There are probably no more than three big life changing events in anyone’s life. My first was the death of my mother, Fay, when I was just 4 and my sister 12. Do I remember her? Possibly, or is it the imprint on my mind of a few black and white photos of her that survived. I certainly remember our tenement flat at Goldenacre, Edinburgh, our neighbour Mrs Tannock whose door I was trained to knock if my mother needed the doctor, and the leather camels in the China cabinet that my father had brought back from his war years in Egypt.
After my mother’s death I was brought up by my maternal grandparents, James and Agnes Rutherford at 58 Hawthornvale on the edge of Newhaven, Edinburgh’s fishing village. The flat was three stories up in a sandstone tenement and I shared a room with my sister, Louise.
My memories are of a fairly happy childhood in a loving, somewhat old fashioned Presbyterian household - no ball games on a Sunday, no cinema visits, no playing cards, no alcohol except for very occasional medicinal purposes. We went to church twice on a Sunday. My grandfather was a joiner and limped badly from a leg wound received in the Great War. He was the Kirk Beadle and sometimes played the organ at the church service. He also had a concertina, a ukulele and a samurai sword (a war trophy). He would let me play with the first two but not the sword. I’m ashamed to admit that I sold the sword years later as an impoverished student trying to survive till the next student grant. The small box room doubled as his workshop and my toy store. Pride of place went to my model yacht which he had lovingly made for me. I have happy memories of going to Inverleith Park with him to sail it on the pond. My grandmother was kind, loving, but very protective and smothering. My sister probably was at an age where she suffered most as a result. I learned many years later that my grandmother had been a very bright young woman with potential for an academic career but had had to leave school and go into service. She came from the neighbouring village of Musselburgh.
Newhaven was a very close knit community still organised around the fishing industry - fishermen, fishwives, fish market. The houses with outside stairs were of the old Flemish style and all the women had Christian names that were male derivatives - Henrietta, Jamesina, Davidina, Williamina. Another custom was to add the wife’s maiden surname after her husband’s surname to help with identification. A large number of Newhaven families shared just a few surnames - Liston, Rutherford, Wilson, Noble, Lyle, Flucker. One stair in Hawthornvale had no fewer than six Wilsons for the postman to cope with. Harvest was a festival of the sea and pageants were regular events with the Queen arriving by boat in the harbour. The children would dress in wellies and sou’westers and the Fishwives Choir sing ‘Caller Herrin’. The Rechabites Friendly Society held sway providing an insurance scheme, savings club and promoting temperance. I grew up on a very healthy diet of fish, eggs, potatoes and rabbit (how did it all go wrong?) Food was from the market or the Co-op and my grandfather’s brother Henry, who was a baker, brought a box of cakes every Friday. Our one concession to modernity was the TV which grandad bought for the Coronation in 1953, selling his beloved Morris car to do it. The Coronation was the only occasion I ever remember having neighbours in the house. They crammed in as ours was the only television in the stair. Apart from that we kept ourselves to ourselves while observing neighbourly niceties. We didn’t have a lot in common with the neighbours. One was an ex footballer who was violent to his wife when drunk, the Knights were the only Catholics in the village - or so it seemed to us, the Cooks were strong Labour supporters. At that tender age it was impossible for me to work out who met with most disapproval from my grandparents.
I loved watching children’s television in the afternoons when I got home from school. My favourites were the cowboy programmes - the Lone Ranger, Hopalong Cassidy, the Cisco Kid and Roy Rogers. Roy Rogers, Dale Evans and Trigger came to Leith while I was at Primary, visiting Dunforth House nearby, a home for orphans who all attended Victoria Primary in Newhaven. When the TV programmes were over, out would come my cowboy outfit and the episodes would be rerun in every room of the house. In those days TV went off air after the children’s programmes and only came back on for a few hours in the evening. My grandfather would pronounce a verdict of ‘tripe’ and ‘rubbish’ on most of it. My first awareness of any social disadvantage was when schoolboy chat turned to the most popular programmes on the new ITV. The disadvantage of grandad getting that TV back in 1953 was that we could never afford to get a new one that could receive Scottish Television. I doubt if they would have approved anyway.
