A SLEDGE NAMED BLAIRS
MEMORIES OF BLAIRS COLLEGE
1948 - 1953
For Joe and Doh who asked if my school had been like Harry Potter’s
Chapel slippers and study sleeves
You have quite a bit of explaining to do when you say you
want to go to Blairs: What do you want to go there for! Mothers have
been known to drag parish priests along to have it out with the
Archbishop: You’re far too young (you, not the Archbishop). But
persevere. First, you’ll have a medical examination at Dr Neilson’s in
Chalmers Street, near Edinburgh Royal Infirmary, and then just a few
doors away, at St Thomas of Aquin’s, tests in English, French, Latin and
Maths; an interview with the Rector and Archbishop and you’d better
know why you still want to go to Blairs and not Dunoon or Portobello.
Can you put up with not knowing – for weeks – if you’re in or not? A
letter will come, though, and you’ll be given a linen number (152), to be
sewn on all your clothes. There’ll be some funny things you’ve got to
take, like nailbrush, chapel slippers, study sleeves, but you’ll know what
dubbin and football boots are — you’re not from Elgin, I take it? Elgin?
Ready, then? Oh, toilet bag and nailbrush! Not to worry:
you’ll get them in Woolies’, just across from the Waverley Steps. But
first, up the Bridges to Martin’s for one last shepherd’s pie and chips,
and trifle. And when you do pop into Woolies’ you needn’t stock up on
a lot of soap and toothpaste. If you run out you’ll get them on tick at one
of those cubby-holes behind the decano’s or sub-decano’s desk (wait a
bit) and settle up at the end of term.
Don’t listen to what they tell you about not needing to buy a
black suit. Whoever thought that one up had obviously never appeared
on the platform in a dull bottle-green St Aloysius or Holy Cross blazer,
far less a brilliant royal-blue St Mary’s, Bathgate. Blend in. Wear a
black suit, white shirt, black tie, or you’ll wish you had gone to Dunoon.
And when George Neilson, who has clearly decided his father needn’t
have bothered, says he’s going to push you out of the train on the Forth
Bridge you may even wish you were on Davie McCann’s ‘Scottish
Riviera’. Eh? You know – Burntisland.
You won’t remember much after that shock to the system.
Next thing you’ll be in your 7’ x 5’ (very approx.) blue-curtained
pinewood cubicle and just before the lights go out somebody saying you
put your shirt on in the morning before going down to the washplace.
That can’t be right but it is, and everybody’s looking at you and
sniggering even though it’s the Grand Silence.
But before that you’re wakened at half-past six by an electric
bell and somebody saying in a loud voice, “Benedicamus Domino”, and
what will be your answer to that? In seconds, the local censor – a kind
of warder – will be giving your cubicle curtain a quick flick to make
sure you’re up. Never, never go back to bed and then pretend his flick
was too quick and he missed you. Don’t even think about it.
Washplace: the washbasins line the walls, and above them
you’ll find the boxes, or pigeon-holes, where you keep your toothbrush
and toothpaste. That’s right – no shampoo; no dental floss; no Listerine;
maybe Brylcreem. You’ll share the washbasin but not your soap –
unless the other shareholder is dear old Johnny McCabe.
There are more basins running up the middle and down again, just like
The Kerry Dance. You don’t know it? Oh, there’s a fine 1916 recording
by John McCormack you would like. He himself didn’t like the song
very much, but you wouldn’t think so listening to “Only dreaming of
days gone by,/ In my heart I hear/ Loving voices of old companions/
Stealing out of the past once more …”
Above the washbasins and running up and down the middle
again are the hot-water pipes where you hang your towels — they’ll fray
quickly if you use them to swing over the up-and-down basins in the
middle too often, and when your eyes are streaming and your nose
running those pipes will dry your hankie in no time – you’re only
allowed one a week, and there won’t be any Kleenex.
You’ll find the baths sort of next to the bootroom – you know,
where you keep your dubbin. You’ll probably feel there’s not many
baths for so many people but not to worry: there’ll be a timetable so that
everybody can take a bath once a week, but you can always skip it of
course: just let the taps run, make waves, and sing at the top of your
voice, and the censor pacing up and down outside will think you really
are in puris naturalibus and splashing up and down the middle again.
Oh, that: it’s Latin for in your birthday suit.
There won’t be any showers and when more than a hundred
players straight off muddy football pitches wash the dirt off up and
down but not the middle, there’ll be a glorious fug in the washplace.
You’ll do PE and cross-country in your everyday clothes so you won’t
need to wash afterwards – just straight back to class.
You’ll change your shirt, socks, vest and underpants, – oh, and
your hankie – once a week, and apart from feast days, when you put on
your ‘festies’ (good suit), you’ll wear the same jacket and trousers every
day for four months so no problem there. Not like the English trainee-
exciseman at Glenkinchie Distillery who lodged with Mrs Gordon, the
cooper’s wife, and changed his underwear every day.
