Ullapool Encounters With Serendipity

In Village on Loch Broom in Scottish Highlands, Locals Share Stories of Pleasant Surprises

Serendipity means a “happy accident” or “pleasant surprise” — finding something good or useful without looking for it. In the tiny village of Ullapool in the Scottish Highlands, I stumbled upon a wellspring of serendipity — although admittedly I was nudged in the right direction.

On one of my last mornings in the Highlands, I looked out the window of my room at West House and across the rooftops of the white-washed stone houses. Beyond lay the deep blue of Loch Broom and a wall of grey-green mountains, their peaks enveloped in the wispy tendrils of low-lying clouds. The fact that I only had such a short time in Ullapool sweetened the prospects of the glorious spring day. One of my most favourite things in the whole world is wandering aimlessly around new places and I was exhilarated at exploring this little port town to which I had arrived the prior evening.

 Richard and Colleen infront of their B&B. Photo: Meg Pier

Richard and Colleen infront of their B&B. Photo: Meg Pier

Bounding downstairs, I bumped into Richard Lindsay, proprietor of West House along with his wife Colleen. He looked at his watch and said “If this minute you go out the door and take a left at the corner, you might just see the ferry coming in.”

I have seen my share of ferries and can’t say I am an ardent aficionado so it wasn’t so much the particular sight that made my pulse quicken. What set my heart racing was that the opportunity was now. I absolutely adore the sensation that I happen to be in the right spot at the right time–in fact a dreaded fear is somehow missing any potential magic moment.

Leaving Richard in mid-sentence, I bolted out the door and tore around the corner, stopped in my tracks by what I saw. The paved road extended out in front of me for a block, and at its end, the mid-section of immense ship was sandwiched between stone houses on opposite street corners. The name “Caledonian MacBrayne” stretched out between the two homes like a banner, and then in seconds, glided out of sight, replaced by the rippling reflections of the gauzy clouds hanging in the azure sky. It was a ferry sighting unlike any I had ever seen and I was delighted to have chanced upon it.

 Right place, right time. The ferry coming in. Photo: Meg Pier

Right place, right time. The ferry coming in. Photo: Meg Pier

A spring in my step, I spent the next hour meandering around the harbour and High Street, soaking up the tranquil ambiance. From behind the ferry, a skiff skimmed across the loch’s now-still waters, its crew pulling together in perfect unison. Sensing a movement off to my right, I looked up to see a young man in a gabled window of one of the tidy houses lining the street, watching the passengers disembark from the “Cal Mac.” A man in a kilt strode down the street and I impulsively yelled “You look dashing!” and he shouted back a cheerful “Thank you!” with a good-natured wave. Reaching the end of the street where the loch merged into the strait, I cut across a grassy patch, finding myself on the outskirts of a campground dappled with brightly-colored tents. A young boy stood on the shoreline and cast his line, looking for an early morning nibble.

 Richard sat in his spacious kitchen. Photo: Meg Pier

Richard sat in his spacious kitchen. Photo: Meg Pier

The Happy Accident Behind West House & Ullapool Guitar Festival

Back at West House, I joined Colleen and Richard for a cup of coffee in their spacious kitchen and asked how they came to own the B & B.

“In 1984 I moved back to Scotland after living and working in England for 11 years,” Richard told me. “As it had been so long since I had holidayed in the Highlands I decided to go on a cycling trip through the Western Isles. I took the train to Inverness and cycled to Ullapool, then took the ferry across to Stornoway and spent a day exploring Callanish Stones and then on down towards Harris. It was a long day and my legs were a bit painful — one leg in particular felt very tight — but I figured a good night’s sleep and I’d be fine.”

“Next morning I set off South and had to cycle over a massive mountain,” he continued. “Half way up I felt something give in my leg and I fell off the bike. I eventually got a lift in a truck to the top of the mountain and using one leg to pedal made my way down into Tarbert. When I got there, I found a ferry at the pier which was going to Uig on the Isle of Skye. I checked my handbook and saw that there was a hostel there and so I reckoned I could at least hole up there for a few days, and maybe see a doctor.”

Richard explained that when he arrived at the hostel, he saw that the man behind the counter had a guitar and struck up a conversation about music. He stayed there for the rest of his holiday and had a great time while his leg mended, making numerous return visits and becoming firm friends with his fellow music lover.

About a year later Richard’s new friend decided to open a hostel in Glasgow. Richard lent assistance and the business became successful.

