I loved the magic of the green and soft brown glens of the Scottish Highlands – there was a special smell that I remember to this day.
It was a powerful perfume mixed of heather, the river Spey, the place I lived in with its old oak covered walls, the gun-oil and the smell of dark rumbling clouds that the morning mist drew like a magnet to cover us all in pouring rain for hours on end.
Smells too from the tweed clothes and waxed Barbour jackets we all wore; the ghillies, the gamekeepers and the farmhands when we were all having a drink together – and aye kilts too when the occasion called for dressing up.
It is a magical place on earth – hidden away in the most beautiful location where blue-purple slopes ran down from high mountains to end in bubbling burns. The estate is in Morayshire, Scotland – it is a man’s place and always has been. This is a place where men gather together to be among their own, and I sincerely mean no offense to our opposite gender because we all love you dearly.
The locals were a tough lot of Highlander’s and they didn’t like Sassenachs – something to do with a place named Culloden I suspect.
You see this is a sporting estate and a big one with thirty thousand acres of grouse moors and magnificent red and roe deer stalking and salmon fishing. I was the Assistant Factor there for a few happy months.
I spent most of my time getting lost driving around the vast acreage of the estate trying to collect rent from the farmers and crofters who hadn’t paid in fifty years and weren’t about to start then.
One of them was a huge man; almost seven feet tall and he threatened to do some very nasty things to my little body, until I told him in no uncertain terms that I was Irish and would yank his heart out and eat it in front of him. He relented and we drank two bottles of the best malt I have ever had that same night. I found out later he owned the distillery.
My days were busy from dawn till dusk and I enjoyed every minute. But I had other duties too in the evenings. Our guests came from all over the world to shoot or fish at the estate. Stockbrokers and bankers from London and New York; Princes from the Middle East and Russian oligarchs.
Whoever they were there was one strict rule – we dressed formally for dinner.
Every afternoon when our guests came back from their days out on the estate they were served tea in the drawing room; heaped plates of scones and cakes and bits to nibble on after their sporting exercise during the day. And after they had gone to dress for the evening we had cocktails before dinner. It was like the nineteen-thirties all over again.
Dinner too was a huge event every night in the main dining room which seated sixteen people at the table, and there was always a roaring fire crackling away. We had a local Piper who would pipe the haggis around the table dressed in full kit. He usually arrived an hour or so early so he could wet his lips on our malt whiskey in the kitchen; and I would have to go and drag him out into the dining room to get him to do his stuff. He would go around about twice and fall flat on his face, pipes and all – much to the delight of our multimillionaire guests.
Of course to add to the show we had a tame Scottish Chieftain named the Prince of Caledonia and Duke of something or other; his real noble titles. He was in his mid-eighties and a complete nutcase but of course the guests loved him and he certainly looked the part in his Black Watch uniform and sporran. God bless that man I really cared for him.
The deal was that he could live rent-free in a little cottage that was owned by the estate, but he had to turn up whenever we had a special dinner going on. Of course he forgot about the arrangement most of the time and I had to go and get him; dress him in his uniform and sober him as best as I could to get him to his job.
The butler was another story. He was a Polish immigrant who had had a bad time at some stage. He had the keys to the cellar which was full of vintage wines. He knew every one of them personally and I liked to taste them with him to ensure they were not corked. We got through some of the very finest together.
Now, to the point of this story – you see I was single then. One of the girls on the house staff in the lodge where we lived was a very attractive blonde, so one evening after work I asked her if she would like to go for a drive around the estate with me. Much to my surprise she said yes, so we headed up into the glens in one of the estate Land Rovers.
I had no idea where I was going and turned up a gravel road which led us to an outcrop overlooking the river Spey in the valley below us. The view was stunning and we sat in awed silence together until night came. I switched on the heating and the headlamps in the vehicle and as we started kissing and hugging all the windows steamed up.
I had managed to get her ‘bra half off and we were both struggling with the gearstick between us when all hell broke loose. Headlamps from various vehicles pinned us in their bright lights and we heard what seemed like battle cries from all around us. The driver’s door on my side was wrenched open and a man shouted, “Wa the fack are you doing here – poaaching on ouur estate?’
I was half scared to death but I replied with all the authority I could muster, “I am the new Assistant Factor you bloody eejit, and don’t you have eyes in your head?’
His name was Sandy and he was the Head Gamekeeper. Everyone burst into laughter then and we all headed home for the night. Sandy became a great friend from then on and we enjoyed many malt whisky’s in our local pub in the months to come where, much to my embarrassment, he roared with laughter and retold the tale every weekend in vivid detail to all the locals.
Unfortunately, my short encounter with the blonde-haired girl did not survive our amorous adventure that night and she didn’t speak to me again for months.
So, one Friday night I headed off to the nearest town for a drink on my own, and I met a girl. She had green eyes and long straw-coloured hair; was very sexy and seemed to be open to possibilities. We met the next day in a pub miles away from the estate and had a chat and a wee hug. The Highlands have their own jungle-drums and she was married at the time.
A few days later the boss told me the estate had been sold to a Swiss banker and I was among the staff that had to go. He arranged a farewell party for me with everyone from the estate and they presented me with a silver Dunhill lighter engraved with my initials ‘J.H.’
That night we all danced the jig and every other Scottish reel our mad piper played. We danced together; my friend the prince, the sad butler, the girls, the farmhands, the ghillies and the gamekeepers. And finally the piper played a special tune for me that you can listen to by clicking here.
I promise you there was not a dry eye in the whole room; and with no shame at all.
My adventure in the Highlands was over forever. I gave my rifle away to Sandy (the Head Gamekeeper) and I took my little black Labrador with me back to Ireland. His name was ‘Wee Finn of the Glens’ and he had a pedigree as long as a roll of loo paper.
I never met the girl again although I sometimes think about her.
We both knew that our relationship would only last a few short days. So we gave it the best we had and agreed that we would always look back happily on the short time we spent together.
To a Highland Girl
Like something fashioned in a dream
Such forms as from their covert peep
When earthly cares are laid asleep
But, O fair Creature! In the light Of common day, so heavenly bright
I bless Thee, Vision as thou art I bless thee with a human heart
God shield thee to thy latest years I neither know thee nor thy peers
And yet my eyes are filled with tears
Sweet Highland Girl! From thee to part
For I, methinks, till I grow old As fair before me shall behold
As I do now the cabin small
The lake, the bay, the waterfall
And thee, the spirit of them all
~ William Wordsworth