You’ll find the jakes easily enough – just out the back. On
dark cold winter mornings you won’t feel like spending a penny (no, of
course we didn’t talk like that!) unless, like Big Tam Lafferty, you can
grab the end bog next to the boiler-room, and just hog it. On his last
morning at Blairs, the first Thursday in July 1950, Big Tam was heard
The man to thank for the warm perch in the end bog and for the
hot-water pipes that dried your hankie, was a big craggy gentle
Highlander, Donal Grant, brother of Kenneth, who was Bishop of Argyll
and the Isles from 1945 to 1959.
Ready, then? You’ve combed your hair and made final
adjustments (or perhaps not) at one of the mirrors hanging above the
washbasins. They’re big mirrors but you won’t get a look-in if the
Brylcreem boys are out in force and taking up all the hairspace. They
don’t mean any harm, though; they’ll lend you their pocket-mirror, and
when you’ve checked that all is as it should be you can give your
shoulders a wee wiggle (go on) to let everybody see how pleased you are
with yourself, and then chapel-slipper-shuffle (say it quickly three times)
down to the playhall – skaliff-bang-bang (2) one-two-THREE-shuffle-
hop (go on!). You’ll pass the sports room, on your right, where
football’s governing body makes all its usual daft decisions. The
playhall’s just down a few steps now, on your left; opposite, is the
cloakroom, and the main staircase up to the dormitories.
Benches line both sides of the playhall. Where you sit is
decided by the form you’re in and your position in class: first form at the
front, and so on back down the hall to the bench along the end wall,
where fifth form sit.
Few are frozen
7 o’clock now, and time to go to the Chapel. You will go
nearly everywhere in ranks: two long lines hugging the walls as you go.
The sub-decano, a kind of assistant chief warder, walks between the two
ranks at the head of the procession – you can’t miss Mick Joyce in his
green study sleeves. Mick’s followed at intervals by, I think, six
censors, and the decano takes up the rear. They’re there to see that you
don’t step out of line: you have to exercise custody of the eyes which
means you’re not supposed to look at anybody, and you mustn’t talk,
especially now in the Grand Silence, and you keep your hands
joined…no, not like that, just sort of one hand lightly over the
other…yes, like that.
Quickly now, and let’s keep this simple: left out of the
playhall; right at the post-boxes; just before you get to those wide red-
polished steps, on the left are the back stairs up to the dormitories and
the pigeon-holes where you pick up your change of linen on Saturday
after night prayers; that short corridor on the right takes you to the
refectory, and perched right there at the top of the steps is the linen room
(no, not now).
Half-way down the red-polished steps, on our left, we pass the
Oratory, used by fourth and fifth year for morning prayers, meditation,
and Mass; midday prayers; Rosary and evening talk; night prayers, and
on Sundays, Compline. Am I trying to tell you too much all at once?
All right, I’ll slow down. I won’t tell you about the huge sacristy on the
left at the bottom of the steps, or the small back rooms on the right
where the sacristans do their dirty work – you know, make sure
everything is cleaned properly
Father Gerry Maher: You haven’t cleaned the cruet table.
Second Sacristan: It’s not dirty, Father.
Father Gerry: Don’t let it get dirty.
Into the cloister now, and it’s only a few yards to the holy-
water font, beside the big double-doors into the sacristy. Before we turn
right at the font we have to bless ourselves, make the sign of the Cross.
But we’re in two lines, remember, hugging the walls, so if you’re in the
left line you dip your fingers into the font then reach out to whoever is
opposite you in the other line to let him take a little holy water, and
together you bless yourselves.
Half-way down the cloister, on the left, is the side-door into the
Chapel that the sacristans use, and the priests, when they’re not in
procession. Nearly opposite that door is Our Lady’s Altar, where Father
Thomas Mannion says his daily Mass. It serves also as the Altar of
Repose in Holy Week. We take it in turn to keep watch before the
Blessed Sacrament, which is ‘exposed’ in a monstrance set in the middle
of the altar — just like Quarant’ Ore, the Forty Hours’ Adoration.
Facing you at the end of the cloister is the Sacred Heart Altar,
and right by it on the left, the way into the Chapel.
Against the wall opposite as you pass through the double-doors
is the pulpit, just inside the altar rails that divide the back part of the
Chapel – for parishioners and visitors – from the four-tiered choir stalls
facing each other across the aisle. Behind the top right stall, next to the
sanctuary, is the organ. The sanctuary is open, with no altar rail. On the
left is a single row of stalls for the priests, and facing it across the
sanctuary, the three places for the celebrant and his ministers when they
‘sit out’ the Gloria, Credo, and sermon.
I remember only two Sunday sermons now. They occurred within
just a few weeks of each other though probably not in the same year.
All right, I’ll explain: first, Dominica in Septuagesima, the seventh
Sunday before the First Sunday of Passiontide, which is two Sundays
before Easter. Isn’t there a shorter way of saying it? There is, but it’s
not much help: Dom in Sept. Sacristans had a kind of handbook to tell
them what colour vestments to set out for Mass in the morning, and
where to place the markers in the big Missale Romanum. Th hdbk wnt n
fr abrvns n a bg wy. Anyway, the Gospel for that Sunday is Matthew
20: 1-16, which ends, “Many are called but few are chosen.” (It helps to
be Scottish here.) Father Matt Donoghue had steeled himself not to say
“frozen” but he did, and came down from the pulpit still not realizing
what he had said and wondering what all the commotion was about.
