Sunday, 12 November 2017

Where Are You From?

Last weekend I took a trip "home" to Islay, the Inner Hebridean island where I spent my formative years. My mum - with whom I have an at best strained relationship - now lives in a care home on the neighbouring island of Jura.

It was an emotional few days, during which I thought a great deal about identity and sense of self.

SCENE 1: Care Home, Jura

An old woman sits in a chair, a rug across her lap. On the table beside her sits a radio, permanently tuned to radio 4. Beside the radio sits a large-buttoned phone, a glass of water, a glass of milk and a bowl of Smarties. The chair is backed against the wall, angled towards the room’s single window.

Sitting facing her on straight-backed chairs are two people: her son and his wife

The old woman’s face contorts as she toothlessly sucks on a Smartie. Behind the gurning, her expression is one of sad resignation. Her rheumy eyes stare into the middle distance as she shakily reaches for another sweet, her hand sweeping until it hits the side of the bowl. It’s clear she’s practically blind.

There’s a lengthy silence. After two hours of talking – with the old woman offering very few words in return - the couple have run out of things to say.

Eventually the younger woman speaks;

- do you ever speak with the other residents?

- [dismissively] no

- I’m sure they’ve all got interesting stories to tell

- [scoffs]

Another long pause. The old woman’s right hand sweeps and fumbles for another Smartie. The couple catch each other’s eyes. He shrugs. Hiding her exasperation well, but not quite fully, she tries again;

- that chap in the wheelchair seems nice, he was cheery when we walked in

- him? He tried to talk to me once … but, well, I couldn’t talk to him

- why not?

- well … [a dismissive half-laugh] … it’s just pointless … he asked me “where are you from?” what sort of a question is that?

- but ... it’s a normal question to ask, it’s just a way of starting a conversation

- but what am I meant to say? I was born in London, lived in Norfolk, moved to Islay, moved to France, moved back to Islay … you can’t just answer a question like that

- but that’s why it would be an interesting conversation?

- [scoffing] well I can’t be bothered with it all


SCENE 2: an RSPB bird hide, Loch Gruinart, Islay

The same couple are sitting on a wooden bench, binoculars trained through the open observation window in front of them. On a bench bedside them, similarly focused on the wildlife outside, are two middle-aged men. The background noise is the unmistakable gaggling of geese.

At this time of year, over 40 thousand barnacle geese arrive from Greenland to over-winter on Islay – several thousand of them are in the shallows in front of the hide.

It’s cold – a sharp wind whistles through the open observation windows

One of the men nudges the other - they speak in broad Glaswegian accents;

- look, there

- where?

- where I'm looking ... past the second cluster of geese

- what're you seeing - the duck?

- aye, it's a gadwell - see the black tail

- you sure?

- aye, gadwell, nailed on - add it to the list

The second man puts down his binoculars and writes in his note book. The hide falls quiet, they all return to scanning the birds in front of them. The second man speaks;

- so these geese have just arrived from Greenland, aye?

- aye

- some journey they’ll have had, eh?

- aye


- curlews man, I love curlews - they’re my favourite

- aye

- do they stay here all year?

- aye


- it’s funny when you start thinking where birds come from

- how?

- well … we say the barnacle geese some from Greenland, but do the people in Greenland say the barnacle geese come from here?

- it’s where they breed but - so they come from Greenland


- what about the cuckoo?

- eh?

- well the cuckoo’s a British bird, isn’t it?

- aye, they breed here

- but they’re only here for, like, three months… they spend most of the year in Africa

- so?

- well, if they spend most of their time in Africa, isn’t that where they come from?


The man sitting with his wife glances over

- maybe it’s meaningless to try and apply our concept of nationality to birds?

- huh?

His wife, without breaking her gaze through the window, kicks his foot

- Sorry - nothing - ignore me


Where am I from? I was moulded, forged and occasionally beaten into the person I am now mainly on Islay. So I'm from Islay, I'm an Ileach.

It was farm labouring on Islay - during holidays and briefly when I dropped out of school - that I learnt what a work ethic is, what hard work means. I tied fertiliser sacks round my legs and crawled on my hands and knees for days, hand-thinning turnips. I enjoyed the back-breaking satisfaction of manually cutting and stacking peat. I worked long hours in all weathers, experienced the relentless, unforgiving treadmill of dairy farming in the winter - 6am and 6pm milking times, 7 days a week.

My life now couldn't be much more removed from that of the island farmer, but that experience has stayed with me, is an important part of who I am.

Which is why a highlight of last weekend's trip was visiting the farming family who I worked with all those years ago. The father is now 88 years old, retired but full of life. The mother is as warm and welcoming as she was 35 years ago, as she was when she looked after me when I needed looking after. Their son, my friend, still farms - although the dairy herd has sadly long since gone, a victim of the inevitable economic disadvantage that island farmers face selling milk to the mainland.

I enjoyed my trip; sometimes it's worth pausing to think about where you're from.


Alastair McIntyre said...

I was born in Glasgow but conceived in Iran where I returned when I was six weeks old. I left Iran when I was six months old being the youngest Britain to be kicked out of Iran and got my picture onto the front page of the Daily Express newspaper.

I then spent a year in Prestwick and then went to Gramgemouth and then when 3 years old went to Malta where after a couple of years I returned to Grangemouth for 6 months and then went to Kuwait. I was based in Kuwait until I was 17 but spent my time from 10.5 years to 17 years at boarding school at Dollar Academy in Scotland.

When I left school I spent 3 years working with a firm of Accountants in both Grangemouth and Stirling after which I changed jobs and was sent to Coventry where I spent a year working there after which I joined a sales organisation which meant that I had to travel all over England from London down to Cornwall and over to Wales and up to Carlisle and Newcastle.

I eventually returned to Scotland to become an area sales manager for Carnation Foods as my father had a heart attack and when going up to see him found my mother was going blind so decided to move back home to help out and thus spent some 7 years with them when I was made redundant due to the company being taken over by Nestle.

I then started my own business training businesses to use computers and installing small business accounting systems. I then expanded to build computers and sold them to some of Scotland largest companies such as BP, etc. I then started my own Bulletin Board which became the largest of its type in Europe competing with Compuserve and AOL. Under that operation I spent time throughout Europe signing up and working with other BBS operations throughout Europe, Scandinavia and Africa.

I later moved to the USA and then to Canada where I currently have lived for the part 13 years. I am now retired but still run my history web sites which I really enjoy.

I've now spent more of my life in Canada but where might I be from? I would say Scotland as both my parents came from Scotland as did their parents and as far back as I can trace.

However given my personal and working background I feel more of an Internationalist. Due to working full time on the history of Scotland I am documenting progress on that front and I have to say I think Scotland is going to have a really bad time with Brexit but at the same time am convinced Britain will do very well indeed outside the EU. I am very much in favour of a no deal hard Brexit.

Anonymous said...

I read the Nat Onal so you don't have to. Their latest outrage is that some private sector corporations chose to but a Union Jack sticker on carrots that were grown in Scotland.