The view from midway across the Clyde is suitably sombre for a Glasgow Fair Wednesday to be spent chasing ghosts: the ghosts of Para Handy, Dougie, The Tar, Sunny Jim and Macphail, the ghost of their creator, Argyllshire poet, historical novelist and journalist Neil Munro, and the ghost of the Scotland he captured so beautifully in the early years of the twentieth century.
The heatwave of the previous week is a distant memory as I scan the waters of the firth for signs of life. To the south-west, there is the chimney of the white elephant power station at Inverkip. Further downriver, the Hunterston ore terminal is just visible in the greyness of the day. From the deck of the ferry which plies between Gourock and Hunter's Quay, the only other craft visible are two distant pleasure cruisers with cargoes of passengers enjoying a July morning with a wee sail doon the water. Looking east, to the Tail of the Bank – the area where the river flowing down from Glasgow opens out to stretch from Greenock across to Helensburgh – there is nothing at all to be seen on the water. It's hard to imagine the activity which would have filled the scene when the Para Handy stories first appeared in the Glasgow Evening News between 1905 and 1923, under the pen-name Hugh Foulis.
Once off the ferry, I turn right and head along the side of the Holy Loch, the loch which seemed so incongruously named when it had at its heart a US nuclear submarine base. I stop beside the war memorial on a small promontory to look at the names honoured with two faded poppy wreaths. Like war memorials all over the country, it contains two plaques – one for each of the world wars.
To the Glory of God and the honoured memory of the 124 officers and non-commissioned officers and men of Sandbank and Ardnadam who served in the Great War 1914-1919.
I wonder if Pte. John Cameron, Pte. John Campbell, PO Colin Kerr, and all of the others named followed the fortunes of the crew of the Vital Spark when they appeared in print for the first time.
The second plaque is dedicated not just to the men of the area, but also to the crews of HM submarines Snapper, Syrtis, Unbeaten, Unique, Untamed and Vandal who sailed from the Holy Loch and failed to return.
Such names, such ghosts.
Help! I am in danger of sinking into melancholia, which is not appropriate given that my first stop is Colintraive, the scene of The Tar's extraordinary conundrum in the tale 'A Stroke of Luck'. My aim is to visit the settings of some of my favourite Para Handy stories and I am heading over the hills, round the top of Loch Striven and down to the tiny hamlet overlooking the Kyles of Bute where in Munro’s words:
It was a night of harmony on the good ship Vital Spark. She was fast in the mud at Colintraive quay, and, in the den of her, Para Handy was giving his song. ‘The Dancing Master’…
The air of gaiety and well-being was added to by Dougie's efforts on his Jew's-harp. Having repeated the only two verses he knew several times, the captain stamped along to the music.
"If I had chust on my other boots," he declared. "This ones iss too light for singing with…"
The reason for the jollity was that Dougie had passed off a coarse fish called a stenlock as a cod to a gullible Glasgow woman on holiday in the village. At first he had only meant to tease her, but she had taken it seriously and handed over two shillings which was duly spent on ale. The Tar, in particularly good humour because he had, that day, been awarded a pay rise, was anxious to contribute to the merriment and declared that he would give them "a guess". This was greeted with some interest and surprise given that this particular crew member was never one to exert himself unnecessarily.
"Weel done, Colin!" said the Captain, who had never before seen such enterprise on the part of The Tar. "Tell us the guess if you can mind it."
"It begins something like this," said The Tar nervously: "Whether would you raither, – That’s the start of it."
"Fine, Colin, fine!" Said the Captain encouragingly. "Take your breath and start again."
"Whether would you raither," proceeded The Tar – "whether would you raither or walk there?"
Reading the story you can hear the wheels turning in the crew's minds, see them exchanging looks, before Dougie asks for "the guess" to be repeated "slow", and Macphail, always one to show that he was a man of some erudition, declared that if he had a pencil and a lump of paper he could work it out.
When The Tar refuses to admit that something is missing from the conundrum, the answer is demanded of him. "Man, I don't mind whether there wass an answer or no," he has to confess.
