The places, events and people depicted
in the following story are true. Some names have been changed or omitted in
order to avoid embarrassment to those who may identify themselves with depicted
It is inevitable that during a service
career of over twenty years, there will be cases of distressful intimidation by
one’s superiors in rank.
Over a period of twenty-six years’
service, it only happened to me on two occasions, other than the one described
during my early war service in
I have chosen to ignore those occasions
as being of little importance, although at the time, they caused a small measure
of distress to my family and me.
However, they have been outweighed by
the pleasant times and the people I have had the honour to serve with as a rear
gunner in Bomber Command during World War Two, and subsequent service in an
administrative capacity in a number of
countries as a member of the Royal Air Force.
ortsoy is one of a number of small
fishing towns strung out along the north-east coast of
. The main street running through the centre of town is joined at either end by
the main coastal road from Inverness to
The streets leading from the coastal
side of the main road slope gently down to the small harbour, which dries out
completely at low tide. It is then that the strong salt-smelling air is filled
with seagulls, diving and swooping on any morsel of crustacean food left in the
shallow pools by the ebbing tide. Whilst uttering their challenging screeches to
their competitors, they cover the high, grey, stone walls of the harbour and the
pier with copious coatings of birdlime.
Whilst the tide is out, the local
fishermen take the opportunity to attend to the hull of their boats. These small
fishing boats are sixteen to twenty feet in length, and are ‘clinker’ built
(strips of timber overlap each other). At low tide, the barnacles are scraped
off and the hull is given a good coating of tar, which will be dry before the
next high tide raises their keel above the silt.
It was into this environment that I
came into the world in the early 1920s, in a small house, of which there were
three, terraced up a narrow close or alley on South High Street. I recall
sitting on the doorstep and looking at a high stone wall about eight feet away,
on the other side of which stood a very large house with ivy growing up to the
eaves, and which turned a brilliant scarlet in the autumn. This was the
residence of the local Church of Scotland minister, whom I recall baptising my
sister and I in our kitchen.
At the upper end of the close, a
narrow arch led into the garden, which, together with one toilet between the
three tenants and a shared clothesline, sometimes caused friction.
Each tenant had a key to the communal
toilet, but if someone was taken short, and found that they could not get in,
they would hammer desperately on the door, and shout, “Hurry up, I’ve got a
touch of the screamers”, and an
angry voice from within would shout, “Och, awa’ and shite!” Which was a
derisive comment, indicating that they would come out when ready.
I was later to learn that if someone
made a statement to another person who did not believe it, the statement was
invariably dismissed with the comment, “Awa and shite.”
There was also no such thing as a
laundry in those days. I recall that my mother used to put a large wooden tub on
a four-legged stand, and using a scrubbing brush and board, lather the clothes
with a cake of Lifebuoy soap and hot water, which was boiled in a large
cast-iron kettle over a coal fire. The clothes were then wrung out by hand and
tossed into a basket ready to be hung out on the communal clothesline.
When I used to accompany my mother to
the back yard to help her hang out the clothes, there was sometimes a very obese
lady who had just beaten us to it. When she saw that my mother was distressed at
the lack of space on the line, she would grimace menacingly and mutter, “Tough
shit”, or, “Hard bloody luck.” My mother would diplomatically turn around,
ignoring the insult, enter the house and arrange the clothes on a clotheshorse
around the fireplace.
When we had a bath, it was done in
the same wooden tub in which the clothes were washed.
There was also no such thing as a
kitchen sink. The dishes were washed in a basin that sat on a table in a kitchen
recess. Underneath the table was a pail, which was used during the night for
toilet purposes by our parents. We who slept upstairs had a ‘chanty’
(chamber pot) under the bed for that purpose. The pail and the pots were emptied
the next morning into the communal toilet in the garden.
At the bottom of the garden was a low
stone wall, surmounted by a length of chicken wiring about six feet high. On the
other side of the wall was a large yard containing a mixture of chickens, ducks
and turkeys, and a couple of noisy geese! These belonged to a store at the end
of the yard, which supplied animal feed to the local farmers.
