Text and photographs by Florence Newman
We met on the single-lane road that runs straight out from the village of Halkirk to Loch Calder then takes a sharp left and meanders along the shoreline out to a hunting lodge at the foot of Ben Dorrery. My morning walks only took me as far as the loch, about two hours round trip, timed so that I could have breakfast back at the Ulbster Arms Hotel with my husband before he and the other anglers set out for their beats on the Thurso. If I missed breakfast, I’d be unlikely to see Howard again until the late afternoon, when they’d all come off the river with the salmon they’d caught or at least with stories of the ones that had shown, leapt, spurned the fly, thrown the hook or otherwise gotten away. (Click images for larger views.)
Some mornings, Dunny would arrive in the opposite direction from me, appearing as a small dot on the distant asphalt, disappearing for a minute or two when the road dipped slightly, but approaching steadily, laboriously, on his rusty bicycle, his little dog running along beside him. Dunny was short and may have once been stocky, but was now merely barrel-chested and wiry. He wore a loose white shirt and a gold necklace, the shirt unbuttoned far enough to expose a tuft of grizzled hair on his chest. His face was weathered, with cherubic red cheeks and blue eyes by turns mirthful and shrewd. When he smiled, which was often, he displayed a set of teeth so incongruously complete and uniform that they must have been dentures. His snowy hair curled at his collar. That first day, we somehow fell into conversation, although given Dunny’s heavy Scottish brogue I only understood one word out of three and mostly grinned and nodded to cover my incomprehension. I suspect that my primary appeal for Dunny was that I was female—never mind that I was in my fifties and had just hauled myself makeup-less out of bed and into my sweatshirt and windpants. But also we shared an appreciation for the wide fields and low hills that spread out on either side of us, smattered with yellow and blue wildflowers and riven with trickling burnies. I remember that at that first meeting, Dunny said to me, clearly pleased, “I thin’ ye laik this pairt o’ the road,” which I took to mean “this part of the world,” though the literal meaning would have been equally true.
Donny McPhee was a gypsy, a fact in which he took great pride. His first name sounded like “Dunny” in the local dialect, so that’s what I called him, splitting the difference between “Donny” and “Danny.” His surname, McPhee, is apparently a common one among Scottish gypsies: it means (more or less) “of the fairies,” and I wondered if the gypsies had adopted the name to emphasize their distinction from ordinary people. In addition to his rather raffish style, Dunny flaunted his ability with animals, purportedly a hereditary trait among Travelers (as Celtic gypsies often call themselves). There was the terrier, Queenie, who sat at Dunny’s feet, gazing attentively at his face as if waiting for her next command. Dunny also owned a white horse named Lady, who was staked out on a long rope on the grassy riverbank near the Ulbster Arms. Lady, I was repeatedly told, performed tricks for Dunny, but I never saw any of them. In fact, I don’t recall ever seeing Dunny and Lady together, though he must have led her into and out of the pasture morning and evening. She was far from neglected, since I and fellow passersby would regularly coax her to the fence with an apple or other treat. Nonetheless, like Dunny, she gave the impression that her better days, more active and more colorful, were behind her. That Dunny prided himself on how well he’d trained his animals was evident from his chagrin one day when, stopped beside a tangle of brush at the roadside, Queenie plunged into the brambles and then refused to come out, despite her master’s increasingly frustrated calls, whistles, and remonstrances. She had encountered some creature (a weasel, perhaps) that put up a fight—the bush thrashed about as if caught in a storm and emitted occasional high-pitched yips and squeaks. Queenie eventually emerged from the briars, empty-mawed, but Dunny was mortified, having failed to uphold his reputation as an animal whisperer.
