Extract from The Gamekeepers: the Highland Games published Dec. 2019
Chapter 1: The Estate
I stared with disbelief as we left behind civilisation and everything including the last road built in the 21st century before a ten mile drive along a bumpy potholed track that led to the old rot iron gates of the Highland Estate. We are sixty miles north of Inverness with no sight of another vehicle or human being, my mobile reception has gone and my solar powered battery died on me within three hours of leaving Glasgow. Why did no one bother to tell me that this is the only place in the civilized world in the year 2030 that only uses a landline or a radio? How am I going to survive cut off from the outside world for eight weeks in the remote Scottish Highlands? I have nothing but my grandparents, a load of sheep, highland cows, and deer to keep me company.
At least one of us will have a memorable summer I thought to myself as I looked across at my lovable golden retriever Polly, as she sat with her nose peeking through the half opened window of the Land Rover enjoying the fresh Scottish breeze on her face. I thought this was just another one of Mum’s empty threats like no more football training or athletics for a few weeks for skipping school and refusing to do my homework. Mum was brutal for saying one thing and doing another, ‘Rhona I’ll send you to stay with your gran for the summer she’ll sort you out!’ she shouted screaming across the apartment.
How wrong was I? Not this time, now I’m stuck with two old coffin dodgers nearly in their seventies who spend all their time in the remote Highlands detached from civilization and other human beings. Gran spends more time talking to animals than people and Grandad spends his hours like a mad boffin tinkering with his inventions or testing his latest environmental breakthrough in engineering. Maybe that’s a bit severe? My grandparents did not say a thing when they arrived to collect me from our apartment, as my mum and dad ranted on about ‘the younger generation’.
‘They are the now generation, I think the term for it is techno-addicts. They are totally disconnected from reality, they live virtual lives; observe everything and experience nothing!’ retorted Dad.
‘Honestly they are like cloned hermits that only come out of their bedrooms to refuel. I can’t get a word out of her unless it’s via a mobile phone or a text message,’ Mum said scathingly.
It was funny watching Gran as she sat on her hands trying to restrain herself, Grandad must have warned her not to say anything. For once in her life she kept her head down and bit her lip as my mum and dad ranted on. The strange thing was I kept waiting for her to stand up and point her finger at them saying, ‘I told you so!’
My grandparents knew exactly who the dysfunctional ones in the family were. Gran insisted that towards the end of my eight week stay Mum and Dad swap their two weeks in the Mediterranean for two weeks in Inverness. Gran was the master negotiator and diplomat she just played along with them as she knew disagreeing with them would get her nowhere. ‘Maybe you need some quiet time together just as a family, away from all the distractions of work and other people,’ said Gran.
My parents do nothing but work I am sent off to another after school club or left with the babysitter, and for what another pay rise or promotion? Even on holiday they send me to the Kids Club while mum spends all her time on her mobile phone on the latest social media platform or her I-pad answering e-mail. Dad’s not much better you can’t get him away from his mobile phone someone’s always calling him ‘It’s an emergency, I have to take this!’
I know it is a bit old fashioned, but is that not what that 1980’s invention called the answering machine is for? It takes half the holiday for them to wind down from the stresses and pre-occupations of work before they have a single meaningful conversation with me, some family holiday!
We slowly approached the gates and its sandstone wall that stretched as far as the eye could see. I immediately noticed some of Grandad’s conservation handy work, with a water recycling system I overheard him talking about with Dad. We passed a series of man-made ditches filled with bamboo which were connected to small via ducts that ran down the hill from both the estates perimeter and sewerage system. The entrance was the same as I remembered it; lined with an array of pink, purple, and white heathers interspersed with solar powered lights. You immediately understood from its appearance that you were entering somewhere important, a place that was cared for with a sincere sense of pride and attention with its majestic rot iron gates of Celtic scrolls pristinely painted in gold and black.
