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Remembering Joe

March 22, 2018



When I was growing up in Scotland and then England, whenever I thought of Sag Harbor on Long Island I could only imagine  a blue aerogramme letter on the mantelpiece, the address almost indecipherable in the hurried scrawl. The writing was no better inside the letter – could someone’s address really be “My Blue Heaven, Garden St”?

My Uncle Frank wrote to his brother, my dad, Paul, every week – so there were lots of letters – but, back in the fifties, far fewer pictures. However, when pictures came, they usually featured my cousins – two pretty girls, with undeniable Irish American good looks, and their  brother – a sharp suited business type, who looked to me every inch an American. I suppose today’s generation might want to envisage the style of TV’s “Mad Men”.

I had actually met Marie when I was very young, and Eileen in the sixties when I was a teenager, when they had come on European tours – but their brother Joe’s European business had been with the military in post war Germany,  and I had only ever seen him through these pictures sent by his proud father.

So Joe was a cousin kind of “removed” to me as I grew up, partly because I had never met him, and partly because of his  movement round the US – taking him from “Repo Man” to Vice President at General Motors.

As I got older I eventually got to see Sag Harbor for myself and stay with Uncle Frank at Garden St and meet all the folks. Inevitably, I fell head over heels in love with the place, as well as the extended family and their friends.

But, because it’s the way that lives go, it wasn’t until Joe had retired back to Sag Harbor and after he’d lost both his son, Stephen, and his beloved wife, Claudia, that we finally got to meet.

I have a fairly limited family circle,  and my three American cousins have always been very important to me, so flying the Atlantic to meet Joe for the first time was kind of a big deal. In addition, Rosie and Patrick would be meeting that part of the family for the first time. It’s fair to say I had some nerves as we flew the Atlantic at Easter 2001.

Joe was to meet us at JFK, and we exited the Arrivals area looking for the sharp suited cousin I thought I knew well from decades of photographs. We never found him – instead, we found Joe McPartlin, about to become, for real, my “Cuz”.

We had been delayed in the baggage hall and only one guy was waiting. We looked at each other:



Before me was a very fit looking man dressed for going out on his boat, or playing golf, or clearing the yard! In an instant I realised I was meeting the real Joe rather than the corporate version.

We talked easily all the way out to Sag Harbor, a warmth was established immediately. As our dads had been so close, maybe this was something that had been handed down.

In many ways, we were different. For me, a beach is somewhere to walk thoughtfully or sit and read a book, for Joe it was a venue for sports and challenge. My house is overloaded with books, Joe’s garage is overloaded with adventure equipment. In retirement, I am quite happy to follow the route the day might take, Joe was an organiser and planner.

The beauty was – and all who loved him must have found this – because he made things happen, you inevitably enjoyed every minute in his company. The twinkle was never far from his eye – when he threw some corn at me before  a meal on his deck and attempted to show me how to “shuck”; when Patrick and I reduced him to tears of laughter as we attempted to throw an American football on the beach, and the great day when we went clamming – and Joe plucked the shells out of the water with the air of a magician, while we struggled to find a solitary sample.

Equally, to go out in the bay on his boat, his thoughtfulness in letting Patrick steer, the joy he showed out on the water, the ease of our conversation – all of this stored love and memories.

Family meals at his house were particularly special. He was a brilliant host, even taking care to ask in advance – what would you like to eat? The hospitality was easy and genuine and it was not difficult  to see it as descended from big family meals shared by our grandparents and our fathers in Buccleuch St in Edinburgh. This was the closest we would ever get to that, and I loved every minute sitting at the McPartlin table.

Inevitably at such occasions, our other great “difference” would be discussed. Politically, Joe and I were apparently miles apart. However, being Joe, for all his “liberal baiting” when we were around – a sport greatly employed against his niece, Kathleen, who also delighted in setting the hare running, behind Joe’s politics was a “need to know and understand”. He didn’t condemn my politics, he asked me to explain them – and though he was often mystified by my left leaning views, he never sought to dismiss them outright. As in so much, his question was always: “Why?” He saw politics as a means of making people’s lives better, and when that failed to happen, he wondered. Often, latterly, our chats would end with him shaking his head and musing: “Well, what are we gonna do?”

One epic meal at Tredwell Lane included a discussion on the USSR which Rosie had previously visited. The two of them got on well, Joe appreciating Rosie’s forthright views, and the discussion was good humoured but seeking insight  and information, and totally without  rancour – which displayed the affection between us all.

At the end, with a broad grin, Joe proudly displayed the campaign acknowledgement letter he had received from John McCain. As we left, he hugged Rosie and twinkled: “Thank you for your input, Rosemary!”

It was a typical Joe McPartlin moment, reducing us all to laughter. We treasure it, and still use the phrase at the end of every hard fought discussion!

I think it’s the measure of a man when he can differ from your views but still value your opinion – one of Joe’s many rare qualities.

In his Faith he was uncompromising – a trait passed from our grandfather through his own father, and his mother. Inevitably, being Joe, his Faith was translated into action – with his counting the money each week at St Andrew’s and fundraising for the church refurbishment – showing all the persistence gained in his first employment as a “Repo man”! But, in reality, his Faith in action was in his love of humanity, his devotion to his family, and his care for them and pride in all their exploits.

To know Joe was to love him – it’s a trite phrase but it carries the truth of simplicity. The expectation of his company brought a lightening of the spirit.

My favourite memories of him are simple and quietly demonstrative. We would be sitting in the yard at  Marie and Al’s in Joel’s Lane, enjoying breakfast and family conversation. A couple of times it was a Monday morning and we would be leaving for home later that day. The side gate would open and in would come Joe, coffee cup in hand, “just passing”, having been at the church.

There would be a few minutes chat, before a brief goodbye – but we would all recognise the affection in Joe’s calling in to greet us. He proved you can convey love without being overly demonstrative, another measure of the style and quality of the man.

Of course we will miss him dreadfully – though I cannot begin to imagine the size of the love-shaped hole his passing will leave in the daily lives of his beloved family – Marie and Al, Pat, his children, and his grandchildren.

We try to console ourselves with the knowledge that we had time together, we shared our love, and we got to know this very special man.

On hearing he had lost his final battle, I shared the news on social media for friends and family. The words I wrote were my first reaction and I cannot better them now:

I’m quite heartbroken to share with family and friends that my cousin Joe McPartlin, of Sag Harbor, New York, has finally lost his last and bravest battle.
Joe and I waited fifty years to meet for the first time but I like to think we’ve made up for it since.
It was an instant connect and I loved him dearly. He, in turn, as all who knew him would expect, returned that love to me and Patrick and Rosie. His hospitality, joie de vivre, concern for others, and, above all, love of family, was legendary, and I am so proud to have been part of it.
He was an inspiration to many, a family patriarch like no other, strong in Faith, high on humour, driven by integrity and honesty, most of all he was a good man who loved life.
He is irreplaceable and my heart goes out tonight to his beloved family – his “troops” – for whom holidays will never be quite the same again but who will hopefully gain comfort from a million wonderful memories of his love, and to Pat – a soul mate if ever there was one.
There will never be another Joe McPartlin – I’m just so glad we were able to know and love him.
How typical he would arrive in Heaven between the feast of St Patrick and his own feast day of St Joseph. He welcomed so many so well to Tredwell Lane – now it’s his turn to be welcomed.
Go well, Cuz. We love you.




The Question why.

March 21, 2018

It might be an early morning train from Aberdeen, an overnight car journey from the south of England, or a dash across Scotland from Glasgow to Edinburgh. Sometimes it’s in the evening, other times the afternoon, and often Saturday and Sunday. You travel constantly – so  much so that, sometimes, you wonder where you are going and why. And then there’s the gym – and the fees, and the challenge of all that exercise away from the others when you can’t make it south, or east, or north.

You’ve become quite well known to your boss, on account of all the negotiations about holiday time, unpaid leave, and blocks of  absence. She seldom mentions promotion or job prospects, but sometimes you wonder. And sometimes there is no work.

