photograph by Kevin Pollard
TOUR DIARY 25/3 – 5/4/2020
JOURNAL by Donny, POSTCARDS by Anna-Stina, POSTCARD TEXT by Mike
The Scotland Tour is unfolding in a parallel universe. In this one it wasn’t to be. Musicians have been roundly hammered by recent events, with lost shows and cancelled tours. Please consider throwing something into the hat to help us cover our losses and get the Scotland tour organized again. You can donate by clicking
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Many thanks! – Donny
25 March – Joon Broon’s Hoose, Dundee
I woke up early today in Paisley and it wasn’.t raining. My bags had been packed for days and I can hardly believe that after all these months of planning, mapping, photo-shooting, jounalising and general scheming and dreaming the big day had finally arrived.
I took myself down to the bus stop at the foot of the road and jumped on a number 9. As it juddered along through Cardonald I got that weird feeling of things being routine familiar and deeply strange all at once. I know Paisley Road West so well I could sleepwalk it blind, but it’s 25 years and more since I took this same journey into Glasgow and kept on going all the way to the Arctic Ocean and down to Helsinki, and never lived here again. The Argosy is still exactly where it always was, a next-generation young team hanging smoking by its doors. I could almost feel nostalgic but only cos I think I’m supposed to – my memories are contrived and processed through filters. The windows on the bus are filthy. I close my eyes and pretend I’m asleep because that’s what I often did on the bus to avoid attracting attention. Sometimes it worked and sometimes I actually fell asleep.
I got off at Hope Street, just for the magic of the name, and walked the last few stops to catch the airport shuttle. I did that thing where you breeze down the aisle, just fast enough to look like you don’t care where you sit but slow enough to pick the perfect seat: not too close to the toilet, no one in front who might tip the seat back and a good clear open window with no dividing pole. This time I actually slept. It’s the last time I’ll be on wheels and not be driving for a while.
Standing in the airport, waiting at the place where all the passengers arrive, I started to hallucinate Anna-Stina all over the place, projecting her face and form onto anything remotely human. But then I saw the top of a battered old delta guitar case bobbing along, and she walked right out the door. She was clutching a half-eaten macaroon bar and taking long swigs from a can of Irn Bru. ‘This gear’s absolutely mental,’ she said. ‘How come you never told me?’ ‘I’ve never really liked it.’ ‘Want a bit of my shortbread?’
We walked outside to pick up the rented car.
‘Any chance of an upgrade?’ ‘Done it already, sir,’ said the tousle-haired Syd Barrett who never got the breaks. The car was all beautiful and shiny. I could see myself in the door like a fairground mirror, ready to ride the Ghost Train. We glided out of the lot, the wheels barely touching the ground. ‘What colour’s the car?’ said Anna-Stina. ‘Let’s not say. They can make it whatever’s their favourite.’ ‘Will we tell them where we’re going?’ ‘If we don’t they’ll never keep up.’
We met Tall Colin at the statue of Greyfriars Bobby, the dog that never left his master’s side even after he was buried in the local churchyard. The tradition is to rub Bobby’s nose and Anna-Stina did it for luck, but she somehow dropped a ring from her finger and it rolled along the street and fell straight down a drain. Bobby jumped down off his plinth and stared after it into the void. ‘You broke the spell,’ he said. ‘Nice one,’ said Anna-Stina. ‘Want to come on tour with us?’ ‘I can’t play any instruments,’ said Bobby, ‘but if you die on the road I’ll sleep by your grave every night.’ ‘Any chance you could get us ma ring back?’ ‘It’s already flowing down the river and out to sea.’ Anna-Stina looked completely crushed. ‘Ah pure loved that ring,’ she said. ‘Of course we’ll get it back,’ says Tall Colin. ‘That would be brilliant! How?’ He looked to the clouds in the middle distance, clearly without a clue ‘Oh!’ he said, ‘I nearly forgot!’ I swear he’s grown another 6 inches since the last time I met him: he must be 8 foot 8 by now. He handed me the bright yellow Rock of the Year 2020. He’d just taken it along on a five-day walk in the hills, re-enacting Richard Long’s Concentric Days in the same place it was first performed. ‘I hope it wasn’t any trouble,’ I said, taking the rock and dropping it into my pocket. ‘No trouble at all. It was nice to have some good company.’ Bobby lifted his leg and peed on Tall Colin’s leg, thinking that it was a lamp post. It was as good a time as any to leave.
We crossed the Forth, the railway bridge looking its best as we drove along beside it into Fife on our way to Joon’s hoose in Dundee. But first we took a wee detour to pick up Mike. He was standing by the side of the road in a white suit and cowboy boots, a ten gallon Stetson shielding the sun from his eyes. I can’t believe the deep brown tan he’s got. ‘How was America?’ ‘Awesome.’
We crossed the Tay / on this very fine day / I am given to say / today.
We’re early for Joon’s so we parked up and got out for some air. I don’t know Dundee at all. ‘Let’s take a wee daunner,’ said Anna-Stina. We wandered down to the water and Mike pointed in the general direction of where it all began. ‘Newburgh’s right over there,’ he said. ‘First recorded spot where they ever made whisky, and the birthplace of every single reed in the world.’ Bobby looked well impressed. ‘Ah’m gaggin for some chips,’ said Anna-Stina. We found a place and she insisted on paying for them all. ‘I could take a pickled onion too,’ I said. ‘Three pokes, please,’ said Anna-Stina, ‘an an ingin in an aw. An hauf a peh fur the dug.’ Bobby trotted off with his pie in his mouth, looking for a peaceful spot to eat. He broke the crust with his paws, and shared everything round with the pigeons and seagulls.
The sat-nav took us to Fyffe street easy, and Joon sashayed out in a silken robe and mohair baffies, resplendent in all her magnificence. I’ve not seen her for a million years and she hugged us all to bits. It was great to catch up and her soup was the best in the world. Mike took his hat off to eat and leaned it against the window. It blocked out all the light but that was cool for the gig and we lit some candles. I was wondering how it would go playing a concert in a house but it was perfect, and June’s pals thought they were amazing and gave them both standing ovations.
I’d better get to sleep here cos we’re up early for Applecross tomorrow. I think we’re up early nearly every day but I’ve not really told them yet. Maybe I should leave it a while, and let them find out for themselves.
Well, that’s me here. Mental how quick it’s come around. Time’s a long line but a tight circle. I’m not prepared (obviously). Kept saying I would then just not. Not even sure where half the places are. Haven’t looked at a map since Donny’s kitchen, half cut, one eye closed for focus like a sniper picking off their targets. Applecross… Blessed be the Lord my strength…crack! Stornoway… which teacheth my hands to war… pop! Isle of Seil… and my fingers to fight… bang! I’d say I just like to go with the flow but you know fine well that’s shite. It’s Champions League laziness. Behind the beat is right in the groove though…
26 March – Applecross Inn, Applecross
Mike looked tiny this morning waking up on Joon’s couch without his Stetson on. He’s slept with his cowboy boots on, each one inside a plastic bag so he doesn’t get anything dirty. Walking to the toilet in his Y-fronts, it’s not a look that anyone could reasonably expect to get away with, but he’s got away with plenty through the years.
June made us a brilliant breakfast and big mugs of tea, and even pieces for the journey, she’s such a sweetheart. We skirted round Perth and it didn’t take long before we started to feel like we were right in the middle of the Highlands. ‘Look!’ said Anna-Stina. ‘Erra mountain!’ ‘In Kentucky we call that a hill,’ said Mike. ‘Look!’ said Anna-Stina. ‘Erra nother!’ ‘Are you going to do this all day?’ said Bobby. Anna-Stina’s eyes went wide: ‘Ye mean… thur’s mair?’
We took the scenic route there so we could go through Plockton, cos you can’t come all this way and get so close and miss it. We nearly got a gig here – it was 40 quid to hire the village hall and I thought like, What could go wrong with that? We could even have slept there too. But I checked in with a local who’s organized gigs there before and he told me it just got embarrassing in the end when the band outnumbered the paying punters. ‘The worst thing was, it was only a duo.’ Nobody wants to pay for art anymore, but then when they’re sick and they’re stuck in the house it’s the thing that keeps them sane. It’s what keeps us sane all the rest of the time as well.