We reached the gates and Gran immediately lined up the land rover next to the large rainwater tank labelled water & tea-tree, and submerged the vehicle into a decontamination ditch before climbing up and onto a cattle grate. As the land rover came to a halt Grandad got out of the passenger’s seat and stepped down and out of the vehicle to unlock the series of padlock’s that secured the Estate. It was now eight o’clock and the fog made it impossible to see anything five feet in front of us as Grandad quietly opened the large majestic gates.
As the four by four entered the gates over the cattle grate Grandad dislodged a spray gun from the static power washer positioned inside the gates. He began carefully washing and decontaminating the underside of the car, its wheels, wheel flaps and finally his Wellington boots. He then released the lever attached to the cattle grate opening the valves that released the possible contaminated water into the viaducts outside the gates and down the steep hill to the bamboo ditches. Gran drove the land rover into the Estate as Grandad locked the gate securely behind us and jumped back into the vehicle. ‘What was that for Grandad?’ I asked.
‘You can never be too careful we have lots of endangered animals and wildlife on the estate it’s our responsibility to ensure we look after them. Some of our breeds of cattle, deer and sheep are the last of their kind and we can’t afford another culling from the last outbreak of foot and mouth or another exotic disease. We have tried our best over the years to learn from our mistakes and invest in good practices and innovative solutions to make the area a haven for our birds of prey, wild life and livestock. The estates tall stone wall is now intact and is encased by a heavily wooded boundary this is the only entrance and exit and means to access the grounds by road. The only other access into the area would be swimming up the River Ullapool and under the narrow bridge at the Achall falls.’
‘I’d love to see anyone attempt that challenge, you’d need to be an Olympian athlete to make that feat!’ said Gran jokingly.
‘At the fall we’ve created a natural filtration system that prevents our biggest threat plastics entering the grounds and damaging the ecosystem,’ said Grandad.
When I spoke to my friends about my grandparents most of them were bemused when I told them my Gran was the ‘Gamekeeper’ not my grandad. Grandad was an inventor that could turn his hand to anything and knew everything about water technology, mechanics and engineering. His garage was like an inventor’s dream full of welding gear, engineering tools, mixed with shelves full of electronic components and the latest gadgets in solar and wind technology imported from every corner of the globe.
As we made our way down the curved and bumpy track we could see the bright porch light of my grandparent’s cottage with its row of old sash windows, large curved wooden front door and the outline of Gran’s beautiful sunflowers casting its shadow on the old sandstone brick. The four by four approached the large meandering stream that flowed down the hillside and into the loch. As we crossed at the shallowest point the vehicle shoogled from side to side while we felt every rock and stone on the streams bed. As I looked back over my shoulder and across the stream, the moon appeared behind the fog and for a few seconds it lit up a small outcrop with six grey standing stones. The silhouette of stones created a dark contrast on the horizon like six dominant pillars wedged between the back drop of the two mountain ranges to the right and left of the loch as the moon cast a white reflection on the still Loch Achall.
‘What’s that Gran I can’t remember seeing that before?’ I said pointing to the far side of the stream below the ruins of the old burnt out Estate House.
‘That’s the sacred standing stones they are the reason this area and its wild life are safe for the foreseeable future. As a heritage sight, the law now protects the land so it cannot be exploited as a country theme park for Europe’s aristocracy or bought up to build another monstrous wind farm or salmon farm. It has become a real blessing in the conservation of the endangered animals, wild salmon, and birds of prey that inhabit the estate,’ said Gran.
As we gradually made our way towards the old cottage suppressed emotions welled up in my chest triggering memories of us all spending time together as a family. As I looked at the roof of the cottage, I suddenly recalled that very last visit and how Dad helped Grandad install new solar roof tiles and a home generator for storing energy. I recalled my grandparents conversation with my parents of how they had seen a big difference these past few winters as they were now totally self-sufficient and no longer at the mercy of nature and the ever changing weather patterns. Hazy thoughts and memories gradually turned from grey to full colour; being five years old watching on as Gran sat at the kitchen table with her old Singer sewing machine with her rows upon rows of colourful jars full of old reclaimed buttons, ribbons, zips, wools and fastenings. Gran was thee recycler she never threw anything away from furniture to clothes. She understood the original environmental cost it took to create items and the importance of extending their usefulness. She could create things from nothing; turning old trousers into shorts and old scraps of fabrics into cushions, throws and dust rags. She could breathe new life into things the rest of us discarded and became bored with, that only added to the never-ending landfill sites that were destroying our ecosystem.
