My father, Robert McCulloch Girvan, wrote the following stories about twenty-five years ago when he was in his mid-sixties. His family first lived in a tenement at Number 1 Henderson Street in Paisley. When his widowed mother remarried, the family moved to Underwood Lane. Dad emigrated to the U.S.A. in 1930, married and raised five children. He didn’t see his family and homeland again until 1967 when he, Mom, my sister and brother visited Scotland. Mom and Dad returned in 1972, and I was fortunate to accompany them. Dad died on July 6, 2000, and we sorely miss him.
I have inserted occasional bracketed information in Dad’s stories for clarification.
I was born in Campbeltown, Argyllshire on October 28, 1910. My father had died when I was about 1 ½ years old so the family moved to Paisley, a much larger town than Campbeltown, so that my mother could find work to support my older brother, James, and I. My grandmother, Isabella McCulloch, and Aunt Jeanie, my mother’s youngest sister lived with us and Jeanie worked to help support herself. The public transportation in Paisley at that time was by trolley car and Mother found a job as a conductress on the trolley. I don’t think her wages were very large, but somehow we existed, but certainly didn’t live “high on the hog”.
Shortly after we moved to Paisley, World War I broke out. Britain was in it from the start in 1914 when Germany invaded Belgium. Many Belgians came over to Scotland and I remember some who were close neighbors to us. I also remember the horseflesh shops that opened up after the Belgians came over. They didn’t mind eating the stuff and apparently were used to it.
The war years, four of them, were a trying time in Scotland. As young as I was, I remember my mother giving me rationing stamps and sending me to stand in line at the butcher shop so that I could buy some meat. She didn’t have time to do it because of her job. Usually when I finally did get into the shop there wasn’t much meat left so had to take what there was. Almost everything was rationed then. It was even hard to buy whole milk and we had to be content with skim milk and sometimes even buttermilk. That is probably the reason I hated porridge so much. If I could have had whole milk with just a little of the almost non-existent sugar, I may have been able to eat the stuff. I was only 4 when the war broke out and every morning I was expected to eat a large soup bowlful of the hated stuff, either with skim milk or buttermilk and without sugar. If I ate it, I couldn’t eat anything else and if I didn’t eat it I had to go hungry. How I hated breakfast! Sometimes we’d have a change off to peasbrose, which was almost as horrid as porridge.
We couldn’t even buy white bread, all of which went to the fighting forces. We ate a dark kind of grayish bread. I don’t know what it was made of but it certainly wasn’t wheat flour. There was very little candy, sweeties, as we called it, but that didn’t keep us from getting cavities. I think I would have had much better teeth if I’d had whole milk to drink in my tender years. I wasn’t the only one. All the children in Britain at that time had the same problem.
Gas lamps lighted the streets then and we used to follow and talk to the lamplighter when he came around in the evenings. We had blackouts then too. The four sides of the street lamp were painted a dark green with only a small portion of the glass unpainted at the bottom so that there was only a small circle of light around the bottom of the lamp where it met the street. Bombing by plane started in World War 1, but the bombs were thrown from the plane by hand. London was bombed by a German zeppelin in that war, and that was the reason for the blackouts. All window shades had to be drawn at nights so that no lights showed. I can’t recall how James and I passed the evenings. We did have homework to do and probably did some reading. Radio or wireless as it’s called over there, was non-existent then. One couldn’t buy a radio at that time, at least not a poor man.
We did, however, have a fireplace in the living room, parlor, as we called it, and enjoyed sitting in front of it and playing games. When Uncle Robert, Mother’s brother, had furloughs from the army, he used to invite his pal, Willie Galbraith, to spend evenings at our place. We’d all sit in front of the fireplace and sing most of the evening. I enjoyed those evenings and remember them even though it’s been almost 60 years ago.
Aunt Jeanie got a job in the shell factory, which was built only two blocks from where we lived. Most of the employees were women since the men had to serve in the armed forces. She was probably only in her late teens then. Almost everyone was mobilized for the war effort and most of the women had jobs. The shrapnel for the shells was transported to the shell factory by trucks or lorries as we called them, from some other place. The flatbed of the truck was covered with small sacks of shrapnel, possibly enough shrapnel in each sack for one shell. If we needed more marbles to play with we’d jump on the back end of a lorry and throw off a sack of shrapnel to be used for marbles. There was always the danger of explosions in the shell factory and the people who lived close by were somewhat fearful about it. I think there were some minor explosions, as I remember, but none of major proportion.
