I was not born in Lochfoot; but I have no memory of Lambriggs, the farm where my parents lived at the time. I was not even a year old when our father was transferred from the Border Estate to the Home Farm. My memories start in the Village. When I was little, the double row of tied cottages—uniform in their livery of green doors and white window frames—was the whole of my world, unquestioned and permanent. I learned more of Lochfoot after I began school, and of our place in its world, where the Villagers led the children as the Castle dominated the town.
We had our own life, we Villagers. It lay tangential to the life of the other children who attended Lochfoot School. Oh, we met in the schoolyard and the classroom; but our paths separated along the road home—literally, for we headed away to the outskirts of town while they drifted to the streets, where they ran wild until it was time to head to the tenements where they lived. We Villagers played in the Home Park: out of doors on broad green grass under a blue sky. It’s not surprising, really, that we grew taller and stronger, did better at our lessons than the Railies and Trammies, and dominated the playground.
My father was born in the Village—indeed, in the same house in which I was raised—and his father had also worked on the Home Farm. I have only slight memories of my grandfather, who died before my brother Ian was born; and none of my grandmother, who predeceased him by several years; but both lay buried in the churchyard, side by side, and sometimes my mother picked flowers for their grave. It was from them, though, that my father had stories of their childhood days, when the Home Farm stretched to the lake, the railroad did not come to Lochfoot, and there was no town. When I was little, these tales seemed as fantastic as stories of changelings and kelpies, for the town was surely immutable and eternal. However, old Mrs Robertson in the cottage next door bore eye witness to my grandparents’ memories. Today, of course, I realize that the town arrived with the railway and the trams: the tenements built to house the families of the men who worked on them, and Lochview Crescent housing the passengers who travelled up to Glasgow. In time, I became a passenger on the railway myself. But that was later, when I attended the Academy. Until then, going Down-the-Line (as we called it) was a journey of mystery to a world unknown.
When I was very little, my life was bounded by our garden wall, where I played under the watchful eye of my mother as she pegged clothes on the line or shelled peas. My little brother Davie followed me round like a puppy, copying me faithfully and playing as I chose, at least until I started school when I was five. A year later, we both walked down the lane that led to Lochfoot, skirted round the town on a byroad, and joined the children thronging to school from the tenements. Most of them saw lessons as a waste of time; but we two Adairs—and our younger brothers after us—took to learning like ducklings to water.
Once we were of school age, we were deemed ready to join the community of the children of the Village and learn its customs: to beat the bounds of the Home Park when lambing was over in the spring, play the Battle of Bannockburn across its fields in summer, and attend the Castle Treat at Christmas. Oftentimes, one or another child would arrive late to our games or have to hurry home; but never I. Though I was often enough told to fill the kettle or help peel potatoes, I had no assigned chores. In my parents’ view, it was more important that I attend to my studies. Winning the Dux Medal was my true responsibility.
There were always two leaders among the Village children, one for the boys and one for the girls. The Trammies and Railies and Tinkers had their leaders, too; but the Village took charge over all. When I first went to school, the leader in the playground was a boy named Andrew Taggart, whose father was a ploughman on the Home Farm. By the time I was nine and all my brothers but Peter were also at the school, Andrew had long since turned fourteen and left to be a gardener’s boy at the Castle. I was, of course, the girls’ leader by then: I might be younger than many, but my ideas were always the best. Mind you, the first year I took charge (which was the year my brother Colin started at school), I had some trouble from girls older than myself who thought it their right to rule; but, with three younger brothers to keep in line, I knew how to use my fists. Yes, and how to fight like a girl, too, clawing skin and pulling hair. We Adairs were a tall family. (You only had to see my father and my uncles to know that height ran in the blood.) So I had the reach on all but the biggest boys; and, if one of them challenged me, my brothers would pile in to teach him his place, for they would never let another child beat me in an unfair fight. So I led not only the girls but the whole playground, and remained leader among the children until I left the school, keeping order and deciding the games we would play.
There’s an art to becoming a true leader; and it doesn’t only involve beating up other children—which could, after all, just mean that you’re a nasty bully. Part of having others look to you comes from your watching over them. I learned that because of a girl called Jeanie Robertson. Yes, the same name as old Mrs Robertson next door: the child was her granddaughter, actually, even though she lived in Railway Terrace and counted among the Railies. Not that I knew this at first: I simply stepped in one day when a larger girl had Jeanie cornered in the schoolyard. It was instinct: pure instinct. The big girl was a dirty Tinker brat; and Jeanie was a slight, pretty waif with fair kempt curls, big blue eyes, and neatly patched, clean clothes. If, at that time, I’d seen her screeching through the streets after school, windblown and foul-mouthed (as she could be, indeed, when not fresh from her mother’s care), I’d have thought twice about rescuing her. Indeed, I soon learned that Jeanie could well take care of herself, in school and out, and merely took advantage of my protection. By then, though, I’d seen the benefits. Defending her put me among the ‘big kids’, the ones who took charge and stepped in, even though I was only a couple of years older than Jeanie herself, who was about Colin’s age.
