It’s been a while since I’ve told you about some of the characters or “worthies” as they’re often called, from our former village. Some I’ve known, and some I’ve only heard stories about.
In the UK, and possibly in the Highlands especially, the drinking culture is strong. I’ve never been much of a drinker, though I have nothing against it. I’m more about the drinks that taste nice (bonus points if they can double as a yummy dessert), than about getting “leathered” to the point of not remembering whether I had a good time until I see pictures of myself on social media. But up here there seems to be a sort of admiration for people who can hold their drink, and amusement and tolerance for those who can’t. Some folks are even a little bit suspicious of those who don’t drink much or at all; it seems unfathomable to them. I certainly came up against that last mindset in my few forays into socializing in our old village!
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There was a group of people I occasionally got together with for dinner, which always included plenty of alcohol. One woman in particular, Fiona, would always try to press drinks into my hand, and would get upset if I refused. The first time it happened her gaze sharpened and she said quickly, “Do you NOT? DRINK??” in the same tone of voice as you might say, “Do you KICK PUPPIES?” I replied mildly that while I sometimes like a drink, I just didn’t want one at the moment. From that point on it became her mission (her word, not mine) to get me drunk. Because I am an adult in full control of my own decision-making, she never succeeded, but she never stopped trying. She would be thrilled if I had a drink or two, banging on the table and saying, “NOW you’re normal!” It was a very weird situation. But that’s how many of the people seem to be, here. I think our former village in particular is known for having some hard drinkers, and there are lots of stories to support that reputation.
My husband had a very dear friend who I will call Alexander, who was pretty much constantly inside a bottle. It didn’t really matter what kind; I think whatever was on sale would be his favorite of the day. Sem just said to me, “he was a strange guy, but a great character.” Alexander was a retired schoolteacher, and had, in fact, been one of Sem’s teachers in boarding school, decades earlier. Despite his near-constant state of inebriation, Alexander’s intellect was sharp and he was a force to be reckoned with. He would often recite Gaelic poetry, and was fond of singing a song called “O’er the Ord” to Sem, because that’s where Sem comes from – over “the Ord”, a geographical place between Caithness and Sutherland.
Alexander was known for his cutting remarks if a student wasn’t quick enough with a correct answer. “Yeh great useless lumpf!” was a common insult. Sem recalls one memorable day when instead of teaching an English lesson, Alexander decided to teach the students about a historic old muzzle-loader he had. First, while they watched, he made the lead bullet and the gunpowder (made…the…gunpowder…!), and loaded the gun, putting in the powder, wadding and bullet, explaining each step in the process to the boys. Then he took them all outside and shot a poor inoffensive, defenseless tree. Sem remembers that the clouds of smoke from the gunpowder were still wafting around them when the headmaster and teachers came running out of the school to see what had happened. Alexander just stood there cool as a cucumber, with his big blunderbuss over his arm. Lesson over.
Years later Sem ran into Alexander in a pub in Edinburgh. The songs and poems flowed as easily as the drink in their happy reunion. A while after that Sem moved to our former village, where Alexander and his family also lived. Well into retirement, now and then he would appear at Sem’s door, saying with great (if swaying) dignity, “I fear I find myself a bit short of funds just now; could you perhaps lend me a fiver? I will repay you on Friday.” Sem always loaned him a fiver, and Alexander always paid him back. He would walk for miles, because though he was up in years he was very fit and spry, and thought nothing of walking to the next village over if the mood struck.
While he was a well-known and much-liked village worthy, it wasn’t all that easy for his family, as you might imagine. His sister – a great and formidable teacher herself – was often embarrassed by his behavior, and more than once her husband was tasked with keeping him in line. His wife probably had it the hardest, though. One of the things Alexander would get upset about was if she used too much coal on the fire, arguing vociferously that there was plenty of wood laying around outside that could easily be collected, costing nothing. It was that thought, coupled with the drink, that became his undoing.
Late one night after a session in the pub Alexander came home and thought his wife had been lavish with the coal yet again. He took the coal out of the fire and headed back out into the darkness, collecting sticks to bring back in. He knew the land very well, and had he either been sober or had it been daylight, things probably would have been fine. Sadly, though, he fell and broke his neck, and that was the end of Alexander. My husband misses him still.
