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My two worlds collided on a wet and windy December night in the mid-1980s. The mainland came to the island.
Picture the scene: a man is wading in from a little boat to an island in the Hebrides. It is the middle of winter and pitch-black. He has a suit on, but no tie, and is carrying an object high above his head as though he has just won the men’s final at Wimbledon.
He is travelling back late after spending the week working in the city, as he does every weekend in a whirlwind: a one-man Hebridean Grand Prix. Having missed the last scheduled Caledonian MacBrayne ferry, his car has been ditched and he has been picked up from the banks of Ardnamurchan by a boat belonging to a clam diver.
But the diver’s boat can’t get any closer to the little jetty on the island. The tides are not behaving. That’s what tides do; they either behave or they don’t. The man is only lit by the light of the boat. The spotlight makes sideways daggers of the rain, casting a spell over the choppy sea, turning black into white.
The man is slowly reaching the shore, his drenched suited legs gradually emerging from the sea like Charlie Chaplin from an encounter with a hosepipe. It is Friday night. He is almost home. He is my father. The clam diver is my uncle Rob.
The object held above my father’s head is my Christmas present, come early. It is not the All England Club’s Gentleman’s Singles Trophy; it is a 1978 USA original Fender Telecaster guitar.
We all know about the day the music died . . . well, this is the night the music arrived. To me. To my island. You might think from the way I describe the scene I actually witnessed it. I didn’t. I was at home waiting for the prize. I was thirteen, ready to plug in. My world was about to change.
Fifteen years later, my father died suddenly at the age of fifty-four, after jogging around a reservoir north of Glasgow, where he was working as a journalist for the BBC. The shock of his death kick-started my music career proper and inspired my debut album, Loss. That was my way of celebrating him, what he had given to me; what he had waded home with that dark, wet night.
I still have that guitar, with its unusual finish of light green and cream. I have never seen another like it. I am looking at it now – at the stickers I naively defaced it with in my youth. SAVEEA, one says. It was a popular word among my close-knit group of teenage friends. Nothing was ever severe in our world; it was always ‘saveea’.
The guitar has travelled around the world with me; it has stood on festival stages and in TV and radio studios, been played on eight albums and counting. But I have always looked at it as having come from the sea.
Every time I plug it in, I expect to be thirteen. I expect an electric shock. And in a way that is what it gave me when it arrived in 1984 and continues to give me now. It has journeyed with me to the mainland from where it came, as I became an islander among mainlanders, a musician, and then a writer too.
It is never far from me, just as the Isle of Mull is never far from me. I am always an islander, even in London, where I have settled with my wife and two girls. I am constantly surprised that the Thames is not the sea; that the voice over the speaker on the tube is a driver from London Transport and not the familiar tones of the CalMac ferry announcer; that the Piccadilly line stops are interspersed with warnings to ‘MIND THE GAP’ and not the availability of trinkets in the ferry shop. And all this then replayed in Gaelic. That’s what I hear.