On the other side of the yard was a
cobbled stone lane leading from a flourmill at the bottom of the slope, up to
the main road. One would often see a long wooden cart with wooden steel-rimmed
wheels, laden with sacks of flour, being pulled by a large Clydesdale horse
passing by on its way to the railway station to dispatch its load en route to
various bakery distribution centres.
The cart that was used to deliver
coal to the inhabitants was of the same dimensions as the flourmill cart, and
was pulled through the streets by a large Clydesdale horse. The coal was carried
in large hessian bags, and the horse was led by the coal man, dressed in
dungarees and a heavy leather jacket with a brass-studded back, on which each
bag of coal was carried to his customers. He carried a handbell in his right
hand, which indicated his arrival.
The coal man carried the delivery of
coal up our close to a shed in the garden, of which there were three adjoining.
In the rafters of one of these sheds was a pigeon loft, and I recall many a
harsh word exchanged between the owner and our neighbour whose washing on the
communal clothesline was frequently ‘shat on’, as she put it, by ‘those
However, one day, near Christmas,
when the snow lay heavily on the ground, the beloved pigeons mysteriously
disappeared overnight. The family who had complained about them had gone to the
country the next day to spend Christmas with relatives, and it was suggested
that pigeon pie might have figured prominently on the Christmas Day menu. My
mother said that as we were in the midst of a post-1914-18 war depression, food
was scarce so who could blame them if it was true.
Although the coal cart called only
once per week, the baker’s van called daily. This was a large box-like
structure, also set up on large wooden wheels with steel bands surrounding the
rims. Two doors opened at the back, revealing a number of shelves on either side
containing fresh crusty bread or hot buttery rolls.
The driver’s seat was a bench type
of structure perched on top of the box. It stretched the width of the van, and
the backrest was a steel wire frame ending in a circular type scroll at either
In order to reach the seat, the
driver had to step on a steel pedal-like step and then undo the reins, which
were tied round the backrest. The horse, in this case, was a lighter type than
the Clydesdale, and was referred to as a ‘shelt’ as was that of the milkman.
The baker’s man always indicated
his approach by blowing a whistle. I recall that one day as I was sitting on our
doorstep, I heard the shrill whistle of the baker’s van approaching. The van
stopped at the bottom of the close and the driver walked up to our house. Seeing
a pile of freshly baked Scotch pancakes cooling on a small table, which my
mother had placed in the doorway, he hastily grabbed half a dozen and crammed
them into his mouth. Without a word, he turned on his heels, walked briskly back
down the close and drove off.
I recall that my mother tearfully
related the occurrence to my father that evening when he came home from work. My
father said that he would deal with the thief the next day. However, the next
evening when he came home, he said that the baker was sorry, but as he had five
kids to feed on one quid a week, he often starved himself. The temptation to
partake of the delicious smelling pancakes was too strong to resist.
The milkman’s cart was an open
topped, bright yellow, two-wheeled vehicle with a rear, centrally situated low
platform on which the driver stood. The sides were raised about one foot above
the wheels and a platform extended from front to rear to accommodate a number of
milk churns, each containing five gallons of milk. These churns were encircled
by three brightly polished brass bands and they had a brass spigot at the
The approach of the milk cart was
heralded by the driver blowing on a referee type whistle, and the inhabitants of
the street would emerge from their front door with their jug, or more commonly,
a round pail, which the milkman would fill from a spigot at the bottom of the
A scroll iron bar also surmounted the
front of the cart over which the reins of the shelt horse extended to the rear
platform, from where the driver took control.
As a four-year-old, the arrival of
any of these carts in our street was a fascinating event because in those days
there was no other traffic down our street except for a few handcarts.
One of these was the knife sharpener,
whose handcart had a large wheel in the centre and was operated by a foot
treadle suspended beneath the cart. It was fascinating to watch the sparks fly
off the machine as he performed his knife sharpening.
