‘Three-score Years and Ten’

A few weeks ago my eye fell on a fascinating headline in the literary magazine, ‘Northwords Now’. ‘Aonghas Dubh aig aois a gheallaidh,’ it said. I hadn’t heard the phrase for a long time, but it was in common use in the older Gaelic world when life seemed more precarious than it does now; and when, of course, biblical language coloured everyday speech in a way that is rare today. All in all, it was a splendid headline. The phrase goes back to the words of the Psalmist, ‘The days of our years are three-score years and ten,’ and from them came the sentiment, often expressed by septuagenarians, ‘I got the promise.’

As it happened, I had met Aonghas (full name, Aonghas MacNeacaill, one of the best known of our bards) but a few days previously, and we had exchanged compliments on our mutual achievements in having made it to grown-up. In this case, modesty doesn’t preclude me saying that I made it before he did, but he has made it better, having been totally successful in looking not only old, but venerable. Built on something like the same lines as Pavarotti, and with a splendid beard, he could easily have been mistaken for a prophet rather than a poet, and at any moment I expected a little boy to approach us and put the question once put to us the question once put to a very venerable Archbishop of Canterbury, ‘Please sir, were you in the ark?’ When the Archbishop denied it, the boy was quite nonplussed, and couldn’t stop himself asking, ‘Well then, how didn’t you drown?’

It would have been a great pity if Angus had drowned. His praise may not be in all the churches, but it is certainly in all the poets’ societies, and deservedly so; and apart from being an accomplished poet he is a direct unpretentious individual who doesn’t mind being teased, even by a theologian.

He also, I discovered that night, has an intriguing role-model as he negotiates maturity. Apparently, the late James Callaghan, once Labour Prime Minister, used to reassure himself in his later years by means of a simple test. Could he still put on his trousers standing up? I must confess is had never paid much attention to the art of putting on trousers. Now I fear that every bodach in Skye is now going to be tormented by this question every morning; and unfortunately this is not the sort of triviality on which Aonghas writes poetry.

Despite the advantages of maturity, I find there are also serious drawbacks. One is that you need glasses, and since you can’t yet get them as in-plants you have to carry them with you wherever you go. They’re not like dogs, which follow you wherever you go. Instead, they have a nasty habit of deliberately staying behind, so that when you sit at the lap-top you find they’re still at, ‘Where did you leave them?’; and when you go to the garden-centre they’re in ‘your other jacket’, and so you can’t read the labels. And when you find them, and sit down comfortably, you find they’re all be-smudged and useless, and they insist, ‘Get up, you gowk, and clean us;’ which is very hard to do without be-smudging them even worse. There’s probably a university somewhere which offers a degree-course in Spectacles Management. If anyone has any information they can contact me through the Editor, who loves passing on such information because it relieves the boredom at the office.

The other drawback is that people think you’re deaf. Not, you will note, that you actually are deaf. If you were, you wouldn’t hear people asking, ‘Are you deaf?’ with the emphasis sometimes on the ‘you’ and sometimes on the ‘deaf’. At this moment I can clearly hear the computer humming, and whenever the phone goes I can always hear it well enough to get irritated when ‘people’ don’t answer it. But there is no doubt that in the last decade standards of speech in this country have deteriorated. People no longer pronounce their words properly, they don’t speak up and seldom bother using their lips. Then they have the gall to accuse other people of being deaf.

But then, the Psalmist never actually promised three-score years and ten, and indeed this year of royal jubilee is a sombre reminder of that fact. When the King died in 1952, he was far short of ‘the promise’; and many of our close companions in the Coronation celebrations the following June never lived to the age of the trouser-test.

And some, of course, have lived considerably longer. Yet, as the Psalmist also suggested, that’s not always fun. Some make it to fourscore years, but all too often ‘their strength is labour and sorrow.’ That’s sometimes no more than a matter of biology. Joints wear out, systems break down, genes mutate and brains degenerate. But sometimes it’s the result of an uncaring society. Ours is the first generation to regard ‘the elderly’ as a special social problem, and to the problems of age and decrepitude are too often added those of loneliness and loss of dignity. If care-homes are run for profit, and staffed by inexperienced twenty-somethings who know nothing of residents’ previous lives, it’s no surprise if they take refuge in the idea that all ‘old people’ are now in their second childhood. Homes for ‘the elderly’ are run like nursery schools, without the control imposed by vigilant parents. No wonder that so often they welcome death; and the young, whom politicians and the markets pamper, never remember that one day, perhaps, they too will be old.

But, not to finish on that note. I was glad to see in last week’s WHFP a photo of dolphins enjoying themselves in Camastianavaig Bay, because it reminded me of a story of another notable Skyeman: the late Rev. Ewan MacQueen, once Free Presbyterian minister in Inverness, and the archetypal clerical ‘personality’. Once, on a visit to Toronto, an Immigration official looked at his passport very suspiciously. It gave the place of birth as ‘Camastianavaig’. ‘Where is that? asked the officer. ‘Are you,’ said Mr. MacQueen, ‘a Customs Officer, and you’ve never heard of Camastianavaig?’

And then, a few pages earlier, another intriguing headline, ‘Marags move closer to protected status’.

If they’re protected, does that mean we’ll no longer be allowed to eat them?

This article first appeared in the West Highland Free Press, Friday 1 June, 2012