Ramblings on Returning to the Small Island in 1998

I found these ramblings in an old notebook the other day. It was written long before I had a blog, when our family was living in the USA and I had returned to Scotland by myself for a week. The title was obviously inspired by Bill Bryson’s 1995 Notes from a Small Island. It’s 23 years old and I know that so much has changed in the UK since then, including the fact that you are no longer charged to use the loo at the station! I was young, slightly arrogant and a bit too critical, but I wanted to type it up and publish it here as it was one of my earliest attempts at writing while traveling and consequently a part of my ongoing story.

Each time I return, I feel more of a stranger, yet the strangely familiar feelings and forgotten senses stir up from within at each new turn.

The arrival at Heathrow: herded like sheep along dingy corridors; being condescendingly spoken to by uniformed, yet shabby, incomprehensible airline staff; broken down escalators; packed like sardines onto a bus to explore the bowels of Heathrow in search of Terminal 1.

The smoke-filled gates; One pound 25 pence for a bottle of water at the coffee shop. The American style coffee, but the somewhat self-conscious waiter who spills milk over his hands as he nervously struggles to place the plastic lid on the lukewarm contents of the cup. There’s an increasing awareness that I’m back in the UK.

I watch my fellow-travellers waiting to board BM 22 to Edinburgh. The small child who was on my flight from San Francisco has finally stopped talking and her eyes are getting heavier by the minute. Her zombie-like mother holds her in her lap and stares blankly out of the window. If only these bright red chairs were conducive to relaxation.

Two English businessmen discuss the latest figures in the Financial Times. Both attired in navy, ill-fitting business suits and slightly geeky glasses. One carries a shabby brown overcoat and both wear shoes that are begging to walk themselves over to the “shoe-shine’ booth located just outside the gate.

Mr Yuppy confidently strides in with his pin-striped suit, striped shirt and polka dot tie – another victim of Great British fashion.

A friendly American from Boston chats with the man next to him about the British weather. He voice is loud and he exudes confidence and self-assurance unlike the young man in the olive green anorak, who sits nervously studying his boarding pass and scratching his head.

Then there’s Jack and his mother…

Jack is around three and he is with his mother, a young, attractive and trendy woman with an air of sophistication that disappears the moment she opens her mouth!

“Jack, if ye dae that again I’ll skelp yir bum in front a abody, d’ya hear me, Jack?”

The British Midland staff strut their stuff, complete with little hats precariously perched on top of their heads. Jolly old English uniforms.

The flight is called and I am Edinburgh bound …


I walk around Trinity and look towards Leith. I am reminded of my maternal grandmother who grew up around here. I start to imagine her as a young girl playing with her siblings along the edge of the freezing water of the Firth of Forth. The wind is bitterly cold and the water murky, There are kids walking home from school and it’s almost dark.

However, the streets feel safe and there’s a sense of security in just walking along peering in the windows of people’s front rooms as they switch the lights on to give me a better view. A few have already closed the curtains to spoil my fun.

The traffic feels close and noisy, but the side streets are quieter so I veer off the main road. There are a few very brave daffodils trying to push their way through in perfectly manicured gardens. They will be lucky if they survive the forecasted frost. I’m surrounded by green grass, holly hedges and iron railings and gates. There’s such a sense of order. Even the weeds wouldn’t attempt to spread over the footpath.

A plane flies overhead and I feel thankful to be on the ground after long flights. My sense of time and place are momentarily confused. My sense of identity and where I am become questionable. Only this morning I confused the lady in the next seat on my flight by telling her that I’m an Australian, temporarily living in the USA and visiting my family in Scotland.

My father in law calls to welcome me back. I’m glad he doesn’t use the word home, as it’s not any more. Although, the grey skies and the grey bricks still hold a part of my childhood. Somehow when I start to reminisce they appear less grey.

A visit to the pub confirms what I thought – this is still the land of warm beer and boiled ham salads.

Then there’s the Edinburgh ladies: head scarves to save the wind from uncurling their tight-permed hair and blue rinses; sensible shoes to pound the pavements and dark woollen overcoats to shield against the elements.

“Good afternoon Mrs Muir.”

“Good afternoon Mrs MacDonald.”

Neighbours, yet polite and never on first-name terms.

“What a lovely mild day.” says one.

If this is mild, please God, don’t let it get cold.

Waverley Station:

Stations are pretty much the same the world over and there appears to be only one language that is used over the public address systems and no-one has yet been able to translate it.

They just charged me 20p to pee.

I board the train and find a seat among the countless backpackers who are being told by the guard not to sit on the reserved seats. The train snakes its way out of the station and into the suburbs of identical houses topped with satellite dishes.

The beverage cart appears and the guy across the aisle from me has just purchased two cans of beer and it’s not yet 10am. Could be an interesting journey. Others are buying coffee, but I’m not going to risk being disappointed by a max pac with no lid.

The landscape is bleak and drab today and the colours are reflected in the faces around me.

The next town is Pitlochry with its endless rows of kilt shops and woollen mills. Again everything feels so ordered and safe. It’s a harsh, but safe landscape. I want to belong to it again, but I can’t. I guess you can’t replant something when the roots are no longer there.

Maybe I was only meant to belong here for a short time.

Edinburgh supermarket:

I decide to buy a few items to take back with me. I take them to the checkout where the lady scans them and tells me the price. I eventually hand over the money, after fumbling to work out the different coins. The checkout operator gives me one of those you poor, simple woman sort of looks. She then asks me something in a language I do not know or begin to understand. ‘Dayyihivaclubcard?’ Confused I ask her to repeat several times. Eventually I work out she is asking me if I have some sort of loyalty card. I answer in the negative as she shakes her head and decides that I really am completely stupid.

I then add to her assumptions by waiting for her to bag my items.

She looks at me somewhat frustratedly, folds her arms and pronounces, “Ye hae tae pack yer own bugs here ye kane.”

I helplessly reach for a plastic bag and bundle my few items into it as she stares me down and humphs!

I turn to bid her farewell and wish her a nice day.


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