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A SLEDGE NAMED BLAIRS
MEMORIES OF BLAIRS COLLEGE

1948 - 1953




DESMOND HUGHES

For Joe and Doh who asked if my school had been like Harry Potter’s

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Chapel slippers and study sleeves


You have quite a bit of explaining to do when you say you want to go to Blairs: What do you want to go there for! Mothers have been known to drag parish priests along to have it out with the Archbishop: You’re far too young (you, not the Archbishop). But persevere. First, you’ll have a medical examination at Dr Neilson’s in Chalmers Street, near Edinburgh Royal Infirmary, and then just a few doors away, at St Thomas of Aquin’s, tests in English, French, Latin and Maths; an interview with the Rector and Archbishop and you’d better know why you still want to go to Blairs and not Dunoon or Portobello. Can you put up with not knowing – for weeks – if you’re in or not? A letter will come, though, and you’ll be given a linen number (152), to be sewn on all your clothes. There’ll be some funny things you’ve got to take, like nailbrush, chapel slippers, study sleeves, but you’ll know what dubbin and football boots are — you’re not from Elgin, I take it? Elgin? Later.

Ready, then? Oh, toilet bag and nailbrush! Not to worry: you’ll get them in Woolies’, just across from the Waverley Steps. But first, up the Bridges to Martin’s for one last shepherd’s pie and chips, and trifle. And when you do pop into Woolies’ you needn’t stock up on a lot of soap and toothpaste. If you run out you’ll get them on tick at one of those cubby-holes behind the decano’s or sub-decano’s desk (wait a bit) and settle up at the end of term.

Don’t listen to what they tell you about not needing to buy a black suit. Whoever thought that one up had obviously never appeared on the platform in a dull bottle-green St Aloysius or Holy Cross blazer, far less a brilliant royal-blue St Mary’s, Bathgate. Blend in. Wear a black suit, white shirt, black tie, or you’ll wish you had gone to Dunoon. And when George Neilson, who has clearly decided his father needn’t have bothered, says he’s going to push you out of the train on the Forth Bridge you may even wish you were on Davie McCann’s ‘Scottish Riviera’. Eh? You know – Burntisland.

You won’t remember much after that shock to the system. Next thing you’ll be in your 7’ x 5’ (very approx.) blue-curtained pinewood cubicle and just before the lights go out somebody saying you put your shirt on in the morning before going down to the washplace. That can’t be right but it is, and everybody’s looking at you and sniggering even though it’s the Grand Silence.

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But before that you’re wakened at half-past six by an electric bell and somebody saying in a loud voice, “Benedicamus Domino”, and what will be your answer to that? In seconds, the local censor – a kind of warder – will be giving your cubicle curtain a quick flick to make sure you’re up. Never, never go back to bed and then pretend his flick was too quick and he missed you. Don’t even think about it.

Washplace: the washbasins line the walls, and above them you’ll find the boxes, or pigeon-holes, where you keep your toothbrush and toothpaste. That’s right – no shampoo; no dental floss; no Listerine; maybe Brylcreem. You’ll share the washbasin but not your soap – unless the other shareholder is dear old Johnny McCabe. There are more basins running up the middle and down again, just like The Kerry Dance. You don’t know it? Oh, there’s a fine 1916 recording by John McCormack you would like. He himself didn’t like the song very much, but you wouldn’t think so listening to “Only dreaming of days gone by,/ In my heart I hear/ Loving voices of old companions/ Stealing out of the past once more …”

Above the washbasins and running up and down the middle again are the hot-water pipes where you hang your towels — they’ll fray quickly if you use them to swing over the up-and-down basins in the middle too often, and when your eyes are streaming and your nose running those pipes will dry your hankie in no time – you’re only allowed one a week, and there won’t be any Kleenex.

You’ll find the baths sort of next to the bootroom – you know, where you keep your dubbin. You’ll probably feel there’s not many baths for so many people but not to worry: there’ll be a timetable so that everybody can take a bath once a week, but you can always skip it of course: just let the taps run, make waves, and sing at the top of your voice, and the censor pacing up and down outside will think you really are in puris naturalibus and splashing up and down the middle again. Oh, that: it’s Latin for in your birthday suit.

There won’t be any showers and when more than a hundred players straight off muddy football pitches wash the dirt off up and down but not the middle, there’ll be a glorious fug in the washplace. You’ll do PE and cross-country in your everyday clothes so you won’t need to wash afterwards – just straight back to class.

You’ll change your shirt, socks, vest and underpants, – oh, and your hankie – once a week, and apart from feast days, when you put on your ‘festies’ (good suit), you’ll wear the same jacket and trousers every day for four months so no problem there. Not like the English trainee-exciseman at Glenkinchie Distillery who lodged with Mrs Gordon, the cooper’s wife, and changed his underwear every day.

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You’ll find the jakes easily enough – just out the back. On dark cold winter mornings you won’t feel like spending a penny (no, of course we didn’t talk like that!) unless, like Big Tam Lafferty, you can grab the end bog next to the boiler-room, and just hog it. On his last morning at Blairs, the first Thursday in July 1950, Big Tam was heard crying there.

