It was his mother who
started it. "Strushle Jock" she’d call him, to shame him into buttoning
his shirt properly or chide him for wearing his trousers at half-mast. Not
that it changed anything; John Allardyce’s mind was forever elsewhere. If
his mother needed a rabbit for the pot, he could catch one morethan likely
with his bare hands and if eggs were scarce he knew the nesting places of
partridge, grouse, peewit or capercaillie. From an early age he could
carve animal likenesses from kindling wood. Vanity was alien to him
When his classmates at
Aberkinnie School picked up on it, the nickname became personal, but the
more the scruffy youngster fought against it, the more the label stuck. At
fifteen, when the pain of loneliness really hurt, he tried hard to change
his appearance - but the die was already cast.
At sixteen, with tractors
and farm machinery making horses and farm labourers redundant, John’s
father found him a live-in apprenticeship in the village of Craigellachie,
sixty miles away. During the train journey his self-esteem was so low that
when crossing the River Spey, he wondered if drowning would be quick and
It took him less than a
week to come to terms with the miracle - that he’d left Strushle Jock back
in Aberkinnie. Bill Stuart, the owner of Spey Valley Cooperage, welcomed
the shy young lad, taking him under his wing and treating him like family,
while teaching him the art of making and repairing whisky barrels for
local distilleries. In time, though his wife frowned on it, Bill also
shared with him his appreciation of the flavour and comforting effect of a
good malt whisky. Later he demonstrated how an empty hogshead straight
from the blender’s warehouse, could magically generate a gallon of whisky
or more from its staves if left in the sun for a day. John repaid his
employer’s trust with diligence and hard work.
As the years flew by, he
visited his parents only as duty demanded, studiously avoiding Aberkinnie
where the dour Strushle Jock had been moulded. Yearly he would help with
the harvest at the Home Farm where his father worked and on such occasions
he’d mutely identify with the farmer’s daughter Mary, especially when her
older brothers rebuked her. "Glaikit Mary" they had called her at school
and preoccupied as he had been then with his own problems, he’d noticed
how she always blushed and panicked and got things wrong.
Although he made no close
friends outside Bill’s family and acquaintances, John became respected in
Craigellachie as a keen fisherman and a darts team regular at the nearby
Fiddochside Inn. If his boss wondered about the lad’s background or his
desperate shyness with girls, he was never disposed to embarrass him over
When Mary’s father was
crushed to death on the hill under his new tractor, John bought a black
mohair suit for the funeral. After the ceremony he waited near the
churchyard gate, just far enough away to be ignored and near enough to
respond to an enquiring glance. "I, eh…I’m real sorry Mary…aboot your
father. It’s hard to believe…"
"Aye…thanks…it was a
Their eye contact was
lasting and meaningful.
"Well…I jist wanted to
"Whit? Whit is it Jock?
They’re waitin’ for me."
He scowled. "I dinna like
Jock. It’s John – my name’s John."
"John’s fine wi’ me - but I
have to go." She placed her gloved hand on his shoulder, glancing back at
her brothers, towering protectively over their distraught mother. "Look, I
ken I shouldna be saying this at my father’s funeral, but there’s a dance
at the Drill Hall in a fortnight. Will ye be hame that weekend?"
"Aye," he answered, then
"definitely. Ye ken Mary, you look right bonny in black."
"Aye, and you look bonny in
black yersel', lad.’"
As the weekend of the
Aberkinnie Harvest Festival neared, John was scared. He knew deep down he
had to go; something in Mary’s look had told him so, but tormentors from
his school days haunted his dreams, daring him to show how the years had
changed him – or not. On a good day he knew he could handle it, but most
days he recoiled from the prospect.
Bill Stuart kept a
well-stocked cabinet of Speyside Whiskies, gifted by visiting distillers.