The above is a subplot in a story which follows Dougie's increasingly troubled conscience and involves a denouement in which Para Handy exploits the power of his Argyllshire guile over the lowlander's gullibility. When the woman comes to the boat to complain that she has boiled the fish for three hours and it is still like leather, the captain asks what she used to boil it. He has to admit that water seems appropriate, but enquires what kind of coals she used.
"Jist plain black yins…I bocht them frae Cameron along the road there.."
"Cameron!…Wass I not sure there wass something or other wrong? Cameron's coals wouldna boil a wulk…
The story with its conundrum vignette illustrates the reason why television is not able to capture the charm and craft of Neil Munro's stories. Television is a blunt instrument which demands action, a speedy unfolding of events, visual humour. So much so that the television series is really only a comedy show based on Munro's characters. The minister hiding on the ship from Dougie, the superstitious mate, the runaway trailer with Macphail on board, careering down a hill onto Brodick pier: these are the things people remember if you talk to them about Para Handy. But neither event appears in Munro's stories, and the TV humour pales into insignificance when compared to that which pours from the Inveraray author's pen.
Indeed, some of the funniest stories set on the Vital Spark are flights of fancy involving little or no action, such as 'Pension Farms'
in which a conversation about the merits of egg farms descends into the bizarre when the captain informs his crew that farming pensioners
is a much better way to make a living.
"I have a cousin yonder oot in Gigha wi' a stock o' five fine healthy uncles – no' a man o' them under seventy. There's another frien' o' my own in Mull wi’ thirteen head o’ chenuine old Macleans. He gaithered them aboot the islands wi' a boat whenever the rumours o' the pensions started…It wassna every wan he would take; they must be aal Macleans, for the Mull Macleans never die till they're centurions…They're yonder, noo, in Loch Scridian, kept like fightin' cocks…"
And so he goes on, explaining the economics of a scheme made possible by the newly introduced old age pension, with the crew solemnly feeding him lines such as Dougie's enquiry about the possibility of branding the stock.
Humour like this has to be read
. It doesn't translate to the insatiable, in-one-ear-out-the-other, world of the small screen.
And so, I find myself on the shoreline in Colintraive. The greyness of the sky has been pierced by patches of an ice blue colour, and a warmth has become detectable in the air. The throb of the engines of the Cal Mac ferry which plies between here and the Isle of Bute, perhaps less than a quarter of a mile away, fills the hamlet. I have walked past the cars waiting to get on and followed a concrete slipway down to the waterline. Suddenly another Cal Mac ship hoves into view and I strain to remember the ditty which goes something like:
The earth belongs unto the Lord and all that it contains
Except for all the western isles – they are all Macbrayne's
When it is close enough to read the name on the side, I see that this is the Saturn, with a cargo of day-trippers. She passes Colintraive and heads through the narrows of the Kyles of Bute and round the north end of the island towards Tighnabruaich. The Colintraive ferry waits for her to pass and itself get under way. Silence descends on the village and more tourists begin to drift along to await her return. As I watch her progress towards the island another literary ghost bobs into my head. Wee Macgreegor, the much doted-upon child of the Macgregor and Purdie families. His adventures at home in Glasgow and on holiday in Rothesay have long been a delight and, come to think of it, his creator, J.J. Bell, was a contemporary of Munro. But I suppress thoughts of the boy – I have enough ghosts for one day – and turn the car northward.
The road round the top of Loch Riddon then south towards Tighnabruaich is set high on a hillside and the National Trust for Scotland has provided a viewpoint which highlights various places of interest. Five cars are already parked there and their occupants are scanning the view from the roadside. The day has now brightened considerably and the view of the Kyles is stunning.
Ormidale on Loch Riddon gets a mention on the plaque. It seems that this was the landing place of Norse troops in 1089. Until now I had never been quite sure where Ormidale was but the story 'Para Handy has an Eye to Business' is introduced with some lines which immediately capture the tranquility of the area:
It was a lovely day, and the Vital Spark, without a cargo, lay at the pier of Ormidale, her newly painted under-strakes reflected in a loch like a mirror, making a crimson blotch in a scene that was otherwise winter-brown. For a day and a half more there was nothing to be done. “It’s the life of a Perfect Chentleman” said Dougie…
The companionable atmosphere was shattered when Para Handy suggested that perhaps the crew might carry out a little tarring on the vessel, a suggestion quickly scorned by the others. Macphail in particular was engrossed, as usual, in a piece of romantic fiction and did not want to be disturbed.