The man to thank for the warm perch in the end bog and for the hot-water pipes that dried your hankie, was a big craggy gentle Highlander, Donal Grant, brother of Kenneth, who was Bishop of Argyll and the Isles from 1945 to 1959.

Ready, then? You’ve combed your hair and made final adjustments (or perhaps not) at one of the mirrors hanging above the washbasins. They’re big mirrors but you won’t get a look-in if the Brylcreem boys are out in force and taking up all the hairspace. They don’t mean any harm, though; they’ll lend you their pocket-mirror, and when you’ve checked that all is as it should be you can give your shoulders a wee wiggle (go on) to let everybody see how pleased you are with yourself, and then chapel-slipper-shuffle (say it quickly three times) down to the playhall – skaliff-bang-bang (2) one-two-THREE-shuffle-hop (go on!). You’ll pass the sports room, on your right, where football’s governing body makes all its usual daft decisions. The playhall’s just down a few steps now, on your left; opposite, is the cloakroom, and the main staircase up to the dormitories.

Benches line both sides of the playhall. Where you sit is decided by the form you’re in and your position in class: first form at the front, and so on back down the hall to the bench along the end wall, where fifth form sit.



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Few are frozen

7 o’clock now, and time to go to the Chapel. You will go nearly everywhere in ranks: two long lines hugging the walls as you go. The sub-decano, a kind of assistant chief warder, walks between the two ranks at the head of the procession – you can’t miss Mick Joyce in his green study sleeves. Mick’s followed at intervals by, I think, six censors, and the decano takes up the rear. They’re there to see that you don’t step out of line: you have to exercise custody of the eyes which means you’re not supposed to look at anybody, and you mustn’t talk, especially now in the Grand Silence, and you keep your hands joined…no, not like that, just sort of one hand lightly over the other…yes, like that.

Quickly now, and let’s keep this simple: left out of the playhall; right at the post-boxes; just before you get to those wide red-polished steps, on the left are the back stairs up to the dormitories and the pigeon-holes where you pick up your change of linen on Saturday after night prayers; that short corridor on the right takes you to the refectory, and perched right there at the top of the steps is the linen room (no, not now).

Half-way down the red-polished steps, on our left, we pass the Oratory, used by fourth and fifth year for morning prayers, meditation, and Mass; midday prayers; Rosary and evening talk; night prayers, and on Sundays, Compline. Am I trying to tell you too much all at once? All right, I’ll slow down. I won’t tell you about the huge sacristy on the left at the bottom of the steps, or the small back rooms on the right where the sacristans do their dirty work – you know, make sure everything is cleaned properly

Father Gerry Maher: You haven’t cleaned the cruet table.

Second Sacristan: It’s not dirty, Father.

Father Gerry: Don’t let it get dirty.
Into the cloister now, and it’s only a few yards to the holy-water font, beside the big double-doors into the sacristy. Before we turn right at the font we have to bless ourselves, make the sign of the Cross. But we’re in two lines, remember, hugging the walls, so if you’re in the left line you dip your fingers into the font then reach out to whoever is opposite you in the other line to let him take a little holy water, and together you bless yourselves.

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Half-way down the cloister, on the left, is the side-door into the Chapel that the sacristans use, and the priests, when they’re not in procession. Nearly opposite that door is Our Lady’s Altar, where Father Thomas Mannion says his daily Mass. It serves also as the Altar of Repose in Holy Week. We take it in turn to keep watch before the Blessed Sacrament, which is ‘exposed’ in a monstrance set in the middle of the altar — just like Quarant’ Ore, the Forty Hours’ Adoration.

Facing you at the end of the cloister is the Sacred Heart Altar, and right by it on the left, the way into the Chapel.

Against the wall opposite as you pass through the double-doors is the pulpit, just inside the altar rails that divide the back part of the Chapel – for parishioners and visitors – from the four-tiered choir stalls facing each other across the aisle. Behind the top right stall, next to the sanctuary, is the organ. The sanctuary is open, with no altar rail. On the left is a single row of stalls for the priests, and facing it across the sanctuary, the three places for the celebrant and his ministers when they ‘sit out’ the Gloria, Credo, and sermon.


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I remember only two Sunday sermons now. They occurred within just a few weeks of each other though probably not in the same year. All right, I’ll explain: first, Dominica in Septuagesima, the seventh Sunday before the First Sunday of Passiontide, which is two Sundays before Easter. Isn’t there a shorter way of saying it? There is, but it’s not much help: Dom in Sept. Sacristans had a kind of handbook to tell them what colour vestments to set out for Mass in the morning, and where to place the markers in the big Missale Romanum. Th hdbk wnt n fr abrvns n a bg wy. Anyway, the Gospel for that Sunday is Matthew 20: 1-16, which ends, “Many are called but few are chosen.” (It helps to be Scottish here.) Father Matt Donoghue had steeled himself not to say “frozen” but he did, and came down from the pulpit still not realizing what he had said and wondering what all the commotion was about.

