Tuesday, 30 June 2020

From Sawney to Spain—part 1

Sawney at his work.

Alexander “Sawney” Bean was a caring paterfamilias. Born near Edinburgh sometime in the early fifteenth century, Sawney apparently married a witch, Black Agnes Douglas. This offended the locals who drove them away. Eventually the wandering Sawney and Agnes arrived at Bannane Head near Ballantrae in Ayrshire. There they discovered a large cave in the cliffs above the beach and decided to set up house. For twenty five years, so the story goes, despite the cave mouth being cut off at high tide, the Beans struggled to raise a family.
Disinclined by nature to undertake honest work, Sawney and Agnes took to a life of crime. Venturing out of their rather dank home at night, they waylaid solitary travellers, murdered them, and stole their money. As time went on, the family grew and ultimately, eight sons, six daughters, eighteen grandsons and fourteen granddaughters shared the cave in a web of relationships that I hesitate to think too hard about. The growing family presented certain practical problems, not least of which was how to purchase enough food with their ill-gotten gains without attracting too much unwelcome attention. Caring father that he was, Sawney overcame this difficulty in an ingenious way: the Beans would eat their victims, pickling what they couldn’t manage at one sitting. This, as it were, killed two birds with one stone, solving the food crisis, while conveniently disposing of the evidence.
Of course, the people in the surrounding area became suspicious as the numbers of disappearing travellers mounted and partly dismembered body parts washed up all along the coast. Searches were mounted, but the cave remained hidden. In frustration, the locals lynched various innocent strangers without much effect. However, things were doomed to go wrong for the Bean’s unorthodox lifestyle. 
Bannane Head with the (in)famous cave.
One night, the family surrounded a couple returning from a local fair. They murdered the woman, but the husband put up unexpectedly vigorous resistance, holding the family off with his sword until help arrived. Four hundred men and bloodhounds soon discovered the Bean’s happy home and led the forty-eight family members away in chains while they tried to prevent their shocked minds dwelling on the sights they had seen in the cave.
Sawney and the male members of his clan were killed by having their hands and feet cut off and being allowed to bleed to death in front of the womenfolk. The women were then burned alive.
Serious historians have cast doubt on the Sawney Bean story, not least because there are no written records and it does stretch credulity to imagine a family of forty-eight cannibals living undetected in a cave for a quarter century while they happily murdered and ate hundreds of people. Of course, that didn’t bother my fourteen-year-old mind on a family holiday to Ballantrae in 1965 and I shuddered deliciously as I peered into what legend identified as Sawney’s cave. It apparently also didn’t bother movie director Wes Craven, who used the tale as the basis for his 1977 horror film, The Hills Have Eyes. Craven revelled in the cannibalism, incest, and violence, but balked at the Scottish weather and set his version in the desert of the America southwest. Wes Craven was smart to avoid the bracing elements of the Sawney Bean story.
Ballantrae Beach on  a calm day.
One of the many meanings of “brace” in the Concise Oxford Dictionary, is “invigorate.” This is what my mother meant by her favourite word on family holidays in Scotland. It was usually brought out when I was dressed in every stitch of clothing I possessed, bent double against a force eight North Atlantic gale as the foaming rollers crashed on the shingle at my feet. I would beg to go back to our cozy bed-and-breakfast and be told, “Don’t be silly, it’s bracing.” I never understood what she meant because it was the opposite of what I was told at home, “Put a jacket on, you’ll catch your death of cold out there.” Why freezing half to death should be a bad thing at home and a good thing on holiday always escaped me but, despite being braced to excess, I enjoyed these holidays.
I don’t remember us having a family car before moving to Paisley, but at Ferguslie Villa we owned a large, black, square four-door Morris Ten Four, one of the 49,000 or so built between 1933 and 1935. This was back in the days when cars were still such a novelty and roads so quiet that people used to go for a relaxing drive on a Sunday afternoon. On many Sundays we piled into the old Morris and drove aimlessly around the Renfrewshire countryside. Sometimes we would pack a blanket and recreate an Indian Raj picnic. We didn’t have servants or hot weather, but Eve would enthusiastically pack tuna sandwiches, hard-boiled eggs, some recent baking and flasks of tea and we would stop at a likely spot, walk into a field or convenient small wood, spread out the blanket and sit and eat while Mac and Meg explored the countryside round about in search of rabbits. It was all delightfully pointless.
More purposefully, the car was also used to take us on holidays. Sometimes this was simply a day trip to Largs on the coast, but some years, like 1965 in Ballantrae and 1963 in Troon, it was a proper summer holiday. In 1961 we went to a bed-and-breakfast on the tiny island of Lismore in Loch Linnhe off Oban. The island is only 9 miles long and 1 wide, but there are several good lochs where Jim taught me fly fishing. I had my photograph taken with two small trout, which the landlady of the B&B kindly cooked up for me as an addition to her already vast breakfasts.
An early interest in rocks
(or golf balls) on Lismore.
