There’s a joke about a Scot and a Spaniard.
Discussing differences in their languages, the Spaniard inquired: “We have a word in my country —”mañana”— which means tomorrow or some unspecified time in the future. In practical terms, though, it means whenever we get around to it. Do you have anything like that in Scotland?” After considerable introspection, the Scot responded in a thick Glaswegian accent: “No. We dunna have a word that quite describes that degree of urgency.” I learned firsthand about the Scots sense of time on my first visit to the Isle of Skye.
The train from Glasgow dropped me at a miniscule depot that marked the end of the line for our two-car train. From there I could see the ferry ticket office, which would get me across the strait to Skye, innermost of the Hebrides; I could just see the island through the morning mists. Trundling those few yards with one large bag, I inquired of Charybdis the Ferryman when the boat would leave for the island. His reply, delivered straight-faced and without a second’s hesitation — “Oh, about ten minutes after it gets here” — then turned to resume his morning tea.
Time in the Highlands and Islands moves with less regularity than it does elsewhere. Notions of timeliness or punctuality are foreign to the northern disposition. Tapping your foot achieves nothing. All things happen in their own good time. And, indeed, the ferry did depart about ten minutes after its arrival.
For the next two weeks I learned to appreciate the joke about the Spaniard and the Scot.
Summer service on the NITC line ran from the trackside shelter at Fahnstock to the Station-Store on Sturm und Drang between Memorial and Labor day. And some weekends before and after. That’s about eight miles, not accounting several curves and swerves which lengthened the trip to just over eleven. But the fifteen-to-twenty minute ride could take a bit longer when the driver was inclined to honor unofficial flag stops along the way. NITC was “user friendly.”
The end of the line was a loose accumulation of buildings of muddled character and mixed (which it to say miscellaneous) use. The station-store was a story-and-a-half wood farmhouse, gable end toward the water. The former living room had become a grocery-cum-hardware emporium; the dining room, a restaurant seating no more than eight on mismatched furniture that had seen better days; kitchen with wood-burning stove; and an office that was home to a taxidermed menagerie. Upstairs, three hotel rooms, strictly “European Plan”. Wash basins were provided, but the toilet was downstairs, as was the shower — bracingly cold for free; hot water ran an extra fifteen cents. Homemade lye soap could strip paint. Your hosts, the Prikleighs, Edith and son Ivor, had run the operation since the death of Mr P some time in the mid-Eighties.
Widow Prikleigh stood barely four feet tall, which was also her circumference, but Ivor was a lanky lad and must have taken after his dad. Edith was also postmistress for the area — named “Resort” — and Ivor ran a launch that served the lake’s other hostelries, Bagby’s, Moody’s, and Smith’s, the latter approximating a hotel in the accepted sense. Their limited conversational exchanges were delivered in a friendly Down East accent which hinted at New England origins; I never asked. But the food was hearty, farm fixin’s and seasonal fare, depending on what was in the garden or in Ivor’s traps; you could never quite identify the principal ingredient in her stew, though it stuck to the ribs and left you wondering why your mother hadn’t cooked like that. Herbs and spices came from just outside the kitchen door and were rumored to’ve been fertilized with night soil — if you know what I mean.
The bench on the lakeside porch arrayed a changing cast of characters, though conversation rarely strayed from a limited range of topics: 1) the weather, 2) whatever war had just concluded, or 3) a catch-all category I’d call “Back in the Day”. Politics were off limits, and any attack on persons not there to defend themselves would get you sent packing. If Mr Zuckerberg had some of Edith Prikleigh’s common sense, social media would be a good deal less contentious.
Three months of The Season couldn’t have been enough to keep the Prikleighs through the winter. So Edith wove rag rugs and did a brisk mail order business year round. Ivor tanned the hides of those critters in the stew and fashioned them into the most durable gloves you’ve ever worn. And folks drove out or came by trolley for the Friday fish extravaganza set up under a canvas awning along the hotel’s south side, served family-style on trestle tables and benches borrowed from Saint Ferreolus chapel. [Now that I think about it, it may have been the chapel that borrowed Edith’s benches.] Whatever way it was, you were guaranteed a full stomach and a good time. The coffee was strong and her iced tea hinted of an ingredient restricted by Prohibition. The pies were made by one of the Borogove sisters — I forget which one, but she went to Chicago and opened a pretty fine restaurant.
Fidgety young folks could always fish or go for a swim; teenagers could borrow a boat and spoon. But it didn’t take much persuasion for Ivor to get down his guitar. Before long, it all seemed like camp meeting without the exhortation and personal testimony — no bad thing on a Friday evening — and lasted long past sunset. The NITC ran a special late car on those days — kind of a “designated driver” — so the party continued on into the Agincourt depot as people drifted homeward.
Those were simpler days. You could slow time and even wind back the clock to relive life’s better moments. Just like I’m doing here.