Books that make a difference
Excerpt from Heart is Highland
This account of my early life would never have been written without the encouragement and persistence of my son Kenneth.
A hard-working poet and writer who never seems to experience the slightest difficulty in picking up a pen, Ken found it hard to understand my reluctance; frankly, I was puzzled myself. On reflection, I decided there were several reasons. Laziness came into it, of course; the task seemed more than a little daunting. There was also some apprehension, a fear of unearthing too many poignant memories - of home, parents, departed friends, and especially of my only sister Nancy, my constant companion of early years. Perhaps there was also real uncertainty as to whether what I could recall would ever be sufficient to give the story life.
Finally I made a very tentative start with the month of January. And then a strange thing happened. As if a cupboard full of old treasures had been opened and the contents spilled out on to the floor, all kinds of memories began to surface - of people, places and events, and of customs and traditions, some of which I had not thought of for over half a century.
So I continued, my pen, as it were, picking up speed as the months came and went. It had been a happy choice, I found, to write keeping time with the months, because the similar environment of rural Perthshire helped to jog my memory. And as each month was written up, Ken, my eagle-eyed but ever-helpful editor, would unerringly point out just where I had strayed into potential boredom - usually when I had mounted my hobbyhorse of food habits!
Memories flooded back of the faces and names (and of course the nicknames) of those who had peopled our childhood; some of these were true 'characters' about whom numerous anecdotes surfaced. A miscellany of events also came to mind - the ploughing match, the ceilidhs, the Gaelic Mod, tales of the Monster, Sunday School picnics at Urquhart Castle, the fun and excitement of Hallowe'en, and the Communions with all their solemnity.
All of this was proving relatively easy; it was simply a case of seeing it all through the eyes of a child, of recapturing something of a vanished way of life. It became more difficult when there seemed to be a need for more mature appraisal, of the education available to us at the time, for example. There was a need to assess it fairly and honestly, and to try to hammer out a balanced view of the vexed issue of the 'boarded-out' children with whom that education was shared. (I take full responsibility for my possibly flawed impressions and inevitable lapses of memory.)
I did not always need to rely on re-awakened memory, simply because a clear impression had remained from my earliest days. This was true of the natural world. So steeped had we been in the joys of the countryside that it was altogether impossible not to remember vividly; the only question was how, lacking the skills of a poet, to express them adequately! All were things of the senses - the sight of a perfect chaffinch's nest with its clutch of minute eggs, or of daffodils against the snow; the sound of bees droning through the heather, or of curlews crying on a May evening; the feel of a warm hen's egg in the hand, or of tiny kittens vibrating with purring as they were fed; the scent of new-mown hay, or of lilac or primroses or lily-of-the-valley; the taste of brambles or hazel-nuts or freshly-made raspberry jam. The list seemed endless; in the struggle to convey these delights came a growing awareness of the richness of the childhood we had been privileged to enjoy. I thought with some sadness of the journalist who had written several years before: 'I can't stand the countryside myself - one cow looks just like another to me!'
Re-awakened memory was also totally unnecessary when it came to our musical inheritance, always important to the Gael. Brought up in a musical household, I knew the tunes and the words - or at least the choruses - of dozens of Gaelic and Scots songs; brought up in the Free Church, I was familiar with the words and tunes of a great many psalms. I knew many fiddle and bagpipe tunes. Not only could I recapture details of long-ago ceilidhs, I could hear the special songs of each performer, for no matter how many new songs they might have learned, by the end of the evening someone would have invariably required them to sing 'their' song!
The whole exercise of recalling the vibrant life of the glen has left a mixture of emotions. Sadness, naturally, for those who are gone; wistfulness for the richness of a lifestyle mercifully free from today's consumerism; sheer gratitude for having been brought up amid great natural beauty, and for the warmth and immense security of a strong home and family life, loving discipline and sound teaching - as well as a great deal of fun. True, the strong religious ethos of the day could be stern and at times repressive, yet the consequence, arguably, was a standard of morality which meant that no door need ever be locked, and a parcel from any shop - even the jeweller's - could be left lying for hours at the roadside to be collected.
It would be a pity if these reminiscences were to be seen as mere nostalgia for the past; better, surely, to take from them something positive for the future. Exactly what that might be is obviously left to the individual reader. For me, what seems to shine through is just how much more quality of life means than standard of living, and how happiness is not, contrary to the message of today's aggressive advertising, dependent upon material possessions. Surely we can choose in different ways to regain that lost simplicity. This idea seems to be summed up in a verse of a poem written by Ken for a young Latvian friend, inspired by a photograph of him, picking potatoes behind a horse.
If a man should come now to your door
Selling motorways, a rustle of money in his eyes,
Do not buy his road, for it leads
To all our lost riches, our need of God.
Kenneth C. Steven, 'A Poem for Ivars'