Snow in the Scottish Borders

January brought the worst of the weather. In the Borders it is not unusual to have the first snow in October and the last in May, although Sandy told me about a year when the last snow was in June and the first was in July. That must have been about the time when the Thames froze over after the Great Plague of London. Nevertheless, I never experienced a snow free January. Perhaps it was a form of superstition, but very few postmen called snow by its given name, preferring to use the epithet ‘the white stuff’.

Coming from Edinburgh, I had barely seen snow until I moved to the wild world outside. My country-born wife laughed heartlessly at my exclamations of disgust the first time our house was snowed in and I had to dig a path out to the street. But Cathy, strange woman that she is, enjoys the white stuff, as she enjoys rain and sun and the mellow mists of autumn. ‘What’s life without changing seasons,’ she tells me. ‘Enjoy it!’

My home town of Edinburgh has its fair share of seasons; it is buffeted by wind from every quarter of the compass, washed by tremendous rains and occasionally warmed by the sun, but snow comes rarely and seldom lasts for long.  The first onfall almost always brings traffic confusion, with buses and cars unable to negotiate the steep city streets, but within a day or two the hard working council workers have gritted the roads. Thereafter all that remains is dirty sludge and enough salt to rust the most well protected vehicles. Snow perhaps lingers in the city parks and on Arthur’s Seat, the eight hundred odd foot high hill that reminds the good neighbours of Edinburgh of the great world outside.

The Borders are different. Snow tends to fall heavier and remain a lot longer. Sitting in the cusp of the hills, Brockshaugh attracts the white stuff and as many of the rural routes contain high-level farms, the posties have to be adaptable. The yard in a January morning was a noisy place as the postmen prepared their vehicles for the snowy roads. In the early years, when the vans were rear-wheel drive, Sandy taught me that a lump of concrete or a hundredweight sack of sand placed above the back axle helped keep the weight on the wheels, which helped keep the van on the road. It was quite interesting watching postmen heaving great lumps of rock around, with their breath smoking in the chill air, joining the exhaust fumes from a dozen vans. Everyone was rushing, save for Jim, who sauntered around, searching the black sky in case he heard some passing snow bunting, or perhaps a stray Celtic god, or something else.

To cope with the snow, a generous Royal Mail supplied the rural postmen with shovels, which had a mysterious habit of disappearing over the summer, so had to be re-ordered each November. There was a persistent rumour that Kenny collected them in spring and sold them at a market stall, but personally I suspected Marty. Either way, those that remained were treated like gold dust.

‘Kenny Beattie!’ Louise would shrill on every snowy morning, ‘you’ve hidden my shovel again! One of these days I’ll give you such a slap!’

It was Frankie who taught me to brand my name into the shaft with red-hot wire, which, strangely, is exactly what nineteenth century fishermen did with their items of equipment. There is little new in the world.

‘And take a couple of sacks too.’ Sandy instructed. ‘Not these new grey plastic things; get some of the hessian ones, the old prison mailbags; best thing there is for an icy road.’ He was right, of course. If the wheels of the van did not grip on an ice-smooth road, slipping an old mailbag under the tread gave just enough traction to get moving. It was a simple trick, but one that usually worked. Rab Sheriff, being a cunning man, had secreted a supply of sacks for himself in one of the storage cupboards, but Sandy was an old soldier and knew how to forage. So we always had enough for ourselves.

I disliked the snow, and I disliked the Meldons route. The initial farms were bad, but a third of the way around the route sits the village of Meldon, from where the route takes its name. At one time it had been tiny, nothing more than a coaching inn for changing horses on the route to Edinburgh, with a handful of eighteenth century cottages scattered around. In the late eighteenth century the local landlord had built a double row of weaver’s cottages, with the ancillary church. Later a school had been built, but it was in the second half of the twentieth century that the place had really expanded. Commercial builders erected houses that were far out of proportion to the size of the village, and even further out of proportion to most local wages. As the new houses with their four luxurious bedrooms and double garages dwarfed the indigenous cottages, White Settlers moved in. The houses were undoubtedly attractive, but in order to afford the high prices, the new householders had to work all the hours sent by God. What should have been beautiful gardens never blossomed past the flat grass stage, with the occasional transplanted tree that only emphasised the bleakness. In January, Meldon was white and cold and miserable. It was a time of splashing in sodden wet clothing from address to address, posting wet envelopes through wet letter boxes, crunching through virgin snow and swearing. There was always a lot of swearing in January.

