A week like no other.


I’ve just had a memorable week.

My mum died, and we buried her.

That’s the short version.

The long version?

Well, permit me the indulgence to weave a tale that encompasses laughter, tears, xenophobia, illness, memory and brilliant crystalline light. I’ve decided to do this because a few days ago I stood with my arms around my son as we committed his granny to the soil, and I was sad. And, momentarily, angry. An anger I knew my brother and sister, and many of my relatives had shared in equal measure and was given focus for me, strangely, by the events of my mother’s funeral.

I’ve written several times about my mum and her fight with dementia, from the point she was removed from her small apartment where she lived independently, to another more unsettling observation of ‘loss’ when I realised that her dementia had stolen memories from us all in a way that I’d never imagined possible.

Mum died at the weekend, aged 92, peacefully slipping away with family around her, in her Care Home in Fort William. My brother had arrived from Norway, my sister from Ayrshire. All of us together.


However……in the gap between her death and the funeral….as arrangements were made, relatives contacted, wreaths chosen…my son William began feeling unwell. And as I made the final arrangements for the funeral on Thursday, and his 9th birthday party on Wednesday, William went downhill. First wobbliness, then tiredness, finally aches and nausea, closely followed by full-on vomiting. Unfortunately my partner had an important meeting in London and had already left as this drama unfolded.

I started to feel unwell too. And within a matter of hours had joined William in his misery. He lay sprawled on one side of the room heaving into a basin, I was horizontal on the other side aching all over. That night as he went to the toilet before bed I heard a yelp, and dashing in I found William retching into the toilet, and mumbling “Thats eight times today, eight times. Thats the most times I’ve ever been sick in the one day daddy, the most…that’s a record for me…eight times…” and with a sense of some magnificent achievement wobbled off to bed and passed out immediately. We both had hallucinations that night, and woke feeling even worse the next morning.

I spoke to my partner on the phone, and broke the bad news to William. The Birthday Party Most Likely Will Not Happen: some of his classmates who were coming to his party were also off sick, so we’d decided to postpone the event until everybody had recovered. He’s a stoic wee soul, and took it reasonably well, disappointed and tearful but philosophical about the circumstances. The replacement part for the only-two-months-out-of-warranty and now uncontrollable oven popped through the letterbox. Did I say the oven had failed? No? Well the oven had failed and I’d ordered the part to fix it. But as I opened it I realised they’d sent the wrong part. I sighed with frustration. Melanie was going to bake a cake for William’s party on her return on Tuesday evening, so that even if the party was cancelled he would still have the birthday cake.


When she came home Melanie tried her best, but the uncontrollable oven lived down to my expectations, and the cake got burned. Ah well I said, things can only get better. A few moments later overcome with a wave of nausea and wobbliness I leaned over the toilet to rest my head on the window cill and the house cordless phone fell out of my shirt pocket and went straight down the toilet. It was terminal, despite blow-drying and various other water-removal tricks it would not work. Bah.

Birthday day dawned. William opened a few of his presents in bed. Now we’re all feeling dodgy, mummy too, having started to feel a little peaky late the previous night. William had ceased vomiting though, but I had deteriorated and had to force myself to get up and write my mum’s eulogy, shaking uncontrollably, and freezing cold despite the tropical day outside. Late in the afternoon I realised I should make the effort to iron our funeral clothes as we were departing on the 60 mile drive to the funeral first thing in the morning. Board out, iron on. First the shirt…iron goes pffftt-fizzz-pffft-POP!  And dies. Terminal. No iron. Creased clothes. Yikes. Luckily I was able to quickly obtain a new one. At least we’d have crease-free clothes if nothing else! It was another night of rollocking hallucinations for me, William slept soundly, well on the road to recovery it seemed.

Thursday was a glorious day for a funeral. The light astonishing, crystal-clear air and warm sunshine. The mountains around town were still snow-patched and glistening. The church in Fort William full of old friends, relatives and more recent ‘acquaintances’ of mum’s, but of them I’ll explain more later. By now I was dizzy, nauseous and losing my voice rapidly. This was shaping up to be a rather challenging afternoon.


