Mallaig, Memories and My Nana

Growing up, two places dominated my experience of childhood. Caithness, because it was where we lived, and Mallaig, because it was where we took all our holidays. The latter also had a special attraction: it was where Nana and Iain lived (Nana being my paternal Grandmother and Iain my uncle, who lived with Nana due to the poor health that afflicted him most of his adult life). We visited Mallaig – a small fishing port on the west coast of the Highlands – several times a year, making the five-hour journey from north-east to west along the ‘Road to the Isles’ – at the time a snaking, winding road that inevitably had myself and my siblings vomiting before we reached Morar. The road, though still in use, was later superseded by an ‘improved’ section, bypassing small villages on the final stretch towards Mallaig, yet missing much of the coastal beauty that made it so unique. As an eight-year-old, though, I probably would have welcomed such a diversion, had it helped the relentless travel sickness that plagued me on even the shortest journey around the local area. Thankfully, all thoughts of sickness were soon forgotten as we swung into Mallaig and rounded the harbour towards Nana’s flat in my Dad’s Ford Cortina – we were on holiday.

And looking back, those were the best holidays we ever could have had.

Nana and Iain lived on the top floor of a block of flats that looked out over the harbour and towards the islands. East Bay, as it was called, was a large, white, chimney-topped building made up of six separate accommodations – imagine a small child’s drawing of a house with more windows than you’d expect. Identical versions were dotted along the seafront, housing several of Nana’s friends and relations; on the lower floor of East Bay alone, Nana had a cousin, and her closest female friend lived just across the hallway. Whenever we arrived into the parking bays opposite East Bay, Nana and Iain would be waiting for us, either hanging out of their top floor window, or standing on the pavement ready to usher us inside. The offer of food was always first on the agenda, no matter how pale or sickly our complexions after the long journey from Caithness. One of my lasting memories of Nana is that no matter the circumstances, she was always trying to get us all to eat.

East Bay Mallaig
The view towards East Bay

Nana was a formidable woman, in a gentle sort of way, and was most definitely the matriarch of the family. She had lost her husband, my Grandfather, when she was only 44, and had been left to raise four children alone (a fact that strikes me as poignant, given that I will reach the age at which she became a widow in a few month’s time myself). During her life, Nana faced many hardships common to her generation, including falling ill with diphtheria as a child and subsequently missing almost a whole year of her schooling. She also suffered a broken ankle in her youth, which never healed properly and necessitated the wearing of a cast daily for walking. Despite these various setbacks, my Nana was anything but frail.

Nana was a devout Catholic, and met my Grandfather, Robert, when he was foreman joiner at St Patrick’s church in Mallaig (where he was involved in the building of the roof, and the wooden dome above the altar). Later they would move to Fort William, and then Edinburgh, before Robert’s early death brought the family back to Mallaig, where they lived in a tiny cottage on the outskirts of the village – a cottage my Grandfather had built. When Nana and Iain moved to East Bay in later years, ‘the cottage,’ as it was always known, would become the holiday home for family visitors. It was idyllic – set right on the shore and sheltered from the road by a steep, winding stretch of track; a haven of rock pools and tranquillity, where tiny frogs would jump across the sitting room, and wandering cows would poke curious faces up against windows as we woke.

We could not, of course, as children, have realised how lucky we were to have this as our playground – how could we, without the benefit of life, age and experience? It would be years before I would appreciate the magical times those summers at the cottage had afforded us, how fortunate we had been to have this quiet corner of the coastline as our own. In years to come, the new road would pass through the land that rose above the cottage, and ownership of the place itself would shift to others, two facts that still provoke sadness when I think of our many happy times there. On trips to Mallaig now I still visit to observe it from a distance, thinking about what is given up and gained through progress; wondering about the sense of loss that accompanies the movement of time when we shift our focus from the present to the past.

We still had East Bay, though, where Nana would give up her bedroom to accommodate myself, my parents and my siblings. The flat had plenty to entertain us, and we loved sitting at the table by the window, where we could point out boats in the harbour or watch the ferry come and go. In the evenings we would play Monopoly or spend time with Iain, who was the best kind of uncle because he never treated us like children. Unlike some adults, Iain seemed to love being around us, teaching us to play Pontoon or letting us listen to him chat on his CB radio, without ever asking when we had to go to bed. With no children of his own, Iain took a great deal of interest in his nieces and nephews, and in turn, I think, we all offered a certain kind of care to him. He was incredibly intelligent, with an innate ability to recall trivia and minutiae (so much so, that when he and Nana moved to Inverness in their later years, he was asked by the local radio station to stop entering their quizzes, in order to give the other poor listeners a chance).

