The Boys Who Broke the Town
A badass sociologist who ran under the name of Emile Durkheim was esteemed for his perennial description of intrinsic deviance, laying down that “even in a society of saints, there will be sinners”. In Scotland, up north, so far north it seemed to turn around, everything inevitably becoming backwards, I saw living proof of the amplification of deviance in a salmon town, population 50, called Achiltibuie.
Good ol’ Gumtree set me and a buddy on our paths from Edinburgh, 12 hours north to our first stop: a tiny, perpetually overcast fishing village quaintly named Ullapool. It was dead and empty. The sound of fishing boats rocking along the dock, exchanging paint from their shabby hulls, was lonely and depressing. However, Scotland had taught me to spot the signs; if the streets were empty, the bars were full.
In the warmth of a dingy pub, we sat down next to fat, fishy men in overalls and drank a few pints while waiting for the next bus to the salmon factory jobs Gumtree had promised. We were told to stock up on groceries whilst in Ullapool, as there was no supermarket where we were going, and the bus only ran once a week.
Half-cut and loaded with shopping bags, we boarded the bus and wound our way through the rolling hinterland of Scotland’s heavenly green super-scape. Upon arriving in Achiltibuie and settling into our tiny shack next to the roaring grey ocean, we headed to the bar to meet these other-worldians. Within the first few minutes of conversation, we had been assaulted with a torrent of anecdotes, each told by one person about another.
It felt like I had the script from the last 22 seasons of The Bold and The Beautiful crammed unwillingly into my brain. Hairy-faced sisters Reggie and Margaret had moved over from rural Australia seeking a change, but merely found the Scottish counterpart. Krystal was the youngest semi-attractive girl, and Krystal’s mum frequently ate road-kill. Rob and Georgia were getting married, much to the dismay of Rob’s younger brother Fletch, who was the first to notice Georgia – the town’s prized saucy South African – but had failed to capitalise. Rob and Fletcher’s older brother Greg had a child with a sour, crooked Liverpudlian called Lilly, who was best to avoid.
The more I drank, the more their lives became mine.
Andy and Ally were a couple who we would be sharing our house with; they fucking hated each other. Paloma was a loud-mouthed Guatemalan that all but few despised; she would also be living with us. Ben was a bit of a lingerer and had the hots for Ally. And Cathy said this about Tom and then they were fighting, but Margaret’s husband died in a fire so she interjected, stealing Tom’s pity and so fucking on and so fucking forth.
This mountain of bullshit made me hate them all. As we left the pub and walked down the narrow road in gloomy darkness, we bitched about their bitching. I was over it; I’ve never been able to handle the pettier shades of humanity. Luckily my comrade Spence, who was sane like me, rationalised things, saying, “Let’s just make the most of this crazy experience and not get caught up in it.” As we reached the doorstep, prepared to meet our new housemates who we already knew so much about, we both swore never to regress into the dark pools of their atavistic gossip, to hold our morally elitist platform high above their skanky drone.
Within two weeks, we were writing the fucking script. We had exploded enough gas cylinders, smoked enough hash and drunk enough Guinness. Armed with air rifles, we had roamed and hunted around the hills, anticipating a furry Haggis to ambush us at any moment – easy prey, as its two left legs are shorter than the others – and gone home bloodthirsty. We had plenty of unsuccessful mushroom picks, we hadn’t fucked Krystal, and we were getting bored; but everyone else seemed to be constantly charged up with sweet, elating gossip and we were jealous – it was time to get amongst the hard stuff.
It started with Lilly (the Liverpudlian) frequently bringing her little brat son over to our tiny chalet: a filthy plywood shack. It was the middle of winter in North Scotland; winds would reach up to 50 knots per hour, sweeping the rain into a barrage of icy needles that penetrated anything in its horizontal path. The lino would literally billow with the oncoming wind, making our house so cold that ice refused to melt. We couldn’t afford to use the heating with our pre-paid electricity cards, even when we stole them from the landlord, so we spent most nights huddled around a rotating halogen heater, swearing at the world, at Scotland, at our friends next to us soaked in its glorious red light – those selfish assholes, they always get the middle, they get the best of both rotations there, fuck them – until it swung around and engulfed you for another fleeting moment of comfortable peace.
I don’t remember Lilly’s son’s name (he reminded me of the kid from The Simpsons called Warren who slaps Bart’s back in their remedial class). Yes, let’s call him Warren. I remember his face, his scouser accent, his constant nagging and fiddling and breaking and poking and shit jokes that he told over and over. Yes, I remember. Lilly would come round to visit Katrina and, united by their alienation, they would revel in trading malicious gossip about any lives they could pry their sordid little beaks into. After a week of penting up all my inner rage, I lashed out and told Katrina that Warren and Lilly were to stay away, that they were ruining my sanctimonious Feng Shui. I was just bored.
This served as the catalyst for the division of the town. Within a week, Andy and Ally had left. Not being able to handle our bucket bongs or relentless clutter, they took their dysfunctional relationship into Ally’s mother’s house. Katrina said a kind fuck off in her Guatemalan accent and went too. Our boss had words with us about our messiness and rudeness, but as he was Australian and patriotic, kindly let us stay in the chalet by ourselves without paying any extra rent.
The bar closest to our house, run by Lilly’s brother, refused us entry, forcing us to go to Summer Isles bar, which was a two-hour walk over the mountain. This injustice, when told around a pint at the Summer Isles, precipitated the schism that broke the town in two. Rob spoke to his brother Greg, ordering his wife Lilly to let up. Greg refused and the undertow of the brothers’ mutual hatred pulled them further apart.
Rob and Georgia had us stay over at their house most nights. At first, I thought this was merely a fuck you to Greg and Lilly, but I soon found out they were merely abound with generosity and love and they just couldn’t palate the thought of us walking so far to get a beer. In the salmon factory, I would be blissfully packing salmon in the deep freeze and talking shit with Margaret (the mercenary) while Spence bunkered down in the cutting room with eight others, four on each side, watching timidly as insolent glances were fired over the silent, deadly void.
Yes, the town had become a battlefield, and with only 50 people in it, the friendship casualties ran high. It was Summer Isles bar vs. Achiltibuie pub, North vs. South, Brother vs. Brother; knives were out and shit was awkward. Christmas celebrations were re-arranged and cancelled, Andy was fired from the Smokehouse, the brothers stopped fishing together and each night at the Summer Isles gossip would whirl through the bar with the momentum of the 40-knot winds – but now it had a darker overtone of vexation that made the past’s benevolent palaver seem antique.
Catalyst or excuse, Spence and I had brought social cataclysm to this backwards town. And a god damn French sociologist had foretold it all.
Durky Durkheim, the old dog, showed us that in any community, no matter how close, reliant or connected, you cannot escape the fundamental human discourses of conflict, judgment and resentment.
Spence and I dove blind and headfirst into the unsaintly world of gossip and had come out running that shit, and ruining it for everyone else.
And now we both fear salmon and small towns.
NB. Should we ever return, how our legacy will have transformed, how our short visit will have turned us into folkloric fantasy characters told at bedtime to sleepy children through the tale of ‘The Boys Who Broke the Town’.
Cover by Max Hermansson