The overcast sky and the wishy-washy-not-really-raining July weather is still considering its next step. At other times of the year, Westmorland’s rain is more resolute and the locals can remind bedraggled tourists that, ‘we have to fill lakes wi’ summat’. Today the weather is undeniably a nuisance. We are going to visit my grandparents and my dad is loading our cases into the car. Unfortunately, he needs the ‘shooking handle’. It’s a word that I invented that has been adopted by my family. It describes the starting handle or hand-crank that he needs to shudder the car engine into life. Drivers will know that this is not a recent memory. It is from an age that allows septuagenarians to bore their grandchildren by describing a Britain that existed long before the invention of fish fingers.
The road in Lanarkshire undulates like a writhing serpent and is one of the journey’s highlights. We all shout ‘Whee!’ when my father drives the car faster to take full advantage of the lumps and bumps in the road. The ‘Lanarkshire Switchbacks’ are just one component of a programme of events that never varies on our frequent trips to my grandparents’ home on the edge of the Firth of Forth. A dozen games of Eye-Spy, Smarties that are distributed one at a time— ‘Wait until we are over Shap Fells. Your dad has to concentrate’— and fish and chips at Beattock are all designed to get a six-year-old through a long journey.
On our last trip, I hid under a rug on the car floor while my mother explained that I had not been able to join them on the visit this time. My grandmother burst into tears. My mother regretted the silly prank and said she felt guilty. She warns me that it won’t work a second time and she is right. I am scooped from under the rug and hugged a little too tightly.
The next morning, as always, I snuggle in the blankets in my grandmother’s bed. We eat digestive biscuits and she drinks the tea that my grandad has made. It is early but grandad is up and dressed and has been busy chopping wood outside the coal house at the back of the building. When romping under the bed clothes has ensured that the coating of biscuit crumbs is evenly distributed, it’s time to begin the preparations for breakfast.
A little way along the road that leads from the village square to Blackness Castle, there’s a dairy where my grandmother takes her large jug. Today, I am with her and while her jug is being filled with an indeterminate quantity of milk, I speak to Tam who is working in the byre. On the way home we stop at the baker’s van to buy some of the uniquely delicious rolls that only seem to be available north of the border.
My dad is planning to sketch the castle in preparation for a painting that he will finish when we get home. Blackness Castle juts out into the Firth of Forth like a ship at its moorings. There are rooms along its walls that are occupied and I know some of the residents including Dodi who always wears the same torn jacket and a physically handicapped man who can’t speak. In these unenlightened times he is called ‘Dummy’ but everyone knows him and greets him as he limps along the castle road on his way to the hotel bar.
‘Blackness Hotel’ is at the top of the square and on one side is grumpy Mr Fleming’s post-office-cum-shop that has an always-empty tea room attached. There is a tall clock at the entrance to the village and a lane that leads to fields with gorse bushes, cows and mushrooms and the Baggie Burn that teems with sticklebacks and minnows.
At the bottom of the square, a centuries old building backs onto the sands. It is ‘The Guildry’: an enormous grey building with stone steps at one end. It is occupied by five families but there is no electricity and the oil lamps that light the rooms in late summer evenings are swathed in moths that fly in circles above the flames. Each home has a cast iron range that is lit every day for cooking. It means that lots of time is spent chopping wood, filling coal buckets and holding newspapers in front of the fire to create the draft that helps the kindling to burst into flame. Behind the Guildry there is a small square, stone-built wash-house with a wood-fired boiler and, on a patch of grass at the edge of the sands, there’s a drying green where the women hang the weekly wash. Blackness Village has been left behind post-war modern Britain.
One of my favourite people is Jackie Black who lives with his mother, father, sister and brother in the Guildry. Mr Black senior is a retired shale miner and Jackie is a good friend to my uncle. Jackie makes beautiful wooden toys for me and a miniature oar so that I can help to row the boat when he and Uncle Charles go fishing for crabs. He works in Edinburgh and isn’t home until late in the evening so I don’t yet know that he has a secret. He has found a seam of coal close to the edge of the sea. With his usual generosity he is supplying free coal to the village. The exact whereabouts of the coal is a secret known to few other people but the local press has been told about the find and a reporter and a photographer are roaming the village. They are knocking on doors in search of a story and a picture of the coal seam but those who know where the coal is are refusing to reveal its location. I’m not aware of any of this. I am playing in the sand with two friends. The men from the press cannot return to their office without their story so they borrow a bucket of coal that they scatter on the beach. I am asked to use a bucket and spade to collect the coal.
The next day, a report about free coal for the village is accompanied by a photograph. People I don’t know stop to tell me that they have recognised me. They call on my grandmother to talk about the photograph and they tell my mother that it’s a lovely picture. When I go with my grandmother on our daily trip to buy the milk and the breakfast rolls, people smile and tell me that they have seen me in the paper. I now know what it’s like to be famous and I like it.
My grandmother’s death when I am eight years old is followed, a few years later, by my grandfather's. The connection with Blackness Village is lost and there are no more trips to Scotland in our old Standard 9 car.
The events of ‘the day that I was famous’ have since acquired new layers of meaning that defy time’s attempts to consign them to the sediment that lies in the depths of memory. It’s a day that still triggers memories of a happy childhood, a grandmother’s love, Jackie Black’s kindness and the excitement of time spent in a village that the world had inadvertently mislaid. Another layer of recollection is added with the grown-up realisation that my memories need some radical repair and rehabilitation. The kindness of strangers, the generosity of friends, the welcoming smiles and the joy of visiting the village must now be overlaid with the village people’s poverty and, for some, no doubt, their feelings of desolation and despair. The dark days of the post war era must have been particularly harsh for those who lived in this forgotten community. I wonder what they really thought about a visiting child who is enjoying their attention because his picture is in the local newspaper.
Today, the wash-house might have become a trendy beach side café; the Guildry has almost certainly been demolished and the castle is probably a tourist attraction with an annual concert in the grounds. There could even be a marina full of expensive yachts or an unbearably snobbish sailing club claiming ownership of the crumbling pier where I used to lie and gaze into the water. Is Mr Fleming’s empty tea room now a Michelin starred restaurant? These are outrageously wild speculations. I have no idea what Blackness is like today because I have not been back. I don’t want to go back and I think I know why.
I have been a teacher and researcher for most of my working life. I have been writing poems and short stories during the Corona virus lockdown but have never thought of publishing fiction. The only books of mine that you will find on Amazon are Grandparenting in divorced families
and ‘Improving schools and inspection’