Your partner is understanding, long suffering, and incredibly supportive – but your weekends together are  few and far between, and presents from Dubai and Africa don’t really make up for that.

Another five years and you’ll be thirty – most of your mates will be partners in their firms by then, or set up on their own, or looking for a house with a garden  for kids. The others will be well known about town, partying as hard as they work, or setting off on some amazing solo project….and you’ll just be starting again.

You’ve had glimpses of better: a couple of contracts down south, two or three years of stability, months when you were just a slice of luck away from a whole different lifestyle. But it’s competitive and so unpredictable – you’re in favour one year, ignored the next – and sometimes you don’t know why. And it’s more travel, more time away from home, more promises that may never be kept.

Nobody ever uses the word, at least not to your face, but it’s a selfish way of life – unless you can make something of it. But you know that no matter hard you try,  how high  your commitment, how prominent your talent – in the end your future will be determined by men far away with a different take on your world.

However, ultimately, it’s the life you have chosen, and lots of folk are far worse off. Together with the rest of the guys, building friendships, bonding, supporting each other – through the highs and the lows – all of that is a privilege, often pure joy, and you know you’re lucky to have it. But, without progression, without a decent wage, with nothing in return, it can seem like boys’stuff: forever a 19 year old in an ageing body.

When it stops, what will be left?

How will you justify that lifestyle, that devourer of your twenties, and maybe, if you’re lucky, most of your thirties?

You could give back, by supporting others into the same lifestyle, if you can truly look them in the eye and tell them it will definitely be worth it. You could remember the saltire flying above you, the power of “Flower of Scotland” as you huddle in the dressing room, the pride you feel to be representing your country, to be a part of the few, representing the many.

Most of all, clear eyed and clear headed, you could remember that you love cricket, love playing the game, promoting it, encouraging others, and hopefully inspiring them to share those same highs and lows, those extremities of emotion, and the joy of physical and mental coordination.

You play for Scotland because you love it all, the challenges – internal as well as external, the team work, the fight to improve, the need for self discipline, the opportunity to play for the supporters, the fans, the administrators, club members and volunteers – the whole of the cricket community. All of this is a privilege you are proud to accept, and those who love you and care about you, in turn, accept it is who you are, and what you want to do.

While it makes for a challenging life and difficult choices, there’s also something precious about being amongst the very few elite sports people who can demonstrate they play largely for the love of their sport.

So you will carry on. You will thole the missed catches, the poor decisions, the balls that keep low, and the late night motorway driving. You will get in the faces of those who are paid a handsome wage to enjoy this lifestyle, you will prove you are as good as them,  if not better. You will face your mid thirties when you come to them, and when you put on that cap with the thistle, you will give your all for Scotland.

This will be your motivation and your inspiration. You will not let down your team mates, your families, or your country. You will do whatever it takes. And those who know you will love you for it,  and those who support you will admire you for it, and when you hear the applause as your boots clack down the pavilion steps, please God, you will know it is worth it.

So when it comes to it – when the nation’s media provide poor coverage, claiming nobody is interested, when the ICC cave in to the free marketeers for whom sport is merely an advertising opportunity, when competitions are organised in the interests of others, when funding and fixtures go elsewhere, when highly paid opponents belittle your efforts, when the hill to full member status seems steeper than ever, you will do what we have come to expect of our Cricket Scotland heroes – you’ll send them hameward to think again!

And we’ll still be proud to Follow Scotland.


Stuck in traffic

March 15, 2018

Video replays are all the rage in football at the moment, and none more so than those relating to former Liverpool star, Jamie Carragher, spitting, after a Man Utd v Liverpool game.

I could go for the full VAR post match discussion (a sign if ever there was one that VAR seldom settles arguments once and for all) but I’m loathe to go over that old ground: Did he wind down the window so he could spit? Was he aiming at the girl? Did he actually hit her? Why was her father shouting at a fellow motorist and recording his reaction?

The arguments could go on for ever, but they don’t need to. Two things are irrefutably clear – whatever the video purports to show: spitting is disgusting and totally unacceptable; and, abusing a public or recognisable  figure on the street is a coward’s way of showing off: if there’s a negative reaction – you’ve won,  (He’s a horrible sod, you should hear what he said/did); if there’s no reaction – you’ve won, (Big head – tried to talk to him and he blanked me).

You’ve won, because, as you are well aware, the “star” will be chastised whatever he does or doesn’t do; metaphorically, his hands are tied, or should be, if he keeps his cool.

Social media, of course, is just made for this kind of conflict. Without video of the scene, its newsworthiness would have crumbled – folk make claims about celebrities’ behaviour all the time; without “evidence”, it will garner a limited number of “hits”. With pictures, and, even better, video, it can multiply your website’s hits well past that all important daily target.

Perhaps my generation was fortunate in avoiding the need to spit – in the street or on the playing field. Every family had someone who had died of Tuberculosis – an untreatable and terminal disease till relatively recently. Our parents told us that TB could be spread by spitting. Rightly or wrongly, we believed them, and so spitting was seen not just as a disgusting habit, but as a health risk. Similarly, shouting abuse at folk in the street would encourage people to think you were a bit odd rather than a hero, so it wasn’t too difficult to avoid that sort of self shaming either. The rules appear to have changed somewhat.

There is, of course, no point in complaining that times have changed – it’s what they do, but sometimes reflective comparison can lead to a clear assessment of the destination at which we have arrived.

I go back to one of the great football weekends of my life – certainly in my teenage years: April 28/29th 1967 – when I was 15.

Living in Southport, in Lancashire, I supported the local team, home and away – and that season, under Head Coach, Billy Bingham, they were headed for promotion for the first time in their history. Friday night, April 28th was a crucial moment. Tranmere Rovers were our closest rivals, both geographically and for promotion glory, and that night was a derby game which we believed would settle promotion for one of us.

A crowd of 15, 555 saw a tense and fast moving game which Southport won 2-1 thanks to an o.g. and a goal for our iconic striker, Eric Redrobe.  In the end,  both these teams won promotion, but it was that victory at Prenton Park which convinced us we were on our way up.

Also in the news that Spring were a local amateur side – Skelmersdale Utd. The team from the Merseyside new town had stormed to an Amateur Cup Final at Wembley – a big occasion in the sixties – against the aristocrats of the amateur game, Enfield.

The Final, the previous week, at Wembley, in front of   75,000 spectators, had ended in a 0-0 draw, and so, in the days before penalty shoot outs, a replay was to be held the following week at Manchester City’s Maine Road ground. A few of us who supported Southport thought that it would be good to hire a minibus to take us to Manchester so we could support the local amateurs in the replayed Final.

So, still high from the previous night’s victory at Tranmere, we headed for Maine Rd the next day – two big games in a weekend!

Sadly, in front of more than 55,000 fans, Skem could not deliver the trophy, and Enfield ran out winners by 3-0.

On the way home, the traffic was gridlocked – Manchester Utd having also been at home against Aston Villa.

At about 5.15, the guy next to me nudged me and said: “Hey – look who it is!”

Next to our minibus, headed in the opposite direction, but at a standstill as we were, was a familiar face in his iconic white Jaguar – George Best!

We opened our window and he wound down his:

“Awright, George?”

“Hi lads – where have ye been?”

“Maine Rd….”

“Oh aye – how did Skem get on, then?”

“Lost 3-0 – how about you?”

“We won, 3-1, shame about Skem….”

“Did ye score?”

“Aye – Johnny Aston and Denis got the others….”

Then the traffic moved and our brush with fame was over.

Of course, we were beyond delighted. Best was the biggest star of the day – and we had spoken to him – even better, he had spoken to us. We would be telling our pals all about this at school on Monday, and for some time to come (and some of us would be writing about it over fifty years later!)

I thought of that when the Carragher incident was reported – two cars stopped in traffic, fifty years apart.

