The Mendicant Writer, Cosimo Galbraith, explores two divergent communities through the lives of five remarkable characters. In this second instalment he meets Nicolo the Crofter, rides a quad bike, ruins a good tweed jacket and comes a cropper with a llama (or an Alpaca, if we’re being pedantic).
At the advice of Norrie the Fisherman, I met with Nicolo; a friend-of-a-friend who Norrie thought was better placed than him to offer some sort of outlook on the wider community.
Nicolo is a crofter. Crofts, crofters and crofting evoke spectacularly romantic images in the popular psyche, and in my imagination, too.
The crofter of my imagination is a veritable Marlboro Man, who can fix a tractor and sheer a sheep, while rolling a cigarette with his other hand.
He is gruff and stoical. He ponders his words. He is called Archie, or perhaps Dougie. He drinks well-brewed tea and gives steaming mugs of soup to weary travellers.
He leads a wonderfully charmed, atavistic existence, in a majestic, white-stone croft, nestled somewhere on the horizon near the churning sea.
Sometimes, if I look out over Edinburgh’s grey, dirty buildings, I daydream about becoming this sort of crofter.
I imagine the smell of bog-myrtle and bracken, and long to retire into my elaborate fantasy of rural Scotland; a sort of carefree, short-bread-tin, fairytale world, where there are no bills to pay.
Sadly I can’t retire, there, because it’s a fantasy, and one which absolutely doesn’t exist.
Early one Thursday morning I found myself in a desolate, muddy field with Nicolo the Crofter. It was drizzly and warm. Nicolo had joked on the phone that he would rope me into whatever he was doing that day.
In the event he wasn’t actually joking. Soon we were sitting on the back of his spluttering quad bike and bouncing across the dewy fields.
We must have looked strange together. Nicolo wore boots and overalls smattered with paint. I was wearing a tweed jacket, which I had hoped would fit with the whole tone of Mendicant Writer, but the outfit didn’t really work.
Nicolo looked the part, with his sun-glasses and smouldering roll-up, but I cut a rather sad, bewildered figure.
In fact, I looked exactly like a substitute Maths teacher, attending a disciplinary hearing for unsound practise.
Nicolo’s Alpacas surrounded us. They were graceful, beautiful creatures, which look a lot like small fluffy llamas.
Nicolo introduced them all fondly, by name, and I nodded, briskly (exactly like a substitute maths teacher would).
Nicolo noticed the leather elbow patches on my tweed jacket and sniggered. Perhaps it was paranoia, but I felt like the Alpacas were laughing, too. It didn’t seem impossible. I wasn’t fully awake. I felt fragile and slightly dizzy.
Suddenly the sunlight was brilliant. We fed the Alpacas. Nicolo produced a flask of coffee and some Styrofoam cups. He told me about the croft. There were the Alpacas, sheep and a couple of cows, but the enterprise was one designed to bring him happiness, rather than any real income.
Nicolo felt that there was undoubtedly a thriving community here, but that it was by no means accessible to everyone.
As he explained, at the centre of any rural community, there is always a cluster of dedicated, proactive people, who have the time and resources to arrange things. These people usually fall into two groups.
There are young parents, whose children know each other from primary school, or retired people who already socialise together.
If you happen to be in either group, you’re likely to have a lifestyle which is significantly better than that in a city. For those who fall between stools, particularly the young, life is likely to be harder and lonelier.
I wondered exactly why Nicolo was crofting there, but I didn’t like to pry. The whole encounter felt awkward and confusing.
On my way home I pulled into a lay-by to fumble with the car heater. Cold air blasted my wet jeans in a deliberate, surly way, as I fumbled with the dials.
I watched the lightening crash, and for a moment I considered the insanity and hardship of a life and livelihood, played out in the chaos of the Scottish Highlands.
If it’s advertisers who create a pastoral, toy-town Scotland in our imaginations, then it’s writers who harbour preoccupations about the darker side of life, here.
Highland communities face high rates of unemployment, alcohol-related death and suicide, and these are all themes which pervade contemporary fiction about this place.
In reality, life in a small Highland community cannot be neatly categorised. I think my time with Nicolo the Crofter had made me realise this.