I was wearing my favourite butterfly wings over a one-piece the day I met my future husband on a beach in Scotland. He was busy building a campfire to light after the town’s solstice celebrations. I approached him with my arms full of driftwood.
“Can you use these?”
“Hey, that’d be handy,” he said, smiling and pointing to a conical pyre on the high tide line. “It’s for tonight.”
“Do you like toasting marshmallows?”
“Mum has kebab skewers but---”
“I’ll fetch a packet later and grab you some midgie spray.”
“Thanks,” he said, scratching his bare ankle. “I’m being eaten alive.”
I tottered past him and crossed the gritty sand. Robbie followed me, and we stacked the gnarly offerings onto his rickety construction. We worked well together and spent the rest of the afternoon chatting and gathering branches for our bonfire. It was one of those long balmy June days that melts away in a summery haze.
“Who’s your new friend, Edie?” Mum asked during our evening meal.
“Robbie from London,” I said, gnawing a barbecue-charred drumstick. “He’s staying in a cabin further down the bay.”
“That’s a long way to drive,” Dad said, helping himself to crisp salad leaves. “I guess they’re exhausted.”
“It’s their first time here,” I said, picking through my rice and peas. “Robbie’s family hasn’t visited Scotland before.”
“They’ve chosen a good year for it, poppet,” he said, topping up Mum’s wine glass.
“It’s funny how we forget, isn’t it, love?”
“Don’t remind me.” Dad snorts and sips his drink.
“I don’t recall lighting many campfires last year and---”
“And too many clouds at night to count the stars.”
Robbie’s family enjoyed their Scottish break so much that they returned to the Maxwell’s Cardoness Estate for the next fifteen years. We became best friends throughout our childhood holiday years and looked forward to continuing our adventures as teenagers. Robbie and I would meet up every June and scamper off to explore the bay and search for treasure cast asunder during the harsh winter storms.
June was an idyllic time for a holiday on the estate’s deserted beaches; long, hot days, gentle lapping waters, and inshore breezes that cooled our scorched faces and parched limbs. We crunched desiccated seaweed underfoot as we trudged on the white sands, pausing to inspect rock pools for stranded crabs and molluscs. I was always on the lookout for souvenirs with which to decorate our cabin. Often I’d return with my red plastic bucket brimming with shiny periwinkles, twisted whelks, and ribbed scallop shells. Robbie carried his grandpa’s binoculars over his shoulder in an old leather case. He used them to monitor the indigenous birdlife and surveyed the horizon for pirate ships. The defence of our shores was a serious business.
Two hundred yards inland, the Maxwell’s imposing Jacobean farmhouse occupied an elevated position from which to observe their lands. The early Maxwell clan built the fortified granite building on an estate comprising one hundred acres of pastureland. At low tide they had a commanding view of both the estuary’s rippled mudflats and the lush grasses of the farm’s surrounding meadows.
Old Mr Maxwell established the farm’s holiday facilities fifty years ago and has strived to make it an eco-friendly paradise. He invested in solar panels and now employs tidal turbines to generate all the power necessary to service his farm and provide electricity for our holiday cabins. The estate's profit margin is his chief concern, but he’s taken steps to maintain a range of natural habitats for wildlife too.
I remember lazy afternoons chatting to Robbie in the shade of overhanging boughs beside the freshwater lagoon. A distant splash would shatter the stillness and alert us to a trout leaping to devour an unlucky mayfly. The water’s only other surface movements were the swirling eddies as roach and rudd competed for the warmth of the speckled midday sun. At this time of the year, hundreds of baby amphibians squirmed en masse from the lake like a slimy wriggling carpet. The annual frog migration never failed to amuse or take me by surprise. They’d hop across the surrounding footpath to seek sanctuary in the moist undergrowth nearby and breed in the dense woodland beyond.
There’s a family orientated holiday atmosphere here and Mr Maxwell encouraged us youngsters to explore the local area at will. We had permission to wander as we pleased within the walled grounds and took our liberty for granted. We’d embark on our carefree adventures after breakfast and return home exhausted in the evening. Parents and adults on the site had an open door policy and welcomed our age group for soft drinks during daylight hours. Everybody knew each other, and our welfare and safety were paramount.
Our holidays were unstructured affairs; we had boundless imagination and a youthful enthusiasm, which resulted in a variety of options to keep us occupied. However, no day was complete without crashing down next to roaring flames, toasting toothsome morsels and staring up at the array of stars in the velvety black firmament. With the help of the field glasses and lack of light pollution, we’d identify all the constellations and count the myriad of twinkling lights in between.
“How long will it take these stones to turn into sand?” I asked on that first night, sifting pebbles through my hands.
“I dunno,” he said. “How long have we got to find out, do you suppose?”
“Forever, I hope.” Behind my back I crossed my fingers and made a silent wish.
Old Mr Maxwell had robust business acumen and provided a small general store on site for his guests to restock their supplies. We knew it as “the handy shop” and it saved us walking a couple of miles uphill to the supermarket in Cardoness. Despite its convenience, it was great to leave the site occasionally. There was a world outside somewhere, though it was tempting to forget about it.
