A RETURN TO ELYSIUM: A Monologue
By Dave Patton
Living here in the countryside of Michigan these last few years, I could be mistaken for being confused sometimes that I’m back to my childhood growing up in Scotland.
I don’t intend this short intro to be a hard luck, ‘oh poor me’ description of my life back then. I had a happy childhood growing up in inner-city Glasgow, plenty friends, and adventures.
It is only now, looking back through the narrow end of an increasingly lengthening telescope to my early childhood that I realise that mostly, it was tough.
I won’t dwell on that, as my tale is of happier times, but like working families the length and breadth of Britain in the post war years, everything was in short supply. Food was still rationed, money was tight, and our parents still bore the scars of that conflict.
In my Dad’s case, as one of the rear-guard heroes for the Dunkirk escape, he was subsequently captured from the beaches of St, Valerie, he suffered five years as a POW of the Nazis and his scars were both physical and mental. So I begin this little tale with those comments in an attempt to set the following in context.
My Grandparents on my Mum’s side had somehow acquired the rights to an old croft in the rolling, heather covered hills above Loch Fyne on Scotland’s ruggedly beautiful west coast. It was just a wee stone built ‘But and Ben’ dwarfed the huge cattle byre tacked on to the gable.
No running water, no electricity, no toilet.
It also didn’t have sooty air, rats in the back courts, twelve families stacked in tenements with four toilets for all to share…I could go on, but you get the picture.
But… it did have clean air, open spaces, grass, and a huge sky!
A bus down to the River Clyde, which bisects Glasgow, an early morning sail from the dockside on a paddle steamer, and we’d steam away downriver to the endless sea Lochs and ports of the West coast to our eventual destination.
A small wooden pier reached out into the loch from the centre of the wee town which clung between hills and shore. A scattering of whitewashed houses, a cluster of shops… drysalters, ironmongers, shipwrights, coal merchants and grocers, serviced the crofters and farmers for miles around, and even then it wasn’t unusual to see a matching pair of huge Clydesdales hitched to a large wagon being loaded with all sorts of goods.
From there we followed a cattle trail up a seemingly endless hill, where, at the rise, we had our first glimpse of the our wee But and Ben cottage set in a hollow protected from the Atlantic gales by a stand of ancient Scots pine.
This then, was our escape from the madness, the grime, the greyness of the city. For us kids, and I’m sure for our parents, this was indeed a form of paradise. Fresh air away from Glasgow’s eternal smogs. Great open spaces for us kids to roam and explore, no traffic and no neighbours for miles. Great Red Deer on the hills, rabbits, eagles, fish in the loch and not a rat in sight.
A But and Ben in Scotland is just a simple two-room house, and this one was small by any standards! The Ben was the back room, and from memory, was furnished with wall-to-wall beds!
The But was the front room that served as the kitchen, sitting room, and anything else the Ben didn’t accommodate. It also had a long bench along one wall, which to us, miraculously converted to yet another bed!
Why so many beds you may ask?
Well, my great grandparents had been prodigious ‘breeders,’ and as a consequence, I grew up with aunts, uncles, and cousins by the bucketful. Various half aunts, third-removed relatives, family friends etc., ensured a never-ending drift of comings and goings, hellos and goodbyes, with each blast from the distant Paddler’s foghorn down at the pier signalling new excitement mixed with sadness at those arriving and leaving.
Through all of this seeming mayhem, my Granny and Grandad, my Mum, wee brother and I were the constant. Others would come and go, my Dad arriving each Friday evening and leaving on the last ferry on the Sunday to return to work in the bowels of yet another ship on the slipways of Glasgow’s shipyards.
I never did find out why we had this favoured status while others were allocated a set number of days, marked on the calendar and kept up to date meticulously by Granny! We were pretty much the gatekeepers of our wee kingdom, and I suspect that Mum was the apple of Grandad’s eye.
A wee burn ran along by the back of the house and from here we drew our water in large, galvanised buckets and played endlessly in its cold peaty water. It was where we learned to swim, in those dark waters of the forbidden “Devil’s pool.”
Every evening, when Dad was there, he would light the wood burner stove where mum would cook our meal. Dad would then boil the great cauldron of water and us kids would squirm and elbow our way to get close to the hearth before being scrubbed with carbolic soap and packed off to bed.
On weekends, we would lie awake to the sounds from beyond the curtain that served as a door and separated the two rooms. News from home would be shared by recent arrivals, a precious newspaper was divided up so that all had a page to read. Family news, gossip, football scores and scandals would be retold and gnawed over like an old toothless dog with a bone and would inevitably be interspersed with comments and arguments growing louder and more garrulous as the drink took its effect.
