemen rode
horses, wore red jackets and cowboy hats. I told him of the sadness of
leaving my family and of my fears of the impending loneliness in a land so
different from my own.
Suddenly, a car appeared up around the bend, racing along the road as if
the driver was in some kind of coast to coast rally. He must have been
doing eighty! The car, a red Morris Minor, all lights blazing, actually
fish-tailed as he approached, transmission grinding. The car roared past
in a blur of water spray, stone chips flying, and as I watched after him
in disbelief until his red tail-lights could be seen no more, I wondered
what possessed people to rush into life in such a manner.
I turned then, eyes straining through the downpour to determine the
whereabouts of my seagull friend, only to find him motionless on the
opposite side of the road. Negligent of my state of undress, I quickly
exited the tent, crossed the road and lifted the poor bird from the sodden
He was dying, that much was obvious. There was nothing I could do, nothing
anyone could do. His head lifted, his beak opening as he let out a
lonesome peep. And what could I say? Surely, I ought to say something,
some little thing to this unique and remarkable companion, other than to
thank him for listening to me, something other than goodbye.
Cradling the bird in my hands, as delicately as Father Simcox might cradle
a chalase of Holy Eucharist, I padded naked through the downpour and
returned to the tent. Once there, in the silence of my own thoughts,
against the background of pouring rain, I held my seagull friend, my right
pointer and index fingers stroking those soft feathers until the small
body grew cold. Through it all, there wasn't a moment that I did not curse
that driver's recklessness and stupidity.
The best part of an hour had passed before I placed the seagull onto the
floor of the tent, located my towel, which by now was somewhat dryer from
the heat of the Coleman stove, and wrapped it around the bird. I then
placed the small bundle into a rather threadbare sweater and secured it by
tying the sleeves. I'd bury him in the morning, I thought, but tonight
he'd stay warm and dry. At that I secured the front of the tent and
slipped into my sleeping bag.
I'm not sure if I did that little seagull any good in his last moments, or
of what benefits I had myself derived from the experience, but I do think
I learned a little about myself. Years later, quite by accident, I would
read the story of Jonathan Livingston Seagull, a story which would have a
profound impact on my life, in part due to my encounter with my seagull in
the rain. Life, I reckoned, sometimes worked in pretty strange ways.
Looking back on my first day out, I would have to say that things went
fairly well -- from a learning experience point of view. And perhaps this
is what it is all about. After all, here I was, camping in the middle of
the Scottish Highlands, and less afraid of tomorrow than I was of today.
Live the life. Isn't that what they say? Live the life, trial and error,
pick yourself up, dust yourself off, learn a little and move on. And so,
as the first of what would turn out to be dozens of monstrous slugs
slithered between my tent and it's unsecured groundsheet, I closed my
eyes, thought of my seagull in the rain and, through the ongoing downpour
and now buffeting winds, let the comforting sounds of the babbling brook
take me where it would. That I would awaken in the morning and open my
eyes to one of those monstrous, slugs slither across my bare wrist....
Well, that's another story.