We were Southport supporters, and maybe a couple had some liking for Utd, but it would never have occurred to us to be unpleasant to Best, certainly not outside of the heat of a game. Furthermore, he was probably the first of the footballing superstars, so this is not a tale of the olden days with footballers getting the bus to the game. He was a genuine household name, recognised far beyond the world of football, yet we had no trouble being civil to him and he was able to converse with us in return.

Had there been smartphones and social media in those far off days, I’m sure we would have been clicking away and the results would have been on Facebook and Twitter long before we got home.

In a way I prefer that I have a vivid memory of the occasion which is not filtered through photographs, recordings, or instant accounts of the incident. It was a big moment in a big football weekend and I am able to look back on it, a lifetime later, with undiluted pleasure.

It was a time when sport had heroes instead of celebrities, and fans admired them instead of challenging them.

You would have to believe our world was simpler and more gentle then, and it is sometimes hard to identify what we have gained in losing that simplicity.


Conned, well conned

March 6, 2018

Boris Johnson? Nigel Farage? Jacob Rees Mogg?

Who can we really blame for the Brexit farago?

The answer came to me in one of my occasional political dwams, in a revelation adding fuel to the assertion that tragedy and comedy are close bedfellows.

The real villain behind the piece is none other than James Bond!

The more I though about this, the more sense it made.

If we start by looking at Ian Fleming, Bond’s creator and alter ego.

He was the son of a banker, Eton educated, worked for Naval intelligence, and mostly obtained his later employment through contacts or nepotism, rendering his ability  in any given post more or less irrelevant. He had relationships with the Harmsworths/Rothermeres of Daily Mail notoriety, eventually, after a long affair, marrying Viscount Rothermere’s ex-wife after he divorced her because of that affair. His leading role with Kemsley newspapers came with an annual three month holiday in the winter, which he spent in the West Indies.

Not  surprisingly, Bond was cast in the same mold, and, if we look back at the general attitudes of the novels, a pattern emerges.

Despite the fact that the sun was setting fast on the British Empire for most of Bond’s existence as 007, the subplot was that Britain had world influence and if you wanted a job doing properly, you needed to use a Brit. Bond has a friendly “special relationship” with Felix Leiter of the CIA – but despite the American’s greater resources, generally it’s Bond who helps him out of difficult situations. Foreigners are generally bad guys – often German, increasingly Russian, and finally, and vaguely, with the arrival of SPECTRE, basically “everybody else”.

Bond’s appeal is that he knows how to dress, what to drink and eat, and is perfectly at home in “elite” company. Spending silly money on everything from cars to shirts to suits, shoes and cuff links is seen as admirable, and also a positive image of British affluence.

Though Bond is “On Her Majesty’ Secret Service”, he is plainly out for himself most of the time, and when things go wrong, he is forgiven because he is so charming, witty, and urbane. He gets out of seemingly terminal situations not because of his own ability, but mostly because of gadgets supplied by the much more intelligent “Q”.

Women, foreigners, and anyone he perceives as inferior are basically treated, at best,  with callous indifference. He’s involved in “the Bond Project” but quite happy to dress it up in a Union flag, if that eases his path, or makes it more acceptable to those to whom he is accountable.

Looking at the current UK government, you might be forgiven for recognising quite a few of these traits – though you might feel they are more sanguine about taking risks for other people rather than themselves.

The real point, however, lies in the fact that the Bond books were phenomenally popular, and that popularity increased with the films as the sixties and seventies moved forward.

Their popularity was generally put down to  a certain mix of sex and adventure, and, in the films, the increasing use of special effects and gadgetry.

However, there was an added ingredient which was generally overlooked, or, at least, downplayed.

Bond’s world was a place where Britain still ruled the waves and somehow had the respect and affection of its former imperial subjects; it was seen as a major power and frequently was the bulwark between total war and peace. In a sense, it was as if the war had never stopped: foreigners were still to be kept in their place and, if not downright hostile,  couldn’t really be trusted, there were Communists under every bed, and occasionally in them, and if you had money, power, good looks, and the support of the Establishment (however grudgingly) you could get away with just about anything. A grin, a wink, and a knowing smile were all you needed to get by. If only they’d sent 007 to Suez!

On a personal level, Bond and political correctness were complete strangers – he could say and do what he wanted with complete impunity, especially when it came to the women in his life. He was, in effect, the complete Bullingdon Club member.

The grand gesture, the power of wealth, knowing the right people, and making a show: all became a substitute for hard work and graft and a genuine concern for one’s neighbours, other than in a grand political sense. Bond would have been quite happy with the  phrase: “There is no such thing as society” – he may well have had it embroidered in to his expensive hand made shirts!

And, it’s the fact that this made the books so popular which suggests so many people in Britain believed in his world, or at least desperately wanted to, or needed to, and, apparently, still do. Bond offered the kind of freedom, adventure, influence and excitement to which the vast majority of Britons, nor their state, could never aspire. If he was a vicarious character for them, the world in which he operated was a vicarious universe for them.

It was a world in which it was perfectly acceptable to quote “the war” as the best of times, and to define your country’s strengths and values by the damage it could do to others. It was a world which others were rapidly abandoning, but one to which the UK State seems to have become increasingly and delusionally wedded as time has moved on. My mother frequently spoke about the blackout, the May Blitz, and spending her twenties sleeping in an Anderson shelter – but I never once heard the phrase: ‘the best days of my life’.

Most folk, of course, recognised the books for what they were: entertaining hokum to pass away the time in an airport. For some, though, it brought on a wistfulness for imagined times of international glory, and for other, the elite, it must have seemed a pretty fair reflection of a world they recognised. It was a vainglorious vision of a past that had never properly existed, the few elements that had, being well gone, long before Roger Moore raised his eyebrow. There’s nothing wrong with having a Golden Age – but there is something odd about inventing one and continuing to pretend it exists. The self image of the British State is as out of touch with the reality as the elite who peddle it as a means of retaining their privileges.

Ian Fleming tapped into the escapist wishes of his readers, just as the Brexiteers tapped into the escapist wishes of the voters.

The people whose mindset was that  James Bond’s world was true parallel those who want the post Brexit world to match their similar aspirations.

The name is conned, well conned.

Kindness of Strangers

March 5, 2018


My football DNA is pretty clear – it is Hibernian green through and through. However, it gets a little frayed around the edges when you examine my history.

My family started supporting Hibs when they arrived in Edinburgh from Ireland in the mid 1890s, my uncle played for them in the late 20s, and he and my dad took me to my first game when I was not yet four, in January 1956.

However, my dad died the following year and later we moved to the north of England. When I was considered old enough to go to a game alone, in November 1963, it was to watch Southport FC in the old Fourth division, and I developed a lifelong passion for live football in the ten years I lived there.

Naturally, when I returned to Edinburgh in 1970, I became an ever present at Hibs’ games, and now, after a lifetime in teaching, I work voluntarily as Hibernian’s Education and Welfare Officer.

But – there was a gap between our arriving in Lancashire in 1958, and my starting to go to Southport games in 1963. It was the time when I was starting to understand football and develop a love for it, it was the time when we were starting to get the odd highlights of games on grainy black and white television – limited to midweek European games.

It was the time when Tottenham Hotspur were quite clearly brilliant.

And I fell in love with that team with an intensity which only comes with first love. So much so, I can rattle off the line up without pause, over fifty year later: Brown, Baker, Henry, Blanchflower, Norman, MacKay, Jones, White, Smith, Allen and Dyson.

For me, just recognising football, it was ideal timing: Arthur Rowe had introduced a beguiling style of “push and run” football which was easy on the eye and highly effective; Bill Nicholson – who could have been modelled on any of the war heroes we were still reading about in our comics – had modified the style and was getting together a team who could fully apply its fluency; and there was a mixture of players to satisfy every footballing need. I loved the athleticism of Bill Brown in goal, the reliability of full backs Baker and Henry, Blanchflower’s intelligent probing play and leadership, the uncompromising centre half play of Maurice Norman, and the no nonsense linking play of Dave MacKay. The wing positions were perfectly balanced with the speed of Jones and the brave trickery of Terry Dyson, Allen poached goals, Bobby Smith could have invented the word ‘rumbustious’ at centre forward, and my first proper footballing hero, John White – born a few miles from my home in Edinburgh – could ghost into positions, pinpoint passes, and score goals out of nothing. I’ve no idea how you could play against that team – goals and inventiveness could come from anywhere, and when they were on a roll they were unstoppable.

