‘Ach, that man an’ his snares,’
interposed Erchy, who was sitting behind us. ‘He forgets he’s here for
drivin’ the bus when he’s after the rabbits.’
It took the driver no more than a
quarter of an hour to attend to his snares and when he returned he
dumped three dead rabbits on top of the pile of mailbags. In three of
the private mail-boxes where he stopped to collect letters he left a
rabbit in exchange.
‘What’s the time?’ he asked,
resuming his seat after the last mail-box had been emptied. No-one
replied. My watch had not functioned for months and yet I had hardly
been inconvenienced by the lack of it. Time was so rarely referred to in
Bruach. The bus driver repeated the question in Gaelic, shouting at old
Farquhar who was very deaf. Ponderously the old man took out his
cherished watch and showed him. ‘We’d best get a move on,’ the driver
warned. The mist still enveloped us but on the Bruach road one could be
fairly certain of meeting no other traffic so early in the morning. He
put his foot well down on the accelerator.
‘Oh, how I hate the mist!’ said
Janet feelingly. There were murmurs of almost passionate assent from the
rest of the passengers. Bruachites, especially the women, did indeed
dislike the mist. It seemed to emphasize the loneliness and isolation of
their lives, cutting them off from the reassuring view of other collages
where they knew company was theirs for the seeking.
The road twisted and climbed
around the steep shores of the loch. As we climbed higher the mist
thinned so that soon we were looking down on curling banks of it as one
looks down on to cloud from an aeroplane.
‘There’s a wind on the wireless,’
the driver called over his shoulder and at once everyone became more
cheerful. Wind would soon drive the mist away.
The mainland village was squalid
and colourless. This may have been because it was within a day’s journey
of a large town, or perhaps because it was too long since its
inhabitants had forsaken the crofting life in favour of commerce.
Whatever the reason I found it a cold and cheerless place to spend a
day. It was only when there was a compelling need for some tool or
material, the lack of
which was holding up a long
extended task, that it became in any way endurable for me.
‘Have you much shoppin’ to do?’
enquired Janet when we had disembarked from the island ferry.
‘Yes, quite a bit, I want some
felt and roofing nails for the poultry shed. And some vegetables if I
can get them.’ I scanned my list. ‘Oh, and Sarah’s asked me to try to
get her a "man-chine for the calf’s nose",’ I added with a smile. Janet
smiled too. To Sarah most things contrived by man were ‘man-chines’.
Cars and lorries were acceptably enough ‘man-chines’ but it was more
difficult to interpret her description of a broom as a ‘man-chine for
cleaning floors’ and a pillar-box as a ‘man-chine for posting letters’.
The ‘man-chine’ she had asked me to get for her now was merely a
U-shaped flap of wood which filled into the calf’s nostrils and
prevented it from sucking the cow while still allowing It to graze
‘You’d think Yawn could make her
one,’ said Janet.
‘Yawn says he’s made her dozens
and that she’s lost the lot. He thinks if she has to pay for one out of
her own money she’ll take better care of it.’
‘I doubt she will,’ said Janet.
There were no more than a half
dozen shops in the village, one of which was a tearoom. There was also a
small hotel. We visited first a poky general store where they sold meat
and bacon, bread and groceries and shoes and drapery all from one
littered counter. The varied smells that assailed us were dominated by
the odour of old cabbages and softening onions in rolled-down sacks on
the floor. Janet was trying on a pair of shoes when old Farquhar came in
and announced that he wanted ‘two bread loafs an’ a pound of wee beefies.’
Dourly the assistant handed him two large loaves and then proceeded to
weigh out a pound of mince.
‘What a glamorous name for mince,’
I murmured to Janet. ‘It makes it sound quite appetising.’ When my turn
came I too asked for a pound of ‘wee beefies’. The assistant flicked me
a look of disdain.
‘Is it mince you’re after wantin’?’
he asked severely. I went with Janet to the chemist where she bought
half a stone of baking soda to alleviate the indigestion which afflicted
all her family and then she came with me to the chandler’s to order my
roofing felt and nails. While the assistant was counting out the nails
for me old Farquhar came shuffling in.
