Growing up, two places dominated my experience of childhood. Caithness, because it was where we lived, and Mallaig, because it was where we took all our holidays. The latter also had a special attraction: it was where Nana and Iain lived (Nana being my paternal Grandmother and Iain my uncle, who lived with Nana due to the poor health that afflicted him most of his adult life). We visited Mallaig – a small fishing port on the west coast of the Highlands – several times a year, making the five-hour journey from north-east to west along the ‘Road to the Isles’ – at the time a snaking, winding road that inevitably had myself and my siblings vomiting before we reached Morar. The road, though still in use, was later superseded by an ‘improved’ section, bypassing small villages on the final stretch towards Mallaig, yet missing much of the coastal beauty that made it so unique. As an eight-year-old, though, I probably would have welcomed such a diversion, had it helped the relentless travel sickness that plagued me on even the shortest journey around the local area. Thankfully, all thoughts of sickness were soon forgotten as we swung into Mallaig and rounded the harbour towards Nana’s flat in my Dad’s Ford Cortina – we were on holiday.
And looking back, those were the best holidays we ever could have had.
Nana and Iain lived on the top floor of a block of flats that looked out over the harbour and towards the islands. East Bay, as it was called, was a large, white, chimney-topped building made up of six separate accommodations – imagine a small child’s drawing of a house with more windows than you’d expect. Identical versions were dotted along the seafront, housing several of Nana’s friends and relations; on the lower floor of East Bay alone, Nana had a cousin, and her closest female friend lived just across the hallway. Whenever we arrived into the parking bays opposite East Bay, Nana and Iain would be waiting for us, either hanging out of their top floor window, or standing on the pavement ready to usher us inside. The offer of food was always first on the agenda, no matter how pale or sickly our complexions after the long journey from Caithness. One of my lasting memories of Nana is that no matter the circumstances, she was always trying to get us all to eat.
Nana was a formidable woman, in a gentle sort of way, and was most definitely the matriarch of the family. She had lost her husband, my Grandfather, when she was only 44, and had been left to raise four children alone (a fact that strikes me as poignant, given that I will reach the age at which she became a widow in a few month’s time myself). During her life, Nana faced many hardships common to her generation, including falling ill with diphtheria as a child and subsequently missing almost a whole year of her schooling. She also suffered a broken ankle in her youth, which never healed properly and necessitated the wearing of a cast daily for walking. Despite these various setbacks, my Nana was anything but frail.
Nana was a devout Catholic, and met my Grandfather, Robert, when he was foreman joiner at St Patrick’s church in Mallaig (where he was involved in the building of the roof, and the wooden dome above the altar). Later they would move to Fort William, and then Edinburgh, before Robert’s early death brought the family back to Mallaig, where they lived in a tiny cottage on the outskirts of the village – a cottage my Grandfather had built. When Nana and Iain moved to East Bay in later years, ‘the cottage,’ as it was always known, would become the holiday home for family visitors. It was idyllic – set right on the shore and sheltered from the road by a steep, winding stretch of track; a haven of rock pools and tranquillity, where tiny frogs would jump across the sitting room, and wandering cows would poke curious faces up against windows as we woke.
We could not, of course, as children, have realised how lucky we were to have this as our playground – how could we, without the benefit of life, age and experience? It would be years before I would appreciate the magical times those summers at the cottage had afforded us, how fortunate we had been to have this quiet corner of the coastline as our own. In years to come, the new road would pass through the land that rose above the cottage, and ownership of the place itself would shift to others, two facts that still provoke sadness when I think of our many happy times there. On trips to Mallaig now I still visit to observe it from a distance, thinking about what is given up and gained through progress; wondering about the sense of loss that accompanies the movement of time when we shift our focus from the present to the past.
We still had East Bay, though, where Nana would give up her bedroom to accommodate myself, my parents and my siblings. The flat had plenty to entertain us, and we loved sitting at the table by the window, where we could point out boats in the harbour or watch the ferry come and go. In the evenings we would play Monopoly or spend time with Iain, who was the best kind of uncle because he never treated us like children. Unlike some adults, Iain seemed to love being around us, teaching us to play Pontoon or letting us listen to him chat on his CB radio, without ever asking when we had to go to bed. With no children of his own, Iain took a great deal of interest in his nieces and nephews, and in turn, I think, we all offered a certain kind of care to him. He was incredibly intelligent, with an innate ability to recall trivia and minutiae (so much so, that when he and Nana moved to Inverness in their later years, he was asked by the local radio station to stop entering their quizzes, in order to give the other poor listeners a chance).
