The Strathblane Notebooks: Life in a Stirlingshire Village before the First World War by Alex Urquhart (Ed. Anne Balfour)

Reminiscences

The Strathblane Notebooks

Life in a Stirlingshire Village before the First World War
By Alex Urquhart

edited by Anne Balfour

Quotation from the headstone of Alex Urquhart's parents in Strathblane Cemetery
Quotation from the headstone of Alex Urquhart’s parents in Strathblane Cemetery
Alex Urquhart (1894-1978)
Alex Urquhart (1894-1978)

Strathblane Heritage Society

INTRODUCTION

A remarkable memoir of life in Strathblane before the First World War came to light in late 2019. It was written by Alexander Urquhart whose parents rented a flat in Dumbrock Road in the Edenkiln area of the parish. The memoir is filled with vivid recollections of the countryside and its wildlife, well-known local characters such as “Cuthie” the irascible stationmaster and “Dr Mac” the kindly village GP, as well as the pranks and adventures of young Alex and his pals, some of whom would be killed in the First World War.

He was aged ten when he first came to the Blane Valley on holiday in 1905. This brief summer sojourn turned into a lifelong affection for Strathblane and the Campsie Fells. For the next nine years he spent every spare weekend and holiday exploring the valley and observing village life from his attic room.

More than 40 years after his death, several red handwritten school exercise books emerged, detailing his memories and adventures in the Blane Valley in the years prior to 1914. Though not written until more than half a century later, they present a vivid and delightful portrayal of a typical Scottish village of that era, warts and all. The author’s pen portraits of the landscape, the fish and birdlife, the village worthies, his friends and a now-forgotten way oflife have a clarity, charm, humour and freshness that seem to delight all who read them.

There is also an unmistakable longing for a lost world, accentuated by the physical and emotional cataclysm, as well as the social upheaval, wrought by the 1914 – 1918 War. Alex returned to Strathblane after the Armistice but both he and the community had changed forever. Not only had some of his old pals been killed but diphtheria would claim the life of another shortly afterwards.

Of course, the idea of a lost idyll is not new, even in the Blane Valley. Poet Thomas Thorpe, who grew up in Strathblane in the 1830s and worked at the calico printworks in Blanefield, wrote in a similar vein about the valley of his childhood. The Gowk Stane, published in 1883, begins:

“How fondly memory loves to trace
Our happy youthful days;
The green hills of some dear old place
Dim now in misty haze;
Yon crags, so rugged, stem and hoar,
The foamy streamlet, Blane,
The pinewoods fragrant evermore,
Around the old Gowk Stane.”

Reading today of Alex Urquhart’s feelings of depression and anger after 1918 suggests both survivor’s guilt and post-traumatic stress, though, of course, these conditions were not recognised at the time.

His friendship with the village doctor and his experience on the Western Front with the Royal Army Medical Corps led to a medical degree at Glasgow University and a career in general practice in the Northumberland community of Blyth.

His Strathblane exercise books and references to his time in the area in several other notebooks often overlap. And, while some sections are clearly straightforward memoirs, others appear to be partly fictionalised stories in the tradition of Just William (or occasionally Dennis the Menace!). Some characters are correctly identified and can be found in various statutory records. However others, including Alex’s boyhood friends, are usually given sobriquets and may even be amalgams of more than one person.

The desire to tell stories and pass on our memories is part of the human condition. In Alex Urquhart one feels that desire amounted to a compulsion. It becomes harder to do that in a society in which generations often live far apart. Today there are few cosy firesides where a grandfather can regale his young relatives with the tales of his youth. Alex tried to overcome this by devoting the final decade of his life to returning to his youth with a wee exercise book and a pen in his hand. So let us return with him to the Blane Valley of 1910 as he watches the trains of the Blane Valley Railway puff past his attic window en route to Aberfoyle, picnics on Earl’s Seat, guddles for trout in the Blane Burn and slides down the Gowk Stane.

This short book consists of edited highlights of Alex Urquhart’s memories of early 20th century Strathblane. Any changes have been made in the interests of clarity and to correct occasionally errant or obsolete spelling, grammar or punctuation. A glossary of Scots words is included.

Some people and places in these writings live on in photographs and a wonderful collection of old postcards collected and digitised by Strathblane Heritage Society. It seems appropriate to use them as illustrations in addition to those supplied by the Urquhart family. Putting together this publication has proved an absorbing and enjoyable project during the Covid-19lockdown. Any surplus will go to the Thomas Graham Library Project..

This book is dedicated to Ruairidh James Balfour (born April 2020), the great great grandson of Alex Urquhart.

Anne Balfour July 2020

Dumbrock Road as it was in 1905 when the Urquharts moved in. The attic gable, from which Alex watched the comings and goings of village
life, is just visible on the right beyond the building that then housed the Post Office. This shot may even include members of the Urquhart
family as the two female figures (one holding a baby) are standing in their front garden. The single storry building (right foreground) is long gone.
The white cottage on the left, which may date back to 1680, housed the Village Club until it moved to its present site in 1911.

CONTENTS:

Chapter 1: Flitting to Strathblane
Chapter 2: Village Life
Chapter 3: Doctor Mac
Chapter 4: Two Ministers & a Village Bobby
Chapter 5: The Young Poacher
Chapter 6: Pals & the Village School
Chapter 7: The Great War
Chapter 8: End of an Era

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Acknowledgments:

Many people made this publication possible. Thanks first and foremost to Dr David Overend of Edinburgh University, who brought these notebooks to our attention. David is Alex’s greatgrandson. Also to Alex’s two granddaughters, Alison Urquhart and Julie Overend and his son, Alexander Scott Urquhart. Much gratitude to Margaret Smith, Mary Brailey & Alastair Balfour for reading the manuscript. Thanks are due also to the late Alison Dryden, author of Strathblane 1870-1970 A Century of Change, edited by Mary. Also Eddie Edmonstone, Lady Mary McGrigor, Carol Craig, Dylan Ratcliffe, Alastair Smith and Lynne James. A big thankyou too to the wonderful band of ladies who transcribed the notebooks in double quick time: Sylvia Armstrong, Linda Boyle, Shona Currie, Pat Davy, Philomena Donohoe, Andrea Duffield, Grace Edmonds, Janice Kennedy, Margaret Smith, Jo Waterfield and Lynn Witherspoon. Finally, huge gratitude to Stirling Council’s Community Pride Fund, Alan Dickson, Strathblane Heritage Society and Strathblanefield Community Development Trust for their financial support.

PICTURE CREDITS:

Urquhart family photographs.Photographs and postcards from Ernie O’Donnell and Hugh Macarthur, held by Strathblane Heritage Society. The images of Parklea Lodge (P35) & the war memorial plinth (P46) by Martin Shields. The portrait of Dr McMillan (P15) from Gordon Edgar.

GLOSSARY:

Auld ClaesOld Clothes
BawbeeScottish coin of low value.
BigYinsBig Ones
BlaeberryBilberry
BraeSlope or brow of a hill
ChuckieSmall stone
DoosPigeons
FlittingMoving house
GanseyGuernsey/high-necked jersey
GowanDaisy
GuddlingFishing with the hands by groping under stones or banks of a stream and tickling the fish
HowdieMidwife
Jam pieceSandwich with a jam filling
LumChimney
MiddenDunghill or refuse heap
NeepsTurnips
OrraOdd
SmiddyBlacksmiths
Sugarallie/ sugarolly waterDrink flavoured with liquorice
Tackety bootsBoots with tacks on the sole
TawseThongs of a leather strap used for corporal punishment
WeansChildren
WhaupCurlew 
Ordnance Survey map of Strathblane, revised in 1914 and showing some of the places mentioned in the notebooks,
including Edenkiln (below), where the Urquharts rented a flat from 1905. OS maps re er to Edenkiln as Edenkill.

Strathblane Heritage Society

CHAPTER 1: FLITTING TO STRATHBLANE

To me as a young lad Edenkiln was the loveliest village of the Blane Valley, a valley dominated by the imposing Campsie Fells with Dumgoyne beautifully rising to the skies at the western end, and through which the Blane Water gurgled from Ballagan Spout by green leas and woods to join the Endrick from just over the hill. The village was a few stone-built scattered houses, the Doctor’s house, with well-kept garden and orchard, a Post Office – simply a room of a house – and a very general shop.

We had recently moved from Cramond to a newly-built red sandstone tenement near Maryhill Barracks. My new school was very good but I missed the open fields.

Then illness struck my sister Winnie and a holiday was advocated. Mother acquired a house for a month in the village of Blanefield. It was a joy of a holiday. Mother was slim and active and full of ideas, and she dragged us about all over the place. A mile or so along the road to see the great oak that Rob Roy McGregor hid up to avoid the searching Redcoats. We climbed the hillside to gather blaeberries, a fruit for which I had no taste, and we attended the flower show in the nearby school, coming away with our pockets stuffed with peas and carrots. I fished and I guddled in the burn for trout, and I joined the local boys in raiding neighbouring orchards for apples: a crawling approach and a scampering retreat. Mother, sisters Jean, Winnie & Annie & I made five and Dad came out at the weekends. In your language it was a super holiday and I don’t think that we were given even a ha’penny to spend.

During one weekend Mother and Father went for their usual stroll to neighbouring Strathblane. We surmised that it was to consult the local doctor. If my mother had been in a position of affluence I am certain that I and my sisters would have been well-doctored. She loved the advice of the medico and his lingo.

However, I was wrong in my assumption. On her return she was excited and her first words were: “How would you like to live out here in the country?” Our reply was just as excited. She had rented part of a house in the Edenkiln area of Strathblane: it was the upper storeys of a solid building reached by a stone stair at the rear. It consisted of a kitchen with four attic bedrooms above, two large with big windows looking to the Campsie Fells, two small with skylights pointing to the sunlight from the south. We would rent the house from the early 20th century till after the Second World War. It was much used by all members of our family at different periods.

With her far vision and her love of her children, mother, in spite of our poverty, had provided this gem of a home to give us the joys of a country life, away from the bustle and traffic of Glasgow streets. She would say “God made the country, man made the town”, and thanks to her wisdom, I enjoyed many happy days without possessing a bicycle, or indulging in the many cash consuming pleasures of the young boys of my day..

On our return to Glasgow after this Blanefield holiday there was a feverish collecting of old beds, mattresses, chairs, tables etc. Mostly junk but good enough to start a holiday home. Father arranged transport for early on a Sunday morning: a flat cart drawn by a dray horse with a sagged back, very heavy harness and large collar decorated with ribbons. At the front of the cart were fixed two lamps carrying candles. I was to accompany Father and the driver on the journey. The cart was almost loaded when we were stopped by our house factor. Some peeping tom had spied us and notified him of our act of removal. At this period in Glasgow there was a rise in what was termed “moonlight flitting”. If you happened to be out late in Glasgow, you might notice a handcart loaded with furniture being raced along by members of a family. The teenagers pushing and the toddlers sitting on top of the mattresses. They were flitting from the house where they hadn’t paid the rent, to another empty house where they were going to repeat the process. And in the morning the rent collector found the flat empty.  The old birds and young had flown. Empty houses were plentiful in the growing city. This was the moonlight flitting but why moonlight I failed to understand, for darkness or pea soup fog would be safer. Well, one factor thought he had nabbed us in an autumnal evacuation, but mother’s explanation appeased him.

It was a long road to Strathblane, the nag simply walked, and in the country strayed to the grass verges. It was a long climb up the stone stairs to the landing, and then up the stairs to the attics. Floor cloth was laid, beds erected and furniture put in place. Late that night we returned home by the faint light of the two wax candles. Looking back on a very long life, I would say that this unpretentious home held my happiest memories.