It was a different matter with Father John McKee: The Gospel for Feria Secunda post Dominicam Primam in Quadragesima…Hold on, isn’t that a Monday? So it is – the Monday after the First Sunday in Lent …? The Gospel was Matthew 21: 31-46, about the sheep and the goats – which reminds me of the Benedictine who started his sermon to a group of Quaker and Catholic farmworkers, “Friends, Romans, Countrymen…”

Father McKee’s goats felt hard done by

- But we didnae ken it was you, Lord.

- Weel, ye ken noo!


Wee clipe

Father Thomas Mannion (Big Tim) was always already in the Chapel when we got there just after 7 o’clock, along with Big Steve. Father Stephen McGill PSS was a little man but very roly-poly. He was only in his thirties but his crew cut was completely grey. Those letters after his name meant that he was a Priest of Saint Sulpice, in Paris, dedicated to the training of students for the priesthood. He was still in France when War broke out and at one point couldn’t get on a boat back to England because the British officer thought he was a secret agent. And no wonder – talking French like that and then expecting people to believe you were from Glasgow. And that beret!

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Big Steve’s responsibility as Spiritual Director was to guide us on the path to holiness (sure you don’t want to go to Dunoon?). Fourth and fifth year are in the Oratory—remember? – and while they’re meditating, or trying to stay awake, there’ll be a talk for the others. Meditation’s not what you may be thinking: you don’t sit in the lotus position or even cross-legged or anything like that. You’re kneeling in your usual place, perhaps thinking about what Steve said in his evening talk, or reflecting on something you read in a book like The Seminarian at His Prie-Dieu, by Father Robert Nash, SJ. You choose the subject of your meditation the night before – a short passage from the Gospels usually – sleep on it, apply it to yourself, and try to make a suitable resolution. Meditation lasts only about fifteen minutes.

Steve must have given us many ‘holy’ talks – morning and evening every day for five years – but I remember mainly what he said about the bogs. He heaped ridicule on ‘the bombers’ who perched and whose aim was poor: leave the bog as you would like to find it. The Rector Father Gordon Gray (the Abbot) stood in for Steve sometimes but he would never make you look at the mess you had made like that. He told us one morning just before we left for a Christmas or Summer holiday that it was all right to take a long lie sometimes as long as it was the night before and not in the morning. Not a muscle twitched: he meant every word!

Mass, then. Don’t worry if you’ve never served before, and even if you have it might be better to deny it: you don’t want to let Father John McKee (the Belloc) hear your Latin. There’ll be enough to contend with when he sees how you genuflect and make the sign of the Cross. Sufficient for the day, as they say …

One of the things you have to learn on the path to holiness is that you mustn’t judge others. So if Father Gerry Maher seems to race through Mass you mustn’t ask yourself if he’s pronouncing the Latin as clearly and as carefully as the Belloc says you should. And don’t ever be glad that the Mass will be over quickly, because that will only mean a longer time for thanksgiving after Mass and all you can think of is breakfast.

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Some Masses you never forget. Take Sabbato post Dominicam Tertiam in Quadragesima. That’s right – the Saturday after the Third Sunday in Lent, 1949. Something was astir after breakfast but I felt excluded. I had only a Sunday Missal so I didn’t know what was in the Epistle for that day. It wasn’t really an Epistle, like a Letter, but anyway, after night prayers someone passed me his Roman Missal, and in my cubicle I read the Prophet Daniel 13: 1-9, 15-17, 19-30, 33-62 – a bit long for an Epistle. It was the story of Suzannah. Some Protestant Bibles don’t have Daniel 13 so we were lucky

Down in the forest something stirred –

It was only the note of a bird (top A flat)…

Down in the forest (Key Ab), John McCormack, 28 March 1913
The path to holiness meant also purity of thought, word and deed. Redemptorists and Passionists beginning their talk on purity during our three-day Retreats would try to ease us - and perhaps themselves – into the topic with a few jokes

- I had impure thoughts, Father.

- And did you entertain them, my son?

- Oh no, Father, they entertained me.

Big Steve came straight to the point. On the day that two of our form were expelled who had been discovered together after lights-out, he kept second form back at the end of night prayers, and told us how he prayed there might be no impurity among us.

Expulsions were extremely rare – only twice in my time that I can recall - but they made the ‘sin’ public. No, maybe it wasn’t the right answer: the students could be very young, perhaps still quite immature.

Word of the expulsion had spread quickly. In one small huddled group someone turned to me and said, quite openly, “People think we’re doing it.” Beyond the fact that ‘it’ was forbidden, I had only a vague notion of what was meant, but did come closer to understanding not long afterwards, when we were wrestling in the woods one day, for though bigger and stronger than I was, he allowed me to pin him down.

Still in that small circle, I told someone else I would come round to his cubicle that night after lights-out. There was no attempt at concealment, or anything consciously sexual in my suggestion, and when I did go round to see him, we stood together for a moment only, not touching or speaking. We had shared something, though, that we would never try to find words for.