It was a different matter with Father John McKee: The Gospel
for Feria Secunda post Dominicam Primam in Quadragesima…Hold
on, isn’t that a Monday? So it is – the Monday after the First Sunday in
Lent …? The Gospel was Matthew 21: 31-46, about the sheep and the
goats – which reminds me of the Benedictine who started his sermon to
a group of Quaker and Catholic farmworkers, “Friends, Romans,
Father McKee’s goats felt hard done by
- But we didnae ken it was you, Lord.
- Weel, ye ken noo!
Father Thomas Mannion (Big Tim) was always already in the
Chapel when we got there just after 7 o’clock, along with Big Steve.
Father Stephen McGill PSS was a little man but very roly-poly. He was
only in his thirties but his crew cut was completely grey. Those letters
after his name meant that he was a Priest of Saint Sulpice, in Paris,
dedicated to the training of students for the priesthood. He was still in
France when War broke out and at one point couldn’t get on a boat back
to England because the British officer thought he was a secret agent.
And no wonder – talking French like that and then expecting people to
believe you were from Glasgow. And that beret!
Big Steve’s responsibility as Spiritual Director was to guide us
on the path to holiness (sure you don’t want to go to Dunoon?). Fourth
and fifth year are in the Oratory—remember? – and while they’re
meditating, or trying to stay awake, there’ll be a talk for the others.
Meditation’s not what you may be thinking: you don’t sit in the lotus
position or even cross-legged or anything like that. You’re kneeling in
your usual place, perhaps thinking about what Steve said in his evening
talk, or reflecting on something you read in a book like The Seminarian
at His Prie-Dieu, by Father Robert Nash, SJ. You choose the subject of
your meditation the night before – a short passage from the Gospels
usually – sleep on it, apply it to yourself, and try to make a suitable
resolution. Meditation lasts only about fifteen minutes.
Steve must have given us many ‘holy’ talks – morning and
evening every day for five years – but I remember mainly what he said
about the bogs. He heaped ridicule on ‘the bombers’ who perched and
whose aim was poor: leave the bog as you would like to find it. The
Rector Father Gordon Gray (the Abbot) stood in for Steve sometimes
but he would never make you look at the mess you had made like that.
He told us one morning just before we left for a Christmas or Summer
holiday that it was all right to take a long lie sometimes as long as it was
the night before and not in the morning. Not a muscle twitched: he
meant every word!
Mass, then. Don’t worry if you’ve never served before, and
even if you have it might be better to deny it: you don’t want to let
Father John McKee (the Belloc) hear your Latin. There’ll be enough to
contend with when he sees how you genuflect and make the sign of the
Cross. Sufficient for the day, as they say …
One of the things you have to learn on the path to holiness is
that you mustn’t judge others. So if Father Gerry Maher seems to race
through Mass you mustn’t ask yourself if he’s pronouncing the Latin as
clearly and as carefully as the Belloc says you should. And don’t ever
be glad that the Mass will be over quickly, because that will only mean a
longer time for thanksgiving after Mass and all you can think of is
Some Masses you never forget. Take Sabbato post Dominicam
Tertiam in Quadragesima. That’s right – the Saturday after the Third
Sunday in Lent, 1949. Something was astir after breakfast but I felt
excluded. I had only a Sunday Missal so I didn’t know what was in the
Epistle for that day. It wasn’t really an Epistle, like a Letter, but
anyway, after night prayers someone passed me his Roman Missal, and
in my cubicle I read the Prophet Daniel 13: 1-9, 15-17, 19-30, 33-62 – a
bit long for an Epistle. It was the story of Suzannah. Some Protestant
Bibles don’t have Daniel 13 so we were lucky
Down in the forest something stirred –
It was only the note of a bird (top A flat)…
Down in the forest (Key Ab), John McCormack, 28 March 1913
The path to holiness meant also purity of thought, word and
deed. Redemptorists and Passionists beginning their talk on purity
during our three-day Retreats would try to ease us - and perhaps
themselves – into the topic with a few jokes
- I had impure thoughts, Father.
- And did you entertain them, my son?
- Oh no, Father, they entertained me.
Big Steve came straight to the point. On the day that two of
our form were expelled who had been discovered together after lights-
out, he kept second form back at the end of night prayers, and told us
how he prayed there might be no impurity among us.
Expulsions were extremely rare – only twice in my time that I
can recall - but they made the ‘sin’ public. No, maybe it wasn’t the right
answer: the students could be very young, perhaps still quite immature.
Word of the expulsion had spread quickly. In one small
huddled group someone turned to me and said, quite openly, “People
think we’re doing it.” Beyond the fact that ‘it’ was forbidden, I had only
a vague notion of what was meant, but did come closer to understanding
not long afterwards, when we were wrestling in the woods one day, for
though bigger and stronger than I was, he allowed me to pin him down.
Still in that small circle, I told someone else I would come
round to his cubicle that night after lights-out. There was no attempt at
concealment, or anything consciously sexual in my suggestion, and
when I did go round to see him, we stood together for a moment only,
not touching or speaking. We had shared something, though, that we
would never try to find words for.
There won’t be a roster posted anywhere but you’ll know when
it’s your turn to go and see Big Steve for your weekly spiritual check-up.