Another handcart was a gaily-painted
ice-cream cart, which was pushed along by a squat, dark-haired Italian, who
sported a long, black bushy moustache. The centre of his cart had two deep cans
encircled by ice, and for one halfpenny he would serve you a large cone,
liberally topped with vanilla or strawberry flavour.
Both of these handcart people would
call out their service as they walked slowly down the street.
I recall my first sojourn to the
bottom of the close. On looking down South High Street, I saw parked outside the
butcher’s shop a grey motor car with a black folding cloth hood, its two large
circular headlamps looking like an enormous pair of spectacles staring up at me.
This, I was later told, was the first Model T Ford in town.
Another innovation was the occasional
visit of the silent movie picture man. The movies took place in the town hall,
usually on a Saturday night. The hall would be filled with bench type wooden
seats, and the projector would be set up on a platform at the rear. A number of
white sheets sewn together and pinned high up on the wall facing the audience
would form the screen. The pictures were black and white, and appeared jerky.
However, it was quite exciting to see
a lady tied to a railway line, being rescued at the last nerve-racking minute,
or Charlie Chaplin being chased, and Ben Turpin being chased through a building
by a lion.
The town crier announced any event
such as a picture show, concert or perhaps a visit by
’s favourite comedian, Harry Lauder, a few days before. He would stride down
the street clad in his kilt, brogue shoes and tam-o’-shanter bonnet,
vigorously shaking a handbell, and every few minutes he would stop to shout his
announcement of a coming event.
We were now into December 1927. The
trees and hedgerows were bare of leaves, covered with a heavy layer of snow. I
would look out of the window at the fast falling snowflakes, which my mother
said filled the close to ankle depth. She would then stoke up the fire with coal
and top it up with a log of pinewood. On the left-hand side of the fire was a
cast-iron oven with a heavy metal knobbed door, and inside it were two shelves,
only good for keeping food hot.
The main cooking was done in
cast-iron pots, which were placed over the hot coals and suspended from a hook
at the end of a chain. This, in turn, was connected to a steel bar attached to
each side of the chimney.
Since our staple diet in those
post-war days of depression consisted of porridge, mashed potatoes, cabbage,
carrots, and for a treat, oatcakes or pancakes, our large cast-iron pot was in
When pancakes or oatcakes were being
made, a circular steel griddle with a hoop-shaped handle was suspended from the
chimney hook, over the flames of the fire. The oatcakes were made of oatmeal,
salt and butter, mixed in a bowl and then rolled out thinly on a floured board.
Shaped into a circle, they were cut into quarters before being put on the
griddle to bake.
As oatmeal was one of the cheapest
food commodities at that time, hot oatcakes and margarine were often one of our
staple diets, as was oatmeal porridge. There were times when my mother felt too
ill to cook, so my sister and I often had two slices of bread broken up on a
plate, covered with milk and sprinkled with sugar.
As Christmas was nigh, I used to gaze
at the iron pot as it hung from the chimney and ask my mother how on earth Santa
Claus could ever get past it. She said that as we hung up our stockings on
Hogmanay night, she would leave the pot at one side containing a bowl of soup
At that time of year it got dark
around four p.m. It was fascinating for us to be allowed to go to the bottom of
the close as darkness approached and watch the lamplighter come down the street
with his long pole, which had a hook at the end, balanced on his shoulder. He
would stop at each street lamp in turn, and with the hook, open a glass panel on
the lamp, then insert the hook into a small ring attached to a swivel bar
beneath the gas mantle. The mantle would then burst into a brilliant white
light, casting a myriad of star-like sparkles on the snowy ground.
The Salvation Army would gather
around the street lamp at the bottom of our close at this time of year, and sing
Christmas carols nearly every night, collecting money to provide food for the
poor, of which there was a growing number in the post-war depression. I heard my
parents say, it seemed that the further north you got from the seat of
, the more poverty prevailed. Therefore, when you got to the north of
, the generous charity of the Salvation Army was a lifeline for many families.
