A Legacy and a Sheep
didn’t even know I had a Great Aunt Martha.
hardly noticed Aberdeen’s frenzied last-minute Christmas shoppers as
I walked out of Golden Square in a stupor. Oblivious to Union Street’s
six lanes of demented traffic, I was only vaguely aware of the cacophony
of horns and rich Doric abuse as I weaved across the thoroughfare. When
eventually I found where I’d parked the old van in the concrete labyrinth
of the Trinity multi-storey, all I could do was sit and stare. Blankly.
so I had a Great Aunt Martha. Until five months ago. Until the nursing
home in Kirkwall duly passed her on to some obscure Orkney cemetery.
She must have known about me, though. Even if it had taken her executors
half a year to track me down. The only living relative.
McNab of McNab & McNab (as in “Can I see Mr McNab, please?” “Sorry,
he’s out. Can Mr McNab help you?”) had given me the good news and the
bad news over a big strong desk and a small weak coffee.
the last few years, the hitherto unknown Martha had been – well, I forget
the term he used, but I took it to mean doolally. Hence the nursing
remembering disjointed snippets of a dream, lumps of Mr McNab’s monologue
came back to me, and I began to piece together the Martha jigsaw.
Married in the
1920s to Peerie Doddie McKinnon (that’s Little George, apparently, on
account of being six foot two against his father’s (also Doddie) five
foot three and a half in his boots), Martha found herself in a relatively
prosperous family. By Orkney standards of the day. McKinnon senior had
a farm on the island of Hoy, but it was hardly big enough to support
Peerie Doddie too, even though he was the only son. But there was money
enough to establish Peerie Doddie and Martha in a croft on Mainland
and buy a small lobster boat for him to supplement his income.
wasn’t all that easy, though, but Martha and Peerie Doddie knew that
in the fullness of time they would inherit the farm on Hoy. So everything
was fine, except . . .
little Peerie Doddies. And it wasn’t for want of trying, what with long
dark winter nights and television not invented. Peerie Doddie knew he
was doing it right. The baker’s wife had told him so when he’d gone
to get his oatcakes. But it wasn’t to be.
Martha didn’t mind (said Mr McNab), for she had a vision of her and
Peerie Doddie in the big farmhouse on Hoy.
Her dream was shattered,
though (waxed Mr McNab, getting into his stride), when war came, and
Peerie Doddie was lost. Not exactly in action. He’d gone to lift his
creels one night in Scapa Flow. Wrong place, wrong time. To this day
his little boat lies wedged on the seabed under a German U-Boat.
Martha did inherit the farm, and for forty years she tended her sheep,
singlehandedly, and very successfully too. She was ninety-three when
the neighbours began to suspect that Martha was losing her grip. Two
hundred and forty breeding ewes and one ram were a bit much for her
at that age, they thought. Signs of strain were creeping in.
end came when the neighbouring Magnus, himself over eighty and slightly
less than continent, had need to visit his outdoor convenience at 3
a.m. one morning. Seeing what seemed to be a torchlight to the south
west of Martha’s farm, and perilously close to the cliffs, he roused
his son, Young Magnus (sixty-three and chronically arthritic), and together
they hobbled across the field to investigate.
feet from the edge of a one-hundred-foot sheer drop into the Atlantic,
Martha was on her knees, arms clinging round the wet woolly neck of
ageing Angus, her beloved ram, crying, “Don’t jump, Angus. You’ve only
another hundred and twenty six to see to. You’ll manage!”
Martha was on the next ferry to Kirkwall.
a cold frosty January morning, I inched the old van along the Scrabster
Pier to board the St Ola. The great bulk of the P&O ferry dwarfed
the Scrabster jetty, alleviating only slightly the trepidation I felt
about crossing the notorious Pentland Firth. A seafarer I certainly
was not. I vaguely remember begging my mother to take the toy boats
out of my bath because they made me queasy.
surely this monstrous piece of maritime engineering would be so solid
and stable I’d never know we’d left terra firma.
the remains of my bacon roll flew off the table for the seventh time,
I decided these excessive oscillations were not conducive to eating.
I went up on deck and tried to focus on the horizon.
harbour crew in Stromness seemed accustomed to helping green men off
the ferry. My advice to Martians would be, if you want to land on our
planet unnoticed, touch down in Orkney on a stormy day, just after the
St Ola docks.
marginally less wobbly, I drove the ten miles or so to Orphir, whence
departed, apparently, an inter-island ferry that would take me to Hoy.
