In rural Aberdeenshire, in the 1920s, a railway clerk from the village of Rayne left school at 14, woke up three years later, and realised that he had been asleep all his young life. He made up for lost time by reading everything he could lay his hands on.
I met the railway clerk in R F Mackenzie’s autobiographical travel book, 'A Search for Scotland.' One paragraph lodged in my mind and, every time I read it, I'm moved by the particular scene it depicts and the lost world it represents:
At Inveramsay, the junction where a branch line to Macduff left the main Aberdeen-Inverness line, he [the railway clerk] and a shunter shared a two-roomed shack which they called ‘Utopia.
' One had of it was partitioned off for sleeping. In the other half there two chairs, a table, scores of books later gathered into shelves, a paraffin lamp and a paraffin stove that went glug-glug as occasionally we sat into the night discussing everything in heaven and earth.
R F Mackenzie, then an undergraduate student at Aberdeen, was one of the guests invited into the shack, along with other passengers from the exposed platform at Inveramsay. Thawing out before an open fire fuelled with engine coal, the guests often got more than they bargained for. Once, the railway clerk demanded to know of the local minister how he explained the difference between the first three gospels on the one hand and St John's Gospel on the other; what Luke meant by 'The Kingdom'; and what proof he had that Matthew the publican and Matthew the evangelist were one and the same person.
Mackenzie wrote: 'No quarry was too big for these railway highwaymen to swoop down upon, firing explosive ideas that they had drawn from the arsenal of Wells and Bernard Shaw and Bertrand Russell and John Stuart Mill and following up with some incendiaries of their own manufacture.'
Thinking about Inveramsay over the years, I had come to see it as a metaphor rather than a place. Then, one day, when I thought I was in danger of losing the metaphor, I decided to find the place.
'Can you point me in the direction of Inveramsay?'
'Never heard of it,' replied the cheerful woman in Mackay's department store in Inverurie.
She turned to her colleague at the check-out. 'Ever heard of a place called Inveramsay?'
'Isn’t that near Insch?'
According to the map, it could not be more than three miles from where I was standing.
I crossed to the library and requested a book on the social history of the district, one which included an account of Inveramsay. There appeared to be no such book, but the librarian offered to consult the local history section (not based in Inverurie, but at some un-named HQ) who would fax me anything they found. (Either they found nothing or they ignored the request – I'm still waiting for the fax.) But then we decided, the librarian and I, that it might be worth looking up railway histories for some mention of Inveramsay.
This inspiration led me to H A Vallance's 'The Great North of Scotland Railway' and its chapter on the development of the branch line from Inveramsay to Macduff (initially only to Turriff), which opened in September 1857. Mr Vallance is a great man for the facts, but the poetry of the railways somehow eludes him. He sees nothing in the least lyrical about the Great North of Scotland Railway, about which the only thing that was great (for it was the smallest line in the network) was the fantastic romance of the whole adventure.
Mr Vallance's book reproduces a table which practically breathes steam:
|The Macduff section
Four trains, with connections to or from Aberdeen, were provided in each direction between Inveramsay and Macduff. The trains called at all stations, and the journey time varied from 1 hour 30 minutes to 1 hour 50 minutes. 'I thought it would last forever,' wrote R F Mackenzie. He wasn't talking about the journey, but about the Great North of Scotland Railway. But it didn't. It lasted for scarcely more than a century; it was merely a hiccup in the long stretch of history. The Inveramsay section closed to passengers on 1 October 1951. 'Today,' Mackenzie observed, 'the branch lines are grassed over, eroded by rain and gravity like Roman roads and earthworks.'
And few in Inverurie even know of the Utopia on their own doorstep.
I had the good fortune to be assigned by Kenny's Taxis a driver in late middle age who used to be a postman in Chapel of Garioch, close to Inveramsay. I asked him to take me to the platform, advising him that it must be the actual spot and not somewhere roughly adjacent. He nodded gravely, and we drove in silence along a straight, flat road flanked by gentle countryside. The A96 to Inverness, he informed me.
After a few minutes, we drew up outside a cluster of houses.
'Why have we stopped?'
'This is Inveramsay. That was the stationmaster's house and those were the railway workers' houses – numbers one to six. We have to cross the road to reach the platform.'
The seven houses have been gentrified and sold off. What remains of Inveramsay is gone in a blink. It is so insignificant a location that Aberdeenshire Council has not thought it necessary to erect a road sign formally announcing its existence. The cars roar deafeningly northward.
Utopia is long gone. They dismantled the line with indecent haste soon after the withdrawal of the service, and demolished the station buildings at the same time. But the foundations remain: we were now standing unmistakably on what used to be the modest platform of a rural railway station, reduced to a tangle of weeds and broken wood. I walked from one end of the platform to the other, back and forth. Presently I sensed that the taxi driver was beginning to fear for my sanity. 'Are you doing a survey?' he asked. 'Yes,' I said. 'A sort of survey.'