Most of the two weeks on Lismore it rained and I sat in a window alcove betting against myself on raindrops racing each other down the glass. There was a bookcase in the house and I read Robert Falcon Scott’s diary and was fascinated at Edgar Evans going mad, Lawrence “Titus” Oates saying, “I am just going outside and may be some time,” and walking nobly out into the snow, and Scott’s descriptions of himself, Henry Bowers and Edward Wilson dying in their tent. Even through Scott’s imperial self-aggrandizement and his widow’s careful editing, I sensed that mistakes had been made and things could have been better done. Later reading has convinced me of this, but I still hope that Oates said his iconic sentence.
I was also impacted by two local stories about Lismore. One was of a piper who, with his dog, planned to walk underground between two caves. He played his pipes and they could be heard all over the island, then the sound ceased. The piper’s dog emerged, blind and hairless, but the piper was never seen again. I shivered at the description of the pipers end in his lament, “I was drowning and howling amongst the horrid pools.
Oddly, there is an almost identical story from St Andrews on the other side of the country. There a piper went into a tunnel near the castle to trace old coal workings. People on the ground above followed the sound of his pipes until they stopped. The piper was never seen again and a pattern in the cobbles of the main street is said to be where his pipes fell silent. 
The other Lismore tale was about the time two early christian worthies, St Molaug and St Mulhac, argued about who should build a monastery on the island. They decided to settle it by having a boat race. The first to Lismore got monastery rights. As they neared shore, it became obvious to Molaug that he was going to lose. Resourcefully, if somewhat extremely, he cut off a finger and hurled it ashore thereby claiming that a part of him had won the race. Founding a monastery was a very big deal in those days.
Car journeys in the old Morris were always an adventure, not least because Mac had a weak stomach and would throw up after the first two or three miles. This was a problem until my mother worked out what fraction of a sleeping pill would safely put Mac out for the requisite number of hours. 
Mac wasn’t the only problem. Occasionally I was. One time, deciding that it would be a good father/son bonding experience, Jim suggested that he and I go camping for a weekend. Eve prepared some food, Jim checked the car and I collected the sleeping bags, stove, tent, etc. With me feeling thrilled and very adult, we set off. In those days there were few campsites and it was common to simply camp wherever looked suitable beside the road. As dusk thickened, we pulled into a field and began unpacking. 
“Where’s the tent?” Jim asked.
“It’s…” I said before the slow hideous realization dawned that it was lying on the couch in our living room back in Paisley. I had forgotten the tent and all my misplaced pride in being an adult vanished. Fortunately it wasn’t raining and the old Morris had a high clearance. Jim slept under the car and I scrunched miserably into the back seat. We went home the next day.
Me and the trusty Morris.
On another occasion we were driving at night down to the south of Scotland to visit my aunt. With a surprisingly loud thump we hit a pheasant, which shot up in the air and landed stunned on the road behind us. Jim stopped, ran back, wrung the bird’s neck and with a “Pity to waste it,” threw the limp body onto the back seat beside me. 
Several miles farther on, Jim was broadening my education. “It’s a shame we didn’t hit two,” he said.
“Why?“ I asked loyally.
“Game meat has to be aged to taste its best,” he said. “To do that properly with pheasant you need two, a brace. You hang the birds in a cool shed and leave them. When one rots enough to fall off, you eat the other one.”
While Eve said, “Jim, don’t tell him things like that,” I silently gave thanks that we only had one pheasant. The pheasant itself, which had apparently only been feigning death, decided that now was the time to begin trying wildly to avoid this unpleasant fate. Now, you may not think that a pheasant is a particularly large or threatening bird but, if you are a small boy and one is hysterically flapping around in the back seat of a Morris Ten Four with you, it appears immense and deadly. While my mom attempted to calm me down, my dad stopped and dispatched the pheasant again, this time efficiently.
I used to love the visits to my father’s sister Helen’s place down near Newton Stewart. It was a small cottage called Banks of Dee, but it was set on a large estate, of which I had free run. Jim taught me to shoot his .22 rifle there and I would hunt pigeon whenever I had the chance. I used to dream of coming upon a deer but, given that I only had a .22 and no idea how to clean a deer, it was probably just as well I didn’t encounter one. My cousin, Ken, did, however, and presented my dad and I with a complete haunch. This coincided with Eve spending a week in hospital and Jim and I roasted the haunch and, in fine medieval fashion, cut off hunks of venison whenever we felt hungry.
Eventually, as it approached its fourth decade of life, the Morris faltered. It wasn’t worth much, but Jim decided that he might get a little more for it if it was repainted. He hired me and a school friend to do the job. Unfortunately he gave us too much leeway with the colour. We could see no reason why cars should be black and so decided on a pleasing powder blue. When Jim came back from work, I took him into the garden and proudly showed off the careful job we had done. To his credit he took it very well, commenting only that the car looked like an ice cream van. In retrospect, I was ahead of my time, but I doubt if, back in the 60s, my colour choice added much to the car’s value.