When Father Duncan Stone (Rocky) succeeded Steve as Spiritual
Director he kept an appointments book and ticked your name off if you
kept yours – so no alibis down that road. But you can go just any time
you feel like a wee chat – about anything really. You might tell him one
day, using words like ‘commit a sin with’, that you’re beginning to feel a
sexual attraction for someone in your own form – for you can see clearer
now - and if you happen to be reading Story of a Soul, the autobiography
of Saint Theresa of Lisieux, and think the Little Flower had the same
problem as you, Big Steve will point out — fairly robustly, I might add!
— that what you feel and what Saint Theresa means by inordinate
affection for another Sister, are not the same thing at all.
Or another day something comes over you and you find
yourself saying you’re having uncharitable thoughts about someone who
seems distracted during his prayers (no, please don’t say anything!). Did
Steve with Sulpician insight guess that my two very different kinds of
thoughts were about the same student? He asked me his name. Do you
do the honourable thing and refuse to bend before the physical and
moral bulk of Big Steve, or do you tell, only to be told, “I don’t like wee
clipes!”? We had one swear-word: Curse!
Enquiries would be made when you came out: did you get the
bear-hug? No! Oh, you were a goner, no hope for you, poor lost soul –
well, till the next time, and maybe by then you would have redeemed
yourself. Shaky theology? Oh, come on, this has been a very long
Cinnamon and nutmeg
You remember the way to the refectory? Back up the steps
past the Oratory; left at the linen room (no, later) into that short corridor,
and the double-doors are on your left.
There’s a table running along the top wall, on your left,
beneath a huge Crucifix. Near the far end of the table, with steps
leading up, is a pulpit. There’ll be eighteen places at the table, nine
against the wall – on the back side – and nine on the front, which means
there are three ‘tables’, each of six students. On the back side there’ll be
the divider (fifth year), the sub-divider (fourth year), and the sub-scrub
(third year) and no I can’t explain how you can have a sub- if you
haven’t got a scrub. On the front side, the teaman (second year), the
second-lowest (second or first year), and the lowest (first year). You sit
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on long benches, and the tables are covered with green or brown
linoleum, fastened down with thin strips of brass.
Four rows of tables, each with six ‘tables’, run the entire length
of the refectory, the two in the middle reaching nearly to the profs’
(priests’) table at the far end. There are about twelve or thirteen priests
in all so they form a kind of Last Supper, but the painting there is of
Whether your ‘table’ is against a wall or in the middle depends
on your position in class – nearer the top of the form you’ll be one of the
lucky ones that have a wall on their back side. Two or three times a year
a back-to-the-waller will give up his place to someone who would
otherwise never be able to put his back back. And if you’ve got a wall at
your back it will give you more purchase (does that sound right?) when
applying ‘the brakes’ (wait).
Breakfast will be either porridge or cornflakes, and bread and
margarine, and tea. There probably won’t be any jam or marmalade.
Bacon, eggs and tomatoes on Sundays? Who told you that! The
teaman, who sits opposite the divider, pours the tea into chipped mugs.
It’s called ‘booze’ and smells funny and tastes like nothing on earth.
Sometimes you get ‘high tea’, when the booze is poured from a great
height and you end up with a mug of froth—as a punishment for
something or other, or maybe just for the fun of it.
Keep an eye open and you may see something called peanut
butter and the peanutters adding salt would you believe! How the HP
Sauce got past the Thought Police goodness only knows! Big Steve
called it ‘pash’ because of what it was supposed to do to you.
It’s the second-lowest’s job to go and get more bread from a
table that stands between the end of the profs’ table and the servery; and
if anything gets spilled the lowest gets the cloth, which smells even
funnier than the booze, and cleans up. Shouldn’t that be the sub-scrub’s
job? Good question.
The joiner who made the table probably didn’t intend those
parallel bars about three or four inches off the floor to be used as
instruments of torture: back-siders could put their legs over the bar on
their side but if the front-sider tried to do the same on his side his legs
would be pressed against the bar by the back-sider opposite him –
applying the brakes. A back-sider could appear to be cruel and to apply
the brakes in anger, and in the anonymity of numbers maybe you had
hissed too, that time Joe left breakfast early on the day of a Higher
exam. Yet just a few years afterwards you would discover him to be a
kind, gentle person.
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Table fellowship changed every six weeks or so. My first
‘table’ was at that top table, next to the pulpit. The divider was Philip
Gavin; the sub-divider, John Sloan; the sub-scrub, Johnny Creegan;
teaman, Lewis Cameron; second-lowest, me; lowest, Anthony Hastings.
I had to learn how to hold my knife and fork properly so that the
handle didn’t stick out between thumb and forefinger, and to remember
that soup spoons went that way, and pudding this. But how did we get to
dinner when we haven’t even been to class, to say nothing of making our
beds or emptying our tinnies? (No, of course not everybody!). Anyway,
not to worry.
The profs joined us for dinner and (no connection) white linen
cloths covered the green and brown linoleum and brass tacks. Six soup
plates, six dinner plates, and six pudding plates were piled beside the
soup tureen, the pie-dish containing the main course, the plate with the
potatoes, another for the vegetables, and the pie-dish for the pudding.