The magic was enhanced by the film noir productions every few weeks on television, darting figures in all white strips playing against black uniformed teams like Gornik of Poland, snow on the ground, the harsh glare of the floodlights. How many guys of my generation remember being allowed up late, hunched in dressing gowns on the sofa, avoiding parental eyes in fear of the “time for bed” nod? And weren’t that Spurs side just worth it?


There’s no love like first love they say, and though, naturally, my weekly attendance at Southport and my return to the Hibernian Family inevitably brought a stronger sense of reality to my football supporting, I’ve never quite managed to shake off that Tottenham team of the early sixties: that team provides the default image for every position; their style provides a comparative starting point for every team I watch. Those players hover over my times at football, like benevolent uncles, sharing my joys and woes, they never fade. Each July 21st I make the short trip to Musselburgh and walk from John White’s childhood home  down to the park at the bottom of the street where he first kicked a ball, and I think of  him – and his Tottenham team mates – who fired a young boy’s enthusiasm for football.

And because football – even now – is about people rather than simply trophies and glory and high finance, I share this tale of what made Tottenham so extra special to me.

In August 1965, off on holiday with my mother, we had a stopover of three days in London – to see the sights and take in a show. What would I like to see, she asked me. No hesitation: “White Hart Lane!” Bless her, she agreed.

So, after a brief flirtation with Tottenham Court Rd, we eventually  arrived at a bus stop on the High Rd. My mother thought it an unlikely place for a football ground – but I had studied all the pictures in my copies of Charles Buchan’s Football Monthly. There was the pub – the White Hart, there was the actual lane!

I think I probably ran through the gates and towards the huge main stand “Tottenham Hotspur Football Club” in large letters. I’d made it to White Hart Lane!

Then, of course, reality invaded the dream moment. It was early August – even if Spurs were back in training, it would have been out at their Cheshunt Training Ground. The place was locked up and deserted. I tried to put a brave face on it, but my mother would have sensed my disappointment.

We returned to the High Rd. There was a row of shops there, among them a newsagent and a greengrocer, if my memory serves, and my mother headed into the paper shop, explained we’d come from the north of England, and asked if there was any way of seeing the Spurs ground. The shopkeeper was not a football fan but thought it would be difficult at that time of year. As we left the shop, he came running out after us and called to a guy passing by: “Hey – Harry – this lad’s from the north and he wants to see the Spurs ground, you’ve got a connection, ain’t you?.”

I must admit, as a 13 year old, I was getting a bit embarrassed by now, and would have let it go, but the man stopped, and said he’d see what he could do, telling us to wait while he had a think. He disappeared down the lane, I dared to get my hopes up. They didn’t exactly say: “Wotcher, mate!” but to my Scottish/north of England ear, the shopkeeper and Harry both sounded like proper Londoners.

Harry returned and told us to come with him. We walked down the lane, across the car park and along the front of the stand. There was a small door in the vast frontage – Harry knocked, it opened, and a voice said: “In ye come – you can show him round, Harry.”

It turned out this was a watchman and Harry knew him, so he’d checked it would be ok. I must have just about been hyperventilating by this stage. It’s worth remembering that “stadium tours” did not exist in those days; indeed, preserving the mystique of “behind the scenes”, was a bit of a priority for clubs at the time, and very few people would get to view the inner sanctum. I’d hoped to get into the stands to see the pitch – now I was heading for the dressing rooms – Spurs’ dressing room! The corridors were dark, there were white painted brick walls and navy blue trimmings. The dressing room was dark wood, frosted windows and navy blue cushions or coverings on the benches round the walls. There was a big bath and some individual baths. This was where the team got ready!

You can imagine the effect on a 13 year old boy. I was ecstatic and a little overwhelmed – trying to take it all in, wanting to remember it, but just awed that I was actually there.

We passed the tunnel and then climbed some stairs and emerged in what must have been the Directors’ Box. There below was the pitch! All those black and white nights – Gornik, Slovan Bratislava, Dukla Prague, Feyenoord. There it was below me. Truly magic!

A voice from below broke into my dreams: “It’s alright, mate, “ shouted Harry, “they’re with me.”

After one last look at White Hart Lane – THE White Hart Lane – we headed back down and out of the stand through that same small door.

Back on the High Road, Harry prepared to say his goodbyes – but 13 year olds have no self awareness, and I was muttering to my mother. She took the hint and relayed my wishes to Harry: “He was a big fan of John White – is there any way he could get his autograph?”

Talk about not quitting when you’re ahead!

Harry scratched his head but looked less perplexed than you might expect – given my hero  had died more than a year before. He agreed to ask around and we exchanged addresses. It was a wonderful demonstration of the kindness of strangers. I didn’t really expect anything to come of my request, but was hugely grateful for his generosity in making a dream come true for a small Scots lad he’d never met before.

The next day – obviously on a roll, we went out to see Wembley Stadium. A knock on the door and a well rehearsed tale about our trip from the North seemed to do the trick and before I knew it I was in the Wembley dressing rooms and walking down the famous tunnel. In the modern day world of marketing and commercialism, the idea of walking up to stadium like Wembley and “getting a wee look” seems impossible to accept – and I have to say, on my return to school, when I reported that I’d been in the dressing rooms at White Hart Lane and Wembley, there were more than a few sceptical looks.

I hadn’t expected to hear from Harry  again, but, in mid September, a large packet arrived for me with a return address of 19 Chalgrove Rd, N17. Inside were programmes and a number of A 4 sized –photographs, of the kind displayed outside newspaper offices in those days – all had been signed by the players in the picture, including a number by Jimmy Greaves.  “Up the Spurs! Harry Vickery.”

What a lovely gesture, and one which has stayed with me through the years. As I had his address I was able to write and thank him, and I  sent him a Christmas Card for a good few years.

Whenever I see Spurs on the television I remember those days and I hope they have retained at least some of that north London community feel in these highly corporate times – because, ultimately, that says far more about a club than winning trophies. Harry’s home was a ten minute walk from the ground – which is how the shopkeeper knew him and how he knew the watchman. Clubs need to be rooted in communities in that way – which is one reason I am pleased that the new Spurs ground will be within the footprint of the other one.

I hope Harry’s kids and grandkids are Spurs fans and I would love them to know of Harry’s kindness – which I forever will link with those Glory Glory days.

In the early sixties, there were no substitutes – only eleven men in a team, but when I start off on that familiar list of “Brown, Baker, Henry……”  I always recall twelve names; I always include Harry Vickery!

Matchmaker for the Mountains

February 26, 2018



                                   Sgór  an Lochain Uaine – May 11th 1975

It was around 3am. The tent was billowing in a breeze which had suddenly translated itself into a wind. Below me, under a clear moon, was the long, sleek, shining finger of Loch Avon, one of the Cairngorms’ many iconic views.

Of course, I couldn’t see the loch, because of the tent, but then, suddenly, I could see the loch. The tent had gone, snatched by the wind, rolling madly across the mountainside, snagging on boulders, changing direction, no clear destination, just the need to escape, like a drunk seeking the way out of a desperate situation.

This was not good.

I had pitched the tent four or five hours previously, having been assured that it was idiot proof, though I had never attempted such a task before. It was a new model, being tested for its efficiency. Well, it had failed the test, it wasn’t idiot proof, and I was the idiot who proved it.

I sat there surrounded by the remains of my belongings. What was I supposed to do now?

A shadow appeared next to me, it was the man who had set me the test with the tent.

“Gather your stuff and follow me.”

So myself and five sixth year pupils  scrabbled about and followed him up the slope to the Shelter Stone, under which we  spent the rest of the night dozing, singing, and telling stories.

