Some of my fondest memories of childhood were of long summer holidays in the west of Scotland. And of the people I remember most clearly from those days, Murdo McMurdo sticks out in my mind. I went up to see him just after I returned to live in Britain.
I had been told in the local shop that he could be found in an old demountable caravan that had been parked in a large lay-by next to the sea, just outside the village. These were the premises of the local historical society; Murdo’s latest- and unfortunately last- effort to extract money from Europe via the local tourist board. The shop keeper pointed from his doorway at a rectangular shape that was barely visible in the driving misty and rain. “He’ll there till dark, it’s nice and warm for him.”
Waving my thanks, I set off into the storm and trudged my way along a road that had been newly built since I had last visited. It skirted a small inlet full of small yachts and clinker-built boats that bobbed violently on their moorings. After ten minutes in which I cursed myself for not taking the car, I espied a small green structure with a rather careworn sign declaring that it was “The Local Historical Society”
Poking my head around the door I saw Murdo at the end of the room. He was slouched in a chair, visibly older than when I had seen him last -almost five years before. He smiled when he spotted me and rose unsteadily to his feet. As he reached his full, stooped height, he coughed a single blow that was so violent that he quivered like a jelly. All passages cleared, he patted his chest and torso to check that no extraneous parts had fallen off and no internal organs had become detached. Relieved that he was still in one piece, he smiled again and held out his hand.
“The last time I saw you,” he began, fixing me with a glittering eye, “you were about to disappear to New Zealand.” He winked and waited for a response.
“That’s where I went,” I said. “Then a few years in Australia and places, and then Canada.”
He nodded his understanding. There was no reproach at the folly of returning home. Murdo had lived away and knew what it was like to live alone, in a place that was not your own.
I gazed at him for a few moments. His skin had always been weather-beaten, leathery and old, like a piece of ancient furniture, but now there was a deliberation in the way his face formed expressions and how he moved his head. He’d developed the mask of a man facing death.
He cast his hand across the room. “Canada’s the place most people from ‘round here went after the Clearances. You’ll remember the old abandoned village behind my house? Most of those folk ended up in Newfoundland.” He pointed to a part of the room where a map display showed a village, nestled among mountains and bracketed by the sea.
We talked for half an hour or more of my experiences abroad, until he showed signs of weariness. Then I produced a half bottle of malt from my coat pocket. “I’d like to fish the loch.” He knew I was referring to a place where we had both been together many times. It was located on top of a hill, a narrow depression between two cliffs that had filled with water.
“The doctors have warned me off whisky,” he said reaching across to take the bottle. “Perhaps you’ll join me in a dram?”
He found two old cups behind his desk and poured two measures before sitting back. “You’ll be silly to go up to that loch and not visit the next loch along.” His voice dropped so that only I could hear his next words. “Three years ago I took some small trout up there in a pail o’ water.” He sucked on his whisky like a boiled sweat. “Next time I visited, a year later, I noticed a small swirl.”
As Murdo had often observed; big trout are less obvious in their habits. A small swirl could be indicative of a very large trout indeed. “I’ve told nobody,” he said.
I remember laughing at the conspiratorial way Murdo revealed his information. It was typical of a man who lived on the margins of a small community and used his wits. Information about the whereabouts of large trout definitely fell into the category of tradable currency, and Murdo had always been short of any sort of money; real, imagined or virtual. He was permanently on the sniff for opportunity, and he tended to attach himself to those who he thought might provide him with an additional income. So long as you understood and accepted this aspect of his character, he was delightful company. I was honoured that he should have released the information about spectacular trout freely and willingly for the small price of a dram of whisky.