Editor’s Note:

Alex Urquhart was aged 10 and living in Stratford St, Maryhill when he holidayed in Blanefield in 1906. From his description, the Urquharts probably stayed in what were known as Paton’s Buildings, which were the rows of small cottages formerly inhabited by printworkers. They were let as holiday homes after the printworks closed in 1898. Later some of these were demolished, though Wood Place, West Row, Blanefield Terrace and part of New City Row survive.

Near Killearn the Blane Water joins the River Endrick, which flows into the eastern end of Loch Lomond.

The Rob Roy Oak, also known as the Blairquhosh Meikle Tree, was on the main road near Glengoyne Distillery. It was declared unsafe and chopped down around 1980, though the stump is still visible. It is one of several trees in which Rob Roy MacGregor (folk hero or villain, depending on your source material) supposedly hid while being pursued. The current laird’s sister, Lady Mary McGrigor recalls: “The legend we knew about the Meikle Tree was that Rob Roy hid in the branches, concealed by the leaves, and heard the Duke of Montrose’s factor standing with some men beneath discussing how he could be caught!”

For around 40 years from 1906, the Urquharts rented an upstairs flat (now numbered 17 & 19) in what is these days the second house on the left in Dumbrock Road as you turn off the main road. The upper storeys are still reached by an outside staircase at the rear of the building.

The upper storeys of the building on the left of the row (reached by an outside staircase) were rented by the Urquhart family from 1905 until after the Second World War, This photograph dates from shortly before the family moved in.

CHAPTER 2: VILLAGE LIFE

In the early days of my youth, mother would spend every available weekend and holiday at this country home. The train journey to Strathblane, besides being long and slow, was very expensive, so we travelled to a small place called Hillfoot where for an old penny we caught a train for Milngavie. From there we had a three mile walk over the hill; but what a walk of sheer beauty. The old road we trudged is still very much the same, and the view to the Blane Valley from Mugdock Village magnificent. Sometimes (if we missed the train) we would walk from Hillfoot to Milngavie, and then spend the train fare on cake and lemonade.

We found plenty to do at Strathblane. There was the daily walk to the Broadgate Farm for milk and on occasion a baker’s dozen of eggs. You could earn 4d a drill to thin the neeps.  In the summer, there were picnics galore and in the winter, sledging. For our anticipated appetites mother cooked wholesome meals. There were scones and pancakes and I can still taste her rhubarb tarts with their thick scone pastry soaking up the red juice. She loved food herself.  I relished the spotted burn trout, fried in coarse oatmeal, but not so much the thick knotty porridge served each morning with a cup of milk.

Strathblane at night meant complete darkness if there was no moon, and few moved about. Indoors there was the glimmer of paraffin oil wick lamps and candles of white slenderness. By this light we managed to play ludo, snakes and ladders and tiddly winks. In my attic bedroom my iron bedstead with brass knobs nestled into the wall and at the head was a box that displayed my books and supported a small paraffin lamp. Many an hour I spent listening to the pitter patter of the rain on the skylight and reading by that light for in the country of the early 20th century one was driven to bed early.

Ludo Board circa 1910

We were lucky enough to have water and a lavatory. Our neighbours drew water from a pump on the roadway and had a “dry closet”, an annex to the midden. Our home in Edenkiln provided wonderful views of the Campsie Fells from the large north facing roof windows. Green fields, yellow fields, woods of green variants and little white cottages dotted here and there. On our right we could watch the bustle of the train from Glasgow with its puffing engine and spy on its passengers. Opposite us was the yard of a coal merchant where two horses were stabled. On our left we could not see Blanefield Station, but we knew when the train departed by the puffs of smoky steam appearing above the hillock, like the signals of Red Indians.

Nearby were the Parish Church and The Kirkhouse, a farmhouse with a small public house or ale bar where you could also get milk. It was awkward for father, for when we saw him slinking in, we knew that it was not for milk. Further along the road from this inn, the Village Club was opened in 1911, for educational and sober pursuits, and soon afterwards two hard tennis courts appeared behind it. Here again we watched who would come and go.

When bad weather confined us to the house, each window provided much to interest us: a patient at the surgery; the farmer in the field opposite with shotgun popping at the bunnies as they scampered from their warrens before the invading ferret; or any activity at the station where “Cuthie” could strike fear into the ticketless passenger, or the mother whose over-age child was concealed under her voluminous skirts. The stationmaster was a massive figure, with splayed feet in Number 14 boots and a fearsome glare behind a heavy black moustache. All stage villains wore such moustaches.

I remember one summer morning, at dawn, sitting at the window with my sisters gulping cups of tea and carefully watching the hills opposite in a hazy light of break of day. Colonel Cody had announced that he would cross the Campsies in his aeroplane. None of us had ever seen an aeroplane and had no idea of what it looked like. Even a motorcar was a sensation. Still mother claimed that she saw the accident as the plane dropped down the face of the hill. (I don’t think that at this period a “flying machine” could rise to a hundred feet.) No doubt she’d seen a wisp of morning mist in changing shape.

In my attic room I could enjoy the tinkling of the raindrops on the panes, or the morning rays of sunshine on my face to cause me to jump out of bed to explore the country, to live, to play, to loaf about – another happy day.

Don’t get the idea that the world was a better place at the beginning of the 20th century. True, the fields were greener, the air full of bird song, and the streams fuller of fish.  Maybe, but there were many evils you know nought of. Sanitation was extremely poor. Monster grey rats infested our middens to terrorise us. In the stables they swung from the ropes and the harness like trapeze artists. They sat with the horse and joined in with the oats.

Long-tailed mice bored holes through the skirting boards and gnawed holes into the larder to partake of your tasty bites, and even to nest within your 2-lb loaf. Fleas would go to bed with you to suck your red blood and leave marks like measles. In the summer, house flies would invade your living room. Their buzz would irritate you and their habit of settling on the point of your nose crazed you. At meal times they would dive-bomb into your tea, your soup or your jam piece. They would hum noisily in the stickiness of the fly papers dangling from any odd projection of the room, and which had a magnetic attraction for the locks of your hair.

Also, think of the number of micro-organisms, a multitude of unseen murderers with a zest to kill or to just endanger your life and for which no doctor had a cure: Typhoid, Spotted Fever, Scarlet Fever, Rheumatic Fever and the others. Medical progress and the sanitation of your era have slaughtered these. Children were frequently inadequately fed, and ill clothed. Children would go to school barefooted. That miserable effort of “The Provost’s Boot Fund” did little good beyond boosting the morale of His Worship. More money to live on was required.

Boys at this time tended to wear knitted jerseys or “Guernseys”, with tight polo necks. You could almost suffer asphyxiation pushing your neck through this narrow neck opening. I can remember the fear it could produce. You wore a tie, the school tie. Your shorts were of dark blue serge, reaching down to an inch above the knee. They were patched and repatched. Stockings to the knee were worn, knitted in 5-ply wool. Mine were blue and my mother provided detachable tops so that I could have a change of colour. Footwear was sturdy thick soled boots of black leather, with tackets to prolong their life. In the valley our clothing was worn-out garments, for thorn hedges, gates and fences could rip them to pieces.

The stone wall at the end of Dumbrock Road is where the village “intellects” used to squat. It was the privilege of these elders to sit on this wall, though mother with her medical knowledge vouched that they would suffer from haemorrhoids and she would enlarge on their suffering and misery. Thus I never sat on that wall but stood in front and devoured the learned discussions of the village council. From four directions you passed this dyke with its seated forum of critical patriarchs, and woe betide you if you had a guilty conscience. Cuthie would be there with his grapevine news and Wattie, the village bobby, with his tales of village miscreants. Their moustaches would flap up and down as they argued with the postie, the coal merchant and the roadman. They had a full view of everyone passing in and out of the village. To the young Romeo they would inquire: “Meeting Juliet tonight?” To an elderly joiner they would say “Playing bowls tonight? Watch your back.”  It was a masterful deduction for the joiner was carrying his net bag of three bowls and rarely missed a good night. To a tousled-headed labourer: “Off to drown your sorrows?” The poor laddie indeed had had a fighting row with his wife and was off to the bar at The Kirkhouse for spiritual comfort. As kids we would hang over a parapet to watch the trout in the deep hole and strain our ears for the words of the village parliament. If we approached we were shooed away.

On a Sunday morning I would walk to the Gowkstane and maybe slide down its well-polished surface to have my dearest wish fulfilled. And then lie prone on the grass verge to gaze at the valley far below. As the peacefulness was broken by the clanging of the bells from both ends of the community (seemingly striving to drown one other), I would daydream. I had no crystal ball to perceive that a simple shooting affair in unknown Europe would involve me. A war of simple carnage, a war waged from this country of ours by the greatest voluntary army of men history has ever known.

Editor’s Note:

Broadgate Farm, where Alex thinned turnips for 4d a row, is just outside the village on the road to Lennoxtown. It is now a private house.

Edenkiln’s water supply at this time was siphoned off unfiltered from the Blane Burn into ten gallon tanks and accessed via four pillar wells. There were numerous complaints about rotting filth and its link with various infectious diseases. The community’s sewage works were not completed until the 1950s. Despite this, the parish became a popular destination for holidaymakers in the early 20th Century.

Kirkhouse Farm used to occupy the corner opposite The Kirkhouse Inn and both were owned and run by Peter Buchanan and his family until the 1960s.

The lovely Arts & Crafts-style Village Club remains a popular venue for meetings, classes and parties and the thunk of tennis balls still echoes from the courts behind it on summer afternoons.

Strathblane Station was accessed from the lane opposite the parish church. “Cuthie” (Highlander William Cuthbertson) was stationmaster from 1908 and lived in the station house with his wife and family. Blanefield Station was near the bottom of Station Road. Then, as now, small children travelled free. The Blane Valley Railway closed to passengers in 1951 and to freight in 1959. Both Strathblane and Blanefield stations burned down in the 1960s but the two station houses survive as private homes.

Samuel Franklin Cowdery, known as Colonel Cody, was an American showman and aviation pioneer who on 29 July 1911, did indeed make a Scottish flight that may have been visible from Strathblane. A crowd of 10,000 turned out to see him off from Stirling. The Scotsman reported: “SF Cody, one of the competitors in the circuit of Britain aerial race, flew from Stirling to Paisley on Saturday….He gracefully made his ascent, and was cheered by the large crowd. Cody turned his machine westwards, apparently making for the Campsie Hills, and it was not long before the biplane became invisible to the naked eye.” He arrived in Paisley about an hour later. The accident that killed him did not occur until 1913 when he crash-landed in Hampshire.

Spotted fever is a type of tick-borne disease that presents on the skin.

The Gowkstane, the large boulder that marked the boundary between three local estates (Craigend, Craigallion and Duntreath) is still a popular destination for Sunday walks. The smooth and shiny surface on one side testifies to the many thousands who have slid down it over countless generations. There are several superstitions attached to it. One is that you cannot be a native of the parish until you have taken a slide on the Gowkstane!

The apparently competing church bells that young Alex heard from the Gowkstane track emanated from the Parish Church on Campsie Road and the United Free Church on the main road in Blanefield. See Chapter 4.

Samuel Franklin Cowdery, known as Colonel Cody, was an American showman and aviation pioneer who on 29 July 1911 did indeed make a Scottish flight that may have been visible from Strathblane. A crowd of 10,000 turned out to see
him off from Stirling. The Scotsman (above) reported that he headed for the Campsie Hills and arrived in Paisley about an hour later. However, the accident that killed him did not
occur until 1913 when he crash-landed in Hampshire.

(Right Above) The Strathblane area became a popular destination for Glasgow dqytrippers and holiday makers tifter the closure of the printworks in 1898, leaving plenty of cheap accommodation, which had been occupied previously by printworkers. In the early 20th
century the Blane Valley became a favoured subject for postcards such as this one. Like others in this book, it is based on a black and white photograph that was then hand-tinted. The figures in the foreground are on land now occupied by Edenkiln Place.