The moral of this tale, I suppose, is: if your tent blows away in the middle of the night, it’s helpful to be camping with Cameron McNeish.  I remembered this incident when I attended the  launch of  ‘There’s always the hills’, his “some kind of autobiography”, in Edinburgh last week.

It struck me that, while the impact of an author and broadcaster can be quite clearly defined, what is often hidden is the effect a public figure may have on individuals. In my case, Cameron’s influence was huge.

Most folk in Scotland are, at the very least, aware of our hills and mountains. Even in the most urbanised areas in the central belt, the hills are seldom more than 45 minutes away, and many of the country’s residents live in highland regions. Beyond that, there are those who utilise the hills for pastimes like photography or art or weekend breaks in spa hotels, those who  pursue outdoor hobbies like skiing, hillwalking, mountain biking and fishing, and those for whom Scotland’s outdoors is an adventure playground for mountain or rock climbing, munro bagging, sailing or diving, and hang gliding

It is safe to say the hills and mountains are very visible to Scots – not just in our geography, but, for many, in our psyche. Folk like Cameron have done much to encourage this interest in our great natural assets, but the relationship between people and countryside, like all relationships, has moved and flexed with the times.

For my first six years, I was a city boy, brought up in Edinburgh’s Piershill. Then I moved to England, and for eighteen months, ran free through countryside around our small village in central Lancashire. This was when my interest in the outdoors was first aroused. After that I lived for ten years in a prosperous seaside resort, which had its own, more suburban, outdoor attractions.

However, at 18, I returned to Edinburgh, to university, and, reacquainting myself with Scotland, became more aware of our mountains and hills. I had friends who came from the highlands and islands, or the west coast, and others who disappeared each weekend to walk in the hills. This was all new to me – like Scottish history, our geography is largely invisible to folk in England, so my early twenties involved a steep learning curve as far as the country of my birth was involved.

However, I had seldom, if ever, wandered any further north than Dundee, and university, along with weekend football, and playing in a band, was taking up my time, so, despite a developing fascination with the hills, I still had no practical experience of them.

Then, in November 1971 there occurred an incident which left an indelible mark on those in Scotland who were interested in the hills, particularly those involved in teaching or working with young people. An Outdoor Education group from Ainslie Park High School, in north Edinburgh, were on a weekend expedition, based at Lothian’s Outdoor Centre at Lagganlia.

At the time, Outdoor Education was becoming increasingly popular in schools and for youth groups – a reflection of projects like Outward Bound and the Duke of Edinburgh Award scheme. It was a kind of generational follow on from the love of walking developed between  the wars by city folk as an escape from industrial grime, which spawned the growth of various and varying Scottish climbing clubs which built on the original Cairngorm Club and  the Scottish Mountaineering Club, both of which dated from the late 1880s.

The leaders of the Ainslie Park group had different degrees of experience – as teachers or instructors – and they checked their route with the Head of the Lagganlia Centre before they left.  The programe may have been feasible given fair weather, but it proved not to be so in the heavy snow conditions which moved in. Half the group were unable to make it to the agreed Currour  bothy but managed  to reach the Curran shelter, the agreed fall back plan. The other, less experienced part of the group, feared missing the Curran if it was covered in snow, and opted to bivouac in a dip by the Feith Buidhe burn. It was to prove a fatal error.

By the end of the weekend, the news had come through that five pupils and an assistant leader had died while another leader and a pupil were lucky to survive.

At this distance, it is hard to evoke the level of shock which hit the country after this – the worst ever tragedy on Scotland’s mountains. In Edinburgh and in education circles, as well, of course, as  in the outdoors community, the sense of loss was palpable. The question was: How could this happen?

The resulting inquiries led to a tightening of requirements for expeditions to the hills – new qualifications were brought in and an even more rigorous approach was demanded,  to the extent that there was a height level imposed on group leaders without the necessary  qualifications.

For those of us heading for a career in education – or at least for me, this was a defining moment on how I thought of the hills. In what was a possibly predictable  over reaction, I saw them as symbiotic with “danger”.

To be fair, this was not just as a result of  the Feith Buidhe tragedy, but also of the prevailing ambience around mountaineering at the time. It seems strange to recall now, but in the 70s for a period, there was a group of mountaineers, many based in Scotland, or the north of England, who had a kind of rock star status, and were known to the wider public outside of climbing circles. Chris Bonnington was already establishing  a familiar presence, in the media, and through his Himalayan and other expeditions, but there were other younger climbers with an almost Byronesque “mad, bad and dangerous to know” reputation.

Foremost amongst these was probably Dougal Haston, from Currie near Edinburgh, and there was also Don Whillans, Joe Tasker, Joe Brown, Edinburgh’s Graham Tiso, who invariably equipped the expeditions,  and others who were familiar names to the general public. Needing finance and sponsorship for their expeditions, they became expert at gaining media attention and promoting an exciting profile for themselves, though the mercurial Haston was never even close to comfortable with this side of things. Occasionally, major climbs, like that on the Old Man of Hoy, were transmitted live on national television. Where now a holiday weekend’s viewing may be dominated by the tension over who might win the “Bake off”, in those days, it was often the words: “And now it’s back live to the Old Man of Hoy to see how our climbers are getting on” that quickened the pulse of the 15 million viewers.

This air of danger was to be increased by the numbers of deaths amongst the top mountaineers over the next decade or so. As was the case with motor racing at the time, it was almost as if the regular loss of heroes added  a rather morbid interest to the pastime.

With no practical experience of the mountains, it is no wonder that my admiration and interest in them was overlaid by apprehension at this stage in my life. Members of the university mountaineering club, hard drinking, and huddled over maps, while they discussed equipment, in a corner of the Meadow Bar, hardly encouraged a sanguine view of the high places.

Then, in 1975, as I completed my year of post graduate teacher training at Moray House, a friend told us of a poster in the college advertising an outdoor education residential experience for those of us who would be graduating that summer. It was to be based at Glenmore Lodge in the Cairngorms and would last for a week, with the opportunity to take part in a variety of activities under the instruction of experienced outdoor guides.

At this stage, “Cairngorms” and “Glenmore Lodge” were just words to me, but it seemed like a great opportunity, and an excellent way to round off our student careers, so we signed up for it.

It was scheduled for the last week of term – our exams finished, results known, and, for most of us, in those halcyon days, jobs acquired. It was a special time and always would have been, whatever we did. However, being introduced to the Cairngorms made it luminous in our memories.

It would be fair to say that, as our minibus approached Glenmore, we were in a mixed state of anticipation. The weather – as it would be all week – was glorious, and we had ample opportunity to appreciate the landscape on the way north on the old double track A9 which, even as late as  the 70s, was little more than a country road.

Turning off  at Aviemore, to drive through Rothiemurchus, Inverdruie, Coylumbridge and then along the shores of Loch Morlich as the range of  mountains and corries appeared under deep blue skies, is still vivid in my memory. Wow! What a place. It is a road that never fails to raise the spirits even all these years later.

To be fair, the  size and scale of the mountains did nothing to minimise our fears of what we were about to experience.  So – awe and trepidation would be a fair description of the state we were in when we arrived at Glenmore Lodge and met the rest of our group. There were students from many Moray House courses, so one of the positives of the week would be meeting new folk and getting to know them.

In those days the Lodge was pretty spartan and you were left in little doubt that, as a National Training Centre,  this was a place of serious intent. We chose our bunks, dumped our gear, and  congregated in the main room for an introductory talk from the head of centre, Fred Harper.

The first surprise was provided by mugs of coffee and tea and huge slabs of cake. Glenmore was apparently famous for its cake!  Fred’s welcome was warm and encouraging, but again, there was the undercurrent of taking the hills seriously and operating within our abilities. The group of seriously fit looking young staff members around him, all displaying the insouciance that comes with expertise, only served to  underline the point.

He finished by suggesting on this beautiful evening we might want to take a walk later up towards An Lochan Uaine – the Green Lochan – which was only twenty minutes or so up the track behind the Lodge and a very beautiful introduction to Glenmore.