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There won’t be a roster posted anywhere but you’ll know when it’s your turn to go and see Big Steve for your weekly spiritual check-up. When Father Duncan Stone (Rocky) succeeded Steve as Spiritual Director he kept an appointments book and ticked your name off if you kept yours – so no alibis down that road. But you can go just any time you feel like a wee chat – about anything really. You might tell him one day, using words like ‘commit a sin with’, that you’re beginning to feel a sexual attraction for someone in your own form – for you can see clearer now - and if you happen to be reading Story of a Soul, the autobiography of Saint Theresa of Lisieux, and think the Little Flower had the same problem as you, Big Steve will point out — fairly robustly, I might add! — that what you feel and what Saint Theresa means by inordinate affection for another Sister, are not the same thing at all.

Or another day something comes over you and you find yourself saying you’re having uncharitable thoughts about someone who seems distracted during his prayers (no, please don’t say anything!). Did Steve with Sulpician insight guess that my two very different kinds of thoughts were about the same student? He asked me his name. Do you do the honourable thing and refuse to bend before the physical and moral bulk of Big Steve, or do you tell, only to be told, “I don’t like wee clipes!”? We had one swear-word: Curse!

Enquiries would be made when you came out: did you get the bear-hug? No! Oh, you were a goner, no hope for you, poor lost soul – well, till the next time, and maybe by then you would have redeemed yourself. Shaky theology? Oh, come on, this has been a very long thanksgiving.

Cinnamon and nutmeg

You remember the way to the refectory? Back up the steps past the Oratory; left at the linen room (no, later) into that short corridor, and the double-doors are on your left.

There’s a table running along the top wall, on your left, beneath a huge Crucifix. Near the far end of the table, with steps leading up, is a pulpit. There’ll be eighteen places at the table, nine against the wall – on the back side – and nine on the front, which means there are three ‘tables’, each of six students. On the back side there’ll be the divider (fifth year), the sub-divider (fourth year), and the sub-scrub (third year) and no I can’t explain how you can have a sub- if you haven’t got a scrub. On the front side, the teaman (second year), the second-lowest (second or first year), and the lowest (first year). You sit

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on long benches, and the tables are covered with green or brown linoleum, fastened down with thin strips of brass.

Four rows of tables, each with six ‘tables’, run the entire length of the refectory, the two in the middle reaching nearly to the profs’ (priests’) table at the far end. There are about twelve or thirteen priests in all so they form a kind of Last Supper, but the painting there is of Raphael’s Transfiguration.

Whether your ‘table’ is against a wall or in the middle depends on your position in class – nearer the top of the form you’ll be one of the lucky ones that have a wall on their back side. Two or three times a year a back-to-the-waller will give up his place to someone who would otherwise never be able to put his back back. And if you’ve got a wall at your back it will give you more purchase (does that sound right?) when applying ‘the brakes’ (wait).

Breakfast will be either porridge or cornflakes, and bread and margarine, and tea. There probably won’t be any jam or marmalade. Bacon, eggs and tomatoes on Sundays? Who told you that! The teaman, who sits opposite the divider, pours the tea into chipped mugs. It’s called ‘booze’ and smells funny and tastes like nothing on earth. Sometimes you get ‘high tea’, when the booze is poured from a great height and you end up with a mug of froth—as a punishment for something or other, or maybe just for the fun of it.

Keep an eye open and you may see something called peanut butter and the peanutters adding salt would you believe! How the HP Sauce got past the Thought Police goodness only knows! Big Steve called it ‘pash’ because of what it was supposed to do to you.

It’s the second-lowest’s job to go and get more bread from a table that stands between the end of the profs’ table and the servery; and if anything gets spilled the lowest gets the cloth, which smells even funnier than the booze, and cleans up. Shouldn’t that be the sub-scrub’s job? Good question.

The joiner who made the table probably didn’t intend those parallel bars about three or four inches off the floor to be used as instruments of torture: back-siders could put their legs over the bar on their side but if the front-sider tried to do the same on his side his legs would be pressed against the bar by the back-sider opposite him – applying the brakes. A back-sider could appear to be cruel and to apply the brakes in anger, and in the anonymity of numbers maybe you had hissed too, that time Joe left breakfast early on the day of a Higher exam. Yet just a few years afterwards you would discover him to be a kind, gentle person.

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Table fellowship changed every six weeks or so. My first ‘table’ was at that top table, next to the pulpit. The divider was Philip Gavin; the sub-divider, John Sloan; the sub-scrub, Johnny Creegan; teaman, Lewis Cameron; second-lowest, me; lowest, Anthony Hastings.

I had to learn how to hold my knife and fork properly so that the handle didn’t stick out between thumb and forefinger, and to remember that soup spoons went that way, and pudding this. But how did we get to dinner when we haven’t even been to class, to say nothing of making our beds or emptying our tinnies? (No, of course not everybody!). Anyway, not to worry.