There were others, of course. One rough lad, “The Monkey” as he was known, had a well-known ploy. He’d wait for one of the bus tours that often came through the village in those days because he knew that when they went to the pub as arranged, all their drinks would be poured at the same time. After a few minutes the Monkey would burst in to the pub and start roaring, terrifying everyone in sight, acting every inch the madman. The tourists soon fled for their lives (or so they thought), and once the pub was empty of all but local folks, the Monkey would calmly wander round, drinking up all the drinks that had been left behind. He would ride his bicycle home, a couple of miles outside the village, but if it all became too much he would abandon the bike and hunker down against a wall, or in the little shed that served as a waiting room at the train station, and have a wee snooze. What I find most impressive is that his home was accessed via a rope bridge over a stream, by which I mean two ropes, one over the other. He’d have to hold on to one rope while walking along the other to get to his house, in all weathers, often in the dark. Somehow, he never fell off and drowned.
He wasn’t as genial as Alexander, though. As his tourist-terrorism shows, he could be a very scary man indeed. He was hard and tough and mean, and people knew not to mess with him, though in later years he was well-liked enough. The locals knew how to deal with him, though, even in his wilder days. He once went into one of the shops and demanded that the proprietor give him a bottle of whisky “on tick” (on credit). But the shop-owner knew full well that he would never pay for it, so he refused. The Monkey took an angry swing at him, but instead of connecting he missed, and got his own lights punched out. There he lay, flat out on the shop floor, which didn’t look very good for business, so the shop-owner and another friend dragged him out to the street and propped him up against a neighboring wall. When next they checked, the Monkey had quietly disappeared. He did not try to demand whisky on tick there again! “It’s easy to laugh about it now,” Sem says, “but the Monkey was a dangerous, violent man in his younger years. Latterly, though, he was a real raconteur, telling his stories in his droll way. Many a time I’d spot him down in the village and stop for a blether, and before I knew it an hour had passed, filled with tales and laughter.”
There are other village worthies I’ll tell you about another day, but I’ll close with a personal favorite. I never knew Alexander, and I only knew the Monkey in his last few years, and not very well at that. But I do know – and am rather fond of – Maggie, one of our former neighbors. In her seventies now, she likes her drink quite a lot but she is also very community-minded, collecting for charity and serving on various committees. She can be troublesome, though, much to her family’s chagrin.
Maggie once wrote (and sent) a letter to the editor of the local paper while under the influence. It was a letter which would have caused her family, and the village, great embarrassment. At the time, Sem was writing for the same newspaper and was well-known to the editor, so Maggie’s family came to him and asked urgently if he could put a stop to it somehow. Sem put the case to the editor, convincing him that he and his paper would gain nothing by publishing it, though perhaps in the short term it might have caused a bit of a stir. But Sem prevailed, and the letter was quashed.
Still, Maggie is very kind-hearted, if a bit misguided. Not long after one of the women in the village was widowed she went to visit her, as she had been widowed years before, too. Wanting to impart comfort and advice she said, “Life doesn’t end for you, though, it really doesn’t. You can still take care of… certain things. There’s a lovely shepherd up the hill who visits me every Wednesday, you know,” she said with a wink. “It works out very well for both of us!”
My favorite Maggie-anecdote happened just a few years ago, and it is along a similar vein. She took a fancy to one of her neighbors, an avid drinker himself who could often be found having a pint or two down at the pub, with his faithful dog by his side. One night after coming home, he and the dog had just begun to doze off by the fireplace when he awoke with a sudden start. Standing there before him, completely naked, was Maggie. “Oh you know you want it,” she said saucily. He scarpered, leaving the dog in his haste, running down the road and diving into the pub seeking refuge and a much-needed dram. “You willnae believe this,” he said shakily, and told all, much to the amusement of those present. When he got back home and peeked nervously around the door, Maggie was gone. The dog, I imagine, was not very impressed at having been abandoned so abruptly!
Maggie had the last laugh, though. Within a week they were an item, and remained a couple for some years until he died. I guess he really did “want it,” even if at first he didn’t know it!