On special occasions, or when Mrs. Stuart visited her sister, he and John
would break open a prized malt over a serious game of chess, which would
often be abandoned unfinished in favour of a sing song. If Bill suspected
his stocks were dwindling fast, he didn’t broach the subject, maybe
mindful that his lodger was of an age where learning came mostly through
On the fateful Saturday
evening John arrived early. With half an hour to wait for Mary’s bus, he
strolled up and down Aberkinnie’s deserted High Street, glancing at shop
window displays, which had changed little over the five or so years since
he last saw them. The walk from his parent’s cottage had sharpened his
mind; he felt good.
"I’m real proud o’ you
son," his father had told him the night before - for the first time ever.
"You’re a big improvement on the scruffy little bugger you used to be."
Then he’d poured another measure of the twelve-year-old Glenfarclas his
son had brought. "Aye and a cooper’s niver short o’ a dram or two,
"I was thinkin’ I might go
tae the harvest dance."
"Aye, an’ it’s nae afore
time. Wi’ that suit on you’ll hae a’ the lasses chasin’ efter ye. I was
tellin’ Mary up at the ferm she should get oot mair. But they’re a dour
pair, the brithers – treat ‘er like dirt ye ken? An’ they dinna treat
their mither ony better."
Reaching the square, John
looked at his watch then walked smartly downstairs to the public
lavatories. Whisky no longer caused him to throw up or do daft things;
indeed he’d long since learned to judge his own tolerance level. In a
cubicle he took a measured swig of full strength Scotch from the
half-flask he carried in an inside pocket. He gasped and breathed deeply,
a smile forming on his ruddy features, then flushed the toilet before
ascending the steps sucking a super strong mint.
The bus disgorged an
assortment of incoming revellers. Girls flaunted their figures, decked in
tight-fitting fashions, while young men fidgeted in too tight collars and
suits that saw the light of day maybe twice a year. Some trotted lively
towards the sound of dance music, while younger ones studied the tarmac,
embarrassed at being escorted by their parents. As the stragglers
disembarked, John was resigning himself to disappointment when he heard
the shout. "Look lads, it’s that scruffy bugger, Strushle Jock – in a new
suit by God!"
Probably a year or two
older than John, the speaker’s name escaped him, but the smirk was
familiar. Speechless with anger he returned the stare, but more intensely,
then walked forward. His hands grabbed for the throat, squeezing hard,
forcing the young man against the bus shelter wall. He was relishing the
power of his physical strength as much as the look of abject fear on his
tormentor’s face. He raised his right fist, memories of years of mental
torture crowding his mind. "John – my name’s John!"
He tightened his grip,
fiercely. "Say it you bastard – loud this time!"
"John! John! For God’s sake
The anger left him as
quickly as it came, but the self-belief stayed with him. He loosened his
grip, straightened his tie and made eye contact with the others, testing
their resolve. As he slowly and smugly turned away, he realised he no
longer had any destination in mind.
"This is a fine way to
greet a lass!" The relief he felt was as exhilarating as his newfound
It was the dress she’d worn
at the funeral, this time enhanced by a light pink shoulder scarf and a
red carnation attached to the square-cut neckline. "Bloody hell, Mary," he
whispered, shaking his head and smiling, "Bloody hell!"
"Well, if that’s a’ you can
His grin was as broad as
the street. "No…no…I’ll think o’ something." Her complexion shone as she
blushed and smiled, her neatly combed shoulder length black hair
accentuating her pretty features. Remembering their schooldays, he
marvelled at the transformation. "You look…great – lovely in fact. Black
"You look gie smart yoursel’
John. I couldna get dressed ‘till my brithers went oot. They act like I’m
a ten year old quine."
"C’mon," he said, taking
her arm and leading her down the lane towards the swing park. "There’ll be
plenty o’ time for dancin’ later."
John walked even taller
when they eventually arrived at the Drill Hall just after dusk. He’d
shared the whisky with Mary and they’d talked about the years between and
the pain of being branded when you’re young. As they’d kissed on the
swings and later when groping and fumbling behind the bushes, although
uninhibited in their mutual desire, their combined ignorance of the sex
act brought only the frustration of premature climax. But they’d laughed
contentedly, their intimate knowledge of each other signalling a bond that
united them for life.
