I make off with my hands covering my crotch like a defending football player at a free kick. I have to duck down and creep like an army commando past the desk at Reception so that the dark girl doesn’t see me. I stomp up the stairs and make it to my room. I lie down with my head buzzing around the word Imbécil.

What time is it? Time has stopped for me. I stagger as I get out of bed and make my way to the toilet. All I have to do is slip the noose, suitably fortified beforehand of course. Wait. What to wear? A terry cotton dressing gown in black and blue stripes is hanging on a hook behind the door. I quickly throw it over a pair of boxer shorts and a pink top. The lacing paratrooper boots will have to do, for now.

Suitably casual behaviour is called for, wild eyes darting hither and thither as I descend the short staircase towards Reception. There is no way to explain the terror I feel as I lurch up to the desk at Reception. The dark girl is not there. A door opens to the right of the counter and the person who enters is Armando.

“BUENOS DIAS, SENOR,” he bellows.

I almost collapse at the foot of the counter. Every cell in my brain and my body sags. No! I think. I must be hallucinating. This cocky little bantam whose black curly hair is a manadh, vision.


“¿Que?” I lowered my head, too tired to resist.

“Debiste comprar, senor,” he says, shrugging.

All my well-rehearsed phrases fall apart under the man’s stony glare.

I reach into my wallet and take out a UK Driving Licence and the cheque book . . .Si, senor . . . acqui tiene mi plata . . . vale, vale . . . Haga el favor de traerme una cerveza . .. .”

Armando doesn’t blink. He tears out cheque after cheque, has me sign them, all the while mumbling numbers in Spanish.

“Quaranta . . . Dos cientos . . .Cuatro mil . . Ochocientos . . . Mil quinientos . . . Total: Dos mil setecientos colones.”

“Yes! Okay!” I shout. “Dame los cheques.” I lunge backwards with my book and leave La Pensión Bellavista with my dressing gown flapping at my calves and my heavy boots clacking on the wooden steps leading to the sandy path. I hitch my travel pack up onto one shoulder and hear the distinct sound of liquid sloshing around in a bottle. This is too much to absorb all a once. From freedom to prison to freedom once again. In full view of the ladies hurrying to market and a pack of barefoot boys in shorts playing football on the beach,  I haul the pint of Cuervo from the bag and take a massive swig. I hunker down on the sandy path, carefully adjusting the dressing gown, and fire up a cigarette. This will not be a happy run. The rum is beginning to kick in. I’m slowly getting the zombie feeling: three weeks of excess and an empty adrenaline tank will put anybody on their tòn. How much longer can I last?

There is really no choice. I shall have to press on and run the gauntlet. I shall go through all the bureaucratic gibberish at flight desks and emigration booths, get to Windsor, Ontario, borrow money from my cousin, Donald MacKinnon, secure a plane ticket for a plane to Scotland, all of it strength-sapping and totally debilitating, but it has to be done.

At the forefront of my consciousness I retain the Gaelic proverb: Ged is fad a-muigh Barraigh, ruigear e, Though Barra is far off, it can be reached.


I follow Armando’s instructions carefully. I grip the handles of the jet-ski with both hands. He supports my trailing legs with one hand in the region of my shins. Slowly, slowly, ever so slowly, I edge away from the shore as I twist the throttle the smallest number of degrees towards me. The entire length of my body, from neck to toes, is afloat on the waves. My anxiety levels are rising slightly as I realize that my bulky clothing has quickly become saturated and that it is all I can do to crane my head upwards while the rest of me is settling deeper in the water.

“Arriba!” comes the shout from the shore.

I twist the throttle, and the 15HP engine attached to the base of this aquatic vacuum cleaner bursts into life. Dia gam shàbhaladh, God save me! I am being dragged out into the Pacific Ocean in the general direction of Japan. As this infernal machine is dragging me over the waves at speed I recall Armando’s casual instruction.

“Joost pull you’self oop.”

Just pull myself up?

Arnold Schwartschenegger couldn’t do that. Not at the speed I am traveling at.

