Here is a picture of me taken in Edinburgh in 2015.
I’m about to carve into a birthday cake, I believe it’s a Colin the Caterpillar. I have just finished my last day at a department store. I am leaving one retail for another, but this retail has a key difference and permit me to explain in detail!
I was to start working at a wigwam campsite in the West Highlands. Strathfillan Wigwams, a campsite on an active farm, on the West Highland Way, on the River Fillan. It was definitely an interesting move, neither lateral nor strictly speaking a step up. This is the story of how I left the warm bosom of my mother city for the wetter experience of the West Highlands.
It all started out a couple years before when I went to visit my friend Cat. She had been working there for a couple, months and I was keen to visit her. I fell in love with the wildness of it all. I loved the epic mountains and the river, the mystical nearby ruins of St. Fillan’s monastery which still held some strange religious energy, the openness of the fields. At that time, I wrote about 3 poems a day, crazy prolific. I wanted to go back.
Fast forward to my last year of uni, I began working in retail. It was OK but department stores famously lack windows and Scotland has famously dark winters. On days working the bureau de change it was required to go in half an hour early. In December the shop opened an hour earlier for the working shopper. Guess who worked the shortest day?
It was brutal. The day was essentially dark to dark. I saw maybe an hour of sunlight, if I’m lucky, obscured by cloud. I couldn’t hack it. I love the Sun. About then I got to thinking of next moves. It wasn’t till about February or March that it occurred to me I could go up there, with the long hours of sunlight and the open air.
After some email communication, a face-to-face meeting, and additional demand for staff, I got the job. It came with a caravan.
I’d still be in a shop, but with additional maintenance responsibilities which let me go outside for much of the day.
Finishing up at the department store, I worked till the end of my contract plus an extra couple weeks to help cover some short days. It felt a bit hard leaving them as we’d become quite close in the short contract, but I knew it was right.
The hardest part was saying goodbye to my friends. People who had got used to being able to see me with very short notice would suddenly need to wait until I called them for a fortnightly visit. The hardest person to leave was my Norwegian pal, Karianne.
We’d been living together for about 9 months after having known each other for nearly 10 years, primarily online. She had only ever had short visits to the UK, really. It took a while till she could move to Edinburgh. It was not fun breaking the news that I was leaving.
She told me, “There is no Edinburgh without you!”.
It was a difficult part of the decision. We had a brilliant flat together, I had stayed there for several years as it was right below the castle and at a good rent. She was very easy to live with and we had a lot of fun times. But I needed to do something else and I was sure the wigwams were it.
She had a support network. She has this brilliant ability to make easy allies wherever she goes. And I’d be back frequently.
The New Place
A wigwam, a type of wooden tent, set against a very green backdrop of trees with a clear and bright blue sky above with limited cloud cover, pinched from the Facebook page
I was a general assistant at the campsite, but I liked to think of myself more as a Wigwam Merchant and Purveyor of Exotic Meats. Which is to say, I did some of the bookings and upsold a lot of bison. Got to love a farm shop that sells elk, buffalo, camel, and kangaroo in burger and sausage form.
I lived in a caravan near the shop, which cut my commute time considerably. 2 minutes from my bed to the shop’s counter. People criticise caravans as being some kind of trashy place to live but I must say I was quite comfortable. Though basic, it had a cooker, electricity, plumbing though an unworking shower, I got free wifi, and paid no bills at all to stay there. Rain also makes a lovely noise on a caravan roof. Soporific, sleep making, is the best word I’ve heard to describe it.
I wouldn’t say everyone is cut out for wigwam life.
Those clouds are not rare and in fact are often a touch darker.
What nobody tells you about being a one-man shop runner is that everything gets filthy and needs daily cleaning.
We made bacon rolls on a very hot plate, over 100C, which isn’t nice i) in Summer, ii) to the touch.
But at least I discovered egg shell membrane (the inside of an egg shell) makes for good blister bandages.
It turns out, glamping sites also need to be really, really clean. Not just the wigwams and bathroom blocks, but the paths, and the foliage.
You cannot know how blocked plug hole at a wigwam campsite can get. It’s amazing how many long distance walkers have dreadlocks.
It was a lot of sweaty and hard work. Only some of it fun, like “liberating”, i.e. breaking into, a wigwam because a boy had dropped the key.
It was mentally and socially demanding though. Loneliness is a fixture on a farm. I took to buying in boxed wine so I could always get a glass.
Then again, when I sat by my caravan with a roaring log campfire, I felt at peace. When I had some tins with a guy whose dog was terminally ill in the campsite, I felt like I understood more about the world, and the pain that’s in it. And when I made connections with guests, some of whom would keep coming in to say hello, I felt like I was doing something worthwhile.
Something you notice with fewer people though is how valuable these connections are. The picture above is me chasing after my niece (technically second cousin, but she has no uncles so I think of myself more like that) when my mum and my aunt brought her and her brother along. It was nice that though you could be at what seemed the edge of the world people could still make it out to see you.
My friend Adam also visited, as did my friend Tom. And then there were my trips home.
I expected there’d be more of a demand for me coming in as the prodigal son of the city, but truth is people were still busy with their own stuff. What amazed me is how quick the city seemed, how much prettier its inhabitants, after a short time away in the wilderness.
The barometric pressure was different too. The city is far lower, it’s oxygen thick in comparison. Edinburgh’s heady airs kept me awake till 4 in the morning. It felt so much more varied than the countryside, since my area of the West Highlands had only two pubs.
My time at the wigwams was extended, nearly doubled I think. It was supposed to just be for the season but it lasted until the end of September. I needed out. I needed a break. For parts of the season, I was working 70 and 80 hour weeks, stretching the legal limit. Then again, I’ve always been a “will work as long as you’ll pay me” kind of guy, emphasis on pay.
I couldn’t stay there forever. That much was pretty apparent. They didn’t need a permanent shop assistant and extra member of staff. So I made to get out while the getting was good.
I’d been inspired by my city jaunts to do a TEFL degree as it seems everyone and their mum had one. Instead of catering for travellers on the West Highland Way, and the drunken revellers who on occasion invited me to join them*, I would become a traveller and drunken reveller but somewhere else.
29th of September, 2015 was the day I took that decisive step and left.
As an experience, I learned a hell of a lot. Quite a bit about business. Lots more about keeping things clean. A lot more about how to be cool when you aren’t surrounded by people. In addition, I earned quite a lot of money which I spent mostly on travel and alcohol, after squandering the rest on my TEFL certificate.
*This included one great revel where everyone was dressed up like Disney characters and they dressed me up in Minnie Mouse ears as it was all they had spare.
The writer of this piece feels like it’s fairly good as it explains a bit more about why he is where he is and why he is who he is, but cannot help feel it doesn’t explain why he is why he is. A soul is a very dangerous thing to harbour.