One of my favourite pastimes during those days in Mallaig was to venture out on the circular walk that rose up at the rear of Nana’s flat (where I could be kept under the watchful gaze of the adults from a window in the kitchen). Every evening after dinner, I would stride up to a bench there, waving down at my family, who were doing the dishes behind the glass. I would feel so adventurous, so independent – even though the whole trip only took around ten minutes to complete. On a recent visit to Mallaig, I walked up to the same point, and was surprised to find how much the trees had grown – I could no longer see my way through to Nana’s window. As a child, I never imagined that the passage of time would eventually obliterate the view to that window. Or that I could look into that window, and find Nana and Iain no longer there, waiting and watching behind the glass.

Back then, though, Nana and Iain were there, and continued to play a huge part in our upbringing. One of the facets of that was religion, and we spent a lot of our time in Mallaig going to masses at St Patrick’s, the local Catholic church. Most inhabitants of the village were religious, and the rituals of church-going were heavily woven into the fabric of the community. There was a day for confession, a day for morning mass, feast days and holy days, all punctuating the routines of living – not eating an hour before communion, planning our outings around mass. It was comforting in a way – back in Caithness being Roman Catholic was something of an oddity. Still, I’m sure I occasionally got tired of it – not that I would ever have told Nana that, of course. Even now, years after her death, I still harbour some guilt in no longer observing the religion that was such a feature of my upbringing. One of my abiding memories is standing beside Nana in the pews of St Patrick’s, listening to her singing How Great Thou Art. When I visit St Patrick’s now, I still hear that voice beside me. How Great Thou Art was sung at Nana’s funeral and still remains my favourite hymn. 

St Patrick’s RC church Mallaig
St Patrick’s RC Church

One upside of all the church visits I had in Mallaig as a child were the many opportunities for outings to cafes with Nana. Say what you will about religion: it gave my Nana a great social life, and I often joined her and her friends after morning masses, enthralled by their conversations over coffee as I nibbled on biscuits or supped away at juice. On the short walk back to East Bay we’d pick our way around the sheep that roamed the village freely (this of course meant we also had to pick our way around the resulting sheep poo). We’d often bump into more of Nana’s friends or relations on their way to purchase groceries. They would greet each other, chat a little, and sometimes slip into Gaelic when discussing something they’d prefer I didn’t hear.

Everyone in the village at that time seemed to be named by function – there was Katie the Shoemaker, Duncan the Diver, Ina the Anchorage, and a lady my brother appointed Nan Casino. Names for their own sake lacked vital information – in Mallaig, everyone was characterised by a role. The village was built on bonds of friendship, faith and family – a place where community was everything. I never witnessed anything but kindness in Mallaig in all the time I spent there, a kindness that threaded through generations and was mirrored by the slow pace of village life. It was epitomised for me in an experience involving my Father, who once spent all afternoon painstakingly untangling a sheep that had become caught up in the rocks outside Nana’s window. Such experiences had a profound impact on me as a youngster, and I was observer to many such acts of kindness – all offered without any expectation of accolade or reward.  

One of the highlights of our holidays to Mallaig each year were the Morar Highland Games, the pinnacle of the local social calendar. I remember once competing in the Highland Dancing, and being awarded third place aside two world champions (which would have been much more impressive had it not been just the three of us competing at the time). On another occasion, my siblings and I collected signed photos from members of the cast of the television soap opera Take the High Road – veritable celebrities in 1980’s Scotland. On the road back to Mallaig we could stop off at the Silver Sands of Morar or the village of Arisaig and still be back in time for dinner. Nana would be waiting, with the promise of Cracker Barrel cheese and biscuits, or a rendition of Jack and the Beanstalk before we went to bed.

Sometimes, we would venture off for a day trip on the ferry, leaving Nana to watch us depart the harbour, waving a dishcloth in farewell out of the flat window. I recall one such trip to the island of Barra, and a bout of seasickness that left me lying prostate on the floor of the ferry beside my Mother while a passenger nearby munched on tomato-flavoured crisps. On the way home, Nana was at the window again, employing her uncanny ability to sense the proximity of family in a time well before mobile phones and the advent of looking up timetables on the Internet. Yet there she was with her dishcloth, waving out at us, our own lighthouse, suddenly making the sea feel steady beneath our feet.

Nana and Iain died in 2008, within a few short months of each other. I spoke at their funerals, back in St Patrick’s, under the domed ceiling my Grandfather had helped to build. Aside from my parents, Nana and Iain had the biggest influence on my childhood, my adulthood, on everything I am in life. Mallaig, too, continues to be a constant presence in my life. Last year, I took my children there, making my usual pilgrimage to East Bay, and to the cottage. The village felt different, swollen with the heat of summer and the tourists from the ‘Harry Potter train.’ Yet for me, memories were around every corner, carried in every step I took.

People illuminate place, and places are the stories of our hearts.

When I think about Mallaig, I think about Nana and Iain, about my life, and the stories my heart tells.

And I remember something I read once.

We must not forget the past – it tells us who we are.

In memory of Margaret and Iain Innes. Forever loved.