My heart is not in the highlands. My family comes, in fact, from the industrialised countryside of West Lothian, spread like rubble between Glasgow and Edinburgh, where there is no a-chasing the wild deer, just tracts of grey, pebbledash housing schemes, disused coal mines and factories.
When I was growing up in the area the only West Lothian question people asked was why anyone, except perhaps Tam Dalyell, would want to live there. Twenty years ago our corner was officially designated as an area of severe deprivation, or at least practising to be one. It may be different there now. There may be branches of Benetton and Next, a Waitrose or a Marks & Spencer food store in the nearest small town. But my village is still the same. Bleak.
In spite of any ambivalence, whenever I do return it is with the same aching anticipation one feels when going to meet a long lost lover. I sit at Waverley station wearing an overcoat which I hope no one notices is too thin for the climate, and gaze through the window as the train trundles through a string of unfamiliar Edinburgh suburbs.
But as the first rows of dismal council houses appear and the train shunts through West Calder, the landscape begins to look familiar. Lurching on to Addiewell, then stopping briefly at Briech-a corrugated metal bus shelter standing forlornly at the side of the railway track-by the time my destination approaches my stomach is grinding glass.
When the train shudders to a halt, I am checking my reflection in the window in readiness for the embrace of this invisible lover. I am the only person to leave the train and, as if fearing contamination, it starts to draw away from the platform before the door is properly closed.
There is a bridge straddling the two railway lines which used to be built of slippery wood. Long ago it was replaced with equally lethal steel made slimy by the rain because-of course-it is raining. The waiting room, where a roaring fire melted snow into slush throughout the winter months, is boarded up and covered in graffiti; the ticket office where Sandy would offer tea if you happened to be there when the kettle boiled, has planks nailed across the window. The train has disappeared and the platform is empty. Likewise the road-not even a stray dog or a passing car. The air is thick with silence.
No one has come to meet me which should be no surprise. I have no lovers here. My parents have moved south, my brother to America. Most of my other relatives, the aunts and uncles who populated my childhood, lie in neat rows in the graveyard like well behaved bedding plants. Complaisant and harmonious as they never were in life.
In my mind, however, they are all still here, making tea, smoking cigarettes, gossiping, swearing, cracking jokes and laughing. The younger members of the family have forgotten me. The cousins who remained behind to feed the factories, to pack chicken breasts into polystyrene trays, to squint through a microscope threading surgical needles, rarely issue invitations to their weddings. But the dead still remember me.
Most of my school friends have vanished without trace. Some of them married at sixteen-settled with a baby, a council house and an often unemployed husband before they were even old enough to see an X-rated film. Others took jobs on assembly lines or down the pit, and thought themselves lucky. Some of them are grandmothers by now. Others are dead. Alcohol has always been a problem-the boy who was the object of all my unrequited adolescent longing, after decades of alcoholism, killed himself last year. But none of these things drove me out of Scotland. It was the feeling that I did not fit in there: I was not teenage bride material.
I left when I was seventeen. I took with me a building society savings book, someone else’s husband and a broad, Scottish accent. Within months the money and the husband were both spent, but the accent, despite all efforts to lose it along the way, has stuck to me like shit on my shoe.
Over the years it has moderated. Sentences are no longer punctuated with “ye ken”-an overdue improvement to all those who thought I was talking about my boyfriend. Nor do I say “mind” for remember, or “gies” instead of give. But although my “r”s no longer roll forth with the flourish of a drum majorette’s elbow, I still can’t finish a word that ends in a “t.”
No one would ever mistake me for one of the nice middle class Scottish chappies who populate the cabinet, even if I swapped my breasts for a lounge suit. I did not go to a good school in Edinburgh but to the local comprehensive which made up in street cred what it lacked in formal education. Only a handful of kids every year went to university. I was not one of them, and every time I open my mouth a little toad will jump out and tell you so.
Polly Toynbee is quoted as saying that the Scots accent is the best loved, before going on to suggest that it will grate after a while. However, it is true that there are those who find it appealing. “Oh, but I love the way you speak!” people will insist when told how much my accent irritates me. This might be flattering if they did not then insist on an impromptu performance of their Rab C Nesbitt impressions. Och aye-it’s very funny that. Imagine doing it to your Pakistani doctor-I am sure he also finds his own accent hilarious. But it is strange to go home and hear everyone speaking with the same mumbling brogue as myself, and stranger still that to my ears, everyone up there sounds, well-peculiar. But the relief is also overwhelming. To meet someone who says “See you-if you fell in the Clyde you’d come oot wi a fish supper” and to be able to reply without looking over my shoulder, is like giving birth after the pushing’s stopped. With a fellow Scot I can relax into the vowels, forget about consonants and dredge up every word of slang that I have never forgotten, even though, by God, I tried.
Throughout my first years in England, I laboured. Talking slowly, carefully enunciating every word-I caught the glottal stops and reinserted them in all the right places, generally sounding like a catholic practising to meet the Pope. But then whenever I became animated, passionate or just plain nervous out the words would tumble-dinnies and cannies and widnaes. I was a verbal schizophrenic. So, eventually, I gave up. But it is an uneasy surrender.
Back in London, someone is giving a party in Notting Hill Gate in one of those grand houses with yellow walls and carefully restored plaster ceilings which back on to a private communal garden-the kind of place that God would buy if he could afford it. I do not know a soul except the host, which neatly quashes the theory that living in London is like belonging to a club. I am sipping my champagne and looking around the room for a likely companion when I recognise one woman, the wife of a newspaper editor, but the last time we spoke my attempts at conversation were met with a look of amusement and terse, monosyllabic answers. Not her then.
Instead there is another wallflower, a woman who has recently moved up to Scotland (to save on school fees naturally) and we bond over a Silk Cut and second glass of champagne. Surprisingly we are soon joined by Mrs Supercilious Editor’s Wife. She is about 50, with faded blonde hair, dressed in a dull navy blue skirt and blouse. Pearls. Crooked teeth.
“Actually, we’ve already met,” I say as I shake her flaccid hand, “I don’t know if you remember but…”
“Why of course I remember you,” she interrupts, her voice a soft, expensively educated murmur. “How could I forget that accent?” She laughs.
I laugh with her, but actually, it’s not all that bloody funny. “How are things in Scotland then?” she asks my companion. “Do your children manage to understand a word anyone says up there?”
At this point I remember my schooling, think about grinding my champagne glass into her face, but instead I walk away. And as I look around me, I wonder what on earth I am doing in this place, still trying to fit in. My heart may not be in the highlands, but it sure as hell is not here either.