It must have been a year or so later that I realized that Jeanie was related to the elderly widow in Lilac Cottage next door. One day, when she visited her grandmother, my mother invited her over the wall into our garden, and then offered her ‘a piece’ (as we called it), which was her custom with any of our friends who came by. So it was that, when we children headed out to play, Jeanie tagged along. At that time, Violet Bryson was the upstart rival to my leadership of the Village girls; and her reaction to seeing Jeanie made me immediately champion the child’s right to join us—at least for a few months of the summer, until it became clear that Jeanie would never fit in. Inevitable really, when you think of it: a few hours of play among her betters could hardly compensate for an upbringing on Railway Terrace. And if that sounds snobbish, well … just remember that our own parents (not just ours, but those of all the Village children) expected us to head up our lane home after school and not go stravaiging round the streets the way the town children did.
Children of the working classes leave school at fourteen, unless they pass their exams younger. I passed from the school with honours at the age of ten; but I did not go into service at the Castle, as so many Village girls did. Instead, I went off daily down-the-line to the Academy. In turn, so did each of my brothers; but that first year I travelled on the train myself, heading off early in my uniform with my bag of books, catching the train at the platform, heading bravely into a new and unknown world. I should point out here that I was hardly the first child from the Village to go to the Academy; but I was the first girl. As I quickly mastered my lessons, it became understood that, in time, I would become a teacher. No one bothered to ask me if I agreed—though admittedly I did find, when I was made a pupil-teacher and took charge of the youngest class, that there was a certain satisfaction in making them mind me and learn their sums and letters.
Once I started further education, my life quickly drifted apart from the Village. Violet and the other girls my age continued their play no doubt, at least until they turned fourteen, left Lochfoot School, and went into service at the Castle or up the Crescent. But I arrived home late, in term-time often after dark, for I had after-school activities as well as the trip back up-the-line; and, when I got home, I had far too much homework to play in the Home Park. And furthermore, since I was now a ‘big girl’ (as they say) in truth, I had a tiny room of my own in our cottage, while my brothers shared.
From my first year at the Academy, I found myself surrounded by girls who, for the most part, came from very different backgrounds. It was a fee-paying establishment, save for those children who passed the qualifying examination, for whom places were provided by the State. The Scots have always believed in the value of education; and we Adairs were beneficiaries of ancient custom, as manifested in modern times. However, most pupils who passed the ‘Qually’ and went to the Academy were boys. Girls’ families were less likely to permit them to continue with their schooling, ‘Qually’ or no.
I soon met other girls on the train who also wore the Academy uniform. All came from affluent families that preferred their daughters to attend day school rather than send them off to boarding school. When these girls saw my uniform, they initially assumed me one of themselves. However, as soon as I opened my mouth, it became clear that I was a labourer's child. At which point they made it clear that, fellow pupil or not, I was no fellow of theirs. For the most part, I tried thereafter to travel in a different carriage, which spared me their taunting silence on the journey. Still, there was no escaping them at school. I was the ‘ootling’ in my class, and never allowed to forget it. No doubt to fellow passengers on the train down-the-line we girls all seemed alike, dressed in our school uniforms. All I can say to such innocents is this: for all that jewellery was against the rules, and cosmetics strictly forbidden, there is no way to prevent a group of girls in their teen-aged years from displaying their social differences.
Even though my brothers joined me, one by one, in the train each day as we went down-the-line, the Academy separated the girls from the boys. We parted at the gate, went to different doors, and ate our midday meal in different halls, with no mingling until we met once again on the platform to catch the train home. So, of my brothers’ school lives I know only what they repeated at home. I dare say they easily found friends among the other boys who had passed the ‘Qually’. For myself, I never complained: I had no wish to be told that, if I preferred, I could leave school and become a kitchen maid at the Castle. I could only resolve to best the lot of them, if not now then in some future, whenever that might be.
At least the teachers knew my worth.
When the war came, we were, I suppose, one of the lucky families. By most people’s standards, it impinged little on our lives. Schooling went on, for all of us; and our father, being deemed of essential service on the Home Farm, was never called up. Nevertheless, this is not to say that our lives were unchanged.
My route through the town took me directly past the Lochfoot Arms. Besides finding it a chronic source of embarrassment in itself, I felt nervous crossing the pavement, even on the other side of the road. Not in the morning, when David—and later Colin—were with me, but in the evening, when school events sometimes meant that I returned alone on a later train. I was a tall, well-grown girl and, if I dare say it myself, uncommonly pretty. It is not surprising that the thought lay at the back of my mind that some soldier, drink taken, might accost me on a dark autumn evening. I could handle any boy; but a man—and a drunk man—was another matter. My father was never one to drink to excess, nor would drunks be permitted to retain their employment on the Estate; so handling a drunk was something I had never learned. (It was, no doubt, a common skill down in the tenements.) In truth, as I realize now, I was safe enough, uniformed as I was in school tunic and blazer. In any case, I never mentioned my fears, even to my mother. In passing, though, I saw the women of the Arms deal with soldiers, and realized that, vulgar though they undoubtedly were, they knew that, if you took charge from the start, you could manage any situation and any man. Which, when one thinks about it, was no more than another application of a rule that I had known all along.
