Mackenzie of Stromness: A Hard Man

Extracts from the diary of  Wallie Stott

November 1832

Day after day we stuck. Plenty to do but keeping warm was the most important thing. Not that there was any warm to keep. We were always cold.  ” Stop yir moanin ” growled Mackenzie, the man from Stromness.  But it was true. We stomped around the deck to stop our feet from freezing, with hands hugged tight under our armpits to keep the circulation going, looking across a sea of ice all round that in the absence of sun looked dull and off-white like the bed sheets in the Stradavanger bunkhouse where we’d stayed  for long enough, waiting till the ship was ready for us.

April 1833

Day after day. Ice everywhere. Breathing in air that the moment you took it in hurt you,  searing your lungs, breathing out little steamy clouds that were instantly sucked into nothingness  by the  cold.  “Weel dinnae listen, ” Mackenzie said when we complained that his coughing was keeping us awake.

July 1833

Day after day.

The last of the dogs has  gone but thanks to the Almighty’s benevolence, Mackenzie came back to the ship hauling  a ringed seal behind him. ” Yir average polar bear kin scoff a hunner puns o seal fat at ae sittin, ”  he informed us.  His seal kept us going all  month.

January 1835

When we got back to Stromness they put me and the other four into Mrs. Humphrey’s house.  “Noo dinnae gang an dee afore A dae, ” Mackenzie whispered to us  though it was hard to make out what he was saying and just saying it brought on another of his coughing fits




Sometimes she felt she was just

too much trouble, felt sorry for

the hours that they had to spend

each morning just grooming

her, getting her ready to face

what they called  ‘her public’,

wished they would just let her

be, scuttle about doing the

hundred and one little things

they had to do with their own

little lives but just. let. her. be.


For years nothing much had happened in our lives but  we were quite content  with our little lot. Then we found this strange plant in the garden with red berries and vivid green heart-shaped leaves. Let’s dry the leaves, Dorothy said.

In a week the leaves were so brittle that they turned to powder at a touch. Let’s put them in a pipe, Dorothy said.

I went out to the tobacconist and bought a meerschaum which the tobacconist said would ensure a cool smoke. You first, Dorothy said.

No after you, I said. Age before beauty.

Dorothy took a puff then passed the pipe to me. I took a puff. Nothing much happened.

The effect wont be immediate, Dorothy said. It takes time for it to get round all your whatdyamacallits and  reach the brain.

Then after a while she asked, Can you feel anything yet?

I began to panic. How do we know what effect it – whatever it is – will have on our brains?

That’s the beauty of it, Dorothy said with a smirk. We don’t.

Tomorrow we’re going to do something with the berries once we get back the use of our limbs.




No-one has lived here since the terrible thing that happened in the forties. The war had just started  and the woman who lived here with her writer husband came from Hamburg (she pronounced it ‘haybag’ which made people laugh) .

Anyhow one day the postie noticed that the parcel he’d left for her outside the door the day before was still there and he pushed open the door  (nobody locked their doors in those days, still don’t, most of them) and went in and called out her name ( she and he were on first name terms ).

No reply.

Perhaps they had gone over to the mainland, he thought, to visit the writer’s parents in Fraserburgh more than was likely (the father had his own trawler, so folk said) and he was just about to leave was the postie when he heard a strange noise from upstairs, not a cry, not a groan but something in between, the sound you yourself might make with a bag or a pillow-case or a letter-sack pulled over your head and not having your hands free to pull it off.

So he went upstairs to that room high up on the  left (you can just see the window)  and


The Scottish piper whose music either scrapes your nerves or stirs your blood.

The Ubiquitous sheep –
the monarch of  a Perthshire glen
waiting for a Landseer to pass by.

A cu (to give it its Scottish name) grazing.

and kye ( the plural of ‘cu’)  not grazing.

A hare in hiding on St Ninian’s Isle in Shetland where Douglas Coutts, a Lerwick school boy, discovered a larch box containing 28 Celtic brooches and a dolphin’s jawbone.

Two horses in Aberdeenshire which reminded me of Edwin Muir’s eponymous poem about horses helping to recreate a post-apocolyptic  world.

And on the domestic front, a neighbour’s cat I became very fond of – it got run over alas alas

Woof! Woof!

and a Blairgowrie dog that was supposed to be a guard dog but was really a welcome dog.

Finally  a  salmon I caught in Loch Fyne (thereby hangs a tale)  and cooked in Glasgow for Hank and Sonia.

Painting and Photography

This is a photograph I took early morning while waiting for my coffee…

Sort of like Manet’s painting of the bar at the Folies-Bergère only without the barmaid. And without the mirror. And without the customers. And without the ambiguities. And…..
It’s a photograph. It’s nothing like Manet’s painting.

What if I play about with the photo, zoom into the barman making my cappuccino?

Okay. Makes me notice the barman at least.

What if I take another photograph when more customers have arrived, get some figures into the barscape…?

Better?  Better……mirror reflection on the glass table….solitary refelective woman in the foreground…..busy baristo in the background….interesting woman entering left behind the flowers…

What if I focus on the woman in the foreground?

Interesting. Like the question that floats up when you see the barmaid in Manet’s painting, what’s she thinking about? She contrasts with the busy barman. And the flower and the vase in the foreground are attention-catching..

