Tales from across the sea
Among the heroes of our childhood were R.L. Stevenson, dreaming in Samoa of the east wind of Edinburgh and the cry of peesweeps over the Lammermoors, and Cunninghame Graham, Don Roberto, torn between love for the pampas of the Argentine and for his Scottish family estate of Gartmore. In our own family there was the relative known as Don Tomas, the most romantic of them all, perpetually huddled over the fire in a great fawn and russet poncho of vicuna wool. He was absorbed in memories of our mutual ancestors, Cape Horners, who had crossed the sea in sailing ships, leaving misty Scotland for Chile where the sun always shone.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
When my brother asked him what it was like, living out there as a boy, Don Tomas would return as from a vast distance, then he was off, weaving with words the spell of far away and long ago.
''The Pampas was my country,'' he would tell us. ''I rode up there on my pony. Sometimes when I was flying my kite I was lifted clean off my feet. If I hadn't let go I'd have been blown across the provinces of Tarapaca and Atacama to the Cordillera of the Andes and splashed into the Pacific. I grew up among Peruvians, Bolivians, Germans, Italians, Chilenos. The black-haired, black-eyed Chilean children taunted me for being fair-haired, blue-eyed and, worst of all, a Presbyterian and a Scot. They flung stones at me, sneering 'Gringo!' as over here I'd have shouted 'Sassenach!' at the English.
''All kinds of odd people passed along the streets in those days. A potbellied Chileno waddled along calling 'Albacora!' glistening with fish scales. A humpbacked Boliviano trotted past on a burro crying 'Bacalao!' 'Mani! Mani!' shouted the peanut vendor. The Dog Man needed no cry, for along with him went the yowling and howling of his captive strays in their cage. In Scotland I'd have heard the tinkers tramping by with 'Auld claes! Cloots and claes!' and the fisherfolk's echoing 'Fine fresh herring!'
''A Peruviano wheeled a bicycle with a basket of towel-like tripe, coming to our door to haggle with Manuela, the Spanish cook. They stood whispering together about love potions, spells and magic cures for all kinds of ailments, gloating over accounts of frenzied tappings from vaults and coffins. I would creep up behind them and let out a shout of 'Here come Burke and Hare, the Body Snatchers of Edinburgh Toon!' and scare them out of their wits.
''My greatest hero was my grandfather. He captained Pacific Steam Navigation Company steamers up and down the long Chilean coastline. He had lived through mutinies, and shipwreck in Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego, and had rounded the Cabo de Hornos in the fiercest of hurricanes. He was tall and blue-eyed, with a Fife accent that he never lost for all his fine Castilian - as, for all his wanderings, he never lost his love of Scotland.
'' 'Scotland's hame!' he would exclaim, pronouncing hame with such emotion that tears started to his eyes. I learned from him the meaning of the word nostalgia. 'We'll go back one day,' he promised me, and the idea of a return lay at the back of all my childhood.
''As Grandfather spoke, I saw the misty Hebrides, the mountains of Torridon covered in green bracken and purple heather, Ben Nevis snowclad, sea lochs where kelpies and mysterious silkies, half-man, half-seal, swam. He read me aloud from Scott and Stevenson and, out of a blue and silver-bound book, the history of Scotland. I listened enraptured to tales of the Wolf of Badenoch, the Red Comyn, Mary Stuart, Jamie the Saxt, the Wisest Fool in Christendom, and my other hero, Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Rising of the '45.
''I had two countries, two passports, a Chileno by birth, a Scot by parentage , two languages, sonorous Spanish and braid Scots, two histories. There was Robert the Bruce but Bernardo O'Higgins too. I celebrated the great naval victory of Iquique in 1879 and wept for the dead of Culloden Field in 1746. I had home and hame.
''I grew up within sound of the Pacific and wished it was the Atlantic. In the Atacama desert, when Grandfather and I dug up old Indian arrowheads I was dreaming of claymores abandoned on Flodden Field. The hawk-nosed Araucanian Indians who went clattering down the streets of Taltal and Chuquicamata, wrapped in their ponchos, made me think of the Scottish reivers, chief among them Scott's Rob Roy MacGregor, in their tartan plaidies and blue bonnets.
''Although I loved the sunshine, the dry air and the mingled perfumes of the pampas, I was always hankering after bog myrtle and heather. I wanted antlered red deer instead of brown llamas, the golden eagle instead of the condor, the Cairngorms, not the Cordillera. I was always an exile, hearing in my mind's ear not Bacalao, Albacora but Caller herring. I was haunted by hame and Grandfather's promise of return to the old country.''
Don Tomas would fall silent. Outside the rain beat against the windowpanes and mist curled across our Lowland hills. His words went weaving on around us, setting up echoes. We could hear Pacific breakers, the Spanish street cries. Tarapaca and Tocopilla stole our hearts away as surely as Chimborazo and Cotopaxi did the poet Turner's. To the end of our days we would be held by the spell of far away and long ago.