Here and There – Scotland

It is hard to explain why I love Scotland.  I don’t have any known Scottish ancestry.  I lived there for five years, always aware I was an outsider, and yet during that time it exercised some kind of hold over me which I have never been able to banish.  It would be easy to say that it was the scenery, the mountains, the lochs, the coastline, that captured my feelings.  It wouldn’t be wholly true.  There are many spectacular parts to the country, but no more spectacular than other places.  Nearby Wales is just as stunning.  The people, the wildlife, the whisky?  No, none of those things, and too much whisky over three days put me off that for life!  The history?  That might be part of it.  Above all, I think it might be the sense that Scotland remains wild and untamed in some ways and will always be so.  Perhaps.

The decision to live in Scotland was almost serendipitous.  I was invited to apply to join a university research centre, and the invitation came at a time when I knew I was at a ‘tipping point’ (I do dislike that phrase), as I would either commit to where I had been working for eight years, or I would make a break, and do something new.  I wasn’t to know it then, but the lure of ‘something new’ was to prove a dynamic in my life from that time on:  itchy feet, a desire to travel, and a fascination with the next ‘new thing’?  Whatever it was, I made the move, and I have moved several times since then, not just physically, but in terms of activities, employment, interests and passions.

Moving to Scotland marked another kind of change in my life.  Going to Edinburgh in 1971 was the moment I became a ‘man of property’.  Well, to be more accurate, this was the time when, for the first time, I owned a tiny part of a house, although the rest remained securely in the hands of the bank.  I had my first mortgage and the sense, as my wife, three children and I moved into our house, that I was growing up!  Isn’t that what growing up means?  Children and debt?  If I make fun of it now, at the time it was a serious change in my life.

Our home was in Loanstone, a tiny hamlet just to the east of Penicuik, a dormitory town south of Edinburgh.   I had travelled up to Edinburgh before the rest of the family to see if I could find somewhere for us to live.  At first, I looked at spacious Edinburgh apartments, but eventually I bought Grey Gables, a detached house set in the hills above Auchendinny, in Midlothian, in August 1971.  A memorable purchase for £7,000:  once we moved in, I discovered the house was riddled with woodworm, and we had to replace a major part of the internal support for the roof.  We also put in heating, removed a wall downstairs (about which I worried for the next few years, not convinced the I-beam was strong enough or properly located), and reconfigured a lot of the upstairs too.  On the positive side, the house was from the early 18th Century, and had a left-handed circular stone staircase on the outside to get take you up to the second floor.

The village of Loanstone comprised exactly 13 houses, of which ten were semi-detached homes built by the Penicuik Council and rented to locals.  We were the first people to move into the village from outside the area, and certainly there had never been a Sassenach in the village before (a Sassenach is a person of English background, or sometimes the term refers to a ‘lowland Scot’:  yes, it is a term of abuse!).  For the five years we lived there, neither my partner nor I nor any of the children ever went into any of the council homes; however, the other families’ children could come over to our house.  A long, bad history surrounded us.

Our immediate neighbour’s cottage leaned up against our house.  Jimmy lived alone, and he and I interacted just twice.  On the first occasion, soon after we moved in, he invited me down to the local pub, where we drank beer (which I disliked then, and still do today), each glass of beer followed by a whisky chaser.  I never went with him again.  Perhaps I was supposed to invite him the next time, but I don’t think so.  The night before we left, prior to setting off for Adelaide, he invited me, just me, around to his cottage for a drink.  It was dark, and he hustled me inside.  A glass of whisky, “Cheers” and that was it; I suspect he had always wanted to be a friend but feared the attitudes of his neighbours.

The people at Loanstone were in strong contrast to Willie Brown and his family.  The Browns ran Mount Lothian farm, located at the top of the hill close to Howgate village.  Our children sometimes went up there after school or at the weekends, taking hayrides, playing with livestock, and almost certainly disturbing the work of the farm.  Willie Brown junior was as cheeky and naughty as my son, and they became firm friends while we were in Scotland, as did my daughters with several of their other children.  However, there were tensions for all of us:  our family never escaped being seen as outsiders, and the Scots in the border country have a particular dislike from anyone down south.

