Mid-afternoon and the sun is setting in the south-west behind the white rucked duvet that is Ben Klibreck. Welcome to December in northern Scotland. Yesterday, Eva and Joe set off on their long journey back to Austria, but it felt almost as long on the drive back from Inverness Airport. Long, lonely and slow; at least the last ten miles along the untreated road that runs past the Garvault. With no other vehicle tracks and the whiteness lying like a sheet over the land, I was grateful for the snow markers and Passing Place signs to guide me and then, as I struggled to see the white-painted house against the white snow in the half-light, for the markers Joe and I had put out along the half-mile drive to the house. Having safely returned, first thing to do: fire up the generator and re-set the boilers so there is heat in the house. A little later that afternoon, I watch the near-full moon rise clear above the land, casting it’s beautiful cold rays over the snow with a stronger light than the faint glow the sun shone in the west.
The moon had reminded me that is had been a month since we had driven down to pick up Joe from Inverness train station. Being the photographer he is (among many other things), Joe had spent a long time outside photographing last month’s Hunter’s Moon. Tonight, I stood in the now empty and cold west wing (the only reliable spot in the house for a phone signal) as my sister and I both looked up at the moon while we talked and discussed when I would come down to Central Scotland and spend a couple of days with her. It will not be next week, as the first of our British friends is making a visit: Rhys has bravely booked a flight with Logan Air to Inverness. He is hoping he will be in time to catch the last train north….and that it will be running. Which it was not for most of this week and which was why I had to drive Eva and Joe to the airport.
It was our second visit to Inverness in November; on the 20th I had had to attend a day-long course and sit the exam for my Personal Licence Holder’s qualification; the certificate for which arrived in the post yesterday. The course itself was conducted by Ramsey Mcghee, an ex-police superintendent and well acquainted with the licensing trade; his only vice was to frequently mount one of his many hobby horses and so lose track of where in the mass of guff (and it was mostly guff) we had still to get through. His biggest hobby horse, a real Clydesdale, was the formation of 'Police Scotland' and the doing away with the regional Chief Constables. Now, he says, the Highlands gets policed as though it was Glasgow.
For those who might be interested in following me into the pub trade, here is my journal entry regarding the course:
There were 7 of us and it was an interesting mix of people too. I had feared half-a-dozen hardbitten bar room types, but we had Phil and Amelia from Inverness’ theatre; a personable young man from the wine trade; Kasandra, a beautiful young Bulgarian lap dancer looking to move off men’s laps and up the career ladder; and sitting next to me was Ann, a large, peroxide-blond and friendly woman, the long-serving bar manageress of a golf club. Arriving late due to his flight from Stornaway, came eagle-beaked Donald, with the wonderful deep Outer Hebridean voice that made anything he said sound like a prophecy from Ossian.
Of the course matter, it seems the Scottish Government took fright at the rise in drinking in Scotland over the last ten years. After seeing the graph, I could understand why but also could not help thinking it bore a remarkable resemblance to the similar rise of the SNP and the independent movement, even showing a marked fall since the last election. Whatever the reason, the point that came home is that any deviance from the dogma that under-aged drinking is the cause of the problem will not be tolerated: £5,000 fine and/or 3 months imprisonment for knowingly serving alcohol to anyone under 18. Hm; we could be in the good old US of A - and just as wrong about how to tackle the drink problem.
At the end of a long day, I was the first to finish the multiple choice exam. As usual with such an exam, it tested little except an ability to regurgitate often irrelevant dates or statistics, as well as a few dubious 'facts' about the demon drink. I left not sure if I had passed or not, but certain that another half-an-hour pondering over such questions as 'What licence must you obtain if you want to have music on your premise, a PPL or a PRS?' would not change my score for the better. I was pleased to have a word or a wave from each of the others, but left feeling sorry for poor Kasandra who was obviously struggling with the poor english of some of the questions. I fear she may have to sit on a few more laps before she can make her way up the ladder.
So now I am a fully qualified publican, who probably knows less about the practical aspects of actually running a bar than most locals. Whereas although I am not a qualified butcher, I have learned, under the expert guidance of Badanloch’s Head Keeper, how to butcher a deer. Brian kindly gave us a deer as a 'welcome to the strath' present, but only on condition that we butchered it ourselves. So, while Eva bagged up the meat into ’stew', ’soup', 'fillet' or 'roast', I hacked and sawed my way through a recently shot hind. Eva also brought home more venison after helping out at the local charity market, where the surrounding estates provide produce (mostly game) for the people of Helmsdale to buy, with the proceeds going to the local hospital. Should you visit - and we hope you will - you will be sure to have venison on the menu. And rest assured there will be legally poured drink too.
But what about the Land-Rover’s gearbox I’m sure you want to know: has the Green Knight got a (workable) reverse gear? Yes is the quick answer, although it took a lot of work and it still feels like poking a stick into a pile of rocks, but I can get reverse gear. Getting it out is a little more difficult; as though there is a gin trap among the rocks, but at least it works. A happier Land-Rover tale occurred yesterday when I had stopped at the garage in Kinbrace to try and fix the Green Knight’s current problem: the drivers door would not open. For the last ten days I have been practicing my yoga by clambering over from the passenger side and, while it might be good for my flexibility, it had lost any novelty appeal and I was keen to have it fixed. In case any of you find yourself with a similar situation with a Defender, let me tell you the secret of how Stuart, as a qualified and experienced mechanic, fixed a problem that had defeated me. Brute force.
So, after much sanding and waxing of floors, painting of walls and other chores, it was with some sadness that Eva and Joe left the Garvault for the last time this year. Eva should be back sometime in January and Joe is also keen to return. As we took one last walk around in the sunshine, the eagle chose that moment to make an appearance. We have not seen him for a week or so, but it was as though he wanted to come and say goodbye.
Your Man in Sutherland