Monday, 25 May 2020

Dead Rabbits and Conkers—part 2

Lord Semple's Folly

Castle Semple had none of the dark character or storytelling possibilities of Duntulm. In fact, in 1957, all that remained when Eve, Jim and I moved into a house along a dirt track from where the castle had once stood, were the shell of a church built by Lord Semple and a ‘temple folly’ on a nearby hill. The original castle was probably more interesting when it was built around 1492 when castles served a purpose, but it was rebuilt many times and in 1735, when castles were no longer of use, was torn down and replaced by a gothic-revival style mansion, which in its turn, when mansions were going out of style, conveniently burned down in 1924.
Like Milngavie, our stay near Castle Semple was a mere two years, but it is etched much more clearly in my memory. The house was small but that didn’t matter as my sisters had all left home by this time, and it seemed to me large, mainly because of the wonderful views across an open field that sloped down to the Glasgow to Ayr railway before the land rose to the hill where the folly stood. Across a yard large enough for me to exhaust myself on my red tricycle, stood a prodigious barn that provided a wonderful play area, especially after the farmer had filled it with hay bales to climb. 
Jim believed in a good hearty breakfast and so woke early to cook up the oatmeal that had been soaking overnight so that he could eat before leaving for work at Mechan’s. He kept a single shot .22 rifle in the cupboard in the kitchen and occasionally I would be woken to the sound of gunfire out the kitchen window and go through later to find a cleaned rabbit lying on the kitchen table. The skins of several of these unfortunate yet tasty creatures were nailed to dry on the barn door and made me a rather smelly but much loved Davey Crockett hat after I had been taken to the cinema in nearby Johnstone to see my first movie—Fess Parker and Buddy Ebsen getting the better of the bad guys in Davey Crockett and the River Pirates.
It was at Castle Semple that I was given pet replacements for the small zoo I had access to on Skye. First was a hamster called Henry who was given free run of the living room in the evening where he worked hard collecting stores of food inside the furniture against the hard time he must have been convinced were looming. 
Much more memorable was the arrival of a grey tabby kitten, perhaps unimaginatively called Tibby. I was thrilled, but the association did not begin well. Tibby was asleep one evening on my bed, obviously convinced that any human who doted on her as blatantly as I did, must be a good bet for a lasting relationship. Sadly, I didn’t look before jumping onto my bed and sat on Tibby. The poor beast screeched, leapt off the bed and shot through to the safety under the sideboard in the front room. I too leapt off the bed and burst into floods of tears, convinced that I had killed my new pet. Both Tibby and I were eventually calmed down and Jim told me later that it had actually been very funny when he turned at the noise to see a distinctly flat-looking cat shoot into the room and slide under the sideboard. Tibby and my relationship never recovered and it was always to someone else in the family that the assorted dead or dying small animals that she had stalked and caught in the field were proudly presented. Henry succumbed to old age but, somewhat oddly, I have no recollection of what became of Tibby. 
An Idyllic Memory?
The house and barn are in the background.
Castle Semple appears idyllic in my memory, possibly because it recreated the open spaces of Skye. I had free run of the field behind the house, all the way down to the railway line that Eve and I used to walk along eating wild strawberries and collecting lumps of coal that had fallen from the passing trains. I was friends with the girl who lived at the end of the road and had other friends, with whom I would sneak over the wall of a nearby estate to steal apples and chestnuts. To give our activity some added spice, we built up the owner of the house behind the wall as an angry old man who would chase kids with a stick. However, since we were not the most subtle of thieves and were never chased, I suspect that he was perfectly aware of our activities and was probably laughing behind a window somewhere.
