Donald MacLean did not choose to be born in a cave. This was a necessity, a ‘stay out of jail card’ decision because his father, also Donald, was one of the many crofters rebelling against Lord Leverhulme’s destructive, divisive grand schemes for the island he bought for five hundred thousand pounds at the end of the First World War. The Inverness Police were enlisted to hunt the crofter renegades who, along with their families, secreted themselves against the mainland turncoats. The new mother suffered a breech birth and the baby’s resultant injury prohibited him from becoming a soldier in the Second World War as he could only lift his left arm to shoulder height, a stigma he carried throughout his life. However, the crofters won their war and the Lord of the Isles was banished. A price well paid?
Shonagh, his mother, couldn’t read or write, only speaking and understanding Gaelic. A kind - hearted, religious, much loved crofter and herring girl, she survived her difficult first child’s birth and went on to produce Angus who was born two years later. She was eight months pregnant with my mother, two years later, when she saw her husband killed when the first bus passed by the front of their croft in the small village of Coll, Isle of Lewis. His horse took fright, reared up and the cart did for my Grandfather and First World War Merchant Seaman. Such misery ensued. 1925 wasn’t a kind year to poor single parents, particularly so for the Gaelic speaking Islanders. Shonagh had to leave her home and close knit family to find work in the mainland town of Inverness, penniless, smuggling her children on the roof rack of the train.
Twenty seven years later, I was born in an Aberdonian Unmarried Mother’s Home. Originally due for adoption, my mother, Dolly, decided to keep me. Arriving home to the Merkinch Housing Estate in Inverness, not one word was spoken between my mother, my granny and my two uncles who all shared this two-bedroom Council House with its prized indoor bathroom. My father was never discussed.
Dolly had signed up for the WAAF in the Second World War and had been placed in London for six months when she discovered she couldn’t take orders and ran away home. My Granny, not wanting the Police at her door, through her network of five sisters and other immigrant Hebridean families, found an out of the way job for her in the Argyle Arms Hotel, Inverurie. Being a clever and beautiful woman she rose to the position of manager within a few months. My Bahranian father, one of the first overseas students at Glasgow University, was a guest at Inverurie Castle, the home of the Duke of Argyle. My father gave her £100 when she left in disgrace, pregnant with me, his child, in 1951.
Sharing a small bedroom with my mother, who I thought was my sister until I was twelve, gave me a lifelong need for my own space where I could start the quest to understand what life was about. My social life in the seventies, in the City, was where I would start to become who I am now. I believed every day was a tantalising slice of rebellion. It was never easy. It was, however, necessary. There were no two ways about it.
When I left home at nineteen to go to Drama College in the big city of Edinburgh, my mother was a solitary alcoholic, my oldest uncle was a social alcoholic and my younger uncle Angie tried to keep their lives out of the public eye. This was more difficult than it seemed in that small curtain-twitching community. My Granny, now eighty-four years old, provided the glue which kept her single adult children unharmoniously together in that small, discordant, claustrophobic house.
With that background, I felt I was destined to be something other. No matter what, I always felt I didn’t fit in. However, the education my mother forced on me – classical piano, elocution lessons, horse riding, golf! – (“the opportunities I never had”) provided the skills and tools to ‘have an attitude’, creating the bedrock of my future. Not the supposed normality my mother wistfully envisioned for me.
Even before I left Inverness, I’d got in with the ‘wrong crowd’: English and Glaswegian incomers selling drugs, sex and adventures. Tsk Tsk. “No Police at the door of this house!” Much fun was had being part of that crowd. I was a disgrace; an anti-establishment girl who’d taken the wrong road to Hell. “She used to be such a nice wee girl too.”
The first working class girl in the family (and of mixed race) to achieve enough qualifications to go on to Further Education. I should have been a primary teacher at twenty two, married at twenty three and had two point five children by my thirtieth year, paid off the mortgage in my fifties and cared for my many grandchildren into my dotage. How difficult that would have been for the person I am now. Perhaps the thwarting of conventional values is my legacy, not my rebellion.