Up in the hills above Dufftown, in Morayshire, leisure time entertainment was rather limited in the late nineteen-sixties. This is whisky country. A Saturday night for the locals typically involved getting drunk and then fighting, or as an occasional variation, fighting and then getting drunk.
I found myself on the periphery of this lifestyle one summer whilst working as a waiter in the Waterford Hotel, Grantown-on-Spey, alongside Kodak (who I briefly mentioned in this blog ages ago). That establishment, as can be seen from this video (which is definitely worth more than a five-second scan, BTW), became (relatively) far more sophisticated in the (I’m guessing here, from the haircuts and the songs) late 80s. When I worked there, flashing strobes and a PA system that played notes you could actually hear were merely future dreams.
The place was run by the Calders. Mrs Calder was an extremely large woman, and one day her son Jimmy bought her an Austin Mini for getting about in. This caused a lot of heads to turn, but if I remember correctly, he had all four seats removed and replaced by one larger seat, which meant that once she had squeezed through the door, an operation requiring considerable effort and manoeuvering on her part, she was fine.
There was a sub-manager who I won’t name, but very early one Sunday morning he was driving back from Cromdale along the moor road, where he’d been enjoying a night of passion with a local lass, there was a terrible double bump. He stopped, and was horrified to discover that he’d run over someone who’d been laying in the middle of the road. He went to the police and was eventually extremely relieved when it was proven that the person had already been dead for at least for two hours by the time he’d driven over him. The sub-manager was doubly relieved, as he’d not even had to lie, by an extent of over 35 mph, by stating that of course he’d been driving within the speed limit at the time.
Cromdale, which lies about five miles from Grantown, was the back-of-beyond. If you look it up in the Wikipedia, you can see that not much has happened in Cromdale since a Friday night in 1690, when there was a bigger-than-usual battle, apart from its bridge falling down in 1921 and its train station closing in the 1960s. That sort of sums up Cromdale, which is possibly why the Cromdale youth of those days, at that time known collectively as the Cromdale Mob, weren’t particularly noted either for their sophistication or appreciation of the fine arts and classics.
This didn’t unduely worry me much until their path began to cross mine towards the end of the summer holiday season in 1969.
It all started when Mad Davey Harris and Ally B decided on the spur of the moment to visit Kodak and myself in Grantown-on-Spey one weekend. Very fortunately, neither Kodak or myself were there at the time. We were up in the Aviemore Centre at a dance, and having missed the last bus home I’d slept in a telephone kiosk near the Centre, which has since been demolished (the telephone booth, that is, though some parts of the old Centre such as the swimming pool, ballroom and ice-rink have also gone since those days as well). Kodak somehow managed to hitch a lift home in the middle of the night. In that, and similar ways, he was a lucky sort of person.
Our absence didn’t overly trouble Mad Dave and Ally, who’s weekend escapades featured a few days later in the weekly local newspaper under the headline “Vandals Hit Grantown”. I just Googled that phrase (you never know what they may have digitised, nowadays), and if you read down this page, you can see that it is somewhat of a recurring theme over the years.
I’d only eventually and briefly teamed up with Mad Dave on the Sunday morning, after getting off the first bus from Aviemore, before he and Ally got on another bus to go back to Elgin. But being seen with Mad Dave was enough for the Cromdale Mob to mark me out, as I will shortly explain.
Before that, I’d better describe the Cromdale Mob’s modus operandi, and also about an incident involving them and Mad Dave which wasn’t mentioned in the newspaper.
The Cromdale Mob’s method of starting trouble was for four, five or six of them to go into a pub. Wee Jock, who was barely five foot four and who hailed from the even more remote hamlet of West Auchriost, a mile out of Cromdale, would take the lead. He’d move around a lot, bumping into people until one of them turned round to see what was happening, and then Jock would duck out of the way. At this moment the far larger and thickset members of the mob would square up to the unfortunate chap who’d turned around, and one of them would shout:
“Fit ye dayin puckin own Wee Joke? Kun yeez nae puck own somewan yair ain size?”*
Which, combined with a bit of pushing and shoving, was normally enough to start a fight, there and then.
Well, anyway, Mad Dave and Ally B were enjoying their fifth pint in the Grant Arms on the Saturday night that I was up at Aviemore, when Wee Jock entered the same bar and started his normal routine.
Eventually he bumped into Mad Dave who, seeing some of his precious pint flow over the top of his glass, turned round and without further ado decked Wee Jock flat out. Wee Jock picked himself up, turned round expecting support, and only then realised that the rest of his Mob were actually up at the Garth Hotel.
Like I intimated previously, the Cromdale Mob were not noted for being mental giants.
