Inveramsay was Kenneth Roy's inspiration for founding the Young Scotland Programme – a forum for debate and dialogue – in 2002. But he never dreamt that he 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.
'I have often thought that youngsters seldom appreciate the true quality of their parents,' the letter begins. 'Your father was a man of many parts.'
The letter was written by Bella Law to her only daughter, Isobel, known to the family as Lizi. There is no date on it. But she clearly wished her children to understand and acknowledge their father's qualities. 'First and foremost,' she writes, 'he was an intellectual, had a wide knowledge of poetry and literature (self-taught), was a lover of beauty and nature, and also passionately interested in politics.' The letter continues:
When a young man, he was an ardent socialist, a rebel against the establishment, dreaming always of a brave new world. He and my brother Bill loved to heckle the speakers at political meetings, which they attended far and wide in the north of Scotland. Lord Boothby, an Aberdonian MP, enjoyed many a heated argument with the pair of them. I once went to a meeting with them where they practically monopolised his attention.
He deluged the Aberdeen Press and Journal with letters and articles on politics, Scottish country life and philosophical musings on life in general. He wrote some beautiful poetry but, unfortunately, because of our wandering life, most of his outpourings have been lost. He wrote under the initials AGL or Utopian. This latter nom-de-plume originated from a small wooden house he and Bill shared while they were both working at Inveramsay. They called it Utopia, enjoying a free, idyllic life while living there, hence the name. They were kindred spirits and shared many interests.
It was there that I first met your father. I was 19, he was 21. Ina, later Bill’s wife, kept house for her father, who was station master at Inveramsay. It was while staying with her on holiday that our romance started, and blossomed. And so, you are our beloved daughter, and I your loving mother.
Allan Gray Law, Inveramsay railway clerk and 'Utopian', was born on 7 May 1907 at Kirkton of Rayne in rural Aberdeenshire, one of 11 children – seven boys, four girls – born to William Wilson Law and Margaret Murray, coming after William, Mary, George, Annie, Lil, Sandy, Hector and Millie and before Harry and Alistair. Later in life he dropped one of the 'Ls' from his name in favour of 'Alan'. The family was brought up on a farm – Sunside of Rayne – where William senior bred heavy horses.
When he was around 14, Alan took it into his head to cycle to London, just to have a look at the place. This stood his youngest son, David, in good stead when he wanted to do the same in reverse – to cycle from London to Scotland – when he was 15, many years later. He felt his mother could scarcely refuse, knowing that her husband had done this when he had been even younger than her son was.
Alan attended Rayne North School, leaving at 14, taking a first job delivering telegrams. He recalled delivering them to 'the big hoose' – Pittodrie House, now the Pittodrie House Hotel. The house's 2,400-acre estate extended to the summit of Bennachie, which dominates this part of Aberdeenshire, and was of great importance to Alan and his wife in later years, a place they often climbed, even in the dark. The original house, at Chapel of Garioch, six miles from Inverurie, had been built in the late 1400s. In 1896, it was bought by shipping magnate George Smith, and he would have most likely been the recipient of the telegrams delivered by the young Alan.
In 1910, three years after Alan's birth, Robert F Mackenzie, writer and radical educationalist, was born at Garioch. His father was station master at Wartle, an intermediate station on the Banff, Macduff, Turriff branch line. The next station to Wartle is Inveramsay, and this is where Alan took up employment as a clerk when he was 20, appointed on 27 September 1927, having previously been a junior clerk at Oyne. In his book 'A Search for Scotland,' Mackenzie recalls his encounters with this clerk and his friend, the shunter, who shared the two-roomed shack they called Utopia, furnished with 'scores of books' on history, physics, economics, politics, religion, philosophy, astronomy, literature. It is no coincidence that Mackenzie came across Utopia – he and Alan were contemporaries, born within a few miles of each other, and both involved in railway life.