How did all that fit on? Well, maybe it didn’t. Oh, but wait—there was
a jug of water, and six glasses left unwashed from break, when we’d had
a perkin with our milk.
An empty glass didn’t always mean you had drunk your milk:
maybe you’d gone up into the pulpit and tipped the lot over Frank
Barrett if you were beelin at him.
The divider served the soup, main course, and vegetables, and
we skelped ourselves to the spuds, which still had their jackets on. Meat
would still have the fat on, which you had to eat, for plates had to be
cleared. I saw Jim Doherty cut up the fat into very small pieces one day,
and I did the same. Fat wasn’t too much of a problem after that.
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And just in case you were thinking of asking, there won’t be
many surprises on the menu. Sunday’s burnt sausages and mushy green
peas. Always. I can’t remember what followed on the next three days,
and if I told you what Thursday was you wouldn’t believe me anyway,
so we’ll fast forward to fish on Friday, which came all the way from
Glasgow, though we were just a few miles from Aberdeen, where all
that fresh fish was landed every day. By the time ours got to us there
wasn’t much you could do with it except steam or maybe even boil it. It
was cheaper, though. The Abbot’s supposed to have wished he could
have given us fish n chips sometimes but that’s the first we’ve heard of
Fish wasn’t the only thing to come cheap from Glasgow: there
were cheap black suits as well. The trousers came first and would have
turned a lovely copper-green by the time the jacket arrived … if it ever
did. Big Steve was from Glasgow - remember? Well, he certainly
showed his true colours when he said you had no right to give the
trousers back – copper-green or not – because you had worn them for the
consecration of Bishop Frank Walsh in Aberdeen, on 12 September
1951. You were sitting right next to the pulpit, and when that big strong
man Bishop Kenneth Grant came down the steps at the end of his
sermon, his hands shook. He had been a teenage soldier in the trenches
in the First World War, and a chaplain in the Second, during which he
was captured and held prisoner for five years at St Valéry.
The Belloc was a huntin-shootin-fishin man. He caught a
salmon once which we had for dinner but it didn’t taste as good as John
West’s tinned – not that that ever appeared on the menu. He shot a deer
another day but we couldn’t see what all the fuss was about: venison
didn’t begin to compare with rat pie. Don’t look at me like that! It’s
quite a delicacy, you know, a bit like rabbit. Anyway, it had first turned
up, we were told, the day after the Belloc, or probably some earlier
trapper, had made a huge catch in the Old College. All dressed up with
creamed potatoes on top and served with baked beans or mushy green
peas (again), it looked just like shepherd’s pie. Delicious it was too. Just
try not to think rat.
The sub-divider served Friday pud, which we had every day
except Sunday. Long afterwards, and when he was well out of firing
range, the Abbot had the temerity to describe it as “a most indigestible
bread pudding”. We didn’t want anything else, and certainly not Sunday
semolina or ‘frogspawn’. Big Steve tried to give a talk once on the
‘goodness’ of milk puddings but he couldn’t keep a straight face.
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Friday pud came in the pie-dish in which it had been baked.
But it wasn’t just a bread pudding – begging pardon, your Eminence. It
was the colour of rich dark chocolate and tasted of cinnamon and
nutmeg, with a hint of heather honey in the finish. So could the recipe
have come from Scalan in Glenlivet…? The most coveted portions were
the four corners for the crust was crispier there and usually had more
sugar. The middle portions were reserved for the lowest and second-
lowest but sometimes the divider would volunteer the sub-scrub and
teaman for self-denial and they would be given the middle parts. A
divider and sub-divider might sometimes make the voluntary self-
sacrifice but you would remember more if two of you were volunteered
for total self-denial and everybody else got a quarter. Yet sometimes
you had only yourself to blame if you had to go without: you had
gambled away your crispy sugary corner in a game of table-tennis with
somebody who was better than you. But Charlie Neeson helped himself
to half once though he’d never been anywhere near a table-tennis table.
What?! Well, that’s what they said but you don’t have to believe
everything you’re told – I mean, they said Ian Murray made porridge
sandwiches, and Charlie Hendry – but are you ready for more Latin?
Die 2 Novembris (1948) In Commemoratione Omnium
Fidelium Defunctorum – that’s Latin-long for All Souls’. On Soule’en
Charlie scared the wits out of his lowest and second-lowest: they had to
come to supper in their pyjamas because they were to spend the night
alone in the Old College with all the rats, keeping watch in some creepy
Ah, wake not yet from thy repose,
A fair-dream spirit hovers near thee,
Weaving a web of gold and rose
Through dreamland’s happy isles to bear thee.
Sleep, love, it is not yet the dawn.
Angels guard thee, sweet love, till morn (top A).
Jocelyn – Beneath the quivering leaves (Key A)
John McCormack, Fritz Kreisler and Vincent O’Brien,
25 March 1914.
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At the end of the Solemn Requiem Mass on All Souls’ Day
we went in procession to the little cemetery next to the Chapel to pray
for the students, nuns and priests who were buried there.
The students included two who had drowned while swimming
in the Dee on 5 June 1930. It was the custom then, but afterwards
discontinued, to go swimming in the river on warm Summer afternoons,
and there would be a boat on guard, continually crossing back and forth.