We took Bobby for a walk, or rather, we thought we were going to but he ran straight for the graveyard and lay down beside a stone, so we went down to the shore by ourselves. A seal looked round and gave us a wave from the rocks. Highland cows were wandering around by the palm trees and grazing among the stones that covered the beach. This was everything but Hamish McBeth.
The tide was out and there was that great smell of bladderwrack seaweed clinging to the rocks. I used to burst its bubbles when I was wee. I’ve had a few bubbles burst myself, but the big ones are still in good shape. We need those bubbles, to breathe in. And people that make breathing easy. Mike and Anna-Stina started throwing pebbles out into the sea. Apart from anything else, I’m going to get to listen to them both play their music every night.
Working on the building site a few weeks ago I asked Greek John, cos he’s a smart and curious guy, and if he doesn’t know the answer he’s going to make sure he finds out, I asked him if there might be a word in Greek for the opposite of a fright. I had to explain that, like when you get a fright you feel fear, and when you experience something beautiful you get that same thump in your stomach but it’s not adrenaline that gets released, it’s some back brain love drugs and you stand there floating in the wonder of this beautiful world. He said he would check it out, and three days later he came back to me – he’d been all weekend chatting online with linguists – and the word I was looking for that’s shamefully absent from the English language turned out to be agalliasi– when the beauty of something strikes you with a physical force. That’s what it’s like with these two, every time.
We drove around Loch Carron and I remember the first time I came here, hitching around and sleeping in a wee tent wherever I could find a spot to pitch it. There’s not really anywhere you need to go round here – wherever you might happen to be, you’re already here. But the Bealach na Bà is something else – the most beautiful road in the universe. And one of the steepest too. I nearly said to Anna-Stina if she wants to drive, cos where else to drive for the very first time on the left, but I thought maybe let’s keep the heid here. If there’s a better road in the world, I don’t want to know – this is the one for me. The way it goes on and on, and you think you’re there and you’re only halfway up. That thing that kills you climbing on foot is brilliant when you’re in a car. I suddenly spotted a stag and we all piled out except Bobby, who had to sit this one out. It was standing there observing us calmly – just another bunch of tourists getting all excited about who-knows-what. Its antlers were glorious with more points than you could count in a day. ‘Well howdy, lil fella,’ said Mike. He doffed his Stetson and sent a howling wind rolling down the hillside. The stag looked majestic in the gale and Anna-Stina got it on video for Instagram. (Remember to ask her to send that later).
Ann at the Applecross Inn was lovely and welcoming. They’d gone to so much trouble getting everything set up, borrowing microphones and stands and cables and amps, and the pub was full of locals so it felt like a community gathering. Mike rounded off his set with a couple of Appalachian ballads he’s adapted from the banjo. He even got the whole pub belting out the American national anthem and I’m pretty sure that not one person there knew the words before they rose to attention to sing, then sat back down 5 minutes later, looking slightly sheepish and wondering what just happened. Nightbird opened with Honey and the moon sank low and gazed in through the window, casting a pale, tender light across her face.
I took a walk along the shore tonight. We all did, and we naturally split along three different paths to be alone for a little while. The waves were rolling against the stones on the beach, thwumping down then retreating in a chattering babble. I’ve brought our tour mascot astronaut along with me to reflect the moon in their gilded visor. They’re ceramic, 18 inches high, created by Arran Ross. I bumped into him in Helsinki last autumn, carving another astronaut out of a lump of apple tree, chips of wood flying from his axe. We got chatting and hung out here and there, and the astronaut I’m holding took up permanent residence on a shelf beside the whiskies in Musta Kissa Bar, like they’d been there since the very beginning. You cannot hold this astronaut in your arms and not think that you’re holding a baby. I can feel my twin here too. She died in the womb long before anyone knew she existed. I always felt her around, and my mother even told me her name. My egg enveloped hers, and our spirits merged. She’s always there in the background, and sometimes she comes to the fore. We never speak, and she brings no image to mind. One eye can’t see the other, but together they behold a singular view of the world. The stars are out tonight, but there’s too many clouds to pick out any constellations. That’s my excuse at least, and it’s me that’s writing this reality into existence: I could clear the skies with just a few words, and wonder at the cosmic beauty of the Milky Way and Orion’s sword pointed straight towards my heart, but I’d like to stay true to my principles and give the reader an accurate impression of what’s in my mind.
We’re up early again in the morning to get all the way north to Thurso – I should go to sleep and not get exhausted staying up late recording things that have already happened. Firewood, burned, can never be burned again, but we can use the cold ash to make ink. I feel inclined to bring the astronaut in beside me like a teddy bear, and I’m going to have to do it now I’ve said it. A warm glow surrounds me straight away – it’s an incredibly comforting thing. Why do we give up our teddy bears? Who’s idea was that? I’m going to reclaim mine. And I’m going to ask someone to knit a sleeping bag for the astronaut so they’ll be nice and warm and soft against my skin when we coorie in together.
So we have a dog now, apparently. A mangy, smelly wee thing but couthie enough. No explanation as to where it came from but that’s par for the course. Donny and Anna-Stina spent the entire day pretending they could communicate with it. Funny at first, irritating now. Really great to be here with them though (and I suppose every good story needs its shaggy dog). June was a wonderful host, Nightbird was mind blowing, I was perfectly adequate. First “proper” (whatever that means) gig tomorrow.
Rain this morning, fair later.
27 March – Mr C’s Bar, Thurso
Thurso is about as far north as you can go in mainland Scotland. Anywhere else in the world I’d be thinking that this is gonnie be a long drive today, but the scenery here is even better than telly. It’s 250 miles, 400 k – seven hours with no sheep on the road and that’s hardly going to happen. We strolled along to the Inn to have some breakfast – porridge for me and Anna-Stina and Mike’s just having a glass of freshly squeezed diluting orange juice and a Hershey Bar. Bobby disappeared last night to sleep in the graveyard and he hardly said hello as he passed us by in the dining room and made his way into the kitchen. I can hear Ann cooing over him and feeding him a royal meal. He knows how to play to his audience. Maybe I should take him on tour, a proper one, and put him centre stage. Finally, I might make some money. I poured some coffee and Anna-Stina tried her porridge. It seemed to go down well: ‘This oatmeal’s the berries,’ she said.
The geography of these wee villages we’re passing through makes no sense at all when you’re driving, the roads are so narrow and winding, but it does if you’re travelling by boat, from one coastal township to another. I wonder what everyone does round here for a living. Or is that just city thinking? It’s a different world up here. I started to think how great it would be to ride all the way round the Applecross peninsula on a bike, but even in the moment I knew that dreaming for what it was. I used to genuinely think about all the things I’d do when I got the time, but then at some point you realise you’ll never live long enough, and even if you did, it wouldn’t help. And when I see myself whizzing through the landscape in fluorescent lycra, I am of course only thinking of going downhill. Freewheeling from the peaks to the coast. It’s all downhill from here, they say. I never really knew what that meant, if it’s supposed to be a good or bad thing. My life went downhill – sounds like something to aim for.
We stopped for three cups of tea in Ullapool, courtesy of Gopa, an Indian lady I know who gave me ten euros before we left and told me how to spend it. My old pal Shona worked in a pub round here in the days when Soviet fishermen would come ashore, and she’d come back to town with mahorka cigarettes and Russian vodka. There was a famous football match I remember, the fishermen against the locals, and Ronald Reagan even got involved and called it a threat to world peace. It must have gone ahead I suppose cos war’s still everywhere.
There was two ways we could go here, the quicker way or the long way round the coast – we had a show of hands and won 3-0. So we’re sticking by the sea with Mike at the DJ controls playing nothing but Elvis. Don’t cry, Donny / Donny don’t you cry…
Lochinver is another place we could have played but the pub shut down and that was the end of that. Magic happened here, a year and a half ago in September 2018, with a bag of magic buttons that my long-gone grandad had made out of antlers. That’s when I first started planning the tour, in various intangible ways. Because this area is called Assynt, and legend has it that two brothers fought a battle here. One was called Unt – Man of Peace – and the other Ass-Unt – Man of Discord. All Hail Eris! – the latter won and gave his name to the land.
