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Sutherland, wild ponies and me

In hindsight I now realise that visiting the WWOOF Host above Lochness actually had a bigger impact on me than I realised at the time. It had sewn a seed of discontent. I envied those women their creativity and especially that they had a man to hold and inspire them, even if it involved Ketamine!

The three female Sirens I’d met above Lochness were the first of a number of women I was to meet in Scotland who hadn’t gone to art college but who were confident in their creativity to not only produce it but to actually sell it. However, those I met after them didn’t need Ketamine!

I met weavers, artists, knitters, sculptors and musicians, mainly women, all getting with on their lives, all in relationships/partnerships, some married, some not, some with children, some not. What they all had in common was a strength and energy I’d not seen before. They were truly themselves. ‘They filled their own shoes’. They were to me, like wild beautiful ponies who were tame enough to be approached, who chose to harness their energy to not only create art or crafts but also homes, families, and relationships. They had found and accepted stability in a non-restrictive and mutually supportive way! They and their north west highland surroundings were as one: wild, free, beautiful but intimidating too.

The rugged and beautiful Higlands

Whilst my outer journey still continued in the same vein as before – drive, stop, WWOOF, sketch, rest, walk, van repairs,- my inner journey began to take on a different form. I wanted to know how I could be like those people, especially the women, but hadn’t a clue how or where to start. 

I had felt let down by the Buddhist monk’s response to my ‘miracle’. My lack of solidity was beginning to show, ‘the shaped pot had begun to loose shape’.  My writing also reflected that I was likening myself more and more to a wild pony who was just running and running. One that hadn’t harnessed her energy for any purpose; creatively and certainly not to create a family. In fact I had done the exact opposite I had galloped into family life getting pregnant at 18, married at 20, affairs, divorced, men, and pregnant again at 27. Each time breaking free and charging off, when what I thought of as the ‘saddle of conformity’ tightened or when I could no longer sustain who I thought they wanted me to be. 

I didn’t set out to be so destructive, honest! I set out trying to find love, as most of us do.  But what did I know at 15!  Far too young and thinking love and sex were the same thing.  I was typical of a lot of young women from dysfunctional families, where the male and female role models where themselves broken and confused. 

Some with similar backgrounds to mine were lucky and found the right person or situation which ‘mended’ them or gave them purpose. Some took the first person who offered what appeared to be love, had children and decided to ‘put up and shut up’ to avoid putting their own children through what they had gone through as kids. Others, went from one relationship to another, due to their own brokenness and lack of self-love, carrying with them any kids they had on the way, unaware of the impact this could possibly have on their children. And some, like the three Sirens, found their Svengali, but also a form of sisterhood. 

Me? Well, as you will come to learn,  I let down my children even more.  At 16 I found and fell in love with my own handsome, charismatic, long-haired romantic, who was 6 years older. He introduced me to marijuana and other drugs. He tried, he says now ‘with the best of intentions’ to alter how I looked, what I wore, what I read, what I said, and what I did because he ‘saw my potential’. He had, and to this day still has, no understanding of the effect it had on a vulnerable young girl’s confidence.

Was he a Svengali? No,I don’t think so. Why? Because after our son was born, he wasn’t there most of the time. When he was, he was planning the next trip away. 

Let me make this very clear, he was not and is not a bad guy, he was just blinkered. He was a middle-class bloke who, like many at that time came, from a very comfortable upper middle class family therefore he could afford to rebel and was enjoying the times he lived in, freedom, experimenting with drugs, as many did, but he was NOT an addict nor work shy. He was and is extremely well read. He had big romantic plans of being a writer (he still is a dreamer and the truth is he has huge amount of talent if he just applied himself). He was like no one else I had ever met and was totally not like any of my fathers (biological father or step-fathers) a massive plus! He was exciting! In spite of me knowing I wasn’t his type. I hung on in till we fell into sharing a bedsit and I fell pregnant at 18. He hung on most probably because he loved my adoration of him and my potential. He was and is an exceptional man, loyal to his friends and in spite of everything, loyal to me too.  He has been a witness to my life, the good and bad. Yes, I still love him and his lovely wife too. They have been together for over 20 years (I’ve only ever made it to 9 years) His wife, who as it happens is 15 years younger than him (interesting!) has become a very dear friend. In addition, he didn’t run when I found I was pregnant. We got married when Simon was 18 months old. However, the birth of our son, (I always felt a girl would have been better for the father) put a huge strain on me. What did I know about babies, motherly love and being a parent after my own upbringing? Due to things going on in my own family, my mother couldn’t offer support and there was no peer support. Most of his friends were at university or setting off on careers.

As awful as this will sound, I don’t think either of us really gave any thought to having a baby. The truth was I often wished I could have turned back the clock. Like a lot of my naive and selfish behaviours the person who would be most hurt by them was to be my son Simon and his brother Peter too, though to a slightly lesser degree thanks to his biological father (a different father to Simon’s) and stepmother.