With arms outstretched, I lower my head until my face is no more than six inches above the sea and abandon myself to being towed to Japan. My waterlogged clothing? I’ve no idea where my clothing is. Both Berghaus jackets, waterproof trousers and tops have been stripped from my body by the force of the oncoming waves. Even the all-in-one long johns are being peeled away from my body as I fervently pray for deliverance. Except for the lacing boots, all my clothing will be somewhere behind me in the foaming wake. All anyone can see from the shore is a little white behind bobbing up and down on the waves. Sharks, if there are sharks in these waters, will surely be in a frenzy. ‘Teuchter tòn for supper’ is the message they will have communicated in shark-speak to one another as they speed towards their defenseless prey.

Far behind me I hear Armando roaring. “ALARMA ROJA! ALARMA ROJA!”

Fatigue and panic combine to convince my inebriated brain that I must at all costs hang on to handlebars. In some impenetrable way my right hand twitches to push the throttle away from me. The engine slowly dies, and I end up drifting to a halt with my head partially submerged. Without forward momentum the machine is sinking and – the horror of it all! – it is pulling me down to the depths with it. Aaaaaargh! Sea water is pouring through my open mouth. This is worse than the Rich Ambrosia incident. Blood vessels are pounding me from the inside. Dull pain, from temple to temple, fills my entire body. I experience agony like one of my father’s steel splicing pins is being stabbed through my lungs . . .and then it’s over.

I release my grip on the handlebars and the jet-ski spirals gently downwards while I drift in slow motion towards the surface. Half dead with a last despairing kick of my legs, I force my head into the blessed air of Playa del Coco. Gulping and coughing up gouts of sea water, I tread water and await the arrival of a rubber rib which is veering in my direction from the shore. A rope is thrown and I grab it. I am being towed towards the shore where I dimly perceive Armando jumping up and down.

Strong arms belonging to two of Armando’s henchmen haul me up from the surf and I stand shivering, naked but for my paratrooper boots, before the wrath of the irate proprietor who has just witnessed the loss of his livelihood.

“¡Estábas en una situación muy peligroso, imbécil!”

“Voy a pagar, señor Armando.”

My offer to pay restitution does little to diminish his anger.

“¡Idiota! Idiota! Todo lo que usted es bueno para es borrachar!”

I am only too aware that all that I am good for is getting drunk. I break down and start to cry.

“Lo siento seriamente, Armando.”



I leave and go directly to the beach. There is no snow. A sinking sun shines on the palm fringed sandy cove and the ambient temperature is easily 30 Celsius. There is a coating of perspiration covering my entire body. I wish I hadn’t been so drunk when I first squinted at what I thought was a window. It was of course the screen of the television set I’d left on when I collapsed into bed earlier. I stride towards a male figure who is standing waving a long pole with a flag attached about a hundred yards away along the beach. I remove my hands from my pockets and arch my back so that I imagine my shoulder blades are almost touching. This is my posture as I approach the man. He is white, about forty-five, short and wide with a weather-beaten face. As I get nearer he doubles up. “Hgggg,” he chortles, obviously finding my dress code highly amusing. He himself is dressed in khaki shorts, the same t-shirt as the receptionist wore, and has deck shoes on his feet. The banner at the end of the pole he is waving from side to side reads: ARMANDO JET-SKIS.

I come to a halt twelve yards in front of him. Between ripples of his flag I see he’s really getting into laughing at me. I catch glimpses of his open mouth, his front top teeth a row of gold shingles, like a zipper in his mouth, as loud guffaws come up from his belly. He indicates a jet ski lying on a tarpaulin behind him. A jet ski is a kind of upright carpet cleaner with handlebars. This one has a metal-enclosed pod, encasing some kind of engine I suppose, jutting out from the base of the upright structure. Now, I like everything about motorized racing – motor cycles, old bangers with souped -up innards, I’ve tried them all at one time or another. The booze I’ve recently scoffed has me flying. I can imagine the scene: I’m racing across the bay on my jet-ski, one hand on the throttle, the other with clenched fist pumping in triumph. Yeah, I’ll probably have to take a bow when I make it back to the beach, and then, Bam! It’s Champagne ‘skooshing’ time.

“Hola,” I say, not smiling. I really have to stop doing this. I’m talking about the deer-in-the-headlights state I go into whenever I’m confronted by a Spanish speaking person or even an actual deer.

“¿De donde eres, caballero, Where are you from, sir?

“Soy de Escocia.”

“¿Hablan Ingles en Escocia?


“You like to water-ski?”


“No es difficil para usted, señor, It’s not difficult for someone like you, sir.

“What do I have to do?

“Joost hold the handlebars and lie on your estómago behind the jet-ski.”


