A Banker's Lesson in Scottish Hospitality

A FEW weeks, sometimes even a few days, spent in a west coast Scottish Highland village can slowly and subtly change your outlook on life. At first we used to arrive on holiday in a certain Argyll fishing village, restless and tense. Then, gradually, in those summer weeks, we were eased into serenity, becoming temporary inhabitants of the land of perpetual tomorrow. Some years ago we witnessed the same process at work in an unexpected guest.Late one Friday afternoon there came a violently agitated ringing at the bell. On our doorstep stood an incongruous figure in an immaculate gray-and-black pin-striped suit. He was hot and immensely flustered. Out in the road sat an imposing, gleaming car that had broken down just at our gate. Its owner explained his predicament: He was a banker and had an important board meeting the next morning. He must get back on the road as swiftly as possible. Was there a garage and a good mechanic in the place? There was a garage, we said, and yes, a mechanic too, though no one ever gave him such a title. We went free-wheeling down the steep village street in the banker's car to the door of what was known, not as the garage, but simply as Lachie's. Our new companion gaped at this old barn, stunned. It was near the pier and a small cove where fishermen spread their nets on the rocks. It reminded us of an Aladdin's Cave of strange treasures: ancient rusting tractors, broken-down bikes and scooters, boats and anch ors, seaweed, and bales of peat. A hen was perched on a pile of hay, and three pudgy collie puppies tumbled about in the dust. In the midst of this chaos stood the mechanic, Lachie himself, in a frayed fisherman's jersey. He was stocky and stooping, with tousled ginger hair and a rusty beard. "I must drive south tonight," said the banker. "I have a very urgent meeting tomorrow morning.So you're in a hurry then?" said Lachie in his slow, Highland voice. The banker looked uneasy. "That car was delivered to me only last week," he said "I can't fathom what has happened." He winced as Lachie jerked open the hood and peered inside, poking about. ll have a wee look," he said. "Leave it to me." We persuaded our visitor to come back with us for tea, entrusting his car to Lachie's care. And would he not like something cooler to wear? The pin-striped suit, covered now with dog hairs and paw marks, had begun to look rusty too. When he returned, the banker fitted out in a loose summer jacket, Lachie was deep in conversation with a group of fisherman. "Is it ready? Have you found out what's wrong?" the banker demanded. Lachie had a habit of gazing out seaward as he spoke. Now he calmly surveyed the harassed face above him, staring anxiously at the stranded car. "It'll take some time yet," said Lachie and went on advising one fisherman about his outboard motor, another about his nets snagged in a storm. They discussed these matters in their customary, unhurried way. In place of an instantly imperiously demanding now, there was a beguiling, beckoning tomorrow. Elsewhere it might be zavtra, domani, manana, avrio, morgen; here it was the morn, or, pushed even further into the future, the morn's morn. Added to this was the magic of the white nights of July, the tender blue light, the heather turning reddish-purple and spreading perfume in the air. On our way to the garage the banker kept repeating: "I don't think this Lachie fellow realizes how important my meeting is. He talks about the morn. I might remind him that there is only one time, the present. The world would grind to a halt if we all thought like Lachie!" He was forced, however, to admit that here was somebody who was not to be hustled! With a slight lessening of his acute embarrassment the banker gratefully accepted hospitality for the night. On Saturday, we were intrigued to witness a transformation in our guest's attitude. The frenzied rush down to Lachie's lost its urgency. His relationship with Lachie widened to include other fishermen from the small world of the pier. When we joined him, there he stood in his borrowed attire, absorbed in local talk. It centered around sea mysteries, strange monsters, boats that vanished on nights of calm, and famous catches. In a community whose graveyard held so many stones: "Lost at sea ... Crew of the Mairi, all hands missing," in the presence of a man whose three sons perished during one winter storm, what did a broken-down car matter? Then, suddenly, jolted into recall of that urgent appointment, the banker demanded: "Surely you can have it ready for me the morn? Could you not work on it tomorrow morning and let me away before noon?" There followed an ominous silence. The banker sensed that he had unwittingly trodden on some Highland susceptibility. Lachie turned on him a face more in sorrow than in anger. "Do you not mind what day the morn is?" he asked. The banker was nonplussed. Too much had happened since his arrival on our doorstep for him to recall clearly just what day the morn might be. "It is the Lord's day of rest," Lachie told him sternly. "A day for the kirk, not for work.I'm not what could be called a regular church-goer," the banker admitted. "You might learn something there," said Lachie. The small parish church had a congregation mainly of fisherfolk, unrecognizably spruced up in their Sabbath clothes. The sun shone on the dark oak pews, through an open window came the peaceful sounds of summer, swifts shrilling, a last cuckoo calling. We were used to the elderly minister, but to the banker he must have appeared as a phenomenon cast in the same mold as Lachie, with the same slow speech, that seaward gaze. He had a habit of leaning far over the edge of the pulpit, sharing his thoughts wit h his flock, ideas that had come to him in the course of the week. As he had been preparing his text - the raising of Lazarus - he told us certain lines of Browning's poem "An Epistle" kept running through his head, eluding him, tantalizing him, then all at once returning to memory. "That he was dead and then restored to life by a Nazarene physician of his tribe... the same bade 'Rise,' and he did rise... ." He had read the whole poem over and over; we all should do so and see how the poet had entered into the thoughts of Lazarus himself. He knew what it was like to esc ape for four days out of time into eternity. "This grown man eyes the world now like a child in "ever the same stupor that we, too, see not with his opened eyes." The old man wove the thread of his discoveries together, repeating his theme of leaving time behind us, sometimes giving a secret smile. He paused, then finished, as if coming back himself from a far yet familiar distance. We had half-expected the banker to become drowsy in our sunny pew, listening to an ancient country parson's musings. Instead he was taking in every word, absorbed in new revelations. The shining car spent the day of rest sitting in the garage along with the puppies, the hens, and a pet lamb, while we walked over the moors with its owner. We were growing quite fond of our uninvited guest. Like us, he was learning. We ended our walk down at the pier as dusk fell. The sea was calm as a mill pond, the moon shone blue on the water, islands loomed, voices echoed from passing boats. "The morn's nicht we'll all be out fishing for herring, what we call the silver darlings," Lachie said, glancing at our companion. "There's nothing in life to touch it." For a moment the banker looked as if he were seized by a wildly irrational desire to chuck the bank and all it stood for and to go fishing for the silver darlings. "Perhaps I'll come back for that next year," he said. "Funny," he added. "I feel I've been here not just for a few days but for a long time." He drove the car up to our gate the next morning to bid us farewell. "Lachie wouldn't accept a penny for all those hours of work," he told us. "He insisted that he enjoyed detecting what was wrong. And he thought I'd be better with a boat, far more reliable." We had our own ideas about the long hours Lachie claimed to have spent on the car. It was what he could call a diplomatic delay, a means of beguiling the banker, teaching him the benefits of escaping, even briefly, from the tyranny of time.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.