And just behind the pub we would have played in is a spot where the tidal flow runs up the river as the river is running down, so you get this body of water that’s neither one or the other, and of course it’s also both. I’d brought these magic buttons along on that initial trip to energise the tour, and I took one out my purse and threw it into the churning waters. There was heavy rain that day too, so water was flowing from three directions. Which is of course a lucky number. And here we all were now, standing in the very same spot, eighteen months later. It was raining hard today too. Probably the same passing shower. Neither of us spoke the whole time – we just stood on the bank, staring through the flowing water. As neither sea nor river, there was nothing to compare it to, and that was very relaxing. We all three just stood there breathing.
Anna-Stina was fingering the place where her ring once was, and I felt how much she missed it. I could read Mike’s thoughts too – he was pondering drilling for oil. And then I noticed myself. I was cradling the Rock of the Year 2020 still heavy in my pocket, suddenly thinking I should throw it into the water. I didn’t, but really I should have. I just couldn’t give it up in the moment. ‘You got too attached’, says Bobby, sitting beside me here now as I’m writing this down. I can’t bring myself to reply cos I know that I made a mistake. ‘It’s going to be heavier than ever now,’ he says. ‘You’re the one to talk about getting attached,’ I say. ‘You slept every night beside a corpse.’
Next stop was Durness, on the north-west tip of the map. We got ice creams out the shop and visited the John Lennon Memorial Park. Lennon spent his childhood holidays here with his auntie and cousins, and came with Yoko in ’69. The park wasn’t here then, of course, cos he wasn’t dead yet. It’s mainly comprised of stones and a couple of bushes and old lumps of wood – the idea of actual flowers in Durness, which clings to a disappearing clifftop at the mercy of the wild Atlantic, is a line straight out of Imagine.
We didn’t have much time to hang around, but I really wanted to visit the beach. There was miles of golden sand and an eighty-five mile an hour breeze to make sure that we had it all to ourselves. Anna-Stina tried to do a wee Instagram tour update video thing but the wind was too strong to keep a grip on the phone. Mike’s Stetson took off and smashed into a pylon, snapping the cable and sending sparks flying all the way to Norway. A local woman appeared from behind a dune, out walking her dog: ‘Fine day,’ she said as she passed.
We drove right along the top of Scotland, through Bettyhill and Tongue, the Atlantic to our left and the peaks of Sutherland rising up into the sky on our right. We’re in Viking country here – Sutherland only makes sense as a southern land if you’re standing further north, and Thurso is the mighty Thor’s River. We should really be playing it on a Thursday. With huge dark clouds rolling in. Thurso on a Thursday in a thunder and lightning storm. I’m embarrassed that I never thought of this before. But as we drive along, it seems incredible all of a sudden that, in this mountain country bounded by the sea, nature typically leaves a wee ribbon by the coast to live on and build scenic roads. Just this wee bit, more-or-less: no more or less than what’s required. ‘That’s totally weird that, isn’t it?’ I said. ‘Totally,’ said Anna-Stina.
Mr C’s is a cocktail bar, and the first thing Simon did was slam three Doughblenders down on the bar, and a steel dish of water for Bobby. I had no idea what was in it, but I knew I wasn’t driving any more. I took a wee sip from my glass as Mike tipped his head back and drained his down in one. It was going to be that kind of night, and I wasn’t wrong about that. I’m writing this the next day, which is now today, vaguely, just about. Frankly, I have no idea. What are those lines Mike sings again? The pavement’s a skating rink but we are Olympians babe / Like a Torvill and Dean gold medal routine… Aye, well, that was just getting to the toilet. He moved on to Ordinary Ponies and was hammered beyond the pale by the time he even got to the stage, but as soon as he sat down and took the guitar in his hands… he was still completely hammered. And yet, the audience seemed to think it was part of the act. They quietened right down, hung on every heartfelt word, and gently stroked his knee when he fell fast asleep mid-song.
Simon has just sent me a message that, due to popular demand, they’ve named a special cocktail in Mike’s honour – a titanic brew of whisky, pisang ambon and codeine linctus, or any other cough syrup handy. It’s called the Wonderland, after Mike’s last album, but also because when you wake up in the morning you’re gonnie wonder where you’ve landed.
Right now we’re on the ferry to Orkney – the waves are incessant and I’m just about to give up telling myself that I’m not going to vomit. It’s lashing rain but I’m going to have to go up on deck to get some air.
Ok, so it was probably just too much whisky/not enough sleep but I had a really unsettling dream last night. More real than any I’ve had before. I was woken up by some sort of incantation. An unplaceable language. Full of darkness. Donny and Anna-Stina were standing over me. Faces impossibly serene. Our totemic astronaut was orbiting them in a way that was somehow slow motion and warp speed at the same time. Like footage of a wheel spinning with a bad frame rate. Suddenly their eyes opened impossibly wide and they looked at me. Well, not so much at me, more into me. I don’t remember anything after that but throughout the day I keep seeing strange little micro looks flicker across their faces. Feeling pretty uneasy to be honest.
Lovely day though – blustery but enough blue in the sky for a pair of sailor’s trousers.
28 March – Highland Park Bar, Kirkwall
I honestly thought that ferry trip would never end. It feels like a bad dream already now that I’m sitting here writing this on the same boat heading back to the mainland. The waves have disappeared and there’s a lovely warm breeze, the sunshine warm in my face as it bounces off the ocean. But yesterday I felt like I was fixing to die. I’ve never been so sea-sick in my life. All I could do was tie myself onto the deck and lie down with my head leaning over the side so I wouldn’t vomit all over the deck. I was freezing cold and soaking wet with the waves crashing in and pools of water sluicing all around me, but it was only a relief to feel anything but deathly nausea, even to just feel numbness seeping into my bones. My twin emerged as a glowing ember deep in my belly, but her fire was distant and faint. I could hear Nightbird singing in my head: When the water takes your soul / and you start to feel so cold… It wasn’t what I needed in the moment, and I tried to think of something else to change my train of thought, but Mike sneaked in through the gap, intoning blithely in a minor key about how learning to lose hope / is half the fun. I didn’t really need that either so I started singing Chris de Burgh’s Lady in Red out loud to chase them both away, and cleared half the deck in the process.
The only other thing I remember clearly was a seagull flying beside me, gliding along by the boat, so that relative to each other we weren’t hardly moving at all. I suppose in retrospect it was hoping for some morsels of vomit, but in the moment it felt like some great metaphysical connection that went beyond I; that went beyond seagulls; that went beyond the forms we inhabit – it was two magnetic poles of the same existential field of the experience of being alive and conscious, and a welcome reminder that all things must pass – not just this journey and this dreadful feeling; not just my self in a human form that the world refers to as Donny; and not just all those other human forms that might remember Donny when that jumbled collection of sparks and wires has dissolved back into the universe from whence it came; but even the eternal ocean that was violently seething beneath me. Everything must go – but go where? Nothing gets in or out of this place, so even the idea of coming and going makes no sense. We’re always trying to get to some place or other, or escape from something else., but everything is always just this – if you’re gliding free with the wind beneath your wings or trapped in the depths of despair – our small minds create a this and a that and an existential gap in between, but everything is self-contained in the Ultimate Thisness of That.
That’s about all I remember of that journey, and now that things are calm again I’m back in my own wee divided world of here and there, thinking that mountains and oceans, and you and me, and this notebook and pen are islanded, isolated things.
Mike and Anna-Stina fared better on the crossing so they guided me on to the bus from Stromness to Kirkwall. Mike wiped the dribble from my chin and I fell asleep between them and felt a whole lot better when we got there. The ground was still gently rocking underneath me and the chill in my marrow was stubborn, but Leanne at the venue let me use their shower and laid out a meal for the others. Everyone got what they needed, and Leanne let us borrow her car as we’d left ours back on the mainland. We were all feeling good again and Anna-Stina wanted to drive so we made for the Ring of Brodgar. This was her first time driving on the left and she kept whacking the door with her right hand every time she had to change gear, but that was just funny and otherwise she did just great.
