We would be snaking up Loch Lomond, the
road narrow and winding after the turn at Tarbert,
and we’d be bending branches as we slid
through the green and dripping overhang of the trees.
All the bickering over the packing, and the – as usual –
much, much later-than-we’d-meant-to leaving,
all that falling from us,
our moods lifting, lightening, becoming our good mood
the more miles we put
between our freed and weekend selves and Glasgow.
Driving in the dark means: slot in another CD
without even looking at what it is,
another any-old-silver-disc from the zippered case
that, when you reminded me, I’d have quickly stuffed
far too full and randomly, then jammed it,
last minute, into the top of my rucksack.
Golden oldies, yours or mine, whose favourite?
Anyway, the music would spool us through Tyndrum,
past the shut Real Food Café where other days
we like to stop,
and over moonscape Rannoch Moor to the
moonlit majesty of Glencoe,
over the bridge at Ballachulish, past Corran
with the ferry stilled and the loch like glass;
we’d be wriggling along Loch Linnhe then
past the long strip of darkened lochside Big hotels
Vacancies or No Vacancies signs
to 30 mph Fort William –
we’d shout it out and we’d be honouring a
long ago and someone else’s family pass-the-time-car-
journey game we never even played, but Michael,
proud of his teenage wordsmith son,
once told us about – and it has stuck.
We’d be speeding up now, taking the bend’s wide
we bypass the sleeping town, making for
the second-last turn-off: Mallaig and The Road
To The Isles.
And you’d say,
‘Last thirty miles, Lizzie, we’ll be there by midnight.’
The always longest fifteen miles from Glenfinnan
and a wee cheer at the last turn,
down past the big house and the fish farm,
beyond the lay-by – full of travellers’ ramshackle vans
now the yellow’s on the broom again –
our eyes peeled now for the white-painted stone
so we’ll not miss
the overgrown entrance to the field of caravans.
There would be that sigh of
always glad-to-see our old van still standing,
opening the door, the sniffing – no dampness,
I’d be unloading the first cool bags of food,
while you’d be round the van’s side, down in the mud
turning the stopcock for the water,
fixing the gas – and soon,
breathing a big sigh, laughing in relief at
how that huge stag that had suddenly filled the
windscreen a mile back
stopping our hearts as – ho! – we’d shouted our alarm –
had somehow astonishingly leapt free, was gone,
and no harm done,
we’d be lighting candles, pouring a dram,
drinking the first cup of tea
from the old black and white teapot.
And tonight the sky would be huge with stars.
Tomorrow there would be the distant islands
cut out of sugar paper, or else cloud, the rain
in great veils
coming in across the water, the earliest tenderest
feathering of green on the trees, mibbe autumn
laying bare the birches stark white.
There would be blood-red rowan berries,
that bold robin
eating from my plate again, or – for a week or two
in May –
the elusive, insistent cuckoo,
or else the slow untidy flapping of the flight
of the heron,
the oil-black cormorant’s disappear-and-dive,
shifts of sun, double or even treble rainbows.
The waterfall would be a wide white plume or a
thin silver trickle, depending…
There would be bracken’s early unfurling or
late summer’s heather pinking and purpling over,
a plague of hairy caterpillars and the last
Mibbe you’d nudge me, and hushed,
again we’d watch that otter swim to shore
on New Year’s Day with a big fish in its mouth, emerge
so near us on the flat rocks we
wouldn’t dare to breathe as we’d watch it,
make a meal of eating it before our eyes.
Or it would be a late Easter this year and,
everywhere along the roadside,
the chrome-yellow straight-out-of-the-tube-and-
laid-on-with-a-palette-knife brashness, the
amazing coconut smell of the gorse.
But tonight you are three months dead
and I must pull down the bed and lie in it alone.
Tomorrow, and every day in this place
these words of Sorley MacLean’s will echo
The world is still beautiful, though you are not in it.
And this will not be a consolation
but a further desolation.
About this poem
This poem was included in Best Scottish Poems 2012. Best Scottish Poems is an online publication, consisting of 20 poems chosen by a different editor each year, with comments by the editor and poets. It provides a personal overview of a year of Scottish poetry. The editors in 2012 were Zoë Strachan and Louise Welsh.
The excitement and anticipation of this much travelled journey is so immediate that it comes as a shock to realise it is a memory of times lost. The final stanza is devastating, a reminder that we are all driving in the dark and the end of the journey will come too soon.
This poem was a ‘first the phonecall’ poem. I was invited (along with Michael Palin, Sally Magnusson , Alexander McCall Smith and Aidan Moffat) to write a piece for My Favourite Place, a new anthology of prose and poems. Scottish Book Trust wanted to encourage all sorts of people to contribute to it, so that 150,000 copies of a book that would celebrate many of Scotland’s best-loved places could be distributed free as part of the 2012 Book Week Scotland celebrations.
I wanted to do it, of course – and both personally and honestly – but found it painful to write for reasons obvious to anyone who reads the poem. When I lit upon the first person plural and the subjunctive tense – the impossible, the wish-tense – this made it possible, even essential, for me to just summon up and simply catalogue, beat by beat, breathlessly, obsessively, the familiar journey to what will be for as long as I live my favourite place. And to end by nakedly describing one particular arrival in September 2010.