There were two new developments in Meldon. The first was the largest, a spreading confusion of houses placed on an exposed slope. The roads here were always bad with ice and with the householders leaving early to work in Edinburgh, the streets were bleak and cold and miserable. Each house seemed like a desert island in a frozen sea and I felt sorry for the hopeful folk who had left the familiarity of their city home with high hopes of a country idyll, only to come to such a place. Virtually as soon as they were occupied, many of these houses were again on the market. I was not surprised; there was nothing cheering to come home to, particularly in January.

The second development was smaller and later, a double strip of houses that followed the natural shelter of a glen that eased into the Moorfoot hills. These houses were not quite as large, but were provided with more sheltered gardens, small screens of trees and conservatories. One or two, I noticed, had cheerful stoves within the living room, and their character seemed to be reflected in that of the residents. Although white settlers have a bad press in Scotland, I found the majority to be outgoing and willing to be friendly. Perhaps that is because I was one myself. And, when all is said and done, any community that does not bring in new blood would wither and die; too much interbreeding can lead to terrible consequences. While the people of the first estate seldom remained long, those of the second blended with each other and with the village. I wondered then, and have wondered since, if we realise exactly how much we are affected by our immediate environment.

Past Meldon the route was mainly off-road, which entailed some fancy driving in the snows of January, but some spectacular views. There can be little better than driving through one of the private country estates in the Borders, with each tree white streaked, burns running brown between iced banks and the sky a ragged, mottled grey. Each time the van stops, the silence is chill with snow, and branches are etched starkly above. There is beauty too in nearing the isolated cottages of shepherd or gamekeeper, where each window is illuminated, where Christmas lights still drape around the door and where the tang of smoke drifts heady and aromatic.

It seemed to be a rule that every Border gamekeeper and shepherd was married, and their children always came to greet the postman. They chattered happily, although they were as often as not pyjama-clad and barefoot in temperatures that threatened to crack the thermometer. Their mother was invariably cheerful, always capable, and controlled her offspring without recourse to social workers or psychology. I could talk to these children about football or school or local affairs, but they knew far more than I did about wildlife and their own environment. In one case, where the cottage had no mains plumbing and only elementary heating, I often found the children helping to gather kindling, or chop logs for the fire. Compared to the insipid, pale-faced city children, they always seemed healthy and happy. To me, these quiet cottages were the essence of the country, the home people who were self contained but never introverted, people who were always welcoming although they lived in conditions most city-dwellers could hardly imagine.

Perhaps because of the close proximity to the hills, Border weather is never predictable. A day that began with driving snow could change in a heartbeat, the sun could break through, and once the commuter traffic had drained away to Edinburgh, the road would be quiet. There is something intrinsically beautiful about a snow-covered road, with the tracks of past vehicles disappearing into the distance and winter sunshine sparkling. There is something better about the road once the Council gritter has passed. I think that only a postman can properly appreciate the job that these men do. Where one minute the white road merges with the white grass of the verge, and the white indentation that marks the inevitable roadside ditch, once the yellow lorry trundles past, everything changes.  First the plough sweeps aside the top snow, then a mixture of salt and grit is spread over the dirty mess that remains. Gradually the snow and ice melts so that the black tarmac surface can be seen, a sign of safety for the traveller.

The difference is amazing; driving becomes pleasant, the postie can deliver much of his mail and may even enjoy the view. It is now easier to appreciate the sun gleaming on smooth fields, or the humped shape of sheep, or the distant humped hills. The Ten-Mile-Road cuts off just north of Meldon, winding up and up onto the high moor that stretches over the county boundary to Lothian. In snow this road is impassable, but once the gritter has past it is, as the police say, passable with care. That is enough for the postie, and the views are certainly worth the effort.

