Somewhere in deepest Southwest Scotland, those who lead simply marvellous but hectic lives within the honey coloured sandstone of the villas in Glasgow’s exclusive West End, have their weekend retreats. Here among the tumbling burns, gushing rivers and larch clad hills they can be themselves and frolic with their dogs in the beech woods and pass the time of day with amusing rustics among the iced gingerbread loaded plates of countless fundraising teas and coffee mornings.
In the words of a local artist well versed in the techniques of “en plein air”, Spring is “long awaited”. There are, however, signs that something is stirring, indeed some might argue that after last night’s Country Dance Spectacular in the function suite of The Pentland Firth Arms Hotel, there has been rather too much stirring. John Knox, who has done more than most to shape the mindset of the Scottish nation, realised the dangers of dancing, which he thought betrayed a certain tendency to madness. Worst of all was the sort of close dancing which enabled the transmission of gossip, scandal and heaven forefend stirrings!
Simple circle dancing might just be permissible, provided one does not forget the scriptures. Even then the jigging and birling promotes a dizzy forgetfulness which might well lead to… well you know what dancing leads to! The results will be all too clear come December, if – and there is always an if -“God spares us”. For the Presbyterians who inhabit this land firmly believe, even if they do not “believe”, that a day of pleasure is always paid for with a day of pain. There is, on the other hand, a fatalism that the future is always mapped out and there is little one can do to change it, as the people are fond of saying “what’s for you won’t go past you”. This is not entirely pessimistic because at the end of the day one might just as well dance.
A Crack Shot
Dancing appears to be the favoured occupation of the hares in the fields at the moment and indeed of the birds in their courtship rituals. Red squirrels chase one another among the branches of the alder trees with their strange purple luminescence, a feature which vanishes as the leaves appear. On riverbanks weasels play on a carpet of emerging wild garlic soon to be harvested for soup and salads and rabbits begin their cheeky assault on emerging garden shoots unaware that a woman in a floral apron and support stockings has a rifle following their every move.
Just Like Chicken
“Gotcha” said Mrs Travers, (the daily woman what does, but not a lot) who has accompanied her employers to their rural retreat. “That will do nicely for a pie for Wednesday if I get it skinned and soaking in bicarbonate of soda, which will remove the gammy taste and Mr Wylie will believe it is chicken. The skin will make a nice pair of mittens for young Gayle, for next winter, provided I have some alum to preserve it.”
Mrs Travers retrieves the furry intruder and takes it to the cold room leaving it on a marble slab before washing her hands and picking up the wicker basket of “whites” a miscellaneous collection of sheets, pillow cases, a couple of Mr Wylie’s shirts and some of her own necessaries – a collection of garments more familiar in the 19th century but were bought at a sale in “Busty Betty’s” many years ago, and still show no signs of wear, only requiring an occasional purchase of a card of elastic for the legs. On the washing line they blow magnificently and given their size might easily be taken for the sails of a returning tea clipper from the South China seas.
Mrs Travers lacks the inhibitions felt by many of those women who would never display such items in public view, preferring them to dry more discreetly on winter dykes in front of Rayburns or at night in front of the fire after males have retired up the wooden hill to Bedfordshire and the smooring of peats (as the gaels say) has taken place.
Mrs Wylie’s foundation garments would never be seen in public blowing in the wind and on the odd occasion when lack of a fire has made drying outside necessary, they are covered on both sides by “modesty cloths”, or old pillow cases pegged to the line, furthest from view. There are of course some forward ladies like Mrs Wylie’s cousin, Lulubelle, and her neighbour Lady Pentland-Firth who flout this convention by preserving sets of racy underwear which are never worn but kept solely for washing line display. Of course not even these are displayed on a Sunday for that would be crossing the Rubicon or at the very least suggesting that one might be turning continental.
A Murderous Mind on a Bicycle
Stepping back to admire the blueness of her whites, the reverie of the washerwoman was broken by the aerial bombardment of a squadron of crows which alighted on the trees along the riverbank. “That happened to me yesterday”, said the voice from a bicycle which had just come up the garden path carrying the well known local writer of detective novels Bunty Haystack who specialises in murder and mayhem in the country side.
“Oh Miss Haystack, you startled me, I shall have to wash Mr Wylie’s combinations again.”
“I do apologise Mrs Travers, this bicycle is a very silent model, and indeed I used it in my best seller, ‘The Cycle Slayer’.”
“Yes I know; I have read it. That bit with the tyre levers gave me nightmares for weeks.”
“Oh good; did it really? How splendid! I did wonder if I was overdoing it with the headmistress and the poisoned rain cape. Combinations you say?” said Bunty in a most lascivious sort of way, which was not surprising considering her reputation with men. “I would have thought Mr Wylie was a far more modern sort of gentleman in that department.”
“Well, indeed Miss Haystack, but Mrs Wylie does not like him spending too long in his shed without suitable layers, especially as he is not only very chesty, but also very busy with his papier-mâché scale model of the Western Front 1914-18 using my old Daily Record newspapers.”
“ Why the Daily Record, pray tell?”