On Sundays, attending church was a
must for most families. My family did not attend church, as my mother said that
we didn’t have enough money to be able to afford Sunday clothes. As she came
from a family that had always attended church, she would silently weep when the
church bells pealed out their invitation to commune with the Lord. I would then
run into our back yard and look beyond the cobbled lane to the large, stone
structure of the auld kirk beyond, which was surmounted by a tall, square turret
supporting a large round black-faced clock with gold numbers and hands on all
Beneath the clock was a series of
open arches through which I could see the bells swinging to and fro as they
pealed out their melodious call to the churchgoers. The male members of the
congregation in those days were mainly fishermen or farmers. Without exception,
they were dressed in blue serge or black suits, white shirts, black ties and
bowler hats. The ladies all wore dark clothes, and without exception, cloche
The church, in the fishing towns of
north Scotland in those days, had quite an influence over the parishioners, and
the local minister or priest would make house calls giving spiritual comfort to
those in need and offer good advice. Our local minister, Mr. Brown, was a
regular caller at our house, and after he baptised my sister and me, his son
Michael carved a windmill for me from a piece of scrap wood, which spun merrily
when I ran into the wind. I treasured that windmill until the hole where the
nail entered got too big with constant use, which seemed a long time. It was the
only toy I can remember having before I was six years old.
In January 1928, winter had firmly
set in and the snow and ice on the roads were not likely to disperse until the
month of April, at least. I was now five years old, and it would soon be time to
start school. I recall my first inauspicious entry to school as clear as if it
That morning, my mother clad me in a
and trousers, new stockings and shoes, and warned me that as she was paying for
them in instalments, they had to last me until they were paid for.
“You’ll tak thim aff as seen as
you come hame fae the squeel, and I’ll patch your auld ones afore you get
hame!” My mother then put her coat on, and taking my hand, she said, leaning
down and looking straight into my face, “This will be your first day at the
squeel, when the headmaster asks you a question, answer slowly, and be
After a long walk up the main road,
we finally entered tall gates to the schoolyard, which we crossed and entered a
pair of large double doors. The janitor ushered us into a room to wait our turn
to be ‘inducted’.
After what seemed like ages, and a
great many mothers had come and gone, leaving in some cases a screaming, spoilt
child to be ushered away by a teacher, we were beckoned into the headmaster’s
office by a tall balding gentleman wearing gold-rimmed spectacles. He then sat
down behind an ornately carved desk. Behind him stood a tall plump jovial
looking lady, who I learned was to be my teacher.
The headmaster peered ominously at me
over the top of his spectacles; my mother sensed my discomfort and squeezed my
hand reassuringly. “Well, boy, what’s your name?” he asked.
“Hugh Macinnes!” I said.
“Say ‘Sir’ when you address me,
“Sir Hugh Macinnes!” I promptly
There was a titter of laughter from
the lady teacher and my mother.
The misunderstanding was soon
explained, however the headmaster didn’t laugh, and I was glad when the
teacher and my mother led me to the classroom where, to my relief, there were a
lot of other children to whom I could relate.
The teacher introduced herself as
Miss Joss, and we all felt that she was wonderful because she taught us how to
make various things from shiny coloured paper.
What I didn’t like was knitting. We
were issued with knitting needles and wool, and had to make a kettle holder for
My attitude to this school took a
dramatic turn a few months later, when the headmaster came into the classroom
one day and made the following statement: “It has come to my notice that some
boys have been exiting the outside toilets by scaling the wall instead of using
the open exit, and this must stop!”
Up until now, none of we
five-year-olds had thought of doing that, and moreover, had never seen anyone
else doing it at playtime. Now, this was a challenge. The wall was only about
three feet high, and at playtime some older boys suggested that we scale it or
be labelled cowards.
Six of us did, and I, being the last
one over, was caught fair and square by the headmaster.