Bulking huge over the Meldon end of the road is the lump of Harper Rig, a hill that is said to have druidical associations. It was Jim who told me that harps were once a sacred instrument of the druids, and this hill was where they prayed to their Gods, whoever they were. Without much knowledge of druids, I cannot argue, but I know that Harper Rig is a fine, shapely hill that in snow seems to dominate the landscape for miles.   In spring and summer we often met hillwalkers here, trekking in their bright jackets and massive boots, while there is a loch that attracts fishermen in most seasons. They usually drove up in estate cars or family saloons, to spend time in what is truly idyllic countryside as they hunt the trout that makes the Border famous. But not in snow; then only farmers challenge posties for the roads, and the route lies quiet under the bright, cold winter sun.

On and onward, with the van a red intruder in a landscape cleared of colour by the snow. Past the Ten-Mile Road the plough would even clear the Black Yett, the high and winding road that connects the valley of the Ecky to the gentle plain around Walstone. Black Yett means Black Gate, the dark gate through the lowering hills, but it was a white gate in January.

The plough had left a narrow ribbon of black with, on either side, a bank of snow eight, maybe ten feet high, a tunnel of snow through which the little red van slogged solidly along.  In one or two places the top of the bank had crumbled, so that head-high pieces of snow had landed on the road; hardly an obstruction, but it made for interesting driving. There was no space to turn at The Yett farm, for the plough had simply continued in a straight line across to Walstone, so I had a choice; either continue on the Black Yett, hoping for a space, or I could reverse.

I chose the latter. Five miles in reverse along a tunnel of snow, and about half way along a vehicle came speeding behind me. It had to slow, and the driver shook her head in disbelief at the antics of this obviously lunatic postman. I waved cheerfully as she sounded her horn, once, twice, as if to hurry me, and then she shouted abuse out of her window. I wished that Frankie were with me, for he had the knack of a ready wit, but I only waved again and slowed a trifle, for I refused to be hurried. That woman followed me, glowering, for nearly three miles, then as I turned into the track for Kilrubie she sped away. I watched as she clipped the snow banking and uncharitably hoped that she would end in a ditch, but unfortunately she regained control and drove away. Perhaps Foulmire got her.

The January of 1995 was particularly bad, with temperatures in Peebles falling to around minus 10 centigrade, and in the hill farms to minus 25 or 26. These Arctic temperatures created many problems for both walking and driving posties. By that year all our vehicles were diesel powered, which gave better mileage for a similar cost. Unfortunately, unlike petrol engines, diesel does not warm up as the vehicle moves; indeed the motion of the van through the air tends to lower the already low temperature. This simple wind chill effect created many difficulties. Vehicles on long journeys tended to freeze to a halt, which meant that posties became stranded in sub-zero temperatures, sometimes in extremely remote conditions. The Post Office mechanics were busy, but the manager of the time had hired a rescue van with a petrol engine, which he sent out purely to give his stranded men somewhere warm to sit.

Walking postmen had other problems, with even the most experienced having to stop at somebody’s house to find some warmth. Frankie, of course, made the most of it, playing on the sympathy of sundry householders with the excuse that the cold affected his old war-wounds.

‘The only wounds you had are inside your head.’ RR would growl. Of us all, only RR failed to feel the cold. He just plodded on, grumbling, complaining, but always getting the job done.

During these extreme conditions the genuine decency of many Gutterbluids was revealed. Despite the Peebles Stare, despite the insularity, at bottom most were kindly folk who liked to help, but were not sure how. I will never forget Mrs Glen who lived high on the hll. I believe that the houses on the hill had been built by the mill hierarchy of the nineteenth century, from which line Mrs Glen had descended. If this were the Victorian age, she would probably have founded a charity for her workers, as it was she cared for her posties. Past her youth and entering her years of maturity, she called us all her ‘post boys’ and never failed to leave a flask of hot soup or hot coffee within her porch. Perhaps such paternalism, or should that be maternalism? is no longer politically correct, but when the cold was biting through four layers of clothing and my breath froze into icicles from my chin, I certainly did not care. People such as Mrs Glen helped maintain the postie’s faith in the essential goodness of humanity. Her soup was good too; homemade lentil or chicken, with plenty rice. Sometimes it was worth braving the cold purely to sit on that friendly doorstep, surveying the white hills and the white rooftops of Brockshaugh while feeling the new warmth seep through one’s body.