The profs joined us for dinner and (no connection) white linen cloths covered the green and brown linoleum and brass tacks. Six soup plates, six dinner plates, and six pudding plates were piled beside the soup tureen, the pie-dish containing the main course, the plate with the potatoes, another for the vegetables, and the pie-dish for the pudding. How did all that fit on? Well, maybe it didn’t. Oh, but wait—there was a jug of water, and six glasses left unwashed from break, when we’d had a perkin with our milk.

An empty glass didn’t always mean you had drunk your milk: maybe you’d gone up into the pulpit and tipped the lot over Frank Barrett if you were beelin at him.

The divider served the soup, main course, and vegetables, and we skelped ourselves to the spuds, which still had their jackets on. Meat would still have the fat on, which you had to eat, for plates had to be cleared. I saw Jim Doherty cut up the fat into very small pieces one day, and I did the same. Fat wasn’t too much of a problem after that.

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And just in case you were thinking of asking, there won’t be many surprises on the menu. Sunday’s burnt sausages and mushy green peas. Always. I can’t remember what followed on the next three days, and if I told you what Thursday was you wouldn’t believe me anyway, so we’ll fast forward to fish on Friday, which came all the way from Glasgow, though we were just a few miles from Aberdeen, where all that fresh fish was landed every day. By the time ours got to us there wasn’t much you could do with it except steam or maybe even boil it. It was cheaper, though. The Abbot’s supposed to have wished he could have given us fish n chips sometimes but that’s the first we’ve heard of it.

Fish wasn’t the only thing to come cheap from Glasgow: there were cheap black suits as well. The trousers came first and would have turned a lovely copper-green by the time the jacket arrived … if it ever did. Big Steve was from Glasgow - remember? Well, he certainly showed his true colours when he said you had no right to give the trousers back – copper-green or not – because you had worn them for the consecration of Bishop Frank Walsh in Aberdeen, on 12 September 1951. You were sitting right next to the pulpit, and when that big strong man Bishop Kenneth Grant came down the steps at the end of his sermon, his hands shook. He had been a teenage soldier in the trenches in the First World War, and a chaplain in the Second, during which he was captured and held prisoner for five years at St Valéry.

The Belloc was a huntin-shootin-fishin man. He caught a salmon once which we had for dinner but it didn’t taste as good as John West’s tinned – not that that ever appeared on the menu. He shot a deer another day but we couldn’t see what all the fuss was about: venison didn’t begin to compare with rat pie. Don’t look at me like that! It’s quite a delicacy, you know, a bit like rabbit. Anyway, it had first turned up, we were told, the day after the Belloc, or probably some earlier trapper, had made a huge catch in the Old College. All dressed up with creamed potatoes on top and served with baked beans or mushy green peas (again), it looked just like shepherd’s pie. Delicious it was too. Just try not to think rat.

The sub-divider served Friday pud, which we had every day except Sunday. Long afterwards, and when he was well out of firing range, the Abbot had the temerity to describe it as “a most indigestible bread pudding”. We didn’t want anything else, and certainly not Sunday semolina or ‘frogspawn’. Big Steve tried to give a talk once on the ‘goodness’ of milk puddings but he couldn’t keep a straight face.

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Friday pud came in the pie-dish in which it had been baked. But it wasn’t just a bread pudding – begging pardon, your Eminence. It was the colour of rich dark chocolate and tasted of cinnamon and nutmeg, with a hint of heather honey in the finish. So could the recipe have come from Scalan in Glenlivet…? The most coveted portions were the four corners for the crust was crispier there and usually had more sugar. The middle portions were reserved for the lowest and second-lowest but sometimes the divider would volunteer the sub-scrub and teaman for self-denial and they would be given the middle parts. A divider and sub-divider might sometimes make the voluntary self-sacrifice but you would remember more if two of you were volunteered for total self-denial and everybody else got a quarter. Yet sometimes you had only yourself to blame if you had to go without: you had gambled away your crispy sugary corner in a game of table-tennis with somebody who was better than you. But Charlie Neeson helped himself to half once though he’d never been anywhere near a table-tennis table. What?! Well, that’s what they said but you don’t have to believe everything you’re told – I mean, they said Ian Murray made porridge sandwiches, and Charlie Hendry – but are you ready for more Latin?

Requiem

Die 2 Novembris (1948) In Commemoratione Omnium Fidelium Defunctorum – that’s Latin-long for All Souls’. On Soule’en Charlie scared the wits out of his lowest and second-lowest: they had to come to supper in their pyjamas because they were to spend the night alone in the Old College with all the rats, keeping watch in some creepy crypt

Ah, wake not yet from thy repose,

A fair-dream spirit hovers near thee,

Weaving a web of gold and rose

Through dreamland’s happy isles to bear thee.

Sleep, love, it is not yet the dawn.

Angels guard thee, sweet love, till morn (top A).


Jocelyn – Beneath the quivering leaves (Key A)

John McCormack, Fritz Kreisler and Vincent O’Brien,

25 March 1914.
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At the end of the Solemn Requiem Mass on All Souls’ Day we went in procession to the little cemetery next to the Chapel to pray for the students, nuns and priests who were buried there.