It was here, between trains, that the unsuspecting minister scraped the snow from his boots, drew a chair up to the fire, and was startled to be asked if he had ever committed adultery; here that the provost of Inverurie was challenged to say how many tons of coal Britain exported every year; here that the railway clerk committed to memory a double column about India in John O'London's Weekly in preparation for a long debate with a Church of Scotland missionary; here that scripture was intelligently quoted, politics disputed, Shaw prefaces dissected; here, in the shack at Inveramsay, that a young R F MacKenzie witnessed a Scotland in slow transition from religious certainty to political idealism.
Mackenzie is sparing in his information about the leader of the cultural revolution in rural Aberdeenshire. He never names the clerk. All we know is that he was a member of a large family, and the only one of that family to break free. He packed in his job and high-tailed it for London, where he got a job as a barman in Putney. For his independence of thought, his irreverence, his restlessness of spirit, he was remembered in the district as an affa lad.
You couldn't reproach him for his desire to exchange Inveramsay for the fleshpots of Putney, for this was a young man who would have been eager to enlarge, not only his enquiring mind, but his experience of life; and he came to discover that, occasionally, experience could be more enjoyable and more reliable than theory. In Putney, having devoured articles and books on 'the problem about sex,' he found that, when he tried it for himself, there was no problem about sex. Did he ever return to Inveramsay? Mackenzie doesn't say. It is possible that he vanished into the anonymous vortex of London and was never heard of again. As for Utopia, it would appear that Inveramsay possessed not so much as a pub or a shop or a church (though Mackenzie and he did go sermon-tasting most Sundays); and I expected attractive women would have been in short supply. Inveramsay was really nothing more than a platform, an idea and a passion. They have built national theatres on less.
Whatever happened to that spirit of independent enquiry? An obvious, if unsatisfactory, answer is that it was formalised in the great scheme of post-war education. Mackenzie was dismissive of that lazy assumption. He believed that we all start as questioners, 'burrowing into everything,' but that education bears down us from a very early age, channelling our thoughts just as agriculturalists, channelling the course of a river, build solid defences against any random outbursts. An outburst of thought, of questioning, could be equally random, until the minority set in power over us, directing the flow of a community's thoughts, moved in to restore the current to its old, safe channel.
This speculation takes me to the poorest constituency in Scotland, Glasgow Springburn, where the governing minority has so failed the people that the number of school leavers with no qualifications in 300% higher than the Scottish average, teenage pregnancies are 60% higher, deaths from lung cancer 94% higher, the incidence of heart disease 40% higher, the number of people on income support 130% higher, the unemployment rate 140% higher.
On this hot spring day, questions were certainly being asked, though not in a shack and not by the people who live here, but by social workers from a charity concerned with regenerating Britain's poorest communities. I was myself stopped, outside the shopping mall, and asked for my opinion of the place. I might have said that, despite the physical squalor and the mounds of litter on the streets, the ghastliness of the shops, the poverty etched on the faces of the inhabitants, the overpowering factual evidence of deprivation, Springburn felt curiously alive – in a way that, say, Auchinleck is not alive and Alloway is not alive. Instead I admitted that I didn't live in Springburn.
'And what,' I asked, turning the tables, 'are people generally concerned about?'
'Oh,' she said, 'drugs, violence, the usual things.'
The listening charity had set up a stall in the street with tables and chairs for conducting interviews. People wandered up, sat down, were gently encouraged to talk. One middle-aged man said his car had been stolen five times since the beginning of the year. Buildings were being burned out, windows smashed, and there were no policemen on the beat – none. His tone was one of despair and resignation. It might well be the prevailing one. Springburn, like Inveramsay, was a creation of the industrial revolution – it made railway locomotives for the world – but now that it no longer makes anything very much, it is one of those Scottish communities that seem to have no particular reason left for existence.
I went to the library looking for clues that might make sense of modern Springburn. I asked, just as I had in Inverurie, for books about the social history of the area. 'We don't have any,' came the reply. 'What, none?' I asked in astonishment. 'We used to refer people interested in local history to the museum, but the museum's shut.'
So, let's imagine (for it is at least conceivable) that a modern equivalent of the railway clerk, thirsting for knowledge, having been let down by the Scottish educational system but anxious to improve himself, entered Springburn public library in search of enlightenment. What might he find? Among 'recent additions' to the stock: Steve Devereux's 'Gun for Hire,' the autobiography of Reg Kray, and Nancy Cartwright's 'My Life as a Ten Year Old Boy'; on the few shelves marked 'Literature,' 'The Faber Book of Murder,' 'Trevor McDonald's World of Poetry,' and 'World Famous Weird News Stories'; hundreds of CDs and videos, and among the current periodicals, Hello, OK, House Beautiful, and the Beano.