The whole building seemed
to be pulsating in time to the music. The country dancing they’d learned
at school should have come easy, but the combination of a slippery floor
and alcohol intake caused them to slither around helplessly, gripping each
other for support, all the while giggling uncontrollably. It was as they
embraced, moving their feet imperceptibly to the strains of a slow waltz,
that Mary remembered her promise. "I have to catch the last bus."
"Aye. I was forgettin’. I
have tae go tae the toilet."
In the scratched and pitted
mirror above the urinal, John saw a man – a real man: a man who, in one
never-to-be-forgotten night, had confirmed his new identity and taken one
gigantic step into adulthood. He leaned forward to confirm the contented
smile he’d been wearing all evening.
"Tak’ a good look Jock –
ye’ll maybe nae look sae braw in the mornin’."
Above noise of the band
playing a rousing reel and somebody being sick in one the cubicles, John
recognised the harsh voice of Tam, the elder of Mary’s brothers. He zipped
up his trousers, turning as he did so, feeling annoyance more than fear.
"I have tae go," he said, side-stepping the burly farmer, "Mary’s waitin’..."
His found his way barred by
Angus, the other sibling. "Aye, I thought she was schemin’ tae meet
somebody on the quiet. Mary’s nae for the likes o’ you, lad."
Tam was quick for a man of
his size, pinning John’s arms to his side in a vice-like bear hug. He saw
Angus’s punch coming, almost in slow motion, but could do nothing to
deflect the impact. He was on his knees watching the blood from his nose
mingle with the urine on the tiled floor when the first kick to the solar
plexus rendered him helpless.
In the days that followed
his late return, Bill Stuart tried to motivate his sullen lodger, who
showed little interest in his work, his normal pastimes, or even his
personal hygiene. Letters from home were thrown away unopened. And he was
drinking more than was good for a man who seemed to be in bad physical
condition. On the one occasion he went out with the rod, Bill followed at
a distance and was dismayed to find him sitting near the river bend by the
old railway tunnel. The rod, still in its cover, lay on his lap, while he
sipped slowly from a half bottle, staring transfixed into the bottomless
whirlpool a few feet below.
Next day Bill stayed behind
after breakfast, retrieved a letter from the bin and read it. He placed a
call to the Home Farm, Aberkinnie. Mary arrived on the Saturday, carrying
The wedding was a hastily
arranged affair at Elgin Registry Office. Besides Bill and his wife and
John’s parents, only Mary’s mother attended.
When he was twenty-one,
Glenlomas Distillery, Bill’s biggest customer, accepted John’s application
for employment as distillery cooper, at tradesman’s rates and a
two-bedroom bungalow rent free. There was little that the couple had hoped
for that hadn’t come to fruition – in a magically short space of time.
Within a year Mary gave birth to their daughter Jenny,
Although Glenlomas employed
only one cooper, John was seldom called upon to demonstrate the skills of
his craft. Much of the day was spent patrolling cold and damp, bonded
warehouses where the whisky was stored to mature, tapping each hogshead,
butt or American barrel individually to detect leakage. The job was
lonely, with only rats and mice for company. "I miss the open air," he
told Mary, "and the satisfaction of making a sound barrel – jist like you
must be missin’ the ferm."
"I never notice," she’d
reply. "Jenny keeps me busy. Times I miss my mither, but I can never
forgive my brithers, so that’s that."
John thought himself a
connoisseur, a man who appreciated the bouquet and flavour of a whisky
matured in an old Sherry cask for twelve or more years. And a distillery
cooper has daily access to the best. Most of the stock belonged to large
blending establishments in the cities, but some individual quarter casks
or firkins had been purchased to honour the birth of a son and heir, the
owner intending to pay duty and take the cask home to toast his
twenty-first birthday. In twenty-one years people die, fortunes change,
dreams are shattered; foundations laid sometimes lie neglected. Sometimes
John would conjure up a picture of skulduggery in high places to explain
such unclaimed property, while taking a sample to make sure the contents
hadn’t gone woody and unfit for drinking.