I almost drove past the hand written sign saying FERRY, wedged against
an old oil drum on the verge. Undaunted, I turned down the rough track
towards the shore, to join the queue of ferry traffic.
old Landrover. With a sheep in the passenger seat. So I duly formed
a queue of two. No other sign of human activity. Except for what appeared
to be a derelict roadman’s hut at the end of an equally derelict pier.
went to investigate. I poked my head round the half-open door to see
two men and a bottle of Highland Park. The latter had disappeared into
the bottom drawer of a rusty filing cabinet by the time I had blinked.
politely enquired when the Hoy ferry sailed.
moments of pondering, then: “Och, maybe this afternoon. No later than
dinner time tomorrow. You’re no in a hurry?”
response, I outlined my mission to find my inheritance. At the mention
of Martha McKinnon, the Highland Park made a miraculous reappearance.
a McKinnon? Well. Och, you’ll have a dram.”
A chipped mug was
produced, bearing graphics along the lines of “Scotland - Argentina
- World Cup 1978”. Malt flowed copiously, and soon I was brave enough
to ask the Landrover owner about the sheep. His name was Randy (the
driver, not the sheep), seemingly derived from the name of his farm,
Randivoe, rather than from any notoriety on his part. This tendency
to refer to people by some contraction of the name of their property
perturbed me a little, given my recent discovery that my inherited chunk
of the island was called Arsaig.
informed me that he’d been to Inverness to visit his brother over Hogmanay.
He then raised his mug again with an air of finality that suggested
he had given adequate explanation. Unsatisfied, and emboldened by the
malt, I pressed for more. Did the sheep get lonely when he was away,
Randy explained. “We get a big subsidy on the ferry if we’re transporting
livestock, you see. Makes it much cheaper. So I never leave the island
without a sheep.”
long malt-drinking silence followed, while I digested this piece of
bureaucratic manipulation. Eventually, the third of our trio broke the
understood, Randy, why they wouldn’t let you take the sheep to Tenerife
ferry did sail in the afternoon. Late afternoon. Very late afternoon.
I was glad of the numbing effect of the Highland Park when I saw the
minuscule four-vehicle boat bobbing like a tiny cork towards the pier.
Especially when it stopped a few hundred yards out and appeared to be
executing a three-point turn.
got to come in backways,” Randy explained. “The front doors don’t open
since he rammed the pier last summer – the night of his grandson’s christening,
it was. We’d some party on the way back.”
I followed Randy
and the sheep and we weaved our way aboard - via the stern doors.
was very late and pitch dark when I reached the end of the road. Randy
and the sheep had kindly offered to escort us to Arsaig. I pulled to
a halt behind the Landrover to find that the stony rutted track had
ended, and in front was a field gate.
informed me that I’d arrived. There was no road to the farm, he explained.
You just drive through the field, then through the next one, but mind
how you go because it’s very near the cliff edge and there are no fences
on the cliff tops. And he was off, home presumably to Mrs Randy waiting
patiently with his mince and tatties, and a turnip for the much-travelled
followed his directions, nervously, until I arrived at what, in the
headlights, appeared to be a pile of stones. I really don’t know what
I expected. But it wasn’t this.
had the Highland Park to thank for getting some sleep. When I woke,
I was shivering so much the caravan was shaking. Yes. The caravan.
sheds, and not a roof among them. No windows left in the house; three
doorways, only one of which had an actual door attached. No plumbing,
no electricity, no water. Slight exaggeration. Water supply to one trough
behind a shed.
a caravan. Of sorts. Securely tied down to thwart the icy gales, uninterruptedly
blasting down from the Arctic Circle. The recycled fishbox that plugged
the hole where the upper half of the caravan door should have been was
neither wind nor watertight.
least there was some gas. I retrieved a jar of coffee from the modest
provisions I’d brought over in the van, and finally got Great Aunt Martha’s
old kettle to make slight boiling sounds.
took no time at all to decide that the only option was to get the next
ferry home and write it all off to experience. As I rolled up the sleeping
bag, the last thing I expected in this isolated lump of nowhere was
climbed out of his Landrover, conspicuously without sheep. He dismissed
my motions towards the kettle with the deft withdrawal from some deep
inner pocket of yet another bottle of Highland Park.
a bottle and much disconcertingly aimless conversation later, Randy
announced, “Right. Let’s get down to business.”
I was lost. What business?
another deep pocket, he produced a very thick legal-looking document,
followed, incredibly, by a chequebook.
you know all about the salmon farming plans.”
was even more lost, but instinct made me try to look at least vaguely
last offer to Martha was £130,000, but she was determined not to sell.
Said it would be up to you. You know as well as I do that I need your
land, with all that fresh water running through, to get this salmon
farm off the ground. £160,000’s my final offer, though. Take it or leave
in my head, I was saying things like “Well, let me think about it”,
but in the real world I was grasping Randy’s much masticated Biro and
heading towards that legal document.
I was in a daze again. Another stupor. But somewhere in my mind was
the thought that despite Mr McNab’s assessment, the unknown Great Aunt
Martha was far from doolally.
that day, as I sat in the van on the Hoy pier, waiting for the ferry
that time forgot, a Landrover drew up alongside. Randy wound his window
down and shouted over the roar of the sea.
be off home to the mainland then? Would you like to borrow a sheep?”