The story of my Somewhere Else.
Ever since I can remember I have been on the move. Not always for the better. Maybe it was my first job after leaving school that brought it home to me. ‘Shawing neeps’ or in Queen’s English, topping and tailing turnips thigh deep on an upland snow-covered farm in Perthshire on piece work. At one shilling and nine old pennies for each hundred yards of drill harvested it was mind and finger numbing toil for a lad who until recent weeks had been muddling his way through a Border high school, the only certainty in his head that one day he would play rugby for Scotland.
Most of the farm consisted of steep uncultivated land covered in gorse and whin, grazed by wild cross-bred cattle bought from the Irish bog country for fattening. The turnips grown on the one flat field down by the railway were winter fodder for the livestock. In those days when labour was cheap there was no way the cattle would be turned out onto the fields of turnips to graze for themselves. No sir!
Instead each individual turnip had to be pulled from the frozen soil, the left hand gripping the shaws as firmly as it’s painfully chapped fingers would allow. The roots and clinging soil were dispatched to the side by one or two blows from the cleek swung in the right hand before the final blow cleaving through the base of the leaves sent the cleaned and pruned turnip to join it’s neighbours in the slowly growing row ready for uplift.
With tears of self-pity freezing on my wind-reddened cheeks it would have been of little consequence if the fingers of my left hand had joined the row of prepared turnips due to some miss-guided blow of the razor sharp cleek. During the short winter days I would reach the field most mornings while the moonlight still sparkled on the frost-covered leaves, grudgingly complete my full day’s toil then make my way home to the farmhouse on the hill as darkness fell.
Born into a howling March snowstorm in rural Aberdeenshire in 1942 shortly after my father volunteered to go and join the war effort, I was probably as wild and hardy as the animals the turnips were destined for. As a woodcutter my father had been exempt from call-up but right reason or none he was going to do his bit in defence of his country – even if it left two sons under school age and his wife, heavily pregnant with me in that remote wooden shack in a north-east forest.
Somehow my mother managed my birth on her own and we got through the next four years with a little help from her family which brought me close to my maternal grandparents. By 1946 we were living in a single room rented from fishwife – Jessie Cargill in Auchmithie on the coast a couple of miles north of Arbroath and that’s where my father returned on his demob from the army. It didn’t take him long to fall out with the local fishermen and I can vividly remember cowering in that iron-ended bed in the single room with my two brothers as battle raged outside the door. Thankfully Jessie managed to put a stop to it – fish wifies have sharp tongues and are pretty good with a sweeping brush too!
As you can imagine we didn’t hang around in Auchmithie for long after that. There were only two families in the village – Swankeys and Cargills. Jessie may have stopped the punch-up but we didn’t belong to either of them. I’m sure like many servicemen after fighting for his country my father saw himself as a returning hero and it must have been hard to find that he was virtually homeless and was forced to take farm work in order to get a cottage for his family as part of the feu. Equally galling was the fact that farm workers had been exempt from call up to fight in the war and he found himself near the bottom of the ladder in an era when the demarkation from foreman all the way down to orra loon was clearly defined.
My primary school years were spent following my father as he worked his way through a multitude of farm jobs after his unsettling experience of war. He had come home with hope and expectation of something good. It was the reality of his situation after the war that wore him down. Often my father moved to better himself but sometimes the move was forced on him as he tended to ‘know’ more than the farmer at times and wasn’t slow to voice his opinion. He had ten different jobs in the next five years which meant we had ten different homes up and down the east coast of Scotland due to the tied house system. The house went with the job – change or lose your job and you lost your home.
During those five years I attended seven different schools but I did learn something other than the three R’s. I learned how to fight. There’s nothing so cruel as boys when a new face or accent arrives on their patch.
I’ve been lucky through life but I like to think I’ve made my own luck to a certain extent. After a few months at a small school in the Scottish Borders I was picked out and sent up to the county Public School twenty miles away. I prefer to think this was because I shone academically but it may have been as much to do with the fact that I managed to break some stained glass windows while throwing stones in the general direction of the village church. My partner in crime and I became runaways that night and I vividly remember sharing two shabby looking boiled sweets with him with the admonition that they would have to feed us for two days. I’m not sure where we thought we would reach in two days.