The long copper tube sealed
at one end and capped at the other, was a going-away present from Bill.
Two inches thick and twelve inches long, it slipped neatly through the
bunghole of a cask with a string attached so that could be concealed
inside the trouser leg, attached to the belt. As well as management and
the Customs & Excise Officer, it was traditional that the cooper took a
discretionary dram home occasionally and John’s well-stocked cupboard soon
rivalled the distillery sample room for its versatility. "A good servant
but a bad master," Bill had told him after his last binge, and for a while
John tried to drink only in company and in moderation But not for long.
He was bright enough to
recognise a familiar pattern emerging. He became disinterested in
everything around him, retreating into his shell, even washing and shaving
only when Mary nagged him to, until one day she used a name that awakened
the pain of the past. "Strushle Jock," she’d called him. When his best
friend visited Glenlomas on business, John sought a word with him in
"I canna get through the
day or even the night withoot it noo," he confessed. The public bar at the
local Delnashaugh Hotel was empty; they’d given up on the game of darts,
concentrating instead on John’s concerns. "I remember whit you said, but I
canna fight it. I hide bottles on top o’ the wardrobe, under the sink, oot
in the shed, onywhere I can drink in secret. I hate mysel’ for daein’ it –
but I canna stop."
Bill observed his young
protégé closely, before answering. "I’ve seen some strong men lose that
battle, lad. It’s a mystery how some can cope wi’ it and some can’t. It’ll
nae be easy, but you’ll have to leave your trade an’ tak’ anither job."
John’s shoulders dropped
and he drained his glass. "Oh aye, and whit then? Whisky’s the only thing
that…that maks a man o’ me."
"It’s easy tae think that,
but believe me lad, you’re a better man withoot it."
John thought for a while,
before walking to the bar and pointing to the bottle of Macallan. "Twa
If Bill had noticed any
casualness about John’s driving, he refrained from puncturing his pride.
On their journey home the tiny windscreen wipers of the old Ford Popular
were proving no match for the torrential rain, yet John kept pressure on
the accelerator oblivious to the skidding and wobbling of the box-shaped
vehicle as he negotiated the bends.
After they’d sung about the
tenth verse and chorus of The Ball o’ Kirriemuir, John reached over and
squeezed his friend’s shoulder. "Listen to this Bill, I made it up the
ither day…the brewer’s daughter, she was there…" He realised they were
travelling too fast when he saw the Glenlomach turning looming up only a
few yards away. But the message to turn sharply reached his brain before
the instinct to slow down.
Hamish Mackie, the local
policeman, having paid his weekly visit to the distillery on whatever
pretext, was cycling home. Reaching the main road, he lingered for a while
in the bus shelter, waiting for the rain to ease, and relishing the
euphoria of two large drams of Glenlomach coursing through his veins,
soothing his mind and body. He recognised the approaching car; there were
only two black Ford Populars in the district and the minister never drove
that fast. But surely he should be slowing... One second the car looked to
be tearing past and the next it was jerking violently, then spinning out
of control before slamming into a telegraph pole backwards. It reared up
like a can-can dancer’s skirts, displaying a rusty underbelly before
crashing back down on all fours.
The constable walked
forward cautiously. Close up, the front of the car looked immaculate; he
could even hear the engine ticking over gently as he leaned on the bonnet,
staring through the windscreen, which was still intact. He blinked and
shook his head then looked again, but could see no occupants. As he
stepped gingerly towards the driver’s door, the full horror of the
accident was plain to see. The car was now wedge-shaped, the bodywork
flattened from the top of the windscreen right down to the boot. The door
offered no resistance, but he stared in amazement at the position of the
two bodies inside. The tubular metal bucket seats had folded right back
with the impact. Both heads lay snugly on the rear seat, with the crushed
roof only inches from their faces. Both faces appeared to be smiling. "Are
you a’right?" seemed a daft thing to say, but he said it.