‘Haff you any sea boots?’ he
‘Aye, we have plenty,’ was the
crisp reply. Old Farquhar leaned forward, his hand cupped to his ear.
‘All that lot there,’ shouted the
man, indicating the line of boots in all sizes that stretched across the
back of the shop. Farquhar gave them a cursory glance. ‘Thank you very
much, I will take two,’ he said with lofty indifference.
We had finished our shopping
within the hour and as it was too wet to go for a walk and too early to
get lunch we went into the tea room where we drank tea and chatted with
the waitress who turned out to be a relative of Janet’s. Following that
we ambled up to the hotel, locally known as ‘Kipper Hall’ jind ate
kippers and turnips and potatoes and declined a pool of rice pudding.
Janet, by discreet questioning, discovered that the hotel cook was also
a relative of hers and sent the waitress to convey the discovery to her
which resulted in an invitation to take tea in the kitchen. We were
seated cosily in front of the fire exchanging news and gossip when the
door was pushed open and Erchy appeared. He was carrying a large tin of
‘Ah, they told me I would find you
here,’ he greeted us. ‘Come away in,’ invited the cook and poured out
another cup of tea.
Erchy came in and sat down.
‘Are you wantin’ us, then?’ Janet
asked. ‘I was wantin’ Miss Peckwitt,’ he admitted. I glanced at him in
surprise. ‘Why me?’ I asked.
‘Well, you mind I came out to see
would I get a look at a boat I was thinkin’ of buyin’?’ Janet and
nodded. ‘Aye, well it seems she’s out in a place a few miles from here
an’ I cannot get a car to take me there.’
‘Too far to walk?’ I asked.
‘Aye, in the time I have before
the bus goes away again an’ I’m no so keen to stay the night here.’
‘So why were you looking for me?’
‘It’s this way,’ he began, and
went on to tell me that there was a car available but there was no
driver. The old man who owned the car had been banned from driving but
if I would agree to drive it he would be very pleased to let us have the
car for as long as we wished.
‘Okay,’ I agreed. ‘So long as
we’re back in time for the bus.’
Janet decided to come with us
‘just for the drive’ and we collected the car from an extremely
co-operative garage proprietor. The mist had by now been harried away to
the hills by a bullying wind that was ushering thick spongy looking
clouds in its place. Before we had gone more than half a mile they had
wrung themselves out and the windscreen wipers worked steadily.
‘I met a relative of yours when I
went for a drink,’ Erchy told Janet.
‘Another?’ I laughed. ‘She’s
already discovered two this morning.’
‘Aye, well this fellow’s newly
back from America. He’s been out there near enough to twenty-five
Janet was agog with interest. ‘It
wouldn’t be yon Uisdean who married my cousin’s cousin from Uist?’ She
and Erchy delved Into genealogies.
‘That was him then that went away
because of the ghost,’ she told us when identification was completed
satisfactorily. ‘I didn’t think he’d ever come back to these parts.’
‘Is it him?’ Erchy accepted her
statement without surprise. ‘Aye well he hasn’t lost his taste for
whisky while he’s been away.’
‘Ach, no,’ Janet assured him. ‘He
would still draw the same breath.’
‘What ghost is this you’re talking
about?’ I asked.
‘You mind the one. You must have
heard of it.’ Janet was emphatic.
‘I don’t think I have,’ I said.
‘Well, this fellow, this sort of
cousin of mine was walkin’ home one night when he met a strange woman.
He greeted her with a "Ciamar a Tha" just the same as he would anyone
but as soon as he’s spoken this woman turns and walks alongside him and
tells him that he’s the first person to have spoken to her for many
years. He knew fine she was a ghost then an’ tried to hurry away but she
would follow him. She told him she had not died by her own hand as
people thought but that she had been murdered. She named her killer and
pleaded with the man to go to the authorities and have the murderer
brought to justice. He had to say he would, just to get rid of her but
he didn’t do any more about it. The next time he was that way she
pursued him again, pleadin’ an’ pleadin’. He still didn’t do anythin’
about it but she upset him so much he packed up an’ went to America.’