The Ring of Brodgar is an ancient stone circle, a big one, a hundred yards wide. It was still raining so we were the only ones there. But then it stopped and the sun came out and it was suddenly warm. The weather always changes so fast here, I forget. I put the yellow Rock of the Year 2020 in the middle of the Ring and walked all the way around the stones. It just seemed like the thing to do. But after I’d gone all the way round, I picked it up again and dropped it back into my pocket while Bobby was busy elsewhere. I didn’t need another lecture.
We all drifted into our own wee worlds again. Mike’s white suit was getting pretty muddy, especially below the knees, but he didn’t seem to mind – he pulled himself up onto a boulder and lit a fat cigar as he sat there facing the wind. Anna-Stina had that look that a song was emerging from the mists of time. I always see her as such an old soul, it’s no wonder she plugged right into the mainline of this mystic site – you could feel the charge between them in the air. I don’t know how many times Bobby ran around the ring but I got tired just watching. But he’s sat on that plinth in Edinburgh for 150 years, so no wonder if he can’t keep still.
And of course, just now as I’m writing this, our pal Kevin in Helsinki has just sent me a message on my phone. He’s promised to fly over for our last gig on Seil. But right at this moment he’s cycling round the Stone Circle that I built in Helsinki and is having trouble finding one of the stones (the Helsinki Circle is 10km wide). The mirror is always reflecting back and forth, no matter which side we imagine we’re on. Greetings from Orkney, Kev – I hope you find it!
We met Sarah Sutherland from the Orcadian back at the venue. She did an article on the tour and was here to do a wee follow-up interview and a review of the gig for the paper. Sarah: I just love your music. Me: Thanks. Sarah: Did you have a good crossing on the ferry? Me: Aye it was brilliant. Sarah: Tonight is billed as a Gin & Live Music night. How would you describe your music in relation to gin? Mike: It’s quite slow. Anna-Stina: Ah’d say yer music’s a tonic. Mike: It’s a bitter lemon. Sarah: Don, you know them best. Can you describe each one as a gin-based cocktail? Me: Nightbird is of course a Moon River. Mike is a Fallen Angel.
The gig was performed completely unplugged because the venue didn’t have a PA. It doesn’t take many people talking or even whispering for that kind of thing to fall flat, but they were all on their best behaviour, with only the only occasional clink of a glass or the sound of Bobby scratching behind his ear. It’s magic when a group of people come together like that and just listen. Then you can hear the silence that the music springs from.
There’s something so special about islands. I realise it now once again as we’re returning to the mainland. I adjust the astronaut in the crook of my arm so they can get a better view of the sea. ‘Here, check that guy,’ said Anna-Stina. ‘Away and say hello.’ When Anna-Stina tells me to do something and I don’t quite understand why, that’s when I make sure I do it. I sit down beside the man and tell him, in case he hasn’t noticed, what a gorgeous day it is. He’s clacking away with a pair of needles. ‘I’m trying to knit socks here,’ he said. ‘But I’m making a right pig’s ear of this one. I’m too busy looking at the clouds. Would you look at the size of the thing? You’d have to be a proper giant to wear something this.’ It was indeed pretty humungous; I couldn’t deny it. Not that I can knit, but it’s hard to see how you could get it all so wrong. ‘I tell you what,’ he said, ‘it would be perfect for your little friend. See how it’s black, and all the wee white dots? That’s the stars in space. They’ll feel right at home, and I bet it fits like a glove.’ I took the massive sock and he was absolutely right: the astronaut slid snugly in. I doubled it over at the top so just their head was peeking out. ‘It’s merino wool,’ he said. ‘It’s lovely and soft.’ ‘Thanks very much,’ I said. ‘It’s just what I was looking for.’ ‘I’m happy it found a good home. The astronaut will understand what I mean.’
I re-joined the others with a great big grin all over my face, and Anna-Stina responded with a knowing smile. We’re just getting to the harbour now so I should sign off. We’ve another long drive again, down to Inverness. And it would be cool if we could stop off at the Dornoch Firth and try to spot dolphins. It’s a late start tonight so I’m pretty sure we’ll have time.
Sorry for not writing to you yesterday. Was feeling a wee bit under the weather. Must’ve had a bad pint. Think it was the tenth one. Feeling less on edge than the other day, although there’s definitely magic kicking about in the air up here. Not sure if that’s a product of geography and history or something we brought with us like a virus. Who cares though? It doesn’t feel malevolent and it’s too beautiful up here to be worrying about notions of good and evil. You need a bit of both to create a place like this anyway.
Affy blowy though.
29 March – the Market Bar, Inverness
Well we made it to the dolphins, and the most amazing thing of all was that we actually saw some! I have to thank Tall Colin for that, as it was his tip to go to Chanonry Point. We counted six, and they gave us quite a show, playing together and leaping in and out of the water. I never quite believed they were there until now – it’s like these Danger! Stags! signs that you see all over the Highlands that you assume must be only for tourists. I’ve still never seen an otter though – there’s nowhere you can count on for that. Anna-Stina got it all on video (remember to ask her to send that one too), and it feels like they wished us good luck. Six was my dad’s lucky number. He would bet six black in the casino, and if he won I got a pound for the shops. I was always a bit envious of him for having a lucky number cos I could never settle on one. In the end I just took his. But still, it feels like cheating. Though plenty else of what I think of as mine has really come from him too. In just the same way as he got it from his dad before him, and so on and so forth down the line. I never had a favourite colour either – it used to make me feel like such a failure. I almost got obsessive at one point, stealing colour swatch pads from paint shops and combing through them to find an elusive colour I could call my own. But dear oh dear, there’s just so many. How can you like just one more than all the rest? It’s such a silly idea.
The dolphins hung around for a good twenty minutes before they suddenly disappeared. We waited until we were sure, then burst into a spontaneous round of applause. ‘That wiz no real,’ said Anna-Stina, ‘It reminds me of Florida,’ said Mike. ‘Down in Key West, reading Hemmingway with a cold mojito and watching them dance in the sunset. I wish I hadn’t lost my Stetson.’ He’s wearing a baseball cap now that bears the legend: I’ve been to Orkney. It’s funny because it’s true.
Anna-Stina drove us the rest of the way to Inverness while I wrote the above then crashed out dead to the world for the rest of the journey. The plan for last night was to drive back down to Edinburgh so I was thinking I should sleep when I could, but we finished so late in the end that we stayed the night with Mike’s pal. I’m sitting in her kitchen now, while everyone else is asleep. I always like to get up early, but I also like to go to bed late, so it doesn’t happen very often – unless I’m up for work and that doesn’t count. The peace of knowing that everyone else is fast asleep is very relaxing, in the morning or late in the night – it has a special kind of quality all of its own.
We stopped off in town, thinking we’d hang out in the centre, but then we had a better idea and headed south for Loch Ness. Not that we believe in monsters or anything but, aye, not that we believe in monsters. Still, Loch Ness is Loch Ness. I’d always wanted to try the back road that runs along the eastern shore so we made for the Falls of Foyers as a place to stop. But just a mile before we got there we drove past Boleskine House, formerly owned by the famous occult magician Aleister Crowley. I knew it was somewhere on the banks of the loch, but I’d never had any clue where. Bobby, who’s usually the best-tempered dog you could hope to meet, suddenly got wildly agitated and started throwing himself against the window and scratching to find a way out. We tried to calm him down but he was having none of it, so I stopped the car in a layby and got out to open the door, and as soon as there was space he zoomed right by me and sprinted straight into the graveyard across the road. I followed on behind, calling his name to bring him back, but he was bent on finding whatever it was he was after, like a dog that’s lost a bone he knows for sure is buried nearby. As I watched him he suddenly made for the ruins of an old grey house and disappeared inside. I followed him in, groping my way through the dark. It was unbelievably cold and it gave me the holy creeps. There was something not right with the place. ‘Carry on to the Falls,’ said Bobby. ‘Stop and pick me up when you’re on the way back.’ ‘What is this?’ I said. ‘The mort-house,’ said Bobby. ‘It’s where they kept the dead, where body-snatchers couldn’t get them. They let the corpses rot here before they were buried. There’s a lot of trapped souls in this place. Take your time and come back when you’re ready – I’ll be waiting by the side of the road.’ I didn’t need any encouragement to leave that place and I got out as fast as I could, half-jogging across the graveyard to join the others beside the car. I told them what was going on. ‘Wow, spooky,’ said Mike. Anna-Stina just nodded.