Queenie went everywhere with Dunny, trotting at the end of a leash tied to the handlebar of his bike when he rode. Dunny was keenly interested in what wildlife I’d seen on my walk and perked up noticeably if I mentioned seeing rabbits. The anglers joked that Dunny poached trout and salmon from the river; I don’t doubt that when no one was looking Dunny unleashed Queenie and sent her into the fields to find something to eat, legal or illegal. It seems that Dunny had had a series of such canine accomplices, all named Queenie, over the years. Maybe it was only with this particular Queenie that the gypsy mystique had not entirely taken. At this stage of his life, poaching was probably just a pretext for Dunny to cycle the roads early in the morning. He would tell me how different the countryside had been when he was young, how there had been no wire fences to prevent him from rambling freely for miles over the moors, how no one would complain then about trespassers, how there had been far more coneys and far fewer cars. As an American, I had been astonished at Britain’s permissive policies toward hikers (don’t litter, don’t bother the sheep, and be sure to close the gate behind you). A reluctant suburbanite, I reveled in the undisturbed natural beauty, the isolation and open spaces, of northernmost Scotland. But I nodded sympathetically while Dunny railed against the changes wrought by progress, trying to imagine that even wilder, freer world he had roamed as a boy. At least I think that was what he was railing against: his brogue was so rich and his diction so foreign that at times he might as well have been speaking Swahili. I followed the general subjects of our conversation—the countryside in the past, the countryside today, the weather—but the specifics eluded me. Once we were standing mid-road talking about what we’d seen that morning and Danny referred several times to “the vex.” “Pardon?” I said. “The vex,” repeated Dunny in that tone usually reserved for the hard of hearing or the mentally impaired. “What?” Finally, very loudly and with annoyance, “F-O-X. Vex.” Now it was my turn to be mortified.
Although our relationship was entirely innocent, I was pleased that Dunny had recognized in me a kindred spirit, and I was protective, if not of him, at least of our special friendship, forged and for the most part conducted on the Halkirk-Loch Calder road. Every July when Howard and I would come to Halkirk for his fishing week on the Thurso, I could count on running into Dunny at least two or three mornings, and he would walk his bike beside me for a stretch if we happened to be going in the same direction or, if we were going in opposite directions, stop and chat with me (although I would fidget internally, feeling torn between lingering in the road and getting back to the hotel for breakfast). Dunny always beamed when he saw me—“Ach, an’ it’s yersel’ again”—whether two days or an entire year had elapsed since we last met.
I was the one who spoiled the magic, I’m afraid. Howard and his fishing partners knew about my meetings with Dunny, of course, but only because I told them. Queenie alone witnessed what transpired between us. Then one year just after our arrival in Halkirk I happened to spot Dunny with his bicycle in front of the Ulbster Arms. Without thinking, I ran over and gave him a hug, a gesture far more demonstrative than he was expecting or, I immediately realized, was appropriate. He may have been tickled to have his machismo confirmed so publicly but I knew I had transgressed. Moreover, Howard’s fishing group, who had watched the scene, started ribbing me over my “boyfriend.” Their curiosity about Dunny did supply us with further information: he lived in one of the council houses (the British equivalent of public housing) on Crescent Street; there had been a wife, now estranged; his nephew, Danny McPhee, had recorded several CDs of accordion music, available for purchase in the local shops.
