A continuing tale of life in the boonies

No. 128

The real Scotland (part two)

The story so far: During a 1987 vacation, I had ventured off the tourist track, in order to give my girlfriend a glimpse of the real Scotland in all its gory! We were camping in the Highland village of Dingwall, where, by sheer bad planning, a folk festival and a punk rock outdoor concert, were occurring on the same weekend - the first action the town had seen since a Viking invasion in the 13th century. 

Our tent was pitched within the confines of an English compound called the Caravan and Camping Club of Great Britain, which had been the scene of a noisy skirmish between management and the Skull & Crossbones Motorcycle Association during the night. We had met the bikers again in a breakfast cafe, and having fallen victim to heavy staring, got out of town for a few hours to visit the comparative tranquility of a nearby ancient battlefield.

Heading back to Dingwall, mid-Saturday afternoon, we were met by a cacophony of wailing guitars and howling bagpipes, as the twin musical events hotted up. Now read on

While Mecca, for the punk fans was the soccer stadium, the entire folk scene centered in and around a down-town bar. The pub contained two rooms jammed wall-to-wall with guitar-players, mandolinists, fiddlers, pipers, harpists, utterly disinterested local drinkers, and the Skull & Crossbones Motorcycle Association. All were united in the struggle for drink. Striving towards the bar for a beer, I felt like a swimmer in a pounding sea, trying to attain the shore, yet the while being driven inexorably towards the jagged black reef of bikers. "Grrrr!" said one of them, nastily, as I was swept by the crowd to arrive on top of his foot, "Ah remember you frae breakfast..."

"Ur ye's all up for the music?", I enquired in a friendly Glasgow accent.

"Aw, yer Scottish," he responded in mollified tones. "We hud ye doon for being American," he added, nodding at my Hawaiian shirt.

"Where do ye have the bikes parked?" I asked, to change the subject. 

"Actually, me and the lads all came up in the old van out front there," confessed the leather-clad motorcyclist defensively. 

"Saving petrol, eh?" I suggested, understandingly. 

He eyed me up and down, and then confided, "We don't really have bikes, but we hang around with the crowd, back in Edinburgh. Can't afford them. Spend all our money on drink. But we're respected because of that."

As if to demonstrate he yelled over the din, "Barman? Seven pints o' heavy for me and the lads when you get a minute!"

I was swept by a feeling of pity for someone I had feared, seconds before. While local drinkers were getting the lion's share of service at the bar, in an alcove, where the folk musicians were centered, two young Dingwall pipers in kilts, were successfully drowning out all other attempts to introduce variety. Harps were lugged off in despair, fiddlers hugged their cases and looked grim, guitar players plotted revolution, and the pipers howled on. Marches, strathspeys, reels, jigs, airs and hornpipes. Heedrum, hodrum.

Sometimes spelling each other, sometimes in unison (much worse) the local youngsters were sly in the knowledge that they were protected from a mad rebellious charge of folkies by the presence of relatives and friends scoffing ale at the bar counter. 

After two hours of earsplitting, festival-wrecking, non-stop bagpiping the other musicians got a lucky break. The brother of one of the pipers staggered from his barstool, grabbed a set of bagpipes and tried to strike up a reel, but being hopelessly drunk, he knocked over a table of booze instead. The folkies, (no dummies) immediately took advantage of the confusion, to bawl out a loud chorus number, and the kilted teenagers, glory over, headed out into what was now evening. 

Candace and I spent the next few hours enjoying a range of traditional songs and tunes from the company, until, approaching the midnight hour, we were ready to walk back through town to the campsite. However, our journey towards the tent was impeded by several thousand punk rockers streaming in the opposite direction, as the soccer stadium concert had just ended. We were in no hurry, being greatly entertained by the grotesqueness of the punks' attire and hairstyles. Grotesque, though, was too inadequate a word to describe a sight that came in view. It was one of the kilted pipers marching at the head of a vast column of punk rockers, playing "Flower of Scotland" for all he was worth, and the crowd singing behind him. And them with shaven heads and purple hair and earrings through their noses. "When will we see your likes, again" indeed. 

And this too passed, with Candace bewailing she hadn't brought her camera, and who could possibly believe what she had just witnessed without a picture. We crossed over the railway bridge, wondering where the other piper had got to, and this was revealed at once. At the other side of the bridge, in the shadow of the soccer stadium, was a massive throng comprised of the kilted youth with bagpipes skirling in its center, a large posse of Dingwall police officers trying to accomplish his arrest, and a swirling outer ring of punks shouting "This is Scotland! Ye cannae jail a piper? It's a bloody national disgrace." 

"It's efter midnight!" yelled the cops, closing in. 

"It doesnae bloody maitter!" retorted the fiery mob, as things got uglier by the moment.

Fighting my way to the center of the melee, I pled the case of the piper, informing the sergeant that this very youth had been the heart and soul of a folk festival and had done Dingwall proud. The officer looked dubious, but relinquished his grip, still muttering about it being after midnight. Just then, another cop broke in to say that the crowd was throwing the piper's wooden box onto the railway line (never trust a crowd). This snippet of bad news gave the piper sufficient incentive to dash over the bridge, away from the police, followed by the punks. 

Candace and I, sauntering down the side street towards the tent, looked back at the silhouettes, cops on one side of the tracks, crowd on the other. A mighty cry of defiance then rose from the punks, a challenging obscenity was hurled at the law, and the bagpipes roared back into life. The cops charged back over the railway bridge in a vain attempt to recapture Scotland's national instrument.

Meanwhile, we arrived at the campsite into the center of yet another brouhaha. The English ex-colonel was manning the iron gate and desperately attempting to block the entry of a punk who wished to avail herself of the bathroom facilities.

Inside the campground, people had split into two hostile factions - English caravaners shouting, "Keep the bounder out!" and Scottish tenters yelling, "Shut yer face! This is Scotland! Let the wee lassie in for a pee for goodness sake."

"Why on earth haven't the damned police shown up yet?" bemoaned the ex-colonel's wife.

"They're all chasing a bagpipe player, uptown," I told her helpfully, as we wandered through the uproar, towards our tent.

"Here comes a van now. This must be the Law," declared the gatekeeper triumphantly, suddenly getting the courage to grab hold of the she-punk.

I looked and recognized the approaching vehicle. 

"No it isn't," I said, "Its the Skull and Crossbones Motorcycle Association!"

Candace and I shot into our tent, and lay awake in the dark, listening to the sounds of Dingwall being slowly torn apart, punctuated by police sirens, shrieks and curses, massive crowds cheering, and the skirl of distant bagpipes.

"A Scotland that never makes the tourist brochures," I whispered.

Coming back to Farmington was tranquility indeed.

July 5, 1988

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