IT is the season to be merry, or so it would seem as visitors flock to the village. A rental cottage on the green has been heavily booked these past few weeks. Arriving with suitcases, the occupants tend to park in front of our cottage, which allows us to vet them: age, accents, dog breeds. But as well as resident holidayers, folk are arriving from all corners: over the hills on their way to Lindisfarne, or passing through on electric bikes, needing so little effort they have time to scrutinise every house as they glide by.

We had just sat down for a Friday evening glass of wine the other week when a woman in a straw hat stopped her car in the middle of the road and, rolling down the window, started to take photos of our house. Then she turned and snapped our neighbours’ properties on the other side of the green.

I hoped a tractor would arrive and chase her away, but she had the highway to herself. As she pointed the lens in our direction we waved, but she didn’t seem to notice; certainly it didn’t put her off. Perhaps when she later looked at the images, she saw two indignant faces peering at her.

For years our cottage was known as the Haunted House, and children raced to get past it in the dark. When I first heard this, it made me uneasy. I don’t believe in ghosts – or I won’t until I meet one – but I doubt many of us would feel comfortable to be told spirits are roaming the premises.

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To my relief, I later learned that the cause of children’s consternation was a pair of eery, motionless grey figures book-ending the sitting room window. Fortunately, they weren’t spectres but stone statues that kept the elderly owner company. They stood sentinel, observing everything that came into view, rather like us at the kitchen table. I imagine our faces registering on the tourist’s camera like those frozen figures: a snapshot of rural life in Covid times, when rustics raise a glass after a day of gruelling labour at the keyboard.

All across Hoolet, guests are pouring in. Some stay longer than others – one pair merely phoned ahead to ask if they could use a friend’s facilities on their long hike towards Jedburgh. Occasionally you’ll meet someone who has been playing host suddenly emerging, as if from a stretch in the clink, with the dazed expression of one who has finally regained their freedom.

We have a series of visitors and overnight guests booked in throughout July, August and September, by which time we hope to be able to sleep under the rafters in the loft. The idea is to put most of the house between them and us. One particular couple are always given our bedroom, because the bed in our main spare room is so narrow you find yourself clinging to the edge when the other person turns over.


This is not to say these friends are in any way large; one of them is a manic bicyclist, built like a whippet. On arrival, they bring enough luggage for a round the world cruise – we’re usually just a short stop on a national tour – and settle into our room. Posh frocks are hung on the back of the bedroom door, a reproach to those of us who kissed glamour goodbye the day we left Glasgow. In the morning, when I take up tea, it is strange seeing them propped, like Lewis Chessmen, against our pillows. If ghosts patrol their old houses, this must be what they feel like, seeing themselves usurped by new models.

A London acquaintance came for lunch recently, and I collected him from the train. A friend from near Hawick once had a visitor who, as they approached her house in the woods, drank in the vista of hills, fields and sheep, and said, “this is extreme country”.

Our lunch guest might have been thinking the same, as we rolled up to the cottage. “I hadn’t expected it to be so dingley,” he said, which we took as a compliment, although it could cut both ways.

Later, donning Alan’s straw hat and looking as if he was in a Merchant Ivory film, he came for a stroll. In the unaccustomed warmth, beneath a Tuscan blue sky, we sauntered past the road sign that in winter is all but submerged in snow drifts. He was getting an entirely untypical experience of Hoolet. Having gaped at the size of the Belted Galloways, one of which was bucking like a bronco when we passed, he recalled rare family picnics in the countryside when he was a boy, where they once tangled with a herd of heifers. The way he described it was like the scene in Trainspotting, where Renton, Spud and the others find themselves surrounded by grass, sky and snow-capped mountains, and nearly have nose-bleeds.

As with a lot of our guests, he is a Londoner to the marrow. It is hard for me to see Hoolet as he and others must, fresh from glass skyscrapers and four-lane traffic. I think he liked it, yet I also suspect he was glad when the hour for his train approached, and the city once more beckoned. It takes time to get used to being in the middle of nowhere.

In fact, unless you have a purpose in the countryside, it can seem dauntingly devoid of things to fill the day. Oddly, I used to have that feeling about Edinburgh, when I first moved there. If I’d been dropped on a Hebridean island or a Perthshire moor, I’d have been fine. It was the maze of built-up streets that left me all at sea.

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Some days, the silence in Hoolet is so deep it interrupts what I’m doing. Even in the middle of a weekday morning it’s possible to hear nothing but birds and, in my case, the tapping of the keyboard. In the summer house one day, I became aware of a rasping sound. It was a wasp, outside the window, scraping the wood. Working it like a road drill, it gathered the miniscule shavings into a ball of pulp, popped it in its mouth, and flew off. The noise was, well, deafening.

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