Scotland is another Country

My early holidays as a young child were camping trips taken with my parents and my two brothers to locations around the British Isles, staying at farms-there was no such facility as a camp site-and pitching tents in a corner of a field.

We travelled, all five squeezed into one of the various small vehicles my father procured-starting with a little, old black Ford. Packing was an art form in which only my father amongst us was skilled [apparently]. The tents [ex-army acquisitions] went on to a roof rack together with our ex-army kapok sleeping bags [camouflage design] which had been cut down to child size by my mother on her treadle sewing machine. Then there was a ‘Bluet’ cooking stove in a tin box plus all our enamel plates, cups and dishes. Any leftover space housed our clothing-shorts and T shirts plus one jumper-oh and pyjamas of course.

We would have to get up in the dark, small hours to undertake the journey, since motorways had not been conceived and stop in lay-bys where my father would get out and set up the Bluet to make tea. My mother struggled with the stove, pumping to get the spirit fuel going and famously throwing it over a fence when the flame shot forth terrifyingly. Much later, having reached the destination he had selected [Wales, Devon, The Peak District, The Lake District] we would stop at a likely farm and request a space for our very basic tents-an arctic ‘bell’ tent and a home-made construction from poles and sackcloth he’d cobbled together to be our ‘toilet’ tent. He would dig a neat, square hole and erect a seat made from 4 struts and a timber frame-to sit on and carefully backfill and replace the turf after use.

Once we travelled to Scotland, an intrepid adventure for the time. My memories are dominated by the mist and drizzle that masked every view, the night we slept in a milking parlour due to the inclement weather [I could feel the drainage channels through the thick kapok of my sleeping bag] and the eyrie, plaintive bagpipe melody drifting through the fog over Culloden Field, where a brutal and bloody battle was fought.

We camped in the Highlands with a view of Ben Nevis. My father fulfilled his burning desire to bathe in a mountain stream by moonlight, an event which, for some inexplicable reason we were all taken along to witness but had no appetite to share; the Scottish weather not lending itself to this kind of romance.

We know the outcome of Scotland’s attempt to sever the umbilical. Scotland seemed foreign enough to me then, without the need for independence and still does, in the same way that the USA feels foreign. There is more to unfamiliarity, to foreigness, than a different language.

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A Heady Romp in the Fields of Yesteryear

                When I was a young child my family undertook intrepid camping excursions into the extremities of the UK. I don’t recall there being any such luxury as a camp site or a holiday park, or if there were we didn’t venture into any. We camped at farms. We’d meander along the lanes in my father’s old ‘Commer’ or whatever vehicle he had, until he spotted a likely farm, then he’d knock on the door and request a corner of a field for us. Whether we were ever refused entry I don’t know, but we always found somewhere to pitch up. We all had to help out with the tents, old ex-army structures, notably a bell tent in which we all slept, two adults and three children, around the central pole. This bell tent was reversible-snowy white on the inside and camouflage green and brown splodges on the outside. It was accessed via low tunnels-easy for small children but presumably less so for my parents.

                My father was a little like Allie Fox in Paul Theroux’s ‘Mosquito Coast’, in that he hatched the ideas and liked to ‘go native’, pulling us all along with him. Once the tent was erected he’d take the spade he’d brought along and dig a pit for the toilet tent he’d specially constructed from four poles and some sacking. We slept on ex-army, canvas camp beds, the assembly of which was an acquired skill, and in ex-army, camouflage, kapok sleeping bags that my mother had cut down to size for us on her treadle sewing machine.

                Cooking was executed on two primus stoves housed in biscuit tins-always outside, even in a howling gale. We ate and drank from enamel plates and mugs. Whenever it was deemed necessary for us to bathe we made excursions to local towns where we would find a public bathing house. You would be shown to a steamy cubicle and handed a towel and a small wafer of soap.

                There were, of course, times when the weather was inclement [even in the summers of childhood]. Most farmers would take pity on us, allowing us to sleep in a hayloft or a barn or once, as I recall on the floor of a milking shed, where the concave channels for drainage made for an uncomfortable night. During periods of sustained rain we’d sometimes go to the cinema, a treat that would be followed up by fish and chips in a newspaper wrapper, consumed whilst sitting, all five of us squashed into a car with steamy windows. Occasionally the parents felt the need to visit the local pub and we’d be brought out bottles of lemonade and packets of crisps, since in those days children did not enter such establishments.

                We travelled to Scotland, Wales, the Lake District, the Peak District, camped within sight of Ben Nevis, on the moors, next to pubs, next to rocky streams.

                What a contrast the modern equivalent of camping is! These days I feel grumpy if there is no internet access, the water in the showers is less than piping hot or the electric hook-up fails. Even UK camp sites have managed to acquire the sophisticated facilities offered by continental sites. Some would say it isn’t ‘real’ camping if you don’t build an open fire or catch your own food but I’ll stick with the comforts the van provides, miniature though they may be!