“Geev eet a leetle throttle. Allow eet to draaag you out very slowly from the shallows eento deeper water.”

“What then?” I ask.

“When eet has draaagged you out eento the deeper water, geev eet full throttle. Let eet draaaag you over the waves,” he drawls, flapping his hand, palm downwards, to indicate how a prone body may be dragged through the wave

“What happens then?”

“When eet ees draaaagging you over the waves . . .” He pauses for dramatic effect. “Joost pull you’self oop.”

How much of what follows is attributable to a residual belief within me that, as the man, boy really, who had knocked out Malky Cairns with one punch, I am indestructible, and how much to habitual drunkenness, is probably a question I’ll never resolve.


The year was 1957. The place was Playa del Coco, a resort on the NW Pacific coast of Costa Rica. Liberia Airport, 100 km to the East, is where the Sansa Regional airplane had deposited me at the end of a mystery flight from Boca de Toro in Panama. Honestly, I had made my fair share of fumbles in my relationships, but my dissipation in Panama was on another level. My hosts in the Canal Zone were making good money and were intent on spending it recklessly. Like them, with the stack of dollars they insisted on showering me with, I threw all caution away. My career in Central America was a crunching car crash in slow motion.

I have no recollection of what motivated me to get on the flight and only a faint memory of boarding a mini-bus at the airport and being deposited in front of a wooden structure on stilts that jutted out over the water on a beach of crushed coral. I’d been tanning white rum for days in Panama. I kept topping up with miniature bottles of whisky on the flight North. By the time I checked into the pension I was entirely stoned.

The lady, late twenties with African genes, in Reception accepted my Bank of Scotland cheque book with only a raised eyebrow. I had been practising my Spanish for the preceding week or two and I informed her haltingly that I intended to have a wee lie down before exploring the possibilities of adventure in Playa del Coco.

“Es muy peligroso aqui, la noche, Very dangerous here – at night,” she said.

I left for my room with the profound feeling that good things were beginning to happen. The bedroom was clean and comfortable with a big, creaking wooden fan installed in the ceiling. Clean sheets enveloped me. Hombre, I was extinguished.

Sometime later, maybe around four in the afternoon, I come to and see through one scrunched up eye that it is snowing outside. This strikes me as being strange as the room temperature must be at least 80 Fahrenheit. The average daytime temperature in this tropical beach resort, I had read, is 78 degrees Fahrenheit with little variation from season to season. I know all about snow and decide to take no chances. I rummage in my backpack for appropriate winter gear. Over an all-in-one set of long johns I wear two long-sleeved sweat shirts, Goretex insider jacket, similar outer shell, waterproof trousers and heavy leather lace-up parachute boots. I clatter down the stairs and stop to chat with the receptionist who keeps looking at me as though I am a cockerel. All I have to do to persuade her I’m normal is pull some Spanish phrases out of my memory bank, phrases that will wipe that look of horror off her pretty face.

“¿Que tomas?” she says. “¿Ron, Whi’ky?”

“Scotch, por favor.”

She hands me a glass of amber coloured liquid.

“Perone,” I croon softly. “No tengo ningun problema para hablar en este momento.. Soy un hermitano de las montanas de Escocia! Excuse me. I don’t have any problem speaking to you now. I am a hermit from the mountains of Scotland.”

The receptionist is speechless. It’s obvious to me that she doesn’t understand her own language.

“Hace mucho calor, It’s very hot,” she says leaning across the counter and touching my bulky Goretex jacket.

She’s right. But I’m going to explain.

“Está nevando, It’s snowing,” I say.

I’m already as high as I was on my arrival.


“What happened on the range, Pipe Major?”

It’s difficult to say now what actually happened as I was suffering from a monstrous hangover that morning. Let’s see . . .trying to remember . . .naw, not coming.

Hold it. Here comes the horror!

I have a faint recollection of arriving late at the shooting range and the other cadet officers are already in the prone or upright positions firing away at large targets protruding from the butts fifty yards away. The non-stop crack of rifles in the background and the fact I’ve never touched any kind of gun before and have only the vaguest idea which end to point leave me confused and very nervous. I am handed a surprisingly heavy 303 rifle and told by Sergeant Galloway, a serving NCO in the Black Watch, to place the stock against, no, not the shoulder of the arm holding up the rifle but the shoulder of my pull-the-trigger arm.