But on that day, William O’Neill, 20, and Anthony Brogan, 19, had,
unnoticed, swum away from the others, perhaps finding that part of the
river a bit too crowded, and were not immediately missed. A doctor
thought that one may have suffered cramp, and that the other had gone
to his help.
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The nuns were Sisters of St Joseph of Annecy, who washed and
mended our clothes, cooked all our meals, ran the dispensary, and when
we were sick looked after us in the infirmary. We didn’t really come into
very much contact with them, yet they called us by our names and
seemed to know everything about us. The Order had first arrived in
1906. Anyway, here they are, from the mid-fifties, I think. I don’t have
any of their names, unfortunately, so you must forgive me if I don’t tell
you the names of any of those other people, either.
Among the priests were Bishop Aeneas Chisholm of Aberdeen,
and Monsignor James Lennon, from Liverpool. When Father Aeneas
became Rector in 1890, the Old College was already too small to
accommodate the growing numbers of students, so he decided a new
- 16 -
college had to be built, and a Chapel (and he seems to have kept a pretty
close eye on building progress if this is in fact him).
Funds were raised, and then ran out. Twice. On each occasion,
Mgr James stepped in to the rescue: first, for the completion of the
central part of the College, with the tower and Papal Crown, in 1897,
and then the Chapel, in 1901.
- 17 –
I walked out to Blairs from Aberdeen one day in the late 1980s. I
was beginning to think that I had missed the opening into the drive,
when suddenly they sprang into view: the tower and steeple. How could
I have forgotten!
You know, I feel as if I’m talking to myself here sometimes. I’ve
mentioned the Old College at least twice, the new building, and Scalan,
and you show no curiosity whatsoever. I didn’t think there was anything
particularly noteworthy. Oh? Well, there was. Or is, rather. After the
Reformation it became too dangerous to train priests openly in Scotland,
so they were sent abroad - to France, Italy, or Spain. To prepare them for
Scalan : Watercolour by Mike Davidson
- 18 -
their studies on the Continent, in 1714, Bishop James Gordon opened a
‘secret’ seminary on a small island on Loch Morar. It moved about two
years later to Scalan, in Glenlivet, where it continued till 1746, when it
was burned to the ground by Cumberland’s soldiers, not long after
Culloden. But Scalan rose again, and there were others. I’ll tell you their
names later, when we go sledging. Again? Later.
But fast forward now from Culloden to 1827, and Blairs, a
1,000-acre estate on south Deeside, about five miles from Aberdeen. It
was the property of John Menzies ( pronounced ‘Mingis’) of Pitfodels,
- 19 -
who gave it to the Church to be the site of a National Junior Seminary
for Scotland. The family mansion needed quite a bit of work done on it
to become a college, but in 1829, the year of Catholic Emancipation, it
was ready, and St Mary’s College, Blairs received its first students. They
were a sorry sight when they arrived from Aquhorties. ‘Priest Gordon’,
who had supervised the work of alteration, “found them in a very
tattered state indeed……….they had not coats for their backs, shoes for
their feet, nor linen for their bodies.” Who were they? How many? What
became of them? (No, this is a good bit later.)
- 20 -
The Old College kept going till 1897, as I said, and the new
Chisholm-Lennon one went on for another ninety years nearly, finally
closing in 1986.
Daffodils and shrinking violets
John Sloan, my first sub-divider, was a light tenor who loved to
sing Neapolitan songs. He called himself Giovanni Slonca and before
you laugh John McCormack borrowed his wife Lily’s maiden name,
Foley, for his debut in Mascagni’s L’Amico Fritz in Savona in 1906, and
called himself Giovanni Foli.
I had never heard songs like Slonca’s before. One day I asked
him for the words of Torna a Surriento. He said he would get Stein to
write them out for me. Stein pretended to be shocked when I told him
that Father Frank Duffy (the Duff) had seen his attempt at Neapolitan
when I asked him to play it.
Stein (Frank McHugh) was a good tenor. At Easter 1950
someone standing right behind me at Mass produced such a beautiful
sound I turned round: it was Stein. It may have been in the Duff’s own
arrangement of the liturgical hymn Victimae paschali laudes. Stein
grabbed everyone’s attention another day with his sudden, bolt-upright
exit from High Mass: he had swallowed his false tooth. He needn’t have
worried: he would get it back, as I had once retrieved the end of a
propelling pencil I had swallowed.
- 21 -
Stein was the fourth-year censor in that part of the big St
John’s dormitory where my cubicle 153 was. It was he who called out
that “Benedicamus Domino” (actually it was decano Dan Hart, I’ve just
realised, but we’ll press on) and quick-flicked your curtain to make sure
you were up, and then after breakfast checked that you had made your
bed properly. Empty your tinny every day if you use one, and if you wet
the bed leave the bedclothes folded back and your curtain closed – just
so that everybody will know, okay? In fact bedwetters were not usually
treated unkindly, and they had their very own des. res. beside the toilets
in St John’s dormitory – Pee Row. Oh, all right: Laburnum Grove.