The apples we collected for obvious reasons, but the chestnuts were special. The best of them, selected by each child’s private, arcane ranking system, were placed in a very low oven to harden, had a hole drilled in them and were suspended on a length of string. The point of this was to play ‘conkers’, a game where you took alternate shots at hitting the opponent’s conker until one broke. Conkers that had destroyed several others were treasured and I seem to recall becoming quite good at the crucial hardening process. 
I attended Howwood Primary school in the nearby village. It was about a two kilometre walk along a rural road, which in the early days my mother accompanied me on and later I was allowed to go on my own or with other kids. I had overcome my screaming horror of school, but was still not convinced it was a good idea.
The Road to School
I learned about social hierarchies at Howwood. After every break, we had to line up at the door when the bell went, boys in one line, girls in another. It was a status thing to stand at the front of the line and there was always a rush to get there. The largest boy in the school usually won. One day he was delayed with some activity and I found myself proudly at the head of the line. Unfortunately, the dominant male didn’t meekly go to the back of the line. He rushed forward and lunged to the head of the queue, knocking me aside into the school wall. I hit the back of my head and was taken bleeding and in tears to the school nurse who patched up what turned out to to be a minor scrape. I remember walking home in front of my mother in hopes that she would notice my ‘war wound’, but I had too much hair in those days
On another occasion, I recall getting into a fight with the same boy, although the reason for the altercation is lost. From my point of view, it didn’t end well but, since it was obvious that I wasn’t a very good fighter, I learned the benefit of conflict avoidance and gradually developed the skills necessary to remain as invisible as possible.
As a child, despite the government issue cod liver oil and orange juice, I was sick a lot. At Castle Semple, at least some of this was eventually diagnosed as tonsillitis. Back then, that involved the complete removal of the offending organs and a couple of days in hospital. I was sold on the idea by being told that, since my throat would hurt, all I would be given to eat would be ice cream. There were long conversations on which flavour and I think strawberry was finally decided upon. 
Very nervous, I went into hospital and had the operation. Upon recovery, I could barely wait for my first bowl of ice cream. The nurse eventually arrived with two pieces of dry toast. “Where’s my ice cream?” I asked plaintively.
“We always give toast,” she said unhelpfully. “Eat up, now.”
Disconsolately and painfully, I worked my way through the toast, not yet old enough to appreciate that much of life is being offered strawberry ice cream and being given dry toast.
A cycle path where the railway used to run.
Having been sensitized by the sudden death of my sister, Fiona, from polio, my mother was protective whenever I got sick and I soon discovered that if I played up the symptoms I could squeeze and extra day or two away from school. I did suffer from real illnesses, brutal colds and flu every winter, but it was the vaguer afflictions, like a sore tummy or a headache, that produced the best results. 
One day while walking with my mother into Howwood, I complained of a sore tummy. When asked where it hurt, I pointed to the lower right hand side of my stomach. It produced a surprising reaction and I was whisked into the doctor who poked and prodded and recommended keeping an eye on me as that was right where the appendix was. Without the faintest idea how much stress I must have been causing Eve, every sore tummy was located by me where the appendix was, so I was diagnosed with a “grumbling” appendix. Eventually, it was decided to remove what was then thought to be a completely useless vestigial organ. I had my second, week-long, visit to hospital and came home in pain but proudly sporting a four inch long scar. I didn’t have my appendix which Eelin had persuaded me to ask for in a bottle of spirits—the doctor had declined to grant my wish.
As the 1950s turned to the 1960s, there were major reshuffles in the dying heavy steel shipyards of Clydeside and Jim was laid off, not an enticing prospect for a fifty-four-year-old engineer with a background in steam engines and heavy steel. Certainly there was nothing anywhere close to Howwood or Castle Semple, so we moved into the city.