Let me simply say that if you’ve never fired a rifle before, the urge to close your eyes at the precise moment you pull the trigger is irresistible. In addition, the “kick” will send you back several paces with your arms rotating crazily for balance, which, when you’re holding the gun, results in mass screaming from the battle-hardened veteran soldiers.

“It was just a wee glitch, Sir.”

“I heard there was a memorable thinning of the crowd of cadets on either side of you.”

“They’ll get another chance to qualify for their marksman badge,” I say. “And so will I.” My accent becomes vaguely German as I try to convince my CO of my good intentions. “I am going to train myself out of this. I will (vill) get up earlier in the morning and practise handling and taking aim every day. Yeah (Ja) I will (vill) borrow my mother’s sweeping brush and pretend it’s a rifle.”

Trelloar extends his forefinger as if he is warning me. “You better win the inter-varsity solo piping contest next month, “ he says.

“No problem, Sir,” I reply forcefully. “I’m playing a set that’s technically very difficult: Stirlingshire Militia, Delvinside and Pretty Marion. I proceed to diddle the tunes to convince him of their merit.

Hò-um poichum bò tiridh aich-um.

Trelloar cuts into my babble with some force. “Look, a little advice.” he announces with a shrug, “Get better at shooting, Pipe Major, otherwise I may have to have another think about your trip to Panama next January.”

This seems like a good time to cut and run. A queasy feeling is starting to rise. I walk towards the brunette, catch hold of her wrist and drag her out the door without a backwards glance. A drifting feeling washes over me: the fear of being unattached and lost.

Oh, I nailed the Panama gig. What swung it for me was my triumph in the inter-university solo piping contests the following autumn. This wasn’t so much a contest, more a walkover for me. I played the difficult set. Second place went to one of my medic pipers, Alistair Cochrane, who stumbled through The Earl of Mansefield twice. Goodness, one of the ‘Eastie Beastie’ competitors, from St Andrews or Aberdeen, opted to play a slo-mo version of Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star. The judges, Pipe Majors Stoddart and MacLellan, had no hesitation in awarding me the handsome, solid silver goblet. This did not prevent me from thinking that my fellow officer-candidates would be wanting my used tea bags after my victory. The euphoria, however, didn’t last long.

When I spin the wheel forward to my Central American trip I realise I should have stepped down from the winner’s podium in Scotstoun Showground and given the trophy to the Twinkle, Twinkle guy.


I rattle through the sets without breaking sweat. My stamina is extraordinary. Participation in sports like boxing, swimming, football and track athletics as a schoolboy ensure that I have good lungs. My endurance when it comes to blowing bagpipes derives from my duties as solo piper in the 103rd Glasgow Coy. of the Boys’ Brigade. Our annual summer camp when I was in the BB was spent in the Argyllshire village of Benderloch. Our tents were pitched in MacDonald’s Farm on the Bonawe road. On Sundays I used to lead our campers to the Parish Church, and after the service pipe them back again without stopping – a combined distance of 2.4 miles.

Small wonder then, back on the Royal Mile, I don’t allow the painfully out-of-tune drones of the wee Gurkha P/M, howling as they are not four inches away from my right ear, nor the fact that he seemed to be fingering some Nepalese folk melody instead of the prescribed tune, The Barren Rocks of Aden, to put me ‘aff my stoat.’ In my head I’m singing a parody we used to sing in the backcourts when I was wee.

Haw, Maw, will ye buy me a . . .

Will ye buy me a . . .will ye buy me a . . .

Haw, Maw, will ye buy me a . . .

Will ye buy me a . . .BANANA?

It’s a flyting song where the mother replies that she will buy a banana for her son. He in turn asks her if she wants a bite. She sings Aye, ma son, Ah’ll tak’ a bite, and he concludes by singing.

Haw, Maw, ye’ve ate it a’

Ye’ve ate it a’ . . .ye’ve ate it a’

Haw, Maw, ye’ve ate it a’

Ye’ve ate a’ ma BANANA!

The dissolving agent is the giant Drum Major from the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards who suddenly performs an about-turn and raises his mace in an upright position above his head. After the palaver of lowering instruments, standing at ease, coming to attention again and turning sharply to the right on the order of dismissal, we pick our relaxed bodies up and make our way to the pubs, light and smiling broadly. It is now partytime.