Beds made and
tinnies emptied, you make
your own way downstairs
for a brief spell of freedom
before lessons begin. You
might just take a stroll
around ‘the plot’ but if you
see any censors – or just
anybody bigger than you –
mind your pockets. No,
they’re not pickpockets but
they could be on the look-
out for slings. No, not the
Hasn’t anyone mentioned
this before! Not to worry:
you wear a jacket so that
makes things a bit easier.
Right, then. Put your hands in your trouser pockets so that the
flap, or corner, of each side of the jacket falls over the trouser pocket.
Done? Now you’ve got two slings up and if you’re in first or second
year you shouldn’t have. Pups (first form) aren’t allowed any, and Brats
(second form) are allowed only one. If you’re a shrinking-violet sort of
sling, don’t try anything fancy like Phil Doherty’s ‘permapress’ look for
it’ll be noticed and people will talk. At the senior seminary in England
where Phil’s brother Frank was studying, it was always a Scottish
student that was chosen to read on those special occasions when only the
best would do.
- 22 -
One Saturday evening in Cowie in the Summer of 1954 Phil,
who was at Saint Sulpice and had just been ordained sub-deacon, called
in to see Willie Ferguson, home on holiday – for the first time in three
years – from the Scots College in Valladolid. The football results on the
wireless had just finished. Fergie rattled off all the scores without
having written any of them down. Just the week before, at the laying of
the foundation stone of the Cisterician Abbey at Nunraw, on 22 August,
he had given me a Latin-Spanish Roman Missal, which I used until the
day they outlawed Latin. It was never outlawed! So now you tell me!
The plot’s an area of lawn near where the toilets and bootroom
are. If you take the left path you’ll be following the line of a high wall
on the other side of which old Pa Burke grew our vegetables. Mrs
Duffy’s little house was in Pa’s garden. Old Pa went back what then
seemed a long way and could tell you a thing or two about some of the
profs when they were students.
On one walk around the plot, probably in my second term, I
confided in Joe O’Raw, who was repeating first year, that I was worried
because I was wetting the bed. That was the last time I spoke to Joe.
The next day he was no longer there. He had gone home, ‘given up’. If
Joe had carved or written his name anywhere it would now be followed
by the initials R.A.S: Reddidit (or Rediit surely?) ad suos (he has
returned to his own). There was also E.E., for expulsion: Expulsus est;
and Domi (at home), meaning you’d been told during a Christmas or
Summer holiday not to bother coming back.
The right-hand path along the plot is bounded by another
stretch of lawn that skirts the playhall and runs down to the study hall.
But back to Pa’s garden wall ….
- 23 -
The path ends in some steps that lead up to the pail courts – I
used to wonder why they were called that, till Dave McCann told me the
name comes from ‘peil’, the Gaelic for ‘ball’. Down to the right is a
copse, with figures at the foot of a Cross in a Calvary scene.
At the edge of the
copse is the fifth-year
bicycle shed that a tree
came down on in the storms
of January 1953. You’re at
the top of the golf course
now – yes, I know it’s not a
real golf course but we
called it that. Anyway, the
daffodils are real enough,
and very lovely, so mind
their heads when you tee
off. The drive’s away to the
right so the rhododendron
bushes should be quite safe
– you’d have some
explaining to do if there
were no petals left for the
Corpus Christi Procession,
on the Thursday after
Trinity Sunday, which is the
first … oh, please, not all
- 24 -
that again!... let me finish, or you won’t know when to gather the petals
– the first Sunday after Pentecost, which is the seventh Sunday after
Easter. All right, sixty days after Easter.
The Feast was introduced by Pope Urban IV (1261-1264), who
entrusted the composition of the Divine Office for that day to St Thomas
Aquinas. That’s how we come to have all those beautiful hymns
celebrating the Mystery of the Eucharist: Verbum supernum prodiens
(Lauds); Lauda, Sion, Salvatorem (Sequence); Pange lingua gloriosi
(Vespers). Another procession chant, Sacris Solemnis, has at v.6
Panis angelicus fit panis hominum;
Dat panis caelicus figuris terminum:
O res mirabilis! Manducat Dominum
Pauper, servus, et humilis.
Try to listen to the McCormack recording of 6 May 1927. See which
you prefer — the first or second take…?
Back through the copse, past the Calvary scene, you come to
the tennis courts. In the Summer term of 1949 I was entered for the
men’s singles. I could do nothing right against an utterly ruthless Lewis
Cameron, my first teaman, and the howls of derision did nothing to help.
I had only ever used a racket for rounders, which we played beside
Linlithgow Loch, in the shadow of the Palace
Linlithgow Loch and Palace, from north shore : Courtesy Scotsman Publications Ltd.
- 25 -
We watch the swans
That sleep in a shadowy place,
And now and again
One wakes and uplifts its head—
How still you are!
Your gaze is on my face (top B flat).
We watch the swans,
And never a word is said (top A flat).
Swans, (Key Ab) John McCormack,
Edwin Schneider - piano, 26 September 1923.
The first of five football pitches is beside the tennis courts. On
the far side of the pitch is a road separating it from the other four. Left
along that road takes you to the farm buildings and the fields where fifth
form did the late tattie-howkin. It could be really cold some days, and at
piece-time you would shiver on the dyke at the edge of the field,
gripping your bread and marg in freezing earth-caked fingers – and there
would be no flask of hot tea. Not like in the Sixties.
