A story by Ken Mackinlay about Scottish traditions as they are practiced on unsuspecting incomers. The old caving club hut, mercifully departed, is shown above.
It was a dark and stormy night… Actually, I can’t remember the weather at all, but we’re talking Elphin in Sutherland at New Year, so it was probably a dark and pissing wet night. The Inverness Mountaineering Club was in town, and had taken over the schoolhouse. It was the usual hut scene: men who could have later starred in Can’t Cook, Won’t Cook emptying tins of dog meat into saucepans and sterilizing their throat with alcohol prior to engorgement. The Muftis were boiling their sausage.
Bothy ballads were out that year. Instead, an instantly forgettable cassette scraped out from a tinny boogie box, but stalwarts maintained ancient traditions by traversing under the dining table from one side to another. Elsewhere the card school was in full flight until…
The Bells, Esmeralda! The Bells! Stiff manly handshakes all round, and for the girls a peck on the cheek. Time for a first foot. We left the schoolhouse and wheeled right. The sparsely spaced cottages were all unlit. Maybe they’d gone to the fleshpots of Ullapool; maybe they’d emigrated to Canada; maybe they’d… Oh, who cares? – they weren’t in, and that was what mattered. We walked on. I wondered whether we had left Elphin behind (and how could we tell anyway?). The round bottle of Bell’s being nursed inside Neil’s jacket called to him, and their lips met quietly, time and time again. Then the old hands recognized the dark outline on the left, the Caving Club hut. The trogs, fed-up with their single-end where the rain blowing under the door was the only running water and the toilet was “somewhere outside,” were building a new hut, but meanwhile the old one was still in use.
But was it in use that night? We circled the tin hut; we had the exits covered. We thumped on the door. We cried out. No answer. Again, louder. We heard noises inside. We thumped again, “We know you’re in there. Open up.” And a wary English student opened the door, accepting us as local colour. Two or three had crawled out of their pits, the remainder were still cocooned on the matrazenlager. Pride of place was given to the village sign they’d nicked from Loch Lomondside, for they were the Leicester University Speleological Society.
We put them straight: it was New Year; it was Scotland, and we were first foots. They offered us whisky with a name like Stag’s Breath. They’d brought it up from Tesco’s down south, and after two glasses Neil brought it up once more. It has to be said that throwing up in a hut which is just a single room and has no running water could be considered antisocial. We didn’t want to impose on our hosts, so we put a basin next to Neil, removed his glasses before they fell in, and had only another dram or two before bidding LUSS goodnight and returning to the schoolhouse.
We re-arranged the bunks – not only did no-one want to be below Neil, but there was no way we could get him up top, and he’d probably fall out anyway. So he went to sleep cradling a basin, dreaming of… well, who knows? On Ne’erday morning we’d planned a short walk, Stac Pollaidh. A chance for Neil to redeem himself, except he couldn’t find his cagoule. We’d left it behind at the Caving Club hut. Neil knew his responsibilities, and the rest of us were right behind him as he approached the English students. “I think I left something here last night,” he said. How true, how true.
So if you quiz some graduates of a certain English university about Hogmanay, they’ll likely reply it entails being roused by a drunken rabble who invite themselves in, drink your whisky, throw up, and then leave. We of course know better.