One of my favourite pastimes during those days in Mallaig was to venture out on the circular walk that rose up at the rear of Nana’s flat (where I could be kept under the watchful gaze of the adults from a window in the kitchen). Every evening after dinner, I would stride up to a bench there, waving down at my family, who were doing the dishes behind the glass. I would feel so adventurous, so independent – even though the whole trip only took around ten minutes to complete. On a recent visit to Mallaig, I walked up to the same point, and was surprised to find how much the trees had grown – I could no longer see my way through to Nana’s window. As a child, I never imagined that the passage of time would eventually obliterate the view to that window. Or that I could look into that window, and find Nana and Iain no longer there, waiting and watching behind the glass.
Back then, though, Nana and Iain were there, and continued to play a huge part in our upbringing. One of the facets of that was religion, and we spent a lot of our time in Mallaig going to masses at St Patrick’s, the local Catholic church. Most inhabitants of the village were religious, and the rituals of church-going were heavily woven into the fabric of the community. There was a day for confession, a day for morning mass, feast days and holy days, all punctuating the routines of living – not eating an hour before communion, planning our outings around mass. It was comforting in a way – back in Caithness being Roman Catholic was something of an oddity. Still, I’m sure I occasionally got tired of it – not that I would ever have told Nana that, of course. Even now, years after her death, I still harbour some guilt in no longer practising the religion that was such a feature of my upbringing. One of my abiding memories is standing beside Nana in the pews of St Patrick’s, listening to her singing How Great Thou Art. When I visit St Patrick’s now, I still hear that voice beside me. How Great Thou Art was sung at Nana’s funeral and still remains my favourite hymn.
One upside of all the church visits I had in Mallaig as a child were the many opportunities for outings to cafes with Nana. Say what you will about religion: it gave my Nana a great social life, and I often joined her and her friends after morning masses, enthralled by their conversations over coffee as I nibbled on biscuits or supped away at juice. On the short walk back to East Bay we’d pick our way around the sheep that roamed the village freely (this of course meant we also had to pick our way around the resulting sheep poo). We’d often bump into more of Nana’s friends or relations on their way to purchase groceries. They would greet each other, chat a little, and sometimes slip into Gaelic when discussing something they’d prefer I didn’t hear.
Everyone in the village at that time seemed to be named by function – there was Katie the Shoemaker, Duncan the Diver, Ina the Anchorage, and a lady my brother appointed Nan Casino. Names for their own sake lacked vital information – in Mallaig, everyone was characterised by a role. The village was built on bonds of friendship, faith and family – a place where community was everything. I never witnessed anything but kindness in Mallaig in all the time I spent there, a kindness that threaded through generations and was mirrored by the slow pace of village life. It was epitomised for me in an experience involving my Father, who once spent all afternoon painstakingly untangling a sheep that had become caught up in the rocks outside Nana’s window. Such experiences had a profound impact on me as a youngster, and I was observer to many such acts of kindness – all offered without any expectation of accolade or reward.
One of the highlights of our holidays to Mallaig each year were the Morar Highland Games, the pinnacle of the local social calendar. I remember once competing in the Highland Dancing, and being awarded third place aside two world champions (which would have been much more impressive had it not been just the three of us competing at the time). On another occasion, my siblings and I collected signed photos from members of the cast of the television soap opera Take the High Road – veritable celebrities in 1980’s Scotland. On the road back to Mallaig we could stop off at the Silver Sands of Morar or the village of Arisaig and still be back in time for dinner. Nana would be waiting, with the promise of Cracker Barrel cheese and biscuits, or a rendition of Jack and the Beanstalk before we went to bed.
Sometimes, we would venture off for a day trip on the ferry, leaving Nana to watch us depart the harbour, waving a dishcloth in farewell out of the flat window. I recall one such trip to the island of Barra, and a bout of seasickness that left me lying prostate on the floor of the ferry beside my Mother while a passenger nearby munched on tomato-flavoured crisps. On the way home, Nana was at the window again, employing her uncanny ability to sense the proximity of family in a time well before mobile phones and the advent of looking up timetables on the Internet. Yet there she was with her dishcloth, waving out at us, our own lighthouse, suddenly making the sea feel steady beneath our feet.
Nana and Iain died in 2008, within a few short months of each other. I spoke at their funerals, back in St Patrick’s, under the domed ceiling my Grandfather had helped to build. Aside from my parents, Nana and Iain had the biggest influence on my childhood, my adulthood, on everything I am in life. Mallaig, too, continues to be a constant presence in my life. Last year, I took my children there, making my usual pilgrimage to East Bay, and to the cottage. The village felt different, swollen with the heat of summer and the tourists from the ‘Harry Potter train.’ Yet for me, memories were around every corner, carried in every step I took.
People illuminate place, and places are the stories of our hearts.