The Moray House staff divided us into groups of eight and showed us the options for each day’s activities. The possibilities ranged from going to the tops, to art and sketching opportunities, sailing instruction on Loch Morlich and practice with map reading and compass skills. On the Friday we could choose to repeat our favourite activity or, if we were fit enough, to do a day long journey across the hills taking in a number of Munros – the meaning of which had to be explained to most of us.

As a vivid demonstration of what might be termed our fear and ignorance, we agreed after the meal that we were brave enough to walk up to An Lochan Uaine – always remembering the warnings about safety.

And so it was we ventured out of the centre and in to the surroundings. We were all fully kitted out for the equivalent of a winter walk on the tops. I don’t remember the detail of what others were wearing, but my outfit is burned into my memory: climbing boots, gaiters, weather proof outdoors jacket and a green woollen balaclava. If I tell you that the temperature was around 60F and the walk to the lochan can be comfortably completed by parents wheeling a buggy, you will understand the scarcely contained mirth of the two staff members dressed in jeans and tee shirts who passed us as we left the building. It was only later that I realised that one of them was Peter Boardman who within a few months would be standing on top of Everest alongside Sirdar Pertemba.

The beauty of the lochan further convinced us that we had come to a special place and at least the gear protected us from the worst ravishes of the midgies!

The week proved to be amazing, though I never quite gained confidence in reading compass bearings. We became familiar with Cairn Gorm and Ben Macdui, and sampled Rothiemurchus and the beguiling Loch an Eilein, and Glen Feshie, tried sailing on Loch Morlich, discovered details of flora and fauna in Ryvoan, and even had a morning attempting to sketch the landscape from the lower  reaches of  Allt na Ciste.

Our leader for the sketching experience was from Moray House’s art department – and had an interesting tale of her own, although we were not aware of it at the time.  Cecile McLachlan specialised in ceramics at the college and was  an artist of some repute. However, her lasting impression on  hundreds of teachers was formed by this multi-disciplinary week at Glenmore  each May – which she organised for  more than thirty years

At that stage I didn’t know that Moray House had long promoted links with Glenmore Lodge – a subtle  but highly effective way of ensuring many of Scotland’s teachers would  have an interest in the outdoors at the very start of their  careers, and in this, Cecile had been a prime mover since the beginning, just after the war. Neither did I realise that my uncle George, when working at the Central Council for Physical Recreation, had been one of the group who planned Glenmore Lodge and its opening in 1948.

Cecile was an imposing figure – sat on the mountain with a chiffon scarf keeping in place her straw hat and encouraging our sketches, which, in my case, were fully representative of the 15% I had once attained for art at school. She was also great fun, as she demonstrated at the last evening ceilidh and a great story teller and conversationalist. We were so lucky to have had the chance to be there with her.

Two things we didn’t know about her till much later: she had worked at Bletchley Park during the war – a period of her life to which she never referred, and she had also been the original St Trinian’s school girl.

To be exact, artist Ronald Searle had become friendly with her family when stationed in Kirkcudbright during the war, and was particularly taken by the tales Cecile and her sister Pat would tell him. They attended a progressive school in Edinburgh, called St Trinnean’s, which was situated in St Leonard’s Hall near Holyrood Park. By the 1970’s, this was the administration area for Pollock Halls of Residence, and a place where I had spent many hours rehearsing as a musician while at university. Searle later produced drawings to illustrate the girls’ school adventures, changing the name of the school to St Trinian’s – and these, in time, became the famous films. By the time we knew her, Cecile was certainly individualistic, but betrayed few signs of a chaotic school history!

One other detail of her history, which must have caused her some private pain in the seventies, was that, for a time, she had taught art at Ainslie Park High School, so the recent tragedy must have hit her hard.

None of this we knew at the time; we just appreciated her company and repeatedly thanked her for organising such a wonderful opportunity.

On the Thursday night, we were told to choose our activity for the final day. Our group must have gained some confidence during the week, because a number of us volunteered for the “long march” that would take in four Munros and the Lairig Ghru. Given our ages, and a week spent on the hills, we were all adjudged to be fit enough to tackle the expedition. There was much chatting and mumbling from bunk to bunk that night as we tried to predict what the morning would bring, and wondered if we were over stretching our abilities.

Early next morning, after a nervous breakfast, we gathered in the meeting room. Outside, some of our colleagues were collecting materials for a leisurely day of sketching and painting, others were headed for the boathouse at Loch Morlich for an idyllic time on the water. We wondered had we made a hasty, hubris driven, decision. We wanted to challenge these mountains, but had to consider it might have been the phrase “only for the fittest” that had been the trigger for our volunteering.

Addressing us was our leader for the day. We hadn’t seen him before, but the whisper was that he was a serious mountaineer of some repute. Actually, we didn’t need that whisper: the guy in front of us reeked of mountaineer: strongly built, appropriately but not flashily dressed, he was an imposing sight. He spoke with a clipped  accent, which  turned out to be Rhodesian, and even his name fitted: “Good morning!” he said with an edge to his voice. “I’ll be leading you today, my name is Rusty Baillie.”  Rusty Baillie? What a great name for a mountaineer!

We should have been reassured by his aura of experience and control. Instead we started to wonder about his expectations: would we let him down? If he was a top climber, how would he feel about taking a group of novices out on what to him must have been foothills?

Luckily, we didn’t know he had climbed the Eiger and the Matterhorn, or indeed that he had been on the first ascent of the Old Man of Hoy, alongside Chris Bonnington and Tom Patey – the climb that had been recreated the following year in 1967 for live television.

It was a quiet but well equipped group that left the Lodge with Rusty that morning. He had detailed what lay ahead and given us a chance to withdraw if we felt it might be beyond us. I suppose the  proposed route must have been around 20 miles of hill and mountain, and none of us needed telling how difficult it would be to change our minds half way through the twelve or more hours it would take..

For the first mile or so out of the Cairn Gorm car park, I found myself near him. I have a natural urge to chatter, especially when nervous, but I made strenuous efforts to control my blethering as we headed onward. He was not taciturn, but obviously didn’t feel the need to  keep us entertained. I later heard him described as rather mystical, so who knows what thoughts he was thinking. Later on, in 1982, he would be part of a Canadian team tackling Everest when three Sherpas were killed in an avalanche. As he and Blair Griffiths – a CBC cameraman on the expedition, tried to dig out their buried colleagues, Blair was struck by a falling sérac – a sharp slab of ice – and killed not three  feet away from him. After four deaths, half the party, including Rusty, decided to abandon the attempt – a very different scenario to the “walk in the hills” he was embarking on today.

He must have been deep in thought, or maybe a little distracted, because less than half an hour into the walk, he badly turned his ankle and had to stop.

This generated a number of reactions amongst our group.

There was some surprise that a well known mountaineer might damage his ankle on such a simple expedition, and then, because we were now well up for the day’s adventure, came a fear that we might have to turn back

Never a chance of that, of course. To  someone of Rusty’s calibre and experiences, a twenty mile hike with a sprained ankle was as nothing, and we were soon on our way again. The incident seemed to have broken the tension and he became quite talkative, explaining our route, pointing out features along the way and being very supportive, despite the odd grimace caused by his injury.

It was a remarkable experience, one of the days of my life, beyond any doubt. We crossed from Cairn Gorm (where a sudden snow squall, in May, reminded us how high up we were) to Macdui, and had our first experience of that  desolate but grand plateau, then it was  descent into the Lairig Ghru – where we all promised ourselves we would return to walk its length one day  – and up to Cairn Toul. Shortly after that,  we stopped for lunch and it was grand to lie back and rest and enjoy the wildness of the area.   Sgór an Lochain Uaine loomed above us and I asked Rusty about it: “It’s not a Munro, but if any of you would like to go up it, there’s time and it’s not difficult from here. I can stay with  the others.” A few of us fancied it – we thought it looked like a mini Eiger, and when we were walking up the narrow ridge with  a long drop below us, we felt like real mountaineers. Preparing to write this blog, I discovered it had been reclassified as a Munro in the late 90s. We climbed it as an extra, on a whim, and, over forty years later, I discover that we made the tops of not four but five Munros that day!