Grabbing me by the shoulder, he said,
“You know what I told you in class the other day? Sir Hugh Macinnes!”
“Yes, Sir,” I said, trembling
with the fear of some impending doom.
He hesitated for a moment, then smote
me across the face with a resounding smack and walked off with a satisfied smirk
on his face. Mr. Johnston had exacted his revenge on me for the embarrassment he
had suffered after word got around the teachers of the innocent mistake I had
made at his expense on my first day at school.
When my mother came to meet me at the
gates after school, she said that the education authorities had complete control
over discipline during school hours, and, therefore, we must always do as we
The usual punishment in schools in
the north of
for minor misdemeanours in those days was the strap. The miscreant would be
called out in front of the class and made to hold out their hand, facing the
teacher with palm upturned. She or he would then bring down the strap with a
resounding crack upon the proffered hand. Sometimes, the three tongues of the
strap would raise blisters on the wrist of the offender. However, some
experienced offenders would suddenly withdraw their hand at the last minute.
If the teacher were a male, the
resulting wallop he administered to his own lower anatomy would sometimes cause
his eyes to cross as the tears welled up in his eyes and ran down his cheeks. A
titter of laughter would ripple through the classroom on these occasions. When
the teacher recovered, he would instruct the miscreant to put his arm, palm
upwards, across the desk, and then successfully administer the punishment.
Sometimes, after coming home from
school, my mother would give my sister and me tuppence and one milk pail each.
“Go out to Burgess’s Dairy and get the two pails filled,” she’d say.
The dairy was over a mile out of
town, and on a windy day it would take our breath away, sometimes forcing us to
walk backwards against the wind. There were even days around the windy month of
March that we had to squat down in a ditch, or sit under a tree to recover our
breath, whilst the wind shrieked in protest through the mass of telephone wires
lining the left-hand side of the road for as far as you could see.
When we finally got to the dairy, the
cows had recently been milked as it was after four o’clock and therefore the
milk was still warm. However, as Mrs. Burgess knew that we had walked a long
way, she always gave us a drink of cold milk, which, besides wetting our dry
throats, also stayed the pangs of hunger, which rarely abated. Nevertheless, we
were always glad to leave the dairy, as the strong smell of cow dung and urine
was sometimes nauseating.
On meeting the main road from the
cobblestone lane leading from the dairy farm, we were often almost deafened by
the wild cawing of crows circling over a pine tree wood on the opposite side of
the road. The local farmers, who considered them a pest as they cost them
thousands of pounds annually in decimated corn crops, shot them regularly and
festooned the fences surrounding the cornfields with dead crows, or sometimes
just crows’ wings, as a possible deterrent.
One Friday after school, a few of us
were approached by one of the older boys who lived near me suggesting that on
Saturday morning we should go to the crow wood. He said that crows’ eggs, if
eaten raw, would give you great strength and kept away colds, and he knew how to
get them from the nests.
My curiosity was aroused; although I
had no intention of eating raw eggs of any kind, I wanted to see how he could
climb those tall pine trees. I said that I would ask my mother’s permission. I
was not sure whether she would agree to my accompanying this particular boy, as
he was the son of the man who had pinched my mother’s pancakes.
Saturday morning arrived, and my
mother gave me permission to go. However, she warned me that as the family of
that boy seemed perpetually in trouble of some sort, I was to come home
immediately after I found out how he climbed the trees. On no account was I to
attempt what he was doing, as he was much older than I was and more experienced.
I then joined a few of my schoolmates at the older boy’s house.
We all set off for the craw widdie,
as it was known locally, the older boy, Jim, carrying two pieces of rope with a
loop at each end, which his father had given him. These pieces of rope, each
about two feet in length, aroused our curiosity and we asked what they were for.
“Ah, just wait and see,” he said secretively.
As soon we arrived at the craw widdie,
and without further ado, Jim put one foot into each loop of one piece of rope.