When I think about Mallaig, I think about Nana and Iain, about my life, and the stories my heart tells.
And I remember something I read once.
We must not forget the past – it tells us who we are.
In memory of Margaret and Iain Innes. Forever loved.
Lovely memories. Thanks for sharing 🤗
We only discovered Mallaig last year for the first time, despite travelling to the Isle of Skye annually for many years. As we were coming from the South we always flew into Inverness and drove across Scotland and over the Skye bridge. We never came by ferry from Mallaig. We visited for the first time off-season last year, and browsed the shops and the bakery that I’d read such good reviews of without a feeling of being bombarded by tourists.
I was stunned by the beauty of the local beaches with their wilderness and bone-white sands. What a place to holiday every year as a child! Lovely memories of people and place.
Thankyou! It’s such a special place, isn’t it? And yes, the beaches nearby are beautiful. We used to visit Skye via the ferry for day trips, in fact a few years ago I met a tourist at the Mallaig ferry terminal looking for the bridge! I’m sure you will enjoy life in Skye, it’s lovely there. I have never actually tried the new bakery in Mallaig, but I’ve heard it’s very good! x
What a lovely sharing. .x
Thankyou Meg. x
What lovely memories you shared, Gail. Thank you!
I’m glad you enjoyed them Kim! Thanks for reading again. x
Oh wow! I was drawn to your blog by mention of Mallaig as my grandparents lived there too (actually coming there from Wick in the late 1920s) but imagine my surprise to see their flat! They too lived in East Bay in the middle flat on the right. My mum and aunt were born there in the 1934 and 1940 and we spent a lot of our childhood in the 1970s and 80s sitting at the window as you describe and watching the boats, and also playing on the beach. You have blown my mind this morning. My mum knew your grandparents well and as she lives near me I can’t wait to show her this!! It is indeed a small world. I would love to talk more to you but will message you on Instagram. X
I’m so glad you told me all this Jillian, and it was lovely to chat to you about it on Instagram. What a wonderful coincidence. I have such great memories of our times at East Bay. x
Thank you so much for sharing these wonderful memories. I am Mallaig born-and-bred (and a friend of your Dad); the accuracy of your descriptions of the way things were certainly moved me quite deeply. Made me miss the old place. Good stuff!
Hello, James, and thanks for your lovely comment. My Dad said you had enjoyed the article – I’m really glad you got in touch. Mallaig is a very special place, I miss it too – especially the period I write of. I still visit whenever we’re in the area – always feel sad when it’s time to say goodbye!
This was such an entertaining and thought provoking piece of writing . Thank you , and well done .
Your dad and my husband are distantly related. We enjoy visits from your parents when they’re in the area .
Hi Fiona, lovely to hear from you. I’m glad you enjoyed the article – there’s nowhere quite like Mallaig to me. I’m sure Mum and Dad will be visiting again when travel is possible. Hope you and your family are doing well, and the summer weather in Mallaig is being kind 🙂 .
Thank you so much for sharing these wonderful memories. I have never been to Mallaig, but I know I want to now. Your descriptions make me feel like I am actually there. Lots of love xx
Aww thankyou so much Susan. I hope you get to visit one day. Going there makes me feel close to Nana and Iain again. It’s a special place, filled with memories of a very special time. X
A lovely read to start my morning 🙂 x
Thanks Lisa, I’m glad you enjoyed. X
What a lovely tribute to your Nana and Ian, and so evocative of those simpler times. It just shows that the expensive, far flung destinations aren’t necessarily what make an impact on children’s lives. I think wryly of the time we did a house exchange holiday with a family from LA. Our children were 8 and 5. The then 8 year old now only really remembers being grumpy on a day out in Pasadena because I wouldn’t buy him a Pokemon “shiny” card because he’d misbehaved, and the then 5 year old remembers playing with the children next door. Could have done both of those at home!
Your Nana’s trajectory in life was strikingly like my maternal grandmother’s. Widowed when my father, the last of 4 sons, was a year old, raised in what would be called “landed gentry” and so totally unfitted for any paid work. Her husband left no financial provision for the family, just a house and garden that were too large to keep up without several servants which of course she couldn’t afford. She had severe osteoarthritis in both hips, could only walk leaning on sticks, and was in constant pain. What the women of that generation had to endure was awful. All the more wonderful that your Nana was such a positive part of your childhood, and I’m sure you pass her values on to your own children.
Thankyou, Linda, I always love reading your comments. You’re right, kids remember the simple things – or at least that was also my experience of growing up. Women then did have things tough, didn’t they? I enjoyed reading about your Grandmother. Nana did have a huge impact on me, and all her grandchildren. The values she and Iain instilled on us are still with me to this day. xx