The picture at the head of this blog was taken on the summit of Sgór  an Lochain Uaine  that day. It’s probably the only picture I’ve had taken where I look the way I hoped I looked! I think that says something about my happy state of mind at that moment!

Then it was the trek over the flat tops  to Braeriach and eventually the long walk back to the minibus. We had been on the hill for over twelve hours and arrived home sun and wind burnt, shattered, but with an enormous sense of achievement. May 11th 1975: we would probably never have such a momentous day again. After a shower, a mug of coffee and some of that cake, we made our way down to the shore at Loch Morlich and took some photos of our new friends – the mountains, and the people with whom we had shared them. It felt like a special bond.

After our meal, there was a ceilidh, and beer, and it all passed in a bit of a haze before we eased ourselves into our bunks. On previous nights there had been much chatter and banter – tonight there was just instant sleep.

I’m amazed to look back and realise that the following day, after our trip down the A9, I played cricket in the afternoon.

It was a special time in our lives, of course, the transition from students to working people with all the implications of that transformation. Leaving Glenmore, we were all sure we would be back – if not to the Lodge, then certainly to these mountains – such a sudden and complete falling in love leaves a lifetime of longing.

Life, of course, gets in the way.

We had to adapt to our new jobs, form relationships, deal with adult matters like household bills, mortgages and the like. The hills kept calling but the time was never available and the first cars we could eventually afford would have struggled to make it to Speyside and back in a weekend. Some folk became ardent mountaineers or hill walkers, some of us pursued sport and other pastimes, while promising ourselves we would return. Cecile’s cunning plan – to introduce student teachers to the hills so that they would develop a love they would share with their pupils was largely successful with our group.

What delight then, around five or six years later, when our headteacher, a great outdoors enthusiast himself, proposed that all of our first year pupils should enjoy a residential week of outdoor pursuits. We sampled a few possible locations till we eventually settled on a centre in Newtonmore, called Craigower Lodge. I was absolutely delighted to be returning to Speyside and to those familiar haunts.

In our first visit our pursuits were  centred around Newtonmore and Kingussie. The guy who had set up the centre was from Ayrshire and was to trade a caterer. I think he thought that we would bring our own instructors and gear.

By the second year, however, he had wised up – there was more equipment available at the Lodge, and he had hired a qualified instructor – which meant we could spend time on the various hills. And so it was that I got to meet Cameron McNeish – a story familiar to many, I would expect.

We took each of our first year classes to Craigower for a week, but it was a very full schedule, and Cameron was new to the centre and still working out expeditions – but even in the week I was there I warmed to him – it would be hard not to, as we walked the moors at the back of Newtonmore and he talked of his love of the Monadhliath

The following year, I was guidance teacher for first year and the headteacher suggested I go up to Craigower with each of the classes. That would give me three weeks in total in Newtonmore with the year group, two classes at a time – a great way to get to know them all, and demonstrative of a period when guidance was about relationships rather than tracking and monitoring.

Over those six weeks, I got to know Cameron and appreciated his approach to the mountains and many other aspects of life. We had some shared interests – folk music was one, and the pupils were frequently nonplussed as the two of us traded songs we knew, our voices echoing off rocks and rising above the rattle of burns running down the mountains. We had great chats on these walks, and often in the evenings as well. He introduced me to a fine local beer: Alice Ales, requested in those far off, non-pc days, as “A pint of slack, please!”

I learned not to be afraid of the mountains, but to treat them with respect, to enjoy them for their own sake, and on my terms, whilst always knowing the limits of my outdoor abilities. You didn’t need to scramble up gullies on the end of a rope – you could walk around a lochan and sit and write poetry, if that’s what you wanted. He pointed out the history of the places we passed – empty glens once heavily peopled, the remains of the Caledonian forest, legends from Pictish times and pre-history. With the exception of his hero, Tom Weir, I have never known anyone so skilled at placing humanity in the hills and identifying the place of the hills within our humanity.

He took us to Glen Feshie, to the Falls of Pattack, Glen Tromie, Ruthven Barracks and many other places. I became comfortable in the Cairngorm landscape, though never considered myself skilled enough to lead a party on the hills.

I know now from Cameron’s autobiography that this was a strained time for him, working long days at different tasks, and with a young family, but that never showed in his dealings with us.

I had brilliant group of sixth years around this time and asked if he would take us on an overnight camping trip one weekend – and that was how we came to be  huddled under the Shelter Stone, as I described in my introduction. That weekend was a fantastic and formative experience for those pupils, some of whom still refer to it when they meet me nearly forty years later. They remember what they learned and what they experienced – the hills and lochans, the burns and scree, the views and the history – and Cameron brought it all to life with his stories and his points of information. It was visceral education – squeezing some sphagnum moss to see how it retains water, rubbing a juniper leaf between the fingers to smell the scent of gin, listening for the cry of a ptarmigan on the tops or a capercaillie in the woodland, standing still to watch the deer, helping us pronounce and understand the Gáidhlig names and terms. He was a natural teacher – still is – and he made the pupils want to learn. A number of those students – and those who met him as first years – have retained a love of the outdoors for life – what a legacy!

Years later, it was no surprise to find he shared my conviction that for Scotland to get the best out of its people and its land, it needs to take responsibility for its own governance, and hold to account politicians who, in turn,  understand the needs and priorities of all who live in our country, and make decisions to help all flourish..

And I have maintained my love affair with the Cairngorms.


                              Beautiful Loch Insh – late November afternoon 2017

I’ve never come remotely near to repeating that epic Munro walk, but I return often, to sit by the Insh marshes, or to perch on a log on Loch Morlich’s beach and remember when I was young and fit and wide eyed about life. My son sampled Coylumbridge almost before he could walk, and Cairn Gorm was his first Munro. The A9 is an easier drive now, and often in retirement we will head for those familiar places and enjoy the high we get from just being there.

With typical repetitiveness, I will walk at Loch Morlich and count off the mountains I climbed that day, naming them with reverence, greeting them as old friends rather than a threat to be avoided. I’m no mountaineer, I couldn’t even claim to be a hillwalker, but I revel in the spirituality of those mountains and corries across the loch.


         The Cairngorms tops across a frozen Loch Morlich at twilight – November 2017

One of the places Cameron and I used to talk about was County Clare on the west coast of Ireland. There is a town there called Lisdoonvarna where, every September, there is a matchmaking festival and a man known as the Matchmaker. He claims to have introduced thousands of couples over the years and brought them happiness.

I wonder how many hundreds of folk have been touched by Cameron McNeish, his knowledge and love of the mountains of our land. I wonder how many folk, like me, have had their attitude the hills formed by his skill at communicating his love of nature around us, its history, its people and its wildlife.

The Matchmaker of Lisdoonvarna may claim to have brought happiness to many couples through his introductory skills – but I doubt he could hold a candle to the matchmaking skills of Cameron McNeish – who introduced so many of us to what he loves to call his “hills of home”, and instigated a lifelong love affair.

Talk about making a difference!



An unconvertible rebel

February 5, 2018


It was October 1981 and we were coming towards the end of a week long trip up the west coast of Ireland – a kind of early version of the Wild Atlantic Way. From Kerry to Clare, Conemara, Mayo and Sligo, we had meandered, following side roads and interesting routes, always drawn towards the strands, and heading eventually for dear old Leitrim and my family’s homeplace.

Towards the end of the week, we were in Sligo and had “passed by” at Drumcliff Graveyard to visit Willie Yeats. We were headed for Mullaghmore and wondering if there was a route along the coast, so at Ballygilgan we turned left on what seemed to be a seaside route which might also provide a view across to the Rosses.