"I’ll phone for an
ambulance," Hamish suggested, after he’d helped them into the shelter.
Both were trembling a little but seemed to be able to move about, albeit
"No, there’s nae need,"
said John, then turning to his friend, "whit do you say Bill?"
"We’ll be a’right."
The policeman made to open
the top pocket of his uniform, then looked back at the distillery and
changed his mind. "Will ye be able to drive it?"
"Aye," said John, "nae
"Ye can never be too
careful in treacherous conditions like this," he said, mounting his
bicycle again with a half grin on his face.
"You’re right there."
He moved painfully into the
backless diver’s seat. "Jump in Bill, I’ll tak’ ye back tae your car."
"I dinna think so lad. I’ll
wait for a bus an’ pick it up tomorrow."
When he got home he drove
the damaged car round the back of the house and threw a sheet over it,
before staggering indoors and into bed. As the intoxication wore off,
shock and pain replaced it. At midnight Mary phoned for an ambulance.
Jenny started primary
school when her father was still in hospital. They kept him in for a week,
X-rayed his back, and gave him painkillers for the broken ribs and
bruising and tablets to help him sleep. The medication dulled his senses,
allowing him to focus on other things besides his craving. In lucid
moments he remembered the good times and the love he felt for his wife and
daughter. Some nights he cried himself to sleep in shame over his
At home he made a fuss of
young Jenny, while Mary fed him home made broth and laughed as he
struggled to walk again unaided. They came to visit and wish him well, the
manager, the brewer, the mashmen, the stillmen, and the maltmen – all his
workmates. He felt proud that he could now pour them a dram without
resorting to one himself. Then the excise officer brought him the two
things he needed least – a bottle of mature Glenlomach and the influenza
An Edinburgh man, Donald
Chisholm habitually wore a suit and had that civil servant’s air of
authority, which, in John and Mary’s psyche, entitled him to the same
respect as a minister or a doctor. "Bring two glasses Mary," he instructed
as he shook John’s hand.
"I’m nae sure John should
be drinkin’ – whit wi’ the medicine an’ a’," she ventured.
"Nonsense lass! Whisky’s a
cure for all ills; I could do with one myself – I feel as if I’m coming
down with the flu’."
"Aye, but I’ve managed tae
stay off it a’ week," John added, as Mary complied with the request.
"No wonder you’re looking
so peely-wally." He poured two generous measures. "Get it down you lad –
you’ll be back at work in no time."
He recovered from the slip
and stayed dry for three days, although the strain made him edgy and
bitter, but when the flu’ symptoms hit him, he mixed a hot lemon drink
with sugar – then added some whisky. Mary looked on helplessly as he
distanced himself from her, moping about the house, refusing her every
offer of help or even sympathy. Medicines were left unopened as he dosed
himself on toddies that were mostly straight whisky. When bronchitis set
in, he took to keeping a bottle under the bed, reaching for it regularly
and automatically as his sleep pattern changed. During the third week Mary
asked Doctor Grant to drop by. "I canna tak’ much mair o’ it, Doctor. It’s
like the lad I merried has left me, an’ I’m nae strong enough tae manage
"It could be depression.
It’s common enough after an illness..."
"No, I ken whit it is -
it’s the whisky! Everybody roon’ here likes a drink, I ken that. God knows
we’ve had some rare parties an’ I like a drop mysel, but noo he jist canna
leave it alane."
"I see. Well all spirits
are depressants; that would explain the mood swings. Does he become
"No Doctor, we never fight.
I’m thinkin’ it might be better if we did. Surely there’s something…"
"I can prescribe tablets
that’ll make him sick every time he drinks – but I don’t think he’d take
them. He needs to dry out – get the poisons out of his system."