“Some years later I became distinctly unhappy with my job in the Civil Service and so I copied his idea, leased a building from one of the universities and ran it as a backpacker hostel during the summer when the students were on vacation,” Richard said. “I did this for a number of years and eventually I wanted to expand a little. I knew Ullapool well and there was a gap in the market for hostel-type accommodations. I eventually closed down the hostel and moved to the Ullapool full time.”

“Richard used to come to Ullapool with his Mum and Dad as a child,” Colleen interjected. “He used to sit in his parents’ car playing his guitar, looking up at West House in the distance and imagining owning the house. He achieved that dream in 1996.”

I asked the couple how they had gotten together.

“We originally met in Leeds in the seventies, finding ourselves at friends of friend’s dinner parties and often attending the same music venues — usually acoustic guitar concerts,” Colleen said. “We both worked for the government at the time in the Social Security benefit offices and would occasionally meet at work.”

 Colleen in the kitchen. Photo: Meg Pier

Colleen in the kitchen. Photo: Meg Pier

Colleen explained that at the time she was living with her boyfriend who she later married and Richard was living with his girlfriend, Their respective lives went on — she moved to South Africa for ten years and Richard moved back to live in Scotland after his relationship broke up. Twenty five years later, in 2003, Richard was advised by an old friend that Colleen was getting divorced and suggested that he should call her. The couple have been together since and married on their anniversary in 2008.

“I think Richard was in the right place at the right time to pick up the pieces of my broken heart and make it whole again,” Colleen said. “I also think Ullapool and the serenity of the local landscape helped me become a whole person again. Coming to live in Ullapool was for me like ‘ coming home.’ I instantly felt a peace with myself. The beautiful surroundings and the isolated landscape all helped and of course being with Richard, I just felt I ‘belonged’ here.”

“Richard has continued with his love of guitar music and has been organising The Ullapool Guitar festival since 2000,” she continued. “The event takes place the first weekend of October every year and has grown from strength to strength. Several dedicated, loyal, local volunteers help Richard every year to produce a stunning event dedicated to the acoustic guitar.”

“I always think of the film ‘Sliding Doors’ and what would have happened to me if I hadn’t pulled a ligament in my leg,” Richard mused. “I wouldn’t have ended up on Skye, would not have met the guy that ran the place in Uig, wouldn’t have opened an independent hostel and might not have ended up here in Ullapool. Colleen and I have a great life together here and long may it continue.”

Polly Hoad's Close Call & Paying It Forward

The prior evening I had walked through the door of a shop on Ullapool’s West Argyle Street and had the privilege of hearing from Polly Hoad how her life in this remote part of the Highlands had come very close to being cut short.

 Polly's unlimited color store on West Argyle street. Photo: Meg Pier

Polly's unlimited color store on West Argyle street. Photo: Meg Pier

Drawn by the store’s name, I crossed the threshold of “Unlimited Color” and immediately felt the visceral impact of a vivid visual explosion. Amidst a Technicolor tapestry of yarn skeins, scarves and sox, a diminutive Polly sat behind the counter, flashing a brilliant smile. I warmed to her instantly and we were soon engaged in a discussion of serendipity.

Polly told me she had experienced a particularly remarkable instance of it, which had occurred when another customer had entered her shop as dusk descended. I was soon engrossed in hearing her amazing story, which is soon to be published in an autobiography she has authored. She was kind enough to share excerpts from her forthcoming book that describe her serendipitous experience and what led up to it:

It was 5.30 on a Saturday afternoon when a woman wandered into my shop. I felt a little irritated, I wanted to close and go home, it had been a long week and I didn’t have much left to give, also I felt this woman was distracted and not really a customer.

As I tidied up, hoping she would get the hint, I asked a few casual questions that I usually asked visitors to my shop,” she said. “I try to put people at ease, so I asked out of politeness rather than genuine interest. But I felt a deep sadness from this woman when I asked her if she was on holiday.

She sighed and said ‘Not really, we have come up from London for the weekend as we need to be somewhere peaceful to make a decision. My husband has got a degenerative neurological condition that is slowly killing him, he has been offered an operation that may improve his condition but it is 50/50 survival. He is terrified, it is experimental brain surgery and he has to be awake during the procedure. He doesn’t want to do it but if he refuses this chance he will be dead within the year. We have to give the surgeon our answer on Monday morning.’

I felt enormous sympathy for her and felt she needed rocking in a mother’s strong arms. I couldn’t do that for her — but I had something even better.

“Is the operation Motor Cortex Stimulation?” I asked.

Her head shot up in surprise and her eyes widened. At that moment, her husband entered my shop. They were both in their early sixties but Colin looked a lot older. He was bent and relied on two sticks to keep him upright. I could see how much pain he was in. I could recognise it as I am familiar with neurological pain.