‘I’ve never heard that story
before,’ I told her.
‘Indeed?’ Janet’s voice was
puzzled. ‘It’s well known in these parts.’ The three of us became deep
in thought for a few minutes and then Janet spoke again. ‘I wonder if
it’s just a lot of nonsense?’
‘What, the story or the ghost?’ I
‘No, indeed.’ Janet sounded
prickly. ‘The man wouldn’t have told a lie. No, I was thinkin’ about the
belief we have hereabouts that a ghost can’t cross water. That’s why he
went to America, you see. But I’d like to know if it’s true or not. It’s
a pity Erchy didn’t know who it was an’ then he could have asked him.’
Erchy said, ‘Aye, well it’s too
late now. He was catchin’ the train back to Glasgow an’ he’s away back
on his travels by the weekend.’
We drove on in silence. ‘What a
nice man that garage proprietor seems to be,’ I said.
‘Aye,’ Erchy admitted shortly.
‘He didn’t seem to be able to do
enough for us,’ added Janet.
It was unlike Erchy to be so terse
but Janet and I knew that questions would bring no information. We
‘You mind that net I sold about
three years back?’ Erchy asked Janet at last.
‘I mind that fine. It wasn’t a net
just, was it?’
‘No, but the net was the chief
‘I remember that,’ she said.
‘Well, it was to that very man I
sold them. He didn’t have the money to pay for them then but he said
he’d see me right so I let him have them. I’ve never seen a penny from
‘The man!’ ejaculated Janet.
‘He looks to be doing well enough
now,’ I remarked. The garage had been flanked by a shop bearing the same
name and both had looked highly prosperous.
‘He’s doin’ fine,’ Erchy
corroborated. ‘He was tellin’ me himself of all the trouble he has with
the Income Tax. He says they’re always after him.’
‘He must be doin’ well if he has
the Income Tax after him,’ said Janet, knowledgeably.
‘Aye, he was tellin’ me he had a
letter from them wantin’ money round about Christmas time so he sent
them a Christmas card with his reply. He wrote on it "A Merry Christmas
to you ye buggers" and he repeated "ye buggers" wherever there was space
all over the card.’
‘That was no very nice of him,’
‘He was pleased enough with it,’
said Erchy. ‘He believes he fairly spoiled their Christmas for them.’
‘An all this time he’s never paid
you for your net,’ Janet was indignant.
‘No, he has not.’
‘Have you asked him for the
money?’ That was my question. Janet, being a Gael would never have
suggested such a thing could happen.
‘Indeed no!’ Erchy was shocked.
‘Maybe it’s just as well you took
his car, then,’ Janet told him. ‘You’ll maybe get a bit of somethin’
back from it.’
‘It’s a shame we don’t have the
time to go for a good drive round on his petrol while we have the
chance,’ he said. ‘There’s plenty in the tank.’
‘We could have fairly enjoyed
ourselves,’ Janet said regretfully.
Erchy inspected the boat he had
been thinking of buying, rejected it with the pronouncement that it
would ‘float like a bundle of hay’ and was ready to return. Back at the
garage the beaming proprietor greeted us effusively. Erchy’s hand
wavered in the region of his breast pocket subtly indicating that he had
money to pay if the man should have the cheek to ask for it. Just as
subtly the other conveyed that no mention of money must be made.
‘Take the car any time you’re
wantin’ it,’ he told Erchy and seemed affronted that we had used so
little petrol. I got the feeling that had we damaged the car he would
have welcomed the opportunity to display further magnaminity. He was
insistent that we took tea with him and his wife and led us into a
passage which went from the garage to a newly built extension of the old
croft house. Here we sat on modern chairs and were urged to eat
quantities of shop biscuits while the old woman poured out cup after cup
of thick black tea that looked as if we should need knives and forks to
wrestle with it.
It was lime to go. We shook hands
all round and thanked them for their hospitality, assuring them of
reciprocal cordiality if they should ever come to Bruach. Only Erchy
seemed to be a little ‘tongue in cheek’ with his remarks.