We went to the Falls and got some pictures and picked Bobby up on the way back down the road. He was a whole lot calmer now, and he slept in Anna-Stina’s lap the whole way back to Inverness.
Shirley at the Market Bar had worked hard on promotion and the place was already jumping when we got there. We were all electric again, with PA’s and cables. Joon had turned up with her pal, and we got to meet Margaret Chrystall too. She interviewed us over the phone while we were still in Finland, and it’s always great to put a face to a name.
Nightbird went on first and really upped the power in her songs, the low ones taking everyone down to a point where the bass notes vibrated our skulls like prayer bowl reverberations, the high ones splintering our minds in showers of kaleidoscopic crystal. It was only when she fell to her knees and launched into a virtuoso slide guitar solo that I remembered that Jimmy Page owned Boleskine House too, back in the 1970s. I’ll have to start making our stops more deliberate in future. She was moving all over the place, always three steps ahead, leading the crowd round parts of their psyche they never even knew existed. I was scared she might smash up the amps at the end as she left the stage, but she settled for a screaming wall of feedback. That might seem like a hard act to follow, but really it’s always two halves of a single whole, so Mike rode the wave and then some. A drunken bunch of tourists from Dunoon thought it would be funny to sit down the front and give him a hard time but he treated them to a cover version of the Sesame Street song I Don’t Want to Live on the Moon, substituting their home town into the chorus. He got the whole pub singing along, over and over at increasing volume until they gave up and left to resounding cheers.
I think we’re going to skip Edinburgh now and just rest up here a while, then we’ll stay in Ullapool tomorrow night because the Stornoway ferry leaves so early, if we don’t sleep the night by the harbour we’ll have to get up at the crack of dawn to be there on time. This way Mike and Anna-Stina can have a long lie – I’ll take a wee daunner round the town and let them sleep. I’ll come back in a while, and I’ll type this up and post it. I’m going to take a day or two off from this journal too, and just do stuff without feeling I should be scribbling everything down. It’s hard to stop writing, though – it’s the only way we’ll ever find out if Anna-Stina gets her ring back, if the Rock of the Year 2020 finds a home, and what Bobby’s really all about? And if Mike’s ever going to take his cowboy boots off, and what’s going to happen if he does? My twin is coming more to the fore – she wants to get involved too. I wonder what’s going on there. But I’ll be patient, and rest, and get back to this on Wednesday or Thursday, when we get to the Isle of Lewis.
Howdy. Inverness always reminds me of a frontier town in a western for some reason. It’s not very far away from the other population centres in global* terms but there’s something no quite right about it. Always feels like it’s going to kick off too… “Ya’ll are hollerin’ ‘bout a heliocentric astronomical model. Them’s fightin’words…” Went to Crowley’s house today. Underwhelming, but these sorts of places always are. Same with your Sagrada Familias and your Eiffel Towers and the like. Best enjoyed in stories. Fair but chilly. Mike. sorry, we’re in Inverness. *alleged global.”
Donny, Mike and Anna-Stina are currently offline. Their next gig is on Stornoway at the Crown Inn on Thursday 2 April. Here are some newspaper articles about the tour to keep you out of trouble as you wait. You can click on the heading to read it.
2 April – The Crown Bar, Stornoway
We arrived here yesterday and had the whole afternoon and evening off so we took the car round the island, first to Callanish and then down to the beaches. Callanish is the grandest ancient ring in Scotland, a configuration of standing stones from thousands of years ago. It was a long time lost, just like Anna-Stina’s ring, but this one got found when a farmer dug down and hit rock, and they kept on going and uncovered these massive stones five metres high. There’s a circle of thirteen and a big one right in the middle, and all kinds of other stones and patterns roundabout that are part of the system too. I read a book once about a German professor who worked out how accurately they were tied to the cycles of the moon – not just the 28-day waxing and waning but cycles within cycles that take twenty-odd years to complete. It took him years to test his theories because you needed a clear sky on a certain date, and he’d get it all set up but then it would always be cloudy or raining. He’d have to wait another year, and then it would be raining again.
The Rock of the Year 2020 is heavy again in my pocket. I turned to see what Bobby thought but he walked away and laid himself down by the chambered tomb on the eastern side of the ring. I was thinking should I bury the rock right there, where it could rest among old friends. But wherever it is, stone is never far from another chip off the old block. I’ve lost my intuition because I missed my chance before, and missed it again. I couldn’t be sure if I was only trying to make things right. I was all mixed up – distracted and confused. I should find some space alone, and try my best not to think.
But then Mike and Anna-Stina took their guitars from the car and started to play along with each other, their instruments and voices interweaving, each of them raising the other to find new heights. It’s what this monument was built for. I know I’m somewhat biased, but I couldn’t help thinking they were finally unleashing the magic, like an electrical circuit that’s been all laid out, but it still takes someone to come along and flick the switch to turn the lights on. The music they were making, I genuinely had to lie down. Just my luck that it happened to be slap bang in the middle of a hotspot of ancient power, where all the major ley lines cross.
We drove down the coast, stopping now and then to look out to sea. Once when I was wee we were somewhere in the Highlands and there was an island far out on the horizon. My dad said it was America and I went into school and told the whole class in front of the teacher. The thing was the teacher played along, and the rest of the class were pretty impressed, so it took me a good wee while to realise it couldn’t be true. A good wee while, as in years. But now there really is nothing at all on the horizon, and the next bit of land is, not quite the USA, but Greenland and Canada at least.
The beaches here are something else. The sands are golden, the water is turquoise, the mountains rise up behind you. ‘It’s well blowy, but,’ said Anna-Stina. And it’s true, the wind never stops. Bobby took off like a greyhound along the sand, as fast as his wee legs could carry him. We went for a walk but we lost the track when we turned inland through the dunes – we had to climb over a sheep fence and Mike got caught on barbed wire and ripped a hole in his cool white trousers. It might have been okay if his Y-fronts were white as well, but that wasn’t to be and it somewhat ruined the effect. ‘Goddam it to Betsy,’ he said.
We had a couple of pints in the venue last night, just to check it out. It’s pretty cool that they’re paying us, and giving us a place to sleep, when they have so much local. Someone pops in and picks up a drum or a guitar or a banjo, and suddenly there’s a ceilidh on the go. It’s funny how the three of us sometimes peel so smoothly away from one another, and how easily and naturally that happens. We all need a change of scenery, now and again. One minute we were right there together and the next I was chatting to the bartender about the price of peat, Mike was regaling a local with tales of his Scottish ancestors, all of whom would appear to have fought at Culloden and personally rowed Bonnie Prince Charlie to safety as the enemy net closed in, and Anna-Stina was conversing in Gaelic with a group of old women at the end of the bar. I caught her eye and she gave me her tell-you-later look.
This morning I woke up with the nice feeling that I’ll be sleeping in the same bed again tonight. It’s tiring when you’re moving all the time. I rose gently to avoid disturbing the astronaut and gently tucked them back in. Mike is up already – he’s brushing his teeth. We have to leave soon for a radio interview on Isles FM with the one and only Bobbi Naylor. I hope Anna-Stina wakes up soon cos I hate waking people up. No matter how gently I try to do it, it always feels like an act of violence to catapult someone out their innocent dreams. But really, it had to be done. I found an old biscuit in the cupboard and gave Bobby half, then tiptoed over to Anna-Stina. Bobby was getting excited but I shushed him and he sat there wagging his tail. Then I placed the other half carefully on the pillow beside Anna-Stina’s head and tiptoed back the way I came. When I was safely back here at the kitchen table, I turned to Bobby and gave him a nod, and he bounded up onto the bed to snaffle the biscuit, his wee tail wagging like the clappers and waking Anna-Stina up in the process. ‘Oh, that’s good you’re awake,’ I said. ‘We should really get going soon.’