Wednesday, 24 June 2020

Interlude 8—Paisley Nights


Paisley Nights


Dark drunken Paisley nights,

the sociability of bus stops

amidst the gobs of spit

and wet discarded piles of 

wasted beer and chips.

An old unshaven man prevents

the stop from falling, 

arms wrapped round the cold steel pole 

with much more love

than he has ever shown at home.

A pocket, loose,

raggedly protects a brown-bagged bottle.

Fortified, the label says, 

as if its strength will stop 

the stomach heaves

and keep the drinker from the cold.


A boy goes past

nervously arrogant without his gang,

caught halfway between being lord of the street

and just another one of father’s punching bags.


A woman passes hurriedly,

eyes down,

late shift at the hospital,

already seen enough

to fill one night’s imaginings.


Taxis rumble by

distributing their loads

to other lives.


The old man coughs and swigs his wine

the bus is late—so what?

The stop is friendly.

What’s at home anyway?

Kids are gone,

silent wife’ll never understand.

Life's been shite since the factory closed.


He takes another drink, and slips.

The bus stop, treacherous, has moved

betraying a friend.

The bottle falls, shatters.

“Fuck,” the man slurs. 

He weeps to watch his hope run down the gutter.

Around his feet a blowing paper wraps

plastering his skinny legs.

An ineffectual kick opens up the sheet.

“Man Lands on Moon” 

the headline reads.

