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A Scots Boy's World Sixty Years Ago
Chapter II. Home on the Old Govan Road


My earliest recollections of a Glasgow home gather round Rutland Crescent on the Govan Road, beyond which, except for a few villas, almost nothing was built in the early fifties of last century. Govan itself was hardly in being, its steepled Parish Church and primitive ferry-pier, surrounded by a few thatched cottages, forming the most striking features. Our house was a corner one, bright and cheery, with nine front windows looking north and west. These afforded us infinite enjoyment and also instruction. Nearly opposite, though partially intercepted by houses, was the estate of Plantation. Right round the inside of its enclosing wall was a beaten track over which a lady of the manor took regular horse exercise. How we used to watch for the feathered hat and riding habit, which, at intervals of perhaps five minutes, undulated gracefully across our narrow horizon! From other windows we commanded a stretch of Govan Road, and could see down to the Clyde with its variegated funnels of many steamers moving over the level of intervening fields. Morning and evening the "Black Squad" passed in serried ranks to and from their work at the shipbuilding yards, and the distant clang of rivetting was completely silent only at meal hours. More than once a dead or maimed companion was borne on a stretcher, for the day of ambulance wagons was not yet, and then we were hushed for the rest of the evening.

From the two nursery windows we were never tired of looking out upon the antics of "Heather Jock," who every now and then obtruded his personality upon our neighbourhood. He was a curious character of weak intellect, who distinguished himself by wearing a kind of fool's cap decked with heather and jingling bells. He sang and danced to our unrestrained delight, his selection usually ending up with "Annie Laurie," for whom, suiting the action to the word, he impressively laid himself "doon to dee." Another very amusing figure was that of a woman with an extraordinarily shrill voice, who, with her husband, went round offering to purchase rags or grind scissors, invariably winding up her cry with a long drawn-out "Ch-e-enah ti mend." Seccotine had not yet found a place on the shelf of the thrifty housekeeper. Punch and Judy would also give us a look in, but the visits of such a realistic entertainment were rarer.

"Milk Willie," with his lame leg, appeared regularly twice a day with his compact little cart. It carried three spot- less barrels behind, all with bright brass taps, the big one in the centre being known to contain butter-milk. A smaller well-corked drum reposed under the seat in front. It contained cream and a mite of a mug hung round its neck for use in exact measurement. Milk Willie summoned his customers with a resonant bell. In a few moments they gathered round him, and I can still see the milk being carefully distributed into jugs with a fine flop, the cream-can being deftly plugged, the seat-lid falling down with a click, and the cheery little equipage rumbling off to another door. After him followed about mid-day the vans of the English Bakery or Crossmyloof Coy. As they lumbered round the corner, jets of steam trailed from the ventilators behind; but when the back doors were thrown open and the trays were drawn out, a perfect cloud burst from their inner recesses—fragrant and appetising. We watched the tearing asunder of the newly-baked loaves and were disappointed indeed if the upper drawer was not uncovered with its tempting assortment of cookies, currant scones, parleys and glazy gingerbread.

At the end of our Crescent was a piece of vacant land, screened from the Paisley Road by a straggling hedge. This was euphemistically known as "The Park" and I think I could still make my way in the dark over every up and down in the footpath which cut diagonally across it. Even now I can see the little pool of water accumulated at the foot of its miniature brae. It was here that I experienced a revelation of the exquisite enamel of the buttercup, and learned to trim sprays of thorn with delicate pink and white daisies, and watch for the very earliest tips of green on the hedge-row. Here we found ample space for our first essays in kite-flying, under the guidance of the youthful uncle who constructed them ; and here, when the devouring builder at length intruded by setting up his masons' bench in one corner, we contentedly adapted ourselves to the new situation by turning shop-keepers beside them, and grinding the chips of freestone into sugar and salt for imaginary customers. About this time, also, the mysteries of wind and lightning, of hoar frost and falling leaves, greatly impressed and overawed me ; and I became conscious of unseen powers above and beyond man's control. Imagination, too, was active, for
a glimpse of colour seen through the latticed window of a small tower over- hanging the road, forthwith suggested all sorts of lustrous wonders hidden within, as in Aladdin's cave, and the site of a crow- stepped cottage in ill condition was enough to people it with dangerous thieves who might be relied upon to fulfil their destiny at the opportune moment.

Children have an unfailing instinct for testing everything within their reach, and this was more than once exemplified in connection with the door locks, resulting in a speedy automatic penalty. I remember, having thus fastened myself into the large parlour, when the instructions conveyed to me through the key-hole, so far from leading to self-extrication, served only to increase nervousness and alarm. When all other means failed, a tall ladder had to be procured from the lamp-lighter or policeman and entrance effected from the outside. I rather think that on that occasion confinement and fright already endured were not considered sufficient punishment. I was then about six years of age, and it is from the same date that another trifling incident has held its place in the memory. A few children had been spending an afternoon with us, when one of them came running up, and, in the kindliest way, fastened a loose button in my shoe. The graciousness of the act touched me, and I like to think that that boy became one of the world's greatest missionaries of our generation, and has filled the Modeatorial chair of his Church.

But the tenderest association clusters round the middle room, which was once sealed to us for weeks together. A solemn awe fell upon us when two of our number were withdrawn through scarlet fever, and were there interned with the good mother. The cases were severe, though we were not old enough to comprehend the full danger. Drawn by a strange fascination, we would stealthily pass the closed door whenever we got the chance. We saw that best beloved of Glasgow Physicians, Dr. Andrew Anderson, come and go with grave face, and we sorely missed one loving presence. It seemed almost a miracle, and was certainly a gracious providence that convalescence was at length established, and the precious mother came out unharmed, while the rest of the household remained immune.

It was during our stay here that the country passed through the terrible struggle of the Crimean War, and I can remember watching with awed wonderment the measured tread and sobered countenances of a regiment setting out for the front. We used to get the "Illustrated London News" on the Saturdays, and it was with strained eagerness that we scanned every line of the pictures, accepting them as accurate delineations of what was happening in South Russia. One of these still haunts my memory. It
represented an English, French, and Turkish soldier staggering arm in arm through the blackened streets of Sebastopol after its fall. There were also doggerel rhymes, whose jingoism was counted to them for patriotism. One verse ran somewhat as follows :—

'Twas not you that beat Napoleon,
But your ugly ice and sleet,
Mighty Czar! Mighty Czar!
But there's Charlie Napier coming
With his gallant Baltic fleet,
Mighty Czar! Mighty Czar!

There was much talk above our heads among the seniors about "The Allies," "The Powers" and "The Conference," the last being translated for us by a print showing all the Kings of Europe sitting round a table with crowns on their heads. At long last came Peace and bell-ringing and general rejoicing. But Balaclava, Alma, Inkerman and the Malakoff are words that left imperishable dints on even a child's memory, relieved—let it be said— by gracious association with one more melodious name, that of Florence Nightingale.


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