The history of human mental development has been a history of removing the human mind farther and farther away from the reality of the world we live in.
Jeremy Rifkin, 'A New World View.'
As recently as the early 1960s they were still building objects of power and beauty in Springburn. It is not so long since the best brass bands in the country played regularly in the park here; since the railway unions organised indoor picnics cum concerts known as the Sighthill Shunters' Soiree and the Collars Painters' Soiree; and since Signalman James Gibson – a blood brother of Inveramsay's inquisitive clerk – gave a lecture to the Caledonian Railway Debating Society on 'A Philosophy of Life.' All this vitality, all this energy, suggests that people in Springburn once did things, happily accepting responsibility for the running of their own community.
Yet, so brutally has the civic memory been expunged, we have a public library deprived of any evidence of the men and women who lived and worked here. That is not merely a disgrace, but actually rather sinister: how much farther is the human mind to be removed from reality – and why? When I took the trouble to travel several miles across the city (as few in Springburn could be expected to do: for one thing, there is the question of expense) and asked in the Glasgow Room of the Mitchell Library for books about the history of Springburn, the librarian fetched from a stockroom no fewer than nine titles.
Why are books about Springburn not on open display where they belong – in the local public library? And the obliteration of the community's memory is not only brutal but complete – for, as the librarian alerted me, the museum next to the library, a small but valuable local asset, closed in March after the City Council withdrew its funding. The room stands empty, while (I am told) local groups are priced out of the limited accommodation still available.
As I was leaving Springburn library, an assistant handed me a newsletter published by Paul Martin MSP, entitled 'Constituency Update.' Mr Martin's is one of the mugshots on the library's noticeboard, which lists five MSPs and MPs and six councillors, all of whom claim to be representing Springburn's interests. The number of politicians serving the area appears to have increased in inverse proportion to the decline in the economy and self-confidence of the district. Now there's a political line-up the size of a football team, yet it is doubtful whether many in Springburn are aware of their names, such is the general loss of faith or even interest in the capacity of politics to change lives.
Mr Martin's newsletter makes depressing reading. Under the heading, 'Paul Martin Calls for New Approach to Health in Springburn,' there is a brief account of the Public Health Institute's statistical analysis of the constituency, beginning with the following statement:
Paul Martin has told the experts behind the damning report about Springburn Constituency: DON'T TELL US WHAT WE ALREADY KNOW. GIVE US SOLUTIONS.
Setting aside the abrasive tone and the sub-tabloid prose, I read the 200 words of text for an explanation of Mr Martin’s new approach to health. I found none. If Mr Martin does have such a new approach, perhaps he should call a meeting in the former Springburn Museum and tell us what it is. If, however, the best he can manage is to blame public health statisticians for the wretched condition of his constituents, perhaps he had better just admit that he is impotent to improve the situation. It wouldn't matter much one way or the other, so low are the expectations of politicians among the poor.
As his life drew to a close, R F Mackenzie was still looking for an answer to the question: from where did the railway clerk of Inveramsay draw his inspired questioning of everything? (He might have asked the same question had he known of Springburn's Railway Debating Society). It was Mackenzie's instinct – it was indeed the theme of his book – that, with encouragement, many young Scots of the present day would become lively enquirers and questing spirits. Yet he despaired of Scottish education's inability to make sense of young people's experience and give direction to their lives.
He believed that children should be taught an integrated account of how the world of their great-great-grandparents grew into the world of their grandparents and into their own world, and that this should be explained in clear, concrete terms. How, for example, the railways came and gave to a region like rural Aberdeenshire a sense of community previously felt only by the parish. Or how a former weaving village in the east end of Glasgow was made and then broken by the steam engine. Mackenzie believed that, presented with the story in such a way, young Scots would begin to explore; begin to ask those basic questions that so intrigued and excited the railwaymen of rural Aberdeenshire, and of urban Springburn, 80 years ago; even begin to make Scotland a clearinghouse of ideas.
Mackenzie's romantic vision was of a new cultural revolution that started in the country – perhaps in a place as overlooked as Inveramsay. But the revolution might just as well be launched in Springburn, the poorest place in Scotland, with a few symbolic gestures that needn't cost much. The park where the bands played should be restored to its former glory, the museum reopened, the public library given some decent books. If you say this is well short of a revolution, you have obviously never been to Springburn.
Inveramsay was my inspiration for founding the Young Scotland Programme – a forum for debate and dialogue – in 2002. But I never dreamt that I would find out the identity of the Inveramsay railway clerk until, 13 years later, SR columnist Barbara Millar with the help of a genealogist tracked him down.
for Barbara Millar's article