My Favourite Place

I like small towns with tight communities, places where you’re a marked woman as soon as you arrive or maybe just before you’ve thought of going. In spite of sprawling housing estates encroaching on the spaces between, Scotland still has lots of places like that. I’ve visited and fallen in love with many over the years – Peebles, Kirkwall, Musselburgh – but my favourite place is one that I never wanted to go to.
When I was eight we moved house for the second time in my life. We’d come to Dumfries from Edinburgh three years before and now we were going to move again. I hadn’t really been old enough to mind leaving Edinburgh but I hated the idea of leaving Dumfries and all my school friends. Looking back I must have made my parents’ lives a misery as I fought and complained and whined, all to no avail of course.
In the long hot summer of 1976 we left Dumfries sweltering on the banks of the diminished Nith and set out for Lossiemouth a town basking in the wonderful climate of coastal Moray. For about a month I was miserable but then I settled in at school and Brownies and Church and Lossiemouth became the place I lived in. And that’s how it remained for twelve years.
Back then Lossiemouth was a fishing community with a harbour full of boats and fresh fish available straight off them. The population of 6000 seemed to be made up of Stewarts, Souters and Campbells, all of them related to each other and most of the rest of the town. So we were incomers, my parents, sister and I. But unlike in lots of small towns this caused us few problems. Because, of course, Lossiemouth was also the site of an RAF Station and the locals were well used to incomers from all over the country.
Looking back, I remember Lossiemouth being a peaceful, quiet, friendly town. It was still quite compact and we lived on the hill in the middle. It never really had a centre; shops were dotted along Queen Street and Pitgaveney Street with a few on Clifton Road. There were butchers, a greengrocer, chemists, drapers, a dress shop and an old-fashioned grocer’s shop as well as various bakers. Needless to say, few of them were called by the names above their doors. How one referred to them was an indication of one’s local credentials.
And there were beaches, two of them, but the West Beach, bounded by sea and golf course, was my beach. I could see it and Covesea Lighthouse from my bedroom window and as I grew up I spent hours staring out at it, especially at sunset when the beam of the lighthouse would meld with the sun’s dying rays. I rarely played on either beach but I often walked on the West Beach or sat above it, alone daydreaming or with friends talking. There was something special about the light quality that I never found anywhere else. The East Beach, on an island between sea and river, was far away in comparison and I rarely went there. Gradually, though, we developed a family tradition of walking on it on New Year’s Day and so, in my memory, it’s frosty and crisply bright.
Inevitably I didn’t realise how special Lossiemouth was or how much I had come to love the place until I lost it. Just before my final year at Glasgow University my parents moved – to Glasgow, of all places. I had one last summer in Lossiemouth, working for the Libraries Service and trying to drink in the town against the fast-approaching day when it would be mine no longer. But the end came as ends do and I went away to university for the final time.
Over the next few years I went back to Lossiemouth as a visitor but it was never the same and after a personal tragedy that became associated in my mind with the town I stopped going. But I never stopped missing the place, the people and, most of all perhaps, the sea. I settled in Lanarkshire and then moved to Stirlingshire, living about as far away from the sea as was possible in Scotland. And whenever I went to the coast I frantically tried to hold the sea to me to get me through the months in between.
And then a few years ago in the middle of making drastic decisions about my life, I saw a job advertised in Moray, a job that might have been made for me. And I knew then that I really wanted to go back, however much of a risk that might be after 20 years away. But it was still with as much apprehension as excitement that I accepted the job when it was offered to me. What I worried about was that the place I remembered would no longer be there. Would twenty years of progress have spoiled it?
In spite of my fears, my heart lifted with every mile I drove north. When I crested the hill that is School Brae before dropping down into St Gerardine’s Road and on to James Street there were tears in my eyes. There in front of me was not only the West Beach but also a sea full of memories.
It’s nearly eight years since I made the move and I have to tell you that it’s not always a mistake to go back. Lossiemouth has expanded and there are no fishing boats in the fancy marina. But the locals are still friendly and interested – going shopping or to the post office is as much a social occasion as a necessary chore. The sea is the same and the West Beach is still there to be walked along. And the wonderful light quality that I carried with me for twenty years is as magical as ever.

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