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.