What was bad in the town was obviously worse in the deep countryside. When I was delivering to a shepherd high above the Valley, the snow was too deep for my hard-pressed van to push through. It was a case of dismount and walk a mile or so up what I could find of the track, sinking into thigh deep snow at every hope and slithering madly, arms flailing, on the more thinly covered parts.  By the time I reached the cottage I was cold and miserable, if just a bit elated at actually having got there. The shepherd, a hardy man in his late twenties, barely looked at me. He was working around the sheep pens in his shirtsleeves. Ruth, his wife, chatted cheerfully about the weather as she leaned against the doorway, allowing the cold in and the aromatic cooking smells to seep out.

‘It’s not too bad here,’ she said, indicating the white blanket that smothered the hills, smoothed the hollows in the valley and lay piled in head-high drifts against the north and east walls of her house. ‘But I heard it was a wee bit rough further west.’ Her nod indicated the vast spread of hills that stretched westward toward the Clyde. ‘The news said that a shepherd went missing last night, out attending his sheep.’

‘Out attending his sheep.’ There was something Biblical in those words, something timeless and very poignant. As I struggled back to the van the snow started again, great white flakes whirring down on the already white path. I tried to imagine the shepherd’s life. Out at night in the lonely hills, attending his sheep while wind howled bitingly and the snow whirled, dizzy in the black. I imagined the cold and the loneliness and the effort, and suddenly a postman’s life seemed secure and comfortable in comparison.

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Lore and Lure of the River

It was Sir Walter Scott who made the Tweed famous, so that people in half the nations of the world learned about the beauty and lore of the Borders through his words. Yet by international standards the river is insignificant. It lacks the majesty of the Thames, the volume of the Amazon, the bustle and scale of the Mississippi. To any of these world famous rivers, Tweed is less than a brook; a shallow, slithering stream that can be waded in a hundred paces and that is barely navigable save by canoes and salmon cobles. Yet it is Tweed that makes the area what it is; it has a character all of its own, and is as welcome to a Gutterbluid as the sea to a sailor.

There can be few rivers that have as many stories attached to them, perhaps because virtually every bend holds a peel-tower, a historic church or the site of some half-forgotten skirmish. Many of the hillspurs that jut above the river hold the remnants of towers, while fields stretch between the sheltering forests, and stone-built towns proclaim their individuality at irregular intervals.

As a postman, I saw Tweed in all its guises, and even I gasped at the delicate beauty that it could display. There are many bridges in Peebles, both across the Tweed and its smaller tributary known as the Ecky that merged with Tweed near the centre of town. Most carry motor vehicles but there are a few that cater only for pedestrians. One such crosses Tweed just at the edge of Tweed Green, where housewives still hang out their washing and children and dogs vie with tourists to annoy the anglers. Of all the Peebles bridges, this one is the least picturesque, being little more than a humped structure of interlocked ironwork. Nonetheless, from mid April to early autumn the housemartins made this bridge their own as they swoop after the flies that hover above the shallow water. Their distinctive piping call is the sound of spring, and I often stood on the bridge to watch their aerobatics.

This bridge was also an excellent place to witness the dawn sun burning the mist from the water. From a river literally shrouded with a thick grey mass of moisture, it became a rippling friend, decorated with shreds of mist. In autumn rain the river was swollen and brown, hurtling at great speed between sodden banks and carrying all sorts of rubbish from the landward parts to the sea. It was common to see bales of hay, tree branches and the occasional baulk of timber thrashing in the water.

That was the time when the old rhyme came to mind:

‘Said Tweed to Till:

“How come you run so still?”

Said Till to Tweed:

“Though you run fast, and I run slaw,

For every man that you droon, I droon twa.”’

Till is another Border river, that runs in Northumberland, but the point of this story is not on the comparison, but on the fact of the drownings. In my time in Peebles there were a number of people drowned in the river; not one a year, which according to Jim Penrith, the local folklore expert and long-time postman, was the old sacrificial figure, but certainly enough to make one wary of treating Tweed with disrespect. Any natural thing can be dangerous, and at one time Tweed was a sacred river, like the Clyde, and Jim told me dark stories of human sacrifice that had been carried out to propitiate the spirit of Tweed. This spirit had been known to take a more tangible form, if the old legends were to be believed.

