Scotland is a long way from Somerset. Fifty years ago, it was even further away. The journey by road or rail could take many hours, and no-one ordinary flew anywhere. It would have been easier to travel to France, travelling down to Weymouth and taking the Sealink ferry to Cherbourg. France, however, was a different country; Scotland was part of our country.
Scotland seemed like somewhere foreign. Once, when my father had made the long journey north to work at Lossiemouth or Kinross, I went to the village post office (High Ham had a post office and a shop in those days). I wanted a stamp for a letter I had written to my Dad. I asked Miss Hunt, the postmistress, if I needed an airmail stamp. She had smiled at my question and said that she didn’t think it would be necessary.
Scotland was different, though. I remember watching the television serial Sutherland’s Law and learning that Scotland had things like procurators fiscal and sheriff courts. (I remember one episode in which Sutherland said he would be somewhere in half an hour and was met with the expression of concern, “but Mr Sutherland, it’s forty miles.”
To a child in Somerset there were immediately identifiable differences: Scotland had different laws, different banknotes, different football teams, different music, different traditions.
What was baffling was that every New Year’s Eve our television schedule would be taken over by people from a far away and different place.
On New Year’s Eve, our black and white television would be filled with pictures of men in kilts. There would be people carrying lumps of coal, were they too mean to take anything else? Men with names beginning with Mac would sing songs in tenor voices that declared the virtues of laddies and lassies.
Perhaps it wasn’t as bad as it seems in the memory, perhaps there were songs other than Loch Lomond and Donald, where’s your trousers? Perhaps not everyone leapt around in sporrans, plaids and dirks. Perhaps their houses were warm enough without neighbours bringing them coal.
Whatever the reality, though, the abiding memory of New Year’s Eve is of fuzzy television images from some studio in Scotland, where everyone was jolly until midnight approached. When the moment came to mark the end of the old year and the beginning of the new, the mood would change. Music that would have accompanied a highland fling was replaced by a drone and people who had been previously happy would take on a sombre look and sing Auld Lang Syne, which must surely be the worst dirge in human history.