As Alex was walking through the university gates to the departmental staff meeting, he was thinking about Black Holes, the first photograph of which had been displayed as a news item on his ipad that morning. One of the strange-but-true properties of Black Holes was that they slowed the progress of time. There was an unlikely parallel with departmental staff meetings, with their endless discussions of staff car parking provision. Looking on the bright side, it was the last staff meeting of the Easter Term, and at the end of the term he was retiring.
During the previous Christmas break, he’d been doing some hard thinking. As usual, he’d flown out to the holiday apartment he owned in Tenerife, but the apartment had too many associations with Angela for him to feel at peace there. So he’d taken to walking in Tenerife’s desert landscape. In the past, the islanders had grubbed a living from tiny irrigated fields, laboriously cleared of huge numbers of volcanic rocks. Now, the islanders all had jobs in the resorts on the coast: the irrigation channels were ruinous and the desert had returned. Andy could walk all day with only the scores of tiny lizards for company, before they darted away from his feet into the safety of the tumbling drystone walls and the cacti scrub. The abandoned fields and the thick drystone walls reminded him of his native Aberdeenshire, where fields had been cleared by his toiling ancestors of their glacial spoil – rounded rocks and boulders – to be piled up in massive boundary walls. Still with enough teeth in his head to whistle, he found himself whistling, the old tune, ‘O, gin I were where Gaudie rins.’ A plan had begun to emerge: he’d sell the Tenerife apartment and buy himself a holiday cottage back among his ‘ain folk,’ somewhere near the Gaudie burn at the foot of Aberdeenshire’s lovely, solitary mountain – Bennachie.
Alex had been born and raised just a couple of miles away from his newly-purchased Woodside Croft. He rested his arms on the lip of the old well that stood in the front garden, the well which had so fascinated him as a small child and was now his. He watched the well-spring at the well-base, as it swelled upward and outward, sending concentric ripples towards the old, dark stonework. And he felt again the hypnotic effect that the mysterious, rhythmic, geometric, rippling water had on him as a child. He was waiting for the arrival of his cousin Willie, whom he had finally persuaded to quit his farm for the afternoon, so they could take a walk together up Bennachie, the mountain that they had so often roamed as children.
Willie arrived half an hour late, uneasy at leaving a heifer whom he thought was not long off her first calving. As they walked, Alex tried to distract him with tales of modern scholarship about the history of the mountain and its people. ‘Did ye know, Willie, that the first Scotsman whose name is known to history fought a battle against the Romans on this very mountain?’
‘Eh? Romans?’ Willie was strong as a bull calf, but fifty years of transportation by tractor had spoilt him for hill-walking. He was already regretting letting himself be persuaded by his wife, Annie, into humouring Alex by agreeing to this expedition.
‘Indeed, aye, the Roman general, Agricola, invaded Scotland (well, Pictland, to be historically accurate) almost two thousand years ago. He was accompanied by his son-in-law, Tacitus the historian. It’s through Tacitus that we know the name of the Pictish war-leader, a man called Calgacus. Tacitus wrote that Calgacus made a fine speech to his men on the eve of battle, including the stirring phrase, ‘The Romans make a desert and call it peace.’
If Willie had found a sufficiency of oxygen in his lungs, he would have compared the Romans to the private forestry company who were planting the ground above his farm and creating extra run-off that was turning one of his best fields into a swamp. But he contented himself with, ‘And did he beat ‘em, yon Calgacus?’
‘Afraid not. They were brave but they were routed.’
‘Hmff. Jist like the fitba.’
At length, they emerged out of the wood, onto the high moor. Ahead of them, the summit with the remains of Calgacus’ Iron-Age fort. Behind them, the enfolding farmlands of the Buchan plain, with Willie’s farm plainly visible. High above them, a skylark was singing its soaring song. Alex was remembering a line about ‘the choir of Heaven and the furniture of the Earth.’ But he remained silent, sensing that Willie would not be responsive. Willie was staring at the moor: ‘Ye ken, Bennachie wiz a free commonty – fowk could graze their beasts here withoot a care for lairds or trespass laws. Pasture needs to be grazed, else it gangs awa’ tae heather and rashes.’ Alex nodded, but forbore comment: the story was well-known locally: in the middle of the nineteenth century, eight adjoining landlords had put a private bill through Parliament, apportioning ownership of the previously free common between them – ‘The Theft of Bennachie.’
