Villagers on Pentecost Island

If Scotland were like Vanuatu...

The fourth in a series of letters home from Vanuatu, sent to my parents and their friends in the Scottish Highlands and published in the Gairloch and District Times...

Most people in Vanuatu have never travelled abroad. "How is life in your country different from life in ours?" they often ask me.

Well, if Scotland were like Vanuatu...

Most people would live in thatched huts built entirely with materials hacked from the forest, although a few rich residents would construct their houses out of cement. Hardly any would have electricity, although most schools would own a small generator which they would power up whenever the teachers needed to use the photocopier or the headteacher wanted to watch a DVD. For heating and cooking, there would be only log fires, which would fill the houses with smoke. Householders would fetch their water from rainwater tanks, or from communal taps fed unfiltered from streams up the hill. Schools would have flush toilets, thanks to foreign aid money, but at most houses the bathroom would consist of a shack in the bushes with a pit underneath. People would wash in the sea, or shower by tipping buckets of cold water over their heads. On laundry days, women would take their clothes down to the river and batter them against the rocks until all but the most permanent stains were removed.

People would grow nearly all their own food, in gardens high up the mountains. They would trek uphill in the mornings with baskets and machetes, and come down in the afternoons with food and firewood. Boggy patches of mountainside would be particularly prized and used for growing tasteless but filling varieties of swamp-loving root vegetable. Elsewhere there would be dense forest, blanketing the mountains right up to their summits. Fruit trees would grow everywhere. Giant bats would take much of the fruit, but people would make up for this by catching and roasting the bats whenever there was a shortage of meat. Dogs would be used to chase pigs through the forest, and when the dogs became too old for this, they too might end up in the cooking pot. Shops would sell a small selection of tinned foods (many of them years out of date), along with household supplies such as soap and candles, but even the most basic goods might run out for months at a time. Nobody would really mind.

In Highland villages such as Gairloch, half a dozen unreliable telephones would be shared by the entire community, and mobiles would be well out of range. There would be no TV and no local radio, although foreign visitors with shortwave radios could pick up crackly continental stations. In the absence of computer games, children would amuse themselves by playing on the beach, exploring in the forest, or trying to knock exotic birds off their perches with well-aimed stones.

People would attend church devoutly, but would also cling to their ancestors' belief in magical spirits. Some would perform rituals to control the weather, while others would claim the ability to turn into animals or to fly. When people became ill, they would attempt to cure themselves with magic leaves, and only when these failed would they go to the clinic. If the illness proved fatal, black magic would be blamed, and the victim's family would seek revenge on the alleged sorcerer.

Men and women would form two parallel societies, each with own role in the world. Unmarried boys and girls would never socialise with one another, and even husbands and wives would rarely be seen together in public, although in the privacy of their homes they would come together to produce prolific numbers of children.

At bars in the evenings, no money would change hands. Men would bring along bottles of homebrew and take it in turns to stand behind the bar pouring drinks for their friends. The brews would vary dramatically in strength and quality, with most producing a sense of stupefaction rather than rowdy drunkenness. Some would numb your throat as you swallowed, and a particularly poisonous batch might leave you groggy for days afterwards. All would taste vile, and after taking a gulp each drinker would wash the taste from his mouth by spitting noisily onto the floor. Sleeping mats would be provided for those unable to walk home.

At parties, homebrew would be prepared by the dustbin full, and the whole village would be invited. Pigs and bullocks would be slaughtered for the occasion and roasted in stony pits in the ground. Nobody would have plates or cutlery, so guests would be served their dinner wrapped in giant leaves. Dancers would decorate themselves with leaves and tie rattling bunches of nuts around their ankles, and the band would strum a dozen different songs to the same twangy tune.

Everyone would grow up speaking Gaelic, although virtually every village would have its own dialect of the language. The forms spoken around different lochs would be so dissimilar as to be mutually unintelligible, and people from different areas would be forced to communicate in Pidgin English instead. Real English would be heard only at school, where the language would be compulsory in the classroom despite the fact that most children barely understood it.

The roads over the mountains into town would be impassable. Instead, an airfield would be built and little planes resembling flying minibuses would land a couple of times a week carrying post, passengers, and the occasional pig. Everything else would come on ships, which would ply up and down the coast according to a timetable known only to their captains, stopping wherever they saw fires lit on the beach. At the local harbour, there would be no wharf, but the outflow from the river would create a convenient gap in the reef where boats could come ashore.

Rutted dirt tracks would run around some of the lochs, and a few people would own decrepit four-wheel-drive trucks, which they would use mainly for hauling goods to and from the airfield or the shore. Other journeys would be made on foot. There would be no bridges anywhere, but in dry weather the rivers and burns could be negotiated without too much difficulty.

Scotland would have a democratic and newly-independent parliament, but while its elected politicians were squabbling in Edinburgh the serious business of governing a Highland village would fall to its local Community Council. Its members would be selected by a ritual in which prospective councillors threw a series of lavish parties at which pigs were slaughtered to provide a feast for the entire village. The person who could supply the most generous helpings of roast pork would become the council's chairman. Since there would be no police station, the councillors would have almost total responsibility for maintaining law and order in the village, but most would use their power wisely and would be accorded great respect.

The average person abroad would never have heard of Scotland. Some, confusing it with other European countries, might ask if it's the place that's about to disappear beneath the sea because of global warming, and would be surprised to learn that it is in fact mountainous. Many of the tourists who came to the country would spend their entire visit relaxing in an Edinburgh hotel, and send postcards telling their friends what a luxurious place Scotland was. The few foreigners you met in the Highlands would mostly be missionaries, aid workers or volunteer teachers, who would write letters home marvelling at how different the country was from their own...

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© Andrew Gray, 2006