Despite the complications of social relations, we lived in a lovely spot.  The house looked out towards the valley and Penicuik.  We were part of the way up Mount Lothian.  Did I say lovely?  It could be cold, windy, and we were snowed in on a couple of occasions.  Just up the road (well, down, first, through Auchendinny), Edinburgh was, and still is, a great city.  It has an annual arts festival, accompanied by the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, which might be the largest such festival anywhere in the world.  It was and is, chaotic, fun, and quite anarchic.  You can catch top theatrical companies alongside people acting for the first time, leading musicians, together with experimental music makers of every kind.  There are exciting visual arts displays.  In fact, for the duration of the festival it is almost impossible to walk for a couple of minutes without bumping into three or four promising events.  In 2015, as an example, the main and fringe festivals ran for 25 days in August: I quote “The Edinburgh Festival Fringe is the world’s largest arts festival, which in 2015, spanned 25 days and featured 50,459 performances of 3,314 shows in 313 venues”.  It’s big and it’s worth trying to attend at least once in your life.  We went to four festivals in our time there!

Living out in the country meant that travel was an issue.  The three children went to and from school by bus.  The school, at Howgate, was a typical one-teacher rural school: thirty students aged between four and fourteen.  While we were there an assistant teacher joined to become the second member of staff at Howgate Primary and remained there for most of the time we lived in Loanstone.  The work was allocated by the main teacher, whose principal task was looking after the older students; those students, in turn, had to teach the younger students.  When the assistant teacher joined, little changed.  Now both teachers did some of the work, but the older students still were expected to spend time teaching the younger ones.  The teaching methods were unusual, to say the least:  mathematics was taught practically, using Dolly Mixture (for the uninitiated, this is a confectionary comprising many tiny soft sweets).  The children were allocated a few sweets to carry out calculations; some, like my son, could get confused, accidentally eating their quota in advance of any mathematical transactions!

The very first day of school was a good guide to how the children would survive over the next four years.  When they came back on the school bus, we discovered our eldest daughter had managed by becoming even more English in her speech (and by this means, eventually able to exercise her authority over those around her).  Our son became a good Scot in one day, with a lovely broad Midlothian accent.  Our other daughter found it harder to deal with the transition.  Having spoken in her own way with her sister in her first few years, the Scottish pronunciation gave her even more challenges to overcome, and it took her a couple of years to master clear (Oxford English?) articulation.  Each different but, almost as if it were required, all the children were bullied in different ways at school.

I think it was during the first year that our eldest daughter came home one afternoon, bursting to tell us about a discussion in the school that day.  I can’t remember why, but the teacher was talking about travel, and my straightforward and helpful child explained that she had been to France, Scandinavia, and I forget where else.  Apparently, there was complete quiet among the assembled students.  My daughter, undeterred, asked how many students had been overseas (other than herself, and her two siblings)?  No hands went up.  How many had been to England?  No hands went up.  How many had been to the seaside (there are several stunning beaches within 15 miles of Edinburgh, and maybe 20 miles away from Howgate)?  A few hands went up.  How many had been to Edinburgh, about 8 miles away?  Less than half the class.  She was stunned, and so was I.

There were many highlights during our time in Scotland, and some situations that required a little learning.  Once more in her life, our eldest daughter agitated for a pet, and I caved in.  I took her to a pet-shop on the Scotsman’s Steps in Edinburgh, and there we purchased a hamster, a cage (as approved by the pet-shop owner), with a running wheel, food and floor covering.  By the end of the day, the hamster was running happily on its wheel.  With the hamster’s cage in her room, my daughter was very happy.  The next morning? The next morning, we could hear screams from her room:  the hamster had died!  I promised to bury it (in fact I threw it in the garbage bin, quickly covering the body with the hot ash from the heating system so she wouldn’t see it) and set off for Edinburgh.  After some discussion, I got a replacement!  By the evening, all peace was restored; only to be shattered by screams again the next morning.  What to do?  Same body disposal plan, and back to the pet-shop.

By now, the pet shop owner was less than happy, and I was cross examined on the cage, the food, everything, despite my reminding him that everything we had was what he had provided.  With considerable reluctance, he handed over hamster number three.  The cycle repeated, and on the following morning we had another dead hamster.  This was bizarre.  When we walked in the pet-shop, the owner gave us a hamster without saying a word.  He just wanted us out of the shop!!  Of course, you will not be surprised to learn that hamster number four was dead the next morning.  But by now I had become suspicious (yes, I can be slow at times!).  Instead of garbage disposal, I put the hamster’s body on a blanket, leaving it on top of the house heating unit.  Half an hour later, it stirred.  The previous three hamsters hadn’t died, they were hibernating, and I had killed each one with hot ash.  Not my finest hour, and my daughter now wanted me to dig up the previous three; I had to explain it was too late!!  What can I add:  life in Scotland was a ‘learning experience’.