It took many years for me to forgive myself and accept the forgiveness of my sons, another miracle! I owe an awful lot to both my sons. They are proof of the power of honesty, love and forgiveness. I’d like to share with all mums and dads, if I may: children have an enormous capacity to love and forgive us for our humanness, especially our human weaknesses and brokenness . They can sometimes love us more for that than because we are just their ‘parents’. But, we have to trust them to know us, to be honest with them and, if possible, that they get to see that is it never too late to learn from our mistakes and that forgiveness, even between adults who once hurt each other, is possible.


North of Ullapool

Back in the van, the change to my inner journey was also mirrored in the change of landscape as I approached Ullapool and continued north to Sutherland. It was more dramatic, harsher and wilder.  The mountains appeared as if they were large prehistoric beasts trying to pull themselves out of the earth, straining, pulling to be free, rivers and shingle scaring their arched backs. 

Though I didn’t have hindsight to protect me, I was still enjoying my journey. It was idyllic driving along in the sunshine, window open, admiring the scenery, stopping at lochs or wherever took my fancy. I was often alone in very wild places.  Sometimes I’d pull over to watch the highland cattle, birds and sheep, to sketch, make a meal and at times offer a cuppa and biscuit to a walker who I met.

Of course there was another mechanical breakdown just outside Inverness which meant a night or two there, again on a garage forecourt. Afterwards, I drove over the bridge north east of Inverness and aimed for the Black Isle to reach Cromarty, for another trip down memory lane. 

In Cromarty and on the Black Isle in general, it was harder to find remote spots to stop and park up and stay. At such times my portaloo came into its own with a plastic carrier bag for a number two, disposed of in the nearest bin! Yes, needs must!

Whilst on the Black Isle I had to buy some light bulbs for my battery run lamps and managed to find a general store that stocked them. As it had taken a long while and many stops to find theseà bulbs I was in a very happy and chatty mood when the storekeeper put them on the counter for me to pay. I consider myself pretty good at the old banter, especially coming from London but could I get a word, let alone a smile out of this shop keeper? No! As I left I couldn’t resist turning and looking at him: “If you are anything to go by no wonder this is called the Black Isle!”

I noted in my writing the next day that perhaps that wasn’t the a nice thing to have said, for all I knew he was having a bad day!

I found another WWOOF host who had a farm just north of Ullapool so I chose to head that way. The farm had goats, pigs and cows, all rare breeds. My job was to muck out stables and sties. Believe me I earned my keep!  But, in many ways I liked the physical labour, at least it stopped me thinking. I continued to sleep in my van and just took advantage of the meals in return for my sweat! I think I stayed there for about a week.

My next stop was Sutherland and the woman crofter. It was a small Croft with a few sheep and there was already a WWOOFer in situ living in the workers’ caravan. She was from Argentina! She had been WWOOFing in Australia on a sheep station and then went to Scotland where I met her. She was delightful and I enjoyed her company a lot. Together we injected the adult sheep, clipped their hooves and generally tidied up around the Croft. I found the Johans in the graveyard but sadly at that time not one who was alive! I did find one later, a ‘postie’, working in Argyll

I stayed on the Croft for about 2 weeks during which time the Argentinian woman was replaced by a very savvy and incredibly funny Essex girl. She was feisty, and passionate about the planet and angry about people dropping litter so made it her mission to pick it up where ever she saw it. She challenged my thinking on a number of things, for which I’m now very grateful and she managed to do it in a funny but unthreatening way. We had many laughs sitting over a mug of tea in her caravan or my van.


A typical Croft found in the Highlands and similar to where I WWOOFed.

By the time I had reached Sutherland I had fallen back into old ways of thinking and turned my attention to studying the men I encountered, but only from a distance, honest! I started to watch and observe the men who lived up there in the wilds. Working on Crofts and farms through WWOOF allowed me to get up close to a type of male I had not seen before. Rugged, strong, with uncomplicated views about life and women. The men farm, labour and look after livestock whilst the women made sure the home (the Croft)  was warm for the bairns and their men after a day out on hills in all weathers.

It started to make sense. In that part of the world with its remoteness, weather, lack of ‘soft’ jobs, lack of amenities, limited utilities, miles to find a shop and so on, that type of arrangement for a marriage was necessary and worked to a degree. However, I think a lot of stoicism was also required, especially by the women after the men had had a dram or two. Someone had to keep things going back at the Croft otherwise both would have died from cold and malnutrition. There was a rawness to everything, an essential beauty and, like the women, some of the men were intimidating too, especially one I saw at a sheep shearing competition, – a great place to observe the male at work. That man’s raw sexuality radiated out of him, every time he caught my eye I caught myself wondering what it would be like to be with such a man. Yet, something stopped me, some sense of danger, and I left before I could be tempted to find out.  

It wasn’t long after the shearing competition that I felt it was time to leave Sutherland and head north right to the very top of Scotland, Cape Wrath. I hoped, again in my nativity, that I would know what to do and where to go once I got there. Well, I didn’t! I continued driving along the top of Scotland and all I had formulated was one new theory: if men up North were too raw and men down South too soft, maybe men from the middle of the UK might be just right?

That theory was to get me in deep water later on.

Next time, about a week, the Ghillie and the death of my van

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