My eulogy was long, I’d timed it so the minister would know how to structure his service, it was 15 minutes of non-stop story-telling. It was intended to be in turn funny, surprising and sad. The congregation laughed, then sighed, then laughed again even harder, then wept.

You see, my mum was a force of nature. Literally. Her generosity was boundless. As children we’d often awaken to find a family of strangers having breakfast in the living room – tourists who’d arrived late at the hotel mum worked in, only to find no beds available. So mum had taken them home! One morning there were three Germans from Stuttgart, another day an American couple and two children, once or twice Italians, and Spaniards, South Africans, Australians, Israelis….no matter where you came from, nor the colour of your skin mum would give up her bed, sleep on a floor and feed you when you awoke refreshed next day.


Mum’s generosity of spirit was accompanied by a hatred of intolerance in any form. A quality best summed up in the story of the Moolvi family, our neighbours. Mr & Mrs Moolvi emigrated from Pakistan and arrived in Fort William, moving into a flat across the back square from our flat, with their five children. People of colour were a novelty in the Highlands back then in the mid 1960’s, and it would be fair to say there was at least a degree of suspicion about them, and sadly in a few instances some hostility.

And it was this ‘hostility’ which mum overheard in the laundry house as a few of our more bigoted neighbours made highly pejorative remarks about coloured people in earshot of Mrs Moolvi as she did her washing chores. My mum was outraged and went ballistic. An angry Glaswegian is a terrifying spectacle, mum literally erupted.  She sent the gossips packing, their faces red and their tails between their legs, roundly scolded for their unkindness. And to make her point even more forcefully….despite Mrs Moolvi having no English, and mum no Urdu, mum waved her arms around, TALKED VERY LOUDLY, smiled a lot and managed to invite the whole family of Moolvis over to have Christmas Dinner with us and laid on a sumptuous spread of highland delights! We had a grand time and all of us became firm friends. In fact we were sucked into a sort-of Pakistani mafia that extended to Glasgow and provided us with years of joy and insight. We children learned a lot about tolerance and the dangers of narrow-mindedness from my mum.



As I looked across the sea of faces in the church when I told this story, amongst many others, I could see tears welling in the eyes of several of a large number of young women and one young man, spread out across several pews in various groups. These were mum’s carers in the Care Home that had been her home for the last 9 years. A large proportion of them are Polish, some are from Latvia and the Czech Republic. All were heartbroken, sharing our grief at the loss of my mum. Their friend.


As my brother remarked quietly to me at the graveside, his voice loaded with irony, and in reference to our conversation of the previous evening about the shameful creeping xenophobia at the heart of British life:  “Who do these Eastern Europeans think they are, coming over here, caring diligently for our families, doing wonderful things for them, then coming to our funerals, crowding round our graves, all tears and sorrow.”

We both knew they had indeed tended my mother diligently. And they have our eternal gratitude for that. They had laughed with her, fed her, bathed her, caressed her when she was distraught and ensured she knew she was not alone in whatever grief-filled place she occasionally tumbled. More than once I’d overheard them gently sing her little Polish songs to ease her into sleep, warm voices just for her.



And more practically, as mum’s speech deteriorated due to dementia, and communication became more difficult, the ability of those surrounding her to understand what she ‘stammerburbled’ became critical to aspects of her welfare. Does mastering a second language, as many of the Eastern Europeans have had to, enhance their ability to discern meaning from apparently incoherent speech? I have no idea, but they managed to. And as a consequence mum rarely went without her needs being met. And crucially when robbed of ‘normal’ speech, what a gift to have in one’s last few years of life simply to be listened to and be understood, to be able to be yourself.



