This story is by Evelyn Sinclair and was part of our 2018 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
It all began in the psychiatric clinic in Glasgow. I loved working there and grew fond of the teenagers with whom I had contact. They were so vulnerable, anxious and susceptible to criticism. Their fear of normal school attendance was palpable.
Come the summer holidays, there would be no classes for several weeks and they were excited to share with me as we planned a holiday project together. Unexpectedly our plans fell apart and the young people were angry and desperately disappointed but there was nothing I could do to salvage the situation. So we bade each other farewell at the end of the term and expressed good wishes for whatever the summer break would now hold for us all.
For me, it felt empty. My six year old, Betty, was looking forward to being with me during the project and was gutted that she could no longer mix with “the big boys and girls.” How could I redeem this situation? So I made a suggestion, “Let’s go on a camping holiday to Mull and look for Spanish gold. A big ship sank in Tobermory Bay and it had lots of gold on board.” This suggestion was met with squeals of delight and so the matter was settled. We packed our car with all the necessities: a tent, sleeping bags, a gas camping stove and all the other paraphernalia we would require and set off.
We drove north into the countryside. Travelled along the banks of Loch Lomond, singing the folk songs associated with the loch, admiring the changing views as we journeyed. Then we struck west across the famous ‘Rest and be Thankful’ – a tortuous hill road that climbs and twists through the mountains and forests. We stopped to take a look around.
“Look Betty, can you see the deer on the hill over there?”
“Where? Where? Oooh, yes, I see it. Is it Rudolph?”
“No, but it’s the same as Rudolph.”
Betty pointed to birds overhead. “Mummy, is that an eagle?”
“No dear, it’s only crows, but if I do see an eagle I will stop again and let you watch it.”
Soon we left the high mountains behind and travelled onwards to the coastal town of Oban. I checked the schedules for car ferries as that would be the next stage of our journey; leaving the mainland behind, heading west to the Isle of Mull. This for me was a first. I had never before driven a car onto a ferry, but once safely on board we went up on deck to enjoy the sea air and try to spot dolphins, sharks or whales as all are frequent visitors to Scotland’s west coast.
Forty minutes later we left the ferry and drove off looking for a camp site.
“When can we look for gold?” asked my daughter, and I realised that unless we did that first there would be no rest for me. So we drove to Tobermory, the small town with the famous cat, and the brightly painted houses along the sea front. “Look Mummy, the houses are just like on television,” came the excited voice from the back seat of the car. She was right. The children’s programme “Balamory” used these houses as part of their set, so it was easy to make the connection. There was also a photographer who captured a local stray cat on film in various situations and added humorous captions to his photos. His collection was later published in book form as “The Tobermory Cat” and it quickly became a best seller. So much so that visitors to Tobermory are often seen looking for the cat. We managed to spot him, asleep in the sunny window of the Youth Hostel. Then it was a trip to the beach to look for our Spanish gold. We scoured the beach, eyes down, turning over lots of stones of varying colours; white quartz, pink sandstone, black haematite and green serpentine, but no gold, not even any pyrites.
“Mummy, you told me we would find gold, but there’s none here.” pouted Betty.
“Lots of people look for it and it’s hard to spot, but look at all the lovely coloured stones we have found to take home.”
A promise to return the following day resolved the disappointment and we headed back to the car to find a camping site. So we drove onwards and soon discovered a quiet sandy bay with some rough ground nearby which provided the perfect site for our tent. As I unloaded the car I asked Betty to help me, “You know how to hold the pole for me and I can fix the guy ropes.” I suggested, but when I turned round there was no Betty to be seen. Where was she? In the car? At the other side of the car? NOOO. Then where? I glanced towards the beach just in time to see her disappear around a headland. Running in panic, stumbling over the grass and then hampered by soft dry deep sand I feared the worst. Rounding the headland I spotted her. Relief flooded my body. She was alone. I caught up with her and she was taken aback at my angry comments. “What are you doing?” I yelled. “I asked you for help and you ran away without telling me!” I was still shouting I was so upset. “Mummy,” she whimpered, “I’m only looking for crabs in the rock pools.”
“You know you must not go away without telling me.” I snapped, and let the matter rest there.
Darkness descended and we settled into our sleeping bags. In the morning Betty was far from well. She was finding it extremely difficult to breathe. What was I to do in this situation? Obviously she needed medical attention, and quickly, so we abandoned our camping site and returned post haste to Tobermory. Fortunately we secured an early appointment at the local surgery. The doctor examined Betty and prescribed an inhaler to counteract what he diagnosed as a severe allergic rhinitis attack. He then asked for privacy with me and a nurse took Betty aside.
“What are you thinking of, camping without checking pollen count forecasts? Didn’t you see how high they were expected to be? Are you stupid? He demanded of me. I remained silent under this totally unexpected onslaught.
“Unless you promise to forget about this camping nonsense, and sleep under a proper roof tonight, there will be no prescription!” he barked at me.
I made the promise; we left the surgery and collected an inhaler from the local chemist. I sat in the car, my head in my hands. What a disaster! Abandon our adventure? For a second time our holiday plans, courtesy of the doctor had been thwarted. What choice did I have? Would we simply return ignominiously to Glasgow, and leave the Spanish gold behind? No chance!! Somehow I would find an adventure. Suddenly I spotted a B&B sign. Maybe we could stay in Tobermory after all and look for our gold. I knocked the door but – no vacancies. Next B&B, same answer. Third time lucky perhaps? But no, it was the same negative answer. “Is this because Betty is a mixed race child?” I found myself thinking. For sure, I’m no longer enjoying this so-called adventure: there are so many situations I can’t resolve.
Returning to our camping site, with Betty miserable and disappointed, we started to dismantle the tent and store all our gear in the car boot. As we packed, I was trying to find an answer to “having an adventure.” Then from somewhere in the dim and distant past I heard my father’s voice talking about an abbey with a Christian community on the Isle of Iona. Was that a viable choice? Would it just be a third disaster? Anyway, I decided to risk it and made a call. There was indeed accommodation, so this seemed a possible choice to salvaging some semblance of adventure. So we drove to Fionnphort (Gaelic), parked the car and took the small ferry across a narrow stretch of water to Iona.
I was full of trepidation. Was this the right choice to make? Living in a community would be a new experience for us. Tensions remained for me. Would they try to convert us? Would it be a Bible thumping group? Would they think I was ignorant, not knowing hymns and bible quotes? Would they condemn me for my camping adventure with young Betty? So many anxious thoughts.
A group of strangers were conferencing when we arrived and they simply absorbed us into their midst. We joined them on their boat trip to Fingal’s Cave on Staffa. Ultimately we enjoyed many positive experiences. What had been a fearful, apprehensive, anxious choice, was giving me much food for thought. Was this how my Glasgow teenagers felt about school? I now had some relevant experience around difficult emotional choices to share with them, along with an increased empathy for their individual situations.