In fact, it was a very tight-knit community. As Bella's letter to Lizi explained, Bill Drummond, her brother, older by nine years, was the shunter at Inveramsay. He married Ina Dawson, the Inveramsay station master's daughter and Bella married Alan, the railway clerk. Bella Drummond was also from a large rural Aberdeenshire family – she was one of 10 and her father, William Drummond, a farmer, was himself a very erudite man. Bella, always very bright, had the opportunity to go to university. She was primarily interested in literature but, according to David Law, she was not allowed to choose her subject at Aberdeen University – she was told by the authorities she was to study zoology. She didn't particularly enjoy the subject and stuck the course for only a year before leaving, but she continued to write stories and poetry right up until she died, two months short of her 99th birthday.
Her brother Bill, the shunter, she described as 'a great character, with a heart of gold, an inexhaustible fund of jokes and anecdotes.' Bill Drummond played the mouth organ and piano and acted in amateur drama. In a letter to his future wife Ina, 'my dearest little kid,' written from Inveramsay, Bill tells of a night when they were plagued by 'forkies' (forkie-tails, or earwigs). 'What a night we had with forkies, the nasty brutes,' wrote Bill. 'I wish I could invent something to exterminate the lot. Alan is just terrified of them, and sags when I kill one with my finger.'
Later in the letter, Bill talks wistfully of 'the old story of going abroad' which, he says, 'has been coming into my head pretty often lately. I was reading an article on life in Tasmania and, really, it is the only thing I can think of. This life here is too cramped. I don't want to boast, but I have always had the feeling that I am fit for a better life or, to put it differently, would like something which would require more endeavour, more brain work, and something to really attain in the end, and, as you know, there is no outlook for me here.' But Bill never did get to Tasmania. He became the station master at Tillyfourie and died at the age of 52.
Alan did, however, move on. He resigned from the railways in 1930 and went south. He and Bella were married at Chelsea register office on 7 August 1937. By then he was living in Sydney Street, Chelsea, with the occupation of assistant in a travel agency. Bella was a nurse, living at Hither Green Hospital in Lewisham, having trained at Glasgow Royal Infirmary. David Law recalls that his mother said that R F Mackenzie would visit the Laws when they were first in London, but there is no evidence that he saw the Laws again after the 1930s. In 'A Search for Scotland,' he claims that Alan was working in a bar in Putney, but David Law says he has no knowledge of this. Alan was, however, managing a Bata shoe shop in Harrow between 1938 and 1939.
By this time, the Laws had started their own family – Michael was born in Shepherd's Bush, west London in 1938, Isobel (Lizi) came along in Perth in 1939, Alan followed in 1941 and David in 1945, both born in Turriff. Throughout the 1940s the family was rather nomadic. Alan had moved into the work which would occupy him for the rest of his life – working on the financial and admin side of civil engineering projects, a reserved occupation during the second world war. He started with a company building the military airport at Fairford in Gloucestershire and subsequently moved around a lot with his work, so Bella often returned to Scotland, to live on the family farm, with the children, with various aunts, uncles and cousins always around. Michael, their eldest, worked out that he went to 27 different schools during his childhood.
Alan travelled widely, his passport bearing stamps and visas from all over the Middle East, Africa, South America and beyond. He was involved with the building of Mulberry harbours, the portable temporary harbours developed by the British during the second world war and used to facilitate the rapid off-loading of cargo on to the beaches during the Allied invasion of Normandy. Later, after the war, he was involved with helping to clear the River Seine of bombs. His company put water into Abu Dhabi, built the Port Talbot docks, worked on the Suez Canal, built the harbour at Aden, bridges in the Caribbean.
At the end of the 1940s, he was out in Africa, on this occasion with all his family. His company was part of the ill-fated Tanganyika groundnut scheme – a project set up by the British government to cultivate tracts of what is now Tanzania and grow peanuts. Britain was still subject to post-war food rationing and short of cooking fats. The idea was to turn the groundnuts into vegetable oil, so heavy equipment was brought in on the single dirt track from the port of Dar-Es-Salaam to clear a huge area of land.