The interview was only half an hour but they could have gone on for days. There was all the obvious stuff of course, like why we’re touring such remote wee villages when we could be playing the Albert Hall, but they also they got onto language issues, with Anna-Stina being bi-lingual and part of the Swedish-speaking minority in Finland, and Gaelic-speakers being in the same kind of boat in Scotland, and Mike waxed lyrical on St Johnstone goalkeepers through the ‘90s. He should really write a song about that. I’m looking forward to hearing the show. I hope they find space in the edit to keep some music.
I seem to be always writing on ferries. We’re heading back for the mainland now. The sea is weird – it looks perfectly calm but the swell keeps throwing my stomach up into my throat then dropping it through my bowels. I recorded last night’s gig and, as soon as this journal entry is done, I’m going to play it back. Because I swear I heard Anna-Stina sing a song in Gaelic. I couldn’t have made that up, did I? I did ask after the show but she wasn’t giving anything away: ‘You sang a song in Gaelic there?’ I said. ‘Hwell,’ she said, ‘and who would be asking such a thing if they didn’t hear the song in the first place?’
I’m aware once more of the Rock of the Year 2020 in my pocket. I wish I’d never brought it with me now. I got another chance at Callanish and I let myself get sidetracked and I blew it again. I’m going to end up carrying it back to Finland, and it’s going to sit there on the shelf as a sad reminder of what happens whe n you don’t take your chances. We could drive back up to the water that’s neither the sea nor the river, but it’s much too far away. We have to catch the ferry to Mallaig later on then another one across to Knoydart. And missing one means missing the other.
The astronaut is snug in their sleeping bag, resting a while in my arms. I like to watch the sky reflected in their empty mask, the clouds passing over from one side of the curve to the other. Mike and Anna-Stina are sitting back-to-back, looking in opposite directions. Mike is all in white and Anna-Stina’s head-to-toe in black. They’re such different people really, but together they form a whole world.
It’s mad how small Scotland looks on a map but how big it feels when you galavant around the place. Eight years in Finland. It’s beautiful there too but it’s essentially one vast boreal forest studded with lakes. Travel for any length of time and it starts to feel like the looped background animation from a Flintstones cartoon or something. I like vistas too. It’s hard to appreciate the majesty of a place like Finland when there’s rarely enough elevation to see more than a mile or two. Give me a hill and I’ll happily sit on it all day watching the shadows change. Donny muttered something earlier about the rock of the year being a potential reminder of missed opportunities. This whole country is having that effect on me. I lived here for the best part of three decades and have seen shockingly little of it. The last week has been eye opening. Never again will I say no to domestic adventure. Mike.
April 3 – The Old Forge, Knoydart
This whole tour must sound like some kind of beach holiday – I’m writing this now on the White Sands of Morar, where they filmed a lot of Local Hero, and Breaking the Waves as well. Someone on the ferry told me that the actual sand itself comes all the way from Mexico, carried on the Gulf Stream and deposited here on the west coast of Scotland. I don’t know if that’s true but I’m choosing to believe it and hear sultry Cuban rhythms in the waves. There’s nothing as easy to believe as something that confirms your world view. All critical thinking collapses. ‘Is that no right?’ I say out loud to the astronaut. They’re standing in the sand beside me, the sun glinting off their gilded visor. The astronaut sees the world in a golden hue and I’m a hopeless romantic, dancing salsa on a cold Scottish beach. There was an old Highland guy when I was wee, he told me tales of living in South America when he was young. He said he gave it up in the end and came back home because the pace of life was too hectic. ‘Donny son, the problem was, there’s not a single word in the whole of the Gaelic language that conveys the same sense of urgency as the Spanish word mañana.’
As we drove off the ferry this morning I noticed this was our third time in Ullapool. I didn’t plan that, I must admit. I must admit, however, I did try to design the route in such a way that it would inscribe a huge figure-of-eight infinity symbol across the Highlands, but it quickly got far too complicated and I gave it up in the end. I’d have been there literally forever.
There was a choice of different routes to get here to Knoydart but with Bobby along it seemed fitting that we should visit his native land, so to speak, with him being a wee Skye Terrier. So we took the Inverness road again but branched off south at Gorstan and had a wee stop at Achnasheen, just to stretch our legs and change drivers. ‘It’s such a pure stoater ae a day.’ said Anna-Stina. ‘Funny Achnasheen means Field of Storms.’ We’re getting so used to the mountains it’s becoming impossible to stay aware of the wonder that we’re floating in the midst of. There has to be a word for this kind of beauty-blindness. I’ll ask Greek John when I get back to work.
Anna-Stina drove the whole way down to the Armadale ferry, all of us lost in our thoughts. It’s nice when you have friends you can be silent with. I found myself thinking of my death, as I tend to do. It’s always on my mind though that everything is bound to collapse and I might well die tomorrow – never today right enough, only tomorrow. One of the first Flycatcher Acts-in-waiting, which I envisioned as the Final Act, is called My Death. I thought I’d make a funeral plan with last wishes and music, but it’s just kind of sat there empty. Not cos I’m avoiding it, just that I’ve never really come up with anything decent.
We crossed the bridge over to Skye and I remembered when it used to be a ferry. Waiting at Kyle of Lochalsh with fish suppers that you had to eat inside the car or the seagulls would attack and make off with the lot. Scleurachs, they called them in the Gaelic. I think it means scavengers, at least when it’s spelled correctly. We passed Isleornsay too, where my mum’s Auntie Janet and Uncle Johnny were the lighthouse keepers. I’ve never been here but we spent a few holidays with my mum’s Uncle Coalin in Arnisdale, and you’d see this place from there when you looked down Loch Hourn. That means Loch Hell in English, and it’s waters were always black with such steep mountains on either side. The clouds were dark and low, just as i tend to remember them, but a solitary shaft of sunlight was trained on the lighthouse. I got Mike to take a photo.
I wonder if I’d recognize that village any more. It’s hard to believe it could have changed very much but I bet it has. It was really the end of the line – you had to do a mad scary drive over the big mountain Mam Ratachan and once you got there you never left until you went back home – my dad would spend the whole two weeks thinking he should have brought more whisky and wondering if the car would be strong enough to get back over the hill – but at the same time I’d sit watching great big Soviet factory fishing boats – Klondykers, as they called them – in the loch, so it was a strange kind of storybook place where reality seemed somewhat leaky. I saw my first real hedgehog there too and was completely shocked at the size of it – my granny had a wee china hedgehog ornament on the mantlepiece for holding matches for the fire like its spikes, and it was only the size of a golf ball. That was quite the awakening, and my wee brain got to wondering what else wasn’t true in this world.
I’m writing this next part at the Old Forge pub in Knoydart, the most remote pub in Britain. Knoydart itself is said to be Britain’s last wilderness, and it’s an 18-mile trek to the road if you don’t come by boat. We’re supposed to be doing a skype radio interview with James Elliot at Indielive Radio at 10am, in an hour or so. I can’t wait to hear what he makes of Bobby. I’m really wondering if this is going to work – my phone signal comes and goes, but our host JP assures me that the HebWeb microwave dish works pretty well in fine weather, more-or-less, and even though there’s dark clouds rolling over head I’ve not to worry cos it’s not going to rain. I can imagine an optimistic outlook on life is an asset when it comes to living here. On the whole of the peninsula, 200 hundred square miles, there’s only 157 people left out of over a thousand that lived here before they were cleared f rom the land and forced overseas. But that’s another story.
JP is taking good care of us here with the best hospitality. Anna-Stina’s having a long breakfast of fried tattie scones and mugs of milky tea. ‘All good, there?’ says JP. ‘Oh aye,’ says Anna-Stina. ‘Braw.’
