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Somewhere Else.

Somewhere Else – chapter one

The story of my Somewhere Else.

DF&Dad 001Ever 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!

 
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Posted by on October 5, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

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Somewhere Else – chapter two

As winter turned to spring I picked up full-time employment on the three upland farms which formed that remote part of the estate near Blackford in Perthshire. The good thing about my new situation was that I didn’t work directly under my father but shared my efforts wherever I was needed and work as part of a team became something to look forward to.

The nearby village of Blackford was built around the Maltings. A large multi-level stone building where the grain from barley was brought in from the threshing mills on the farms and prepared for distilling into whisky. In the old days this preparation was done by hand and involved arduous amounts of shovelling using the special large size grain shovels in dusty, hot conditions.

Luckily I didn’t have the misfortune to graduate to working in the maltings although it would have paid more than farm work. No, my interest in Blackford lay in something else. Inititially it was the bus to Auchterarder or Perth on a Saturday afternoon with my new-found wealth from a weekly wage burning a hole in my pocket that was the high point of the week.

A visit to the cinema followed by a fish supper before catching a bus home become a regular treat. Having a sweet tooth and being able to buy ‘sweeties’ for the first time, it became a habit to buy a quarter of Qualty Street before boarding the bus home at the South Inch. The sweets were supposed to last me through the following week but somehow the packet was always empty by the time I reached home. If I needed a reminder of my greed and stupidity the painfull red spots quickly erupting on my face and neck were enough. Especially in the months to come when I discovered dancing, and girls!

Girls were foreign territory for someone brought up with three brothers for company. Yes I had been in a mixed class at high school but girls were the class swots and boys played rugby in the winter or did athletics in the summer. I’d had one date with a girl from my class before leaving the Borders. We went to the cinema in Earlston, her home town about three miles away from the farm. Then she walked me through the graveyard where we sat on a flat gravestone and chatted before I cycled home. That was my sole experience of ‘girls’.

Now I was a man! Well not quite! I was only sixteen years of age, earning a wage and unofficially able to buy a couple of drinks at the pub in the backstreet as a loosener before going to the Saturday night dances in the village hall. Music was by Bobby McLeod or Jimmy Shand and their accordian bands or others of that ilk. A modern quick-step or slow-foxtrot time about with a gay gordons, a boisterous strip the willow or an equally birling eightsome reel. How I would look forward to Saturday nights!

The farms where I worked neighboured the famous Gleneagles Hotel golfcourses and I would often walk there on a sunny Sunday afternoon on the pre-text of looking for lost golfballs. It was there I met Jeannie – a red-haired waitress from the hotel. Older than me and more experienced in the ways of the world in her white blouse, fitted knee-length black skirt and medium heeled black shoes – now I am a man!

It wasn’t long before my father was promoted to manage his own farm and we moved lock, stock and barrel to Greenyards Farm near Dunblane. Father was in charge as Farm Manager and my older brother Jim and I worked under him. Jim was blessed with a kindly placid nature while I was always a firebrand. Always asking questions! Always wanting to know what comes next?

My father’s nature was too like my own. I remember asking him how to do a particular job and his reply – ‘you want to know in five minutes what it has taken me a lifetime to learn’. He never did tell me how to do the job. That’s probably why I’m self-taught in most things. It became a trait. I only needed to see something done once and I could do it, either that or I worked it out for myself.

Dancing was learned in similar fashion. I loved it – I couldn’t get enough! Scottish country dancing, modern, jive, twist, six nights a week at one time. As soon as work was over for the day I would have a quick wash at the sink in the big farmhouse and run the two miles to town. There would be a modern local dance in the Victoria Hall with it’s sprung floor on a Saturday night and dancing to a Big Band at Stirling Plaza during the week. I couldn’t get enough of the dances at the Victoria Hall but they soon had enough of me.

Groups of hard young miners from Cowie or toughs from the Stirling Raploch housing estate would dominate the hall depending on which team was on top at the time. I was the only local lad going there so it was only a matter of time before trouble came my way. Yes I got a good kicking from the Raploch heavy squad one night and started looking elsewhere on a Saturday.

Back to Blackford, down the Stirling Plaza, way over to Forteviot on the motorbike with my mate Hamish or even up to Glasgow to the jazz clubs. Dancing was in my soul and I even had visions of becoming a dancer on stage before Billy Elliot came along. If dancing was in my soul, motorbikes weren’t far away.

My elder brother Jim helped me to buy my first bike.  A 350cc black and gold Velocette from one of my mates who had fallen for an Edinburgh girl in a big way and had decided to get married. Having my own bike was like having a passport to another world!. I even rode the hundred miles to Kelso for the Saturday night dances in the Corn Exchange. The fact it was dead of winter was no deterrent for I remember riding home alone over Soutra Hill in the snow after midnight. Little things like clutch slipping and lights failing were just par for the course!

I had met my own ‘Edinburgh Girl’ by this time which led to my final fraca with my old man. All over a half hour to be worked or not to be worked on a Saturday morning. I had been told by other estate workers that since the clocks changed to summer time, finishing time on a Saturday was eleven thirty instead of the twelve noon we had worked to when on winter hours. I made my date with Georgina my Edinburgh Girl accordingly and was back in the farmhouse by eleven thirty.

Father – ever a stickler for protocol – hadn’t been told officially of the change to summer hours so when I walked into the back kitchen and took my boots off at eleven thirty that Saturday morning he was waiting for me! Without saying a word a right hook to the jaw put me out through the still open half doors onto my back in the yard! My boots quickly followed accompanied by a few expletives! That was to be the last time my father touched me, or spoke to me for that matter!

I gave notice to the estate factor at his house that same afternoon while on my way up to Edinburgh on the Velocette. It wasn’t to be my day as the traffic police caught me shortly afterwards while I was trying to make up time by speeding through Stirling with my mind elsewhere. A fine followed for doing 42mph in a 30mph area.! Still with ‘L’ plates, I had only been on the road a few short weeks! To make matters worse, I don’t think my sophisticated Edinburgh Girl was too impressed with my split lip either!

 
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Posted by on October 4, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

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