Nuala Ní Chonchúir: What the Highlands gave me
‘I left Ullapool in the spring and flew home to Dublin, holding new life inside me, a legacy that I hadn’t planned for’
‘I wouldn’t change a thing’: Nuala Ní Chonchúir with her sons Cuan (left) and Finn and daughter Juno at home in Ballinasloe. Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy.
1992. The year of the Maastricht Treaty, the signing of which we were told would mean Europe-wide jobs for all – “the single market” and “keep up your languages” were the mantras of the time.
On June 3rd that year I took my final exam at Trinity College, Dublin. On June 4th I was on an aeroplane to Scotland. I wasn’t emigrating – I was off in search of adventure. A short course at a Scots-Gàidhlig college on the Isle of Skye – part of my BA – had lodged the Highlands firmly in my heart. I was determined to go back for a longer spell.
I lined up a summer job in what would now be called a boutique hotel in the fishing village of Ullapool, on the northwest coast. The hotel had a book shop, a bistro-cum-art gallery, a coffee shop, and it hosted regular gigs. Its proprietors were a former television actor and his dynamic wife, and they were cultured, friendly people. And Ullapool is one of those magical places that exerts its influence without your co-operation.
The landscape is seductive: vast angular mountains, a sea loch, the village itself with its low white houses and neat streets, perched on the edge of the Highlands. But, like most places we become attached to, it was as much about the people as the setting.
I loved the welcome I received, the kinship shown to me as a fellow Celt: we were all part of the same clan. A diary entry from that June tells me I was reading the historical novel Glencoe and listening to the Scottish folk band Capercaillie – I was clearly attempting to immerse myself in the culture.
I lived initially in the hotel’s staff house, a warren of bedrooms with thin walls that carried the noise of parties and girl-boy arguments from room-to-room. It didn’t take long to settle in – the staff of 40 or so were mostly blow-ins and mostly under 30 years old. We talked endlessly, partied and learned from each other.
We hired cars and drove north to see the mass of Stac Pollaidh; to visit Thurso, the northernmost town in mainland Britain; to sit at poet Rob Donn’s burial place at Durness; to enter Smoo Cave and walk the beaches beyond our stretch of coast.
We drove south to Inverness, Glasgow and Edinburgh, for shopping, concerts, galleries, theatre and the ballet. Between shifts at the hotel, we took sea cruises around the bay to spot seals, cormorants, fulmars, buzzards and hope to sight a minke whale. We were a youthful army and we stuck together, disbanded, and reformed week-by-week.
And so I stayed on in Ullapool. In the autumn, two workmates and I moved out of the staff house into a traditional white cottage with traditional freezing temperatures; we christened it The Fridge. The water went cold in minutes in the cast-iron bath and the bedroom walls dripped.
We quickly moved from The Fridge to a sandstone house on Shore Street overlooking Loch Broom. By night I loved to look out at the lights of the Russian factory ships, known as Klondykers, and by day the herring boats and seals that bobbed in the water.
But being young, and sometimes reckless about such things, in the early weeks of 1993 I discovered I was pregnant. I had a decision to make and no matter what angle I looked at it from, I came to one conclusion: I wanted to have the baby and raise it.
So I left Ullapool in the spring and flew home to Dublin, holding new life inside me, a legacy that I hadn’t planned for. Ullapool – a place of happy times and valuable learning – gave me my son, a gift more tangible than memories. And, when I was ready to process the situation, and parse it fictively, it also gave me the material for my latest novel The Closet of Savage Mementos.
The landscape of Ullapool looms large in the story of 21-year-old Dubliner Lillis Yourell, who goes to work in a small hotel in the Scottish Highlands and ends up pregnant with an older man’s baby. The novel allowed me to explore roads I didn’t travel; Lillis makes a different decision to the one I made – adoption is the path she chooses – and 20 years on she is forced to face that choice and make new ones.
Twenty years on, I email my son’s father, who went home to New Zealand shortly after I left Ullapool. I send him copies of my books as they appear and he gifts me books I might like by New Zealand writers, and he sends his artworks to our son.
As a way into motherhood, my situation was perhaps not ideal. But, at 23, I had all the high energy of youth and I threw myself into being a mother with gusto. My son is now a 20 year old six-footer at the beginning of his own set of adventures. And like any mother, or indeed, any writer, I wouldn’t change a thing about any of it.
Nuala Ní Chonchúir’s second novel The Closet of Savage Mementos is published by New Island Books, €13.99