Essay: Somewhere Only We Know (BBC Radio Scotland)

It’s funny, the way you remember things.

If you asked me what I thought I’d recall from a recent radio adventure that saw BBC producer Debbie McPhail and I embark on a sailing trip round the Morvern Peninsula with best-selling author Alexander McCall Smith, and an overnight stay by a Helmsdale croft with Scottish pop trailblazer Edwyn Collins, and a wander round Pittencrieff Park with theatre, folk and pop star Barbara Dickson – among others – I’d have guessed at the majestic sweep of the Glencoe valley; the idyllic Sutherland beaches; the quickening heavens above Dunfermline Abbey; the glorious sights, and scale, of the land.

Instead though, I remember lichen. I remember Sydney Devine’s wedding ring. I remember the kindness of scampi and chips. I remember Edwyn Collins singing Perry Como, and Barbara Dickson laughing by her childhood paddling pool, and actor Gavin Mitchell bagging us hot donuts at the Glasgow Barras. I remember Sandy McCall Smith clambering over his kitchen sink, crockery flying, valiantly trying to save a bee, and the way that Hollie McNish’s granny took my hand when she spoke to me, just like my nana used to do, but I haven’t felt that in 30 years, and so it took my breath away, and I nearly cried into my battenberg cake. I remember excellent battenberg cake.

I remember being in the middle of hanging out the washing last year, when I got a phonecall from Debbie McPhail. We’d worked together once before – she was producing BBC Radio Scotland’s Afternoon Show and I was sitting in for Janice Forsyth – and she was phoning me, she said, with an idea for a radio series…

It’s called Somewhere Only We Know, and it starts on Wednesday June 12th, at 1.30pm. Over the next six weeks, we’re visiting the places in Scotland that are closest to the hearts of Alexander McCall Smith, Barbara Dickson, Still Game’s Gavin Mitchell (“Boabby the Barman”), award-wining poet Hollie McNish, Edwyn Collins and his wife Grace Maxwell, and beloved rhinestone crooner Sydney Devine.

From the Highlands to the Barrowlands, from the Hebrides to a Fife peacock retreat, we’ll be given a guided radio tour of our brilliant guests’ personal histories, milestones, memories, and the landscapes that have shaped and inspired them. We spent hours, if not days, with each of them, so undoubtedly some tales will fall by the wayside, but their traces and ghosts will still be there, in the buildings and hillsides and waterfalls that witnessed them, somewhere among the airwaves and between the lines.

Time will tell (on Debbie’s watch) if the yarn that Edwyn and Grace told us about Shakin’ Stevens and Foreigner over curry and wine will make the cut, and I can’t recall if the tape was still rolling when Edwyn sang Perry, or when we got donuts, or when I noticed the ring on Sydney’s finger: a diamond and gold-encrusted horseshoe; a tiny gilded monument to luck, and love.

Then there were the exploits that unfolded when we weren’t recording. We stayed overnight in Lochaline, in a bed and breakfast whose other guest, Nerys, had travelled all the way from Wales on account of her avid love for lichen. We arrived too late for the local shop, and the hotel kitchen was closed that day, so Debbie and I sat on a picnic bench, looking across the water to Mull, with wine from a box, and a three course bar meal of dry roasted peanuts, salted peanuts and a bag of crisps, but there was no need: the hotel landlord opened the kitchen, and served us both up scampi and chips.

If you’d asked me what I hoped this series might achieve before we started, I’d have said something about taking radio out of the studio, and into the landscapes – and lives – of some of our best-loved characters. But, on reflection, what I really hope is that we’ve celebrated the beauty, and breadth, and resonance of our rural, and (sub)urban stomping grounds; that we’ve explored intimate and communal monuments (real and imagined); and most of all, that we’ve conveyed the extraordinary warmth, and generosity, and kindness, of our unforgettable guests, who were as bright as sunshine, and as welcoming as home.

Somewhere Only We Know runs weekly on BBC Radio Scotland for six weeks, starting at 1.30pm on Wednesday June 12th. It’s repeated on Sundays at 6am and 3pm. You can listen to the episodes once they’re broadcast via BBC Sounds, here:

Related articles:

Barbara Dickson interview, The Herald:

Edwyn Collins and Grace Maxwell interview, The Herald:


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