Cardoness had a long history of celebrating the summer solstice and it was known for its colourful evening costume parade. The tradition of midnight solstice gatherings went back centuries and hinted at ancient rites and frightening rituals. Legend tells that the first ceremonies involved human sacrifices designed to appease gods of yesteryear and ensure safe passage through the dark winters. It’s advertised as a boisterous occasion and Robbie’s parents elected to kick back and recover from their road trip, however they allowed their son to accompany us.
The format is straightforward. The laird rides his horse alongside the region’s elected mayor and his councilmen in their horse-drawn carriages. Behind them, a procession of lorries bearing children in themed decorations proceeds up the high street. Costumed spectators gather either side of the road and cheer, whilst young children wave and smile with nervous excitement from the trundling vehicles.
The organisers welcomed visitors to the event and invited them to celebrate with the townsfolk on the longest day of the year.
As youngsters, it was unnerving to be surrounded by adults in fancy-dress; donkey, sheep and cow masks were popular. It was like being in a magical twilight world that was full of giant beasts and weird two-legged creatures.
The costume parade ended once everyone assembled at the festival site on the outskirts of town. The mayor would assume the role of town dignitary and award prizes for the most original costumes and fancy dresses.
Robbie chose a shiny gold lion mask he wore on the back of his head. “It’s too hot to wear on my face,” he said, trying to adjust the elastic strap. I think he liked it because it matched the three rampant lions on his England football top. I wore a silver tiara to match my gossamer wings and my best Doc Martin’s. I imagined we looked like elfin royalty and esteemed leaders of the seldom-seen little people. At least we were easily identifiable if we should get separated from my parents.
After the prize-giving event, the townsfolk drift past touring caravans and local livestock towards the performance stages and refreshment venues. The warm evening air is steeped in a heady mixture of conflicting aromas; acrid cow-pat fumes compete with atomised candy-floss clouds and two-stroke exhaust in a tussle to occupy our nostrils.
The first musicians raise everyone’s spirits with traditional tunes played on a bagpipe, fife and drum. People link arms and accompany the soaring melodies with any lyrics they can recall. Flower of Scotland is forever popular here and fuels the atmosphere with its rousing chorus lines; proud locals make their point known but still welcome the tourists’ contributions to their economy.
Once the traditional opening ceremony has played out and established its themes, the headline bands play their sets. The musical line-up contains famous names from previous decades, aged entertainers and pop acts with set-lists of memorable hits from the not-too-distant past. The party gets going with careworn punk bands screaming raucous chants, glimmering synth combos bang out swirling electronic dance tunes, and elderly rockers run through nostalgic ballads and crowd pleasing anthems.
There are novelty side-shows in neighbouring meadows; flame-eaters, chainsaw jugglers and garish clowns in oversized footwear, and astonished grins. Food stalls sell fluffy pink candy floss on splintery sticks, there are spicy noodles and broiled hot-dog sausages rotating above steaming ovens.
My parents and their fellow holiday-makers head for queues at the refreshment tent, and we remain outside, waiting at makeshift trestle tables. They return with cloudy home made lemonade and raise their plastic pint glasses to toast the longest day. It was a time to savour and a moment to think about the end of another year “It’s all downhill to Christmas now,” said Dad. “Aye, the nights will draw in and soon we’ll be coming home from work in the dark...”
But not tonight. The sun will barely rest as it dips below the horizon for less than three hours. This is the day that never seems to finish. The light will fade after midnight and there’ll be a tension in the air and a prayer for more life.
The time of the finale is vague and unannounced. At around eleven o’clock, the music fades away and everyone heads across the trampled meadows to gain a decent vantage point. The giant leers down at us all from the top of the rise. He’s motionless and stiff, bold and defiant; built from wicker sticks and bound with rustic ties. He’s strong and proud, but also he’s a scapegoat bearing a year’s worth of woes and regrets. They’ll sacrifice him now and incinerate his every sinew.
There are shouts and applause as the dry kindling at his feet is lit. Sparks hop upwards and orange flames lick his wooden shins. The fire creeps up the sturdy legs, and a hush descends upon the congregation. Everybody assumes a silent vigil and the fire envelopes the upper thighs and belly in a roaring inferno. Their thoughts are with the out-going year; lost friends, deep regrets, and unspoken worries. They bury all those concerns for a short time as the torso blazes away and the head glows. At last fireworks embedded inside the uppermost structure ignite. Rockets sore upwards and the coming year is foremost; the vital autumn harvest will soon be here. All our futures are beginning and another new year starts as the fiery tumult recedes.
In silence we turn away from last year's glowing embers and shuffle away into the green half-light of the shortest night.
The stars above blink at us as we approach our beach and challenge us to count their number. The sky has changed from dark blue to bible black; a most unholy night indeed. Its pagan origins are mystical and obey ancient customs and a wisdom that’s both unfamiliar and brutal. Robbie lights our fire and I lie down on the gritty sand and raise his binoculars to my eyes. We’re going to be here for some time.