- 26 -
If you go back the way you came – one football pitch on your
right, four on your left – you’ll come to an intersection: to the right is the
outside world, which we try to avoid. Straight on is the fifth-form
bounds, so not yet, but if we turn left we’ll be ‘up the bounds’.
On the right as you go up the bounds you’ll pass a small row of
houses. Donal Grant lived there and (the real) Sammy Kilpatrick, who
took us for PE and cross-country runs. He was the brother of Father
James (Sammy) who taught Maths and who became farm bailiff (at least
that’s what it says on the 1952 photo) after Steve was appointed Rector –
but, look, we should be getting back, classes will be … where…?
Where have you been? I couldn’t take all that cold mud and
marg so I … Don’t tell me: you went to the linen room where you met a
nice old French nun who thought your French was very good and she
said you could go and practise any time, not just when you needed a
button sewn on. She sat you down by the window overlooking the
garden, and the sun streaming through began to make the room feel quite
warm. You started to feel drowsy … and drifted away to an Alpine
meadow high above Annecy … You wakened to accents sweet and the
heady aroma of freshly-brewed coffee and newly-baked almond-and-
chocolate croissants … n’est ce pas?
How do you know!
The corpse position
I must have carried off the near-impossible and pulled the
wool over the eyes of Father Daniel Boyle at the entrance examination,
for I found myself going straight into second form and sitting beside
Francie Keane from Broxburn, who had come with me from St Mary’s,
Bathgate. In fact if it hadn’t been for Francie I might not have gone to
Blairs at all. I’d first said I wanted to go when I was still at St Joseph’s,
Linlithgow, but mother got Father Michael McGovern to agree that I
should take the place offered me at Bathgate and see if I felt the same
way after a year.
Blairs may have faded a little into the background after I
got to Bathgate, but you couldn’t forget it altogether, for Pat Lowther
was a vivid daily reminder of it. He was in fifth year, I think. His hair
was jet-black, his face pale, and his shoulders slightly hunched. He
wore a black suit, white shirt, and black tie, and smoked Pasha cigarettes
in the toilets. He had been to Blairs, and to me he was full of mystery.
- 27 -
Pat was from Broxburn, like Francie, and when Francie
said out of the blue one day that he was going to Blairs, I immediately
said I was going too. Not everybody thought it was a good idea—Molly
Savage, for one, who taught French and rapped us over the knuckles
with the hard side of the wooden board-duster. She told me in front of
the whole class one day that I wasn’t like other little boys and that she
couldn’t understand why someone like me was going to Blairs. What
brought that on!
It was during a Religious Knowledge lesson that she was
taking for Mr McCann, our form-master, who was off sick. I don’t
remember being ever worried before when I had to read in class, but
something was in the air that day that unsettled me, and when it came
my turn I stammered so much that Molly had to get someone else to take
I hadn’t always stammered, or stuttered even… Is there a
difference? I..I think so: stutter is when you repeat the first letter of a
word, like b..b..butter; but when you stammer there is just silence, for
you seize up, and the word won’t come. And… could it be that people
stammer because they don’t want to be seen to stutter? Oh, I’ve never
thought of that…? Anyway, sometimes you just give up. There’s
nothing you can do? Well, relaxation exercises are supposed to do the
trick: you lie flat on the floor, head tilted back slightly, in ‘the corpse
position’, arms outstretched, feet apart. You do deep breathing to help
you to relax, and all your anxiety just drains away through your toes and
fingertips (at least that’s the idea!). But on the big day you’ve got to
have rhythm. With rhythm, you can even say, ‘Calcutta cows can catch
pulmonary tuberculosis, can’t they?’ C..c..can you really? Oh, yes. If
you get a chance to watch some old film of King George VI speaking in
public, look at his hands and you’ll see them moving slowly, keeping
time…. I had always thought it was British actor George Robbie who
taught him that, but now with everybody talking about the recent film, I
discover it was Australian-born speech therapist Lionel Logue who
helped the King.
My stutter-stammer started when I was four or five years
old. We were living at 32, High Street, Linlithgow, two flights up, on the
top floor. John Anderson, about the same age as me, lived up the same
close. John stuttered, and when I started people thought I was just
imitating him. I’m not so sure.
- 28 -
In the Summer of 1939,
when I was four, and Irene
one, we were on holiday in
Ireland. As soon as War was
declared, mother hurried back
to Scotland with Irene,
leaving me with Granny.
When I got back in the Spring
of 1940, accompanied by
Auntie Mai, I had an Irish
accent, and people would stop
mother on the High Street to
hear me speak. They went
weak at the knees, apparently,
when I said ‘Mary’.
Did the trouble start there, I wonder: at the age of four or five
being expected to ‘perform’ every time you went out, and then as the
accent faded and you started to sound like everybody else again...?
The Irish connection was in fact made by someone else long
before it ever occurred to me: Brian Kidd, who lived up the next close at
Linlithgow Bridge, thought one of our pals Jim Bishop must be Irish as
well because he stuttered like me. We haven’t moved to the Bridge yet,
but anyway there’s Brian second from the right in the middle row, and
on his right, Laurie Alexander, who sent me their class photo.