As it happened our runaway lasted about seven miles – about as long as it took for the taste of the boiled sweets to wear off. Then we turned for home, arriving there about nine o’clock at night to find the local bobby and his bicycle on the doorstep. We got a long lecture from him and I was sent to bed hungry. I got a grim look or two from my father but the hiding I was expecting never happened but I did give him a wide berth for a few weeks.
I may have been moved to the county public school to break the bad influence of my partner in the stone throwing episode or perhaps it was the other way round. No matter – I was travelling on the school bus with the big boys! I was on my way and the year at the county public school was the best thing that could have happened to me. Not only was I selected to play football for the school team but I passed my qualifying exams for High School with ‘A’ grades. I’m sure my frustrated teachers who spent the next three and half years trying to beat the basics of their curriculum into my inattentive head wondered how I’d managed it.
I started off well in first form but as the years progressed my interest in playing rugby and sport overtook everything else and I suffered many a hiding with a well swung leather tawse for handing in slipshod work. Geography was never a problem neither was arithmetic. French and German languages were so-so, likewise geometry and history but algebra, science and music remained a mystery to me throughout my senior schooldays.
No worries – by my fourth year I was playing rugby for the senior school at open side wing forward alongside boys up to two years older than me. Speed off the mark and reading of the game were more important in that position than bulk in those days – just as well because there wasn’t much of me. I was built like a whippet!
With springs in my heels I was also junior high jump champion and record holder. Blowing my own trumpet? Well someone had to because my mother was terrified I overstepped the mark. ‘The higher ye climb the farther ye’ve got tae fa’ was her favourite expression.
Father just glowered and said nothing. In fact father’s didn’t talk to sons in his life they just thrashed them when they stepped out of line and sometimes when they didn’t. I’m sure a lot of it was to make up for the thrashing I missed when I broke the church windows.
The icing on the cake came when I was selected for the final trial of the under fifteen South of Scotland team to play the Welsh in Cardiff! The trial was to take place early in the New Year. Was I excited? Just a bit!
Yes I know! My mother had always cautioned me not to reach too high as it would be all the further to fall. Perhaps she knew what was round the corner. My father was contacted by one of his former commanding officers with the offer of a farm manager’s job if he would move back north. Would he just! Recognition at last – there was no stopping him!
During the war the officer, Colonel Stirling of Keir along with his brother David gathered together the hardy bunch that were the forerunners of the SAS. I realise now that the colonel had been a charismatic figure and his men would have followed him through the gates of hell and probably did! All I could think of was that the move would mean I would miss any chance I had of playing for the South of Scotland. Utterly gutted doesn’t come close to describing my feelings!
A late offer from a kindly neighbour and parents of one of my school friends to have me stay with them and let me finish my schooling in the rugby mad border region wasn’t even considered and we were on our way north before Christmas.
Once there, instead of attending the rugby playing school I had expected I found I had to travel twenty miles in the other direction to a city school where they played football. It was a far cry from my country school in the borders and when I saw an open razor being passed around under the desks it helped me decide after three days that I was leaving.
Having grown up on farms I had earned my pocket money working alongside the men at weekends and school holidays. I knew very well what I was letting myself in for when I walked out of school against the advice of the headmaster and took the first job offered in that ten acre turnip patch. The very name of the farm – Mains of Panholes was enough to make a boy with ambition weep but my stubborn, independent streak had come to the fore. There was nothing else for it but to bend my back and work my way out of my predicament as many had done before me.
The passing steam trains running on the main Aberdeen – Glasgow line on the embankment at the bottom of the field helped break the monotony of my work. Especially the south-bound express that would take my attention and I always managed to stand and stretch my aching back muscles as it passed.
I just knew it was going to a better place – that mystical – magical Somewhere Else!