I had forgotten how much I had learnt before starting school and moving to Glasgow to live, just being with my gran & grandad. I remembered fondly my summers spent helping Gran in the garden tending, watering, and picking the bright red tomatoes, peppers, and crops of black currants and strawberries for freezing, pickling, or making jam. I could recall feeling like a little sponge soaking up everything around me as I constantly quizzed my Gran about the names of all the different herbs, plants, and crops on the grounds.
Gran was a wealth of knowledge on all the endangered species, their habitats, their place in the ecosystem. She even taught me how to distinguish between each species the Kestrel, Osprey, Golden Eagle, Falcon and Buzzard with the different sounds that each of the birds made from their chirps, croons, trills, hoots to warbles. I had great memories of long walks with my Gran and our favourite game of trying to distinguish one bird sound from another. Gran had taught me how to care for my environment with simple habits like how we recycled our waste & water and how small ripples; created big waves and big changes.
While Gran inspired my interest in nature Grandad taught me to think for myself, by sharing his knowledge of innovation and engineering. I loved listening to him talk about his latest inventions explaining how he had created his remote livestock food dispenser, water filtration systems or fire-fighting Fogging System®. His barn was always filled with new technology from his life saving kidney belt that he always carried with him in emergencies out on the estate, that was invented by two of his old and dearest friends over 20 years ago for our ever changing Scottish climate. My granddad was a wealth of knowledge and expertise that was motivated by his love for protecting and caring for the surrounding creatures and wildlife.
As we approached the cottage a smile emerged on my face as I saw the tops of the old chimney pots and fondly remembered the reason why I loved this place so much. How could I have forgotten those memories of us all coorying up together at night as we sat around a warm open fire, toasting outsiders or if we were really lucky marshmallows as Grandad entertained us with his famous Scottish myths! Oh! How Grandad would sit into the wee small hours telling Scottish stories about the Brownie elf folk; house elves, the Banshee or Bean nighe; a female spirit that forewarns of a death, the Kelpie; the shape shifting water horse and the Selkie; the seal that transforms into a human. His stories taught me how nature could sense things, communicate warnings and offer spiritual guidance and wisdom to humans. He loved talking about a time when humans weren’t hypnotized by an ever expanding and dominating technological age.
I sat back with my back against the seat of the car and began asking myself why had I forgotten all those fond memories? Why had I suppressed what naturally and intuitively brought me such joy and happiness? A lot can happen in seven years being in a noisy city 24/7 crammed with people, cars and multi-storey buildings isolated from the beauty of nature, the fresh air and wide open spaces. It’s amazing how we adapt to our surroundings and accept them as the norm, never questioning what it would be like to live in a different environment. Mum and Dad always went on about how great the city was; the buzz, the activity, the choice of nightlife, theatres, museums, pubs, restaurants and culture. Maybe they were truly happy? Maybe being busy never stopping to think always chasing and experiencing the next fad was fulfilling their dream?
The four by four finally came to a halt and Grandad jumped out with a cheeky grin shouting, ‘Welcome home Lass!’
Gran immediately walked towards the outside garden tap and drain and quickly brushed and washed the underside of her boots. As Polly & I stepped out of the vehicle I immediately grabbed Polly’s leash, my mobile phone and iPad, football boots and ball. ‘I don’t think you’ll have much use for them over the coming weeks,’ Gran said apologetically as she looked at my gadgets and reached into the vehicle to unload my backpack and holdall, directing me to the outdoor tap.
‘You never know I might take up football, maybe you can teach me a few tricks Rhona?’ asked Grandad as he helped me with my football and boots, trying to console the obvious disappointment on my face as I stood cleaning my boots.
So what! I thought to myself, just another frustrating reality as to what the coming weeks had in store for me.