A group of us are in the World’s End pub and I am about to saunter over to an attractive young woman, jet-black hair, grey eyes and a tall, gelid grace, who is seated on a bar stool. I hear the soft New Zealand cadences of our Commanding Officer, Lt. Col. Trelloar.

“Pipey, you got a minute?”

Oh, no! He’s going to rabbit on about Cert B and a lot of military stuff and the dusky one will trap.

I am wincing with awkwardness as I flutter my fingers at the brunette and veer towards our CO who is standing at attention in full Number One Dress near the door. We exchange rote smiles. I know Trelloar on an academic level. He is a Lecturer in the Humanities Department and he teaches Latin Prose Composition to a dozen others and me every Wednesday morning at nine. He gives my weekly contributions high marks. I have nothing against him really. It is just that he’s just a couple of stones lighter than he should be, giving him a lean and hungry look.

“By the way,” Lt Col Trelloar drawls, “Captain Veasey tells me that you got into a bit of trouble on the rifle range down in Morpeth last week. Is that correct?”

I take in the CO’s question very slowly, without immediate response. Just a glitch, more or less, I babble eventually, in effect. I nod a lot, the noncommittal half-nod.


Within three weeks I am the accredited P/M of the Pipes and Drums of the University of Glasgow OTC. Ailig’s promises are fulfilled. With all the free drone and chanter reeds that were passing through my hands I possess the best-sounding bagpipe south of Oban.

He’s right about the other members of the band too. Technically the pipers have fingers like tongues. The only tunes they half-know are The Old Rustic Bridge, Rowan Tree and The Green Hills of Tyrol. I go through them like a scissor through cambric, demolishing bridges, uprooting trees and laying low distant hills. The first thing I have to do is sharpen up their technique. For at least a couple of hours each Saturday morning we sit at a round table smelling of competing aftershaves in the Smoker with practice chanters and copies of Book 2 of Willie Ross’s Collection of Bagpipe Music. Slowly, but surely I force these privileged lads to expand their repertoires. I think they like me, though my ideology is at odds with theirs. Most of them are the products of independent or semi-fee-paying schools like Hutcchesons’ Grammar, Glasgow Academy, Kelvinside Academy and The High School of Glasgow, and since they were members of their schools’ Army Cadet Force, they are pretty clued up about future career prospects and how their membership of the OTC may enhance them.

If you’re studying for a BSc degree you go Engineers or Artillery. If you’re swotting for MbChb degrees you go Medic. Most of these grim-faced young medics see themselves as consultants by the time they reach thirty. While all the future docs retain a degree of rigidity, at least one of these stethoscope-fetishists is a certifiable weirdo. I have just returned from our annual camp in the north of England where I shared a tent with a second-year medic. Above his camp bed he had suspended on a wire a human skull.

“Where did you get the human skull?” I’d ask this freak.

The answer was always the same – “some deid guy.”

Aaaaaarrgh! Almost a doctor? I’m never going to be ill for the rest of my life!

If you’re doing an Arts degree, and I was the only one in the band doing this, then you go Infantry. Of course infantry skills are a kind of hard sell should you ever leave the army. A civilian employer, if he hears REME or Medical Corps, imagines the applicant has a little bit of a brain. Do your two years National Service with the Infantry, okay, you know how to survive Arctic cold and desert heat, oh, and you know how to kill people. These are not the best credentials for success in civilian life. When asked what I’m going to do about mortgages and car payments I shrug my shoulders and smile as wide as a bell.

Right, that’s the backtracking over. So I go forward to Edinburgh again. I’m battering out Scotland the Brave or Somebody’s Farewell to Somewhere on a sweet pipe on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh. As ‘leader-aff’ of the students I’m at the head of the second file on the right and my troops, all eight of them, are gamely following me.

Here’s a wee run-down on the disposition of the various bands as we were assembled by the stone-faced RSM who is mad keen on foot drill. At the far right of the parade is a column of pipers from The Gurkha Regiment, their P/M who technically is in charge of the full . . .um, Bhuna, looking smart in cutaway jacket and Douglas tartan trews at their head. On my left is the P/M of a battalion of the Gordon Highlanders. Further along from him are files of pipers from, among others, the Jordanian Army, the Black Watch and the Second Battallion of the Scots Guards. The ‘Jock’ representatives are all competent pipers and are recognizable by their Psych. Ward haircuts.