Or the woman behind the flowers on the left – what if I play around with her…?

Interesting. Certainly plenty of ideas for a few paintings there….

if only I could paint.

One Day My Prints Will Come (2)

I’d like to pick your brains AGAIN -this is the beginning of a short story –  and the last line….

it’s about loss and change – any suggestions as to what might happen in between?

385330 dog catching ball Dicas para exercitar o seu cão

I am in the garden listening with Kate to someone  singing  on the little radio my mother bought for me last summer from a door-to-door salesman driving a white Morris Traveller. She also bought 4 grapefruit spoons from him which we never use because we’re not really grapefruit people. Too bitter. Too fussy. But mother likes rituals. “If a thing’s worth doing, it’s worth doing well,” she has told me more times than I care to remember.
“Would you like me to take your picture?” the salesman asked when she brought out lemonade for us all on the big silver tray with ice cubes clinking against the sides of the crystal glasses in time with her steps. He had unclipped the camera dangling from a strap round his neck even before he asked,  big, black and expensive-looking. “I’ll bring you the prints next time I call, ” he promised.   “No charge. Free, gratis and for nothing.  Now where shall I put you? Over there, I think.”  It was like he was some big Hollywood film producer and we were his actors. “Yes, over there. By that tree, ” and he took  picture after picture of us sitting on the lawn under the apple tree, with Kate jumping  for a ball which he kept throwing up into the air for her to catch and which she kept bringing back to him, dropping at his feet then looking up at him, watching , anticipating  his every movement, poised to go, tense with excitement. “Perfect…Just one  
more…” he kept saying.  ” Last one…wait for it…watch the ball…… watch the ball.. now….that’s it…..perfect.” He had to move quickly after he had thrown the ball to press the shutter button at exactly the right moment to get us all in the picture, especially Kate,  and in exactly the right position.
I think he was a pretty good photographer.
He must have taken at least a dozen pictures before he was satisfied then he drove himself out of our lives.
That was about a year ago.
Since then a lot has changed I think as I switch off the radio. Since then my mother has re-married, my best friend has moved to some place abroad – Kenya or Nigeria – one of these African places, and I have stopped eating. Oh and a 4th thing – the apple tree has gone – some sort of tree disease that couldn’t be cured.
I keep hoping the salesman will pitch up in his Morris Traveller with the  photo of  that day when we still had the apple tree and were all smiling and drinking lemonade.
I’m not banking on it though.

Of course I haven’t stopped eating altogether and I know all about anorexia and bulimia and all that eating-disorder stuff, who doesn’t? Pick up any magazine and there’s an article either on ‘How to tackle obesity’ or ‘What makes your daughter want to look like a stick insect’. It sometimes seems that half the world can’t stop eating and the other half can’t start.
I have to go once a week to talk to Mrs. Hunter who used to be a Modern Studies teacher but couldn’t take it any more and moved into Guidance. She’s about mother’s age, always bronzed as if she’s just come back from 2 weeks in Benidorm. Very intense. She gets more upset than I do when I talk to her. Because I’ve read so much about it I probably know more about what causes stuff like anorexia than she does. I make things up. ” I just hate the way I look, ” I tell her. ” I’d like to look like you. Do you work at it or is that just the way you naturally are? ” She ends up telling me all about herself  while I listen with a sympathetic nod now and again to encourage her when she slows down which I don’t think is how it’s supposed to work out.
Of course I do eat but not when anyone’s watching. I’m sort of  a secret eater.  I don’t have much of an appetite any more but I’m not daft – I know that if I don’t eat I’ll die.
But then we all will.
I fiddle with my radio but there’s nothing I want to listen to so I shout to my mother that I’m taking Kate for a walk and she comes out of the kitchen drying her hands on her apron and hands me Kate’s lead. We saw a depressing film on television around Christmas time about a farmer whose young dog slipped out of  its chain and chased a whole flock of sheep over a cliff. Killed the lot of them. The dog got shot but it was really the farmer’s fault – he hadn’t trained the dog properly, hadn’t made sure it was securely chained,  and ever since,  mother has seen Kate as a potential sheep-killer and warns me not to go near Collithie farm or if I do to keep Kate on her lead.
We don’t go near Collithie. Instead we go in completely the opposite direction,  across the river and the railway line and up the hill to what’s left of some old castle, just an archway really which you can see from miles around on either side. We’re in sheep country again so I put Kate on her lead. Something to do with the chemical composition of the soil gives the saliva of the sheep which graze on this hill a sort of  yellow colour so that they seem to have gold teeth. It’s a funny place. I like it.
I can see someone standing in the archway and as I get closer I hear someone talking. I’m glad I’ve got Kate with me. I let her off the lead but when I get to the archway there’s  no-one there. There’s a cigarette stub on a flagstone and the usual bits of plastic litter  but that could be from weeks ago. Kate sniffs around, pees against one of the stones, sits down and looks up at me, awaiting instructions.

                                                *    *

                                                 * * *

Kate and I sit in the warm sun long after he has gone.
A plane crosses the cloudless sky, high up, heading for Spain. Or Africa.
“Well, Kate, ” I say. “I’m feeling hungry. Let’s go.”