At the pier we found the tide was
out and picked our way to the ferry over slippery weed while spray
splashed and shed itself over us. Just as the ferry was about to leave
there came a shout and we perceived the garage proprietor running down
to the jetty, gesticulating and shouting Erchy’s name. Erchy went
forward to meet him.
‘I was thinkin’ I’d never catch
you,’ panted the man, as he handed Erchy a parcel. ‘You left this behind
you in the car an’ I didn’t notice it until this minute just.’
Erchy gave a nod of pleased
recollection. ‘Aye, that’s right so I did,’ he said, taking the parcel.
‘I don’t know what I’d do without It.’
He rejoined Janet and me. ‘Erchy,
I’m sure there was no parcel left in that car,’ I told him. ‘Janet and I
were most careful to check.’
Erchy gave me an enigmatic smile.
‘Damty sure there wasn’t,’ he agreed. He opened the parcel and revealed
a carton of five hundred cigarettes. They were of a brand I knew he
never smoked and to my look of astonishment he explained: ‘This is just
the man’s way of payin’ me for my net. Now we’re both satisfied.’
It was so cold and wet on the
ferry that the man who should have collected our fares chose not to
leave the shelter of the wheelhouse, allowing us to make the journey
‘He’s no seem’ us,’ murmured
Janet, in the Bruach idiom.
‘Not like it is in the summer,’
Erchy commented. ‘Then, when there’s plenty tourists on the ferry they
won’t take it near the pier till they’ve got all the fares. They just
keep circlin’ round makin’ sure no-one can walk off without payin’
On the island quay stood an aged
and dispirited touring car with most of its side windows missing. The
bus driver waited beside it.
‘The buss is broken,’ he
announced. His tone made the disaster sound an everyday occurrence.
‘Broken?’ Janet exclaimed.
‘Aye. It’s away to the garage an’
they’re sayin’ they’ll not likely get it sorted before midnight.’ There
was a trace of exultant pessimism about him.
‘So we’ve got to get home in this
thing,’ I said, peering into the car’s unkempt interior.
‘Unless you’ll stay for the
dance,’ the driver proposed eagerly. ‘There’s to be a good dance on here
tonight an’ I wouldn’t mind stayin’ for it.’
‘Oh, my,’ said Janet, already half
persuaded. For her a dance promised a bevy of friends and a good ceilidh
in some crowded corner of the room.
Erchy said thoughtfully, ‘I’ve a
mind to stay myself.’
They all looked at me. ‘I must get
home,’ I protested. ‘I’ve got a cow and hens to see to tonight yet.’
‘Ach, I can get a message for
someone to see to your beasts for you,’ the driver assured me.
‘No need,’ I insisted heartlessly.
‘If there’s a car to take me. I’m going back now.’
‘There’s a car all right but
you’ve not heard yet who’s goin’ to drive It?’ The driver smiled
wickedly and mentioned a name. ‘An’ he has a good drink on him already,’
he added with relish. I felt myself go pale. The Bruach road ran steeply
along the side of the loch and at times there were literally only inches
separating the wheels of the bus from the crumbling edge of the road.
With a shudder I recollected the one hair-raising journey I had endured
with the driver he mentioned. For weeks afterwards in my dreams I
repeatedly found myself in pieces at the bottom of some precipice.
‘I’m not going with him,’! said
‘Then stay for the dance,’ the
driver wheedled. ‘No.’ I knew I was being cruel but it was his job to
drive the bus and I badly wanted to get home.
‘Ach, you’d enjoy yourself,’ he
‘I would not,’ I told him. ‘I
don’t know a soul here. Nobody would ask me to dance.’
‘There’s Erchy. He’ll dance with
‘Erchy will do all his dancing in
the bar,’ I said. ‘I’ll give you a dance myself.’ His tone was generous.
‘Thank you,’ I countered. ‘And what would I do the rest of the time?
Just sit there looking out of things and not knowing what to do with
myself, I suppose.’