What no-one seemed to have worked out was that groundnuts needed 20 inches of water a year in order to grow. The area chosen was subject to drought, particularly since the rainforest had been cleared to cultivate the nuts. The scheme was entirely abandoned in 1951, after making huge losses and costing the British taxpayer dear. When they returned to Scotland Bella very much missed her eight servants.
The family was reunited some months later when Bella and the children joined Alan in Strood, Kent, where his company was building the oil refinery on the Isle of Grain. The children immediately took the rise out of their father's Anglicised accent. His soft voice and lovely accent had become very English, David recalls, and 'we made a big thing out of this.' The family continued to move around, following Alan's contracts. He was always restless, David says. 'In some respects, perhaps he should never have married and had a family.' There were four moves within Strood and Rochester, then to Bromley, where Bella used Alan's bonus to buy a house, the first they'd ever owned. Alan wasn't particularly impressed by this purchase – but his family says he was never good with his own money: he was generous and would give it all away. He did like nice things, though: a good suit, with waistcoat, topped off by a Trilby. He also had a beautiful calf-skin cigarette holder, bought by Bella from Bond Street – he was never without a cigarette.
Alan's work also took him to Egypt (travelling by Sunderland flying boats), British Guyana, Canada. He was exceptionally well-travelled, and he remained well-read. The young man who had given recitations at the Rayne Mutual Improvement Society's 'Converzatione' evenings in the 1920s and 30s and who had later taken a soap box to Speaker's Corner in Hyde Park to share his radical views, kept a well-stocked library at home. 'We had so many books at home,' says David. 'My parents worshipped them, and a lot of my education – I was a sickly child – was reading everything we had in the house.' And as for Alan's continued ability to argue, David adds: 'He could argue very convincingly that black was white. And, when you believed him, he would argue, just as convincingly, that white was black. He never lost the power of oratory. He wasn't good at everything, however. He was a terrible driver and acknowledged that he was absolutely useless at DIY.'
He and Bella left Bromley and moved to Winchester for his last contract and this, says David, he referred to as his 'golden years'. He loved the job, he loved the countryside and the history of the area. Their daughter Lizi and her daughter Luci also moved in for a while, which he was so happy about. But Alan Law never told his children about Utopia. He never spoke about that time in the shack at Inveramsay railway station, the heated exchange of views with Boothby in the press, and with others who would turn up to debate on any subject under the sun, well into the night. He died on 27 September 1979 at Peppard Hospital, aged 72, from the prostate cancer he had lived with for a couple of years. He was buried at Peppard, near Reading, where Bella joined him many years later. At his funeral service, the clergyman said: 'I didn't know this man, so I can't really say anything about him.'
And it wasn't until 2000, years after Mackenzie's death in 1987, that anyone in the Law family heard of the book 'A Search for Scotland,' in which Alan plays a small but highly significant part. Harry Law junior, son of Alan's younger brother, Harry, wrote to his aunt Bella out of the blue. 'Whilst in Aberdeen some months back, and in conversation with my brother-in-law Ronnie Beattie, I made mention of my Uncle Alan,' Harry wrote to his aunt. 'Ronnie responded by producing "A Search for Scotland" by R F Mackenzie, in which reference is made to Uncle Alan. I was so intrigued by this I have endeavoured to find the book in question, so far without success.'
Ronnie posted his copy to Harry, along with a note: 'I am now reading a book on Mackenzie's life by Peter Murphy and, in it, he says "another potent factor on Mackenzie's life was an unnamed railway clerk who was brought up on a small farm at Kirkton of Rayne." Your Uncle Alan was obviously a fascinating character.' He certainly was. His influence has extended far beyond his early rural Aberdeenshire realm and has survived for many years after his death; he did not live to know that the spirit of independent thinking exemplified by the railway shack at Inveramsay inspired the establishment of the Young Scotland Programme. He is no longer 'the unnamed railway clerk.' He is Alan Gray Law, a truly remarkable man.
R F Mackenzie, educational philosopher and rebel teacher, who brought the Inveramsay experiment to the public notice in 'A Search for Scotland,' died in 1987. Many years later, his family offered to the Scottish Review a previously unpublished paper.
for R F Mackenzie's article