For our parents, undoubtedly, the high point of the war came a couple of years in, when our long-lost wicked uncle Ian turned up in uniform—not the kilt of a Scottish regiment, but Australian, for he had emigrated years before after being discovered poaching the Duke’s game. When one considers the old family history, and the fact that the man’s blatant thieving almost cost his brothers their own jobs with the Estate, one wonders he wasn’t shown the door upon arrival. But no. For the whole of his leave, he came by daily, and much was made of him (and the events of our lives rather ignored in his favour); but, although our mother wanted him to stay with us, he actually took a room at the Arms. Our parents simply rejoiced in the opportunity to meet our Uncle Ian again, too absurdly innocent to see the obvious. But then neither of them saw him, arm in arm with a gaudy-gowned floozy in the street. They rarely went down into the town. Indeed, the local shopkeepers included the Village in their country rounds; so our mother even did her shopping at her own front door.
Uncle Ian came at Halloween. The Upper School was doing a Nativity play that year to raise money for the troops. I was chosen to play the Virgin Mary. (Not that anyone at home cared, caught up as they were with the story of the Prodigal Son.) Mercifully, no one at the Academy guessed that their Virgin’s uncle was staying with a tart at the Arms.
War’s end was a time of public rejoicing, I suppose; but, in our family it was marred by the illness of my brother Ian, who was in his final year at Lochfoot School. Our mother’s attention was, for weeks, centred solely on him; and the rest of us had to move out and stay with neighbours lest we catch the infection.
At first, this seemed to me to be a great nuisance. I had to share a room with the Gairs’ two daughters, which made it hard to study; and, from remarks that I was not supposed to overhear, it was clear that they thought my attendance at the Academy was foolishness on my parents’ part, and likely to make me unmarriageable. Only gradually did I realize the true seriousness of Ian’s illness, and that our parents feared the worst. The doctor visited daily: on Saturday, I could see his car parked outside the gate. There were medicines to be purchased, delivered by the pharmacist’s boy on his bicycle.
My father also stayed at the Gairs’ (though my brothers were at the Brysons’); and his face was grave. It dawned on me only slowly, for no one in our family had been gravely ill before; but in the end I realized Ian’s danger, and dreaded the thought of our family being broken. Mrs Gair might talk of God’s will; I did not want God to take Ian for himself. My brothers were mine.
When finally we were permitted visits, Ian was thin and drawn and white in the bed—and he was always a peely-wally lad, with all his book-reading. A row of bottles were on a little table, near to hand for dosing him. It was the doctor, I thought, not God who had saved him. A doctor would be a fine thing to be, better far than a mere teacher.
‘Here, listen,’ said my brother David, suddenly, ‘when I leave the Academy, I’m going to the university down-the-line to be a doctor. You just see if I don’t!’
It was my thought exactly. My thought, but from his mouth. But then, so close in age as we were, we had always done so much in unison.
By this time, I was through most of the regular lessons at the Academy. Instead, I now took special instruction with an advanced class, while spending part of each day as a pupil-teacher. My parents’ focus lay with this last, which was intended to lead to my future career, at least until I married. The import of the advanced class passed them by: I do not think they realized that it was intended as preparation for those who would attend university. In the opinion of the Rector, I had the ability to go far. He had personally chosen to include me in the group, along with those whose parents had the money to pay for tuition. Nowadays, he assured us, an increasing number of girls went to university, though not all granted them degrees.
When the Rector had me into his study for a personal talk about my future, I broached the question of medical training. Money was, I feared, an insuperable obstacle. Then he told me of the Carnegie scholarships.
The rest ought to be history. That it’s not—or not quite as I had originally seen—is down to the perversity of brothers. Of course, Peter is only a boy yet; and one can hope will grow out of his foolishness. Ian, though, has chosen a career that will never bring in money, though it may get our name known. David has wasted himself in a pointless marriage, despite my best efforts to show him it would be a mistake. Indeed, none of my brothers has the slightest sense when it comes to picking friends. Colin, God help us, brought wee Jeanie Robertson round to our flat! (Though I will say that he also brought Charles round, which showed far more sense than I would have thought he possessed, for all that I didn’t realize it at first.) And then he died, in that absurd and disgusting accident, which was a waste and wrong, for I still had plans for him, if I could have changed his mind back to Medicine. It’s altogether frustrating! I may be able to manage other men; but David, Ian, and Peter seem immune. Well, I suppose one can hardly bat one’s eyelashes at a sibling. I would if I could, if I thought it would work. Which it wouldn’t, more’s the pity.
Still, there’s Charles, who has the money I need to do what I want: we’ll marry and buy a house up Lochview Crescent, as big as any the girls at the Academy ever came from. And I’ll turn it into a nursing-home and make even more money, till no one can ever doubt that I’m as good as anyone.