Tuesday, 9 June 2020

Witches and Weaving—part 1


In the Zoroastrian mythology, Zarathustra planted a cedar tree in paradise. The tree bent under the weight of the Muslim invasion of Persia and became a curved symbol, the boteh, which was a sign of strength as well as modesty. The symbol spread through the Middle East and, with the expansion of the Mughal Empire, into India where it became popular as a design pattern on intricate Kashmir shawls. The East India Company introduced the shawls into Europe in the 17th century and the pattern on them became so popular that they could not import enough to meet demand. Local manufacturing began in France and elsewhere and by the 19th century so much was being woven in the Scottish town where I grew up that the pattern became forever known as Paisley.
In keeping with the theme of castles associated with the places where I lived, the first district we moved to in Paisley was called Castlehead. There was even less evidence of a castle here than at Castle Semple, the story being that it was the site of a long-vanished Roman settlement, established by Agricola and called Vanduara by Ptolomy in the second century. 
St Cuthbert's (not our caravan).
After the Romans left, few paid much attention to Castlehead until, in the mid-19th century, it became a trendy place for rich Paisley merchants to live. For a couple of thousand pounds, one of them had a two story sandstone mansion called St Cuthbert’s built on Main Road. In the spring of 1959, Jim and Eve rented the ground floor of St Cuthbert’s.
I wasn’t even eight-years-old and it was the fourth place I’d lived—not that I had time to settle in here either. After Mechan’s, Jim was looking for a job but, despite a glowing reference letter from his time in India, his MBE, his recent work on Clydeside and, perhaps less usefully, an ability to speak French and Urdu, he had no luck. Undeterred, or perhaps with little choice. Jim took over an ironmongers (hardware) store. I had little interest except for one thing—I was given the job of clearing some junk-laden, dusty shelves in the back of the shop. It was boring until I moved some scrap and found a treasure—the casing and nose of an 18 pounder shrapnel artillery shell from the First World War. I rushed through to the front shop to show Jim. He must have had a moment of utter horror, seeing his young son rushing happily at him clutching an artillery shell, but he determined that it was safe and I was allowed to keep it. For many years it stood in my bedroom with my meagre collection of foreign coins in it. I still have it and it is a great hit when I present on the First World War in schools, although I only use it as a prop at schools I don’t have to fly to.
Sometimes I got to work behind the counter in the shop. There was a construction company working nearby renovating some old flats and the workers occasionally popped in to pick up small items that they needed. They were a cheerful bunch and often joked with the kid behind the counter. On one memorable occasion, an apprentice who had just started with the firm and was hardly more than a handful of years older than me came in.
“Hello,” he said, scanning the shelves behind me. “The boss sent me down to pick up something.”
“What is it?” I asked when it became obvious he wasn’t seeing what he was looking for.
“Bubble for a spirit level.”
“What?” I had no idea what he was talking about. I knew what a spirit level was, but as far as I knew the bubble was just air floating in liquid.
“He needs a new bubble for a spirit level,” the apprentice repeated.
I was beginning to feel flustered and totally out of my depth. Then I glanced out the window and spotted two workers from the site grinning broadly. I realized that the joke wasn’t on me. In retrospect, I wish I had gone along with the joke and asked the apprentice what size of bubble and whether he wanted a round one or an oval one, but I was young. I merely said, “Sorry. We’re completely out of them,” and he left to inform his boss. 
My grandfather, John Wilson, died in 1920 at the age of 44 and my grandmother on the other side of the family, Victoria Dyer, died shortly before I was born. Grandmother Emily died in 1953, so the only grandparent I ever knew was Alfred Dyer. He was a traveller who went around the world a couple times when I was growing up. He travelled only with a tiny suitcase on the mail boats, there being no cruise ships in those days, and brought me back postcards and once, a small, crudely-carved wooden mask from some obscure stop on his peregrinations. 
Alfred was a keen photographer and carried a miniature camera everywhere to record the people and places he saw. He filled albums, the most extraordinary of which were the two that recorded the effects of the Great Bihar Earthquake of 1934. After his second trip he came to stay with us at Castlehead and, of course, photographed my mother and I in the back garden. 
Grandfather and Eve.
One morning, instead of breakfasting in the kitchen as was normal before I went to school, my sister suggested that, since it was such nice weather, we could breakfast in the garden. We did and to entertain me, my sister told me a story. I enjoyed the change of routine, and went happily off to school. Only when I came home that afternoon was I told that grandfather Dyer had died in his sleep the night before.
I don’t remember my emotional reaction to my first encounter with death on a personal scale, but I do remember becoming aware over subsequent days that old people die. With the calm rationality of a nine-year-old, I observed the obvious fact that my parents were considerably older than my school friends’ parents and took from it that, therefore, one day they too would die. I suppose the thought must have scared me at the time, but it became absorbed into my childish world view as simply the way things were.
A happier event in the fall of 1960 was the birth of my first niece, Fiona to my sister Dorothy. Dorothy had gone to art college in London where she met an architect, Alan, whom she married in 1959. Babies didn’t interest me that much, but being an uncle at nine-years-old was cool.
In the months in our part of the mansion on Main Road, I attended the unimaginatively named South Primary School, became a Cub Scout, learned to play When the Saints go Marching In on the grand piano that came with the house, and one day effectively stopped the piano lessons from my sister Susan by messing around and dropping the keyboard lid on her fingers. It wasn’t because of my lack of musical skill and ingratitude, but Susan became a ‘Ten Pound Pom’ in 1961. In those days Australia was desperate to increase her population and offered passage out for a mere ten pounds. Of course implicit in the offer was ‘white’ population, and a young, newly-qualified teacher from Scotland perfectly fitted the bill.
