When I was fourteen, we went on holiday to Scotland. My mother had determined that a trip to the homeland was in order, and had spent the greater part of her life being a proud semi-Scotswoman.
We were more Irish than Scottish on her side, but I suspect the Ireland trip was scheduled for the next year. Her grandmother’s maiden name was Campbell, so it seemed Scotland was the obvious location for a holiday.
I’m sure she felt a kinship with the landscape; Dunoon is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen. It was an extraordinary summer of double rainbows and doorstep presents. My mother never accepted that Campbell was the Scottish Smith; there were millions of them. It didn’t matter. She was home.
We did the journey in two parts, stopping in Burnley overnight. When we arrived in Dunoon, we headed for the holiday home, in a park of sweeping green and dotted wooden chalets and blissful sunshine.
On booking a cabin for a two week Scottish sojourn, my parents had explained that my mother was in a wheelchair and couldn’t manage stairs.
Several telephonic assurances were made, and so it was with some surprise that we arrived at the chalet with its dozen steps to the front door.
My father was soft-spoken but the manager was mortified. Within about twelve minutes, he had a carpenter and apprentice hammering and banging a ramp up to the front door. In itself, it was a kind gesture and rapid remedy to what could have been the end of it. Perhaps anywhere else it would have been. Not in Scotland.
Every morning for those two weeks, we woke up to a package on the doorstep to the chalet. A plastic bag containing – well, breakfast. Coffee, tea, milk, orange juice, bacon, eggs, bread, beans and a newspaper. Every single day. It was unbelievably kind. I’ve never known anything like it.
And it’s something about Scotland. Something in the air, perhaps. Visiting north of the border for a friend’s wedding some years back, I went for a wander around Edinburgh with my first brother Trev, and watched as he took all the money from his pocket and gave it to a homeless man.
We were out one evening, in the crisp and bitter cold of Edinburgh in December, our skin turning blue though we were walking quite quickly in layers of wool, and there was a touristy shop.
Harmless stuff, shortbread and deep blue, white crossed umbrellas. They had a special offer on tartan blankets. I bought a couple and handed them to a man who was desperately trying to cover himself in cardboard in a shop doorway.
I don’t pretend to be more than I am. Of course, I consider myself a nice person, if slightly grumpy, and I don’t suffer fools. But I don’t tell you the blanket story to make out like I’m a wonderful person. It wasn’t me. It was Scotland.
Proof that even then, I was still me: my brother, Trev, and I were walking down Princes Street and we started singing. I’m not sure why. A song came into my head, and then out of it. ‘Lithium’ by Nirvana. Trev sang along with me, and I’m sure we looked quite silly. I know Trev did because when the line “I’m so horny..” came up, I left him singing alone. And loudly, by that point.