A more complete picture of Dunny unfortunately led to further erosion of the barrier between our serendipitous but temporally and spacially limited friendship and the rest of our lives elsewhere. One evening Howard brought back from the river a big, lovely brown trout, that most despised of all catches among anglers fly-fishing for salmon. Instead of discarding it on the riverbank, as was the custom, Howard had the idea that Dunny might like to have the fine, fat trout for dinner, so off we went down Crescent Street looking for Dunny’s house along the row of council houses, identical except for the small, cement-walled gardens in front of each. We eventually found one that matched the description we’d been given. An old bicycle leaned against the garden well, a likely sign. We knocked at the door and there was Dunny, rather startled to see us but gracious enough to invite us inside once Howard had explained about the trout. We sat in a snug parlor rendered even snugger by overstuffed chairs, a t.v. set circa 1968, shelves full of bric-a-brac and framed photographs, and a wall displaying at least a half a dozen cuckoo clocks. There was something very domestic about the room, a feminine touch, as if Dunny had just left things the way they were when the estranged wife walked out. Howard asked polite questions, but he understood even less of Dunny’s speech than I did and mostly smiled and nodded when Dunny replied. Dunny’s smoker’s cough, which I’d noticed more in recent years, rumbled deep in his barrel chest. The awkward exchanges alternated with awkward silences, exacerbated by the asynchronous ticking(s) of the clocks. Dunny showed us a couple of his nephew’s CDs (“Danny McPhee, Star of the North”), pointing to his own accordion in a corner by way of translation. Of course, Howard insisted that Dunny must play for us. Dunny demurred, Howard cajoled, and Dunny took up the box and squeezed out a jaunty tune, fumbling occasionally and apologizing afterward that he was not nearly as good as his famed nephew. Perhaps he had wanted to play all along, perhaps his performance was part of the grand Scottish tradition of music-making in private homes, perhaps I should remember the moment as especially intimate, the culmination of a long journey begun en route to Loch Calder. But it felt all wrong to me—the unannounced visit, the charitable donation (rich Americans on holiday patronize local pensioner), the coerced accordion concert, the intrusion of the personal into the casual, the forced familiarity. The room was too close. We should be outside. Another transgression.
The following year, the weather was more dreary than usual, and I encountered Dunny only once on my walks: he preferred days when the haze lifted early, the sky showed blue, the cloud-cast shadows scudded swiftly over the hillsides, and the white-capped mountain peaks were visible on the southern horizon. To him, perhaps, my appearance on the road was an indication that summer had indeed come, like the blooming of the thistle and the sheering of the sheep. Queenie still plodded along beside the bike, her tongue quivering with the effort. Dunny seemed unchanged, except that the cough rolled a bit longer and more frequently when he laughed. “Ye maun laik this pairt o’ the road,” he said with a grin before we parted.
The next year I didn’t see Dunny at all. Queenie had been hit and killed by a car in front of the Ulbster Arms, I was told, where Crescent Street meets Bridge Street: losing his dog seemed to have broken Dunny’s spirit, he didn’t get out very often, Lady had been moved to a farm near Lybster. The following summer when I arrived at the hotel, Howard’s fishing partner said he had some sad news: “Your friend Dunny McPhee has died.” He’d died, it turned out, not long after we left Halkirk the previous July and had been buried in the Thurso municipal cemetery.
I missed my meetings with Dunny. I missed even more the possibility that he would be pedaling his bike down the road between the fields, watching for rabbits and birds and foxes, with the sun on his back and the wind in his face and Queenie running alongside him. Later that week, when I climbed the headlands above the Pentland Firth, it occurred to me that Dunny must have been there in his ramblings as a young man, so I plucked some daisies from the clumps that grew defiantly on the cliffs overlooking the sea, carried them back down in my fanny pack, and drove to the Thurso cemetery. Dunny’s grave was in a newer portion, up against a white-washed wall, still topped with dirt through which some green shoots were beginning to grow. A gleaming black headstone had been erected, a delicate rose etched in one corner. It was inscribed
WHO DIED 28th JULY 2007
AGED 80 YEARS
BELOVED HUSBAND OF
Williamina’s name had the same prominence as her husband’s and there was room on the stone for her death date and age when the time came. Beloved Dunny. I left my daisies on the turned earth and walked away.
© Copyright 2014, Florence Newman.
Florence Newman is professor emerita at Towson University, where she taught in the English Department for 27 years. A specialist in Middle English literature, she has published and delivered conference papers on Chaucer, the Gawain-Poet, and medieval women writers. She grew up in Blacksburg, Va., reading books in her parents’ library and eating strawberries from her grandfather’s garden. She currently lives with her husband in Towson, Md., escapes occasionally to their farm on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, and travels farther afield when time, energy, and finances permit.