Back in the twelfth century a knight of Tweedale left his wife behind to join a Crusade. He spent years in Outremer, as Christendom termed the Holy Land, bearing his blade to the bounds of Bethlehem, fighting the Saracens to protect the Holy Places, but finally he returned home. After many adventures he arrived back in Scotland, to find that his wife had a baby boy playing at her feet.

‘And where did he come from?’ Asked the knight, somewhat naively, but his Lady had a ready answer.

‘From the Tweed,’ she replied. ‘His father is the spirit of the Tweed itself.’

Now despite the intense fervour of the Crusades, this was still a superstitious age, where kelpies and goblins mingled with the People of Peace in the imagination of even God-fearing folk. Whether the knight believed his wife or not, he seems to have accepted the child, and brought it up as his own. However, the boy branched out to start a new family, named after his real family, and the surname of Tweedie was born.

Floods were expected in Peebles, so people adapted to the possibility. It was the price charged by Tweed for the privilege of living by her banks; easier to pay than the ancient tribute of a yearly sacrifice but inconvenient, filthy and heart-rending for those whose houses were under water. Virtually every year Tweed Green would be inundated so that the householders, whose front doors opened onto what was surely one of the loveliest views in summer, watched the rising river with some anxiety.

In our first winter at Peebles there was an exceptionally heavy rainfall, and my wife Cathy and I became aware of a low rumble somewhere beyond the nearby road. Not quite acquainted with the geography of the town, we investigated, walking through the grounds of what had once been a private house but what was now a depository for an insurance company. It came as a shock to realise that the rumble was actually the sound of the Tweed, which had risen to drown its muddy banks. We watched for a while before returning home. Next day we had less distance to walk to view the Tweed, for it had risen further, and now swished menacingly at the lower boughs of the trees. We could see the branches in the water, gesticulating back and forth as the current alternatively dipped them in the water and released them.

‘I feel like Christopher Robin’ Cathy told me, obviously enjoying herself immensely as the river rose toward our house. I married a strange woman. I did not tell her of the stories that Sandy had been relating, of Tweed completely covering Tweed Green, of Tweed washing right over the flat ground where our house was built, of Tweed bursting her banks to cover half the valley. It rose day by day as the rain hurtled down, until it lapped on the fringes of the main road. Then came the day of mist; the river level stabilised and then began to fall. Each evening, Cathy and I used to take our son, for our youngest had not yet been born, to look at the accumulated rubbish left by the receding water and wonder at the power of the river. When spring had broken and the water level had dropped dramatically so that the river was its usual friendly self, Sandy finished his story.

‘All that I said was true, of course, but they built the Meggat Dam since then, and diverted half the water that used to run into Tweed. The water levels now are nothing like as high as they used to be.’

Remembering the turgid brown mass that roared out of the night, sweeping great amounts of debris before it, I wondered what it had been like in the old days, when Sandy was a boy.

Posted in Crusades, Flooding, Memories, Mississippi, nature, Peebles, Postman, River Tweed, Rivers, Royal Mail, Scotland, Scottish Borders, Seasons, Walter Scott, Winter | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Memories of a past life

Many years ago, in a different life, I was a postman in the Scottish Borders. When the days close in as they do now, I remember these old days:

Winter mornings were the most memorable, whatever the weather. Sometimes it was necessary to brace oneself before opening the outside door to the world, for the blast of Border air was often biting but always invigorating.  When we lived in Peebles I had a seven-minute journey through the town to the Delivery Office, and that walk set the pattern for the day. If I had to force the door open because of the pressure of snow blown against it, I knew that I was set for a hard delivery.  But sometimes it was good to feel the frost crackling underfoot as I walked across Victoria Park, and to see the white mist coiling from the river as I crossed the iron footbridge. If I was early, I could linger for a moment on the bridge and look upstream, trying to make out the long hills of Ettrick in the dark. If I could see them, then they were white and sharp; if they remained invisible, then the snow had not come in earnest.