‘Ach, Miss Peckwitt, there’s no
need for that. Just you eat a couple of them figs you can buy from the
grocer. When you’re not dancin’ it gives you somethin’ to do pickin’ all
the seeds out of your teeths. It’s what I do myself when I’m at a dance
in a strange place.’
Janet turned on him. ‘That’s all
right for you,’ she told him, ‘but Miss Peckwitt has her own teeth.
They’re not false ones like yours.’
‘Oh,’ said the driver, a little
taken aback. ‘That might not be so good then.’
He suggested that we should go for
a cup of tea while he made arrangements for the car and another driver.
Half an hour later he was back and commanding us to get into the car.
‘Are you no stayin’ for the dance,
then?’ Janet asked. He muttered petulantly.
The only vacant places were beside
old Farquhar who was ensconced majestically in the middle of the back
seat. We were about to climb in beside him when the driver stopped us.
‘No, you cannot go in there.
You’ll just have to squeeze up with the others,’ he instructed us.
‘There’s a ram I’m to pick up in a wee whiley an’ he’ll need to go in
the back seat.’ He requested the passengers to lift up their feet and
dumped my roll of felt on the floor.
It took four men to get the
struggling ram into the back of the car, where full mailbags were
strategically placed so as to restrict its movement. Even so Farquhar
had to crouch with the animal between his legs while he held on to its
horns. The rest of us huddled together with our knees bumping our chins
as the old car bounced from pothole to pothole and we tried not to take
too much notice of the strugglings and gruntings that came from the seat
behind us along with the overpowering smell of wet fleece.
The wind was rising rapidly to a
gale; the sea came foaming in beneath a mist of spray. Every now and
then the driver looked up at the hood which was lifting and banging
ominously. ‘You’d best some of you hang on to that,’ he advised and
those who were nearest grabbed whatever handhold they could. We reached
the head of the loch where the wind funnelled in from the sea and rushed
screaming through the narrow strath between two ranges of hills. There
was a shout of alarm as a sudden gust, stronger than any before it,
thrust at the car, threatening to overturn it. We all ducked as the
driver grappled with the wheel. The moment over, we sat up and saw in
the same instant that there was no longer a hood on the car. Twisting
round in our seats we could see the heavy canvas trailing like a broken
kite behind. The driver stopped and all the passengers except Farquhar
who was wrestling with an increasingly panic-stricken ram tumbled out to
capture the hood. We fought the wind as we tried to pull it back over
the car and secure it but the fasteners had gone and we had to stand
holding it, awaiting instructions from the driver.
‘Wait now till I get a rope!’ he
shouted and rooted under his seat. He produced a length of rope and
passed one end under the car to a helper on the other side who pulled it
up. With the wind tearing at their clothes they scrambled together
trying to tie it over the hood. The driver swore. ‘The damty thing’s not
long enough.’ Turning to us be asked: ‘Anybody got a piece of rope?’
‘I have,’ I replied. ‘Hold on to
this while I get it.’ He weighed down on the section of hood I had been
holding while I retrieved the piece of rope from the bottom of my
‘That’ll do it,’ he said,
snatching it from me. He tied the two ropes together and we surveyed the
repair briefly before climbing back into our seats.
‘I only brought that rope in case
the old car needed a tow,’ the driver said.
I murmured to Janet that there
would be little hope of getting a tow on the deserted Bruach road. She
looked slightly puzzled.
‘We’re not likely to meet a car to
give us a tow,’ I pointed out.
‘Oh, no, mo ghaoil. He wouldn’t be
thinkin’ of a motor to pull us.’ She glanced round. ‘There are plenty of
us here.’ We reached Bruach without further mishap and juddered to stop
outside the Post Office. ‘What’s wrong with the old car?’ demanded the
postman, coming out to collect the mailbags. ‘She looks as if she’s got
the toothache or somethin’.’
‘I doubt she would have lost her top if it
hadn’t been for Miss Peckwitt here havin’ a wee bitty rope with her,’
the driver told him.
I permitted myself a smug smile. ‘Oh, I always
take a rope in case,’ I said.