Mike has taken himself off to do some yoga down by the shore. The rip in his white suit is getting larger, but his cowboy boots have no apparent adverse effect on him performing the downward dog with grace and ease.
It felt like everyone who lives here turned up to watch the show last night. It might be a tiny place in terms of the number of people, but it was standing room only in the pub. Mike included the Hamish Imlach song The Seven Men of Knoydart in his set and brought the house down. There’s a cairn outside to commemorate their fight for land to live on, so the locals know the story well. People think of the Highland Clearances as a thing of centuries past, but the Seven Men launched their land raid in 1948 and were still defeated in the end in the courts.
Nightbird introduced Knoydart to the Ostrobothnian Blues. While it’s her own unique musical language, it’s a full revolution of some kind of spiral, as the Highlanders that emigrated to the USA had a big influence on the music that evolved into jazz and the blues, which then wound its way across Europe to Finnish Ostrobothnia and now back here again.
‘That was great,’ I said to Anna-Stina after, and I told her what I was thinking. ‘Ken whit?’ she said. ‘Ye make it sound like Ah had tae lose a ring tae make a circle.’
4 April – Garrison West, Fort William
We played a second gig at Knoydart yesterday, for a cruise ship that happened to dock in the bay. I say we, but of course I never do anything other than watch and listen, and sometimes carry the bags. But the mythical Hebridean Princess came to the village, and the mythical Head Purser of the mythical boat was first ashore to greet us. He was wearing a white suit just like Mike’s, except that his was adorned with gold braid and his Y-fronts weren’t showing. I fell in a total swoon, and Anna-Stina dragged me out of the way so I wouldn’t get trampled by all the passengers following on behind. Everyone seemed to be from some kind of MAGA business convention and Mike introduced his set by extolling the virtues of an unfettered neoliberal, heteronormative, military-industrial, climate change-denying theocracy and saying how it was undeniably making the world a freer and safer place to live in. A hat went round for a collection and the tips all piled in and spilled over the sides. We could have done with his Stetson then.
They were on a schedule so they had to get back on the boat pretty sharpish, and that left us a couple of hours free time. I took a walk down to the shore with the astronaut and Bobby, looking for something special. This wasn’t planned, but when I told Arran that we’d be taking his astronaut on tour with us, and we talked about where we were going, he told me that he’s made another astronaut right in this village, Inervie, somewhere down by the water. It’s a much bigger affair, some three metres tall, carved from a single trunk of oak. It’s reachable on foot when the tide is out. I set the astronaut down on the ground and retreated a respectful distance. To do what, I’m not quite sure, but it felt like an important encounter that I shouldn’t disturb, yet shouldn’t abandon. I felt my twin watching too. I took the Rock of the Year 2020 from my pocket and felt its reassuring weight in my hand. It had a gravity all of its own, an attraction to the earth that it longed to consummate. I sat there a while with Bobby lying quiet beside me until I felt that their astral communion was entirely complete. As quietly and gently as I could, I picked up the little astronaut, cradled them in the crook of my arm and walked back to rejoin the others. Already it was time to pack up our things and leave.
Oh! I forgot to say about the interview. Incredibly, it didn’t rain, and the HebWeb microwave dish worked just fine. Anna-Stina’s really into cooking and she talked a lot about how impressed she was with the Scottish penchant for stuffing an entire meal inside a pie, while Mike spoke about the ups and downs of his last eight years living in Helsinki, and how he saw the tour a launch pad into new beginnings. James is a normal fan and has promised to play their music on his show on a regular basis, so we’ll have to get a gig in Glasgow next time round.
We caught the last ferry back over to the mainland, and that’s when I realized how light my jacket felt. I’d left the Rock of the Year 2020 behind. ‘You did the right thing,’ said Bobby. ‘I didn’t mean to,’ I cried. ‘Knoydart is bounded by Loch Hourn to the north and Loch Nevis to the south – Loch Hell and Loch Heaven in English. Between Heaven and Hell, it’s neither one nor the other, neither this nor that nor here nor there. You left it in the perfect spot.’ ‘I wish I’d done it on purpose, and not just by accident.’ ‘Does it make a difference?’ ‘I’d have liked to have at least said goodbye.’ ‘It’s hard to say goodbye without holding on to the past.’ ‘Is that why you couldn’t say goodbye to your master Jock? Why you slept beside his grave every night until you died?’ ‘People say I was loyal and faithful. Or that I was I was protecting him from body-snatchers. But that wasn’t it at all.’ ‘So what were you doing?’ ‘It was Jock who didn’t want to say goodbye. He brought me into his world every night when the sky went dark.’ ‘Into his grave?’ ‘Jock was a boddhisatva.’ ‘Beastie boys,’ said Mike. ‘He didn’t go to the other side. He waited to help other souls pass over before him. But he needed me to help him stay connected to this world. He loved me very much, and I loved him too, and that kept him anchored in the world of the living. I’d fall asleep and our souls would merge in a realm free of physical form. He’d comfort troubled souls and tell them not to be afraid, and show them the way to go. If I was to fail to show up one night, he’d have floated down that tunnel beside them and never got back.’ Bobby looked at Anna-Stina, and I saw that he knew she understood. ‘In that world we were neither here nor there,’ he said. ‘Liminal space i’s always where the action is.’ ‘So that’s what you were doing in the mort-house?’ I said. ‘I learned the basics just by being there. And I can’t refuse to help.’ ‘But who keeps you grounded here?’ ‘You three do,’ he said. ‘Aye we love you, wee Bobby,’ said Mike. ‘It’s more than that,’ said Bobby, looking at the three of us in turn. ‘It’s the love that flows between you.’
We drove along that beautiful road from Mallaig to Fort William, stopping for photos at the Glenfinnan Viaduct. I’m so happy we avoided crowded cities, where the people are more distant than the stars. The sun was reflected in the astronaut’s visor, and I noticed again how everything they see is through a golden haze. Except when we fall asleep together – all colours are the same in the dark.
We played a late set in Fort William, our second gig of the day. There I am again – our. But it’s fine – they’re never going to read this anyway. The Garrison West is a restaurant so we didn’t go on – aye, we – until half past nine, so it ended up close to midnight before we finished. We walked to our accommodation and Venus was shining in the west. I’ve been watching her every night through the spring from my Helsinki balcony. But tonight she’s sitting close with the Pleides, the Seven Sisters. It feels like a wonderful omen, and I wonder if people are watching it in Finland too. ‘We’ll be hame the day efter the morra,’ said Anna-Stina. But we’re always and forever home.
‘Very romantic,’ said Bobby. ‘It’s a literary device to bring a quick end to a paragraph that’s going nowhere,’ I said. ‘I’m writing all this up in a parallel universe where there’s a global pandemic and everyone’s in quarantine.’ ‘If I was you I’d stick to the facts.’
We’re up early again in the morning. We wouldn’t particularly have to be except we need to take a wee detour to see Glen Coe. Then there’s a special surprise that I’ve managed to keep from them both. And a special ritual for mum. Oh aye, and there’s also a gig. I straighten the astronaut’s sleeping bag so it’s not all wrinkled and fold it down just right beneath their chin. Then I pull the covers up over us both. And now I stop writing and then I’m going to put the lights out and pull the astronaut close – we’re going to spacewalk into our dreams.
Loch Hell they call it. I’m not much of a believer in such things but if this is penitence for past sins I should’ve committed more of them. The other night we stayed at my old pal Gill’s place outside Inverness. It was the first time we’d seen each other in years and she reminded me of how we met. It was summer 2004, in The Reading Rooms in Dundee. Her pal, Zoe, told me I looked like a Hobbit and somehow that led to us all going up the top of the Law and sitting until sunrise. I moved in with them within the week. I hadn’t read any Tolkien at that point but they immediately forced me to and he’s since become one of my favourites. Sitting here now, between heaven and hell, I feel more Bilbo than ever. Delighted to be having an adventure but sort of trying to get through it without causing too much damage. Donny has always been Gandalf to anyone lucky enough to get sucked into his world. Very possibly in possession of magical powers and a specialist in bringing out qualities in others they had no idea they possessed. Not entirely sure where Anna-Stina fits into this metaphor but she did recently lose a ring… “It’s a dangerous business, going out your door. You never know where you might be swept off to… Michael A Baggins.