"Maybe it'll do fine when we get to Tarbert. It's an awfu' peety they're no' buildin' boats o' this size wi' a kind of a study in them for the use o' the enchineers," declared the captain looking at Dougie, the mate, for support which was not to be forthcoming.
I note that Neil Munro and Para Handy are mentioned on the National Trust plaque. The Maids of Bute are two rocks which have been painted to look like reclining women and, as it points out, Para Handy claimed to have been the first man to have decorated them thus.
The view from the vantage point is fine but it’s now lunchtime and it seems ages since breakfast. Onwards to Tighnabruaich where the Saturn has disgorged her passengers and is now lying at the pier awaiting their return. The Royal Hotel offers an imaginative menu and the food is served by waitresses dressed in black trousers and waistcoats and white shirts, looking as if they belong more in a smart city restaurant than a hotel in rural Argyll.
The day is now warm and I sit outside overlooking the shore as butterflies and bumble bees busy themselves in the bright yellow flowers at the front of the hotel.
'How to Buy a Boat' is set on the shore here and is a masterclass on second-hand buying. Para Handy, in need of a punt, falls into conversation, apparently casually, with a hirer of rowing boats. First he tricks the man into admitting that business is bad, then he instills anxiety that it won't get better by telling him that the weather forecast for the summer isn't good and that rowing boats are going cheap at Millport. The man is no fool and when he challenges Para Handy about his interest, the captain makes to walk away before casually pointing at one of the boats with his foot and declaring "There's wan I aalways wondered at you keepin', Dan,"…"she’s a prutty old stager, I'll be bound…"
"Are ye wantin' a boat?" asks Dan, no longer in any doubt about what is going on.
Still Para Handy shadow boxes, declaring that if the boat is on the market he will keep his ears open for a buyer. Later he feigns astonishment when a price is mentioned, and when the seller eventually asks how much the captain is prepared to pay, Para Handy asks: "What for?"
"For this boat. Say three pounds. It's a bargain."
“Oh, for this wan! I wouldna hurt your feelings, but if I wass wantin' a boat I wouldna take this wan in a gift. Still and on, a boat iss a handy thing for them that needs it…“
And on they go, back and forth, until a deal is struck with which they are both quietly happy.
No sign of anyone hiring boats today though, just some locals walking their dogs and a man emptying hedge clippings from a wheelbarrow onto the shore. I stroll over to talk to him and he tells me that there were three piers here. The one where the Saturn is lying now, the one to the south at Kames and the one which is now a pile of rotting timbers near the front of the Royal Hotel. He remembers when all three were busy with steamers full of cargoes, holiday-makers and day-trippers. Later, in an art shop, I buy a locally produced book of recollections in which one woman remembers that when she lived in London, her family would travel to Tighnabruaich every second weekend. They’d leave Euston on the 11 o'clock sleeper, arrive in Central Station at 6.30am, board the train for Gourock, catch the ferry there, and arrive in the village by 10am. On the Sunday, they sailed from the village at 5.30pm, and her husband was able to walk straight to his office from Euston on Monday morning.
The assistant in the art shop claims they're having a good season this year with lots more coaches than usual. "An hour and a half from Glasgow and you're in another world," she says.
Today's day-trippers are beginning to wander back from the shops, past the fine, substantial houses with their colourful gardens, towards the Saturn. Generally, they are middle-aged, the women wearing floral print skirts, the men with expensive cameras round their necks. The voices are mostly Scottish. These visitors to Tighnabruaich look as if they might be revisiting their childhood haunts, though one or two are possibly P.S. Waverley fanatics who have washed up here, confused and lost without the mothership, which is in dry lock being rebuilt. And then I notice that, with one exception, there are no children
. Why? Does a day's cruise through our country's magnificent scenery to a pretty Argyllshire village hold no attraction for our little electronics enthusiasts of today?
What has changed? Why have Scottish families lost their desire to explore their own country, to introduce their children to the wonders on their doorstep?