Like any part of the world, we soon learnt that life in Scotland had the same variations, distinctions and class-conscious behaviour as anywhere else.  Take morning tea.  In Glasgow, an invitation to visit around 11 am would result in being offered tea and cakes.  In Aberdeen, the same, although they would express disappointment we couldn’t stay for lunch and some Arbroath ‘smokies’, (those ‘smokies’ were herring smoked over smouldering pine and were delicious).  But if you arrived at the same time to visit people in Morningside , or another of the posher parts of Edinburgh at 11 am, you would be greeted by a slight note of sadness:  “So sorry, but we’ve just finished morning tea”!!  We quickly learned our place in Aberdeen, Edinburgh or Glasgow.

In 1973, I carried out a consulting project for the Woold Jute and Flax Industry Training Board.  With my wife I went to several woollen mills, including the famous J & J Crombie company, based at the Grandholm Mill, in the northern part of Aberdeen.  Crombie began business in 1805, and the ‘new’ mill, around 100 years old, was dark, largely bult from granite blocks, but the forbidding exterior was misleading.  This was the home of the famous Crombie heavy wool and cashmere overcoat:  famous, as it was worn by Mikhail Gorbachev, Winston Churchill, John F Kennedy, Cary Grant and King George VI, quite apart from lesser-known mortals.  Not a bad list of customers!

However, the real high spot in this project was to come much later, having worked our way through mills in Inverurie, Banff, Elgin and Inverness, when we arrived in Brora.  Brora is in Sutherland, and is well to the north in Scotland, some 100 miles below the northernmost tip at John O’Groats.  Hunters of Brora was another mill famous for its coats (yes, the Prince of Wales had been shopping there, too), and it had been run by the family for nearly 100 years.  Hunters was renowned for its upmarket tweeds and fabrics and had many wealthy customers.  It still used traditional manufacturing, with wool from the ‘Highlands and Islands’, especially Shetland.  In I went with my wife, ready to ask questions about training issues.  Forgive me if you’ve heard this part of the story before.

The entrance lobby was small, and once we were inside, the owner was summoned to meet us.  He came in wearing the most amazing bright yellow and brown tweed outfit I had ever seen.  I felt the need for sunglasses.  He took one look at my wife, and then shouted for the rest of the staff to come into the room.  “Stand on the chair”, he demanded.  She did! “See”, he said to the dozen or so staff, “See, that’s it.  That is the mini skirt.  That is what is going to ruin our business!”

Well, the business did collapse in 2003, but not because of the miniskirt.  New directors opened a new plant in 1999 allowing it to diversify into blending wools with other natural fibres such as silk, mohair and linen.  However, attempts to move away from its woollen mill image and develop a new look with new materials did not succeed.  They weren’t the only mill to face a challenge.  After surviving for more than 200 years, Crombie ceased trading at the start of the pandemic, in May 2020,  suspending operations until further notice.  However, it may yet live on, as in 2022 a new company, Crombie 1805, has now acquired the business and all the trademarks of the former company.

Scotland has a long, colourful and well-known history.  Australia’s indigenous people have been in the country for around 50,000 years, but we know very little about their past, whereas much is known about a couple of thousand years of recent Scottish history, the basis of innumerable books and many imaginative films.  Here in the ACT we have a branch of the Australian Board of Highland Dancing, and there are competitions and demonstrations, complete with kilts, argyles and sporrans!  In a way that is somewhat hard to understand, people without any demonstrable Scottish ancestry enthusiastically participate in the Highland Fling, the Sword Dance, the Seann Triubhas and the Strathspey & Reel, and sometimes in the Pas de Basques and the Hullachan (this latter now an Irish dancing shoe).

Is this because many Australians feel some affinity with a country and a culture on the other side of the world, but find it hard to align with a much older culture on their doorstep?  There is little romantic value in claiming English ancestry in Australia, and suspicion of those with an Irish background.  But Scottish or Welsh, they’re rather more exotic, with weird music, crazy sports, and fearsome drinking reputations.  Perhaps I should push my Scottish links?