Granny McCulloch was a very popular person. Although she never had formal training she was a midwife, nurse, counselor to most of the people in the immediate neighborhood. If anyone were sick, hurt or dying, they’d call “Culloch”. Every Saturday night she’d invite her friends for a [supper] of salt herring and potatoes (probably because they were cheap) and she’d be telling of her experiences with the people she had sat with when they died. She’d tell how they died, what they said when dying, etc. James and I were always sent to bed early but we’d be awake and used to listen to the morbid stories told on Saturday nights. I used to believe that Granny McCulloch was psychic because of one instance when we were eating breakfast at the kitchen table. There were two round pictures on the wall above the kitchen table. They were hung on the wall by the chain that served as a frame around the picture. One of them fell on the table and the glass broke in two pieces as if it had been cut. Right then, Granny said that so and so had died, and sure enough, when the mail came, there was a letter informing her of that person’s death. Granny had raised eight children of her own and now she was raising James and me since our mother had to work every day.
I remember the time that my Uncle John’s family came to stay with us for a while in Paisley. They lived in Irvine, not far from Stevenston where there was a large arsenal. There was a terrific explosion in the arsenal that shattered all the windows in most of the houses in Irvine and other towns close by. They had four children, Rob, Barbara, Archie and Peggy, but at that time Archie and Peggy hadn’t been born yet. Well they came to Paisley until their own home could be made livable again. One Sunday morning when we were about to eat breakfast the plaster on our kitchen ceiling fell down and I remember Rob was just dressing and had one stocking pulled on when it happened. He dashed out the door and down the street as if banshees were chasing him. He thought the Germans had come over and were bombing us. Uncle John’s family visited us quite often. They were a fun family, loved to sing and be jolly. We also visited them in Irvine and I learned to swim there in the Firth of Clyde.
We also visited my Uncle William’s family in Dalmuir. We took the Renfrew Ferry over to see them. The ferry had wheels on each side with chains to pull it across the water. Sometimes a chain would break and the ferry would float free. William was a foreman carpenter in the shipyards where they built big ocean liners. People called these foremen “the hats” because they all wore bowler hats. We would always ask him what time it was and he would take out his pocket watch and say “10 o’clock Dalmuir time” after the great big clock [on the Singer factory] in Dalmuir. The bombing in the war [World War II] got close to their house, which was near Clydebank. The boy scouts in the town had a pipe band and William’s son William would finger the chanter and I would blow it. Later on the younger William went to Alloway where he was a draftsman. We visited their daughter, Jean, when we were over in Scotland [in 1967]. She said that when she had heard I was leaving to go to America [in 1930], she started to cry.
OUR GANG IN PAISLEY
When I first went back to Scotland in 1967, I inquired about my old pals. Most of them had been killed in World War II. I was questioning Bobby, a cousin [son of Aunt Lizzy and Uncle Bob], about them and when I asked about each of my old pals, he’d say, “he’s deid”, “he’s deid.” I met only three of the old gang who were alive, Jack Hartell, Hugh Lauder and Bobby Clark. Hugh Lauder’s hair was pure white and he didn’t look like the Hugh I used to know. I recognized the other two. Another of my close friends, David Sillars, had been killed in a motorcycle accident. I can’t remember whether George Palmer was killed in the war or died some other way. He was my truant pal. When we didn’t feel like going to school, we’d take off into the country, usually to the Brandy Burn, a creek several miles from Paisley. We used to fish for minnows at that popular burn. It was strange that we didn’t get caught more often during our escapades. They had truant officers over there whose job it was to hunt down offenders like us.
To the reader I may now sound like a delinquent. We had our gang like any other neighborhood in town. My brother James, who was small of stature and big on brains, usually served as our lookout. There was a kind of no man’s land between a double fence, between the tenements closest to the shell factory and the shell factory, which we used as our hideout and called “the Barrick” (pronounced bar-eek). From there we conducted our apple and pear swiping escapades. The Barrick was an ideal place to retire to eat our stolen merchandise, or I should say fruit.