But there is no time to ponder this further. Loch Fyne, where I am heading next, is a mighty long loch. First, I have to go through Glendaruel, then up one side of the loch, round the top and down to Inveraray where Munro was born, and finally to Tarbert, the setting for so many of Para Handy's exploits, by nightfall.
'Torture Death and Damnation The Story of Scottish Crime and Punishment 1500-1750'. Inveraray Jail, complete with its gruesome exhibition (branding, ears nailed to posts – you get the picture) is busy with tourists. I make this my first port of call in the town because I read on an internet site that Neil Munro may have actually lived here (the basis for this unlikely assumption being that Munro's mother may have been employed there, and married the governor Malcolm Thomson, after he had retired).
As I hand over the entrance fee I ask the woman behind the desk if she knows whether the Munro story is true. She doesn't, and I head upstairs past a dummy in Victorian garb. As I near the top of the stairs, I hear someone call out and turn to see another dummy behind me which I had not previously noticed. After a moment or two I realise that this dummy in a crimson crinoline is addressing me. Indeed, she is asking me whether I had just made an enquiry about Neil Munro. Irene Parkes, a guide at the jail, has been in the town for 11 years. She doesn't know whether Munro lived in the jail but she'll "phone her husband and ask him whether he knows". She has, of course, heard of Munro and got some of his books from the library when she first arrived in the town. "The library?" I say. "Perhaps I should drop in there." "Well, no," says Irene. "It only comes every third Thursday."
She goes off and I make my way into the former courtroom where a trial is going on. The judge, the prisoners in the dock, and the lawyers are represented by yet more dummies with expressive faces, and the vivid recorded transcripts are of actual trials. Only after sitting here for a few minutes do I realise that I am not beside a fellow tourist, but another lifeless figure in Victorian dress. Slowly, it dawns on me that I am the only human being in the room.
Leaving the courtroom, I head outside towards the former prison cells only to be waylaid by Ian Macdonald. Dressed in prison warder's uniform, he waves me into a long narrow cage, and although one half of my brain is telling me that this is indeed nothing but an empty cage and that he has a key in his hand which he is surely going to use, the other half is confused by people who turn out to be dummies and dummies who turn out to be people. So, ever so meekly, I step inside and, of course, he locks me in. By now, Irene Parkes has phoned her husband and come to look for me. From behind the bars, feeling just a little foolish, I hear that Mr Parkes was not able to add much to what I already knew, and that he too thinks it unlikely that Munro ever did live in the jail.
Leaving the exercise cage, for this is what it turns out to be, I go into the jail itself. Now, it has to be said that as a tourist attraction, everything is presented extraordinarily well. The haunting sound of the mother singing a soothing Gaelic lullaby to her baby behind the cell door, the men complaining in Gaelic to each other about the conditions, the laughter of the insane, the whipping table, the equipment of hard labour, the cells which visitors can enter and inspect: the effect is vivid. There are plaques telling real-life stories such as the tale of the pauper girl who stole a pair of shoes and was sentenced to 40 days in prison and three years in a reformatory school, or the 12-year-old boy who got 30 days in prison and five years in a reformatory school for breaking into a shop. Educational, it certainly is. But a piece of entertainment? The families spending the afternoon here certainly seem to be enjoying themselves. The oppression oozing from every stone so strongly that you can actually smell
it seems to be passing them by. As they leave they will stop to browse in the gift shop where they may buy trinkets to remind them of a happy afternoon wading in the mire of human misery in the summer of 2000.
Outside, I follow Irene Parkes' directions to Crombie's Land where Munro was born in 1863, and sure enough, at the edge of the loch, in the shadow of the prison wall, I find the very house, now renamed Para Handy Cottage and complete with a plaque commemorating the author. The illegitimate son of a kitchen maid, Munro found work in the office of the sheriff clerk of Argyll on leaving school. This was a prestigious post and there is much speculation that his father may have been a figure of influence, who secured this position for his son. There is a further belief that Munro's mother had worked in Inveraray Castle, seat of the Duke of Argyll, before she gave birth. So it is possible that the dukedom had, at last, produced something fine.
