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Leaving or Staying
by Maisie Earle

What a beautiful morning – Lochaber at its best! thought Ronald Cameron as he drove across the Blar Mor.  A golden light surrounded him; the light danced on the waters of Loch Linnhe and even the Ben looked warm and friendly.  It looked as if spring was coming, although there was a nip in the air still.  

And the Cameron Ceilidh tomorrow night, he must telephone KK Cameron.  It was good to have KK’s Tearooms for the Ceilidh, central to the district, warm and friendly.  Must also telephone Jessie Cameron to be sure she was still able to sing at the ceilidh and Johnnie Cameron to see if he had finished his new poems.  It should be a good night.  Then there was the Kilmallie shinty match on Saturday – must see who wants a lift to Newtonmore.  Not much chance of winning – Newtonmore had a great team this year.  There was the Committee meeting too for the Highland Games this week.  It needed some new ideas to revive it.  

At the office in Fort William, the daffodils were a bed of gold.  It was worth the trouble keeping the gardens going – brightened up the place.  He must get the dahlia tubers in this week; they were the real show in the summer time.  Hoped that new variety would grow all right, it was claimed that it had large red flowers, but how many blooms to the plant?  Time will tell – hope it doesn’t leave a gap in the show. 

He had a word with everyone and had settled down at his desk, when young Sandy came rushing through.  “It’s the Manager from Glasgow, coming up the path, must have come up on the early train.”  Ronald wondered why the surprise visit – just to check up that they were doing everything by the book!  Thank goodness he did not come yesterday, when the office was full of relations from Roybridge, down for the cattle sales.  He would not have been impressed with all the talking in the Gaelic!  

“Good morning, Ronald.  It’s a grand day,” said Mr. MacDonald, cheerfully.  “Great trip on the train, the hills were clear and the lochs sparkling – even Rannoch Moor seemed to have a touch of spring.”  “That was good,” said Ronald, noticing that Mr. MacDonald was cheerful, cannot be anything wrong, he thought.  “What were you wanting to see? Mr. MacDonald, last month’s summaries?”  “Well, no.”  said Mr. MacDonald “I am sure that they will be at your usual high standard.  Things are going well, are they not?”  “Yes, we are all ready for what we hope will be a busy summer with the tourists.” 

“No, I wanted to talk with you personally.  I have brought this letter.  I know that if I posted it to you, I would just get a polite reply and a refusal.”  He handed the letter to Ronald, who read it quickly.  Oh, no, they wanted him to move to Fife.  Mr. MacDonald said “You have done very well in Fort William, but there is no position for promotion.  We need you in a bigger job further south.”  Ronald knew there was no promotion in Lochaber – or anyplace in the West Highlands, but he hoped that that they would leave him here until his retirement.  Mr. MacDonald was explaining that they liked promoting their own people and if Ronald moved then someone could be promoted into his job.  He then spent another hour describing the job in Fife – the interesting work, the chance of further promotion may be into Edinburgh or Glasgow, the increased salary, the house made available for the family, the good schools and the chance for further education for the children.  They could easily travel to Edinburgh, St. Andrews or Dundee and their education would be cheaper.  Finally he said that he would have to go, as he had to catch the train back to Glasgow, he had a meeting that night.  So Ronald walked down to the station with him and they parted with Mr. MacDonald saying “Please consider this carefully.  We really need you in the South.”  

Ronald walked slowly back – his day all upset, even the weather had turned grey and the rain was starting.  He went back into thinking in the Gaelic: Why today?  Why now?  He knew that one day he would have to face this, but thought it had disappeared now that he was getting older.  He realised that it would be better for the family from the point-of-view of education and employment possibilities.  But they would lose their ties with Lochaber – their history, their home, their culture.  Young Ronnie would not be able to play shinty in Fife and he had the look of a top shinty player!  A cheerful voice said “ Maidhainn mhath.  Ciamar a tha thu?”  and broke into his thoughts.  He grunted a good morning and continued walking.  Suddenly he realised that it was Jessie Cameron and quickly turned to say “Tha gu math.  Ciamar a tha thu-fhein?”  As she replied cheerfully that she was fine, he remembered to ask her if she was all set for the ceilidh.  “Of course.  I have a couple of songs I have not sung before – I got the music from Maggie Martin, hope the Camerons like them.”  

As Ronald said good-bye, he quickened his steps and went back to the office and on with his day’s work.  He was so quick and busy; everyone wondered what Mr. MacDonald had said – may be he was not happy with the amount of work the office was doing, criticising their West Highland ways.  So they intensified their efforts as well.  But the thoughts would keep on recurring and they flooded his mind on the way home.  