Later on, Wee Jock caught up with the rest of his Cromdale pals and they went looking for Mad Dave, but Dave and Ally were by this time busy on the outskirts of town on the forray which was later to be reported in the newspaper.
It was the next day that one of the Mob by chance saw me and Dave in discussion at the bus station, and reported this back to the rest of the gang. I didn’t know anything about any of this until a week later when Kodak and myself went to visit Glen, our fellow waiter who’d not pitched up for work, at his house. We found Glen in a rather sorry state. His hand had been heavily bandaged up at the hospital the day before.
The previous afternoon, he’d answered a knock at his door, only to be confronted by the heavier half of the Cromdale Mob, who’d come at him with a knife and had slashed his hand deeply before he’d managed to slam his door shut. Glen’s ‘crime’ had been that he’d been seen with Kodak, who in turn had been seen with me, who in turn had been seen with Mad Dave at the bus stop.
It didn’t take me long to realise that the higher up the ‘having-been-seen-with-Mad-Dave-or-someone-who-knew-him chain’ you were, the worse was your likely future outlook, so I kept a very low profile for the following two weeks until my waiter job came to an end.
To celebrate the end of the season, the local Young Farmers put on a big dance in a marquee, round the back of The Square. Kodak had, by this time, shot the craw back to Elgin and I should have as well, but I was still chasing around after a local girl. I’d been sleeping in the back of the Hawk’s car. The Hawk’s job in another Grantown hotel finished on the day after the dance, so this brief arrangement was due to come to an end, and I would then go back to Elgin with him.
Having managed to survive without incident and no further sign whatsoever of the Mob, I was determined to ask the girl I’d been chasing to the Young Farmers dance, and it was only when she said that, yes, she’d go with me that I realised that the Cromdales would almost certainly also pitch up to that event.
There was a big crowd at the dance, as this was the local social occasion of the year. An excellent Irish showband was on stage, and everyone was enjoying them perform covers of a string of current hits. I seemed to be getting on very well with my girl.
After a suitable length of time dancing ever closer to her I made sure that we were gradually working our way towards the back of the marquee where the lights were dimmer, in anticipation of some serious necking once the band started to play slower numbers.
It all seemed to be going really well, there was no sign of the Mob, and both myself and the girl were enjoying ourselves.
At about ten o’clock I remember thinking – now’s as good a time as any – and I looked into her brown eyes, and then I looked at her moist lips, and I’d just begun to move forwards and aim mine at hers when I noticed a sudden look of fear and dread come across her face. I’m not that bad looking am I, I thought to myself. We’ve been dancing together now for two hours, and it’s surely a natural progression, isn’t it? Then, peering questioningly and more directly into her eyes I noticed that her attention was actually focussed not on me but on something that was happening behind me.
Turning round, I saw to my horror that the Cromdale Mob were not only at the dance but that they were also taking advantage of the poorer light in the corner of the marquee, where, having obviously already gone through the initial stages of their well practiced routine, they were now giving a kicking to an unfortunate individual who was laying on the ground and simultaneously trying to protect both his head and his balls with his hands.
I didn’t recognise the poor chap, but it didn’t take me long to reason that he was almost certainly someone who had been seen with someone who had been seen with Glen. Things didn’t look rosey! Well, in fact, for the chap on the ground they actually did, judging from the crimson liquid that started to ooze from his nose.
I wasn’t used to this. Apart from the Black Eck incident, I was more familiar with playground fights where a circle of kids would quickly form around the protagonists as they squared up to each other, a chant of “Fight! Fight! Fight!” would go up, and a teacher, hearing the chant from within the staff common room, would come running out and stop the action before any serious damage was suffered by anyone. This fight in the marquee was different. First of all it was four-and-a-half (Wee Jock being the half) against one. No circle formed around the action, and no-one lifted a finger to stop it. No one even paid much attention, and in fact, when the chap on the ground rolled away from a particularly heavy kick and subsequently got in the way of a couple who were enjoying the showband’s rendition of ‘Bad Moon Rising’, they simply incorporated their jump in the air to let him pass underneath their feet into their jig, and continued dancing.
The next thing that happened was that Wee Jock turned around and ran towards the marquee entrance, momentarily halting when he noticed me. Out the door he went. I didn’t understand what he was doing until I heard him cursing from outside the marquee, where, from the kicks that subsequently came through the canvas I could see that he was preventing the poor chap on the ground from escaping via the gap at the bottom of the tent.
Eventually, and thankfully, I saw a more responsible and considerably older man look over at the Cromdales and slowly raise one eyebrow slightly, as if to indicate ‘Enough is enough’. The mob, now rejoined by Wee Jock, immediately stopped their onslaught and took off towards the bar. As they walked away, I noted ominously that Wee Jock was drawing the attention of the others to my presence, and calculated that as it would take them ten minutes to get served and another five to drink their pints, my teeth would likely remain where they had thus far grown undisturbed apart from some minor work by the dentist for only a further quarter of an hour.
