Aberdeen is full of charity shops. The British Heart Foundation, Save the Children, Oxfam, Shelter, all have a big presence there. Margot goes into the PDSA one day, they’re asking for volunteers, it’s the nearest to her and she can walk there in ten minutes from their house, rented for the four year posting they’re just starting.  She works two mornings a week, and everyone except the manageress is voluntary.

It never ceases to amaze her the number of bookshops in Aberdeen, all the national names are there, all thriving. Apart from that, every charity shop is stuffed to the rafters with hardbacks, paperbacks, first editions. In most towns its shoe shops which reign, so its wonderful to see books instead. They bring them into the PDSA by the sackload, along with all the rest. Clothes, lamps, plates, anything that moves is sold to raise money for the animal dispensary which pays bills for those who can’t afford vets’ fees. Everything is cheap and amongst the tat, there are some designer clothes, good quality jewelry and quite scarce makes of pottery.

“Look at this, it’s Moorcroft,” says a colleague.

Margot thinks its ugly, but apparently its valuable and sought after by collectors. There’s a book out the back with valuations and it’s priced at 200 pounds. Several people have tried to bargain them down, walking out when they won’t budge on the price.
“They’d have to pay double that in Milnes….”.

“What’s Milnes?” asks Margot.

“The local auction house, viewing Tuesday, sales Wednesday – furniture, antiques, the lot.”

She asks Betty, the retired teacher who’s their new neighbour, if she’s been there.

“Yes, often it’s rubbish but a lot of it is good.”

Betty is well read, well travelled and being from Elgin, knows everything about the Highlands. She was born and bred there and her personal history, the amazing things she knows, the places suggested by her are remarkable. It is local knowledge, so deeply ingrained its not spoken about but, to an outsider, incredible.  She’s a walker, as well, and offers to show Margot around.  Betty is corruptible though. She can’t bring herself to buy the Daily Mail but is a secret reader of it, so Margot passes it to her daily and Betty gives her the Press & Journal in return.

At Milnes the first time, she buys a lovely art deco vase with a black glass base for twelve pounds. This becomes one of her beloved possessions because of the beauty of its fan shape, the pale green glass and inner piece with holes cut in it so the flowers fall perfectly.

“There’s an even better one down in Montrose, Taylors it’s called,” Betty tells her and that’s how it starts, their small obsession. In the shop as well, Margot’s eye becomes more discerning. A wonderful 1940’s heavy, man’s woollen coat is donated. It’s very Harry Lime, marvellous quality, only seven pounds. She buys it and takes it home and says to Bart who’s 16,

“What do you think of this?” and he’s hooked. He wears it to Robert Gordon’s, his Dutch blood being very visible as even in pouring rain, snow and storm, no Aberdonian school kid wears a coat. Ever.

Two days later his best friends Dan and Charles come home with him asking,

“Can you find coats for us as well?”

Within a week they’re all kitted out for less than the price of two hamburgers at McDonalds. It’s like some club, the Matrix film is just out and this is as near as they can get to replicating that in Aberdeen, swishing about in their long coats manfully, they walk taller, think they’re someone.


Margot drives Betty all over the Highlands to these auctions – the things they see! not just at the auctions but the beautiful coastal drive down to Montrose, a really pretty town with a dilapidated saw mill on the outskirts, it’s breathtaking. On the way anywhere, Betty will usually say

“We’ll just take a small detour and I’ll show you something first……”

Whether it’s a spectacular display of the most abundant rosemary you’ve ever seen (Bridge of Don)  or a spectacular path nobody has ever shown her on the way to Dunottar Castle, these days are magical.

“How about a little trip to the West coast?  You drive, I can educate you on the way.”

The imported, battered Jeep which has done four years in Oman, is being used properly again and purrs like a tiger, thrilled to see hills.  Six miles from where Betty grew up in the middle of Elgin lies the wondrous Pluscarden Abbey, a mediaeval Benedictine abbey built in 1230, still used for its original purpose.  Set against a forested hillside, in a sheltered, south facing glen, the fact that you must walk from a far car park, and the beauty of its setting strengthen the feeling of calm, of going back to another time. Margot expected aged, wise monks but is surprised by the youth of many of them. The place is intimate, small chapels and rooms, monks passing like ghosts on their way to some higher purpose, their eyes calmly fixed on their destination. They are beautifully robed and the silence is different, with depth she has never before felt in a church.

“What are the Benedictines famous for Betty, apart from booze?”
”They spread Christianity throughout Europe” Betty replies.

“Isn’t Westminister also a Benedictine abbey?” Margot remembers from her London days.

“It is indeed, York too.”

Margot’s heard about Findhorn for years. a famous spiritual community and ecovillage started in the hippy years of the early 1960’s.

“That’s on our way more or less to Oban,” Betty says.

On the way north they stop at Brodie for a coffee. Like most rural places in Scotland, it not only provides local produce but honey, cheese, sweaters, heather, bottled fruits. The two of them are having a dreadful time, not being able to choose which home made cake to eat.

“Shall we, just this once?” asks Betty. They have three each, devouring them at speed. They’re as good as they look, real butter, lovingly made, huge.


Findhorn is on a remote piece of land just past an air base near the shores of the Firth of Moray. Betty shows her the view over the Firth first, it’s the edge of the continent and has a touch of infinity about it, wondrous in the noonday sun.

Findhorn is well established but in the first years of the 21st century, has something tired about it. The photos Margot’s seen on the net seem to overstate it. Its an international destination, 400 courses a year see to that. They take a conducted tour with a man who has been living there since the early 1970’s. He shows them a round eco-house. Others have built traditional houses just outside the compound, which are futuristic in terms of energy use, yet they look somehow forlorn. Their guide tells them that people with money now live there and drive to their offices in other places every day, which somehow seems to defeat the original purpose.

In the beginning people lived within the real confines of Findhorn, growing vegetables, listening to their inner voices, trying to live as a spiritually oriented community. Again the sun comes out, but there is a flatness to the place Margot was not expecting. Walking back to the gate at the end of the tour she asks,

“You’ve been here all these years, what’s the future for Findborn?”

They’re about the same age, but he seems uninspired, fed up.


He thinks for a while, releases his pony tail from its plastic band, shakes his head.

“If I’m honest, my wife is very angry that everyone else has a mortgage and a car. If we had invested in property, even something simple, all those years ago we would have been self-sufficient in our old age. The kids have left, and I’m fed up not owning anything….”

They all shake hands, and in a nutshell he has conveyed the atmosphere of the place. It is “past its sell by date” in common parlance, and he has basically said that spirituality – like its counterpart commerciality – does not necessarily lead to fulfilment.

As they drive towards the west, she sees the landscape through new eyes. Brilliantly wild, freer than most places she’s been, it seems that Findhorn has become the predictable, conserved, constipated landscape while the natural one, there all the time, was the inspiration all along.


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