Finally, having exhausted themselves of conversation, arguments and debate, my Uncle George would be ‘persuaded’ to unpack his accordion and ‘give us a wee tune.’ His friend Jean played fiddle, and there was wee Jimmy who would play spoons. I think he was a farmhand, but back then, all were welcome, and the Poteen he’d brought in lemonade bottles, quickly broke down any barriers!
As they moved outside to sing and dance on our scruffy lawn, those tunes, the jigs and reels, waltzes, and songs, grew softer as the evening wore on and some of the more responsible adults would ‘Shush’ the company lest they ‘Wake the waens ben the hoose!’
They needn’t have been so kindly, for beyond the heavy curtain, we had invariably fallen into deep sleep brought on by endless running, jumping, climbing, whether in rain or shine in the fresh air.
Oh, there’d be the odd raised voice or two, but any real trouble was quickly overcome by our matriarch, my formidable Granny Anderson. She was a big woman, of Highland stock, and would lapse to her native Gaelic for song and for putting the unruly to order!
I never had the Gaelic, but I learned a few curse words from overhearing her putting the world to rights or when she would curse the Germans for mistreating Dad, her firstborn.
Her husband, my Granda, or ‘Big Sanny’ as he was known, was a veteran of the war to end all wars, or so the world thought until the rise of the Nazis meant that once more the world was in turmoil, and it was Dad’s turn. Granda had suffered in the mud filled trenches through the hell of Passchendaele, been gassed there and invalided out. His scarred lungs couldn’t take Glasgow’s endless smogs and the doctors told him he’d have to go into a veteran’s hospital in the countryside. Well, those doctors reckoned without my Granny Anderson! No one was going to be packing her man off to die somewhere out of sight of family and friends.
So it was that they came to live in that wee place in the green hills of Argyle until age made that impossible and their remaining years were spent with us in Glasgow’s leafy suburbs.
I think of him often, that fine big man, his coughing fits, bloodstained hankies and red face as he fought for breath, aye, even in the pure air of the Highlands.
‘Just clearing my tubes,’ he’d say to our wee worried faces. ‘A grand way it is indeed to get all this lovely fresh air into these old lungs of mine, a grand way indeed it is! Try it…come on yous lot, try it!’
And so, we would gather round him and heave and cough into our scraps of old cloth until my Granny scolded him and shooed us away.
I see him even now these many years since, sitting on his great chair Dad and uncle George had carved for him from the remains of a huge storm-felled tree which only narrowly missed the house. Sitting there, propped up on a pile of gaudy cushions, sometimes with his old blanket made from his regimental kilt over his shoulders, he sat like a great Eastern Potentate. He’d have his red leather-bound ledger, a pen, and a bottle of Blue-Black ink on an old tree stump that served as footstool and table. His enormous brass bound telescope on its tripod was focussed on the distant river Clyde.
Back then, Glasgow was one of Britain’s major seaports on the west coast. Paddle steamers would ship folk from Glasgow to all over the West coast and the far-flung Hebrides islands. Cargoes would come and go to all four corners of the vast British empire, whilst Warships still patrolled our seaways, and new ships were launched on a regular basis from the numerous shipyards further up the river Clyde.
There were the ubiquitous Puffers, small steam driven cargo vessels, the lifeblood of the Highlands and Islands before proper roads and trucks took over. These wee boats, he knew by name. Some, he even knew their Captains, having come from the same Hebridean Islands as himself.
He’d regale us with commentary on all which passed through his eyeglass.
‘There’s Aonghus Mór out there on the “Pibroch,” and her making good steam she is… against a heavy sea too! Hmm, load of cut timbers on her deck, so probably coal in the hold for ballast to balance her I’m thinking…aye, aye, and winter’s coming, so it’ll be coal in her hold right enough.’
There he would sit, meticulously recording details of the vast and varied armadas filling the sea lanes.
Ship’s names and their shipping lines.
Time of day and tides.
Inbound or outward to the ocean and off to some far-off destination.
‘Where is that one going Grandad,’ we’d ask.
‘Oh, look now see, she’s very low in the water so she is, and she has deck cargo too. So she’s bound for far, far away from the looks of her I’m thinking. Aye, far, far away, maybe Australia, or America. Timbuctoo, Patagonia or even India.’
We were in awe and could only wonder at how he knew of all those fabulous places. It was, of course, educated guesswork, but when he told us his thoughts, we were spellbound, for we were sitting as far away from home as we’d ever been and thoughts of those big ships going to places even further afield where lions and tigers, cowboys and Indians lived held us spellbound and filled our imaginations.
Perhaps you can imagine then my shock and delight these many years later when I opened a parcel from Australia with a name I didn’t recognise, for in that parcel was Granda’s old ledger!