His grandfather had not gone away to Canada or America when the Gordons had removed them from the land up Glen Nevis.  He had moved to a bit of moorland near Spean Bridge with some other families and built the stone walls and the houses, and gradually brought in the land.  He did not want to leave Lochaber; this was the family’s home for a long time.  If they went away on the boat, that would be the end.  His father had also stayed, working the croft and he made a little money working on the Canal and the roads.  Not a very good living, but they had enough.  Luckily for him, the railway had come and Fort William expanded, the aluminium works was built, and one could find a job in Fort William.  But now the time to make a decision for his family had come.  It was the same as 150 years ago – to stay or go?  

He was soon home in Banavie with Mary and the children.  He knew she would say, “let’s go tomorrow.”  She had been away in New York when she was young, only came home because her mother was ill.  She had seen and lived a different life – going to concerts, plays, meeting interesting people, reading books and newspapers, seeing how people could make better lives for themselves – get educated, raise themselves into the middle classes away from the feudal system in the Highlands. 

The children filled the mealtime with their talk.  Ronnie was worried about the junior shinty match on Saturday because they faced a formidable team, Marie and Beth were arguing about something or other, and the wee one had the questions as usual – tonight it was ‘why do aeroplanes stay up in the sky?’  Where did she get these ideas, as he sifted through his mind to explain thrust and power to a 6-year-old?  The arrival of Donnie Cameron again delayed the time before the telling!  He had brought a couple of hares he had shot and Ronald had a blether with him about the goings-on around the village.  But he could not keep him forever; Donnie had to get home to his wife.  As he watched Mary getting ready for bed, brushing and plaiting her hair and getting out her nightdress, he eventually opened the subject  

“Mr. MacDonald was up from Glasgow today.”  “Oh, what did he want?” replied Mary in a disinterested voice.  “He offered me promotion to a new job in Fife.”  Mary’s eyes gleamed.  “But that is wonderful . You have done really well.  When do we move?”  And she rushed over and gave him a hug and a kiss.  Ronald quietly said, “I have not decided to go.”  “Not decided!  What is there to decide?  This is our chance.  It will be great for the children.  They will be able to go to a good school and have a chance of going on to University or college.”  “Yes, I know” said Ronald “But we shall have to give up our lives as Camerons of Lochaber – our people, family, language, poetry, songs, games, history.  We shall never speak Gaelic again.  Sure it is a poorer living financially but there is the wealth of the people.”  Mary asked what the Camerons had ever done for them.

The argument went on through most of the night until he said “We have to get up in the morning and get the work started and the children off to school, so let’s go to sleep now.”  She still tossed restlessly, but finally fell asleep.  He lay awake still thinking round and round. 

In the morning with the noise of the children, there was no time to talk, and he quickly got out of the house and off to work - still in a quandary.  Why did these things happen, why upset his pleasant life?  The staff wondered what was wrong; Ronald was so quiet, not his usual talkative self, not encouraging them in their work, not looking for something new to do, not telephoning his friends, arranging ceilidhs, meetings and what have you.  Finally Maggie Cameron walked in with a cup of tea in her hand and asked if he was all right or was he poorly.  That made him jump out of the darkness and he went through with his cup of tea and started working with everyone again.  Had Sandy been down to the Oban Times office with the advertisement?  Had Maggie chased up the bookings for the steamer? 

But the darkness was still there at the end of the day.  He had only one day to make up his mind.  Again that night, the argument went on - his ideas on staying and Mary’s ideas on leaving.  He did realise the advantages of education, of improved medical care, of wider interests, of improved chances for the children’s future and of a larger, more varied, circle of friends.  But he also realised the heritage from his father and grandfather of staying, of continuing the old traditions, of keeping his feet on the ground trodden by his ancestors.  He thought of this lovely countryside – the Ben, Loch Linnhe, the Great Glen, the waterfalls, the rivers.  The peace at night, watching the sunsets, the full moon, the Aurora Borealis flashing across the sky.  All gone in the murky sky of the Lowlands, the fogs, the bitter cold, the north easterly winds that cut right through you.  What a decision to make tomorrow! 

On the next morning, he suddenly got up from his desk, walked down to the Post Office and sent a telegram to Mr. MacDonald.



Well that was done! Dear knows what the future would bring to his work, but there would be unhappiness at home.  As he walked back, there was darkness as the wind brought the pelting rain up the Loch; the sun had long disappeared.

Editor's Notes: This short story, by Maisie Earle of Palmerston North, New Zealand won top honours in the 2004 Cameron Prize for Best Original Short Story.