Wick is a small town of a few thousand people in the far north-east of Scotland. The odd thing is that, consciously or unconsciously, nearly everyone in the UK knows of it. Day after day, night after night, there it is on our television screens. When the forecasters are talking about the weather in Scotland, including the north of Scotland, Wick is almost invariably there, a great deal larger than life, as though it were a Newcastle, a Glasgow, a Cardiff, rather than the tiny place it actually is.
It's where I was born – an early Christmas present in 1932. But in terms of the Wick of that time, my parents were a rather odd couple. Despite living and working at the very top of Scotland, beyond the Highlands, my father was an Englishman from Gloucestershire. In the 19th century his family had been local church-builders, but his own father had moved with the times and in the early years of the 20th century had left churches for the new world of motor-cars, garages, petrol pumps and repairs. This grandfather, who died comparatively young in the 1930s, was never a presence in my life, but his widow – my 'Nan-in-Stroud' – was another matter, as we shall see.
First though, how had my father, an Englishman from Gloucestershire, ended up in Wick? He was among those 17-year-olds who passed themselves off as 18 in order to join up in World War I. Originally he served in the Royal Artillery – once in a blue moon he would make a joking remark about Vimy Ridge (how I regret never having pressed him to tell me the whole story of his war experiences). What I do know is that at some stage he was gassed – something that probably contributed to the chronic bronchitis he died of at a relatively early age – and subsequently sent back to France. At this stage he apparently transferred out of the Artillery and moved to the Royal Flying Corps where he trained as a wireless operator: Morse code and wireless telegraphy rather than romantic dog-fights over the Western front. But this final part of his war experience was to become the source of Corporal Hook's job for life.
When the war ended my father, unlike his brothers, chose not to return to the family business in Gloucestershire. Instead, capitalising on his wireless telegraphy skills gained during the war, he took a job with the GPO's coastal radio service. After early postings in Wales and the west of England, he found himself dispatched to Wick Radio in the most distant and remote part of the UK.
Did he know anything at all about Scotland? Not to mention its furthest north-east corner? I have no idea, but if the notions and attitudes of the other members of his family are anything at all to go by, then the answer has to have been no. For all of them Scotland was and remained another country. So I expect it was for my father in the 1920s. But he was a sociable and adaptable man. Within a short time he had acted out a familiar pattern by meeting and marrying a local girl, whose name happened to be the same as the northernmost headland of the British mainland.
So we were a Wick family. Growing up I had no sense at all that the Gloucestershire connection made any difference. I was who I was and that was it. True enough, there were summers when we made the long odyssey from Caithness to Gloucestershire in our Hillman Minx. (My father shared enough of his family background always to be a car person, expert at maintenance and repairs.) I remember little of these trips except the initial worry of having to negotiate the steep climbs at Dunbeath and particularly Berriedale with its frightening hairpin bend. Would we make it unscathed? We always seemed to, but it was a relief to be over the Ord, that test left behind.
After that I remember very little until the journey was broken at Warrington in the south of Lancashire where we could stay with relatives. My uncle – on my mother's side – was a GP there, a brusque and jocular figure not entirely unlike Dr Cameron in 'Dr Finlay's Casebook.' (And as it happens I'm sure I remember my uncle saying that he knew AJ Cronin when he was studying medicine at the University of Edinburgh.) The doctor's large house, complete with consulting rooms and his own pharmacy, was something of an adventure in itself.
The Wick house I grew up in – Mount Hooley – was also large, but it was shared with my maternal grandfather and grandmother. (How, I wonder how, had my father been persuaded to agree to this arrangement?) Not that I recall any hint of a problem – and the house was large with an extensive front garden, with lawns and large flower-beds, as well as a big back garden for potatoes and vegetables, various outhouses and a garage which my father built himself.
Nonetheless the Warrington way of life was subtly different. I sensed a living standard and a comfort level higher than I knew at home. Almost certainly what it was about was that GPs were substantially better off than radio operators. Still, Warrington had its drawbacks. In those days tanning was one of its main industries and the result was a permanent, heavy smell that made Kirkcaldy's linoleum seem comparatively innocuous.
Gloucestershire – and specifically Ebley village, near Stroud – was nothing like this. It was a high, walled garden, an orchard heavy with the scent of apple and other fruit trees. It always seemed to be warm and still and I had never known anything like it. The garage was there, the petrol pumps and cars, but later there was something new and again it was something I had never seen: television sets. On display one or two would be working: black and white cricket matches, England v the West Indies in the days of the three Ws – Weekes, Worrell and Walcutt. But all of this was incidental.
The reality of the Gloucestershire experience was my Stroud grandmother even though she had died well before the television days. Why was she so important? Because she was the difference. There after all was a difference, and she was it. My mother supplied the clue. Somehow in Stroud we children had to be careful, less free and easy. In Wick, even in comfortable Warrington, it never even crossed our minds that we might offend anyone. But here it was different.
