My husband and I were grocery shopping the other day. As we rounded the end of the produce aisle a tall, dapper gentleman in a lovely tweed jacket smiled at us in such a friendly way that we of course smiled back and said hello. He looked like he was about to ask if he knew us; there was that sort of recognition in his open and cheerful expression. Instead he made a comment about the store not being very busy. When my husband replied, his Caithness dialect evident even in just a few words, the man’s smile broadened. We made a little small talk and I thought they might begin dismantling their histories in that “if I don’t know you personally then I’m sure I know your people,” way that so often happens in the Highlands. Unfortunately just then a woman walked by and interrupted to say brightly, “Hullo, Eric, how’s yersel’?” He turned to answer her and she settled in for a chat, so we had no choice but to somewhat awkwardly move on, having been left hanging. The brief encounter was remarkable enough that Sem said wistfully as we walked away, “Maybe we’ll see him again in here sometime.” It was that sort of lovely, inexplicable connection which so seldom happens, like recognizing an old friend despite never having met them before. Blast you for interrupting so thoroughly, lady!
As we went on with our shopping I said to Sem, “He looked like he should be a member of The Bunnet Club, even though he had no bunnet.” Sem agreed and said the tweed jacket was a dead giveaway.
So what is a ‘bunnet’? An alternative spelling of ‘bonnet’ but not the kind of frilly headgear I think of when I see the word. No, a bunnet is a flat cap, the type lots of farmers and other country gents wear up here. Men all around the UK wear them I suppose but I didn’t notice them much in our former village; here, though, they are everywhere. Most of the bunnets I see are in subtly patterned tweed, and the rest of the ensemble is either a tweed jacket or a canvas work jacket, and jeans or work trousers. Occasionally if I’m at the vet’s picking up insulin for our cat I’ll see a crofter come in and go to the ‘farm animals’ side of the counter, invariably wearing work coveralls, wellies, and a flat cap. More often, though, it’s men who are of retirement age who seem to gravitate toward this particular look. Sem has joked that he doesn’t care if it’s out of fashion; he just likes the bunnet-and-tweed-jacket ensemble. I happen to think it’s neither in nor out of fashion; it simply endures, and if it works for a guy, it totally works.
When I first moved to the Highlands Sem was partial to wearing a Greek fisherman’s cap that he’d picked up in Greece (though not directly off a Greek fisherman’s head), and it looked very nice on him. In winter he paired it with a jacket resembling a navy pea coat, and he cut a fine, somewhat nautical figure. At some point in the last few years, though, Sem has had a change of heart – and a change of outerwear. Perhaps it was our move back to the farming county of his childhood that made him gravitate towards this style of an almost bygone era, I don’t know, but it suits him right down to the ground. Sem now has a couple of tweed bunnets to choose from, and when he wears them with one of his tweed jackets and a warm, colorful scarf he is every inch the ‘crofter mannie’. Or a retired lecturer. Could go either way, as both are part of his personal history.
When we moved here we noticed as we walked around “the toon” that when another man wearing a flat cap happened to walk past, he would invariably give Sem a nod or a slight head-twist (or both), and even sometimes a wink. Sem would return the wordless greeting in a similar manner. It was uncanny and charming and it amused me greatly, especially because it happened so often. After yet another such gentleman nodded in Sem’s direction (who Sem confirmed to me he did not know), I joked, “What, are you all in some secret club or something?” Without missing a beat Sem said, “Of course. The Bunnet Club.” So it has been, ever since.
Years and years ago my car was totaled in a pretty bad crash, and for a short time my sister kindly loaned me her Jeep CJ-7. I noticed that as I drove around, other Jeep CJ-7 drivers would lift a finger (no, not that one), or give a casual wave out the window, or even just nod briefly at me as we passed. Mystified, I asked my sister if she knew a whole lot of other Jeep drivers and she said, “No, we just do that.” Well I thought that was the coolest thing ever. I soon adopted the CJ-7 greeting and felt like I was part of a secret society of awesome Jeep people. When I eventually got a new car and had to relinquish the CJ-7 I was sad, and missed waving to fellow ‘club members.’ I’ve seen riders of certain motorbikes do the same thing, too. The flick of a finger or or a knowing nod instantly establishes you as part of the club, whichever one it may be. So it is with The Bunnet Club.
The best part about The Bunnet Club is that a man doesn’t have to be wearing his flat cap to be recognized as a member. There’s just a certain look about him that makes it evident to the other members that he’s one of them. Perhaps it’s in the measured pace of someone who has walked a lot of country miles, or a certain wry seen-it-all glint in the eye. Whatever it is, Sem knows it when he sees it, and he’s got it himself.
I’m fairly sure that anyone in this particular club can have an enjoyable half-hour conversation with any other member, even if they have never met before. The weather, mutual acquaintances (always quickly ascertained), droll humor and current events all flow easily between them, given a chance. And if there’s no time for a comfortable blether, then there’s always a nod or that quick, sideways twist of the head to acknowledge a fellow Bunnet Club member. They just know!
I’m not part of a secret club, more’s the pity. But I am fortunate enough to be part of something else rather special, and that’s being here at aNewsCafe… and that clumsy segue brings me off-topic to this next bit. A few months ago I realized that I was fast approaching my 50th piece for ANC. Can you believe it?! I said something about it to Matt Grigsby at the time and he replied, “Holy cow, that’s amazing! What are you going to do for your 50th?” I hadn’t really thought of doing anything special, but maybe reaching The Big ANC Five-Oh is worth doing something a little different. What, though?
Next month I’ll write that fiftieth column, and I’m still stuck. So I thought I would open it up to you, the lovely ANC readers. It does kind of feel like the easy way out but it occurred to me that there might be something you were interested in knowing, either about this part of Scotland where I live, or something about our life here, which I haven’t touched upon. Is there someone I’ve written about who you’d like to get to know better? Have I mentioned a story you’d like to know more about? Now’s the chance to ask! If there are any “takers” then I can incorporate the answers to your questions into my next column. Ask in the comments below, and I’ll do my best to accommodate. I think it could be fun for all of us to have an “open question” column – if there’s any interest, that is!
In the meantime, for those of you who live locally, maybe you can cultivate a special ANC signal when you pass each other on the street, or see each other in a shop or at an event. I know that Hal Johnson and RV Scheide had a ‘chance encounter’ last month, and I’m sure other folks have recognized contributors and fellow readers while out and about, too. This ANC community is pretty exceptional… a knowing, appreciative nod might just be the thing!