Their names are in a log book. Toppy, Ting-a-Ling and Whistling Dan. Dozy, Peekie Ralph and The Stoor. Big Ian, Bigger Ian and Mole Catcher. Indeed Indeed, Jimmy Two Times and Paraffin Tommy. There are hundreds more, from Browser to Watery Dan via Mad Golfer. Every one of them was a fisherman of Fishertown, Nairn. There were only a few real names to go around, so each became known by a characteristic, an incident or a misfortune. I stand in old Nairn Museum and feast upon them all.
“It’s ever so quiet in here,” says one museum volunteer to another, “I wish we could play music or something.” But the names and the stories are noises that speak to me. Old pieces of paper in gilded frames talk about Geordie Patience, who ‘was never known to have done a day’s work and lived entirely on his wits, and had a glib tongue and personality which made him acceptable and tolerated by everyone.’ They whisper the story of William Gordon, known as Tiptoe due to a foot injury. The injury left him crippled; he ‘spent his life fishing and rabbit trapping. He chatted to all the visitors at the harbour who would listen to his weird and imaginary tales.’ This is history by tittle-tattle and it makes for a dusty old heaven of a museum.
I walk back into town thinking about creases on sepia faces and sailors’ ganseys, each with a pattern unique to their boat. In the back room of a bakery is a café, all clinky-clanky and ‘och, I see that’s Tam Malcolm died now too’. A German couple poke at pasties with plastic forks and next to me a mother and daughter, both pensioners, chew the gristle. “It makes you go, but it doesn’t make you GO, go.” “I’ll have to try that. Sen-o-kot, did you say?”
The early evening high street is a soothing place to be. The air is crunchy and smells of young bonfires and the coming winter. This high street is sprinkled with independent shops of the sort that make standing and looking-on like watching a 1970s sitcom. Nairn: now in Technicolor. I half expect to see Frank Spencer zooming past Burnett and Forbes clothes store on rollerskates, almost knocking over an old lady leaving Clark’s of Nairn (‘Complete House Furnishers’) before smashing into the window of Pat Fraser Electrical Contractor (‘Radio, T/V, Video…Fishing and Shooting’).
Down another street is The Nairn Pet Shop, ‘Pets Birds Fish etc Upstairs’. In smalltown Scotland, the intrigue is always in the etc. Postcard adverts in the Co-op offer ‘Victorian Antique Mixer Bath Taps £10’ and ‘Victorian Style Bath Taps £15.’ There is too a mattress for sale, ‘Only used occasionally’. In Bloomers a florist neatly sets out tomorrow’s delivery on the front desk. It is four flowery letters which together read ‘GRAN’.
I cross an impolitely busy road into Fishertown. The scale changes, Duplo to Lego. Tiny adjoined cottages peck at the cheeks of thin streets which crisscross eachother. Here lived the tightest of communities, fisherfolk separate from the hoity-toity Nairn folk uphill. They built their houses side-by-side, their backs turned to the sea which gave them work and sometimes death, shunning the other world. I walk along Society Street and see the sturdy Seaman’s Victoria Hall. In the days of Toppy and Ting-a-Ling, this hall was a social and cultural beehive for fisher families: weddings and parties, political meetings and Band of Hope classes that ended in rousing songs about the evil of drink.
Dark is falling, the glow and scent of the Friar Tuck Chippy calling. I eat my chips outside, as God intended, ambling beneath old lights which once knew only gas and gossip. I reach the harbour, and then hear sea slapping at walls, ringing last orders for the beach it will soon hide. Oil rig lights can be seen in the distance, for there are still pennies in the ocean just as Jimmy Two Times and Paraffin Tommy always said. Water that could have come from the sea or the sky lashes my face and I have never felt more awake. All I need now is a tale from Tiptoe.
I settle for the pub. “Twenty-three years I’ve been on my own now” says a lady to her gin. Two men in golf jumpers, their faces ruddy yet tanned so that they resemble the surface of Mars, talk about a bar they once went in. “Wall-to-wall homosexuals, John. I didn’t know where to look.” I make mine a half and walk back into town, finding the war memorial. Chiselled letters recall that one of many lost boys was Private George I. Wildgoose. This is a town of names and yarns. It has a glint in one eye and a tear in the other.