I attended Victoria Primary in Newhaven, the oldest school in Edinburgh, dating back to the 1840s after Queen Victoria’s visit to Leith. It’s still there today virtually unchanged. I remember one of the dares was to edge your way round the ledge which went round the octagonal lighthouse at the harbour. It was only a couple of feet wide with a sheer drop onto the rocks. I think I did it once but my memory may be playing tricks on me. I certainly was game for climbing the big rock outside the Peacock Hotel and then sliding down its face. The Peacock was managed by Hibs and Scotland goalkeeper, Tommy Younger and boasted a green piano.
Why is it we always remember our Primary School teachers. I remember Miss Gaines, Mrs Nisbet, Mrs Graham and a very eccentric Mr Glendinning. Many years later I discovered that he was an activist in the fringe nationalist group the Scottish Patriots. The Headmaster was a Mr McKenzie who was then replaced by a Mr Crawford who was also a poet. My lasting school memories include the annual school picnics at Gullane sands, playing the Emperor Gessler in a school production of William Tell and the Burns Federation poetry competitions. I had to learn and recite ‘Scots wha hae’ ( a real bloodthirsty dirge). Every moment not in the classroom was an opportunity to kick a ball or anything vaguely resembling a ball.
In spite of these genuinely happy memories, I would describe my years at Primary as time served as a prisoner to shyness, underconfidence and inhibition. I thought deeply about things, and convinced myself that I was the only one who did. I remember erecting milestones in my mind to mark out stages in my life. At 8 I wrote my first poem, The Daisy. At 10 I made a mental note that I was a ’believing Christian’. When I was 11, Buddy Holly was killed in a plane crash. This last milestone was just silly as the record books would always be able to verify this.
These were the best years of my relationship with my father from whom I became estranged in my teens. After my mother died, he went to live with his unmarried sisters and brother at Pilrig in Leith. Pilrig was the setting for the Balfours in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped. I spent many happy weekends, holidays and visits there being spoiled by my aunties. During these early years my father would come straight from his work at the Electricity Board to have his tea at my grandparents. We would then go to play putting or kick a ball about. Weekends would be watching Hibs at Easter Road, big team and reserves in turn week about. My dad, who had been an athlete in his youth, also liked taking me to athletic meetings at Meadowbank or Powderhall. During the summer holidays we would spend a week at Leven or Kinghorn in Fife, throwing pennies out of the train window for luck as we passed over the Forth Bridge (the only bridge at that time).
As my Primary School years drew to a close I was singled out as bright enough to sit the entrance exam for the prestigious Royal High School. In those pre comprehensive school years, secondaries were divided into junior and senior secondaries. You could stay on to do highers at senior secondaries. The top senior secondaries in the state system could also charge small fees and even have their own entrance exams. Between the posh state schools and the public schools like Fettes and Edinburgh Academy were to be found Merchant Company schools like George Watson’s, George Herriot’s and James Gillespie’s. My sister attended the local senior secondary, Trinity Academy which had a very good reputation, but for some reason I had failed to get into Trinity Primary which would have guaranteed me a place at secondary. When I sat the entrance exam for the Royal High I passed with flying colours winning a six year scholarship. My achievement was recognised with a half day holiday at Victoria Primary. This did more for my reputation with fellow pupils than all my strivings of the previous six years.
My childhood years seemed perfectly normal to me at the time. I was brought up in a loving home with no awareness of any emotional or financial deprivation. All was not as it seemed and I now realise just how much my grandparents shielded us from the harsh realities of life. I can only guess how hard it must have been for them to look after my sister and me in their latter years.
Passing that entrance exam for the Royal High School probably counts as my second great life changing event. It certainly marked the start of a very new chapter in my life.
(In case you are curious as to what my third life changing event could have been, it was meeting falling in love with, and marrying my wife, but that’s quite another story)