Highland Life

Living in the Highlands, just as living in any environment, requires a certain amount of adaptation to local conditions, traditions and surroundings. Those who are born here learn the way of things as children and grow naturally alongside the landscape, the weather, the culture - though it's said by many Highlanders that you have to go away and come back before you really appreciate it!

Those who are not born here have a different task. Often there are mistaken pre-conceptions, sometimes different is too difficult, many are enchanted and only love it all the more. The truth is that Highland life is essentially the same as all life - everyone's experience is different.

One Day in the Life (by Jenny MacKenzie)

The alarm clock mingles with the Abbey bells across the water, heralding the start of another day and once again I thank God for the beauty and peace of our Highland life.

While I prepare the family breakfast of orange juice, porridge and home-baked bread, one boy fills log baskets, another feeds his hens, the girl daydreams at her harp, ducks clamour impatiently at the door and ponies wait expectantly at the gate. We chase three roe deer from the vegetable garden and quickly repair the gap they have made in the fence.

By eight o’clock, all have breakfasted and the school panic is at its height – unfinished homework, unlearned music, a missing tie all being matters of epic tragedy. Then the outboard engine shatters the calm silence of the morning loch and I wave from the pier as the children set off for school at the great Benedictine Abbey, which watches serenely over Loch Ness. The journey to the school pier takes only seven minutes by boat, but in winter storms and darkness, it is a half hour walk, often through deep snow.

I now spend an hour tidying bedrooms, cleaning the kitchen, loading the washing machine and preparing an evening meal – unfreezing bread and pastry which I made during bad weather, fruit and vegetables which I froze last summer. We must empty the freezer before picking this year’s crop.

By nine-thirty, I am ready for the only part of my day, which I dislike – the deskwork; every day I must force myself to sit down and pay bills, write letters, fill in forms, do accounts… and not stop until Donald the post arrives about eleven o’clock. How fortunate we are to have a daily postal delivery to this remote cottage nearly a mile along a rough lochside track. Once the mail is dealt with, I am free to go to the village, make hay, cut bracken, inspect the beehives, axe logs and do the thousand other jobs, which I enjoy; only the deskwork is a chore.

Today the mobile library and fish van are in the village, so I bridle the Highland mare, Brochan, and trot down with my shopping bag and Sula the dog. We seldom use the car now since petrol prices have soared, but rely almost entirely on ponies or boat for transport. In winter snows I walk, pulling a sledge to carry the shopping. I enjoy this, but it is hard for old or disabled people. While I choose books, buy fish and collect the milk, Brochan and Sula wait together, graciously accepting treats from a group of tourists. We canter home, as it is smoother for the shopping than trotting, besides we are all hungry now!

For lunch I have cheese, apple and coffee outside as usual, then remember some leftover rhubarb crumble so decide to start dieting tomorrow – or maybe the next day. I should darn some socks now, but it’s very hot so I sit watching a pair of cormorant skim the water, an osprey hover and plunge, canoes glide swiftly along the far shore, a windsurfer balance, fragile as a dragonfly… and am roused at one-thirty by the familiar sound of our ‘Eala Bhan’ speeding into the little harbour. The teenagers have decided to spend their afternoon sports session at home fishing, training a young pony and practicing for a music exam. I help with the music and the pony, commiserate with the luckless fisherman then make huge double-decker sandwiches and milkshakes with last summer’s wild raspberries.

When the children roar off again to afternoon classes it is time for me to feed the animals and bring in the washing, soft and sweet scented. I notice that the bees are working clover today so the supers must go on soon – perhaps I should do that instead of deskwork tomorrow morning?

At four-thirty a young pupil arrives for a clarsach lesson, so we spend an hour practising her competition pieces for the national Mod. She works well today so I let her collect the eggs and keep the brownest one for herself; I wonder if one ever loses the pleasure in finding new-laid eggs?

The Abbey bell tolling six o’clock vespers reminds me that there is still much to do so I open the log-burning stove to blaze up the oven temperature for fish, new potatoes, spinach and a gooseberry pie – all home-grown except the fish. How Jake would have enjoyed that! My pride is quickly deflated though when ‘Eala Bhan’ returns with the children, whose gastronomic preference is for hamburgers and chips.

At seven-thirty, it is my turn to use the boat for the short run to the village, where I teach Gaelic at an evening class. We spend two enthusiastic hours working on grammar, reading, literature and conversation, ending with some popular ceilidh songs.

As I drift slowly homewards, the mountains, gold-tipped in the evening sunshine, lie reflected in the still water. Seven swans glide gracefully past and cuckoos call lazily from the oakwoods. In the calm beauty of our summer evenings it is hard to remember the darkness and blizzards of mid-winter, though perhaps one could not truly appreciate the summer without first experiencing the winter.

Home at ten-thirty, I check that schoolwork has been done and poultry shut up against night-prowling fox and pine marten. I take a quick peep under a broody hen to see if the goose eggs are hatching and listen for a while to the ponies munching sweet grass under the alder trees.

Now we all sit outside for half an hour, discussing today and planning tomorrow, for this is our family time when the day’s successes and failures can be shared. On a summer evening, the precious half hour often stretches until midnight as we watch the gradual meeting of dusk and dawn.

My day was not important, dramatic or glamorous – but I would not have changed a minute of it.