Mary leaned over and
squeezed her husband’s hand on the eiderdown. "Hear that John? You can get
The patient coughed and
opened his yellowish, bloodshot eyes. His lips barely moved. "I ken you
mean well Doctor, but I’ll manish fine," he mumbled. "I’ve got my appetite
back…I’ll be back at work on Monday…I dinna drink while I’m workin’."
"Aye, we’ll see," said
Mary. "I’m ashamed to face the dustmen, wi’ a’ them empty bottles in the
That’s all it would take to
be in control again. He had a responsible job that he’d proved he could
cope with. Life would get back to normal. It was bad enough being at
death’s door, without a wife that treated you like a bairn and a bairn
that treated you like a stranger.
Getting up was easy; the
bottle under the bed was long since empty and he craved another dram. When
the fourth one hit the spot he realised that shaving would be a risky job
after days of neglect. Mary hadn’t bothered to get up, but that was fine.
He stuffed the sandwiches in his pocket, ignoring the thermos flask.
As he approached the
cooper’s shed, the brewer tooted and waved on his way to the car park. He
would see the manager and Exciseman later for access to number one
warehouse. Best to check the older stock first. He felt a familiar nervous
twinge in his stomach - funny how the effects wore off so quickly these
days. He listened to the billings sloshing around inside as he rolled a
hogshead in from the yard. The markings told him it had previously
contained ten-year-old Glenlivet. Maybe half a gallon had seeped back from
the staves. He removed the bung and fetched a bucket.
On the first Monday of the
school holidays John came home to an empty house. Although devastated, the
note didn’t surprise him. "Dear John, Jenny and me have gone to stay at my
mother’s. I hope you see the doctor and get help. Mary." He sat for nearly
an hour, staring at the message. He phoned the doctor.
When the shakes and
sweating started on his second dry day, he put it down to lack of sleep
and not eating properly. The hallucinations were terrifying. At the end of
his third day he had an epileptic fit which seemed to last forever. When
he finally made it to the nearest bottle, he could think of only one way
to get rid of the anxieties.
At Aberkinnie Home Farm,
Mary was helping her mother with the washing up. "He canna help it mither;
he was a good man tae me ‘till the drinkin’ got oot o’ hand. Maybe he’ll
come tae his senses noo."
"It’s a wonder there’s
anything left tae drink the way he’s been knockin’ them back."
"Oh, he brings bottles hame
an’ planks them a’ ower the hoose."
Tam looked up from his
newspaper. "And you never thought to find them an’ pour them doon the
sink? Your as bad as him, you daft limmer."
"Mind your ane business,
Tam! You dinna ken whit you’re speaking aboot."
"That’s whit you said the
last time, but as lang as you’re under our roof lass, it is our
business and we’ll dae what we think is best."
In his stupor, John had
been only vaguely aware of the crashing sounds and other loud noises
around him. At six in the morning he reached under the bed for what was
left in the dock sample bottle. At nine he woke to another panic attack,
his guilty mind racing through fearful scenarios while his stomach
churned. Trembling, he staggered to the wardrobe, his arm sweeping the
dusty top, vainly searching. In the kitchen he realised the futility of
looking under the sink when he saw all the cleaning materials scattered on
the floor. Still in his underpants, he staggered to the garden shed, but
the door was already open and the contents lay scattered on the lawn.
Moaning and crying out, he wandered from room to room collecting every box
and bottle of medication he could find.
Mary brought her mother
with her when she came back to Glenlomas. Jenny played with her friends
while they busied themselves tidying up the bungalow. They brought John
back the next day. Mary waited till they’d gone before going to the
bedroom to see him.
She caught her refection in
the dressing table mirror and she was glad she got dressed for the
occasion. What was it he said again? Oh aye - "You look right bonny in
He looked much better now -
clean and smart for the first time in months. Visitors would notice. In
the black mohair suit as well – and that canny smile. She leaned over the
coffin and kissed him gently on the lips. "You look right bonny yersel,"
Then she collapsed on the
bed as her grief erupted.