Colin, who is 44, doesn’t want me to go into what he does or where he works because of sensitivities of his employer. But it’s perfectly honorable work.
Alan, who is 70, is willing to let me tell a bit of his story. I queried him about his family history, Scottish history, Knoydart demography, the Clearances, all sorts of things. He was a hillwalker par excellence. He has finished “the Munros,” which is the name for all the hills in Scotland over 3,000 feet. There are 282 of them, catalogued by and named after a man named Hugh Munro. He is almost finished with “the Corbetts,” which are hills between 2500 and 3,000 feet. He’s gone trekking at 18,000 feet in Nepal, and in Moab, Utah, and many places in between.
We talked about how people survived out here 200, 300 years ago. He told me about crofters, the tenant farmers, and lairds, the owners of the land.
Crofters grew vegetables, oats and barley on ground in which the soil, full of rocks, had been piled up in elevated furrows–the original raised-bed gardening. Cattle was a cash crop, and there were cattle drives out of the Highlands south to market. Rob Roy, an outlaw hero villain, ran a protection racket in which people paid to not have their cattle rustled on the way, according to Alan. You know the Chisolm Trail from Texas to Kansas? The father of Jesse Chisolm, for whom it was named, was a drover in the Scottish Highlands, Alan said.
Alan came from MacDonalds on both sides of his family. They lived in a place called Glen Moidart before the Clearances, and then were forced to a place on the coast called Smirisary, a settlement of 15 to 20 buildings that still exists without a paved road. One of his great grandmothers on his mother’s father’s side came down to Glasgow. She never learned English, although her son had forgotten Gaelic by the time Alan knew him.
Alan used to go back to the Highlands for summer vacation, put on a train in Glasgow with his name and destination pinned to his jumper when he was as young as six. From the train terminus he had to walk a mile to a ferry. Somebody always looked after him, he said, and he doesn’t remember being afraid.
At one point I apologized, as a formality, for asking so many questions.
“I’m a journalist, so I made my living asking questions.”
“Well that’s good,” Colin said, “because he was a tour guide.”
Before that he’d been a sales representative for a tobacco company and an executive of the Youth Hostel Association. For about five years before retiring he had a business in which he took clients on five-day car trips around Scotland, narrating as he went.
I asked him if he’d been to Priesthill. I said I had an ancestor who’d been martyred there, killed by a man named John Graham of Claverhouse.
“Oh, Claverhouse. The story in my wife’s family is she is descended from a man killed by him, John Brown. Shot him in front of his family.”
This, of course, was the John Brown who is one of my mother’s ancestors.
I asked him if he’d been out to the monument at Brown’s grave. He said he had; his wife had wanted to see it.
“It’s way out on a moor. If you go, bring a brush, as it’s mossy and hard to read.”
I turned to Colin and said, “Well, I guess that makes us kin.”
“No, I’m afraid not,” he said. “It’s his second wife.”