Perhaps I remember the cold best because it was frosty the day I started the Post. The first morning of any new job is always nerve-racking. My first morning as a postman was doubly, perhaps trebly so. I had been employed in the Edinburgh financial world, working in a penthouse office in a building where the furniture was of polished oak and the equipment was state of the art technology. A uniformed commissionaire ushered every worker into an elevator whose walls were of mirrored brass. Underfoot was a carpet so thick that one’s feet sunk without trace, while the coffee came in porcelain cups. The stock market crash of 1987 put paid to such decadence, so I found myself in the bitter black of a November morning watching nervously while half a score of men unloaded a lorry. My impression was of frenzied movement, flying sacks full of mail and an impressive amount of interesting invective. There seemed to be people rushing everywhere, shouting at each other; there was neither order nor sense in it.

‘Who’s that bloke standing there?’ The shadowy figure was huddled in a blue coat and casually carried a sack that appeared to weigh a couple of hundredweight. He jerked a thumb toward me. ‘Somebody had better get him out of the way before he’s trampled.’

I staggered as somebody burly barged into me, growling. I spoke to the man with the heavy sack. ‘I’m Malcolm. I’m meant to start work today.’

He looked at me with what I took to be a mixture of sympathy and amusement.

‘God help you,’ he said. It was not the most auspicious start to the day!

Posted in Edinburgh, First day, November, Postman, Scottish Borders, Starting work, Winter, workplace | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The smell of nature

There is something very evocative about this time of year when autumn is deep with falling leaves and skeins of geese draw great Vees across the greying skies. It is a time of reflection and peace, with cool air and the beginning of these deep orange dawns that bring so much to the land.

First there is the dense darkness, so deep that it could be possible to slice it into chunks and hold it in your hands. Then comes that band of silver, the weather-gleam that lights the eastern horizon and gradually, inexorably expands to highlight the stark trees on the ridges. You watch, unable to tear your eyes away from the wondrous beauty of the morning as the colours change: amber-orange deepening to red in the centre and lightening to faint shades of pink as the sun struggles through the inevitable clouds.

The trees are highlighted, slowly, stark branches groping skyward like skeletal fingers grasping for the Love of God. There are birds, bright sounds piping in ones and twos as they wake in their eternal search for food.

The day begins; the wind sweeps in from the west, damply cold, friendly as it sweeps clean the remaining leaves from branches tired of holding their summer weight. More clouds, pregnant with rain, slither across a ragged sky, unleash their burden on damp ground, refreshing the soil, swelling the burns, the streams, the rivers so they gush across the country, brown with soil, interesting with nature’s debris, roaring around rocks, chortling over inclines, lapping at still-verdant banks.

The human world awakes with the probing searchlight beams of car lights on narrow roads, the pin-bright squares of cottage windows in the distance, the murmur of a passing voice.

Over and above all is the scent of damp earth. Autumn is that smell. It is always there supporting all else. We are unaware of it; we accept it; we live in it. Nature in its best sense; life.

We go to work. Nature continues. When all work is done and we are gone nothing will have changed; we will be forgotten but the wind will still drag the clouds across a grey sky, the trees will still shed their cover, the grass will still whisper its secrets to ears that are too busy to listen.

Stop a second and take the time to smell and touch and see and hear. Experience the reality beyond technological chatter: let Peace enter your soul.

Posted in life, nature, scents, geese, autumn, dawn | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Poverty and foodbanks

Last night my wife and I watched a programme about the Dundee Food bank. This is where the public donates food to a central point and volunteers distribute it to people who otherwise would starve. Now a reminder here: this is 2015, the 21st century in one of the richest countries in the world. Well, rich in money perhaps, but if a government, any government, of any colour or hue, left right or centre, allows its own people to live on the edge of starvation while it squanders money on pointless image-conscious nonsense, then that government and by association, that country, is poor indeed. Poor in humanity, poor in morals, poor in anything that counts.

This country – and in this case I mean the U.K and not Scotland – spends billions on keeping the Trident nuclear deterrent. Oh joy: we have the ability to kill countless millions of people that we have never seen and probably never will see, people very much like us who only want to live their lives and raise their families. People whose governments are probably equally keen to spend their billions on means of destroying us.

Great: that really makes sense.