Back in the 1960s, the Australian government was desperate for tradesmen, nurses, teachers etc, so they came up with the “Ten Pound Poms” scheme. This meant that for ten pounds for each adult, if you had a suitable skill, they would take anyone with a clean criminal record…well, Australia had enough ex-cons from Britain!
I remember my Mum being heartbroken when my Aunt Peggy told her that they’d applied to go. She was my Mum’s only sister and they were so very close. Every Saturday we’d walk down the main road to Aunt Peggy’s, past the toy shops, bakers, fishmongers, cobblers, and anything else you could imagine where people did their shopping before the monstrous shopping malls put an end to having your grocers next door to the tenement where you lived.
We’d take the tram into town with Peggy and my cousins and have high tea at one of the large department stores; we felt real posh and were even allowed to pick a cake each from the cake stand!
It seems so unreal now with Zoom, Facetime or whatever else allows us to be virtually united with distant family and friends. But an airmail letter took a week to get there, a phone call had to be booked in advance from a shop in town and the air fare to Oz was unthinkable. Mum knew, that in all likelihood, she’d never see her dear sister again.
Peggy had a son and a daughter, my dear cousins, closest relatives and partners in our many adventures. The parcel was from Peggy’s granddaughter who’d found it while clearing out a storeroom at her mum’s old house. I am the last of that generation and she thought it appropriate that I should have it!
I sat for hours reading my Grandad’s beautiful Blue-black ink, copperplate handwriting, notating all that he saw on the river. Names of ships long since gone to the breaker’s yards, names of destinations to countries that either no longer exist or have changed names since then.
I see him now as he sat recording a changing world, and I wonder, as he watched warships steam away, if he saw his war as many now do, not as some great crusade, but as a needless, avoidable slaughter as the world’s politicians and industrialists fought to control and expand their empires and killed millions and ruined men like Grandad in the process.
I mentioned my partners in my many adventures as we roamed the area around the house, never too far away, for Granny’s tales of the many creatures who snatched away naughty boys and girls who strayed, kept us in check…mostly. The dark pool below the waterfall held the much-feared Kelpies, huge water horses, bigger even than the local Clydesdales. Shapeshifters they were, she’d told us. Creatures of magic who enticed you to ride on their broad back and into the loch and away with you to the dark depths and never more to be seen.
She had a particular hatred for Bogles. “Sleekit” she called them, ‘Sneaky, sleekit wee beasties’ she told us, they roamed the hills at will and were nigh on invisible, thanks to being so small and having the ‘gift’ and who liked nothing better than freshly roasted children for supper. So you can perhaps understand our panic when my wee brother ‘turned up missing’ as we traced back from an adventure where we had watched the sheep being dipped and clipped at the farmer’s yard. We were almost home when Joyce, being the eldest and therefore our rear-guard and shepherd, shouted at us to stop, except she screamed it. We froze as she blurted out that the Bogles had my wee brother! One minute he was just beside her, next he was gone! Disappeared.
Bogled, she assured us between sobs and gulping breaths.
‘He’s been disappeared…Bogles!’
Young Kirsty bleated that she was sure one of the farmer’s big plough horses was looking strangely at us so maybe it was the Kelpies.
George, who was a few years older, quickly took charge, picked up a large stick and led us off back the way we came to hunt down the Bogles and rescue him. I’m certain I wasn’t the only one thinking the Bogles were welcome to him as we reluctantly followed him close by. Back we went, trembling at what we’d find…or perhaps not find. Then we all heard it, the Bogle noise…
George recognised it howling because he’d heard them outside the window one night when he was sure that they were on a hunt for a juicy boy to cook and eat. These many years later, I suspect that the nocturnal noises were nothing more than my uncle Iain and the Bonny Jean snatching a juicy moment of rare privacy.
When we saw the Bogle running at us howling, we turned and were running off when George stopped us in our tracks. We realised that the Bogle was my missing wee brother, covered from head to foot in cow pat! As the tale unfolded, it appears that the old golf club he always carried to beat off bogles with, had been the perfect tool for smashing fresh cow pats…until he fell headfirst onto a rather large one.
Such were the innocent times we had on those heather-clad hills so far away from the grime and filth of the city where even fresh cow pats held an attraction.
I went back to those hills, that dear green place a few years ago when my young brother had come over from Australia for a month and we were on a rediscovery jaunt with my grown daughters.
As we sat in the ruins of that wee house, we regaled my girls with our tales of adventure and misadventure, which somehow, the years had softened to comedy rather than terror.
Now, living in America, and just past my three score and ten, my accent and memory softened by the passing years, I suspect it will be only in my memory that I’ll ever see it again. Perhaps though, those green hills are best remembered from afar, be it in time or distance. And yet, even after all those many years when I visited with my brother and even with that old house now an Ivy-covered ruin, it felt like I was coming home… I was returning to Elysium.
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