“ Oh Mrs Wylie does not think it decent to use The Glasgow Herald or The Daily Telegraph and not even The Record if it has pictures of the Royal Family as it would never do to cover Princess Margaret with flour and water and lay her on a chicken wire base. Although I do happen to know that under Hill 60, there is a picture of The Queen Mother at Royal Ascot, not that she can ever know. Anyway how may I help you?”
“I am just delivering the local magazine.”
“Just the usual, although there is a bit of a telling off by the Minister about gossip after the man who drives the mobile drapery store ran off with her from “ that London” who bought “Druid’s Knowe” for a painting school. They say she is a naturist and he had plenty of free tuition in artistic matters.”
“Really you don’t say? Gossip is very destructive. Was he interested in oil or watercolour?”
“Mixed media according to Molly Moss who went there for a bit of help with her perspective. She said he was very forward in the ‘Life Classes’ and his line of beauty was all over the place.”
“Well the Spring Exhibition should be worth seeing. Anything else?”
“There’s a Sausage and Mash Supper in aid of the “Orphans To Oz Scheme”, so that the poor mites each get a Bible and a penknife to help them in the outback. The Women’s Guild has a ‘Prettiest Invalid Tray Competition and Mr Wilson has a new preparation against aphids which can also be used in jungle warfare if necessary – take your own lemonade bottle. And it’s Mrs Wylie’s turn on the flower rota, the theme is redemption. There is, however, something else you could do for me.”
The Spiritual Mrs T
“Yes and what would that be? I hope it’s nothing like the time you suggested I dive into the curling rink in January to test your theories for “Death in the Duck Pond”?”
“No nothing so visceral, I am working on a new book about the world of the supernatural and I need first hand experience of a séance. You seem like a very spiritual woman to me Mrs Travers and if I might say so a woman prepared to push against the boundaries of understanding.”
“Well I was married to Mr Travers for many years until he ran away only returning with a stuffed lizard from the East Indies which was made into an occasional table lamp. Now that tested the boundaries of most peoples’ understanding.”
“Well exactly one can always tell those who are that not afraid of the other side. Might we assemble here later? I have invited the noted spiritualist Madame Claire Voyant and some kindred spirits such as Polly Wanton, Vera Veil and Crystal Clear and one or two others.”
“No sorry Mrs Wylie does not approve of such things, she would not be at all happy. Mind you she is going out and he is at the Hysterical where they have a talk on the History of Pulpit Falls which will take hours.”
Muriel is about and Mr Wylie is in the bath with a headache of his own making
“Who is taking my name in vain?” asked Mrs Wylie
“Good morning Mrs Wylie” said Mrs Travers and Bunty in unison.
“Good morning Mrs Travers, Miss Haystack. Good drying day by the looks of things. And what is going on here in Shangri-La today might I ask?”
“Oh as I was just saying to Mrs Travers that all is revealed here in the Parish Magazine. The Minister is a bit cross but that is not unusual. I must push on, there are quite a few of these to deliver and I want to pop in to The Tramps’ Refuge Table-top Sale. I have my eye on a rather nice tweed cape. Nothing like an hour on a hard saddle I always say, except two hours, followed by a bit of machining on the old Singer! See you on the other side, Mrs T.”
“On the other side what on earth is she talking about? No wonder those novels are so awful, any one would think she was interested in spiritualism. Honestly Mrs T have you read ‘A Rubber of Bridge too Far’? Simply ghastly. Now I was wondering do we have any Wintergreen left my knee is a bit sore from all those reels and Strathspeys.
Then I thought we might have coffee in the morning room. Mr Wylie is in the bath gazing at the trees along the river bank. He has something of a hangover, so he will be worse than useless today, so no change there. Make sure he is subject to maximum noise and inconvenience. He has the History Society this evening and I have a committee meeting with Lady Pentland-Firth regarding our next Country House Concert. I am thinking of taking the pastoral as our theme.”
“Do mean madam, taking the countryside and the village as symbols of stability, security and order through the eyes of shepherds and shepherdesses, using the symbolic to explain the complex?”
“I suppose so Mrs T. I thought we might start with something Shakespearean. Teasing out the pastoral elements in As You like it and The Winter’s Tale, which are plays by that writer William Shakespeare.”
“Sounds like a good starting point Mrs Wylie and then you might select themes expressed by Ramsay in The Gentle Shepherd, Monteverdi in L’Orfeo, John Gay’s satire on the pastoral in The Beggars Opera, perhaps picking up on Tristan and Isolde or even Stravinsky and Le Sacre du Printemps which always makes for a good finale especially if there is a sunset – very earthy and abandoned.”
“Umm yes and I was also thinking of an afternoon lecture on painting and the pastoral.”
“Oh you must Mrs Wylie, and don’t forget Poussin , Watteau and Claude. You might call it Fêtes Gallants.”
“Indeed I might Mrs Travers – have you been reading my notes perchance? Now before you have visions of yourself on a swing in a forest glade have you done all the washing and thought about suppa. Mr Wylie says he’s thinking fish pie tonight.”
“He must have been reading my mind Mrs Wylie.”
“Now what about your evening Mrs T, why not do something a little different. We will both be out and Hairy Mary from Inveraray and Gayle will not be down until the afternoon train tomorrow.”
“Thank you Mrs Wylie I might just sit down with a slice of that fish pie if Mr Wylie leaves any and attend to my spiritualist, I mean spiritual, needs.”