At one end of the Barrick was a high stone wall with sharp broken glass on top of it, to keep delinquents like us out of the orchard on the other side. Incidentally, the orchard belonged to one of the church manses on top of the hill above the Barrick and the minister of the church lived there. A couple of thick gunnysacks immobilized the broken glass and we stood on each others’ shoulders to reach the top of the wall. Frequent trips over the wall made us expert climbers. Several times we had close brushes with the cops, or bobbies, as we called them, but because of our knowledge of the area and our agility we were always able to avoid capture. The Cops never did find or come to the Barrick. I suppose we stole apples and pears not only for the thrill but because they were a luxury during the war years and were expensive to buy and also we were hungry at times because of all the rationing and scarcity of staple foods.
The gang activity wasn’t confined to apple stealing. We’d get together and go on long walks in the country. Some of us, including me, collected bird eggs. We’d look for the nests and take only one egg if we needed that kind for our individual collection. Hawthorn bushes instead of fences bordered many of the fields so there was an abundance of birds and nests. Two of our favorite destinations were the Brandy Burn or the Red Hills. The Red Hills was a manmade shale bing the size of a small mountain where we could run and climb, play cops and robber, hide and seek and sometimes Indians. The bing was just outside the village of Linwood which is all built up now and the bing has disappeared. Sometimes we walked on past Linwood to Durrockston Moor, which used to be a soggy peat bog. I still remember the little ditty that one of the gang made up about Jock McCulloch a member. It goes like this:
On Durrockston Moor
So low and sappy,
Jock McCulloch sank,
Up to his nappy.
Incidentally, Jock was a wonderful artist. I hope he got to live on through the war so he could use his wonderful talent. I remember when Camphill School had a competition for would-be artists and Jock drew the head of the Bengal tiger in the Paisley Museum. It was so lifelike that I’m sure it could have bitten my hand if I’d held it out. Jock also played the harmonica, and I picked up how to play it from him.
Most of the gang attended Craigielea grade school where we often made plans for future walks, etc. Sometimes on the way home from school we’d pass the backside of Woodside Cemetery which was enclosed by a high stone wall, a challenge to our agility. We often climbed the wall so that we could look for bird nests in the many bushes and trees planted throughout the cemetery, and I’m shameful to say that very often we ended up by playing leapfrog over the tombstones. The cemetery was so large that we seldom came in contact with any of the caretakers. In spite of the delinquent escapades I was considered a good student in school. I was dux of my class and was supposed to have my name in gold on the school’s main corridor wall but I never did check. When I went to school at Craigielea the front walls of the school were ivy covered. In 1967 when I went back there, there was no ivy and the school looked stark and naked. I have fond memories of Craigielea and in 1972, I visited Miss Burns, my eighth grade teacher who still lived in Paisley.
I also belonged to a Boys’ Brigade. Each unit belonged to a church. I played goalkeeper, which was called a “goalie”. We played at a racecourse that was divided up into soccer fields.
Aunt Lizzy and Uncle Bob had a large family and lived close to us in Paisley. Aunt Lizzy was a plump, jolly person in spite of having to raise such a large family. James and I loved to stay overnight at their place although it would have been more appropriate for some of them to come to stay at our place since we weren’t so crowded. We liked the activity with so many cousins and I used to envy them because they all liked porridge and sometimes even asked for a second helping. To me, this was amazing. When James or I needed a haircut Uncle Bob did the hair cutting. He had a hair clipper and clipped his own children’s hair too, to save the expense of having a barber do the job. The haircuts weren’t what you’d call a work of art but they sufficed and were free. The hair was clipped short all over the head with a kind of tuft left in front on top of the brow. We boys all looked alike after a fresh haircut. At least we didn’t have to comb our hair for quite a while.