The woman excitedly told me her name was Alison and this was her husband Colin. She repeated to him in utter surprise that I had heard of the procedure. They both said, almost in unison, ‘How on earth do you know that?’”

“Because, I was one of the very first people to have the operation,” I told the couple. “I was a human guinea pig. I couldn’t help smiling at their shocked expressions.”

I explained as much as she could to them about the operation and observed them becoming more positive.

They thanked me and shook my hand, they were still in shock.They could not believe that they had come to tiny Ullapool, to a little shop tucked away on the edge of the village and were given the answer to their problem! I told them had they been just two minutes later then the door would have been locked and we would never have met.

Before we parted company I looked at Colin and asked him, ‘What do you have to lose?”

I sometimes thought about Colin and Alison and wondered what decision had been made in the end. But my life was busy, I had moved premises and was travelling abroad during the winter months so Colin was the last thing on my mind.

One day, my shop door flew open and a large bunch of flowers dropped into my arms. I heard a voice say we went to your old shop and thought you’d gone…we want to show you this! And Colin walked in, with no sticks and no pain in his face.”

 Photo:  Idua_Japan

Photo: Idua_Japan

They had come back to Ullapool to look for me as they wanted to thank me. They insisted that if we hadn’t met then Colin would be dead as he would have refused the surgery. I deserved no thanks; I hadn’t done anything. It was synchronicity that had brought them to the right place at the right time.

I asked Polly what had led to her having the Motor Cortex Stimulation and she shared another excerpt from her memoir.

In 1999 life was pretty good; I was living in one of the most beautiful places in the Scottish Highlands. My children were doing well in their chosen fields and I was making my living from my passion for colour and textiles. My studio was set in a remote sweeping valley surrounded by mountains; the nearest village was Ullapool 18 miles away. My studio sat at the end of a narrow track that led nowhere so the only traffic I saw was coming to visit me.

It was the end of a busy season, I was very tired and that day I had a screaming headache. By lunchtime I decided I would lock up and go home but a customer kept me late and it was dark and cold by the time I switched off the lights. The studio floor was covered in work and even though I wanted to go home I needed to tidy up first. It was a cold clear starry night and I remember thinking that we may have a frost that night.

As I bent down to pick something off the floor my body carried on down, it was all done in slow motion and I felt no fear or alarm, in fact it felt quite normal to me. I decided I was so very tired so I would just lay there and have a little sleep as if that was the most normal thing in the world.

Over the following hours I slid in and out of consciousness, I still felt no fear. I was concerned that my old dog was sitting in the car outside my studio and would be hungry and wondering where I was. Then back into the blackness.

In my darkness I could hear a tap-tap-tap that dragged me back to the studio floor, someone was outside. Suddenly, I felt an urgency to attract attention but I couldn’t move or shout. I managed a feeble knock on the floor but it was enough for the door to tentatively open and a face peeked in, then I heard a voice saying ‘What on earth are you doing down there?’

The voice soon turned to alarm as she asked if I wanted an ambulance…next time I woke I was still on the floor but warmer as Hazel had covered me in lots of the knitted pieces in my studio. She was kneeling beside me and had tears pouring down her face, and it was at that point I realised it was serious.

Because we were in such a remote spot it was a long wait for an ambulance. The next time I woke a man in a green overalls was kneeling beside me putting an oxygen mask over my face. Then I let myself go and I slid into comfortable nothingness.

The next awareness I had was less pleasant, it was dark and I was trying to swim, but a thick dark clinging treacle dragged me backwards the harder I tried to move. Eventually I opened my eyes, it was bright and hazy and I could hear a constant blip-blip-blip-blip. A nurse entered my curtained space and retorted not very kindly ‘So you are awake at last, we thought you were never going to come back’.

 Photo: Yann

Photo: Yann

She had a fat face that resembled uncooked dough and mousey greasy hair that hung in rat tails around her spotty face. Her tone was harsh as she informed me I had been asleep for four days. Alarm was instant, I had to get up and go home, I had work to do, customers would be waiting for their orders….but I couldn’t communicate or move. As the nurse adjusted the tubes that appeared to be in every orifice of my body she informed me that it would be a long time before I was going anywhere as I had had a massive stroke. Even with that information I still did not realize the seriousness of what I had to face.

