A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
“The region to the south of Assynt, bounded on the east by by the main A835 road from Ullapool to Ledmore Junction, is known as Coigach. A lone, single track road penetrates this wilderness, leading through gloriously wild scenery to the remote settlements of Altandhu, Achiltibuie and Achinver. At the western end of Loch Lurgainn, a branch leads north to Lochinver, a scenic back road so narrow and twisting that caravans are prohibited, and locals refer to it as The Wee Mad Road.” (Lonely Planet: Scotland’s Highlands and Islands. 2012. p250.)
The Maloneys – from the America’s mid-west – stumbled upon the back road out of Lochinver by accident one year when they were holidaying in the Highlands. They only detoured down it because they were curious to see where the road led, but they loved Coigach so much that they ended up staying for five days and becoming close friends with the owners of the B&B they stayed at. Several years later, after their daughters had left home and before their parents were in need of care, they found themselves in the position of being able to take time out from their lives (he was a scriptwriter and she worked in an art gallery) and decided to rent a cottage in Coigach for a couple of years – Jack to work on his novel and Barbara to concentrate on her own painting.
Their vivid account of those two years in one of the most remote corners of Scotland could so easily have turned into one of those patronizing “Our Life Among the Amusing Natives” books … but their deep love and respect for the people of Coigach shines through, and they weren’t just passive observers, either. They immersed themselves fully into the lives and seasonal rhythms of the tight-knit community, learning their ways, slowing their pace to match those of their new neighbours and allowing themselves to be absorbed almost completely into a way of living that, even then (in the 1980s) was starting to vanish.
The acceptance of the two Americans into such a foreign (to them) environment wasn’t only down to their own willingness to be assimilated of course, but was also due in no small part to the famous hospitality of the Highlanders and their patient amusement at some of the Maloney’s more ‘American’ characteristics – neatly summed up by Jack’s description of his repeated attempts to introduce himself to people who turned out to know who he was already, because in a community that small everyone knows everything that happens …
Coigach is an achingly beautiful land of sheep, fishing, storms, whisky and music … there is music everywhere. Everyone’s house is an open house and impromptu ceilidhs start spontaneously wherever two or more are gathered together – and frequently go on into the wee small hours.
And the sheep. Sheep dominate the narrative. Jack learns (eventually) to shear them with hand shears, the design of which hasn’t changed in centuries, while Barbara learns to roll the resultant fleeces. They help with the gathering, and the dipping; we learn of the ‘rise’ of the fleece that makes it much easier to shear, of leaving sheep on the Summer Isles to fend for themselves and turn feral, of the annual miracle of birth and the frequent harshness of nature and the unwritten laws of Coigach.
When the Maloneys laugh, it’s at themselves. One of my favourite moments is when Jack is helping to gather the semi-wild sheep from remote Priest Island and, trying to take his cues from Donnie Darling, is perplexed by instructions like “Way to me, Jack” and “Come by, Jack”. It’s only when Donnie shouts, “Dammit Jack, get off that bitch!” that the penny drops. There are two Jacks on the island, and one of them is a sheepdog.
The Maloney’s two years in Coigach changed their lives for ever. They eventually returned home to pick up the strands of their old lives, but part of them will always remain with Wilf, Wendy, Joan and Murdo … and I think a little part of me will too.
Tasora Books. 2008. ISBN: 978-1-934690-02-4. 221pp.