This being Scotland in the Glasgow Fair, we are experiencing every season in one day. By now it is late afternoon and the day has turned hot. Small children are girning and dragging their feet. Parents look weary. Boys are fishing over on the pier, where one man is videoing a fish in the flat calm waters below while his wife waits patiently beside him. One's mind spins forward to a winter afternoon when this couple decide to relive their summer holiday to remind them of happy, sunny days. What will he say to her? "Oh look dear, remember that herring we met in Inveraray?"
A sign nearby reminds everyone that Inveraray has been home of the Clan Campbell since the early 15th century, and that Loch Fyne was famed for its herring fishing. The town's motto, it tells us, is semper tibi pendeat halec
– May there always be a herring in your net. The heyday of Loch Fyne herring fishing is commemorated in 'Herring – a Gossip', another flight of fancy in which Para Handy gets carried away: "The herrin' wass that thick in Loch Fyne in them days," recalled the Captain, "that you sometimes couldna get your anchor to the ground…" At the time of writing however, the industry was in a bad way and Macphail summarises the newspaper debate about what should be done:
“…Then a chap would write that there should be a close time so as to gie the herrin’ time to draw their breaths for another breenge into the nets; and anither chap would be takin’ the bread oot o’ the mooths o’ his wife and weans. A scientific man said herrin’ came on cycles –“
“He’s a liar, anyway,” said the Captain, with conviction. “They were in Loch Fyne afore the cycle was invented. Are you sure, Macphail, it’s no’ the cod he means?”
It was a dirty evening, coming on to dusk, and the Vital Spark went walloping drunkenly down Loch Fyne with a cargo of oak bark, badly trimmed. She staggered to every shock of the sea; the waves came combing over her quarter, and Dougie the mate began to wish they had never sailed that day from Kilcatrine. They had struggled round the point of Pennymore, the prospect looking every moment blacker, and he turned a dozen projects over in his mind for inducing Para Handy to anchor somewhere till the morning. At last he remembered Para’s partiality for anything in the way of long-shore gaiety, and the lights of the village of Furnace gave him an idea. [from ‘A Lost Man’]
I never expected to find Furnace village hall. If it was still there at all, it would surely be a run down affair with broken windows, and weeds sprouting from its guttering. True, there is no ball going on there this evening, as there had been that wild night when Dougie successfully persuaded the captain to turn the vessel to starboard to join "the spree", but the hall, right on the main street and with a red and white sign declaring in large letters that this is indeed Furnace Village Hall is still in good shape. There are signs of community life too. The notice board outside declares that Wee Alan was one of the winners of the Kilmory Camanachd Club Lottery Draw, that a regatta and gala day will be held on 5 August, and much more besides.
This afternoon however, a torpor has settled over the village and not a sound is to be heard on the street or in the gardens of the surrounding homes. It's too hot to wander far but I notice the war memorial nearby and go over to look at the names. There is an H Munro of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders and I can only wonder whether this may be Neil Munro's son High who fell in France in 1915. After the war, the grieving father travelled to Lochgoilhead to hear how his son, an only child, died. James Armstrong, who was my grandfather and a fellow officer in the ASH, explained that the enemy had placed a German flag on no man's land under cover of darkness. Hugh declared that he would go out to take it down. A sniper's bullet found its mark. One more senseless death in a muddy ocean of senseless deaths.
Yet, although Munro lost his son near to the start of the war, many of the stories are set against its backdrop and reveal no anti-war sentiments. Of course, if they had, they would never have made it into print anyway. The Scotland he depicts is couthy and comforting. It's a world of conversation lozenges, and boiled eggs for tea – a world where the ferocity of the midges is the worst thing life can throw at you. The terrible, grinding poverty of the Glasgow tenements is never mentioned, nor the ill-health of their inhabitants. In wartime, this became a world where women gave white feathers to fit-looking young men who were not in uniform (in 'Sunny Jim Rejected', Jim, who had a glass eye, declared that on his last trip to Loch Fyne he had received as many feathers "as would stuff a bolster"). A later story sees him joining up successfully under false pretences. And that's the irony: Para Handy is set in an innocent world which seems strangely alien at the start of this new century, yet the government was rounding up its male citizens and sending them off to the indescribable horrors of the First World War, and, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, most of these men were willing to go – which would be unimaginable now.
