To the end of the line.

As an end piece to the Ulster Revival stories here is short story on the imagined journey of my father, Tommy McWilliams, to a mission tent at Ballachulish in Scotland.

Tommy McWilliams 1950.

Tommy hauled his case off the Glasgow train just before noon. The branch line from Oban to Ballachulish would leave in an hour. There was enough time for a cup of tea and a sandwich in the simple station cafe before he boarded the narrow-gauge steam train and settled into an empty carriage, the case taking up a good deal of space. A couple joined him, holiday makers by the cut of their summer clothes. They would get out a few stops along the line.

The prospect of a trip to the remote Highlands near Glencoe had filled him with excitement, but now on the last leg of the journey this was tempered by concerns of leading the mission services for the next fortnight. He had been well prepared and coached, done it all before, but this was far from home on his first trip to Scotland.

The train chugged and swayed its way northwards on the 27-mile journey, the line often hugging the coast, a road squeezed close by. The carriage window framed islands and lochs he didn’t know the names of; water that changed colour in the summer light and passing showers; steep rock cuttings, and the endless trees. The stations and villages were small, a few scattered homesteads in between, with names that were vaguely familiar, Benderloch, Creagan, Duror, Ballachulish; names he repeated in his head in what he took to be a Scottish accent.

When the couple got off, he opened the case and thumbed through his notes, closed it again and looked back to the window.

The landscape became more barren and rugged, the mountains rising to the sky. After the station at Ballachulish Ferry the train swept into Loch Leven and towards the mouth of Glencoe.

Three sharp blasts from the train’s whistle broke through his daydream and there, as the train slowed, was the pegged mission tent in a field between the track and the loch, with its signs “Faith Mission”, “Prayer meetings 7pm”.

Lugging his case down the platform he stopped and through the smoke took in the mountain peaks that dwarfed the large slab faces of the old slate quarry beyond the station. He was thinking of his Glasgow friend and his story of this once thriving quarry village now dwindled to quarter of its size, less than five hundred souls, when he was grabbed by the arm, the suitcase taken from him, and his hand vigorously shaken.

“Guid efternuin. You must be Tommy? A can tell be that case.”


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