As is not unusual, the road hesitated, faltered, and then, close to the strand, seemed to run out of ideas completely. There were a couple of ruins in the trees to our right and the sea to our left. We decided to park and go for an exploratory walk in the woodland which was tangled and overgrown and quite out of control, it seemed – with ivy gripping gnarled trees, and mossy banks of rocks and vegetation undulating below in the shadows.

It was a strange landscape – it seemed it had clearly been man made at some point, but there was little sign of any meaningful husbandry. Was this yet another remnant of the Anglo Irish ascendancy in this part of Ireland? Would we come across a great, burnt out, manor house somewhere ahead?

Well, in a clearing, there was a house – and a grand size it was. It was grey and looming and looked possibly deserted, but there was no sign of fire or damage to it and it certainly didn’t look abandoned.

We wondered if it might be open to the public, or if there was any information about it and so we circled the building: huge windows with blinds and hangings, closed wooden shutters, gravel under the grass under our feet, doors with flaking paint, rust appearing on gutters and pipes.

Gradually, we became aware that it might still be inhabited. There was that feeling you sometimes catch – a feeling of being watched, even though you can see nobody. More daring in my twenties than I would be now, I approached one of the ground floor windows and tried to see through it. The window was cloudy with dust and age, but there seemed to be furniture within.

All of a sudden we were a little apprehensive. We had no idea whose house this was or what their attitude would be towards a couple of trespassers. A little shaken, and still with that feeling of eyes being upon us, we retraced our steps, returned to the car and appreciated the free and open air of the strand for a while.

In pre-internet days, a map search needed an actual map, but the basic copy we had in the car  did not name this house. We had to wait till we returned home.

And there I discovered that we had been wandering around the environs of Lissadell.

At this point in my life I was at the beginning of my study of Irish history and politics. Born into an Irish family in Edinburgh, I received most of my education in England when we moved there when I was 7 years old. The English only teach English history. So, when I returned to Edinburgh to university one of my subjects was Scottish history, and, in my twenties, I was catching up on Irish history.

So I knew of Madame Markiewicz and that she came from Lissadell – but, as yet, I had no knowledge of where Lissadell was situated, so I had never considered that as a possible identity of the house we had stumbled across.

With research came further realisation.

I discovered that the house was indeed still lived in – and still occupied by the Gore Booths – Angus and his sister Aideen, who would be Constance’s nephew and niece. As “Madame” had become rather a hero of mine, it was quite a shock to realise that not only had I peered through the windows of her house, but that any eyes I had imagined peering out at me may well have belonged to such close relatives. Stranger still was the discovery that the house was actually open to visitors during the Summer months. I can only imagine how haunting such a tour would have been, as by the seventies the family had retreated to a small suite of rooms and the greater part of the house, despite being in disrepair, was very much as the Countess would have remembered it.

Somehow, it seemed a suitable “introduction” to Madame Markiewicz, whose life is a continuum of enigma and non sequiturs – on a scale which only tends to increase one’s admiration.

A member of high society, a debutante, and Slade art student, her father had been a hugely philanthropic member of the Anglo-Irish ascendancy, providing food and work for the hard pressed local population in the late 19th century: a concern for the poor which she inherited, and which motivated her Irish Republicanism and her fight for women’s rights – the latter alongside her sister, Eva Gore-Booth.

She famously offered as advice to revolutionary women:

“Dress suitably in short skirts and sitting boots, leave your jewels and gold wands in the bank, and buy a revolver.”

It is a form of words which sums up this remarkable woman, brought up in privilege, wedded to ideals, and saved from mystical irrelevance by a hard won practicality.

She was no mere “cultural nationalist” in the shape of a Lady Gregory, but was to be found, literally,  where the bullets were flying; her philanthropy propelled her to sell many of her possessions, to open and operate soup kitchens and to work so closely with the wretched poor that she may well have exposed herself to incurable tuberculosis, and an early death at 59.

Her background gave her no right to be a friend to the poor, but she was; her fin de siècle romantic pacifist ideas should have precluded her from active involvement in the Easter Rising, but they didn’t; those who started by ridiculing her military uniforms and her Anglo-Irish ways, finished by using her as inspiration. If Edinburgh born socialist James Connolly could accept her, there is a little doubt that her heart, like her actions, was in the right place.

She stands as a reproof to all those who would stereotype, compartmentalise, or dismiss those who appear “different”. In Constance’s  case, idiosyncrasy disguised commitment rather than replacing it. She was, in every way, an outstanding woman: unique, driven, and both of her time and “modern” in a most unlikely way. Despite first impressions, she was not a dilettante on what we would now call a “poverty tour”, she was a committed revolutionary – in the most revolutionary of times, and her actions matched her ideals.

What takes some understanding is that she was simultaneously a creature of her own upbringing – a reflection of that almost forgotten strand of Ireland’s history – the Anglo-Irish. They were often free thinking, unpredictable in their choices, and influential in the development of the Irish land around them, despite their sense of being apart.

When we consider the insular and inward looking Free State established by De Valera, a state which marginalised the Anglo-Irish and gave them no sense of being welcome in the new country, it is hard not to suspect that had they been included in a more inclusive and pluralistic state, it would have been to the benefit of all – a widening of perspective and cultural input, an acknowledged part of Ireland’s history, much as Northern Unionists are now becoming viewed.

Instead, the burning of the great houses in war time was followed by a fate which was just as cruel in some ways, the ignoring of the occupants and the creation of a new order in which they were neither despised nor persecuted but merely ignored, as if they had no role, no history, or no future. Not being “Celtic Irish” they were considered as having nothing to offer – an egregious example of cultural myopia, the result of  political insecurity and immaturity.

In many of his stories, Leitrim’s John McGahern mentions the big house, its inhabitants an elderly father and his bachelor son, condemned to look after each other as the house fails around them, only leaving to tend the bees in their garden hives, industrious to the last, driven to work.

They welcome him in, the young village lad who brings their groceries, they give him the run of their vast library. It’s how he becomes educated, cultured, thirsty for knowledge,-  and no reader can miss the contrast between these gentle, harmless, ostracised people, and the brutality of his own ignorant father, charged as one of the new Civic Guards with getting the new state off to a start of law and order, allegedly at the heart of a community, which regards him with fear and mistrust.

How Madame would have despaired of contemporary Ireland, with the homeless dying on its streets and the desperate poor driven into criminality. What a thorn she would have been in the side of the Irish establishment, a reminder of their dereliction of duty, an embarrassment of a half English aristocrat with more feeling for the dispossessed than those charged with their care as “children of the state”.

Even Lissadell itself reflects the position of the Gore-Booths – for decades at war with the Irish state over ownership and management of house and lands, till eventually the last remaining siblings who lived there were allowed to remain until the end. The house by then almost past saving – at least for any reasonable sum – the State was encouraged to buy it “for the people” when the family put it up for sale. More controversy, no offer from official Ireland, until finally it was sold into private hands, and there followed more conflict over public rights of way on the estate.

Now the house has been restored to much of its former glory, the owners live there, but it is open to the public in the Summer months again, there are exhibitions, events, and tea rooms and the owners aim to make the house and grounds  self sustaining and a tourist draw for this part of Sligo.

Though it is good the house has been saved, I cannot help feeling that our visit to the haunted grey presence in the tangled woodland was more in keeping with the strange, engaging, and unpredictable Constance, whose memory and deeds are still  inspiration for Republicans and women activists. The house I happened upon in 1981 seems, somehow, more representative, of the “mad, bad, and dangerous to know” Countess.

She would be delighted at the discomfort she still causes a British Establishment, pledged to celebrate the election of the first woman MP, distressed to realise it was not the impeccably connected Nancy Astor, but this renegade debutante with the military uniform and the waving pistol.

Constance Gore-Booth was born 150 years ago this weekend, she lives on in many a politicised mind and household, and her words still resonate, just as surely as the echo of birdsong on the grey walls of that big house I wandered around nearly forty years ago:

“But while Ireland is not free I remain a rebel, unconverted and unconvertible. There is no word strong enough for it. I am pledged as a rebel, an unconvertible rebel, to the one thing – a free and independent Republic.”