The students included two who had drowned while swimming in the Dee on 5 June 1930. It was the custom then, but afterwards discontinued, to go swimming in the river on warm Summer afternoons, and there would be a boat on guard, continually crossing back and forth. But on that day, William O’Neill, 20, and Anthony Brogan, 19, had, unnoticed, swum away from the others, perhaps finding that part of the river a bit too crowded, and were not immediately missed. A doctor thought that one may have suffered cramp, and that the other had gone to his help.



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The nuns were Sisters of St Joseph of Annecy, who washed and mended our clothes, cooked all our meals, ran the dispensary, and when we were sick looked after us in the infirmary. We didn’t really come into very much contact with them, yet they called us by our names and seemed to know everything about us. The Order had first arrived in 1906. Anyway, here they are, from the mid-fifties, I think. I don’t have any of their names, unfortunately, so you must forgive me if I don’t tell you the names of any of those other people, either.



Among the priests were Bishop Aeneas Chisholm of Aberdeen, and Monsignor James Lennon, from Liverpool. When Father Aeneas became Rector in 1890, the Old College was already too small to accommodate the growing numbers of students, so he decided a new

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college had to be built, and a Chapel (and he seems to have kept a pretty close eye on building progress if this is in fact him).




Funds were raised, and then ran out. Twice. On each occasion, Mgr James stepped in to the rescue: first, for the completion of the central part of the College, with the tower and Papal Crown, in 1897, and then the Chapel, in 1901.

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I walked out to Blairs from Aberdeen one day in the late 1980s. I was beginning to think that I had missed the opening into the drive, when suddenly they sprang into view: the tower and steeple. How could I have forgotten!

You know, I feel as if I’m talking to myself here sometimes. I’ve mentioned the Old College at least twice, the new building, and Scalan, and you show no curiosity whatsoever. I didn’t think there was anything particularly noteworthy. Oh? Well, there was. Or is, rather. After the Reformation it became too dangerous to train priests openly in Scotland, so they were sent abroad - to France, Italy, or Spain. To prepare them for

Scalan : Watercolour by Mike Davidson

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their studies on the Continent, in 1714, Bishop James Gordon opened a ‘secret’ seminary on a small island on Loch Morar. It moved about two years later to Scalan, in Glenlivet, where it continued till 1746, when it was burned to the ground by Cumberland’s soldiers, not long after Culloden. But Scalan rose again, and there were others. I’ll tell you their names later, when we go sledging. Again? Later.

But fast forward now from Culloden to 1827, and Blairs, a 1,000-acre estate on south Deeside, about five miles from Aberdeen. It was the property of John Menzies ( pronounced ‘Mingis’) of Pitfodels,



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who gave it to the Church to be the site of a National Junior Seminary for Scotland. The family mansion needed quite a bit of work done on it to become a college, but in 1829, the year of Catholic Emancipation, it was ready, and St Mary’s College, Blairs received its first students. They were a sorry sight when they arrived from Aquhorties. ‘Priest Gordon’, who had supervised the work of alteration, “found them in a very tattered state indeed……….they had not coats for their backs, shoes for their feet, nor linen for their bodies.” Who were they? How many? What became of them? (No, this is a good bit later.)



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The Old College kept going till 1897, as I said, and the new Chisholm-Lennon one went on for another ninety years nearly, finally closing in 1986.




Daffodils and shrinking violets

John Sloan, my first sub-divider, was a light tenor who loved to sing Neapolitan songs. He called himself Giovanni Slonca and before you laugh John McCormack borrowed his wife Lily’s maiden name, Foley, for his debut in Mascagni’s L’Amico Fritz in Savona in 1906, and called himself Giovanni Foli.

I had never heard songs like Slonca’s before. One day I asked him for the words of Torna a Surriento. He said he would get Stein to write them out for me. Stein pretended to be shocked when I told him that Father Frank Duffy (the Duff) had seen his attempt at Neapolitan when I asked him to play it.

Stein (Frank McHugh) was a good tenor. At Easter 1950 someone standing right behind me at Mass produced such a beautiful sound I turned round: it was Stein. It may have been in the Duff’s own arrangement of the liturgical hymn Victimae paschali laudes. Stein grabbed everyone’s attention another day with his sudden, bolt-upright exit from High Mass: he had swallowed his false tooth. He needn’t have worried: he would get it back, as I had once retrieved the end of a propelling pencil I had swallowed.



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Stein was the fourth-year censor in that part of the big St John’s dormitory where my cubicle 153 was. It was he who called out that “Benedicamus Domino” (actually it was decano Dan Hart, I’ve just realised, but we’ll press on) and quick-flicked your curtain to make sure you were up, and then after breakfast checked that you had made your bed properly. Empty your tinny every day if you use one, and if you wet the bed leave the bedclothes folded back and your curtain closed – just so that everybody will know, okay? In fact bedwetters were not usually treated unkindly, and they had their very own des. res. beside the toilets in St John’s dormitory – Pee Row. Oh, all right: Laburnum Grove.


