By Tim Porteus

So I’m writing this quickly on Wednesday morning, having arrived later than planned from a trip up north and missed even the extended deadline, with the editor on the phone tapping his fingers kindly waiting for me to send my story.

So if you forgive me this week I will tell a tale I have been waiting some time to tell, and can now do so, with only a tenuous link to East Lothian.

You see I have been away on an unexpected trip to the Isle of Skye. We were meeting friends on a long-standing invite, and we were also introducing the younger children to the wonders of this most remarkable place.

I have a strong attachment to Skye – my one-year-old daughter bears the island’s name. And she lives up to her name, for the Isle of Skye is a tempestuous place, with wildly changing moods and a determination to be in control; but also a place of almost unbearable beauty and wonder, a place you never want to leave and can never get enough of.

I was saddened that one our old family acquaintances had passed away and so the children couldn’t meet him. His name was Duncan. My earliest memory of him was when he came to visit us in Prestonpans. He was a giant of a man, a Highland crofter with hands rough and scarred. I remember walking with him in the Greenhills, as he loved the sea.

Like many early memories I don’t recall how he knew my father, but there must have been some connection, because we then visited him on Skye on a later summer.

But it was after I had grown up that I got to know him, and this wonderful part of the world a bit better.

It was over 20 years ago, and I was collecting tales and memories in the area. A mutual friend reintroduced me to him and I stayed with him for a few weeks and he made me feel totally at home.

I was in emotional turmoil at the time I remember, and I have always found the west coast a place of healing and reflection. The timeless mountains and the atmosphere of the Highlands puts troubles into perspective. Duncan seemed to understand all this and allowed me to be with myself if needed but gave me company when I seemed to want it.

The first thing I noticed when I entered his house was a large yellow hat hanging on the door.

“That’s my fireman’s hat” he said. Duncan was the designated fireman for the area. You see in those days especially, to cover all the isolated homes with a fire service was not easy. No fire engine was going to get to a house fire down the narrow roads where he lived, at least not in time. And the nearest fire engine was many miles away. And so Duncan, and some other locals, were designated as fire fighters.

“If there’s a fire they call me,” he said proudly, then he showed me all his fire fighting stuff in the shed.

The other thing I noticed about Duncan’s house was the strange arrangement he had. The bedroom was where the living room should have been and the living room was where the bedroom should have been.

This meant that when you opened his front door, you immediately entered his bedroom, then had to walk through it, and the kitchen, to get to the living room at the back, which of course should have been the bedroom!

I didn’t say anything and since I was crashing down in his living room, I actually got the quietest part of the small house at the back.

Duncan invited me to the local pub. Now it is at this part of the tale I must inject a certain mystery. I am not going to identify the exact place, but the hills of Skye were seen from his window, and a narrow road twisted up the hill following the drovers’ route, which crossed the sea at this point.

Strangely Duncan drove his car to the pub, even though it was easily within walking distance. But I soon discovered why.

You see Duncan drank amounts of beer and spirits I could not imagine. By the end of the evening this giant of a man could barely walk. But he had lots of friends.

In a carefully and obviously well-rehearsed manner, four of his friends carried him to his car. They then drove him the short distance to his house, where they all then got back into position, carried him from his car and struggled into the house.

Now I realised why the bedroom was where the living room should have been. It meant the bed was the first thing arrived at when entering the house and Duncan’s four red-faced and puffing friends lowered their now sleeping giant of a friend onto the bed and said their farewells!

I fell asleep that night to the sound of snoring I didn’t think possible! It was loud even though the kitchen and two walls were between us.

In the morning a cheerful Duncan was making breakfast before heading out to do some other work, on the roads and then later tend the sheep.

As he was out the phone rang. Duncan had told me to answer the phone if it ever rang and so I did. The voice at the other end spoke in Gaelic, but when he realised it wasn’t Duncan he spoke English, in the same Highland accent that Duncan did.

“It’s Lackie here, please let Duncan know it is all arranged for Saturday night, around 7pm.” I dutifully passed the message on and despite the fact it was Saturday night, Duncan stayed at home that evening sitting by the phone.

Sure enough it rang around 7.10pm.

Duncan answered it and spoke seriously, then hung up and looked at me.

“We have a fire, would you like to come?” And so I found myself in his car, with the fire fighting equipment in the boot. He drove as if the car had wings, but he knew every bend and turn of the narrow road.

Then we came down to a beach, and a short drive we arrived at a secluded spot where three caravans stood. A man was waiting for us. This, of course, was Lackie.

The two men talked to each other for a moment and then Duncan turned to me and said “you wait here, I will investigate the fire”.

I could see no fire at this point, but the two men went into the caravan at the end. After some time smoke began to billow out of a window and the two men came out, and stood with me. Then flames began to lick the side of the caravan.

“Are you not going to put the fire out?” I asked innocently.

“Oh yes,” said Duncan, “but let’s see what it does first”.

So we stood watching the fire take hold until Duncan finally sprang into action and started to put the fire out. He did a really good job, but by now the caravan was badly burnt and unusable.

The two men shook their hands and I got back into the car with Duncan. He drove back to his wee township in silence.

“I know what you are thinking,” he said. “You are thinking it is dishonest, but you see there are different ways of seeing dishonesty”.

I said nothing, as he was on a roll.

“Look around you, all those deserted and ruined houses, they were once full of families, thrown off the land by the rich and powerful who put profit before people.

That is dishonesty, but it wasn’t called that, it was called economic efficiency. It made money for the rich, but the poor paid the price with their homes.” He pulled up and parked outside the pub but continued to talk.

“And they are still at it. Do you know that the estate over there is for sale and do you know how they advertise it? They call it a wilderness with no people to spoil it! And that’s how those people like it!” I could feel his passion. “Well I could show you where the people once were! Don’t give me romantic tales of Bonnie Prince Charlie, he was one of them, he used the people for his own ends then left them to their fate, which was to be cleared. That is inhumane dishonesty!” Duncan looked at me. “You see, the caravan at the end had been damaged in a storm. Lackie has paid his premium for years but he was afraid he would find trouble getting the insurance money for it because it hadn’t been secured properly before the storm. But an accidental fire is different.” He smiled.

“Accidental?” I said smiling.

“Yes of course, that is what it was, that is how I will write it in my report. So Lackie will get his insurance money.

“Like me he struggles to stay here, but we have a duty to survive in this land, the bones of our ancestors lie here, and those with cheque books bigger than our houses want us out, but we will find ways of staying.

“You see in the old days we would go over that hill and lift cattle from the neighbouring clan. It wasn’t considered dishonest or stealing, it was the Highland Way.

“Well we don’t do that anymore. But instead, sometimes, when we need to, we lift money from the likes of insurance companies, who are the real robbers, in order to survive. It isn’t dishonest, it’s the Highland Way!” Lackie was waiting for us inside the pub, with three whiskies.

We drank a toast to the “Highland Way” and Duncan’s Saturday night could begin.

Afterwards I asked him if I could use this story.

“Yes” he said, “but wait until I’m dead”.

As I drove through the Highlands, with its masses of tourists, holiday homes and caravans I reflected on Duncan’s view of the world.

We have such a place of beauty in our Highlands but it will be really sad if it becomes just a beautiful theme park with its language and traditional communities gone.

Maybe that is now inevitable, I don’t know. But what I do know is that land reform is needed still, and that those with big cheque books threaten not only Highland communities but also my own.