The Wee Happy Man
photo: loch Etive
In that hot summer of 1921, we returned to Glencoe in Scotland; this time we were missing a brother but he would always be with us.
In the glorious years before the Great War, I and my brothers, Grahame and Jack would spend long summers climbing the mountains around Rannoch and the Black Mount. Each year our grandfather would take us boys to stay at the King’s House hotel, and each year he would take us climbing on a new mountain.
Grahame’s favourite climb had always been the Great Shepherd of Etive (Buachaille Etive Mor) and since he was lost to us forever in some field of France, and in the same year he would have been twenty-one years old, Jack felt that it was right he should climb the Buachaille with Grahame’s medal pinned to his chest.
I had only lost my leg at Ypres (I was one of the lucky ones), so although I wanted to support Jack, I felt I would spend the time by Loch Etive and think about the great days and years we had all spent together.
Jack wanted an early start and so I drove him in the horse and trap as far as the Devil’s Staircase. This was a road built by the Englishman General Wade to avoid the trouble he might find in deepest Glencoe. It went straight over the top and into Kinlochleven.
The Buchaille was on the opposite side to this, and here I left Jack – watching as he made his way up the valley, he turned and waved and then disappeared into a crevice.
I turned the horse and made my way around to the back of the Buchaille and into Glen Etive.
photo: loch Etive
The Glen has always been the quietest of places with no real road through it. It was a spot where our grandfather would set out a pick-nick after we returned from our latest climb. I can say with my hand on my heart, those were the happiest of days with all three of us having our lives waiting on us.
And so, as Jack climbed to remember Grahame, I felt that a little time spent by the loch would help me pay remembrance to my middle brother. I will always miss him, as will Jack, but with me being the youngest it was Grahame that I always felt closest to. I will carry my brother with me everywhere I go.
I had brought a hamper of my own and quietly settled down by the loch-side when the heat of the day overtook me and I quickly fell into a deep sleep.
Judging by the position of the sun, it must have been sometime later when I was wakened by a figure casting a shadow over me.
“Hello there,” said the voice.
I put my hand above my eyes and could make the outline of a little man.
“Do you mind if I sit a minute, I’ve come a long way and it’s nice to have a bit of company, to take away the sharpness of the day.”
I told the little man I was be pleased to have him join me and asked if he wanted to share a drink, and perhaps something to eat.
He had come from the south, and given the lack of roads must have walked the loch shore or over the hills; not an easy task.
He told me that, once a month, he walked from his home in Oban to his sister’s house in Kinlochleven. It took him two days, walking up the side of Loch Etive, through Glencoe and over the Devil’s Staircase. That last part was a climb over a thousand feet up and then down again. General Wade’s soldiers had named it because of the pain it caused them to march over the top.
The wee man’s sister and her husband had moved to Kinlochleven in 1905 to work on a dam to support the planned aluminium factory. The workmen couldn’t find a bar in the area and would take to walking over the mountain to the King’s House. His sister’s husband had disappeared one winter and never returned. There was talk of him running away with a young girl of the parish but his sister refused to believe it. It was only in the spring, when the snows had melted, that the authorities found her husband’s body at the top of the Devil’s Staircase.
“So once a month I walk the miles to make sure she is in fine fettle.”
I told him my story about Grahame and why Jack was climbing the Buachaille.
“My own boy never came back from the Somme. We all live with sadness,” said the man.
And yet there wasn’t a look of defeat in his eyes. He had the demeanour of a happy man, a wee happy man.
“Since you’ve shared your food with me, I’ll share what my grand-daddy told me when I was a young one,” he told me. Then the wee man looked straight into my eyes as if he was going to dispense a family secret. He put a hand on my shoulder.
“If you remember one thing, laddie, remember this. Expect everything from yourself and very little from others. That way you’ll never be disappointed, and if it’s yourself who is letting you down, well then, you are in a position to do something about it. Never put your happiness in the hands of others.”
And with that he winked at me, got up and whistled his way up the loch. The last I heard from him was a shout of “Cheerio, now – and remember what I said.”
I looked up at an eagle as it flew over my head and somehow I knew why I had met the wee man.
“Thank you, Grahame,” I said, as a tear ran down my cheek.
bobby stevenson 2016