Over the next week of going through one assessment after another I was bit by bit broken down and demoralized. I became a non-person, medics talked about me over my head, nobody looked at me, nobody spoke to me, I did not exist anymore. I was told I would never walk again, I was told I would not be able to communicate again. When it was stated over my head ‘permanently blind’ I crumpled in my bed and turned into a defensive hedgehog and wanted to enter the nothingness again.

Over the next four months in a rehab unit I learnt how to dress and feed myself. I also learned how a human being is treated when they are in a wheelchair and cannot get a legible sentence out of their mouths.

One day, everything changed. I felt a big NO resound inside my head and that was the day I began to really fight back. I was NOT going to accept this, I WAS going to walk again, I WAS going to communicate again, I WAS going to be a human being again!

While dealing with the multi disabilities that had descended on me I was getting sensations in my paralyzed right side. They were unpleasant and painful but I saw them as something positive, as I thought things were beginning to wake up. But my consultant looked very grave at this development and a new series of tests began.

Because of the brain damage I had developed a condition called Central Pain Syndrome. Little did I know that the biggest nightmare in this ordeal was still in store for me.

The level of pain with this condition is unbelievable. I have given birth twice in my life but I would rather give birth every day than have to live with this gnawing, tearing, ripping, twisting and burning pain. And medication rarely works — you name it I have tried it — pills, liquids, patches, hypnosis, this, that and the other. My medicine cabinet had everything including prescribed opium, cannabis, and morphine amongst the anti-depressives and other drugs. The only way to stop this was to be asleep or dead. I didn’t want to be asleep all day and I do not have the suicide gene. I had not worked so hard on rebuilding myself to throw it all away.

I had learnt to read and write again and was doing a lot of research into CPS. It was incredibly difficult and disappointing that there was nothing I could do to relive the pain. Then one day I found something on experimental brain surgery that had been carried out on a patient with Parkinson disease. Accidentally it was found that this procedure also could help with nerve damage. I WANTED it; I would put myself forward for the experimental brain surgery. So what if you have to be awake while they mess about in your brain — I didn’t care, nothing was worse than what I was already living with.

I would have to go abroad to get this, so I would sell my house to raise the money I would need. But synchronicity stepped in and someone gave me the name of a brain surgeon in the UK who was very interested in experimental brain surgery and working on a procedure called Motor Cortex Stimulation. I wrote to him and told him what I was living with and how I would be pleased to be a guinea pig. I was surprised when soon afterwards I received a reply and was called down to Dundee for an interview.

I expected it would be a one-to-one with this surgeon. But no, when I walked into the room there were ten people sitting in a semi-circle with an empty chair facing them. They were neurosurgeons; psychologists, psychiatrists, neurologists and they were all waiting to question me! They had to be sure the condition I was talking about was CPS, they also had to be sure I could cope with being awake during surgery, and that I understood the risks involved.

The whole procedure took three weeks with one operation each week. The first was to drill my skull to make a plug into my brain and of course I was asleep for that. The second was placing the implants into my motor cortex — I had to be awake for that as the patient has to respond to the surgeon’s questions.

The third operation was the threading of the wires from the implants in my brain; they were threaded down the skull and through the veins and attached to a battery pack placed under the skin above my left breast. The control is via an external implement about twice the size of a computer mouse; the patient places it over the battery to switch it off and on, up or down and increases the pulses to the brain implants.

I survived the procedure. It did not stop the pain but it did reduce it. It took time and a lot of experimenting to find the correct level — it was the early days of the experiment. A side effect of the operation is speech; because the motor cortex is the speech center the operation can cause loss of speech — or, in my case, improve an illegible garble back into an acceptable form of communication.

A few months following the operation I opened a shop in Ullapool. It was stocked with goods from my studio and all sorts of wonderful things given on a sale or return basis from local weavers and artists. And later that same year, a desperate lady walked into my shop needing just the information I was qualified to give.

Over the years I have gone from strength to strength. I am still considered ‘disabled’ as my right side is still paralysed and nothing can restore my sight, but I reclaimed my independence by getting back to work, travelling across the world for months on end and indulging my passion of skydiving.

My motto is if you want something, go out and get it. Sitting and dreaming will not bring you what you want.

Like turning a corner to suddenly see an immense harbinger of hope, my Ullapool encounters with Polly, Richard and Colleen inspired an awakening. I am only able to experience instances of serendipity when I am truly receptive to looking at things differently. For me and perhaps many others, that openness can only occur when I am at my most vulnerable–often as a result of some sort of pain. To know what I want, I must know what I don’t want — be it a job, heartache, or being a “non-person” — and be willing to take risks to move forward. To see my ship to come in, I must be on the shore, looking at the horizon.