Later at the graveside they stood with us tearful and sad, while William, now fully recovered and in a joyful counterpoint to our collective stillness and solemnity, scampered around revelling in his ability to run endlessly, but stopping when it was necessary to be part of the interment, reverentially dropping a small dandelion picked from the surrounding grass onto his granny’s coffin. Krystof, one of mum’s carers for many years, accepted my invitation to share my cord, to represent his many colleagues and to stand with us as part of our family, as my brother, sister, cousins together shared the burden of lowering my mum into her grave.

All of us indivisibly bound to the small woman in the box beneath us by far more than the simple tasseled cords we each clutched as a final mark of respect as we committed her to the soil beside my dad.

A woman who had welcomed people into her generous arms for the whole of her life, now reaping the love she had sown.




Edit 28th May: thanks to the overwhelming generosity of friends and family the grand sum of £650 was raised which has been used to buy mum’s Care Home, Invernevis House, a set of garden furniture for the elderly and infirm residents. I picked it up yesterday and delivered it to Fort William, where care home staff will be assembling it as I type!

There are wrought-iron benches that will withstand the weather, for use outdoors, with tables and folding chairs, and two sun umbrellas. For indoors use there is a hardwood bench and a lovely big wall clock. £100 has been kept aside to buy plants for the garden to ensure there is colour and texture in the grounds around the furniture. The balance of the donations, another £100, has been put aside to provide a special event for the residents at Christmas, mum’s favourite time of the year.

Thank you all for your generosity. Your donations will ensure the residents of Invernevis House will be able to more easily enjoy moments in the garden when the sun shines, using the garden furniture, a fitting and overwhelmingly practical memorial to my mum.


Author — John Macpherson

John MacPherson was born and lives in the Scottish Highlands. He trained as a welder in the Glasgow shipyards, before completing an apprenticeship as a carpenter, and then qualified as a Social Worker in Disability Services. Along the way he has cooked on canal barges, trained as an Alpine Ski Leader & worked as an Instructor for Skiers with disabilities, been a canoe instructor, and tutor of night classes in carpentry, stained glass design and manufacture, and archery. He has travelled extensively on various continents, undertaking solo trips by bicycle, or motorcycle. He has had narrow escapes from an ambush by terrorists, been hit by lightning, caught in an erupting volcano, trapped in a mobile home by a tornado, kidnapped by a dog's hairdresser, rammed by a basking shark and was once bitten by a wild otter. He has combined all this with professional photography, which he has practised for over 35 years. He teaches photography and acts as a photography guide & tutor in the UK and abroad. His biggest challenge is keeping his 30 year old Land Rover 110 on the road. He loves telling and hearing stories.

Discussion (20 Comments)

  1. Karen says:

    I stumbled across your blog this afternoon, a pounding headache having put paid to any Sunday afternoon plans. My husband and I have a long-term (2 year) plan to move to Scotland and I have been trolling the Internet looking to learn more about true life in Scotland … not the touristy bits. My grandfather was a Scot and we were raised with many Scottish traditions. Always one side of the family overshadows the other and my dad’s Dutch heritage was confined to photographs of stodgy Nederlanders while my mom’s heritage was front and center. I was born and raised in Africa and made my way to Vancouver, Canada in my 20s, but nowhere in the world has given me butterflies in my stomach at the mere thought of visiting … other than Scotland. I have never been. I lived in London for 9 months but was working like a dog and never saw more than the Tate and the War museum. Scotland has my heart and she doesn’t even know it. Well, reading this tribute to your mother and her defence of immigrants has me feeling so proud for you. What a dynamo she must have been, so generous and energetic. Dementia really does make mourners of us twice over. Loss of who our loved one is and then loss of their physical being. Your telling of a snippet of her life is beautiful. Thank you for sharing. I can’t wait to meet Scotland and her people. Most of them, anyway. The laundry house bigots-types aside.

  2. Paul Bence says:

    Made me cry, what a wonderful woman. All the best John.

  3. Dawn Mander says:

    What a fabulous mum woman and she loved you more than anyone else ever will, keep those memories alive, talk about her talk to her …she will answer you .