Uncle Bob had lost the sight of one eye in WWI. He was in a kilted, Highland Regiment and fought in the trenches in France. He had an eye knocked out while fighting over there and would have lost the whole eye if he hadn’t pushed it back where it belonged. He was a hard worker and did heavy work most of his life. He had to work hard to raise and feed thirteen children, one of whom died in infancy. He met Aunt Lizzy in Campbeltown and while there, worked in a quarry close to the town. After moving to Paisley, he got a job as a dock laborer at the Glasgow docks and he’d work long hours unloading iron ore from ships. At that time, most of the work was done the hard way and things weren’t mechanized as they are now. The iron ore was scooped into the unloading buckets by hand and it was back breaking work. He traveled back and forth to Glasgow by trolley car and sometimes when he worked overtime until after the trolleys stopped running at midnight, he’d have to walk seven miles home. Very often, he’d even walk back to Glasgow early in the morning before the trolleys or trams as we liked to call them, started running. I suppose he’d have to be at the docks early so that he’d have a job since there was a lot of unemployment at that time and jobs not too plentiful.
During the rare times when he was home, he always seemed to be holding and singing to his youngest child. He couldn’t carry a tune in a bushel basket and his lullaby song was always the same monotone and sounded like – Ootny, ootny ootny, ootny, ootny, ootny, oo.
CAMPHILL HIGH SCHOOL
I graduated from Craigielea School in midwinter when I was 11 years old. Three years hence, James had won a scholarship for two years of high school and went to Camphill High. I was expected to take the examinations for a scholarship, or bursary, too, so one Saturday I went to the Grammar School in Paisley and took the exams with a host of other hopeful candidates. I was lucky enough to win a bursary for three years of high school. It wasn’t a great deal of money but it enabled me to buy the books necessary for three years at Camphill. Since I had graduated from grade school in midwinter, I started at Camphill after the Christmas holidays and was put in the preparatory as they called it, until they changed classes in the following summer.
In preparatory we had the same subjects as first year high school so we had an advantage over the pupils who joined the class the following summer. The first year of high school had ten classes but the students were weeded out after the first year so that there were only three classes left for second and third year. I was put in the A class where it was compulsory to take Latin as well as French. The B & C classes took only French. Latin wouldn’t have been so bad if we’d had a more pleasant teacher. He was a surly, reddish haired, red-faced Scotsman by the name of McIntosh and seldom cracked a smile, but he really cracked the whip.
I liked most of my teachers. Geordie Mitchell, the debonair little guy who was always so well dressed and never came to school without his spats, was a lot of fun and taught voice music. Bannatine was one of the math teachers who was ambidextrous and switched from right to left hand when writing problems on the blackboard.
Then there were the Bowie brothers. Walter, an English teacher, was a pleasant fellow, but Jake had to be watched. He taught math and would sometimes walk amongst the desks. If he caught a student doing something wrong he’d belt him across the head with his hand. We were always ready to duck, but if he missed with one hand he always got you coming back with the other. Miss Blair, the head French teacher was a pleasant person as was Miss McKinn, one of her subordinates. Jock Strathearn taught French too and he was a lot of fun. He was probably the reason that I like French so much. He was the teacher who taught us French I preparatory too.
Algy Tait, the head English teacher was always threatening our class, especially in our second year when the class consisted of all boys. If for any reason he had to leave us alone, he’d always say the same thing before he left us, “Woe betide the boy that doesn’t behave while I’m gone.” He always threatened us but didn’t have the heart to punish us.
Miss Kerr taught English too, but she and I didn’t get along so well. One day, I forgot to memorize a poem and she told me that she hoped I wouldn’t be in school the following day when the English inspector visited school. I obliged her, and George Palmer and I played hooky, but I fooled her by topping the class in English at the year-end exams.
The head art teacher, Mr. Willkie, was a quiet, gentle man. One of his subordinates, I can’t remember his name, also was a WWI veteran and brought his kilt to school for us to paint. He was full of fun and all the pupils liked him. He usually rode his motorcycle to school but was killed on it in an accident.
Daddy Hare, the head science teacher was a perfectionist. He was a short, well-proportioned man and he was usually dressed immaculately and always wore a bowler hat. There was never any nonsense when he taught class. We didn’t dare erase or mark out our mistakes but had to leave them and start over. One day I saw him chase and catch a pupil who had dared to call him “Daddy Hare” on the street. I’ll never forget that sharp featured Daddy Hare.
Galletty was one of the science teachers and had been shell shocked in WWI. He used to stand between the large tables in the science room with a hand on each and swing himself with his feet off the floor while he talked about the problem at hand. He was also the bane of the boys who smoked. We always assembled by classes in a large hall on the ground floor of the school and marched upstairs while one of the teachers played the piano halfway up the stairway to keep us in step. Galletty could walk along the lines of boys and pick out any boy who had been smoking. His sense of smell must have been excellent because he seldom missed a smoker. He caught me several times, and of course we were all punished with a belt across the hands.
