Notes from a niseach

First time on foreign soil

There is little doubt that, because they often involve long flights and ferry-journeys, arrivals and departures can provide important landmarks in islanders’ lives.

I can vaguely recall my own excitement one the first occasions I left home with a group of fellow-teenagers from the Isle of Lewis. A tall, loose-limbed adolescent, I was equipped with my own set of sails on the voyage from Stornoway to Kyle of Lochalsh on the Loch Seaforth. They came in the shape of the pair of bellbottom trousers that flapped around my ankles – a piece of lurid cherry-coloured fabric stitched into the hem of my Wranglers. And just in case the old MacBrayne steamer was in danger of sinking, I was even equipped with my own means of staying afloat. The set of platform soles that hung heavy on my feet bore more than a passing resemblance to the lifeboats I often swaggered past on the voyage; the thickness of each heel and toe similar to the bows and sterns of the vessels crewmen had set out for our safety.

I was buoyed, too, by other thoughts and feelings – most especially by the fact that I was heading to that special place, the Scottish Mainland. I had heard many tales of its delights from some of the old bachelors from the village who often gathered round our fireside on winter nights to swap tales with my Uncle Norman. His eyes would gleam as they recorded the events of their youth in long, rambling conversations.

“Remember that night Kenny got off the train in Garve to buy some drink at the hotel there? He stopped to have a nip or two. And when he got out from the bar with his half-bottle in his hand, the train had moved on without him. He was stranded there for the night . . .”

“What about that dance in Kyle we went to? Most beautiful women I’ve ever seen in my life.”

“Murdo went off with some blonde from Achnasheen. Joan, her name was. He didn’t come back for days afterwards . . .”

I would talk about these tales with my own companions, recalling the excitement of their words and making them my own. There was even the expectation of travelling on a train, just like the one poor Kenny had stepped from when it came to a halt in Garve. Shamefacedly, some of the boys would confess that this was the first time they had ever been on one, their sole contact with that form of transport being the words of the poem we had been forced to learn in the classrooms of Stornoway’s main school, the Nicolson Institute:

This is the night mail crossing the border,
bringing the cheque and the postal order

There were certain lines in that verse that made us gape with wonder; the fact that the men from the Post Office sorted out, in their “blank-faced coaches”, “Notes from overseas to the Hebrides”.

Or, in some versions, how Auden had misspelled “Stornoway” when he wrote of how the people in our hometown were occupied “smoking its heavy wools,” an activity that seemed to us a weird substitute for our own favourite pastime, rolling-our-own tobacco. We would puff them while we contemplated journeys that rattled along in the opposite direction, hoping that one day we would travel “overseas from the Hebrides”. Now, it seemed, at long last, that hour had finally come. We patrolled the decks like men on sentry duty, noting every change in the skyline, imagining settlements and townships where none existed, pointing out the lights of fishing boats and convincing ourselves they were signs of harbours, shelter, dry land.

Eventually, though, some evidence of life appeared. It came in the outlines of large hills and mountains emerging from the blur and whorl of a midwinter night-sky. It blinked at us from glens and valleys at the far edge of whitecaps.

“Skye”, I heard someone say.

“The mainland”.

I squinted to try and see it properly. There was no doubt that it was different from the landscape of Lewis, but not in the way I hoped it might be. There were mountains instead of low-lying, level land; an empty, endless darkness instead of the street-lights that crowded round our island’s main conurbation. There seemed to be nothing there. Just miles and miles of outback. Siberia. Wasteland.

And then there was the weight of the silence that greeted us as we stepped down the gangway in Kyle. We looked at the small port with a gnawing sense of disappointment. Where were the all-night ceilidhs and parties the old bachelors had seemed to promise us? Where were the good times? The dancing girls? Kyle seemed to be a place where all that stirred was the wrapping-paper of an old fish supper someone had gorged upon the night before, or the seagulls flapping and squawking around the railway station. We headed in that building’s direction, dragging our cheap cardboard suitcases with us. A task that had been light and easy the night before now seemed heavy and awkward.

It was a feeling that stayed with us throughout the rest of our journey. We looked out through our coach windows at “silent miles of silent grasses”, observing crofthouses near Garve or Achnasheen where sheepdogs clearly continued to “slumber on with paws across”, through the commotion, where the only reaction to the uproar of the passing train might be the gentle shake of “a jug in the bedroom”.

We stretched back in our carriages and yawned, deciding that the mainland wasn’t that different, complaining that nothing ever really changed . . .

Donald S Murray

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Clearly those travelling from Lerwick to Aberdeen had a very different experience from the above, yet there must have been a similar sense of disorientation as young passengers attempted to adjust to a new and urban experience. Shetland Life would like to invite its readership to write about their first time in their new environment. What effect did it have on them? How did they react to its delights and challenges?


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