    • John says:

      Thanks for reading Dawn. Aye she was a character who ‘affected’ many people in her life, a fact underlined by the substantial number of people who turned up at her funeral, despite being well over 90 years old and ‘out of circulation’ in the town for years due to dementia. You reap what you sow!

  4. Jane Sweeney says:

    Thank you for sharing the story and wonderful memories of your mum. She was an incredible lady. And I wish there were more people like her. If we all felt and acted like her the world would be a far nicer place and especially our own country at this time. My mother in law also from Scotland (Dumbarton) was a wise woman who had time for all. And a very open outlook on life. Sadly passed 2 years ago now and is sadly missed. Again thank you for sharing.

  5. john says:

    Thanks Jane, she was a real character and left an indelible mark on many people. I thought her story was one that should be shared – we need less division and more caring.

  6. Marjory Campbell nee McCarthy says:

    John, I knew you a long long time ago, back in FortWilliam, and in the back of my memory I think I may have bumped into you at an airport in London, not sure if that’s right ?
    Anyways my husband Donald and I are sitting here at Corfu airport, having spent a wonderful 2 weeks in Paxos, a small island 2 hours from here, and as I was browsing through fB I came across your blog, something tells me I may have read it before, it’s so beautifully written, and so nice to hear how you are what you are up to. I live in Glasgow now with Donald, and we have 3 kids and one grandson. We had Your cousin May and David for dinner recently when they were on their way to the highlands. I don’t go up to FortWilliam often, but when I do, it always feels like home, we all went up in May, and stayed at a place called Cour Lodge a mile in to the hills from Spean Bridge, it was lovely. Anyways, I better go and get this plane, take care, hope you remember me, and if you don’t that’s ok to
    Kind regards

    • Marjory – good of you to stop by! Of course I remember you, always sharp & stylish with a devil-may-care attitude! Was it Manchester Airport we met maybe? I do remember meeting you but for the life of me cant recall where, might have been London though! Sounds like life is grand for you. I’m in Invernes and meet cousin Duncan (May’s brother) from time to time. Also a dad, William now 13 and going on 26!
      Take care.

  7. Theresa McCormack says:

    This brought a tear to my eye I worked in Invernevis at this time and wee Sadie was one of my favourite people, she had the biggest smile and was very happy most of the time , she loved when people sat and spoke to her and gave her a hug , I went to her funeral to say goodbye to her . My wee friend Sadie

    • Hi Theresa – sorry for delay in replying, I’ve been away form the computer for a week or so. Thank you for the care you gave and for the send off. She lived well right to the end which is all one can ask. We were so grateful (and will remain so) to you and your colleagues for the wonderful care and friendship you gave her. She spent her final years ‘at home’ with all of you, which is the highest compliment I can offer.
      All the best

  8. Fiona Reed says:

    Loved reading this !
    A real tribute to your mum and her values
    Don’t think l knew her , but my mum was also cared for very well in Invernevis House some twenty years ago and l am a retired Social Worker

  9. Meg says:

    Jeezo john! What a start to the day! ?! Just read your story of Sadie! Tears running down my face!!! I had the pleasure of working with your mum in the belford kitchen in the early 80’s! One of the finest ladies I have ever come across!!! Kind, strong, powerful, independant, not to mention very funny! Learnt lots from her + loved her with all my heart?? take care of all your people! X

  10. Fiona Campbell says:

    Hi John, just read your story which made me laugh and cry, there are so many people suffering from dementia which as you know is a horrible disease and takes away the person that you once knew to a place you can’t get them back from. My friends Mum has it, we took part in the Memory Walk back in March this year and raised nearly £600 which we were totally amazed at. Maybe one day there will be a cure for this disease, we can only hope – take care x

  11. Ruth M Fitzsimmons says:

    Just beautiful! I loved it and all the fond memories of Fort William and Grannie, the aunties and my mother! Thank you!

    • Hi Ruth – how are you? Good to hear from you! Aye I well remember going to meet all of you with mum and dad. Mum was a character and she’s sorely missed.

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