I haven’t met any notable locals here in our new town, but there are still some characters I’ve wanted to tell you about from our old village. I thought that today I would introduce you to Fergus.
For a few years Fergus was my husband’s across-the-street neighbor. Larger than life, he was deeply rooted in the village, one of the few “originals” who could boast that his family had been there nearly from the beginning, when the village was established. They owned hotels, shops, pubs and other businesses, and he had more community spirit in his little finger than probably half the village had, collectively. Even now, years after he moved away, he comes back each year for the Highland Games to help set up, to parade with other former Games Chieftans, to have many drams with countless friends (or is it countless drams with many friends?), and then to help clean up the sports field before heading back to the Western Isles where he lives with his second wife, who is the reason he relocated.
Fergus knocked on my husband’s door one day and said, “What color should I paint my house?” Sem replied, baffled, “Why are you asking me?” The laconic reply was, “Well, you’re the one who’s going to be looking at it, aren’t you?” Who can fault that kind of logic? He and Sem were great friends back in the day, sharing lots of stories, laughs and bottles of whisky. His elderly mother often had Sem in for a dram as well if Fergus wasn’t home when Sem came by, and one of his brothers ran the shop where Sem bought many a “filled roll” for lunch. They were the days of tall tales and long “blethers”, rounds of drinks far into the evening, and good, solid friendship.
A long time ago Fergus may or may not have had something to do with a case of arson at one of the hunting lodges (politically motivated), though I would never publicly say one way or the other. But the evidence was against him and he ended up in the cells for a time, during which the arresting officer decided to help himself to Fergus’s wife (who apparently found him an ‘arresting’ officer as well!). As you may imagine, once Fergus was sprung free the marriage officially ended, but he fought for – and won – custody of his children. It was pretty uncommon back then for a father to have custody, and there were numerous check-ins by social workers, as often unannounced as not. Wise to their ways, Fergus would come home from a late shift at the bar he tended and hang out the washing in the wee hours. If a social worker arrived for a “nosey” round the place in the morning they would see the washing all hung up bright and early, and eventually the consensus was that Fergus must have things well in hand, as a good father with full custody should. Which he did, of course, just not all that conventionally!
My husband used to be the Registrar of Births, Deaths and Marriages in the village. As such he often conducted wedding ceremonies, and if a witness was needed Fergus would be called upon to stand in. On one occasion a couple from America came to our village to get married, and after months of planning via email, the big day arrived. Because they were coming to Scotland on their own, Sem arranged for his daughter to stand as the maid of honor, with Fergus as best man. As ever, Fergus appeared in full Highland kit and turned it into a party.
He is a giant bear of a man with thick wavy hair and a bristling beard. His size and general affability tempered with a no-nonsense attitude when required meant that he regularly helped out as a “bouncer” at the Highland Games Dance each August, on hand should someone become obstreperous. He was always ready to “drag them out by scruff of neck and arse of troosers and sling them outside,” as Sem put it, and there were few who would have taken him on – as much for who he was, in the village, as for his sheer size.
Now that Fergus is older he’s got a bit more girth, which he has battled for many years. Hill-walking was always something he enjoyed, thinking nothing of heading out for hours at a time when the mood struck, so he and the local “bobby” decided to get fit some years ago by walking across Sutherland. It’s quite a distance, with many hills and lonely landscapes to cross. In the end the bobby gave up the endeavor, but Fergus didn’t and he came back from his long walk a much thinner, fitter man. I have heard he recently had his knees replaced, so hopefully there are still more hill-walks in his future.
I’ve never been officially introduced to Fergus, though I did have my cheeky moment with him. One of my first summers here I worked at a little café which was right by the sports park where our Highland Games are held. Fergus was there as always to help set up that weekend, and he came down to the café for a quick cup of tea. My friend Polly was working in the kitchen and when she appeared he said, “You’re Polly, aren’t you? You’re on the Games Committee.” Astonished, she replied in the affirmative. “How did you know that,” she asked. He said a little smugly, “I know EVERYTHING about this village!”
I was fairly certain he had not sussed out who I was yet, so as I handed him his cup of tea I said, “And you’re Fergus, aren’t you?” He said he was, looking at me curiously. I smiled somewhat mysteriously and said, “Huh. Looks like I know a thing or two, too!”
He spluttered into his tea a bit but couldn’t bring himself to ask, and I didn’t volunteer any information. I like to think I got one over on Mister I-Know-Everything-About-This-Village… but I suspect that within a few minutes he had his answer up there at the sports park with all the other folks. Fergus did not perhaps know everything that day, but it didn’t change the fact that he knew everyone (else), and he wouldn’t have had to go farther than the first person he saw to ask, “who is that American working in the café?” to have his answer. I wonder what he thought of Sem’s new young American wife, once he found out!
Each year when Fergus comes back for the Highland Games he goes up to the top of our big green hill and checks to see if the flag – a bright blue Scottish Saltire known to all as “Fergus’s flag” – needs replacing. Sem recalled that one year Fergus led a small band of village kids up the long steep path to the flag in a solemn march. They took the old tattered flag down and raised the new one. Fergus gave a little speech, then they all sang “Flower of Scotland” and marched back down the hill again.
Three years ago when Scotland was voting whether to stay within the UK or leave it, a Union Jack mysteriously appeared on the flagpole just under the Saltire. No one knew who had put it up there, but there was a sort of collective intake of breath as we all eyed the new addition especially because Fergus (a strong Scottish Nationalist) happened to be visiting. The very next day the Union Jack was nowhere to be seen. A replacement did not appear – the point had been made!
Not much gets past Fergus. Sem likes to tell the story about one New Year’s Eve when they were all at a friend’s house for a typical “Hogmanay” gathering. People brought guitars and other instruments along, so there was a lot of good music and whisky-lubricated singing. Fergus had been sitting in a corner for a couple of hours by then, eyes closed, unmoving. “Fergus is sleepin’,” Sem said quietly to someone nearby. One eye opened and a rumbly voice said, “Fergus is no’ sleepin’.”
Even from a distance, I think Fergus has one eye on the village. He still has family close by, and many good friends. I wouldn’t be surprised if he moves back one day when his wife retires. He will find the village much changed but I can’t help thinking that if Fergus were to move back he would, by sheer force of will, bring good changes with him. He is that kind of person who cares about his community and does something about it – a rare breed in these “all about me” times!