(Right Below) Strathblane Station in 1926. The men on the platform are clerk Robert Love and porter, Cameron Cuthbertson. Cameron was the son of”Cuthie” the imperious stationmaster,
described so vividly in Alex Urquhart’s memoirs.

Strathblane Station 1926
The Gowk Stane on the track above the village between Milndavie Stables and Boards Farm remains a popular local landmark. There are several superstitions attached to it. Sliding down it is said to bring good luck. So many generations have done this that one side is now smooth and shiny.

CHAPTER 3: DOCTOR MAC

The celebrities of any village were the doctor, the parish minister, the local laird, and those who live in big houses. Dr George McMillan in the large house nearly opposite ours was new to the practice: very young, very fair, small and well dressed. He peddled his bike many miles. Then came the motor cycle, and dressed in coat, scarf, and cap (skip to the back), he raced noisily at ten miles per hour along the country lanes to be spread-eagled at many a corner. I heard varying rumours of his medical ability or lack of it. A country doctor must be a brave man to live among his failures. To see a man struggle along by stick because you failed to set his fracture properly. I myself liked him, and when my nose was broken in playing football, he put me right without fee and encouraged me not to shun the sight of blood.

 He was a bit of a wit too. One New Year he sent a local boy round the few shops of Strathblane and Blanefield for “The History of Adam’s Grandfather”. Everyone laughed at the wee lad who failed to appreciate the joke. Sometime later, about midnight, the doctor’s night bell rang out, and as was his custom, he poked his head from the upstairs bedroom window, with the usual cry of “Who’s there?”  “Your Grandfather!” was the reply from a small boy.

Till his death a few years ago this doctor and I have been friends, and his friendly chatter proved many things to me. He was a good doctor, newly married to a raven-haired, dark-eyed girl called Margaret. Her black hair and his lemon-coloured hair seemed odd together. In the village store I could listen to criticism of the aloofness of the wife, and the errors in diagnosis of the doctor. A tiny village has nothing to talk about except its inmates and especially its doctor and its minister.

The young doctor was very friendly. He liked the young. One of the village boys would dig his garden and on an occasional Sunday he did another job. Any doctor will tell you how hard worked he is, though he can find ample time for tennis, golf and bowling. But for the church hour on the Sunday there is no time. If you live in a village where there is the processional habit of well-dressed devotees, you must attend church. Like many medicos, our man had a back seat convenient for his life-saving work. At 12.30 as the sermon was due and the congregation were settling to their sweet sucking, or their forty winks, my pal would open the church door to pass a piece of paper to the doctor. I am convinced that it was a blank piece and as the years passed, the minister must have been convinced also as he watched and noted the timing of the dramatic departure of the doctor. The minister would not complain as he required the doctor for his wheezy wife. From my crow’s nest I would watch the doctor take a seat in the sunshine of his garden, and in the quietude of a Sunday with the church doors open for the departing congregation listen to Charles Kingsley’s hymn.

From Thee all skill and science flow,
All pity, care and love,
All calm and courage, faith and hope
O pour them from above.

It was bellowed forth as if the doctor must hear it.

My mother would send for him when her own medical knowledge failed, and she would lay his fee or what she thought his visit was worth, in full view on the table. After listening to her diagnosis he would say: “No medicine, buy some sausages with that half-crown.” Some said that a doctor who doesn’t give a bottle of medicine must be a bad doctor. I would pass him standing at the drive gate of his house, smoking a cigarette. He was an inveterate cigarette smoker. At one time he wore dark glasses, and the gossipers whispered that he was going blind from excessive smoking. Yet I don’t remember that he abstained from the weed. No doubt he stood at the gate for company. The elders would avoid him as too posh company, yet to me, a youngster, he appealed. There was nothing dismal about him, except possibly Mr Horrocks.

Mr Horrocks stood grinning, suspended in a corner: an awesome sight, a human skeleton. Mr Horrocks and I became very friendly. When we met I would take his hand and squeeze his metacarpals, threaten to punch him on the maxilla or kick his patella. He was a Boer from the Cape I was told. For such an inveterate smoker you would expect a pretty ashtray in the surgery.  On the mantelpiece was a tin lid, and on his desk a cranium – “just a relic of my student days!”

Though I welcomed the interest the good doctor showed in me, I blankly refused his services as a dentist. One day I was seized by intense neuralgia. It was severe enough to make me jump up and down but I was well warned, for I had a back tooth with a hole that the tip of my tongue was always searching out. Mother had some old toothache jelly but there was no magic in it. A hot salt bag to the cheek was tried but the heat made the skin tender. Whisky was given with the warning that no Rechabite must know. It failed. But I wouldn’t have the doctor.

I had just remembered that one lad had to be carried home in the arms of his father after the extraction of a tooth and later recounted every minute of his torture. He was fixed in the doctor’s swivel chair, no doubt as they might require to spin him round. All the while Mr Horrocks grinned from his scaffold in the corner. Then on his desk the doctor laid and opened a large case of instruments. You can guess how frequent he used the instruments when he actually dusted the case. Each dental forceps had engraved on it the tooth for which it was destined. The doctor peered into the boy’s mouth and said “left lower molar” to which his father said “No, right.” It depended how you looked into the mouth. The correct forceps decided on, the doctor applied his injection of cocaine. The boy was in a state of collapse ere the tooth was extracted. So no doctor for me; I would go to a town dentist on the morrow. Meanwhile my Mother was plugging my cavity with widgets of cotton wool soaked in laudanum. Gradually a feeling of relief from the pains of this world came and I sank into oblivion. In the morning I was free of pain but Mother was dressed in town clothes and I was doomed to a dentist’s chair.

Only the doctor’s fee deterred my Mother from consulting him constantly. Instead, she read any old medical tome, listened to the tales of the wise old wives and howdies, and then practiced on her young family. She had a pharmacopeia of her own. Every spring on the first day of March, a dose of a mixture of treacle and sulphur was given to purify the blood and clear pimples from the face, till every involuntary passage of flatus overpowered all in the vicinity with its odour of sulphated hydrogen (rotten eggs). She also had on her shelf, in various types of bottles, a black mixture called “sugarallie water”. This was made from sticks of black liquorice, chipped and put in a bottle of water with a teaspoonful of Epsom salts and shaken vigorously. In fact the bottle was passed from one person to another for the shaking, and then when duly ready, each would take a swig of the black mixture. It was a lovely relaxing drink and enjoyable. You could hear the street Arabs singing:

“Sugarallie water, as black as the lum
Gather up bawbees and you’ll get some.”

It was a much pleasanter medicine than castor oil, which had to be forced down your throat. Castor oil required the services of Mother and Father: Father to hold you very tight and pinch your nose so that you were forced to open your mouth for air, and then Mother to decant the obnoxious oil down your gullet. Some treatments precluded the development of the disease. Never develop a cough was a good maxim. Any cough could become bronchitis and the recognised cure was the linseed poultice, back and front. It was so thick, hot and steamy that it could easily have produced a cessation of breathing.

Editor’s Note:

Between 1876 and 1985 Strathblane was served by only three general practitioners. Dr Walter Rankin came to the village in 1876 and served until his untimely death in 1909, aged 54. Dr George McMillan succeeded him and moved into the same house in Dumbrock Road (known as Old Edenkiln), which had a surgery attached. George Williamson McMillan had been born in Lasswade near Edinburgh in 1879. His 21-year-old mother died from birth complications, barely two months later. Though he had served as a ship’s doctor and worked in two mental hospitals after graduating from Cambridge, he was less than 30 when he came to the village that he would serve for 43 years. His salary as medical officer and vaccinator was initially £21 per annum. (He was also paid for lunacy certificates and for notifying the authorities of cases of infectious diseases. His first fee for notifying an infectious disease in 1909 was 2s6d.) The rest of his income came from fees, which he was loath to charge if he knew the patient was poor. Among more affluent patients he had a reputation for sending out his bills at Christmas.

On his retirement in 1952, he was succeeded by Dr Perry Harrison, a Glasgow graduate and former naval surgeon. By an odd coincidence, in 1968 Perry moved his practice into the same building in Dumbrock Road where the Urquharts had rented the upstairs flat. Dr Harrison retired in 1985. Dr McMillan died in 1962, aged 82, and is buried in Strathblane Cemetery along with his wife, Margaret Edgar, and their only son. (Dr Harrison passed away in 2016, aged 100.) Old Edenkiln is a private house. The practice moved to its present site further down Dumbrock Road in 1986. It is still known as the Edenkiln Surgery. Since 2010 the village has been served by Drs Jill Carmichael and Gillian McLean.

Country doctors were expected to double as dentists in pre-NHS days.

The Rechabites were part of the early temperance movement. The building (now a private house) next to the former Netherton [Blane Valley] Inn began life in the 1840s as the local Rechabite Hall. The same building served as the doctor’s surgery for Dr Harrison.

(Above Left) Dr George McMillan in 1909 when he came to Strathblane
(Above Right)
(Near Right) A suspended skeleton c1900, such as ”Mr Horrocks”, who was a permanent feature of Dr McMillan’s Edenkiln surgery

Dr McMillan’s wife Meg Edgar. The driver of this early motorbike is probably the couple’s only son, Johnny.
Dr McMillan in later life, standing in his garden. Alex Urquhart suggests the doctor was more keen on his immaculate herbaceous border than the local minister’s Sunday sermons.
Old Edenkiln in Dumbrock Road near the current Edenkiln Surgery was the home of both Dr Rankin and then Dr McMillan. Between them they served the community for 76 years. The door on the left was the entrance to the surgery. The house is thought to have been built in 1769 as the factor’s home for the Leddriegreen estate.

CHAPTER 4: THE TWO MINISTERS AND THE VILLAGE BOBBY

The Minister of Strathblane Parish Church was a high and mighty man. He hobnobbed with the gentry and gave fleeting nods of recognition from his flat hat to his parishioners. One day while near The Kirkhouse – in those days a farmhouse with a public bar, and six children to a bedroom – the holy man fell and could not walk. It was unfortunate he was so near the bar and it was unfortunate that the orra man who slept in a room adjoining the byre should come to his rescue. Within a short time he had the long-frocked gentleman, moaning loudly in his agony, in an old farm barrow downhill to the doctor’s surgery. The cries of the minister and the screeching wheel of the rusty barrow brought all locals to their doors to witness the fall of the high and mighty – and the telling of the story grew as it flew around the village.

As far as the boys were concerned, it was with a doubtful eye that the clergyman in each end of the community looked upon us. Any foundation of religion had not appeared to have made much impact upon us. We knew right from wrong: that was probably due to the combined efforts of our parents, our masters and our ministers. Somehow the right and wrong had a different implication for each of them. My village pals pulled together well because there were no religious differences. We were all Protestants. A couple of the girls attended the Parish Church on the hill with their parents. It was the church of fashion, the church of the landowners. Two of the boys attended the United Free Church at the Netherton end of the village.

I could be acclaimed an affiliated member, one who attends when the spirit moves. If there was a magic lantern show, we would be there. These were wonderful pictures of scenes from the Holy Land, or the dire effects of alcohol. Then there were soirees, or bun parties with much eating, hymns and prayers for the starving children.

On a stormy, wet Sunday, we boys might be found in the same pew at the morning service. I don’t know whether it was better to be in church listening to a slow, dreary, hell-raising sermon or to be indoors at home being told not to do this, not to do that, for it is the Sabbath Day.

My pals very often went off on exploits of their own. Small raids on strawberry fields or, in the autumn in orchards, might possibly be laid at their door. One had a penchant for making money from small sales. He was always planning something and I listened to his every suggestion with great reserve. Wattie, the local man of order, had very fixed ideas about who were the village vandals. He had no doubt about the miscreants of the misdemeanours. These words were his common form of phraseology. They seemed to slip out with authority from under his luxuriant moustache, which bristled with accentuation.

To any trivial reported complaint he would spurt out: “I know where to go, another misdemeanour of these miscreants.” Red-faced and innocent, we were often subjected to his third-degree examination. He even had the clergy watching our every step and, as we were rarely seen in a pew, they could believe that we were the miscreants of any misdemeanour. Yet, as Tam Glen, the local poacher, passed, Wattie would hail him with a nod, and “Fine day Tam” and pay no attention to his bulging pockets.

A poacher’s jacket was the largest he could wear, and to allow a rabbit to be packed away, he cut out the pocket lining. Tam Glen was a young man who shot and snared for a living, quite legitimately. With gun, ferret, and snare he would tackle a rabbit-infested field for a farmer for payment, or blast the nests and crows from a large rookery. On the other hand he would trespass with a powerful air-rifle to drop roosting pheasants seen in the trees against the night sky.

Wattie and the clergy could say little against finding a rabbit, hare or pheasant on their doorstep. Wattie would say “Fancy lying down there to die”, and the Minister would say “God is good”. From my window I have watched Tam slip into the surgery with a bulging bag to leave with one empty. But for us, any departure from the beaten track implied committing a misdemeanour.

At this period of the 20th century motor-cars (or autocars) were a novelty. The same applied to a motor bike. The speed could not have been great — with my first car in 1928 forty miles per hour was a fair speed, and you held tightly to a vibrating steering wheel. Even in these days there must have been a speed limit. Enforcing it was the duty of the police. Every owner of a car must have the desire to show off its performance, and there is no better place than a long straight stretch of road with a decline. At Strathblane there was such a stretch. It was also a favourable stretch for a police check. For the trap, two coppers were required. In our local case one on the brow of the hill at Blanefield, the other at the foot near Kirkhouse farm. Each carried a synchronised stopwatch. As the unsuspecting motorist breasted the hill and said “Now for some speed”, Wattie would start his stop watch, come out of hiding with his cycle and pedal quickly to The Kirkhouse where his ally had halted the motorist. Note-books in hands, the policemen would make a complicated calculation, and (often due to miscalculation) every motorist was deemed guilty.

My friends soon found a solution. Hidden in the hedge not a hundred yards from the crest of the hill and before any great speed could be raised, they would rush out forcing the motorist to brake. This was very courageous, for cars had only outside brakes on rear wheels and these were not guaranteed to work. “The bobbies are after you” they would shout. A quick look behind him (no mirrors at this time) disclosed, not a posse of bobbies, but a single bobby pedalling furiously. The reward having changed hands quickly, the informers merged into the hedge and Wattie actually flashed past the motorist who made a leisurely descent to stop at the raised hand of the bobby at Kirkhouse farm. As the flushed, perspiring Wattie approached, he was greeted by a “My, you are a bit of a speed merchant, flashing past my car.” Wattie could not have braked on his cycle for he was liable to have been shot over the handlebars. “Never mind the sarcasm”, said Wattie, “What did these two miscreants stop you for?” “To beg a ride – but they didn’t get it – did they?” And in the shelter of the hedge the money was divided.

Editor’s Note:

Though his namesake and great great grandfather had been a senior church elder in Kilconquhar, Fife, Alex Urquhart seems to have had scant interest in religion. However, both Strathblane Parish Church in Campsie Road and the United Free Church on the main road in Blanefield feature in his notebooks. And though he does not name either of the ministers, they are well known in the parish for the longevity of their respective ministries. The Minister of the parish church from 1886 to 1934 was the Rev William Begbie Moyes, who lived at what we now call the Old Manse, at the bottom of the lane opposite the church. During the First World War, which claimed the life of his son Wilfrid, he served with the YMCA in France.

The minister of the United Free Church from 1889 to 1934 was Shetlander the Rev Theodor Johnson (whose names were frequently miss-spelled). The two ministers were friends rather than competitors and sometimes went cycling together. The Rev Johnson married into the Coubrough family, owners of the Blanefield Printworks and of Blanefield House, which was demolished to make way for the Netherblane flats. He also served on the Western Front in WW1. In 1906 the UF Church had been rebuilt after a ruinous fire.

The Church of Scotland and the United Free Church merged in 1929 but the reunification did not take place in the parish of Strathblane until 1934 when both ministers retired. Between them they had served the community for 93 years! Both manses are now private houses as is the United Free Church, which was the subject of an imaginative conversion in the 1960s. Of course, the parish church is still very much a going concern. Its “new” manse was built in the 1960s.

A number of the characters who feature in Alex Urquhart’s notebooks have names that do not seem to match historical records. Whether this is the result of amnesia in an old man looking back to incidents more than half a century earlier (or a desire to protect the privacy of people who might still be alive at the time of writing in the 1970s) is unknown. One suspects that some of the incidents described are semi-fictionalised, or at least embroidered. However, they are rattling good yarns that have a ring of authenticity and carry in them the spirit of an age that largely disappeared after the First World War, thus justifying their inclusion. To date, no local poacher called Tam Glen and no local policeman called “Wattie” or indeed Watt have been discovered. Yet the story of Strathblane’s first speed trap is entirely credible. The Motor Car Act of 1903 had introduced a general speed limit of 20mph and it would certainly have been possible for a bicycle at full pelt flying down the hill from Blanefield to near The Kirkhouse to overtake a motorist desperately applying his brakes to avoid being nabbed for speeding. The same stretch of road still attracts speed merchants and occasional speed traps.

In the early 20th century several local well-heeled families acquired their first motor cars. One of the first was the physicist Professor Archibald Barr, co-founder of Anniesland-based optical firm Barr & Stroud. Barr lived in Mugdock. And a number of locals, including GP George McMillan, were soon exchanging their bicycles for motorbikes.

Strathblane Kirk with The Kirkhouse Inn and Kirkhouse Farm in the foreground where the minister took a tumble and, according to Alex
Urquhart, was unceremoniously transported to the doctor’s surgery in a rusty barrow.
The old United Free Church on the main road in Blanefield This postcard dates from 1905. The church burned down in the same year and was rebuilt. Alex was an occasional attender.
The local kirk and UF churches merged in 1934 when both ministers retired The UF church was converted into a private house in the 1960s.
Strathblane Old Manse 1881 by local artist FrederickAlsop

(Bottom Left) The Reverends Theodor Johnson & William Moyes with their biycles
(Bottom Middle) Portrait of Reverend William Moyes
(Bottom Right) A Panhard Levassor registered in 1904 from the archives of Strathblane Heritage Sociery.

Chapter 5: The Young Poacher

Fishing took up much spare time. The burns provided plenty of trout. We used worm and maggot in heavy water and fly on clear days. If the water was low, guddling was the game: wading down the burn in bare feet and feeling under the boulders for trout. You tickled their tummies and they were lifted out fairly easily. Another method was to lasso the trout. You required a long cane with a wire snare at the top. Lying by the burn edge you slipped the noose over the head of your fish, a forward pull, and heigh-ho. Above Strathblane were several lochs. I liked the Punchbowl for its trout – very good in a summer evening. But if I was lazy and desired to loll and read, I would fish the dam below for pike. With rod lying idle, I would do my school work, my Latin, my chemistry and so on. No crystal ball to reflect to me a future and so I would just day-dream of all the nice things I should like to happen.

It was in the Blane Water where I caught my first trout. I rushed home with it in the palm of my hand. No one considered it of any size. Day after day I would flog this stretch of water and be thrilled at the sight of a small fish wriggling at the end of my line. One day I found this stretch of my favourite stream being fished by a ragged kid, probably my age but of leaner build. He stood bare legged in old boots in the shallow stream and, as he cast his line, a loose patch on the seat of his short trousers kept flapping. I approached him as he was landing a monster of a trout. “A good half-pounder,” he said, adding: “I rarely kill one under that weight.” A fish of this quality was a surprise to me and my enthusiasm no doubt pleased him, for he emptied his bag to show me another half dozen. He scrutinised my rod and tackle. “Good. I use horse hair, not silk worm. I get it at the smiddy. It costs nothing,” he said. Under his quiet tuition my fishing improved immensely, and also my love of the countryside. I copied his idea of carrying spare hooks and casts in my cap.

One morning as the rising sun’s rays streamed through the skylight of my attic bedroom, I rose to pass into the connecting room to put on the coal stove and the kettle for tea. Mother was sound asleep and, with her dark hair strewn over her pillow and her features at rest, I thought how pretty she looked. I was indeed fond of her for she was so kind to me in an encouraging, coaxing and happy way. With her needles and her scissors, she’d make “auld claes” look almost as good as new and one’s clothes were often fashioned from cast-off material. While the kettle boiled, I donned my old clothes for I was bent on fishing that early spring morning. Tea for two. How she enjoyed a cup in bed and how I enjoyed conversing with her. With an “I’ll be back for breakfast”, I picked up my fishing rod and bag and departed.

The burn was in good order. I cast my flies here and there: to an eddy behind a stone, to the opposite grassy bank, to anywhere a feeding trout may lie. Rabbits kept scurrying about, a water vole would plop into the water and submarine downstream and a dipper would keep ahead of me stone by stone. Each time the surface broke and the line tightened there was that thrill that only a fisher knows. Then came one that tugged hard and refused to be landed easily: of course, the “big yins” always slipped off at the water’s edge. Time passed quickly. Larks were up high in the sky giving their melodious song and still singing lustily on descent, till thirty feet from the ground. Then silence and a swoop to their hiding places.

On the day in question I ventured into the realm of the Laird. At my age nothing was forbidden, especially any notice of trespass. As the far off hills are the highest, so far off streams hold bigger and more numerous trout, guarded by fences and armed gamekeepers.

That morning it was very early as I breeched the barbed wire defences. I failed to recognise that a dense fir wood has much voice: the sharp cracking noise from brittle dead branches underfoot as I stepped along; the wood pigeons bursting from the tree tops, noisy in their wing-flapping to spread the news of invasion; the screeching chatter of the blackbird when flushed from the bush; the strident double note of the cock pheasant and the whirr of his wings flapping as he scurries along the ground to concealment in the undergrowth. Such a wood-chorus must proclaim my illegal presence and in full recognition of this, I had dropped into the stream and was slithering under the cover of the over-hanging bank. I felt safe, although I was a mere apprentice of wood lore. The fly cast was removed and bait cast substituted. A worm worked for a short time, under tree trunks, behind large stones and in the dimpling water. Soon a dozen good trout were wriggling in the bag. Then my heart jumped as a heavy hand was laid upon my shoulder and suddenly a giant of a man was lifting me sky-high from the stream bed, as if I was a kitten being hoisted by the nape of the neck. I knew this savage-looking weather-beaten man must be Mr Paul, the laird’s dreaded gamekeeper.

Trembling in my squelching boots, I followed him to his cottage, my fishing rod (a Greenheart three-piece) and my bulging canvas bag in his possession. Here I was shocked to be put behind the bars of a dog kennel. Frightened, I peered through the bars of my prison. Lower than an angel or landowner, I was now lower than a mongrel dog. Later his good lady appeared and sympathetically but silently handed me a bowl of cold porridge. It was no comfort to me.

The time for trial came and I was marched a full mile to the Factor’s house, high above the main road and up a steep drive. Paul took me to a room at the front, overlooking the valley – definitely an office for the estate. There at the desk was Horsburgh, the factor, a grey-haired man with a pleasant face. I knew that he sat in court locally to dispense punishment to the evil doer and a hard sentence to the poacher.

He listened to Paul’s citation and looked at the spoils: my cheap rod, my old canvas bag, and a dozen fine speckled trout of around ten inches. Paul grinned as he recounted my confinement to a dog kennel but I noticed that Horsburgh did not smile. Sending Paul back to his duties, he questioned me as to my age, my address and my school. I kept muttering that my mother would be truly worried about me as I had promised to be home for breakfast. He called me a young poacher deserving an early lesson at the hands of the court. At this I was really afraid and must have looked terrified. He softened when I told him that fishing was a great pleasure to me and that at school I hoped in time to attain my Highers and go to Glasgow University to study science but at present I’d like to get home. “You must love your mother. That is good and these are bonny trout. I will take half”, he said. Taking a card from a pigeon-hole of his desk, he filled it in and said: “This will entitle you to fish the stretch before my window any Saturday during the season from 8 till 11am. Remember. I trust you to do the right thing. And remember: I like trout. Now, my wife will drive you home in the dog trap.”

The dreaded Gamekeeper Paul
Charles Horsburgh, Duntreath factor: “a grey-haired man with a pleasant face (who) sat in court locally to dispense punishment to the evil doer.”
(Photo courtesy of Angus Graham)

When I entered, I could sense that mother was worried and when she saw my bedraggled condition, my wet boots and my half dozen trout, she muttered that the fish must have been difficult to catch. Soon my bare feet were in a basin of hot water placed beneath the kitchen table and in front of me was a plate of porridge, hot porridge with mealy knots. Mother went blithely about her work and I never told her about my escapade that ended so pleasantly.

For some time after this I did not risk trespass, nor did I use my permit. There was good water my side of the policies. One day when the burn was very low because of a dry spell, I set out to stalk trout, approaching very carefully, often on my knees, to a pool or a deeper run of water. There was always something to mar your hard work. A flock of moorhen would patter across the pool surface – their red beaks and shields suggesting anger – to the shelter of the overhanging willows, the feeding trout following them. Winding my way to a pool near a wood edge, I noted rings on the surface, suggesting feeding trout, and no moorfowl. I made a very smart approach, and had just cast when peals of laughter greeted me. Up in the overhanging tree was a child dropping tiny stones to the pool beneath to deceive me. She dropped to the ground confidently, crossing the burn on stones to join me. She could have been only a few years younger than me but this gap disappeared under her self-assurance.

She had a puckish face with wide blue eyes set well apart and light brown hair, trimmed in what I imagined was the style of the pharaohs with a gold band around her head. She fascinated me. That night when I was describing my new friend to mother, I spoke of her living in a castle and wearing a coronet of gold. “Poor laddie, his head’s turning. He thinks he’s met a princess” was her caustic response. She did live in a big house, and there was a gardener and servants. Yet despite the gulf in age and class, we became friends.

As teenagers we bragged of our exploits with gamekeeper Paul: a sort of David and Goliath world that we lived in. Our exploits were imaginary but they boosted our ego. Even if David did fell Goliath with a wee chuckie-stone from his sling, it would take a cannonball from Mons Meg entering the head of giant Paul to move him. When you are young, you tend to exaggerate. Paul may have been only a six footer but he was powerful.

In the river a spate was on and the water ran almost bank high. Unfortunately, it was too early for a run of sea trout for the corn was just yellowing. A group of us, including my new young friend, decided to tackle the stream on the far side of the policies for which I held a pass for limited fishing. This stretch was within sight of the gamekeeper’s lodge. The girls were to scout round the area, picking wild flowers or simply playing. By distinctive girlish cries they were to indicate when Paul left the lodge, when he passed to the road and when he reached the gate of the cornfields.

One lad, hidden in the corn near the gate, was to give the call of the curlew, a warning note, or the call of the peewit, an all-clear note. The remaining two of us went to fish the estate water. We hadn’t hooked a fish before the calls of the girls could be heard. The cry came of the curlew and my accomplice disappeared into the concealment of the corn, while I fished on, feigning unconcern. Paul soon reached me and queried me about my mate. I avoided a straight answer and pointed out a tree stump that could be mistaken for a boy. Paul would have nothing to do with that theory. He prowled along the side of the cornfield like a black panther watching for any undue movement of the ears of corn. My pals lay motionless. Experience told Paul that the field held trespassers and his wisest course would be to lie in wait. As a subterfuge he walked slowly towards his house. Then the girls entered into a counter decoy. They raced down the lane from the lodge to tell Paul that his wife was in trouble and required help. This gave us all time to collect ourselves and make an escape.

Editor’s Note:

The Punchbowl and the other lochan referred to by Alex flank Old Mugdock Road near Moor Road. Both were originally mill dams.

In his notebooks Alex Urquhart, writing many years after the event, appears to confuse James Norval Paul with his father Robert: an easy error as both were head keepers on the Duntreath Estate for the Edmonstone family. Robert Paul (b.1843) worked as a gamekeeper there from the 1880s until he retired as head keeper in 1915. At age 14, his son James Norval Paul (b. 1881) began helping his father at Duntreath. After spells on several other Stirlingshire estates, he returned to Duntreath in the early 20th century as beat keeper under his father. James Paul enlisted in the 1st Battalion Scots Guards in 1916. In one of his notebooks, though he mistakenly calls him Robert, Alex recalls the younger Paul’s new look at the time of his enlistment: “He appeared with a new haircut. It was cropped so that the white skin of the scalp showed. His heavy moustache was reduced to show the upper lip and tapered to a well-waxed point at each end. He looked very military, very commanding”.  Though he remained a private and refused promotion, Jimmy Paul became one of only 5,700 First World War soldiers to win a bar for his Military Medal (the equivalent of two awards for bravery). In 1919 the people of Strathblane presented him with an inscribed gold watch in recognition of his gallantry. Tragically, he was killed in a bicycle accident on the eve of his Golden Wedding in 1958. His father Robert had died at Dumgoyach farm on the Duntreath estate in 1929. It is unclear whether it was the father or the son who caught young Alex Urquhart poaching trout. (Jimmy was not particularly tall, certainly not the “six footer” of Alex’s memory. His enlistment papers give his height as 5ft 9ins. However, he may have seemed tall to young Alex, whose own enlistment height several years after the poaching incident, was a mere 5ft 7ins.)

Alex Urquhart correctly remembers Charles Horsburgh, the benevolent Duntreath factor who took pity on him as a young poacher and allowed him to keep half his haul as well as issuing him with a limited fishing permit. As factor, Horsburgh lived at Blairquhosh House near the distillery. He died in Balfron in 1937.

Eddie Edmonstone, an authority on local fish stocks and son of the current Sir Archibald Edmonstone, says: “In terms of trout on the Blane, ten inches is quite big for a brown trout by today’s standards. They are more like four to six inches if you are lucky. The largest I have caught on the Blane is about ¾ lb. However, there would have been more fly life then and better habitat despite the print works which contaminated the Blane severely.” He adds: “Sea trout and salmon have been prolific on the Blane Water but numbers have declined rapidly since the early 1970s. At the bridge by the current primary school I remember boys throwing boulders into the water to stun and catch spawning fish in the late summer.”

It has not been possible so far to identify the young girl Alex calls “Marie-G” in his notebooks. The pool where she drops pebbles into the water, convincing Alex that there are trout there, sounds very much like the former mill dam, converted into an ornamental fish pond at Blanefield House (now the Netherblane flats).

Of course, Mons Meg is the 15th century six tonne siege cannon on display at Edinburgh Castle. One of the largest of its kind in the world, it could fire balls weighing nearly 400lb.

Duntreath: “the realm of the laird”

CHAPTER 6: PALS

 I had many pals. A favoured one, a gardener’s son and I would climb the hill to Earl’s Seat to fish the Ballagan Burn, or Dumgoyne to descend the Machar Burn towards Killearn. His slightly bowed legs earned him the sobriquet, Bandy. He lived in a lodge house about a mile to the west.

In his bright cheery way he enthralled me with a tale of the fishing delights of the upper reaches of the Machar Burn. He pictured the course of this stream from Dumgoyne Hill, cascading from pool to pool through a treeless glen untouched by man to its home in the bonny Endrick. Pools seething with large trout and maybe a sea trout or even a salmon.

I believed his tale and agreed to meet him at his lodge home at 8am next morning. At the appointed hour I was there with rod, haversack, a tin of brambling worms, and some food and milk. When Bandy arrived he looked at my boots. “Won’t do – you must have leather studs or spikes – you will slip on the grassy braes.” As a rule I did have tackets in the soles of my boots, but these old boots were devoid of tackets and almost sole leather. I took off my boots and Bandy set to work on them. When he returned I scarcely recognised them – they were so misshapen that when I put on the left boot, I withdrew my foot quickly. It was full of nails. The right boot was no better. So back to the last for more hammering , and the insertion of brown paper insoles to cover the nail points, At last, when we were well on our climb to Dumgoyne I appreciated the gripping value of a few studs and with string tied round the uppers of the boots, they managed to keep company with me. Bandy persisted on taking our directional route from a tiny compass, which refused to point in the line advocated by the eye. Another visual trouble was that Dumgoyne appeared so near, and hardly appeared to get nearer with much walking. We were taking a long time in our journey. At long last we reached the foot of the hill.

We would have a wonderful view and then descend the other side to the Machar Burn. I struggled and puffed up the steep slope, behind him. The view certainly was magnificent and I experienced that horrid sensation of standing on the top step of a high ladder without any hand support. Spread before us were Loch Lomond, Ben Lomond, Ben Ledi and Heaven. I felt very dizzy and wanted to reach the burn, but not to descend by the rock of the north face. We retraced our steps. The cries of the pee-wit and the whaup circling round us were becoming noisier and noisier. The vaulted sky was darkening, and the croak of the ravens from the overhanging crags above sounded like prey-waiting vultures. A short distance off a flock of sheep turned their tails to the wind, a sign of an impending thunderstorm. Luckily no mad bull was in sight to raise a gallop in us.

Under the silence of the darkening sky, all was eerie and frightening. We plodded on towards the source of the Machar, Bandy feeling as David Livingstone on his search of the Nile. I was soon to recognise that our own venture was a pioneering exploration, for to Bandy all this mystic country was virginal. And still he consulted his compass. The thunderclouds had advanced towards us, forked lightning was dangerously near, crashes of thunder echoed and re-echoed from hill to hill. Rain descended upon us as if standing beneath a water spout. It drenched our clothing and ran down our skin. Our haversacks were sodden and our sandwiches became mush. Miserable, with no thought of fishing, we staggered down the route of the burn towards the Fintry road. The soles of my boots had parted company with the uppers, and only string held them together. Drenched, cold, tired, hungry, and with no fish, we finally reached the road. We had not walked far with our boots squelching out water on a watery road when a pony-trap drew up in our rear, and a voice hailed us “Where go ye laddies?” As the trap came along beside us we saw a tall erect young man holding the reins from within a black oil-skin. “Blanefield, Sir,” we chorused. The “Sir” seemed to slip out naturally and he told us to jump in. We apologised for our dirty sodden state as we huddled together on the seat opposite, our teeth chattering noisily in spite of the mild day. The storm was still at its height. In fact the buggy floor was flooded with water, which emptied or discharged from the rear door as the shafts moved upwards and downwards with the trot of the pony. The young driver did his best to make us comfortable. A wet horse-blanket was passed to wrap round us, but there was no food. Bandy started a conversation with the remark that he would surely develop “galloping consumption”. No doubt this idea occurred as the pony had broken into a gallop. I told him that two women near me at Edenkiln had died of galloping consumption. Bandy’s teeth chatter became noisier as he envisaged himself dying from a galloping disease. Sympathetically I suggested that I would surely develop pneumonia. I had heard that it was a killer disease, and in the village they spoke of it in hushed whispers. At this very moment I began panting for breath. What could Dr Mac do for either of us? Mother could cure bronchitis by suffocating you with a scalding hot steamy linseed poultice, but I never heard of her curing pneumonia or galloping consumption. Bandy and I must have been looking very ill and anxious, yet our rescuer laughed heartlessly. “I’ve never seen two such healthy youngsters – miserable, wet and hungry but not ill. You are more likely to die from violence than some fever: a climbing accident, drowning at sea, or even from a bullet.” I think that this attempt at clairvoyance depressed us further, and secretly we prayed to die from pneumonia or galloping consumption.

Dumgoyne & the Campsie Fells: “Dumgoyne appeared so near, and hardly appeared to get nearer with much walking.”
This early 20th century postcard shows the Blanefield (or Netherton) area of the community after the closure of the printworks in 1898 but before the demolition in 1910 ofwhat was referred to locally as “the great chimnry stalk”. The Blane Valley Railway and Blanefield Station are in the foreground. Alex and his friends Andy and Bandy experienced various adventures in the Campsies.

Another pal, Andy, was an only child and lived with his mother. No father was ever mentioned. Most mornings during school holidays we would seek out each other. One morning he invited me to his home. It was a long walk: up a stony farm track with two heavy gates to open and close, right up to the foot of the hill. On a knoll stood his house, a low grey-white cottage, probably just a butt and ben. Hens were scratching about under the watchful eye of a magnificent colourful large combed cock wagging a large feathery tail. In a hutch against a gable wall I could see a white rabbit or two, and as Andy whistled, two red feathered pigeons fluttered down. He called them “tumblers” on account of their acrobatic abilities in the air. Both of these boys would be in the First World War.

 Colin Gough, the son of the sanitary inspector, was mature at sixteen. He took to walking out with Grace Watson with her springy mincing steps between church services on a Sunday. We younger ones would pass him and her, face to face. Smirking, we would doff our school caps in courtesy to the wench. Then we would double back, and once more approach the couple and repeat our courtesy. This resulted in an explosion of his temper.

In the cottage at the end of our lane dwelt the Aikmans, three girls and a boy. Later Margaret married Aggie’s cousin in Kilsyth.

There was often a football match in the public park beside the Blane Burn. Matches were played against the other valley villages on summer evenings and during the official out of season months. The railway bank at the side of the pitch made a grandstand for squatting on-lookers and the touchline was surrounded by a crowd ready to watch any game. At 15 years I would play about with the village boys, but at school I had become a member of the first eleven, playing on the wing to avoid injury because of my age. This Strathblane team was composed of men from the farms, chauffeurs, other estate workers and regular weekend visitors from town. They were all too hefty for me. I was astounded one Saturday, when I appeared as a spectator, to be invited to play. They were a man short and it was a vital game. I had to take the position of right back, a position unknown to me but I was promised physical support by the six- footer at left back. Whether they were all afraid that they would step on me or knock me over, I know not but I found myself free to play a marvellous game, acclaimed by the touch-line crowd and many games followed.

Of course there were many girls in the neighbourhood. As well as my young sisters, there were three girls next door to us.  Annie was a nice girl and my age. She wore a very broad hairband of white material. I liked her very much but she became a pest. When I descended the stairs she would always be at the door with some remark. I even descended in my stockinged feet in the hope of avoiding her. When she became employed in a Glasgow office, she had a wider field to amuse her.

Another girl I knew and played tennis with, was a farmer’s daughter from the Stockiemuir Road. As a child Bessie was a buxom girl with merry blue eyes and apple cheeks. Her long black hair she wore in two very thick pleats. For her, it seemed, a “push-bike” was exactly that. The Cuilt Brae has two right-angle bends and is so steep that I’ve watched her push her bike DOWN it. And on returning home, of course, it was too steep for her to cycle up! Perhaps she took to the saddle once she was out of sight. When she and I were at the University years later both studying medicine, she was just as buxom and just as nice. We qualified together, but she died in her first hospital post from diphtheria.

There is another girl of my acquaintance. Just a kid, but anyone younger was a kid to me. She was the girl up an overhanging tree dropping stones into a pool who tried to convince me there were trout there. She was very jolly about it and begged to carry my fishing basket. Her home bordered the stream and she longed for company. Sure as fate, if I went that way, she would be there; and sure as fate, I went that way. We would fish downstream, the broad white-breasted ring ouzel dodging behind rocks just ahead of our approach. We were annoyed by the red-beaked bobbing white-tailed moorhens pattering noisily across any good pool to disturb the trout. And we would become alarmed at the cooing wood pigeons bursting suddenly from the pine tops.

She was full of tricks. She had the gardener partially saw the plank that I used to cross the stream. It was her father who fell into the water! Later, when I was at North Kelvinside, she attended Park School for Girls in the city. At the request of her mother, I would escort her from Anniesland station to Milngavie and then by foot through Mugdock to Blanefield. Her little legs would trudge along beside me. To pass the journey I would tell her a tale of the hunched-back witch of Mugdock Wood. The witch would transform little lovely boys and girls into savage animals to roam the heather. The kid enjoyed the story and even added to it. When we approached the wood we would see the figure of the witch in the branches of the trees – and this was in broad daylight. The girl would thrust her little closed fist into my palm and we would both scamper down the hill road as fast as our legs would let us.

A boy amongst men. “This Strathblane team was composed of men from the farms, chauffeurs, other estate workers and regular weekend visitors from town. They were all too hefty for me,” said Alex. And yet, by the time this team photograph was taken c1914, Alex (on the right of the five players seated on the bench) had filled out and become one of the heftier ones.

With hills so near, it was to be expected that they should be explored. One day we planned a picnic at the source of the Ballagan Burn at Earl’s Seat. We boys all wore tackety boots. The girls arrived with baskets of food, the boys with fishing rods. We made the climb easier by walking at an angle along the face of the hill towards the Spout of Ballagan. There was very little gush of water over the rock face as the weather had been dry. The valley seemed to lie very far below us. At one point we were forced to climb a drystane dyke to reach a path which would take us towards Earl’s Seat. The girls displayed no difficulty in clambering over the wall or jumping across the water, a mere three feet in width, except for Bessie who decided to vault and then in mid-air decided not to vault, to tumble, then roll on her side towards the spout. Fortunately, only her pride was hurt.

As we stomped along, the food baskets in the hands of the boys, under the watchful eyes of the girls, we stopped for breath and to gaze at the large pools in the deep valley below. At last we were on the peat lands before Earl’s Seat, beside the quiet pools of the burn. While the girls made a collection of wild flowers, we dabbled our worms under the peaty banks to land starved dark wriggling trout. With hands well cleaned by the sandy alluvium, we squatted around a surfeit of food and lemonade on a tablecloth spread on an outcrop of rock. Gowans sticking up in a piece of clay would decorate the centre of the feast table. Such are the ways of the female.

In retrospect our teenage did not seem to last long. Within a year or so we were all students at different schools – three took the train journey to Lenzie Academy, Bessie started at Bearsden Academy, while I climbed the top flight of stairs to North Kelvinside. As the years of secondary education trickled past, there were glimmers of what our futures could be as influenced by our family, our teachers and by our fellow scholars and by the subjects which appealed to us.

The longer holidays of the Secondary School provided more leisure time. At school, the girls had been initiated into tennis and the girls initiated us. The new double court tennis club behind the Village Club provided every facility. The rules of the game were digested, the technique of striking the ball mastered and we all progressed, except Bandy who persisted in hitting a boundary when he returned the ball. It was some feat to clear the high wire netting fence and some feat to discover the ball among the cabbages, lettuces and turnips of the farmer’s garden before he discovered you.

The Cuilt Brae : “I climbed the Cuilt Brae to the Stockiemuir and Auchineden, all for eighteen old shillings a week. “

At age 17, in the summer of 1912, I worked in Blanefield. It was a decent job, carrying parcels and letters and “me pay” was eighteen bob. I rose up in the morning, got up with the lark, and in the wind, rain and sunshine I climbed the Cuilt Brae to the Stockiemuir and Auchineden, all for eighteen old shillings a week. Today when you lunch at The Kirkhouse on minestrone, grilled river trout, Peach Melba and coffee, that one meal could not be paid for by my blistered feet.

In the Valley we were no longer treated like troublesome children. Wattie the local copper was pleasanter and would stop us for local chat. Cuthie the stationmaster would give me a thick Three Castles cigarette and ask me to join in a cup of tea. (He had a daughter he thought I might take off his hands.)

Dr Mac spoke of medicine alone, yet his stories were human and fascinating and I tucked away some good knowledge among my grey matter. Gamekeeper Paul eyed me with suspicion still. His white teeth would show still beneath his heavy moustache.

At length I enrolled in the Faculty of Science of Glasgow University, that magnificent, beautiful piece of architecture on Gilmorehill dominating Kelvingrove and the placid River Kelvin. Bessie would join me there later but at that time was working as a nurse at the Western Infirmary.

Editor’s Note:

The gardener’s son (Alex calls him Bandy in the some of the notebooks) is probably based on Alexander Lowe, whose name appears on Strathblane War Memorial. Writing to his granddaughters in 1973, Alex wrote: “A month ago I visited the churchyard at Strathblane to see the grave of Alex Lowe. He lived in an estate lodge and was a playmate of my own age. Severely wounded in France, he was unable to be brought home at the Armistice. He died a year later.” In the 1901 and 1911 Censuses the Lowe family were living at the lodge of a house known at various times as Parklea and Gateside, built by Anthony Park Coubrough, proprietor of Blanefield Printworks. The main house is now the local care home. The lodge is a private house. Alexander (b 1894) was the Lowe family’s eldest child and was working as a railway clerk by 1911. As this was a reserved occupation, he was not called up until 1917 when he became a Sapper in the Royal Engineers, working for the Railway Operating Division behind the front line. Contrary to Alex Urquhart’s account, Alexander Lowe was in southern Germany awaiting demobilisation in October 1919 when he was run down by a light engine. He is buried at Verviers in Belgium. The gravestone there mistakenly calls him “Anglais”.

So far, the identity of the boy called Andy is not clear. There are no men called Andrew on Strathblane war memorial and none fit Alex’s description of him. The cottage where Andy lived with his mother could be Cantywheery, on the Pipeline Track between Blanefield and Killearn.

Colin Gough, the sanitary inspector’s son, and Grace Watson, a grocer’s daughter, both appear in the 1911 Census for Strathblane. (He married someone else in 1922.) The Aikman family did indeed live at the end of Dumbrock Road, probably in the block known as Black Lawn that was demolished to make way for council housing. Margaret’s father was a ploughman. She was a ten-year-old schoolgirl in the 1911 Census.

According to local historian John Guthrie Smith, the first Strathblane Football Club was formed as early as 1876. The public park opened in 1908, providing local players with the pitch used to this day. Alex Urquhart played a number of matches for Strathblane FC and appears in a team photograph supplied by his family. Since 1947 the team has played under the name of Blanefield Thistle and in 1952 famously won the Cameron Cup, awarded by the Forth and Endrick Football Association. They repeated this feat in 1972 and 1973.

To date it has not been possible to identify the girl Alex calls Bessie or the well-heeled younger girl whom he accompanied home from Glasgow.

Balfron High School didn’t open until 1925.

The tennis courts behind the Village Club opened in 1913, as a result of a donation from shipbuilder Sir Alfred Yarrow, who lived at Campsie Dene House. There were celebrations in 2013 for its centenary.

Undated Photograph of the members of Strathblane Tennis Club, probably taken in the 1920s or 30s.

The character known as “Bandy” in Alex Urquhart ‘s memoir was probably Alexander Lowe.
(Right) Lowe’s grave in Veroiers Communal Cemetery in Belgium & his name on Strathblane War Memorial
(Below Left) The report of Alex Lowe’s death in the Milngavie & Bearsden Herald of 31 Oct 1919
(Below Right) The lodge at Parklea (now Blanefield House Care Home) where Alexander
Lowe grew up

THE VILLAGE SCHOOL

Andy and Bandy had many exciting exploits at the village school and many a weekend I would hasten from the city to listen to their troubles. Andy had a flair for courting trouble. The schoolmaster was a real martinet and cruel. Or so it seemed to us. As the father of a large family crawling about the neighbouring schoolhouse, one might expect him to be tolerant of the young. He was far from that. His destiny was to discipline the rebellious pupils of the Valley. It might be a hundred lines of “I am a wicked boy” till you believed it. Or confinement to the schoolroom, to watch the freedom of your mates in the playground, while he worked on his register. Or the three-pronged tawse delivered by a forceful side cut to pulp your hand. It was rumoured that he hardened the leather by immersion in whisky, but we could not imagine that he would waste it so. I was not involved but to Andy and Co he was a bête noire, a disturber of the happy life of the young.

In some book Andy read of the Aborigines of Australia and their use of the boomerang. In the book were diagrams and instructions for construction.  To his classmates he explained its mode of use. He had experimented and found that it behaved satisfactorily to some degree, though he admitted that on no occasion had it returned to his hand.

At that moment a crow passed across the playground and to the shouts of his playmates Andy let fly his boomerang with great force.  The crow continued its flight. The boomerang continued its flight. There was the tinkling sound of a broken window and later the sight of Andy blowing his hands, to cool them from the sting of the tawse.

Once again Andy was guilty when he left the school masterless for an afternoon. How was he to know that the master was in the basement room when he turned the key? Why did he turn the key? “Just a habit;” a habit which made his hand like raw beef.

Bandy was more of a planner and he was practical, though many of his ideas produced unwanted results. “I have an idea” from Bandy meant “Make yourselves scarce”. He and the master did not see eye to eye when he was caught behind the gnarled base of the ancient oak in the school house garden, with the master’s eldest daughter. Strange to say no punishment was meted out, but the trickle of blood from his nostril did suggest a slap. His only comment was: “He ought to have been pleased that I was interested in his daughter, when he has so many”.

This was a Friday and I had come out from town to hear the latest adventures of Andy. It was Bandy this time. I was invited to call at Bandy’s lodge house that night. I immediately thought of a council of war and the concoction of a strategy to place the headmaster, like Guy Fawkes, on the top of a bonfire. Bandy’s parents must have been curious at the ongoings of their son. When I arrived, the stone-built garden outhouse was ablaze with light, light from candles stuck in bottles, on saucers and in anything that would hold a candle. Moreover the outhouse seemed to be packed with teenagers – maybe seven. I discovered that I had been invited as the expert. They recognised that I hailed from a school of very superior class, and should know more. As we packed around the small table seated on box lids, with candle flames singeing the long locks of some of us, Bandy spread on the table a sheet of paper. “This is your examination paper for Monday. It will cost each of you one penny.” This charge was to cover the cost of the sweets given to the daughter of the schoolhouse, behind the gnarled oak.

Among the boys the examination results were marvellous. The lads were happy and their nerves good. The master was happy for had not his teaching reaped great reward? Another bit of business for Bandy. Of course, the girls were suspicious. As one of them put it: “Since when did you and your dopey friends become so clever?”

Strathblane Public School, opposite the end of Station Road, was known informally as Blanefield School until it moved to its current site in 1966. Universal elementary education had been introduced by the 1872 Education (Scotland) Act. Matthew Chisholm was appointed headmaster in 1902, though in his account Alex calls him Mr Skelton. There were 114 children on the roll at that time.

In the 1911 Census, Mr Chisholm shares the schoolhouse with his wife Ethel and five children. Bandy’s purchase of the exam paper involved the eldest daughter, Gertrude.

When the new education authority displaced the parish school board in 1919, one of the first issues they had to deal with was the alleged brutality of the schoolmaster. Local opinion on the matter was divided. Matthew Chisholm retired in the late 1920s.

The story about Andy “accidentally” locking Chisholm in the basement finds a possible echo in the school log. In 1902 it is recorded that two boys were punished for being in a room without permission when a key went missing. One was Alexander Lowe, who was probably the lad Alex Urquhart refers to as Bandy. He perished in the First World War.

Alex Urquhart was a bright boy who would go on to study medicine at Glasgow University. The 1911 Census lists him as a 16-year-old “pupil teacher” at North Kelvinside School, helping the masters with the instruction of younger pupils. And so it is possible that he can take some credit for the boys’ outstanding performance in one of their exams at Blanefield School!

CHAPTER 7: THE GREAT WAR

Not being of a political mind-set and accepting that the red splashes which graced the map of the world were ours by right, we little understood why the murder of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne at Sarajevo in June 1914 should upset the future we were entering.

We, the boys of the Valley, a peaceful valley, who shook when we heard Heaven’s artillery thunder in the sky, were soon to hear a much greater ordnance in Flanders Fields.

On August 4 1914 our country and its colonies were at war with Germany. Volunteers in their patriotism and with no knowledge of what war meant, rushed to join a new British Army to stem the German advance before it was too late.

At Edenkiln my father spread out on the table in the kitchen, a large map of Europe and forcibly and assuredly demonstrated how within a fortnight The Hun would be defeated. He, and many like him, believed in “The Old Contemptables”, a fictional British Army that did not really exist.

At Yorkhill, opposite Glasgow University, I footslogged, rode old horses and learned how to carry the wounded, all in the tradition of the Boer War. Ultimately I was drafted to France in the Royal Army Medical Corps to do menial tasks in a canvas hospital between Wimereux and Ambleteuse. Later I was lucky enough to get a job as a technician to research work in pathology, looking for a cure for “trench fever”. This disease kept two divisions of the Expeditionary Force out of the fighting line and, so we gathered, the same applied to the Kaiser’s Army. The war could be won by the side finding a cure for trench fever.

My group were all very well trained in medical and surgical work. We could fill in as aid to the surgeon, as a clerk, or in the quarantine compound, or form a team for a hard-pressed casualty clearing hospital.

One day six of us were posted on the hospital notice board to attend at the office at 9am next morning – Harrison, King, Jackson, Tweedie, Kilgour and myself. Owing to some shelling of the Arras line we were to travel by a motor ambulance and from the outskirts of Arras make our own way forward. Arras was a devastated town. We were led through tunnels illuminated by electricity, till we arrived in the open air at a small hill. This area was extensively sand-bagged. There were two dugouts, separated by a distance of ten feet. On the right was a duckboard path leading to a sandbagged trench which further on disappeared into a tunnel. I learned that this tunnel led to the front line of trenches. On the left of the dugouts was a First Aid Post with its equipment being arranged by a soldier of the Scottish Rifles. Further inland from the tunnel to the front line I observed other trenches with tin hats bobbing up and down. All was very quiet, so that I was able to observe my surroundings. A nervous young medical officer quickly explained that his stretcher bearers had succumbed to an acute illness, probably trench fever, and had been evacuated to Base. He eyed us doubtfully, hoping that we could supply experience in coping with any wounded. After a chat with each of us he decided that King and I should assist him at the FAP, while the others go forward to an advanced post nearer the line. Personally I had a fear of mole-like activities. To sleep down in the left hand dugout, which was assigned to us, would give me the jitters and the covered trench leading to the front line did not appeal to me. I think that I was a victim of imaginary claustrophobia.

In the darkness of the morning hours we were awakened (if indeed we were asleep), by a shell bombardment. As we clambered out of our dugout, a sergeant of the Scottish Rifles met us. He said that Jerry was sending over a few shells to the area around the reserve trenches. He said it was certainly no bombardment. That could come later. The Medical Officer despatched us with mugs of tea to our posts. Harrison and Jackson left together towards the front line, and Tweedie and Kilgour followed five minutes later with panniers of dressing equipment. As could happen, at that moment a shell landed in the covered tunnel, and destroyed the sandbagged surface.  Instantly, from the rear, a party of engineers was on the scene excavating, repairing and reroofing. Then Tweedie and Kilgour were dragged lifeless along the duckboards and dumped in a shallow excavation.

Soon came the shelling of the front line defences with some shrapnel bursting above our heads. At first the whistling sound of the shrapnel alarmed me as it was projected through the air. You could not tell from which direction it was coming and only hoped that your tin hat was strong enough to withstand a fragment. King and I had flattened ourselves against the walls of our dressing station. The Royal Scot sergeant did not seem to worry about the bombardment nor the screeching of the shrapnel. He laughed at us and coaxed us to come out.” Come out and get one of these!”  He pointed to the wound chevrons on his sleeve: he had three of them. The MO was nowhere to be seen. He was in the depths of his dugout waiting for the roar of the explosive shells to cease, and I should say he would be quaking. As I reached the dressing station the bombardment ceased suddenly. In point of time it hadn’t lasted long.

Alex Urquhart in his Royal Army Medical Corps uniform with his mother and sisters (left to right) Chrissie, Jean, Winnie & Annie. Chrissie was not born until 1911, six years after the family moved into Strathblane. The Urquharts were neither very poor nor wealthy. Often such families would borrow clothes and props for studio portraits such as this one, taken around 1915. Alexander U rquhart Senior worked for a Glasgow ironmonger.

The sudden silence was every bit as painful to bear. Then there broke out from one front line trench rapid rifle fire and some machine gun bursts. The sergeant with his experience said “Jerry is among our men.” The MO was at his post now, and seemed a much steadier man, giving decisive orders as the first of the walking wounded came out of the tunnel. We ripped off their clothing over the wounded area, thoroughly cleansed the gaping wound with eusol and applied a dressing. Then a syringeful of anti-tetanic serum was injected, for lock jaw was a dreaded result from any wound. The MO rather extended a wound instead of closing it for gas gangrene was even worse than lockjaw.

The Battle if Arras: Regimental aid post of the Royal Army Medical Corps near Guemappe, 29 April 1917. Courtesy of the Imperial War Museum.

It was evident that our work destroyed any concern of our own safety and when the MO told me to visit the FAP in the tunnel, my claustrophobia was no more. When I reached the sandbagged area not twenty yards from the fighting line, all was in chaos: men lying about in every corner and Jackson sweating tunicless in the stuffy atmosphere trying to stem the loss of blood. He had used all his tourniquets and was hunting for handkerchiefs and strips of clothing to use. Harrison came struggling in with a Tommy over his shoulder. The poor chap looked gone to me.

 Jerry and our Tommies were still fighting it out in our trench, so every man was required and Harrison had been travelling to and fro carrying in friend or foe. Our men finally overcame the Hun, and soon about twenty prisoners were marched along the duckboards to our reserve trenches.

With the Scottish Rifles rank and file to help, the wounded were conducted to the ambulance train for their journey to Boulogne and Blighty. The serious wounded, British and German, were taken the short journey to the comfort and surgical skill of the 12th Stationary.

We were welcomed back to the Stationary Hospital. It had only been five days but those five days had changed my life. All were shocked to hear of the fate of Kilgour and Tweedy but they were only two of the twenty dead. Doubtless more would die from wounds. As I was writing home that night, the Sergeant Major looked up from his work to say “I wouldn’t worry your folks at home!” 

November 11, 1918, Armistice Day was a bright sunny, but cold day. I was at the 2nd Australian General Hospital, Abbeville whose research team was investigating the cause of the influenza epidemic with its secondary pulmonary involvement leading to a heliotrope cyanosis, and death. The battle front was far off and yet I experienced the awesome stillness that followed the end of a barrage. It was chiefly a feeling of relief, rather than of rejoicing when some hooters heralded the signing of peace at 11am. I was quickly demobilised and arrived home on a Sunday morning early to find my family all in bed and totally unprepared for my reception.

Editor’s Note:

As elsewhere, young men from Strathblane rushed to join up after the declaration of war in August 1914, many believing they would be home for Christmas. Later, as huge casualties on the Western Front depleted the Scottish regiments, conscription sucked in older and married men as well as some in previously reserved occupations. By 1917 80 men from the parish were away fighting. Women took over not only farm work but also postal deliveries.

The 27 men whose names are inscribed on Strathblane War Memorial and others with local connections remembered on family gravestones in the churchyard and cemetery, come from right across the armed forces. Though the largest number were enlisted in either the Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders or the Highland Light Infantry, other bodies represented included the Royal Naval Division, the Coldstream Guards, the Lovat Scouts and even the Royal Flying Corps. One, John Dillon, was like Alex Urquhart a member of the Royal Army Medical Corps.

Casualties came from right across the social spectrum. The laird Sir Archibald Edmonstone of Duntreath, the minister Rev William Moyes, former GP Dr Walter Rankin, shipbuilder Sir Alfred Yarrow and industrialist Prof Archibald Barr all lost sons. But then so did shepherds, chauffeurs, roadworkers, gardeners and an unmarried washer woman.

The “trench fever” Alex Urquhart was helping to investigate was a serious disease spread by body lice, which infected hundreds of thousands of troops on both sides in the First World War. Though rarely lethal, it was characterised by a high fever, extreme headache and soreness of limbs. Recovery often took several weeks. Alex was interviewed by Glaswegian pathologist Sir William Leishman, an advisor to the British Expeditionary Force, and selected for the team researching trench fever. At the end of the war Alex was also involved in researching what would become known as Spanish Flu, the most deadly global pandemic in modern times. Considerably more lethal than Covid-19, it is thought to have claimed the lives of more than 50 million people worldwide.

Members of the church congregations in the parish of Strathblane collected money and sent Christmas boxes to “our boys”. The tennis club organised tournaments to raise funds for the Red Cross. Vegetable growing was encouraged and allotments created in the Ballewan area. There were lectures about the war in the Village Club and now-demolished Pavilion. Both ministers left for the front in 1917. The local newspapers became required reading as they listed those who were injured, missing and killed.

At 11am on Armistice Day the church bells were rung and the children allowed out of school to gather material for a huge bonfire at Bluerisk (on the corner of Old Mugdock Road and Milndavie Road).

Strathblane Heritage Society

CHAPTER 8: END OF AN ERA

One thing the years of war did was to cause me to decide on a medical career, no matter how long. At the University I met Bessie, who had completed her first year as a medical student. She had become a big strapping girl and her black hair was dressed to the nape of her neck. Although we were to spend the next year together in the medical school, we never were members of the same class. When we met her blue eyes would twinkle and we would have coffee together. Coffee at threepence a cup was an expensive luxury, for your grant was less than your pre-war bursary.

We were both members of the Village Tennis Club, so I was not surprised that some of us should have a reunion after the war. We occupied the first court quickly in case of others claiming it. I was easily outplayed by the girls. As we left the court other members were arriving, with whom I had not yet entered into friendship.

I was coming through a depressed stage on my return to civilian life. My previous easy-going happy nature had vanished, and I was inclined to periods of depression and aggressiveness when things went wrong. Resuming my friendship with the girls of the valley was to give me some uplift but it was not the same without Andy and Bandy who both lay in the cold ground across the Channel. Bessie tried to lighten our gloom with the observation that much time was saved by no one hitting the ball over the boundary fence as if it was a cricket ball. Within a year or two we had all gone our separate ways.

I found that the path of the ex-serviceman was cobbly indeed. At the station, Cuthie walked the platform in gold-braided uniform, and collected an odd ticket, for the omnibus with its cheapness was attracting the traveller to town, and taking half the time for the journey. The old train loudly puffed its way over the bridge on its route to Aberfoyle. The doctor was very agile and motored as far as Killearn to attend patients. By the late 1920s, Charles Horsburgh, the kindly factor, had retired and Blairquhosh had new tenants. Bandy’s parents were at their lodge house to the west of the village and refused to show emotion when I called in. Andy’s cottage on the knoll of the hillside had cattle wandering in and out of its door. There was talk of putting up a war memorial.

I settled into my career. General practice took me to Tobermory on the island of Mull for a time before I settled in Northumberland at Blyth. I married Agnes Freebairn, who came from a huge family in Kilsyth. Now the year is 1972. In the intervening years, there was only one return trip to Strathblane, in the 1950s. Kent faces were fewer, though Davy McGregor at the garage stated that he could live in no other place. Davy and his wife, now white-haired and bent with age, had been pally with my sister Jean. I had known his sisters, some years older than me, who were in charge of the tiny telephone exchange. Knowing that I was a medical man, he allowed the conversation to veer round to his ill health. In far off days he had worn layers of brown paper over his chest and back, for his bronchitis. As he breathed, coughed or moved you could hear the crackle of the paper.

Lately, he explained, he had been forced to transfer his allegiance from the old dithering doctor to the new upcoming man. He had taken a newspaper clipping to the old doctor suggesting a recent treatment for bronchial asthma. Reading it, Dr McMillan in his dotage said simply: “Well, Mr McGregor, you maist keep taking your usual bottle.” The bottle was duly dispensed in its white paper wrapping, sealed by red wax melted over the methylated spirit lamp. McGregor silently accepted it, went home tore apart the neat white paper, broke the red seals, uncorked the bottle and discharged the black medicine down the sink. Old doctors should know when to bow out. But I was always fond of the company of my old village doctor.

Lyall’s Garage (Yarrow House) on the main road in Blanefield. This photograph probably dates from May 1937 and the bunting was to celebrate the coronation of George VI. Later Alex Urquhart reminisced with Davey McGregor (left) about the good old days in the village.

In fact, the following morning I called at Old Edenkiln in time for coffee. With a glad welcome from his wife, I was ushered into his consulting-room which I knew so well. The room was dim in the shadow of the trees outside, and in spite of a warm morning, a bright fire leapt up the chimney. The surgery showed no change. Dr Mac was sitting in his swivel chair before his large desk of disorderly papers. He did not look ancient, no doubt due to his fairness of hair and complexion. Standing in the window corner was Mr Horrocks. I shook the right hand of the grinning skeleton, a great pal of mine over many years. Once I suggested that Mr Horrocks should be shut up in a cupboard like any other skeleton, and locked in securely by a skeleton key instead of frightening the guts out of the village weans. From him I had much to learn. Whence he came we knew not, but local lore stated that he died crossing the desert where his bones were plucked clean by vultures, and the local would add: “Just as the doctor does when he gets you!”

Alex Urquhart in later life

That was more than a decade ago. Now Aggie and I have retired to a house we had built for us overlooking Banton Loch near Kilsyth. Strathblane has changed further. The fields have been covered with executive-type houses. The Buchanan family are long gone and The Kirkhouse is now a luxurious hotel. The stane dyke where the village “intellects” used to convene remains but the railway bridge where we sheltered from the rain was demolished after the railway closed. The ground floor of the house that we inhabited is now the doctor’s surgery. The old Post Office next door to us on Dumbrock Road is a private house.

By the time I left The Kirkhouse this evening, the moon was high in the sky lighting up the Campsie Fells. Over at Edenkiln there was a light in the attic window that once was mine. I gazed across to where hares had boxed and rabbits slumbered in the sandy excavations of their warrens and where I had chased the marauding weasel. To my right, hidden behind the Village Club, were the tennis courts where I once joined my pals to practice my service, volley and backhand stroke. In my old black Wolseley, I turned left to chug slowly up the hill to the Kirk, past my parents’ grave, past Broadgate Farm where Bandy and I thinned neeps for coppers to purchase a few sweets. Then along the flat to draw up where the Ballagan Burn tunnels beneath the road, and to watch the dancing of the moonbeams on its sparkling water where Andy and I fished for those elusive giant trout and felt the excitement of flogging forbidden water.

At 77 years of age, I wonder very much if youth is not wasted on the young.

Edenkiln: “To me as a young lad Edenkiln was the loveliest village if the Blane Valley ….. “
This was once the view from Strathblane Station looking towards the bridge where the Blane Water flowed under the main road. It shows the junction with Dumbrock Road before the main road was widened. Just out if view on the right was the bridge that carried the Blane Valley Railway across the road and where Alex and his pals would shelter from the rain. It was demolished in the 1960s after the line closed finally in
1959. It was here that Cuthie, Wattie and other members of the “Village Parliament” would meet in the evenings to smoke their pipes and watch the world go by. This scene, with a horse idly cropping the grass in the foreground and two youngsters holding hands to cross the road, seems to capture the idyllic childhood Alex recalled later.

Editor’s Note:

The Freebairns were a large family who lived in the Bogside area of Kilsyth. Agnes was one of the 11 children. Her father managed a local quarry.

Davy McGregor was the son-in-law of Peter Lyall, who ran a haulage and taxi business, as well as a tearoom from Yarrow House, at the brow of the hill on the main road. Later it became a showroom for vintage cars. It is now a private house.

Davy’s sisters, Jean and Nan, ran the first telephone exchange in the village from 1910 until 1949. Initially, a single digit telephone number must have been something of a status symbol. Nan later recalled that the Rev Moyes was “Strathblane 5” and Dr McMillan “Strathblane 6”. The exchange was in the basement of McGregor’s shop (more recently Shopsmart and The Wilsons).

Dr George McMillan retired in 1952. “The new man” was Dr Perry Harrison, who would serve the community as a single-handed GP until 1985. In 1968 Dr Harrison moved his surgery to the ground floor of the same building in Dumbrock Road as the Urquhart family’s upstairs flat. Dr McMillan stayed on at Old Edenkiln until his death in 1962, aged 82. His dark-haired wife, Meg Edgar, survived him by a decade. She was 93 when she died in 1972. They are buried in Strathblane Cemetery along with their son and daughter-in-law.

The Old Post Office in Dumbrock Road is now a private house. Brown’s, the general store round the corner in Old Mugdock Road, took over the Post Office, which is now operated from the Co-op supermarket on the adjoining site.

The parish War Memorial was funded by public subscription and a design by Sir Robert Lorimer was chosen. The monument, a slender shaft topped by four shields and a cross, at the bottom of Campsie Dene Road, was unveiled on 25 August 1921 during a torrential downpour. It bears the names of 27 local men who died in the so-called Great War. The characters of Andy and Bandy in Alex Urquhart’s stories are probably based on some of them. Certainly, some details of Bandy’s life echo that of Sapper Alex Lowe of the Royal Engineers. See notes on Chapter 7.

The 1960s witnessed the construction of many private houses in the community. The Kirkhouse Estate developed by John Lawrence Construction and  the Taylor Woodrow development in Southview Drive and Campsie View Drive effectively united what had formerly been regarded as two villages. Today many still refer to Strathblane and Blanefield as separate places and each retains its own road signs. When Alex Urquhart moved to the community in 1906, they were still known largely by their older names of Edenkiln and Netherton. Of course, both form part of the Parish of Strathblane, along with the village of Mugdock. This remains the subject of some confusion, even for those who live in the community.

Alex Urquhart’s parents, ironmonger Alexander Urquhart (1869-1942) and Annie Elizabeth Scott (1872-1943) are buried in Strathblane Cemetery, even though neither died in the parish. Alex’s younger sister Annie Elizabeth Scott Clark, who died in 2002, aged 96, is interred with them.

Plinth of Strathblane War Memorial
The grave of Alexander Urquhart’s parents & sister in Strathblane Cemetery. Note the touching quotation.

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