Jacqui Bennett Writers Bureau



A Legacy and a Sheep

by Mike Clark

Email: aspen@contractor.net


I didn’t even know I had a Great Aunt Martha.

I 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.

Okay, 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.

Mr 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.

For 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 home.

Like 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.

It 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 . . .

No 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.

But 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.  

But 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.

The 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.

Three 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!”

Poor Martha was on the next ferry to Kirkwall.

On 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.

But surely this monstrous piece of maritime engineering would be so solid and stable I’d never know we’d left terra firma.

When 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.

The 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.

Feeling 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.

One 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.

I 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.

I politely enquired when the Hoy ferry sailed.

Several moments of pondering, then: “Och, maybe this afternoon. No later than dinner time tomorrow. You’re no in a hurry?”

In response, I outlined my mission to find my inheritance. At the mention of Martha McKinnon, the Highland Park made a miraculous reappearance.

“You’re 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.

Randy 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, I wondered?

Patiently, 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.”

A long malt-drinking silence followed, while I digested this piece of bureaucratic manipulation. Eventually, the third of our trio broke the silence.

“Never understood, Randy, why they wouldn’t let you take the sheep to Tenerife last year.”

The 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.

“He’s 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.

It 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.

Randy 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 sheep.

I 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.

I 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.

Three 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.

And 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.

At 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.

It 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 a visitor.

Randy 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.

“Mugs?” he enquired.

Half a bottle and much disconcertingly aimless conversation later, Randy announced, “Right. Let’s get down to business.”

Now I was lost. What business?

From another deep pocket, he produced a very thick legal-looking document, followed, incredibly, by a chequebook.

“Now, you know all about the salmon farming plans.”

I was even more lost, but instinct made me try to look at least vaguely clued up.

“My 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 it.”

Somewhere 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.

Now 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.

Later 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.

“You’ll be off home to the mainland then? Would you like to borrow a sheep?”

©2000 Mike Clark

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