Beds made and tinnies emptied, you make your own way downstairs for a brief spell of freedom before lessons begin. You might just take a stroll around ‘the plot’ but if you see any censors – or just anybody bigger than you – mind your pockets. No, they’re not pickpockets but they could be on the look-out for slings. No, not the David-and-Goliath type! Hasn’t anyone mentioned this before! Not to worry: you wear a jacket so that makes things a bit easier.

Right, then. Put your hands in your trouser pockets so that the flap, or corner, of each side of the jacket falls over the trouser pocket. Done? Now you’ve got two slings up and if you’re in first or second year you shouldn’t have. Pups (first form) aren’t allowed any, and Brats (second form) are allowed only one. If you’re a shrinking-violet sort of sling, don’t try anything fancy like Phil Doherty’s ‘permapress’ look for it’ll be noticed and people will talk. At the senior seminary in England where Phil’s brother Frank was studying, it was always a Scottish student that was chosen to read on those special occasions when only the best would do.
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One Saturday evening in Cowie in the Summer of 1954 Phil, who was at Saint Sulpice and had just been ordained sub-deacon, called in to see Willie Ferguson, home on holiday – for the first time in three years – from the Scots College in Valladolid. The football results on the wireless had just finished. Fergie rattled off all the scores without having written any of them down. Just the week before, at the laying of the foundation stone of the Cisterician Abbey at Nunraw, on 22 August, he had given me a Latin-Spanish Roman Missal, which I used until the day they outlawed Latin. It was never outlawed! So now you tell me!

The plot’s an area of lawn near where the toilets and bootroom are. If you take the left path you’ll be following the line of a high wall on the other side of which old Pa Burke grew our vegetables. Mrs Duffy’s little house was in Pa’s garden. Old Pa went back what then seemed a long way and could tell you a thing or two about some of the profs when they were students.

On one walk around the plot, probably in my second term, I confided in Joe O’Raw, who was repeating first year, that I was worried because I was wetting the bed. That was the last time I spoke to Joe. The next day he was no longer there. He had gone home, ‘given up’. If Joe had carved or written his name anywhere it would now be followed by the initials R.A.S: Reddidit (or Rediit surely?) ad suos (he has returned to his own). There was also E.E., for expulsion: Expulsus est; and Domi (at home), meaning you’d been told during a Christmas or Summer holiday not to bother coming back.

The right-hand path along the plot is bounded by another stretch of lawn that skirts the playhall and runs down to the study hall. But back to Pa’s garden wall ….

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The path ends in some steps that lead up to the pail courts – I used to wonder why they were called that, till Dave McCann told me the name comes from ‘peil’, the Gaelic for ‘ball’. Down to the right is a copse, with figures at the foot of a Cross in a Calvary scene.



At the edge of the copse is the fifth-year bicycle shed that a tree came down on in the storms of January 1953. You’re at the top of the golf course now – yes, I know it’s not a real golf course but we called it that. Anyway, the daffodils are real enough, and very lovely, so mind their heads when you tee off. The drive’s away to the right so the rhododendron bushes should be quite safe – you’d have some explaining to do if there were no petals left for the Corpus Christi Procession, on the Thursday after Trinity Sunday, which is the first … oh, please, not all




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that again!... let me finish, or you won’t know when to gather the petals – the first Sunday after Pentecost, which is the seventh Sunday after Easter. All right, sixty days after Easter.


The Feast was introduced by Pope Urban IV (1261-1264), who entrusted the composition of the Divine Office for that day to St Thomas Aquinas. That’s how we come to have all those beautiful hymns celebrating the Mystery of the Eucharist: Verbum supernum prodiens (Lauds); Lauda, Sion, Salvatorem (Sequence); Pange lingua gloriosi (Vespers). Another procession chant, Sacris Solemnis, has at v.6

Panis angelicus fit panis hominum;

Dat panis caelicus figuris terminum:

O res mirabilis! Manducat Dominum

Pauper, servus, et humilis.

Try to listen to the McCormack recording of 6 May 1927. See which you prefer — the first or second take…?


Back through the copse, past the Calvary scene, you come to the tennis courts. In the Summer term of 1949 I was entered for the men’s singles. I could do nothing right against an utterly ruthless Lewis Cameron, my first teaman, and the howls of derision did nothing to help. I had only ever used a racket for rounders, which we played beside Linlithgow Loch, in the shadow of the Palace

Linlithgow Loch and Palace, from north shore : Courtesy Scotsman Publications Ltd.

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We watch the swans

That sleep in a shadowy place,

And now and again

One wakes and uplifts its head—

How still you are!

Your gaze is on my face (top B flat).

We watch the swans,

And never a word is said (top A flat).

Swans, (Key Ab) John McCormack,

Edwin Schneider - piano, 26 September 1923.





The first of five football pitches is beside the tennis courts. On the far side of the pitch is a road separating it from the other four. Left along that road takes you to the farm buildings and the fields where fifth form did the late tattie-howkin. It could be really cold some days, and at piece-time you would shiver on the dyke at the edge of the field, gripping your bread and marg in freezing earth-caked fingers – and there would be no flask of hot tea. Not like in the Sixties.