When they gained the summit, ‘the Mither Tap,’ Willie pulled out the beef and chutney sandwiches that Annie had made for them and Alex produced a couple of cans of beer. Willie studied the unfamiliar label. ‘Weel, weel. Ye’ve settled in noo. Wit’s yer plan fur the steading?’ There had previously been ten acres of land with Woodside Croft, but the land had been sold off separately. Alex had bought the croft-house and, with it, the now-redundant steading.
‘I’ve been thinking about that. The roof’s in a bad way: it was slated with iron nails and now they’re rusted through…’
Willie nodded, ‘Aye, aye, “nail-sick” it’s ca’ed.’
‘…So I thought I’d put a clear plastic roof on it and mebbe growth fruit and veg in there in pots, like in a green house.’
‘Ye know, tomatoes, squashes, peppers, aubergines.’
They sat for some time in silence. Alex noticed Willie glancing at his watch, so he finished his beer and suggested heading back. They were due later at Wester Woodside, Willie’s place, where Annie would be preparing a high tea with buttered scones and blackcurrant jelly. Alex suggested they return via ‘The Colony,’ the ruined crofts that landless families had established on the mountain, prior to its seizure by the surrounding estates. Willie pointed out the fine stonework on Masson’s roofless croft: ‘He wiz a mason to trade, I heard that he worked on several ferms roond aboot. Likely, he built yer crofthoos an’ the steading.’
‘Quite possibly, Willie. The walls have the look of being built by a skilled man… And they have proper foundations…’
Willie nodded, but said nothing more. When they eventually came to Wester Woodside, he bade Alex go in and talk to Annie: he had to check on the heifer.
‘Weel weel, Alex, ye had a fine day fur yer walk. Hoo did Willie get on?’
Long since, Alex and Annie had been sweethearts. But they parted when Alex went away to college, and it had seemed natural that Annie, a farmer’s daughter, should marry Willie, a farmer’s son. Sometimes, old sweethearts can be awkward company, but Alex and Annie still shared a warm regard. So Alex felt he could speak freely: ‘Well, he was maybe frettin’ a bit about the heifer, I don’t know. And he was runnin’ out o’ puff…’
‘Ha. Nae Surprise there. We’re too busy on the ferm to gang aboot hills. Still, it wid do him good to walk a few hills: ye’ve seen the corporation on him.’
‘Haha. There was two corporations on display on Bennachie today… Strange thing though, Annie, the only thing that seemed to capture his interest all day was my steading… Annie??’
Annie was bent double, staring sightlessly towards her scones in the oven. She sighed and rose slowly. ‘It’s best ye hear it frae us, Alex. Someone else is bound to tell ye, sooner or later. Willie and I wiz keen to buy Woodside Croft, for young Alan: the lad’s been keen to set up a contractin’ business. If we’d been the successful bidder, instead of ye, Alan could’ve stored his gear in the steading and still been close enough to help Willie oot on the ferm. Mebbe wan dee, Alan might’ve got marrit and even startit a family there. So now Alan’s rentin’ that place o’er by Macduff: he couldnae afford anythin’ round here. Willie wiz sair disappointit when we didnae get the place. An’ then, when we heard it was you that bought it…’ She stopped: Willie was standing silently in the doorway.
Willie walked over to the sink and started to wash his hands. ‘That damn heifer’s still nae calvin’ – might have to ca’ the vet. Hell.’
‘Willie, I didn’t know about Alan. I’m so sorry. But we can sort it out: I could rent the steadings to Alan – just a peppercorn rent…’
‘Bugger that! We’re nae charity cases. And ye’re nae oor fuckin’ landlord. Why the fuckin’ hell did ye haff tae come back here, onyway?? To yer ain fowk, wiz it?? We’re nae yer ain fowk, yer great gowk! Ye went awa’ forty years sine. An’ ye’ve come back a different mannie altogether. Wi’ yer fuckin Calgacus. Ye’ve nae even the same name: ye went awa’ a Sandy, an’ ye’ve come back a fuckin’ Alex!
Bennachie as seen looking across the River Don from the grounds of the House of Monymusk – Lecored1, CC BY 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons