Bringing People Together
In September 2013 my uncle, Colin Barnfather, went missing when hillwalking in the Scottish Highlands. We didn’t know he was missing for a week, and by that time it was too late. Just over a year ago (I know, because Facebook popped up a ‘happy memory’ photo yesterday) I joined my Mum, step-father and brother and sister in travelling way oop north (beyond the bits where ‘oop’ would sound normal) to the area outside of Fort William where he fell and was later recovered.
I’d intended to publish this at the time, but it didn’t seem quite right for reasons I can’t adequately explain. I guess it was a private family pilgrimage. It’s rare for me to spend that much time with family – not because I don’t like them (they’re all mostly lovely most of the time), but I’ve become used to being a bit more solitary. I’ve no idea whether that’s a good or bad thing, but I did enjoy these few days together very much.
It’s a hell of a drive, heroically undertaken by my step-father. Of course my siblings made the trip vastly more complicated, joining us at Inverness airport. So we drove up to Inverness, from Burton on Trent, via Nottingham and Newcastle in a day. The scenery (even Newcastle) was stunning, and driving up into Highlands was particularly magical while listening to the BBC Radio drama version of Lord of The Rings. Mountains, moor, sky and lochs which all seemed like places the Riders of Rohan could be crossing, or the heroes trudging across in their apparently endless quest. An awesome trip. I can provide wholly anecdotal and unreliable testimony that crystallised ginger is the partial solution to all of the world’s problems: travel sickness.
Our accommodation for the trip varied widely between the gorgeous The Croft at Cranford (soooo going there again) and the dive B&B for night two in Fort William. I can’t give you the place’s name but they were triple over-booked and couldn’t muster an apologetic tone or a functioning bar; Tim, Liz and I shared a three bed room – Tim and me in a bunkbed. He was thrilled; I was pleased for him. The last night was spent in Gretna Green on the way back down, where Tim and I got hammered in the hotel bar during a wedding; pints of some fairly awful “smooth” and drams of excellent whiskey make the night fly by…
Between hotel arrangements we drove. A lot. Colin went walking in a beautiful area – Kinloch Hourn, which is some miles out of Fort William and vanishes off into a 22 mile long single track road to nowhere. We became lost several times in the winding roads that vanish into moors and nowhere. Last time Mum and my step-father were here it was night and filled with police and helicopter crews, so it looked quite different on a beautiful sunny day. Eventually we did find the right road, and were promptly challenged by car sickness because the road frankly takes the mickey, rerouted around boulders, up and down in lurching heaves. Just thinking of it gives me a ghastly flash of nausea and has me reaching for ginger.
Raw Natural Beauty
I hadn’t been out into the wilderness of Scotland for quite a few years and I’d forgotten just how astonishing it is. The route down into the valley took us past mountains, a huge reservoir and dam, deer, endless heather and gorse but what struck me again and again were the broken teeth of rock jabbing up and through the startling green. It made me think of broken giants, collapsed after battering each other to death. It’s shockingly empty of human life and the quiet is almost intrusive (I liked it). We made it to the end of the trail at last – literally, it just stops. There’s a tiny farmhouse cafe and a friendly horse who I gave some attention to. I enjoy making friends with strange animals. It seems easier than with people.
I suppose it’s quite rare to visit the place that a loved one died, even quite strange. That’s on my mind because our cat died just outside our back door and I pass it at least twice a day. We’d gone to scatter Col’s ashes. I can’t deny that there’s a certain strange irony in returning Colin’s earthly remains to the place we took them from. It’s not like he planned to die there, so would he really want to be put back? Well, those are the options that you don’t get once you’re gone. It makes sense to us, plus not all of him has gone back – Mum’s still has some of his ashes. Even writing about this now seems really odd… all I can say is that it didn’t at the time!
It was difficult in the day time to properly identify the cliff that Colin had fallen from. I’m not sure we did figure it out definitively. I found my eyes kept being drawn to one ridge in particular, which fit my mental image of how and where he died. It’s fairly unlikely that I’d intuited it correctly, but we run on symbolism and imaginary memories all the time – this, to me, is where Col died. At its foot runs a lovely little stream, with scrub and mussel shells scattered around. We drank champagne, ate lunch, toasted Colin and proceeded with scattering his ashes.
Just as at Colin’s funeral it was absurd and implausible that he really was contained in that long box, it seemed even more improbable that he could be inside an even smaller box. Nevertheless, we are materialists and atheists in my family. We don’t believe in an afterlife or gods, or ghosts. Our lost and loved ones live on in the only place they ever did – inside our minds. The constantly decaying and renewing flesh of our bodies is inconstant and transient. Our thoughts and memories are even more so. Only by remembering do we reinforce our memories and the ideas, emotions and people who reside therein. The flecked white and grey ash that remained of Colin was not ng different from the matter that encased his mind and its collections of thoughts. Burying or scattering those mortal remnants is an action for us, for those who persist in this world of space and time.
As with all things human, the action of solemnly taking a fistful of ash and scattering it over the land, watching the motes of my uncle vanish into the grass and water is at once deeply serious and tinged with humour. My sense of humour is cheerfully grim and I find laughter in most things. So I was kind of cheered to note that we weren’t really paying attention to the direction of the gentle breeze that had joined us. So we quite quickly coated each other with ash… Fingernails and palms already white with familial dust, we got Colin ground into every fold of clothing, each stitch and seam. I remember the taste of the ashes distinctly, salty and well, exactly like ash from a fire. We’re made of the same stuff as everything else. Despite my inappropriate amusement, it felt like a good and fitting tribute to my uncle. All of us there ambling around this beautiful place with handfuls of ash.
What We Leave Behind
As we left the valley, and Colin’s ashes behind I stuck my camera to the window and filmed the first few minutes of the route out of the valley. It’s beautiful, and paired up with music from The Lord of The Rings it captures both the beauty and my feelings about the place where my uncle died.
It’s also just been Col’s birthday so I did what I’m getting into the habit of doing: sending him a text message and ringing his phone. That’s the same as I tried when we were up in Scotland: his phone was never recovered. I like to think that there are messages bouncing around out there somewhere and that some inevitable bumping of related electrons takes place, linking us all together.