Highland Archives


By Stephen Cashmore

Another Wednesday night in a local watering hole without much doing. Ally is at the bar, concerned about the predicted weather and the effect it may have, what with him having a hole in his boot sole.

"The forecast’s giving wind and rain for the north tonight."

The barman never did anything to encourage a sore heart. "Aye, but when they say north Ally, they’re speaking about Aberdeen,"

Right on cue, in comes Colin, fresh home from the rigs and with a throat as dry as a spinster’s sense of humour.

"Pint please. No – make it two. I need to get something wet down my neck." A few deep gulps and

Colin is back to normal, anxious to know how’s the world going on in his old home town.

"Well, there’s no muckle much been happening, I can tell you," was Ally’s considered opinion.

"There’s a few businesses must be feeling the pinch, what with such a chunk of the Dounreay salaries going back south these days. That new crowd out there - flying up on a Monday and sneaking back over the Ord on Friday afternoon. They’re nothing like the old ‘Atomics’. They flitted here, stayed here, and spent their wages here."

"Spent wages?" Colin asked, "Do you no mind ‘Open Hand’?"

"Who? Och, aye. I mind him fine. Macnab, English gadgee with a Scottish name. Wore the same shoes and suit of clothes to his work for twenty years. Whenever a collection went round, he’d hold out an empty fist and promise to bring in money next day. He never did. ‘Open Hand’ – he was right generous, him."

"How’s this place doing?" Ally was angling for gossip food.

"Oh, it’s picking away, you know. The regulars are still coming in."

"Speaking of regulars, where’s old Donny these days?" Colin enquired.

"Och, he’ll likely be in Japan or out in that place in Venezuela he’s always on about, Maraccas, or something."

"It’s Caracas, Ally," the barman corrected; "But keep your voice down, your man’s behind you."

Old Donny had just entered the bar. Veteran of 40 years in the Merchant, traveller to places remote and obscure, supreme teller of tales, the Marco Polo of Caithness. Denny also boasted a pair of splendid tattoos, naked ladies, one on each thigh. Tonight Donny looked terrible.

"Flip’s sake, Donny boy, you look like you’ve got one foot in your grave!"

"Nae, Col, you’re wrong. It’s two feet and both pairs of hands. Barman, pour me out some of that Lazarus mixture and get me back from the dead. This bloody ‘flu! Worse I’ve had since China in 1946." And Donny went on to describe a visit to some backwater port in southern China – "a goodwill visit. The Chinamen there had never seen white folk, not even Wickers."

Half of the crew had gone ashore into a sprawl of wooden shacks and dirty alleyways, leaving their fellow sailors pining wistfully after oriental beauties and exotic local cocktails. An hour later, smoke was seen rising from the town centre. Next minute, a great flame lit up the twilight sky – the place was ablaze from end to end. What had happened?

"There was this Glasgow fella, Johnston, a great thirsty brute. A hell of a man. He used to drink brasso and shoe polish strained through an old sock. Well, the boys go into this bar where the local brew is nothing but pure wood alcohol. Three glasses of this in him, and Johnston’s fighting drunk and threatening the Chinamen with a carving knife, no less! To cut short the story, a right old stramach breaks out and a stove gets turned over. Next thing the whole place goes on fire!"

"Some goodwill visit!" Ally remarked. "Here, Colin, get us some fags while you’re at the bar, man."

Colin gave a sly wink. "Never mind. I’ve a dozen packs brought home from offshore what the Customs don’t know about."

Donny was outraged. "It’s no’ the Customs you’re cheatin’ – it’s the poor man what owns this bar. Taking the bread out of his mouth, indeed. What? Will you be bringing your own bottle of duty-free whisky in here next?"

Suitably chastised, Colin bought three cigars from over the bar and handed one each to his drinking pals. Donny looked pitiably at his. "What’s this, a stick o’ wood? Och, but it’s a smoke when all said and done. Nothing like a genuine Cuban cigar, though. Did I ever tell you about the time I stayed at the Hotel Grandee in Havana, back in ’59?"

He probably had told them but, knowing they were about to hear the tale again anyway, Colin and Ally wisely said nothing, allowing old Donny to paint a word picture of a tropical evening, lazing in a canvas chair out on a verandah, enjoying an after-feed cigar (" The exact same brand as Churchill used to smoke.")

Vivid in their mind’s eye the two younger men could clearly see orchids and crimson hibiscus flowers, they heard the caws of multi-coloured parakeets, and smelled the sensuous Shalimar perfume on a host of Cuban beauties. Lost in a gentle mist of alcohol and cigar smoke they wandered well away from the winter-gripped north.

Suddenly – "Jeepers, what’s that?" It was hail battering on the bar window. They were no longer in Cuba. "And me with a hole in my boot," groaned Ally to himself.

Highland Archives Index


Steven Cashmore 1999

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