After a light bite to eat and familiarising myself with the old cottage I finally excused myself for the evening as I set upstairs to unpack my backpack and holdall. ‘Good night Gran & Grandad see you in the morning,’ I said making my way towards the hallway.
‘What! Are you too old to give your old grandad a good night cuddle?’ he said as he jumped to his feet, and grabbed me in a bear hug and kissed me on the cheek. Gran laughed and looked up affectionately as she sat at the fireplace smothered in a sea of old battered second hand books that she had bought on her ritual visit to the Glasgow Barra’s before returning home.
‘Good night Rhona, thanks honey for the help with the dishes see you in the morning,’ said Gran.
Feeling appreciated and acknowledged, I smiled to myself and slowly climbed up the squeaky wooden staircase to Mum’s old bedroom with Polly following loyally at my heels. I was not going to admit it, but I was looking forward to my bed. I forgot how good Gran’s brushed cotton sheets, felt blankets, plump feather down pillows and duvet were. I was just praying that Gran did not tell Mum that I went to my bed before ten o’clock otherwise I would never hear the end of it.
Bedtime was a bit of a sore point in our house, it always started and ended with an argument about my homework, the state of my bedroom or what chores I had not done. Luckily I always knew that Dad would come to my defence and bring Mum round, he was the peacekeeper in our house. Unfortunately that did not work here, Gran was no push over and though Grandad was a big pussycat he demanded your respect; but then again he earned it. I could not really argue with my grandparent’s they did not talk about principles they lived by them. You always knew where you stood with them everything was consistent, disciplined and logical they never changed their mind on a decision, they followed through every threat! Everything was black or white there were no grey areas. They lived by old-fashioned principle of stark truth nothing was sugar coated.
I unpacked Polly’s dog bed before I slowly put away all my clothes and emptied the contents of my toiletries in the top drawer of the tall boy. I placed my gadgets on the window sill realising that recharging them would be futile, as it was not going to be that kind of holiday. As I climbed into bed and fell over to sleep, I was shortly woken by the high whistle of an eagles call echoing outside. Startled by the noise Polly began whimpering and scratching at the bedroom door, desperate to get out. As I tried to hush Polly I slowly tip-toed to the bedroom window and quietly tried to push up and open the old stiff sash window. Instantly Polly bolted to my side perching her paws on the windowsill, whimpering at the strange noise in the distance.
As I peered across the fields the noise seemed to reverberate from the standing stones with a mysterious purple haze gliding across the grass like a deep thick fog winding a trail that led to the cottage and then dispersed in the breeze. A few minutes passed and the noise faded as quickly as it had begun and the grounds once more fell into silence as the soft harr hovered across the loch like a soft white blanket. As Polly finally calmed down, she sighed to herself and returned to nestle down on her bed on the wooden floor at the foot of my bed. I quietly closed the bedroom window and climbed back into bed staring at the beamed ceiling reflecting on today’s events, curious to learn more about these mysterious standing stones.
Truth is sometimes stranger than fiction! Inspired by my father and his environmental inventions, & highlights the importance of how each persons’ choices in life can have an unfathomable impact on the World. As a successful entrepreneur and inventor of products in water technology for over 50 years his products and inventions have won accolades i.e. One of the first companies to successfully tackle the clean-up operation of the Esso Bernicia oil spill of 1978 at Sullom Voe, Shetland Islands of Scotland. As a supplier to the farming community his engineering products were invaluable in the containment of Foot and Mouth Disease in 2001 and essential in various decontamination and clean-up operations in various industries & sectors contributing to the sustainability of our wildlife and natural environment. The firefighting Fire Fogging system invention depicted in this book was on standby to assist in the 2019 land speed record in South Africa and is supplied to over 70% of the UK’s Fire and Rescue Service and 75% of UK National Parks with their system operating worldwide in Australia, China, Falkland Islands, Ireland, Lebanon, Oman and Russia. And can be found on standby on the set of James Bond movies at Pinewood studios or on the Queens prestigious Windsor Castle Estate. His knowledge and expertise in the use of water technology in various natural emergencies is unmeasurable and demonstrates how each of us can make a big difference in the world by our persistence to be the best at what we do!