I’d miscalculated, though. The bar wasn’t that busy and they shortly returned and began their routine, with me now at the centre of their attention. The showband launched into ‘Hurt so bad’ by The Lettermen, which I took to be a particularly apt omen of the near future.
You may be asking yourself why, in the interim period, instead of wondering about how I would look with a gap instead of incisors, I had not simply shot the craw as quickly as possible and made a hasty exit from the dance. A fair question, the answer to which is that, firstly, the bar (and therefore also the Cromdales) was between me and the exit, and secondly, they would undoubtedly have eventually caught up with me outside, and thirdly, outside there would be no good Samaritan who might eventually raise an eyebrow to cease proceedings. Stupidly and illogically, I also didn’t want to appear like a complete pansy coward in the presence of my dance partner. That’s exactly the same sort of daft highland bravado that persuaded Bonnie Prince Charlie’s clansmen to follow orders and jump up and down for two hours whilst Cumberland’s cannons mowed them down one by one at Culloden.
Things didn’t bode well at all, as the thick-set Cromdale lad with even worse acne than the rest of them deliberately banged into me several times whilst I attempted to ignore the presence of all of them as nonchalantly as was humanly possible and continue to dance while the showband started up a cover of Dylan’s ‘Lay, Lady, Lay’ – a song that half an hour earlier I’d been eagerly anticipating.
Then Wee Jock started shouting something at me. I turned round, looked down, and he shouted it again, but in those days my Teuchter translation skills were not as well-honed as they have since become, and I was able to honestly answer him that I had not the slightest idea what he was saying.
It might have been the time-lapse required for him, in turn, to mentally translate what I’d said back into Teuchter, or it might have been the confusion caused in the minds of Wee Jock and Acne-face by the inexplicable and almost certainly temporary role-swap from their normal well-practised routine, but for whatever reason it was, they didn’t immediately come at me.
It’s at moments in time like that – the extra moments – when it’s sometimes possible to really focus your brain. It’s at moments in time like that when people have brain-storms. I suddenly had my own Eureka/survival moment.
I turned to my girl, who was now looking extremely worried, and rather than self-centeredly thinking “You should be worried? You’ll still be in once piece tomorrow” and also putting any thoughts of “And I’d wanted to be kissing you to this song at this very moment” completely out of my mind, I instead asked her, with some urgency, “Isn’t your Dad the local policeman?”
“Yes, he is.” She replied.
“Is he on duty tonight? Will he be on the door?” I continued, hopefully.
“No, he’s not on nights this week.”
My shoulders slumped.
“But,” she continued, warming to the theme, “PC Grant should be there by now, if it’s past ten. He knows me well, he’s also my godfather.”
“Sweet Caroline!” I exclaimed, glancing at my watch as the showband began a rendition of that very same, since-then-proven-timeless Neil Diamond hit which is also, truthfully I’m afraid to say, the only Neil Diamond song to this day that I can listen to without wanting to throw up.
As gingerly as we possibly could, whilst continuing dancing into any available space not occupied by young farmers or Cromdales, the two of us manoeuvred ourselves over to the bar and towards the exit. I managed to completely ignore all the extremely specific questions about my manhood and parentage, plus the stream of anatomically impossible suggestions that were coming from behind me, until finally my girl spied PC Grant in the distance, managed to catch his eye, and beckoned him over.
Over my shoulder, and with considerable relief, I noticed the Cromdale Mob backing off as my girl explained the situation to PC Grant. There may only have been one PC Grant, but he had colleagues who knew very well where they all lived.
So, as PC Grant stood guard on the marquee door, the girl and I made our exits, and as quickly as possible without actually galloping I saw her to the steps of her house, gave her a quick peck on the cheek whilst thinking ruefully about what might have been possible by this time had Dylan not previously been so rudely interrupted, and then continued my lonely way over to the carpark behind the Garth where the Hawk’s car lay.
The key was on top of the rear nearside tyre, as previously arranged with the Hawk himself.
After considering the fact that the Cromdale Mob would probably not give up as easily as that, as a final precaution, instead of making my bed on the back seat within possible view of passers by who might happen to use the carpark in the hours of darkness as a toilet, I rearranged the covers, crawled into the boot for the night, and thanked my lucky stars not only for the chosen career of a particular girl’s dad, but also for the fact that the Hawk had the previous week swapped his trusty Volkswagen Beetle for a car with an engine in the front.
* Translation from the Teuchter: “What are you doing picking on Wee Jock. Can you not pick on someone your own size?”