Finished with engines
Now that I am on Loch Fyneside, there are numerous settings for the Vital Spark's adventures which I could visit. But the day is growing late and I must choose carefully, so I settle on Crarae and Ardrishaig before Tarbert. It was on Crarae quay that the captain observed a little family group advancing towards him with "a chilly air of separation".
"Take my word for it, Dougie," said Para Handy, "that man's no' in very good trum; you can see by the way he’s banging the box against his legs and speaking to himsel'.
The cause of the trouble in 'Lodgers on a House-Boat', was that the family had arrived from Glasgow for a week's holiday in the village, but there were no lodgings to be had. After a little persuasion, mainly in the form of flattery about his vessel (always the captain's weak point), Para Handy agrees to allow the family to stay on the boat, with predictably disastrous results.
So Crarae had been the target, but I am through it before I know it (and even on the return journey next day, looking out for it more carefully, I fail to spot it). There was no sign, no particularly noticeable cluster of houses. Glaswegians are, of course, a garrulous, out-going bunch who quickly make friends with natives and fellow holiday-makers alike, and no doubt the area may have been a bit busier 90 years ago, but still, I can't help but wonder: what did they do
all day during those precious holiday weeks?
Ardrishaig is bigger than expected and it's here that I find the third public acknowledgement of Munro and his work. A number of lifebuoys have been placed on railings along the front, each with a plaque in the middle explaining some of the town's history. One states:
Around the mid 1850s the first steam-powered coasters were built in the Clyde shipyards. Small enough to navigate inland waterways yet sturdy enough to beach themselves between tides, these puffers used the Crinan Canal to reach the remotest islands and inlets of Argyll with cargoes of building material, coal and grains. Their hardy crews of three or four men of great skill and experience were commemorated in Neil Munro’s tales of Para Handy and his puffer ‘Vital Spark’.
Another plaque points out that tourism has been a major local industry since the 1830s, and that by the 1880s, up to five passenger steamers a day were docking at the town. The frenzied scene on Ardrishaig pier in 'Wee Teeny' captures the atmosphere of a Glasgow Fair Saturday, with the quay black with people, a steamer hooting wildly to urge everyone to hurry on board, and Glasgow women defying the purser "to let the ship go away without their John, for he had paid his money for his ticket, and though he was only a working man his money was as good as everyone else's…" In the utter chaos, a small child, Teeny, is left behind and it falls to the Vital Spark to reunite her with her parents in Rothesay. The crew set about the task with gusto. Macphail and The Tar amuse her with "pocket-knives, oil-cans, cotton-waste, and other maritime toys", Dougie has armed himself with sweeties, and the captain washes his face and puts on his other jacket and his watch chain out of respect for the passenger. All goes well until the child becomes bored and announces she wants to go "ta-ta". "Mercy on us, she canna be more ta-ta than she iss unless we throw her over the side", says Para Handy on hearing the news.
And so to Tarbert, which bursts into view as a riot of colour. I can hardly believe it – there is a fair going full blast. The most perplexing cargo he ever had to carry, says Para Handy in 'Queer Cargoes', was the paraphernalia of the showmen heading for Tarbert Fair. Accompanying their equipment was the Fattest Woman in the World, No-Boned Billy (or the Boy Serpent) and the Mesmerising Man. When they later visit the fair, Dougie, to his eternal embarrassment, ends up "marrying" the Fattest Woman in the World on stage while under the influence of hypnosis.
On this lovely summer evening the picturesque Argyllshire fishing village is throbbing to the music of more modern pleasures. It's hard to imagine those on board the Trail Blazer Waltzers being much amused by having the Mesmerising Man read the bumps on their heads. Once the delights of the Roller Ghoster have been tasted, No-Boned Billy could hold little interest.
We have moved on in our demands for entertainment. But, frazzled at the end of a busy day, I find there is still much pleasure to be had joining the crew of the Vital Spark, be they spending an evening contentedly alongside a pier in a silver grey fog, or walloping drunkenly down Loch Fyne with a cargo of oak bark, badly trimmed.
Fiona MacDonald is director of the Young Programme
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