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Tales from across the sea

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Among the heroes of our childhood were R.L. Stevenson, dreaming in Samoa of the east wind of Edinburgh and the cry of peesweeps over the Lammermoors, and Cunninghame Graham, Don Roberto, torn between love for the pampas of the Argentine and for his Scottish family estate of Gartmore. In our own family there was the relative known as Don Tomas, the most romantic of them all, perpetually huddled over the fire in a great fawn and russet poncho of vicuna wool. He was absorbed in memories of our mutual ancestors, Cape Horners, who had crossed the sea in sailing ships, leaving misty Scotland for Chile where the sun always shone.

When my brother asked him what it was like, living out there as a boy, Don Tomas would return as from a vast distance, then he was off, weaving with words the spell of far away and long ago.

''The Pampas was my country,'' he would tell us. ''I rode up there on my pony. Sometimes when I was flying my kite I was lifted clean off my feet. If I hadn't let go I'd have been blown across the provinces of Tarapaca and Atacama to the Cordillera of the Andes and splashed into the Pacific. I grew up among Peruvians, Bolivians, Germans, Italians, Chilenos. The black-haired, black-eyed Chilean children taunted me for being fair-haired, blue-eyed and, worst of all, a Presbyterian and a Scot. They flung stones at me, sneering 'Gringo!' as over here I'd have shouted 'Sassenach!' at the English.

''All kinds of odd people passed along the streets in those days. A potbellied Chileno waddled along calling 'Albacora!' glistening with fish scales. A humpbacked Boliviano trotted past on a burro crying 'Bacalao!' 'Mani! Mani!' shouted the peanut vendor. The Dog Man needed no cry, for along with him went the yowling and howling of his captive strays in their cage. In Scotland I'd have heard the tinkers tramping by with 'Auld claes! Cloots and claes!' and the fisherfolk's echoing 'Fine fresh herring!'


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