Memories are an act of creation. We piece them together from disparate fragments and imaginings until it feels like that’s how we always remembered it.
I’m a young boy, seven or eight, and I’m holding the red cord attached to the corner of the coffin as the men lower it into the grave. Around me an overbearing huddle of black and grey woolen coats, men with leather gloves and sombre Sunday-best hats: women go to the Kirk, but not the cemetery. I am trying to reconcile the pale wooden coffin with my grandmother, who, I am told, is inside it.
The woman and the place she lived: how the water in the bath carried a yellowish tinge (“it’s from the peat, son”); clacking of knitting needles by the coal fire—a novelty for a new town boy raised on electric bar heaters; walking on black gravel past the distillery warehouses that reeked of the angel’s share that escaped the barrels, and smelt anything but angelic. These were the remnants of the days when the town produced as well as consumed the uisge beatha.
On to the pier to see what catch the boats had brought. Ling, cod, prawns, and gaping, hideous monkfish. Along the dark, damp pebbles and muddy foreshore, stepping over beached jellyfish: great white upturned dinner bowls. Pulling at clumps of mussels for bait for the cuddies, the juvenile cod and pollack that sheltered in the harbour. Best of all, arriving home after a morning in the hills with a bag of trout from the burn. Next day, sleeves rolled and apron on, she would roll them in flour and fry them for our breakfast in her small kitchen with that crockery that looked like she had bought it in the ’50s.
The toy shop in the high street that sold Airfix models had yellow cellophane in the windows to protect the display from sun damage. Some joke, that, sun damage in the southwest Highlands. This was a compulsory pilgrimage. She had a friend who worked in a baker’s on the same street. We would call in on the way home from plastic warships and Sherman tanks and I would get a wink and bar of chocolate.
And now she’s gone, and someone tells me she’s inside the box that we’re lowering into the ground as the minister drones something I don’t understand. I’m transfixed by the wood and the depth of the grave. There’s a bustling among the black and grey, and we are in the hotel for the reception.
According to my brother, our distant relatives who came down off the hills for the occasion all looked like monkeys. Certainly, we’re no aristocrats on my father’s side: farm workers, distillery maltmen, domestic servants. Rustic, tanned and wrinkled? Yes. Monkeys? Well, maybe there was a second cousin with worrying traits. Half the town was there, so who could tell who was related to who?
Burgundy upholstery in a dark lounge of a type peculiar to rural Scottish hotels. There would be pints of Heavy or watery lager, and blended whisky. An older matron regaled a small but eager audience with stories of my great-grandfather’s adventures. He was a coppersmith who fixed distillery vats and warship plumbing in the Great War. The loch was so full of warships that he set off in the morning and walked from ship to ship to reach his jobs. Or came home half cut from the fumes of the vats he fixed at the distilleries. There are nods and murmurs of approval. As the youngest of many grandchildren I was indulged, patted and passed surreptitious sweets.
And again, selective and collective memories engage. I rely on my father and my aunts to fill the gaps. By a process of deduction I piece together my movements. I was taken to bed as the others repaired to the family home, for a more intimate gathering. My father and his sisters circulate in the cramped apartment with bottles of whisky for favoured guests, tea for the abstinent. The minister is there, of course, crow-like, as all highland Kirkmen seem to be. His top hat and tails sport green mould and wrinkles as he hangs them in the hall and positions himself in the optimum chair. As each sibling circulates with a bottle, he ensures he has emptied the glass by the time they reach him. As she tells this story, my aunt will gesture to her glass.
“Would you like some more?”
“Ach weel, jist a sensation. Jist a sensation.”
Asleep in a guesthouse down the road, I would have to wait for other, more tragic funerals to learn how we water grief with whisky in the shadow of Calvin and Knox.
Ian Maclellan now lives and works in Scotland where he blogs on Diasporran.