Tuesday, 19 May 2020

Dead Rabbits and Conkers—part 1

Party Time!

After Skye we lived for two years in Milngavie on the north side of Glasgow. I remember nothing about the house other than there being an alcove bed in the kitchen and frames upon which laundry was hung to dry before being hauled up out of the way near the high ceiling.
Eve was in hospital for a spell when we lived in Milngavie and I remember going with Jim to visit her. We travelled through the countryside on the bottom floor of a double-decker bus. At one point, a woman was coming down the twisting stairs at the back of the bus when she slipped and fell onto the platform at the bottom. Everyone turned to look and I asked Jim in a loud voice, “Is she dead?” She wasn’t and everybody laughed. I couldn’t understand why. It seemed like a perfectly reasonable question.
The fortress that may or may not have terrified me.
In my memory the most significant event from that time is my first day of school. It was 1956, I had just turned five and my sister was given the unenviable task of taking me along the road to Milngavie Primary. Having very little experience of interacting with groups of other children, the idea of school horrified me. On top of that, the school was an imposing red sandstone building and, probably because of stories of Duntulm Castle, I was convinced it was some kind of prison where I was to be locked away forever, perhaps in a dungeon like the unfortunate Hugh Macdonald. I had to be dragged screaming and in floods of tears along the road. I suspect without total confidence, the teacher told my sister that this sobbing mess in front of her would be fine and it would be easier (for whom?) if my sister left.
She did and when when she returned with a certain trepidation that afternoon, I was happy and cheerfully skipped along the road beside her. 
“So we won’t have any nonsense like that again tomorrow morning,” she said.
I stopped dead in my tracks. Tomorrow morning? It wasn’t just one day. I hadn’t survived this hideous experience. It was to go on another day, another year, forever? The first of life’s disillusionments.
Eelin telling me a story.
Or perhaps it didn’t happen that way at all. My memory is that it was my oldest sister, Eelin, who dragged me there that morning and much of my memory is based on what she told me later. However, Eelin lived in Newcastle when I lived in Milngavie, so it was unlikely that she would have been available to escort me to school. My sister, Dorothy was away at art college in London, and so it wasn’t her. This leaves my youngest sister, Susan, she of the Duntulm Castle stories. Susan was attending Jordan Hill Teachers Training College in Glasgow and used to come home to Milngavie on weekends (when, incidentally, I was removed from my bed to give her a place to sleep). She also came to look after Jim and I when Eve was in hospital for a spell. During that time, she took me to museums and on my first tram ride and, because my sister Fiona had made such a fuss on her first day of school, Susan was given the task of taking me. As she remembers it, I went happily with no fuss at all and the the only stress was her worry at the looks she, still a teenager, got from the other children’s mothers.
So my memory of my first day of school is false, in fact, the opposite happened. The false memory grew up through misconceptions, misinterpretations, confusions with later bad days at school, a conflation in family lore of my and Fiona’s first days at school, and just plain exaggeration by Eelin to improve a story. And yet I believed for most of my life that it had happened exactly that way. As such, it influenced and helped shape my perspectives as I grew up. In a small way, the fiction became a part of who I am. The story is not verifiable, definitive truth, but it is my truth.
Me, almost 5, scrubbed up and missing teeth
with my three sisters at Eelin's wedding
I have a photograph of me taken on July 23, 1956. I am scrubbed and resplendent in short-sleeved white shirt, sandals and pressed shorts, standing with my sisters at Eelin’s wedding in Edinburgh. Eelin’s husband, Frank, was my first brother-in-law and, since my sister was twenty years older than me and Frank was seventeen years older than her, he seemed incredibly old to the almost-five-year-old me. 
Eelin came back from university occasionally and after she married Frank, they moved down to Newcastle, but when she came home or I went to visit her and Frank, she told me stories that broadened my horizons beyond the dark deeds of the Macdonald clan. Before I was allowed to go to the movies, I knew the exciting tales of Shane and 3:10 to Yuma. Before I could read the originals, I knew the terrifying narratives of Dracula and Frankenstein. My internal life was getting richer.
Also in Milngavie, I began to make friends. There are four other small boys with me in a snapshot of my fifth birthday party. We all have cups of juice in front of us and a large chocolate cake that is obviously the focus of attention. But the Milngavie experience was brief, by age six we had moved once more.

Monday, 11 May 2020

Interlude 6—Skye

Fishing with my father.


Where I grew up some folk believed
the calm intelligence of seals
in human guise could walk the land,
except on Sunday
when a God so stern
he would not let the ferries run
held sway.
With usquabae the people talked
the ancient tongue of seers and poets;
so soft it made the wandering Danes remain 
an age before the sound was turned to screams 
beneath the redcoat's guns.

I remember fishing with my father
amongst the rocky barren isles,
wondering where the oily swell was from
while he read the waves 
and told me of a dream he knew
where viceroys and beggars strode 
across a scape of alien, shimmering beauty, 
and sacred rivers washed the living and the dead.
A vanished world not happily exchanged 
for this Atlantic cold.

In searching for that dream,
I ransacked Africa for gold and memories
and found dry hills and hatred;
I rummaged through the dusty wheaten prairie
where silent oceans lap the bones of dinosaurs
and found a rolling sky drowning in a 
distant waterless horizon.