Is it not time that the world’s politicians grew up and stopped using playground bullying tactics to resolve disputes? The vast, vast majority of people in this world do not want war, do not want to kill anybody, do not want to launch a nuclear strike on anybody of any colour, creed, race, religion or anything else. Most people, bereft of insular political or religious dogma, will get along just fine, thank you very much. Yes, there will be a tiny minority of crazies who want to cause trouble but surely they can be ignored or squashed by the vast majority, and it is a vast majority, of decent people.

Most people are all right, really. Yes there are problems but everybody has them. Surely rather than exaggerate the differences we should gather together and celebrate what makes us similar? Our common humanity – our people-hood. Us.

Or would that kill the arms industry and deprive the few war-hawks of their privileged position of power and authority that WE allow them to assume?

That programme last night featured one man who had lost his job through ill-health, another who had been made redundant, a drug addict who was trying to reform and a mother with a family. Real, ordinary people down on their luck: it could be anybody, you, me or the folk next door.

In 2015 have we not learned that people are more important than big guns? Have we learned nothing from history?

Posted in arms industry, foodbanks, history, humanity, life, nuclear war, People, politics, poverty | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

He Died for Freedom and Honour

One hundred years ago today, the Battle of Loos was raging in France. This was the biggest British battle of the so-called Western Front in 1915 and, like so many battles of the First World War, there were horrendous casualties.

The British commander, Field Marshall French, did not believe it was the correct place to advance but was overruled by his French allies, whose attack the British were supporting and by Herbert Kitchener, the British Secretary of State for War. To cut a long tragedy short, British organisation was poor, British equipment was faulty and only the bravery of the front line soldier allowed any sort of credit to be gained from the mass slaughter. They died when the British gas blew back on the British soldiers or when they marched in broad daylight across open fields against un-cut German wire protected by massed German machine guns.

Scotland, of course, played her disproportional part. There were an estimated thirty-odd thousand Scottish soldiers with over seven thousand killed. In the fighting of the 26th September alone, the attacking British had over eight thousand casualties out of ten thousand men in only four hours. The Fourth Battalion of the Black Watch, Dundee’s Own territorial regiment, lost over two hundred men killed out of four hundred and all their officers except one. It was said that every street in the city suffered loss which is why on the anniversary of the battle,  a beacon is lit on top of Dundee Law in commemoration: not in celebration of glorious victory, but as a reminder of tragedy.

What was the gain? A few hundred square yards of grimy land and the village of Loos-en-Gohelle. The families of the men who died may have been consoled by the British government’s gift to them of a Death Penny that they could display to prove the bravery of their sons, brothers, fathers or uncles. These Death Pennies, a six inch circle of bronze for the rankers, silver for the officers, were fairly common when I was growing up in the 1960s. I remember visiting an elderly lady who had eight of them embedded on her mantle-piece. Eight circles of bronze to commemorate six of her brothers, her father and her fiancé: all killed in the slaughter that was the War to End Wars. She never married again and died alone and in poverty, sitting in a one-roomed dingy basement flat in Edinburgh, one of the forgotten and unheeded casualties.

As I write this, I have a Death Penny in my hand. It was issued to my paternal grand-mother as compensation for the loss of her first husband. He was Robert McCrindle Manson and he died during the German offensive of March 1918 that I wrote about in my Last Train to Waverley. The penny has an image of Britannia and a lion, plus a couple of dolphins and is surrounded by the words:

He Died For Freedom and Honour.

Did he?

My grand-mother was fortunate in some ways. She married again, became a district nurse and brought up a family. Others were not so lucky.

Memories of that most bloody of wars are still vivid: the images haunt the collective memory of the nations that were most involved. Scotland lost around 150,000 dead out of a population of five million. Compare that to the USA’s loss of 59,000 out of two hundred and fifty million in the Vietnam War, a conflict that lasted over twice as long.

Why did it happen? Why did Europe, at the height of her prestige and influence, tear herself apart in such a crazed fashion? I am well aware of the supposed reasons, the political and imperial rivalries and alliances, but could there have been another, less rational, more spiritual reason? A force of Evil that controls the rational minds of humanity from time to time? That would explain the idiocy that led to over ten million deaths over four years, or the sheer wickedness of Nazi Germany and Stalin’s USSR. It may also explain the monstrosity of ISIS, or IS or Dash or whatever name can be given to the savages that are presently causing such misery in the Middle East.

