The Lismore Larrikin

Dawn broke cool, grey and typically Scottish as this intrepid explorer upped sticks from Glasgow, jumped on a bus and headed out for the wild west coast. Destination: Oban, which is apparently Scotland’s seafood capital and one could definitely believe it given the numerous small vans selling mussels, fish, clams and the like. But before arriving, I was treated to a wonderfully scenic bus ride complete with brooding castles, picturesque heaths & glens and a snaking passage alongside the bonny banks of Loch Lomond. It’s one of those places that seems to have jumped right out of the pages of a book: lush, green and entrancingly medieval.


Rugged, foreboding and medieval: The Hebrides

I didn’t ever expect to say this, but it was alarmingly comforting to feel the floor rolling gently beneath my feet and stifle the urge to yell “CONTACT” at every buoy I saw as the Lismore ferry steamed slowly through the islands of the Inner Hebrides. Once again, it was the Scottish Isles down to a tee, with rolling green hills (punctuated now and then by a crumbling castle or stone ruin) falling gently into the still grey waters. I had a distinct feeling that this could be an incredibly rugged, bleak and miserable place – it’s a feeling that sets off a faint tingling in my adventure glands. Meeting my Workaway host, Jennifer for the first time was an odd experience – somewhere halfway between an internet date and a job interview but as we bumped along the rustic roads, Jenny overcame her initial trepidation at this strange bearded Australian treefrog and we pretty quickly warmed to each other’s company.


Jennifer, Tilly and Molly with the rare bearded green Australian tree-frog

It would prove to be the ideal start to my Workaway career – the quietly outspoken Jennifer provided no end of interesting dinner-table discussions (from apiculture to politics and back again) and living legends/historical treasures Anne and Duncan welcomed me with gruff, grandparently hospitality and generosity. During my all-too-brief two week stay, we also had cameo performances from Jean & Davey (a pair of genuine larrikins from Fife who have a caravan permanently rusted in place on Duncan’s farm), Mary (the self-harming cat) and a contingent from Jennifer’s family (Steph, Nevin, Tilly and Molly). My first meeting with Jean & Davey was a corker. On the first day of work, 4pm rolls around and Duncan ushers me into a little caravan where I’m greeted with a warm, unintelligibly fast welcome and before I know it I’m sat down with a rug on my lap, whiskey in hand and the a pot of tea is on the boil. Our 10-minute break cantered on for more than an hour fuelled by Davey’s manic stories and sense of humour and Jean’s amusingly half-hearted attempts to control him. I tried hard to keep a level head as I rapidly discovered that the whiskey glasses in that caravan are bottomless (at least until the bottle runs out) and Davey plied me with refills whenever he spied a gap between liquid and the top of the glass. This made it all the more absurdly amusing when Jean showed me her latest knitting project for the grandkids: a pair of sloths. God only knows what kind of 7 year old that has the choice of any knitted animal on the planet (tigers, horses, elephants etc) requests a sloth of all things. What’s even more incredible is that there exists a pattern for it: knitted sloth. But I’ll readily admit that the finished product was pretty spot on – looked a bit like a womble.


A bumper crop of rhubarb

Somewhat red-nosed and happy I followed Duncan back to the house where we called it a day and (I think) I made it through the first-day grill without making too much of a fool of myself. From then on, it was all rosy. The work was generally of the simple variety, which meant that I more or less spent five hours a day contemplating all the big issues of our generation whilst I weeded, mended, strimmed or shifted dirt around. For example, I quickly formulated two postulations about gardening. The first is that a weed is a weed no matter where you are in the world (ie they all have a similarly scraggly appearance and roots that aren’t conducive to being yanked out in one piece) and that weeding is truly a constant losing battle because weeds always have far more will to live and thrive than you have will to pull them out. I became intimately acquainted with Scotland’s friendliest animal, the midge – these critters are almost invisible to the naked eye, swarm in their hundreds and have a bit that is similar to that of a mosquito. If you’re not careful, you’ll wind up with itchy red lumps in every nook and cranny – without doubt the peskiest creature I’ve had the misfortune of encountering.


Getting some ‘help’ from Mary

My daily meditations were interrupted now and then by the call to a meal (all were completely delicious, eagerly anticipated and a contributor to my rapidly ballooning weight) and in between, I spent spare hours engaged in various activities. Fell running barefoot through the lush green fields was a standout – the absolute joy of movement & pure contact with the natural environment more than compensated for treading on a few prickles and exacerbating a persistent foot injury. A few days after arriving, I was presented with two completely unexpected experiences. The first was at breakfast when Duncan announced that we would be repairing the road. Turns out ‘repairing the road’ means transporting ourselves back to the 1920s: Duncan would claw down some shale from a rock wall with his digger, we loaded the chunks onto the back of a ute by hand, whacked them with a hammer until they broke down into biscuit sized pieces and then shovelled them into the potholes in the road. Duncan (who has lived under the same roof on Lismore his entire life) built the road by hand in the 1940s, has been repairing it the same way ever since and was going toe-to-toe with me all day. He’s 90 years old.

I’ll forever regret not taking a photograph with him, Anne, Jean and Davey.


Modern day John Henry

The second surprise came later on that evening when I was lucky enough to attend a rehearsal of the Lismore Community Choir. For an island with a population of about 200, there is an incredible wealth of musical talent – it was an absolute treat to have a sing with them all. Any preconceptions I had of an enthusiastic but slightly misguided gang of happy clappers singing mediocre arrangements of Beatles tunes were blown away completely as we launched into a gorgeous sacred number (Weep My Eyes), a lively little gaelic ditty, some baroque SATB and the beautiful folk song “The Parting Glass.” It was a magic day – ticking off a bucket list job (breaking rocks for a living like John Henry) and thoroughly scratching a musical itch.


Two strong helpers

So it continued for two wonderful weeks – it would have been a special time for me if it hadn’t been for the appearance of 3 mysterious travellers who turned a special time into a downright phe-no-menal and unforgettable snippet of my life. What happened, who were these handsome & rugged characters, where did they take me and what larks did we get up to together?? Just like all series (Harry Potter, Game of Thrones etc) you’ll have to wait until the next instalment to find out. Stay tuned!


One evening (just one) on Lismore. Phe-no-menal!