Saturday, 21 November 2020

Reflections on a departure



Kilkerran Cemetery, Campbeltown
10th November 2020

It was raining as I walked along the sea front to the cemetery, replaying old conversations in my head. It was raining and the seals were singing. They were down on the rocks were the tide was ebbing, their voices echoing across the bay, a strange choir keening a farewell. I stood while the rain dribbled down my neck, trying to record the wonder on my phone. Campbeltown Loch (O, don’t say it! Avoid the song!), Davaar island with its treacherous causeway and a painted Christ in a cave and behind me now, Kilkerran Cemetery.

 The cemetery itself is a delight, a treasury of rusting rails and stone-built chambers, ivy-wrapped and ancient. Modern headstones in marble shine gold letters against dark stone and stand very straight while the others generally list a little. Graveyards are libraries full of stories written in books that often only families can open but whose title themes leap off their stone covers. The children who died so young. The whole family. That distinctly Scottish respect that buries married women under their maiden names. Soldiers. Strangers. Here in this town, sailors. The drowned, a repeating tale, suggested in stone.

Who planted, who brought, a eucalyptus here? Campbeltown is a sheltered pocket. Palm trees and tree ferns survive in this northern hollow and the incongruous gum tree lifts elegant curves over a cluster of graves that don’t seem to connect to its story. It is a beautiful place, even in the drizzle. A good place to sit and wait and continue remembering. But the seals are singing and the gates open.

There was a space for you beside your parents, Grandpa who I just remembered and Granny who was a knitting presence right through to university days. I’ve still got an Arran jumper she knitted. Threadbare now and too small but a link to be treasured. The minister is speaking. He knew you, Auntie Mary. He lives in Campbeltown: how could he not know you? But really, he did. He knew what you were like. I hear your smile in his words. Your voice behind his. I remember.

After all these years, after my whole life, of knowing you, it was only in these last few years that I felt I understood you. You took all my father’s confusion and occasional hostility in that last year in your stride, adjusting, correcting gently or letting it go. Knowing the levels of alcohol, appreciating the pain, pushing a little, nagging a bit, being a good sibling and laughing. That laughter reminded me of other laughters over the years: walking along a beach (always with a headscarf – you, not me, I’ve not gone there yet) - and a stoop.A flask  and a deckchair at Southend Beach, cheerfully wrapped against the endless wind while we found treasures (gulls’ feathers, shells, red stones) and shouted. A careful manner. Knowing everyone it seemed as we walked through town, knowing the genealogies, identifying cousins and sort-of cousins and people whose easiest description is cousin. Here is where, and there is where. Where, and do you remember, well, no, you wouldn’t but I can tell you that once….

Family: Marion Hutchison (photo left) and Mary MacLellan either side of Jean MacLellan (our Mum) with Iain, our Dad, behind, Southend, 1956

You were one of the few anchors in that final year. As his understanding of life around him faltered, as he submerged his grief at our mother’s death in alcohol, for my father you were a constant. Big sister, you were a thread he could hold onto, one that ran back into - or maybe ran forward out of – happier times. His weekly conversations with his big sister reminded him of other things and unravelled anecdotes. The Gaelic choir. Grandpa. A bold young lad. Fishing. Or that bold young lad again, running to the top of Beinn Ghuilean. Away from that rush of memories, we got old grudges: big sister, little brother complaints from 60, 70, 80 years ago. He grumbled and complained but when you called, he sparkled. He always knew who you were, even when we, his children, were a confusion (which son is here now? Where are his children? Is the dog downstairs? I have no children and no dog. The other brothers do) or when we all became Duncan towards the end of it all. But you, you were always Mary and he always knew who you were.

We did, too. I did. You might have ventured out on holidays and expeditions to Glasgow and Stirling for the shopping (an annual treat) but Campbeltown was home, was always home, and here, there, you were one of my constants, too.

As we cousins walked away from your grave, we reflected that with your departure, the last of our parents’ generation, now, we are the auld yins. We number parents and aunts and uncles. The first grandparent badges are being worn. But, I reflected, I am very like you, Mary. I travel, I’m nomadic, but when I settle, I do anchor to a place. Like you, I’m a persistent spinster (or bachelor, maybe). To many of several younger generations, I am already Auntie Toad and now I wonder if I’m on my way to being our Auntie Mary. It would be an honour to sit in that space (I do flasks, but tend to sit on the ground, on sand, on rocks). If I’m earning an Auntie Mary badge, I hope I can hold it with as much humour and grace and quiet generosity of spirit as yourself.



Peacefully at the Campbeltown Hospital, on the 3rd of November 2020,
MARY MacLELLAN in her 95th year, 6 Mill Road, Campbeltown, dearly beloved daughter of the late Eddie and Marion MacLellan and a much loved sister and aunt. 

Funeral Service Private in line with current government guidelines.