I travelled just to leave,
and found in frantic quest a circle of escape 
ending nowhere. 

It was all so long ago and near forgot,
but now I live again upon an island
perched upon the ocean's shuddering rim
and listen in the quiet lonely nights
for the seals to call me home.

Monday, 4 May 2020

My First Castle

Duntulm Lodge Hotel and the dreadful castle
The sparse ruins of Duntulm Castle sit on a promontory of volcanic rock that juts out from the west coast of the Trotternish Peninsula at the most northerly tip of the Isle of Skye. Looking northwest from the castle it is possible to see Lord Macdonald’s Table and the romantically-named Fladaigh Chùain (Flat Island in the Ocean), where the nuclear submarine, HMS Trafalgar, ran aground and suffered five million pounds worth of damage in 2002 because important navigational features had been obscured by tracing paper laid over the chart. In the distance, on clear days, the Outer Hebridean islands of Harris and Lewis and North Uist rise out of the cold water. 
Around 170 million years ago, in what is now the bay to the southwest of the castle, vast long-necked sauropod dinosaurs left trails of footprints as they ponderously went about their business. Much more recently, around 1662, the flat fields above Tulm Bay to the northeast of the castle were occupied by Duntulm Farm and the settlements of Duntulm and Erisco. All that remains of the settlements are a few stone walls, but the farm was converted to a hotel, Duntulm Lodge, in the 1930s. In the winter of 1951/2, the Wilson family, Jim, Eve, youngest daughter, Susan, and infant son, John, moved from Edinburgh to take over the running of the hotel. To entice visitors, they stressed the scenery, the ‘romantic adventures of Bonnie Prince Charlie and Flora Macdonald’ and hot and cold water in all bedrooms. I suspect that an echo of Jim’s life in India snuck in with the offered, ‘Salmon, sea trout and trout fishing on lochs and rivers. Shooting over 21,000 acres.’ All of this was available for a mere twenty-five shillings per day or seven to eight guineas per week.
Having life's first worry on Skye
The first memory that I have, that I am certain is genuine, is of sitting on a bench beside my mother on a ferry. Across the way is a young woman with an infant who will not stop crying. The noise is bothering my mother and she says, “Why can’t she keep that baby quiet?” This was out of character for Eve and I suspect that is the reason it has stuck in my memory. I was turning four-years-old and, after the failed attempt to make a go of the Duntulm Lodge Hotel we were retreating south to Milngavie (pronounced Mulguy) where Jim was to begin work as a Planning Engineer at Mechan’s Ltd., an engineering firm on Clydeside in Glasgow. Mechan’s dates back to 1862 and was noted for building steel lifeboats, engine room telegraphs and watertight doors for the British fleet in the years prior to the First World War. However, they were a general firm and also made steel structures for gold mining operations and machinery for water, cyanide and sugar plants. Jim was to become one of the 1,000 employees at their 20 acre factory.
The reality of my past becomes slowly solid and defined after Skye, like a figure walking forward out of a thick fog. Skye itself is a blank so, if all I can remember of Skye is leaving, why say anything at all about it? Because I have been told stories of it by others. 
I “remember” Jim having to climb out a window to dig snow away from the front door, which opened outwards, and taking me fishing or checking lobster pots in the rowing boat that was kept in Tulm Bay. I was told about a neighbour who was a die-hard Free Presbyterian, “Wee Frees” we called them. He was dead against the ferries to Skye running on Sunday—there was no bridge in those days, so I suspect the Devil has unlimited access now. He also frowned upon children playing on a Sunday and spent the hours between the several Kirk services sitting at home reading Pilgrim’s Progress out loud. Apparently, because all our neighbours and those who worked in the hotel spoke Scots Gaelic amongst themselves, I could speak a few words at four-years-old. All I remember now is Slàinte mhath, which means good health when raising a glass of Uisge Beatha (whisky), although even that might come from reading Robert Burns.
Happier days with Sally
I had my first pets at Duntulm, a very friendly spaniel called Sally, a less friendly cat called Black Devil, and a duck, inevitably named Jemima, which had been hatched and raised in a cardboard box on top of the huge AGA cooker. Apparently, I spent hours peering into the straw-line box waiting for the egg to hatch and consequently I was the first thing Jemima saw at birth and so she was imprinted and followed me around in the belief that I was her mother. Amidst copious tears, all pets had to be relocated and left behind when we went south.