5 April – Tigh and Truish, Isle of Seil
Man, it’s all gone by in a flash, I can’t believe we’re here at the last day already. I woke up with the feeling we’d overslept, and indeed we had – not too badly but we have to move. I gave Mike a shake, throw Bobby onto Anna-Stina’s head, and make a massive noise in the kitchen with pots and pans. Gigs and stuff are fine to be late for, but you don’t keep Glen Coe waiting. And Kevin too, our pal who took the tour promo photo, he’s flown over here from Helsinki, just for the gig – we can’t keep him waiting either.
‘Quality,’ said Anna-Stina, gazing around at the dozens of huge granite mountains rising up out of the glen. ‘It’s even better than the Rockies,’ said Mike.
We doubled back on ourselves to hit the main road and floored it all the way down to Oban. This is an old haunt of mine because I spent all my childhood summers at my granny’s on Seil, just 15 miles down the road. It doesn’t seem very far now, but back in the day, when the cars and roads weren’t so good, this was a big day out. The British Heart Foundation charity shop was still there and I popped inside. I always do when I’m in town, just to re-live the day when I found Naked Lunch for a quid and got my teenage mind blown in the 80s. So many things turned on that day. Mike found a new pair of Y-fronts and Anna-Stina got a Fran & Anna CD. I’ll not be surprised if tinges of their influence begin to appear in her music.
We started up again and drove along the front and out of the south side of town. ‘There’s a hitch-hiker,’ I said. ‘You don’t see many of them anymore. Ask him where he’s going.’ I slowed the car and Mike rolled down the window and his best pal Jamie stuck his head in. ‘Room for one more?’ he said. Mike’s new Y-fronts came in handy right away as he leapt out his seat in surprise, and Anna-Stina screamed in the back. They both rushed out and Jamie disappeared in of black-and-white scrum. It took us all the way to Seil to calm back down. We crossed the famous Bridge over the Atlantic and stopped on the other side as arranged at the Tigh an Truish to pick up Kevin, but he had a surprise of his own as he’d brought another friend Markku along for the ride, and the scrum scene was repeated all over. There was no way they could all fit in the back, but we squashed them in anyway, legs and arms hanging out the window. and Bobby came into the front. ‘The gang’s aw here!’ said Anna-Stina.
When I was wee I felt like the only kid on this island, and I roamed all over it alone. As long as I was back for my tea, everything was fine. My granny was born here, but her house isn’t even a ruin now – it’s just a hole in the ground. I don’t have the heart to go and see it, so we drove past the Balvicar crossroads and turned right for the Easdale road. I remember the strangest things from walking this road a kid– a honeysuckle bush hanging over a garden wall, and black snails crawling by the verges. I used to be back and forward here all the time, walking the 2 mile journey to C John Taylor’s Highland Arts Shop. It was the most surreal place on earth and I couldn’t keep myself away from this treasure trove of pathetic tartanesque tat, seriously awful paintings, horrendous attempts at poetry, vomitous, sugar-drenched music and infinite mounds of assorted cretinous drivel. It was just too bizarre to be true, and what was even stranger was that he seemed to have genuinely convinced the world that he was a genius. As a kid, that completely fascinated me – and even now, it still does. I hated the place, but also I couldn’t get over it, and I’d have to keep going back to check that it really existed. But they gave out free shortbread and there was a proper flushing toilet nearby which we never had at my granny’s, so there were other attractions too.
We rounded the hairpin bed at the top of the hill and ride the brakes down to the bottom. Bobby had his head out the window, watching the sheep on the mountains. At the foot of the slope I foundd a place to park by the shore and we all poured out the car. Mike and Anna-Stina were still gazing in amazement at Jamie and Kevin and Markku, like they just couldn’t believe that they were right here beside them. I can’t believe that anyone is here at all, in my wee private corner of the world. It feels really intimate and personal, like we’re all children and I’ve decided I trust them enough to invite them into my hidden den and show them my deepest secrets. I think they understand that too.
My mum died a couple of years ago, and she asked for her ashes to be mixed with my dad’s when he dies, and scattered at the top of the Barra Mor, the big hill that’s rising out the sea beside us. In the course of planning this tour I got a strong clear memory of the way she would sing to me before I fell asleep – Morningtown Ride by the Seekers.
Rockin, rollin, riding, All along the bay, All bound for Morningtown, Many miles away
I’d planned this bit in advance. I walked along the shore a little way until I found a good stone, and then brought it back over to the others. We formed a circle and I placed the stone in the middle. Mike and Anna-Stina had their guitars all set up and we got ready to sing the song together to the sound of the crashing waves. The stone will then hold the vibration, and when the time comes to scatter the ashes, I’ll place it on the mountain, and that will be the song that’s playing through the ethers as mum and dad merge and become finally inseparable and blow away on the wind. Bobby ran round the circle three times as we waited to begin. That bit wasn’t planned, but I liked it. Mike played the intro and Anna-Stina joined in, and already I began to cry. We were just about to sing when Bobby started barking at the sea. ‘He’s gone full radge,’ said Anna-Stina. We all turned round to see what was going on and a seal came out of the water and right up onto the shore. I recognized it as a selkie from Highland mythology, one of the magical seal folk who can transform themselves into a human when they come ashore. They’re half and half, which of course makes them both and neither. Bobby ran down to meet it but he didn’t attack as I feared he might. The seal lowered its head to the ground and their mouths very gently met, and something bright and shiny passed between them. Then Bobby ran back up to meet us, heading straight for Anna-Stina and dropping her long-lost ring in the palm of her hand. Her eyes went wide as she realized what it was, and in total disbelief she slid it back onto her finger. ‘Ah pure cannae take this,’ she said. ‘It caught on my nose when you rubbed it,’ said Bobby. ‘That’s what broke the spell and freed me.’ ‘But, will ye huv tae be a statue again?’ said Anna-Stina. ‘The spell lasts half a moon,’ said Bobby. ‘Two weeks, or fourteen days. After that I’d be turned back to bronze. The only way to make it last forever is to get the seal folk to return the ring. That’s done, so now I’m free.’ ‘Where did you find a selkie on a Sunday?’ said Mike. ‘It was summoned by the seven salty tears that Donny shed.’ ‘Yee,’ said Kevin, and took an amazing photo of something that nobody else could see.
We all hunkered down and Bobby bid farewell to us all in turn. I felt my twin join me, and I guessed she wanted to say goodbye to Bobby too. ‘It’s not you and her.’ said Bobby. ‘Each of you are of the other. The world called you Donny and dressed you in blue and you bought it. But there never was a separation.’ ‘You mean I should merge with her?’ ‘You’re already merged and always have been. All you have to do is let yourself live it.’ ‘Schizogenesis of the soul,’ said Kevin, who knows about science. ‘One becomes two within one.’ Bobby made to leave, but he stopped and turned to me one last time. ‘Neither one nor the other,’ he said. ‘Neither here nor there nor this nor that. Live your life in good faith. You owe yourself that, at least.’ Then he spun round and raced back down to the magic seal, jumped on its back, and waved his tail as he rode it out into the ocean.
‘This is mental,’ said Jamie. ‘I only came down for a gig.’
Mike and Anna-Stina played Morningtown Ride and we all sang, with Markku and Jamie doing glorious harmonies and Markku even treating us to one of his time-stopping mouth organ solos. The moon was up though the sky was still blue, and seven black birds flew below it in a line.That’s when I knew we were done. I put the stone in my pocket, happy to be feeling the old familiar weight that I’d been missing – that good strong pull towards the ground.
We’re all sitting in the Tigh an Truish now. Waiting for the gig to begin. But I don’t want to write any more. I was never any good at goodbyes.
And that was the end of the story
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