Cochrane, the headmaster was a surly little fellow and I’m glad that I was only called on the carpet once by him. The gym teacher, Mr. Walker, was a typical army man. During our gym classes he was forever showing us how they did it when he was in the army. He was a likeable guy and got along well with the students. Mr. Chalmers was the shop teacher and I liked him and did well in his class.
When I was back in Scotland, I walked up the brae to the top of the hill where Camphill is located. The school was empty then and was to be torn down. They built a new Camphill School in another part of town but it doesn’t look as impressive as the old building. It was quite a hassle every morning for James and I to get to school. We’d have to be up early in the morning, James to deliver papers and I, milk. We’d then run home, eat a bite, pick up our books and run to school.
Sometimes we’d be lucky enough to hitch a ride on the back end of a trolley care or truck part of the way. Hitching a ride on the trolley cars was kind of hazardous because if the conductress happened to see us she’d rap us across our fingers so we’d have to let go and get back on our feet. Somehow, we usually made it to school on time. We ran home for dinner and ran back to school, hitching rides when possible.
I will tell about an episode that happened on Well Street on our way back to school one day. The John Neilson School was situated on top of the hill above where we lived and the students were from better off families and paid for their tuition. They felt superior to students who went to other schools and there was always a kind of friction between them and us. Anyway, I was on my way back to school with James and some others when somebody threw a cream cookie or cream puff and hit me on the back of the head with it, smearing cream all over my school cap. He was a John Neilson student trying to act superior and smart so I immediately tore into him to teach him a lesson and was doing quite well until his big brother came along and I had to fight both of them at the same time. The older brother must have been wearing a ring because I got a split upper lip that left a scar to this day, but I was quite satisfied with my performance and figured I got my “pound of flesh”. Incidentally, George Palmer attended the Neilson School but always ran around with us.
I graduated from Camphill just before I reached the age of 15 and immediately started looking for a job. College over there then was for the rich and titled only. They were the only ones who could afford it and poor people didn’t have a chance. The government now gives grants to smart students who want to go to college.
MY FIRST JOBS
I found a job at the Clark Lumber Company, owned by a John McFarlane, and I was apprenticed to a woodworking machinist. McFarlane was a building contractor and most of the material for the buildings was made at the yard [Wallneuk Saw Mills]. He had his own carpenters and also several packing case makers. The yard adjoined a railroad freight depot into which the lumber was shipped. We’d haul the lumber to the yard and stack it, so that it could cure properly. It was heavy work since the lumber was still green and the sticks or batons as they called them, were usually about 3’x 10′ up to 2′ x 16″ and some as long as 20′. After curing, the lumber was processed in the sawmill and machine shop.
I stayed with the woodworking machinery for a while and then got into the packing case making since they got higher wages. That’s when I learned to drive nails. It’s all I did, all day long, but it wasn’t as monotonous as it sounds. There were only four or five of us in the shop, but there was always a lot of chatter and fun to help pass the hours, and strange as it sounds, we did a lot of singing. When we packing case makers weren’t busy we’d be sent out to help the carpenters on the houses or buildings they were constructing, and that was my first experience with carpenter work. When we were over in Scotland we were doing some shopping in Paisley at Cochrane’s department store across from the Abbey. McFarlane built the store and I helped in its construction almost 50 years ago. I also helped on several houses that McFarlane built.
I must have worked with McFarlane for about two years and then got a job in Glasgow helping build roads for a new housing development. This was before the bulldozer and the work was all done the hard way with pick and shovel. The boss’ name was Cochrane and he was a brother to James’ boss who ran a newspaper and tobacco shop in Paisley. We put in long hours digging and scooping and it took some time on the tramcar traveling back and forth to Glasgow.
When that job was finished I got a job as a bartender with Joe Blair who owned two saloons in Paisley. The saloon located at Well Street employed six bartenders most of the time and the one on George Street which is now demolished, employed only two, with extra help at busy times. The Well Street saloon is still operating but is owned by someone else, probably a brewing company. I worked at both the saloons and was a bartender when I left the “Old Country”.