And I have photographs, small grey, grainy images of me in Skye, on my mother’s shoulder, in my pram, in a snowsuit, in my dad’s rowboat and, rather apprehensively, meeting a cow. In many, beneath my pudding-basin haircut, I seem dubious about what I am involved in and often positively worried about something. I am happiest playing in the snow, on the beach, or in the boat. Apart from one shot where he proudly holds up a large lobster, Jim is invisible, busy with the hotel. As soon as I could get about on my own, Eve too mostly disappears into the role of photographer. The person most commonly with me is Susan, my sister closest to me in age. My two older sisters, Eelin and Dorothy, were old enough to stay in Edinburgh and go to University or finish school, but Susan was only fourteen and so accompanied us to Sky to go to school in Portree, so it was often her task to look after me. 
Uncertainly meeting that first cow.
For a toddler, it was a fairly solitary, adult-centred existence. The only children in evidence in four years of photographic history are cousins who appeared for a brief summer visit. I think Skye gave me a sense of comfort being on my own or around adults but not children my own age. It also contributed a love of open, barren countryside and the soft, highland accent, that was to be a handicap going through my troubled teenage years in the lowlands. Over everything in those years, literally and figuratively, loomed the ruin of Duntulm Castle.
Duntulm Castle was on a good defensive site protected on three sides by sheer cliffs that disappeared into the grey treacherous waters of the Minch. It was additionally protected by the blue men of the Minch, mythological creatures who sought to overturn ships and drown shipwrecked sailors. They would gather around a ship and their leader would rise up and recite two lines of poetry. The only way the ship’s captain could save his vessel was by competing poetically with the blue man. One tale gives the following exchange where the captain outsmarts the attacking poet:
Blue Chief: Man of the black cap what do you say
As your proud ship cleaves the brine?
Skipper: My speedy ship takes the shortest way
And I'll follow you line by line.
Blue Chief: My men are eager, my men are ready
To drag you below the waves.
Skipper: My ship is speedy, my ship is steady
If it sank it would wreck your caves.
After the Norse left in 1266, the castle changed hands numerous times as the local clans struggled for power. Eventually, in  1618, the Macdonalds of Sleat won out and ruled there relatively peacefully until the castle was finally abandoned in 1732. From then on it provided a handy stone quarry for the local crofters until it became, when Susan was in charge of me, her favourite place to keep me occupied when the busy hotel required my absence. While  we walked up the grassy slope, she would tell me a story.
Donald and Hugh wouldn't recognize the old place now.
“Once upon a time, hundreds of years ago, Donald, the chief of the clan Macdonald lived here. One day, his cousin, Hugh, came to visit. In those days there was a law of hospitality, anyone who showed up on your doorstep had to be invited in and given food and a bed for the night. The trouble was, that Hugh had plans to murder Donald and become clan chief himself. Fortunately, one of Hugh’s servants told Donald of the plot and Hugh had to flee the castle in the middle of the night. He went over to Uist and hid there, but Donald never forgave him for violating the laws of hospitality, so he hunted him down and captured him. He brought him back to Duntulm and imprisoned him in the deepest dungeon in the castle where the tide came in every day. He gave Hugh salt meat to eat but no water. After a while, poor old Hugh went completely mad. He beat the stone walls with his fists and screamed and shouted, but Donald just laughed. Eventually, Hugh died a horrible lonely death in his dungeon. It is said that, on nights when a storm comes in, Hugh’s ghost can be seen walking the castle ruins and that all the screams of the storm aren’t just from the wind.”
Of course, by this time I was totally entranced. We would reach the castle and my sister would lead me over to a deep, damp, hole in the ground and tell me with great glee, “And this is the dungeon where Hugh went insane.” It didn’t matter that the hole was far above the high tide mark and could only fill with water during a truly massive tsunami, I was fascinated by that hole in the ground and its appalling history. I don’t remember having any nightmares around my sister’s tales but, perhaps it wasn’t just from Jim that I got my love of storytelling.