Looking back, I am sure that what was involved was the great divide. The wife from the distant north of Scotland, never able to be familiar with her in-laws, having to cope with the intimidating, elderly Englishwoman, the head of a large and expanding family. No wonder that she was nervous, a bit fearful, and that her fears were passed onto us. My Nan at home was a familiar, reassuring figure; my 'Nan-in-Stroud' an intimidating one. So there at least the divide was real; Wick and Gloucestershire could not always be so easily accommodated. But let me not exaggerate. It is only looking back that I understand my mother's attitude; and at the time I had no awareness of it having anything to do with Scotland and England. But that I'm sure now was at least a factor, exacerbating the normal tension between wife and mother-in-law.
That there really was a cultural gap – not one necessarily involving superiority or condescension or anything of the kind, simply an assumption of difference, of almost foreignness – the attitudes and opinions of my father's family made clear at a much later date. But I believe that for most of his life my father, for so many years the odd man out, the Englishman in Wick, was successful at overcoming it. Yet at the very end, when he was in hospital in Edinburgh for the last time, his mind wandering, he began to say things about the Scots and the English which riveted me with their suggestion of long-suppressed pain and persecution. Just for an instant or two an abyss of prejudice and ill-will seemed to open up in front of me. But if that is what it was, it was too late for any kind of exploration to be made.
There had been times when my father struck local people as something of an eccentric. One occasion in particular sticks in my mind. It happened early in the war. As well as the family house in Wick we owned a small farmhouse in the country a few miles along the north coast from John O'Groats. The Huna house had been built by my great-grandfather Dunnet, and had never been modernised. There was no running water; no electricity; and only the most primitive form of sanitation in an outhouse. Yet the house itself was solid enough with a large kitchen containing an open hearth for burning peat, with a box-bed in the opposite wall, as well as another bedroom and a kind of pantry where the pails of water, carried two at a time in a square wooden frame from the well across the fields, were kept. There were unused farm buildings at the back, and a kind of rough kitchen garden, with flagstone walls, covered the area between the front door and the passing main road.
In the summer of 1940 my father decided he should dig an Anderson shelter in the front garden of the Huna house. (The Wick house was well-provided with a deep cellar.) An Anderson shelter in a farmland on the remote northern coast of Scotland? What mad eccentricity was this? This was certainly the view of most of the locals who sometimes would watch from the roadside as my father worked away with pick and shovel. But my father was no fool. He had been in World War I – not that many years ago. He knew what high explosives could do. North across a couple of fields beyond the main road lay the sea. And a few miles across the Peatland Firth was Orkney.
Orkney's Scapa Flow was one of the British Navy's most important bases. But its defences had already been penetrated. In October 1939, a German U-boat had torpedoed and sunk the anchored battleship Royal Oak with the loss of hundreds of British lives. And there had also been German bombing raids on the naval base. At night in Huna we could sometimes see the dark sky crisscrossed by the beams of Scapa's searchlights. My father's thinking must have been that during some such raid the lights on our side of the firth might accidentally or intentionally become the target. But the shelter was never finished. I remember it as a forlorn, half-finished warning. Perhaps after 1940 my father decided the danger from the air had passed.
This was certainly not true of Wick where, despite its remoteness, the war had come much earlier than for most of the UK. First there were reports of the loss of the Rawalpindi, and later of the Jervis Bay. These were both smallish passenger liners requisitioned by the Admiralty and converted into lightly-armed merchant cruisers in the early days of the war. Their job was to help protect British merchantmen convoys in the Atlantic from German submarine and surface vessel attack.
In November 1939, the ex P&O liner Rawalpindi, escorting a convoy, found herself confronting the two German battlecruisers Scharnhost and Gneisenau in the Atlantic between Iceland and the Faroe Islands. Hopelessly outclassed and outgunned, the Rawalpindi could only try to gain a little time while the convoy under escort scattered. When she went down, three of the four Caithness men on board were lost – the first of the 40 or so Wick and Caithness seamen who would die in the war. Almost exactly a year later the losses on board the Jervis Bay would be heavier. Escorting a convoy out of Halifax, Nova Scotia, in November 1940, the Jervis Bay in mid-Atlantic engaged the pocket battleship Admiral Scheer in another heroic but equally hopeless attempt to defend the merchant ships she was escorting. This time, of the 18 Wick and Caithness men among her crew, nine were killed. The news of such losses travelled fast.
Much more surprising were the civilian deaths that occurred equally early in the war. Wick would surely have struck most people as one of the last places in Britain to be a likely target of German bombing. But the truth was different. Mount Hooly House stood high on the north side of the town, from the back commanding an excellent view down to and across Wick harbour which had been developed and extended by the Stevenson family in the 19th century. (RLS himself spent some time in the town but the experience was clearly an unhappy one. 'Sub-arctic Wick' he described as 'one of the meanest of man's towns…on the baldest of God's bays.')