Eve and Jim never hit me, even though a spank on the bottom was perfectly acceptable in those days. I got into trouble the usual number of times and was undoubtedly disciplined, however, there was only one time I remember being actually scared.
A friend from up the road had come round and we were playing darts in the garden. Essentially, this involved trying to hit the tree in the middle of the lawn. Egging each other on, we added spice by one of us climbing the tree while the other threw the dart. Inevitably it went wrong and a dart stuck in my arm. I pulled it out and as it bled my friend panicked. “What’ll we tell your parents. We have to make up a story.”
I agreed and, exercising my nascent storytelling skills, suggested saying that I had fallen out of the tree. Falling out of a tree onto a dart was an unconvincing tale at best but in the confusion and upset of the moment it was all I could think of. My friend abandoned me and I took my injured arm into the kitchen for attention.
Of course, the pitiful story wasn’t believed and I had to admit the truth. Eve was upset at the possibility of tetanus from the wound, but more so by the fact that I had lied. She couldn’t think of a suitable discipline so she said, “Wait until your father comes home.” 
I spent a totally miserable afternoon feeling angry at my friend for deserting me, guilty about lying and imagining all the possible horrors that Jim might unleash upon me when he returned. In the event, he simply looked at me sternly, said it was a stupid thing to do and was silent. I’ve done other stupid things since then, but I learned never to climb a tree and allow a friend to throw darts at me.
One interesting yet irrelevant fact that I was unaware of at the time was that, in the graveyard around Castlehead Church at the bottom of Main Road, lay the remains of US President Ronald Wilson Reagan’s maternal grandparents, John and Jane Wilson. Both Wilson and John are and were very common names in the west of Scotland, so these kinds of coincidences crop up quite often and sometimes can erroneously be absorbed into family folklore.
One story of my father’s was that we were descended from the last man to be publicly hanged at the Gallowgate in Glasgow. As Jim told it our namesake had been accused of “resisting the English invaders marching up the High Street.” Apparently, back in the 18th century, there had been a riot, not an uncommon occurrence in Glasgow at that time, and English troops had been called in to restore order. The troops were led by an officer on a white horse and, as they marched up the High Street to confront the mob, a shot was fired and the officer knocked off his horse. The troops charged the crowd and arrested several rioters, one of whom was my ancestor. He and two others were subsequently hanged.
It was a great story and I told it whenever the opportunity presented itself, usually embellishing it with my ancestor being caught because he was too drunk to run away with the rest of the mob. Unfortunately, neither my embellishment or any other part of the story was true. 
The (in)famous Dr. Pritchard
Despite its name, Gallowgate was not the place of public execution in Glasgow. That was Jocelyn Square beside Glasgow Green, and the last man publicly hanged there was not a Wilson. In 1865, Dr. Edward William Pritchard poisoned his wife and mother-in-law with antimony. He had previously been suspected of foul deeds in 1863 when a servant girl in his house had died in a suspicious fire, but no charges were brought. This time, an anonymous letter accused Dr Pritchard. The bodies were exhumed, antimony found and Pritchard was convicted. The case was a cause célèbre and many thousands filled Glasgow Green in the early morning of July 28 to witness Pritchard’s end and grab a last chance to witness a hanging. 
There was a James Wilson publicly hanged in Glasgow on Wednesday August 30, 1820 for treason. He was a sixty-year-old radical weaver from nearby Strathaven who had been involved in the Radical War of that year. Having been told by Agent Provocateurs that the revolt was supported by the French and much more widespread and advanced than it was, Wilson led a small group of his colleagues toward Glasgow under an eccentrically-spelled banner reading “Scotland Free or a Dessert.” It soon became clear to Wilson that he had been misled and he returned home, but it was too late. He was arrested, tried and, despite pleas for clemency, sentenced to be hanged and beheaded.
The unrelated James Wilson
The Glasgow Herald newspaper reported that amidst cries from the crowd of “Murder” and “He’s a murdered man”, Wilson was led up the scaffold and hanged. The Herald report gives a glimpse of what was considered an easy death in 1820.
“About five minutes after the body was suspended, convulsive motions agitated the whole frame, and some blood appeared through the cap, opposite the ears, but on the whole he appeared to die very easily.
“At half past three, after hanging half an hour, his body was lowered upon three short spokes laid across the mouth of the coffin.  His head was laid on the block with his face downwards, and the cap taken off, when there was again a repetition of disapprobation of the crowd.”
The executioner then, “…advanced to the body, which was placed at the front of the scaffold, amidst the execrations of the people, and after calmly feeling the neck for a moment, he lifted the axe, and at one blow severed the head from the body, which he held up, and proclaimed, ‘This is the head of a traitor’.
“Vehement cries of ‘It is false, he has bled for his country!’ were heard from different quarters.”
Wilson was buried in an unmarked paupers grave, but his daughter and niece dug up his remains and removed them to Strathevan where they were secretly buried and where a monument stands today. Two other leaders were also executed and those three were the last beheadings in Britain.
So the story of James Wilson’s sad end could have inspired Jim’s tale although I can find no evidence that he was an ancestor. As for the riot, there were plenty to choose from in Glasgow in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, but none fit exactly and I can find no mention of an officer on a white horse being shot, although there is a pub called the White Horse on the Gallowgate. One of the things about researching an autobiography is finding out the truth or lack of it in fondly-believed family tales.

