I am suffering from one of my periodic bouts of Nova Scotia Syndrome. The slightest thing can trigger an attack: wheelie bins lining the lanes of Suffolk villages; washing machines dumped in our woods; plastic bags hanging from the trees like moss in Louisiana, but not at all like moss in Louisiana. That’s the chronic form of the Syndrome. The acute form is more serious. Realising that the war in Iraq has now lasted longer than the First World War. Trying to grasp that floods in India and Bangladesh have left 20 million people homeless. Listening to John Gunner, the farmer in Surrey, talking about his old bull, Ned: ‘He had a great pedigree and was so gentle that I could put my arms around him. He just collapsed in front of me.’ And then hearing the rest of the story: Mr Gunner’s son Stephen 30 had recently left the army, with whom he’d been fighting in Iraq, to help his father with the farm.
When events converge (a bridge collapses into the Mississippi, foot-and-mouth returns), I develop a full-blown case of Nova Scotia Syndrome: a yearning to live on an island far from the madding crowd. love Nova Scotia. I love its rugged coast-line that juts out into the Atlantic just above the state of Maine. I love the pure air, deep pine forests, hillsides of sure-footed sheep and an abundance of lobster and cod. Its cold winters create the qualities in people that I admire: they’re steadfast, lean, honourable, musical, story-telling, resourceful. It doesn’t matter that I’ve never been there, because I imagine it to be like the short stories of Alistair Macleod, but with the benefit of electricity, indoor plumbing and wood-burning stoves that keep you warm until you get into your bed, a millefeuille of goose-down duvets and Hudson Bay blankets. I see Nova Scotia as a reprieve from global warming, religious fanaticism, fast food, reality television and the Primark culture.
Because I am reluctant to do anything drastic, I am content to settle for Scotland. Not the Scotland of Trainspotting, but the Scotland of Katie Morag, who lives on the Isle of Struay, a fictitious island created by Mairi Hedderwick. The only way to reach Struay is by boat, and The Lady of the Isles comes three times a week, unless it’s stormy, in which case, no boat comes at all. ‘An island is a piece of land with water all around,’ says the boat’s captain. But Grannie Island, Katie’s wise granny, who lives on Struay, disagrees: ‘An island is the top of a mountain sticking out of the sea.’
A week in Scotland isn’t the reprieve it once was, but it has a Nova Scotia feel to it (hint: the name.) The air is purer, the roads are better, the raspberries are sweeter, and here in this fishing cottage on the Spey, the mix of ages has a nice pioneering feel to it: Bertie, 15, on his first fishing trip (his 10lb salmon is the biggest catch of the week); Sam, 18, (two salmon); Philip (32) and Amy (27), engaged for one week, whose shining eyes make us all feel in love; Brian (30-something), geologist and expert fisherman from Newfoundland, next door to Nova Scotia. And, making it all possible, David (grandfather of Bertie) and Diana (mother of Philip).
I don’t dispute John Donne’s premise that no man is an island, but a dreamy belief in an island is vital to our well-being. If I didn’t believe that somewhere cows are safe, bridges do not suffer from poor engineering and politicians have common sense, I would plunge into an abyss. Nova Scotia Syndrome is like the patch of blue that prisoners call the sky. We all need it. Happily, for now, a week in Scotland will do.