Now, on a brighter note: the slaughter of the First World War gave rise to the League of Nations and a desire to stop all further wars. The idea was good but the administration flawed. The Second World War gave rise to the United Nations and the Common Market: there have been no major European Wars since 1945.

So even the worst of wars can contain a seed of Good. The world must strive to ensure that the present calamity in the Middle East does not escalate into something global and uncontrollable. The European Union must continue: the memory of Loos should be a reminder of a possible and all-too-frequent alternative. Robert McCrindle Manson and the other ten million like him, of whatever name and race and nation, must be remembered so they did indeed die for Freedom and Honour. The freedom to live in peace and the honour of a world where war is not even an option.

Please God that the Evil that is creating such horror is vanquished by the Good that created the League of Nations, the United Nations and the idea behind the Common Market. Dialogue is always better than demented slaughter. It may be necessary to take direct action to end IS, but hopefully a long term solution can bring peace to that unhappy region as it has brought peace to Europe for the past seventy years.

God bless


Posted in Scotland, War, Middle East, freedom, Dundee, 1915, Loos, First World War, U.N., League of Nations, ISIS, Death Penny, European Union, Black Watch, Nazi Germany, Good, Evil, Diplomacy | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Packet of Liverpool

This time yesterday I was sitting beside the Beatles Museum, looking over at the Ferry across the Mersey and within a shadow’s fall of the Liver Building. It was all so Liverpool: the essence of that bustling, vibrant and very human city that Margaret Thatcher was once prepared to consign to the dustbin.

Well Maggie, May you weep as you see what this great city is capable of. This was one of the greatest port cities of the world, where emigrants flocked to cross to the New World and immigrants arrived from Ireland, looking for opportunities in a new city and new nation. It was home to dozens of shipping lines, hundreds of ship masters and thousands of seamen of all colours and hues: all belonged and al played their part. The re-developed Waterfront spreads across where the complex dock system once played host to ships that sailed around the globe. This was home to Greenlandmen who braved the Arctic to bring back whales, slavers who sailed to West Africa, traders to and from all corners of the world, seamen such as James ‘bully’ Forbes, master of Marco Polo, the ‘fastest ship in the world,’ Captain Johnny Walker who was the scourge of the U-boats during the Second World War, and the infamous Packet Rats, the incredibly tough seamen who manned the packet ships that crossed and re-crossed the Atlantic between Liverpool, Boston and New York to a regular time table whatever weather the Atlantic could throw at them.

Of course, as a port city, Liverpool also attracted the less savoury characters. There were thieves that targeted the ships and cargoes, crimps who waylaid the seamen and robbed them blind, murderers like the chilling Black Widows, gangs of teenage thugs such as the High Rip, and prostitutes such as Maggie May (recognise the name) who would befriend young seamen and leave them naked and robbed in some stinking court. It was this sordid reality of life in any dock side that brought me to Liverpool, for I was talking at the truly superb Maritime Museum there, courtesy of Dr Claire Jones of Liverpool University’s programme of Continuing Education.

I do have a family connection as my grandmother was born and raised in Toxteth Park, my great grandfather was a Liverpool policeman and my dad sailed from the port on Atlantic convoys during the Second World War. So it was not long before I felt quite at home. In saying that, it would not be hard for anybody to feel at home in Liverpool: it is that kind of welcoming place.

Now the docksides, once the work place of seamen and dockers and the haunt of predators, are an amazing place of hotels and museums, restaurants and cafes, memorials and barges, Mersey-views and places to just sit and me. Liverpool, a city once discarded by others, was never rejected by its own people. Liverpool has come to terms with the sordid parts of its past in the Museum of Slavery, an immensely moving experience, and still lauds its famous sons and daughters. The city has re-invented itself. I am immensely proud that part of my blood belongs there: it is a city of music, passion and a history that it displays, warts and all.

Here’s to you, Liverpool!

Posted in crime, murder, history, Liverpool, Shipping, the beatles, prostitution, museums, ferry across the mersey, re-development, slavery, gangs | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment