A continuing tale of life in the boonies


No. 290

Poets who matter: 6. Anonymous


FARMINGTON - The days of October pass achingly slow as Rochester awaits the big pronouncement.  No, we don’t mean the winner of the mayoral race or the news that Godot has arrived. Much, much bigger than that!  I refer to Walter Hoerman’s choice for the Lilac City’s very first poet laureate, to be revealed on Nov. 5.

So to help those nail-biting hours and minutes go by, I’ll wrap up the Poets who matter series, set in the notorious Glasgow housing project of Blackhill in northeastern Glasgow, where I was stationed as a police officer in the 1970s.

This week’s column is an homage to the ancient versifiers collectively known as Anonymous, and especially those Scottish anonyms who, in their ballads dating back to the 13th century, chronicled rebellions, battles, raids, feuds and family violence.

They were my essential reference point when putting 20th century urban shenanigans into historical perspective, because an enjoyable reading of the ballads reassured one that no matter how bad and bloody things got on the streets of Blackhill, it was pretty much on par with the rest of Scottish history.

Take my first real encounter with Blackhill around 1967 when I was dispatched to handle a reported car accident, and came upon the wreckage of a feared underworld figure’s car. It had blown up when the driver turned on the ignition.

Arthur Thompson was badly injured by the bomb that killed his mother-in-law and impressively blasted a gear stick clean through the mangled roof of the vehicle and over a cemetery wall.

This car bomb, the Serious Crime Squad later suggested, was part of an ongoing underworld feud – an effort by Thompson’s rivals to even the score after one of their side died in a controversial high-speed car crash on nearby Royston Road.

Subsequent trials at Glasgow High Court of both cases produced no convictions, rather in keeping with a fine rousing version of Geordie that starts:

There was a battle in the north,

And nobles there were many,

And they hae killed Sir Charlie Hay,

And they laid the wyte on Geordie.

Geordie is imprisoned and sentenced to die, but his wife appeals to the king at court, while his clansmen swarm ominously nearby, the equivalent of staring down the jury. The diplomatic way out is to exact a fine on Geordie, instead, so everyone at court chips in, and he walks free.

Some gae her gold, some gae her crowns,

Some gae her ducats many,

And she’s telld down five hundred pound,

And she taen away her Geordie.

You can bet the detectives on the Thompson and Welch cases of the 20th century were just as pained by their outcomes as the Geordie Gordon investigators 400 years earlier – but a dose of historical comparison is as good as an aspirin.

A number of Scottish ballads are set in and around what was known in the 16th century as the Debatable Land, an enclave on the Scottish-English border that gave succor to outlaws and banished men.

Blackhill was a close modern-day equivalent, before the police substation was opened around 1972, and social behavior modified marginally.

Two officers on my shift, Willie Graham and Tam Baird were blasted by a shotgun, and in this instance…They laid the wyte on Sammy Shields…and he served about eight years in prison, while they were awarded the George Medal.

The incident intensified the housing project’s tough reputation, though most of the violence in Blackhill - and there was a great deal – was of a less spectacular nature than car bombs and the attempted murder of police officers.


                         PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN NOLAN

Christmas Day on Craigendmuir Street, Blackhill, c. 1974.

"Dae ye see yon soldiers, marching along,

Their muskets o’er their shoulders,

                 and their broadswords hanging down ..."

                                        - Bonnie Glenshee, Anonymous


For example, in 1971 there were five incidents of domestic assault officially reported to the police, a figure that rocketed to over 70 cases in 1972 after the station opened and the oppressed and injured found help easier to reach. The violence was seedily sinister for the most part, but occasionally laced with a dark humor.

A wedding party on Moodiesburn Street, for instance, went hugely awry and resulted in the Glasgow Herald’s banner headline, "When inlaws became outlaws" and the subhead, "Wedding cake flushed down toilet pan."

I still remember the blood-spattered walls of the house where several dozen guests fought, and the verse that sprung to my mind from The Hunting of the Cheviot, when earls Percy and Douglas got into a ding-dong battle around 1424.

They closed full fast on every side,

No slackness there was found.

And many a gallant gentleman,

Lay gasping on the ground.

Then there was the night that a young, barefoot urchin burst wild-eyed into the police station, after a brave dash along glass-strewn Craigendmuir Street.

The kid’s father, Tommy McDougall, was stone deaf and, when drunk, an inability to bawl out his frustrations with life in a comprehensible way seemed to be alleviated by throwing punches at Mrs. McDougall.

There were never witnesses to these unhappy domestic events and little evidence. They lived in surroundings so Spartan there was hardly a stick of furniture to smash up. When interviewed, Tommy would utter guttural noises or launch into a fury of sign language with his only interpretive link to the world beyond silence, his aggrieved and frequently tipsy wife. Their neighbors in the close declined to comment, and the McDougall kids were ever warned to say they were asleep if blows were struck.

Mentally, I used to contrast this depressing scene to that of a ballad, Thomas Rymer, which describes how True Thomas was lured away to fair Elfland by a beautiful, silken-clad queen on a milk-white steed.

Hailing from near the Eildon hills, where the ballad is set, I was familiar with its words from school days, and with its magical setting from the memory of gazing up the Tweed valley on a summer’s evening.

In the story, True Thomas is severely cautioned never to talk about what he has experienced in Elfland.

But Thomas, ye maun haud yer tongue,

Whatever ye may hear or see …

The three Eildon hills silhouetted by a setting sun, were all that grim Craigendmuir Street failed to be, the queen was as finely dressed as Mrs. McDougall was shabby, and neither Thomas ever talked of what they saw or did.

And then came the night when the McDougall kid scrambled out of his bedroom window unseen, sped mystically over a sea of broken glass, and blurted out what he had seen.

Constable Gilbert Hill and I broke off from our supper, ran 50 yards along to the McDougall house and straight through a half-open front door into the living-room.

Tommy McDougall, fist drawn back, was just in the act of socking his wife when we burst in on the scene and snapped handcuffs on him as he uttered a low, unintelligible wail.

Mrs. McDougall, on the other hand, converted instantly from anguished victim to triumphant conqueror, and let loose an intriguing burst of sign language.

"What did you just say to him?" I asked. "When you pointed at him, that obviously meant "you" and I suppose the fists and crossed wrists mean "handcuffs." But you popped your right index finger into your folded left hand and then withdrew it again. What did that mean?"

Mrs. McDougall’s face creased into an unexpected grin.

"I just told him ‘You’re getting the fucking jail,’" she said.

And at that moment, she shone as if she were the fair Queen of Craigendmuir Street.


Oct. 19, 2003


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