This piece was first published in SR in 2009
I am enjoying Islay McLeod's Scotland
and found her photo features on the north coast brought back memories of my time working as a ghillie at the House of Tongue in student summer holidays for three years in the late 1960s.
The house was let each August to the Longman family (of publishing fame) who invited some of their more successful clients and friends. I was ghillie, relief gardener, handyman, dishwasher, shopper, etc, and generally on hand to ensure everyone enjoyed their holiday. There are several occasions I remember in particular:
Taking Ludovic Kennedy out for five hours' loch fishing when we covered so many topics including his career, the state and future of the Highlands and politics generally. He talked about his switch from the Liberals to SNP which I had not been aware of but in Tongue I did not have access to radio or television and rarely saw a newspaper (they did not arrive there until 5.30pm). A couple of months later, back in Edinburgh, I heard him give a speech in which he announced his switch and it was headline news the next day. I had had an exclusive two months earlier and did not realise it.
His wife, Moira Shearer, was there also, with their children. She had given up her highly successful ballet career to look after the family. She was about 40 when I met her and even to someone still in his teens she was stunning with her red hair, wonderful figure and friendly personality. For grouse shooting we used two pointer dogs, one of which roamed the hill picking up grouse scent while I held the other on a lead to give it a rest. In addition to dealing with the dogs, I carried the game bag and any jackets if it was hot. Moira was the only guest ever to offer to take the dogs. When I had two strong dogs on a Y-shaped lead, life was fine if they pulled in opposite directions, but if they set off with a common aim across the old peat hags, mud up to the knees was often the result for the poor dog handler. She was determined to take the dogs despite my warnings and off she went leaping over any obstacles with such poise.
Taking William Douglas Home, brother of Sir Alec and a successful playwright at the time, fishing and him not catching anything for hours. That evening one of his plays was opening in the West End and he was naturally anxious. To keep his spirits up he burst into song, at the top of his voice, singing When I'm 64
Shooting with Richard Beaumont, chairman of Purdey guns, who had great tales of having to go with an engineer to fix guns for some of their more influential clients such as various Russian leaders and Franco.
The Longmans used Sir Gordon Richards to train their horses and he used to phone any time one of their horses ran, to explain why it had lost and how it would do better next time. He usually called when the family was out and my girlfriend (long since my wife), who had a summer job as a housemaid, usually took his calls and passed on all his excuses to the family.
Going to the local shop for groceries and having to wait from 11.00 to 11.15am while all the staff had their tea break.
Being quizzed by the shop owner on what brands of luxury foods they had brought from Harrods. Within days he would have them on his shelves, they would spot them and decide that next time they could get them in Tongue. My reward was a Mars bar.
Taking the mail to the Post Office in the morning to catch the mail bus and being given the job of franking them while the postmistress read the postcards.
Seeing the best display of the Northern Lights imaginable.
Being probably the only Mackay to celebrate his 21st birthday in the clan seat since it was sold to the Sutherlands in 1829. As one day seemed to roll into the next, I had forgotten about my birthday until the post brought my cards at 5.30pm.
Jack Profumo and family were regular guests at the House of Tongue in the early 1960s and when the affair with Christine Keeler hit the headlines they sought refuge there. As they were very well liked in the area, the locals discouraged the press pack as much as they could, mainly by not offering accommodation and by leading them on wild goose chases. A few nights sleeping in their cars, no sightings and no stories, and most of them departed. My first year there was roughly when his brother-in-law bought an estate in east Sutherland and for years after the family holidayed there, making regular visits to Dornoch Cathedral. He was in the congregation when my daughter was christened in 1975.
But it was not all idyllic. One of my phobias is handling a bird, alive or dead, so catching and dealing with an injured grouse was an ordeal and cleaning them was even worse but fortunately after the first day of the season I could cope. I once spoke to a careers advisor about how I could get into land management so I could live in somewhere like Tongue (is there anywhere like Tongue?) but without an agricultural background I had to forget it. So Tongue became a host of great experiences and Dornoch is not that far away from it.