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If you go back the way you came – one football pitch on your right, four on your left – you’ll come to an intersection: to the right is the outside world, which we try to avoid. Straight on is the fifth-form bounds, so not yet, but if we turn left we’ll be ‘up the bounds’.

On the right as you go up the bounds you’ll pass a small row of houses. Donal Grant lived there and (the real) Sammy Kilpatrick, who took us for PE and cross-country runs. He was the brother of Father James (Sammy) who taught Maths and who became farm bailiff (at least that’s what it says on the 1952 photo) after Steve was appointed Rector – but, look, we should be getting back, classes will be … where…?

Where have you been? I couldn’t take all that cold mud and marg so I … Don’t tell me: you went to the linen room where you met a nice old French nun who thought your French was very good and she said you could go and practise any time, not just when you needed a button sewn on. She sat you down by the window overlooking the garden, and the sun streaming through began to make the room feel quite warm. You started to feel drowsy … and drifted away to an Alpine meadow high above Annecy … You wakened to accents sweet and the heady aroma of freshly-brewed coffee and newly-baked almond-and- chocolate croissants … n’est ce pas?

How do you know!


The corpse position

I must have carried off the near-impossible and pulled the wool over the eyes of Father Daniel Boyle at the entrance examination, for I found myself going straight into second form and sitting beside Francie Keane from Broxburn, who had come with me from St Mary’s, Bathgate. In fact if it hadn’t been for Francie I might not have gone to Blairs at all. I’d first said I wanted to go when I was still at St Joseph’s, Linlithgow, but mother got Father Michael McGovern to agree that I should take the place offered me at Bathgate and see if I felt the same way after a year.

Blairs may have faded a little into the background after I got to Bathgate, but you couldn’t forget it altogether, for Pat Lowther was a vivid daily reminder of it. He was in fifth year, I think. His hair was jet-black, his face pale, and his shoulders slightly hunched. He wore a black suit, white shirt, and black tie, and smoked Pasha cigarettes in the toilets. He had been to Blairs, and to me he was full of mystery.

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Pat was from Broxburn, like Francie, and when Francie said out of the blue one day that he was going to Blairs, I immediately said I was going too. Not everybody thought it was a good idea—Molly Savage, for one, who taught French and rapped us over the knuckles with the hard side of the wooden board-duster. She told me in front of the whole class one day that I wasn’t like other little boys and that she couldn’t understand why someone like me was going to Blairs. What brought that on!

It was during a Religious Knowledge lesson that she was taking for Mr McCann, our form-master, who was off sick. I don’t remember being ever worried before when I had to read in class, but something was in the air that day that unsettled me, and when it came my turn I stammered so much that Molly had to get someone else to take over.

I hadn’t always stammered, or stuttered even… Is there a difference? I..I think so: stutter is when you repeat the first letter of a word, like b..b..butter; but when you stammer there is just silence, for you seize up, and the word won’t come. And… could it be that people stammer because they don’t want to be seen to stutter? Oh, I’ve never thought of that…? Anyway, sometimes you just give up. There’s nothing you can do? Well, relaxation exercises are supposed to do the trick: you lie flat on the floor, head tilted back slightly, in ‘the corpse position’, arms outstretched, feet apart. You do deep breathing to help you to relax, and all your anxiety just drains away through your toes and fingertips (at least that’s the idea!). But on the big day you’ve got to have rhythm. With rhythm, you can even say, ‘Calcutta cows can catch pulmonary tuberculosis, can’t they?’ C..c..can you really? Oh, yes. If you get a chance to watch some old film of King George VI speaking in public, look at his hands and you’ll see them moving slowly, keeping time…. I had always thought it was British actor George Robbie who taught him that, but now with everybody talking about the recent film, I discover it was Australian-born speech therapist Lionel Logue who helped the King.

My stutter-stammer started when I was four or five years old. We were living at 32, High Street, Linlithgow, two flights up, on the top floor. John Anderson, about the same age as me, lived up the same close. John stuttered, and when I started people thought I was just imitating him. I’m not so sure.

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In the Summer of 1939, when I was four, and Irene one, we were on holiday in Ireland. As soon as War was declared, mother hurried back to Scotland with Irene, leaving me with Granny. When I got back in the Spring of 1940, accompanied by Auntie Mai, I had an Irish accent, and people would stop mother on the High Street to hear me speak. They went weak at the knees, apparently,

when I said ‘Mary’.



Did the trouble start there, I wonder: at the age of four or five being expected to ‘perform’ every time you went out, and then as the accent faded and you started to sound like everybody else again...?
The Irish connection was in fact made by someone else long before it ever occurred to me: Brian Kidd, who lived up the next close at Linlithgow Bridge, thought one of our pals Jim Bishop must be Irish as well because he stuttered like me. We haven’t moved to the Bridge yet, but anyway there’s Brian second from the right in the middle row, and on his right, Laurie Alexander, who sent me their class photo.






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