The Future of History

Thursday, 2 February 2012

In Memory of Bruce

I first met Bruce in 1987.  After three days of hiking round the south coast of the Isle of Mull, me and my friend Charbel ('Charlie') Mattar finally reached the Isle of Iona.  Naturally, we hit the bar and politely enquired if there was anywhere we could pitch our tent.

We were told that if we walked up the road we would come to a house where a guy had let a couple of young women camp on his land a week or two before.  So off we went.  Found the house.  We were invited in.  The best the guy could suggest was that we put up our tent down on the beach - which we did, wandering onto the clean white sands and finding a little cove, where we camped for the next three nights, just a few feet away from the waves.

I couldn't help eyeing up the guy's bookcase while we were in his house.  It began to dawn on me that this chap wasn't really a local.  In fact, I got the distinct impression that he was rather interested in Birmingham - my home city.  So I put it to him.

Bruce was happy to admit that, yes, he was a Brummie really.  He had come up to the Isle of Iona many years before.  And he had just stayed there.

I made a mental note to the effect that "It doesn't matter where you go in the world, you'll always bump into somebody from Birmingham."

Fifteen years later, I returned to Iona with my better half, Kim, and we were married on the island.  We made four return trips over the next four years.  And on the first of those, I bumped into Bruce again.

I recognised him immediately.  And as soon as he found out that I was from Birmingham, we were back onto his favourite subject - the Outer Circle bus route, normally known as the Number 11.

Bruce had preserved a map-like memory of Birmingham.  Maybe that's what you do when you decide to live on a little Hebridean island with beautiful white beaches - you think about where you've come from.

We would stop outside his place to buy keepsakes of Iona marble, found and carved by Bruce himself (one I wear around my neck every day), and jars of heather honey from his bees.  Chickens roamed his yard freely.  In conversation, I discovered that he had built himself at least two houses on Iona - he sold one, so he built himself another.  And we talked about the island.

A friend of mine had given me a page from the Sunday Sport indicating where the best nudist beaches were in Britain.  One, apparently, was on the Isle of Iona.  I didn't believe it.  Didn't really believe that the Sunday Sport had even heard of Iona.  It was Bruce who explained to me that one of the loveliest beaches on the west side of the island was where the young seasonal staff from the hotels gathered at night to go skinny-dipping.  Impressed as I was that Bruce knew this, I was even more impressed that the Sunday Sport had got it right.  Definitely one of the best nudist beaches in the British Isles by far.

Bruce taught me a lot about Iona marble, and the geography of the island.  When we weren't talking about the Number 11 bus route.  We didn't see him when we popped over to Iona for a few hours in July 2010, although I kept an eye out for him.  I did, however, feel that he deserved a mention in the Acknowledgements for The King Arthur Conspiracy.  I'd known him for twenty years when I last saw him, and whenever we met we'd talk about two things: Birmingham and Iona.

Sadly, Bruce Wall passed away eighteen months ago.  I found out today.  He was 94.  Kim had been in touch with a woman - Bruce's daughter - who has refurbished his cottage in the middle of the island and is now looking at letting it out to holidaymakers.  The bees are still there, still making their heather honey, and they're still selling some of Bruce's polished stones by the garden gate.

He's buried in the Iona cemetery - with a good view of a tumbledown ruin, apparently, which he's no doubt thinking of rebuilding.  With any luck, we'll be up on Iona for our tenth wedding anniversary this year, so I'll look forward to saying Hi and telling him that the Number 11 bus is still running fine.  And I'll keep wearing my Iona marble pendant with its Celtic Cross, incised by Bruce.

And I think I should leave a copy of The King Arthur Conspiracy at Bruce's cottage.  After all, he gets a 'Thank You' in it.

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