He then looped the other piece of rope around the tree, put one hand through
each loop and gripped the rope. By pressing the foot rope against the tree and
pulling the hand rope, he now had leverage to climb the tree, which he seemed to
accomplish with practised and dexterous ease until he reached the areas that
housed the crows’ nests, which were built close to one another.
His approach was accompanied by a
flurry of wings and loud cawing protestations at the intrusion, as the crows
circled the trees in agitated alarm.
He hung the two pieces of rope around
a branch and proceeded to collect any available eggs, putting them gingerly in
his pocket. The two pieces of rope were then slung round his neck until he
reached the lower branch, which was still a considerable height from the ground.
He then brought into play his ropes and descended to the ground, after which he
proudly displayed a handful of bright green eggs, which he promptly cracked, one
after the other, and swallowed their contents. I gasped in amazement, as did my
He then produced one from his pocket,
and said, “Who’s going to try it?” We all chanted our refusal in no
I then asked him, “What if there
was a young one inside the egg when you emptied its contents down your
“Ah, well,” he said, “that
happened once, but I said, ‘too late, Milord’, and down it went!”
I asked him how he had learnt to use
the two ropes. He said that his father learnt it from natives in
during the war.
We silently left the wood and headed
for home. I thought about what my mother had told me about that family, and
decided then and there to give them all a wide berth.
Winter was setting in again and my
father had contracted severe bronchitis due to working in the cold damp factory,
which was situated only a few streets away. The factory sold beer and lemonade,
and my father drove and maintained the only Leyland Badger lorry in town, from
which he canvassed custom and sold the products in outlying districts.
The pay in those post-war days was
barely enough to keep body and soul together for one person, never mind about a
man with a wife and two growing children.
My father also suffered occasional
pain in one of his legs through a war injury, for which the government of the
day paid him a pittance of a pension, which was later stopped because he was
My father had joined the army in the
year 1915, and was a gunner in the machine gun corps. He saw action in
Gallipoli, and I recall his description of the Turks as a “ruthless bunch of
bastards.” He had witnessed his mate being shot while wounded and left for
dead, and then they shot my father in the leg before running off, thinking that
they had finished them both off. However, my father survived and was taken to a
, to recover.
However, during my father’s current
illness, the factory was closed and the owner went into retirement.
During this period, although I was
not at that time aware of the reason for it, we were fed nothing but oatmeal
porridge, or pieces of bread broken into a plate and sprinkled with a little
sugar, then covered with a little milk mixed with hot water. This was called
‘saps’, and became almost a regular diet in the north of
during the depression years from 1926. My father said that a tramp living in
was better off than a hard-working war veteran in
When my father had recovered from his
illness, I recall that he had a long and heated discussion with my mother. He
thumped the table in anger at the callous disregard the government had for
ex-servicemen’s welfare and access to employment, and said he was going to the
Labour Exchange to express his disgust.
After he left the house, clad in his
customary breeches, leather leggings and boots, similar to his army uniform but
probably a lot warmer, my mother sat by the fire, staring into the flickering
embers. Looking at my sister and me, she said, “I don’t know where your next
meal is coming from!”
My sister and I were not insensitive
to the feelings of our mother. I am sure that we secretly built up a feeling of
insecurity of which, at that time, we were not aware, but was to prevail
throughout our lives. In my case in particular, it took the form of seizing
every advantage that offered some degree of security – not so much for me, but
for the family I would eventually bring into this world.
My father arrived home very late that
afternoon, slumped into a chair and lit a cigarette. My mother fetched him a cup
of tea, and after having a few sips, he put his cup down and announced, “We
are moving to the town of
at the weekend. The Labour Exchange has found me a job in the town of
My mother stopped in her tracks, and
with a look of sheer amazement on her face said, “But Buckie is nearer to
where we are now than
“Well,” said my father, “since
I’ve got to stay in Buckie when I start this job, I’ll have to pay for digs,
so I took a bus out to Boyndie to see my father, and he is letting us stay in
the cottage in Banff until we can move to Buckie.”