In fact Wick had become more and more of a boom town in the later decades of the 19th century and in the years before World War I. My grandfather Dunnet often spoke of how he remembered being able to walk across the bay – not miraculously on the water but on the decks of the closely-packed herring boats, all there for the hugely rewarding fishing season. Of course by my time in World War II these great days were long gone – though there would still be drifters in the harbour and sometimes stacks of herring barrels on the quay.
In any event, early in the war – it was the first of July, 1940 – I remember all too clearly standing at the foot of the large potato garden at the back of our house looking out across to the harbourside area where a huge plume of black smoke was rising in the air. The preceding bang had been loud and clear and we had run to see. A German plane had dropped two bombs – aiming at the harbour perhaps? Or was it simply lost, unable to find its target, and getting rid of its bombs before returning home? Whatever the case, the bombs fell in the late afternoon in the middle of a busy street. No fewer than 15 men, women and children were killed, and many more injured. Was this attack big news nationally? Or censored perhaps? I just don't know. But I do remember that thick black smoke spiralling up into the sky. It has been suggested that this was the first daylight bombing raid on Britain in World War II. Perhaps it was…but there were more raids to come.
One of my very earliest memories is of being taken to see inside the Old North School, very close to where I lived. This was the primary school I would have been expecting to attend a year or so later. It was an old, presumably Victorian structure, and I recall feeling it was a drab and dreary and uninviting place. This no doubt was why it was decided to build a brand new school – the New North School – which was completed just before the outbreak of the war. Built on the northern edge of the town, alongside Wick's small airfield, the gleaming New North should have been my school. It never was.
With the coming of the war, Wick’s airfield suddenly became strategically very important as a centre of operations for Coastal Command. Large numbers of air-force personnel arrived in the town and there was a problem over accommodation. Our house was one of those that became a billet for RAF officers. But the new school building was too good to miss. In no time it was taken over as the headquarters of the expanding air operations. (As a result much of my primary education took place in church halls and other temporary locations.)
But the importance of the airfield ensured that Wick remained a target. Only a few months after the harbour bombing, in October 1940, German aircraft launched a night-time raid. One bomb fell on the bungalows of Hill Avenue, close by the airfield, killing three people including a school classmate of my brother's. German bombers returned the following summer and this time I happened to be outside in the late evening in a neighbour's garden and saw a German plane zoom past with the bright flashes of tracer bullets coming from or at it.
As the tide of war slowly turned, Wick ceased to be a target. The air-raid siren continued to go off with some frequency, and one never stopped being a bit fearful until the all-clear sounded. But there were as I remember no more bombs. Later on, though, there were nights when the sound of aircraft approaching and landing seemed to drone on all night. There were nights, I now understand, when British bombers, flying out of East Anglia and the south of England to attack Germany's cities, were diverted north on their return journeys to avoid possible German interception. Hence a time came when I became an avid listener of BBC Radio's reports of yet another thousand bomber raid over Germany's cities…
Yet there were summers away from Wick when the war seemed a world apart. My father had been posted to the remotest north-west coast of Sutherland to operate a tiny, temporary radio station, located south of Cape Wrath and north of Kinlochbervie, designed to work with the endless Atlantic convoys crucial to conducting the war in Europe. I spent two idyllic summers in that unspoiled area of deep sea-lochs and beautiful, empty, sandy beaches – empty, that is, except for the flotsam and jetsam washed in from an Atlantic ocean at war. Sutherland, of course, was only a temporary posting, and our family base remained in Wick. With the war over, however, it was not long before my father's job took him permanently south. Edinburgh became the family base, and my own time at school in Wick was drawing to its close.
As I have indicated, in none of these early years was I particularly conscious of who or what – in national identity terms – I was. Scottish? British? Anglo-Scottish? The question just did not arise. It was never an issue. Yet I have to admit that in my sixth-form, pre-university year at an Edinburgh college, I did stand (and win) as the Scottish National Party candidate in the school's mock election. The choice of party, I suspect, had more to do with expectations of victory than political ideology. Certainly as a student at Edinburgh University, despite the exploits of those who stole the Stone of Destiny in London, I took no part in nationalist politics. Cultural nationalism, on the other hand, did make some impact. MacDiarmid, Sydney Goodish Smith – it was hard not to be broadly on their side. But kilts and the political movement – that was another matter.
Perhaps it was a vague sense of my mixed background that kept me firmly on the sidelines, but in fact I think I was still in denial that the issue of national identity had any kind of personal relevance. I was who I was – end of story. In fact it was only post-university that it was brought home to me that indeed I did apparently possess a national identity – and then only because it was forced upon me. In the early, traumatic days of National Service I was taken aback, stunned, really, to hear myself called 'Jock'. For the very first time I was made to realise that there were plenty of people out there who saw me – whatever I thought – as no more and no less than just another run-of-the-mill Scot. End of their story. Did I like that? Not a lot.
I felt better, I think, two years later, when sitting across the table from a battery of Oxbridge dons being interviewed for a postgraduate fellowship to study in America, I heard the Master of Balliol asking, was I really from Wick?
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