Monday, 1 June 2020

Interlude 7—Nonsenses

Sunrise? Sunset?



















The Beglup and the Scribbling

There’s a sunrise every morning, 
A sunset every night,
Between then both it’s either dark 
Or very, very light.

The Beglup shuns the light of day, 
The Scribbling fears the dark,
Thus they will never ever meet 
At dusk down by the park.

It cannot be both light and dark, 
Tis either one or t’other.
So the Beglup and the Scribbling 
Knew nothing of the other.

Until one eve the bright daylight 
Was slow in going to bed
And darkness fell a bit too fast, 
Or so it has been said.

In any case, for one bright blink 
In darkness thick as leather,
The Scribbling fierce and Beglup bold 
Were face-to-face together.

They stopped and stared, then screamed and fled, 
Their meeting could not be
For each was far too frightful for 
The other one to see.

So be mindful of that fated dusk 
When next you’re deep in play,
And want to stay up far too late,
   Or lie in bed all day

In Search of Supper





















Beware the Aardvark’s Supper

So darkly, darkly shines the moon 
At night on Christmas Day
When down below in silver hue 
The three-legged fishes play.

They leap and jump o’er hill and dale 
So happy to be free
From that sticky pea-green ocean 
Which hides them all from me.

They sing a sort of fishy song 
In scales of their own choice
Without a single thought or care 
For danger’s lovely voice.

From out the east the Aardvark comes 
With jaws as wide as stairs
To feed upon the happy fish 
Who frolic unawares.

“Oh comely, comely little fish,” 
The earth-pig sings out loud,
“Pray jump upon my glittering spoon 
And we shall dine most proud.”

The fishes wander to-and-fro 
Enraptured by the tune
And one by one they step upon 
The Aardvark’s dining spoon.

When sudden one small voice is raised 
Amidst the wails and tears,
“I cannot hear enticing tunes
There’s darkness in my ears.”

Then quickly quickly little fish 
Pluck darkness from the night
And stuff it in your tiny ears 
To quell the sound and fright.

The Aardvark blusters “Come back here!” 
As fishes skip away
Back to the hilly sea they run 
To swim another day.

The Aardvark glumly then goes home 
With rumbling, empty tummy
To dine on porridge and brown toast 
And cups of dark red honey.