Walter Gourlay became the
orra loon at Logiewell when he left Aberlour Orphanage at fifteen years
old. Orra loon is North-East of Scotland farming speak for extra hand or
spare lad, the scornful label following the recipient into old age. The
robust, handsome, introvert lad was taken to the farm in the warden's
black Buick, his first experience of motorised transport, fed jam
sandwiches by Ella Kirk, the farmer's wife, then shown his bothy - a shed
between byre and the stable, next to Glen's kennel.
A month later he bought a
bike to travel the forty-mile round trip to the home on Sundays. But soon
enough friends of his age group were despatched to more distant airts.
Walter knew he had to resign himself to the drudgery of Logiewell, which
entailed blind obedience to his devoutly religious, tyrannical master, as
well as to moody Alistair, his wayward son. Nonetheless, by the age of
twenty-three, he had visited Aberdeen and also North Africa - although
soldiers in World War Two missed out on the scenery.
The Kirks had farmed
Logiewell, with its stones and uneven, marshy ground, for generations.
Robert senior had returned from the First World War nursing a severe
facial injury, acquired, some said, not in the trenches, but accidentally,
on manoeuvres at Salisbury Plain. The wound healed badly, leaving his
mouth permanently distorted, in a lopsided grin that belied, or maybe
caused, his habitual dourness. Barring weekly services at nearby
Edenkillie Church, he and Ella lived reclusively on their four-horse
smallholding. Traditionally, their first son was named after his father,
Then five years elapsed before Alistair was born, with their daughter Jean
arriving a year later. They hired Walter as a replacement for young
Robert, when he joined the Royal Air Force, just after the war started.
Alistair was thrown out of agricultural college for misbehaviour.
The father tended to
compare his enlisted son's skills with hapless Walter's uselessness. He
imposed a strict discipline on the young orphan, peppered with biblical
quotes and paternal counsel. The youth, who had never known his parents,
accepted all of it in good grace, thankful for the crumbs of comfort
dispensed by Ella, in the form of patronising praise and extra helpings of
mince and tatties. When Robert junior was reported missing, shot down over
the English Channel, the old man retreated even deeper into gloom.
Alistair assumed more control of everyday affairs than his age and
unstable disposition justified.
For two years Walter
tolerated Alistair's hurtful 'orphan' remarks, knowing that at least the
father was a man of principle. His high standards were cruelly illustrated
in an anecdote conveyed to him by the blacksmith, soon after his arrival.
The farmer had been called to Forres by his son's headmaster, where he was
told of a serious charge of a sexual nature levelled at Alistair by the
parents of a female pupil. The case went to court and Alistair got twelve
strokes of the birch, which compared favourably with the extra hiding his
shamed father gave him.
The two seventeen-year-olds
were carting turnips home in the rain, both weary from their labours and
Crabby, the old grey mare, was struggling to pull the cart along the
winding muddy track. Walter jumped off to lighten the load, but Alistair
yanked on the reins, guiding the horse on to a steep banking used as a
shortcut by the cattle at milking time.
"Dinna be daft Ally,"
shouted Walter, "she'll never make it!"
"She'll bloody have tae!
I'm soaked to the skin." He raised the whip, stinging the big Clydesdale's
The panic-stricken beast
scampered up the incline, but when the weight of the laden cart pulled
against her, she collapsed in a heap between the shafts, puffing like a
labouring steam engine. Walter advanced towards the stricken beast,
penknife in hand.
"Aye, she's gettin'
past it, anyway Watty," said his companion. "better put 'er oot o' her
As Walter sliced the
harness securing the shafts, the weight of the load forced the unshackled
cart to tip backwards, throwing the driver to the ground amidst a heap of
"You stupid loon! My
father'll kill you! D'ye ken how much that harness cost?"
"No, and the harness is
maybe mair important to him than an orra loon, but it's still cheaper than
Walter spent an anxious
night in the bothy, but it was as if the traumatic event had never
happened. Crabbie's harness was replaced and afterwards Alistair spoke to
him only to discuss the day's work - almost, it seemed, with a tone of
When Robert suffered his
first heart attack, Jean left her boarding school and came home to help
her mother. Now sixteen, Walter had scarcely noticed her development from
gangling academy schoolgirl to attractive young lass. When she came home
between terms, she was always confined to the farmhouse with the family -
and Walter knew his place.
Now skilled and strong, the
farm servant followed war reports on his wireless in the bothy he now
shared with border collie Glen, but he brooked no grand illusions about
serving king and country. Wasn't the ailing king partly German? And what
chance did an orra loon have of owning a square inch of the country? All
the same, there were times when he felt drawn by a desire for adventure,
maybe even heroics. Yet the reality of battle scared him.
When he passed his medical
examination for the Gordon Highlanders, he accepted his fate
philosophically, celebrating his imminent departure with his first visit
to the Highland Games.
The carefree atmosphere
shocked the serious young adult, his formative years being devoid of
social interaction. He wandered around in shy confusion, eventually taking
refuse in the beer tent.
"Whit are you doin
Shocked surprise was
followed by disbelief that anyone there should know him. And who dared
challenge his right to be wherever he wanted to be? He blinked to gather
his thoughts, staring blankly into the bright blue eyes of his boss's
daughter. "Nane o' your business, Jean, I've the day off. I'm awa tae the
Brig o' Don barracks on Monday, ye ken."
She shifted her weight
awkwardly from one too-tight court shoe to the other, nearly tripping on
the uneven grass surface. "No...no...I didna mean tae be bossy. It was
jist the shock o' seeing you sitting there...in a suit!"
"I jist wanted to see the
games, Watty, that's a'. Mither's awa to Elgin getting' the messages.
She'll be back aboot six." As she blushed a deep crimson, she added "Whit
are you blushin' for loon?"
Walter pointed to the
bench. "Sit there and I'll buy drinks." He stuck his chest out as he
walked to the refreshment area. "I'm goin' tae be a sodger," he confided
to the barman, who allowed him a large whisky and a pint of India Pale
The young man, about to
spend three years at the beck and call of corporals, sergeants and other
ranks, felt a strange sense of freedom. The alcohol dispelling inhibition,
they were drawn towards the marquee by the stirring country-dance music
played by an accordion band. They staggered around the temporary flooring,
improvising a routine that bore no relation to the Eightsome Reel - or
even the Gay Gordons. Soon Ella arrived to frogmarch the dishevelled pair
from the tent. In the back seat of the Austin Eight, Walter crooned bothy
ballads he'd heard on the wireless, while the farmer's wife lectured her
errant daughter about the evils of drink.
Walter lay awake in the
lamplight, euphoria now replaced by guilt and fear, yet it was no surprise
when she came to him just after midnight. Earlier she had been telling him
of her lonely life at boarding school, which he related to his own
experiences in the orphanage. She added that when her mother showed her
affection, the old man would intervene and make her feel worthless. They
recognised a need in each other.
When the door hinges
creaked and Glen growled softly, he'd been lost in thought. Then she was
kneeling by his bed, angelic in a white cotton nightdress, her pale beauty
accentuated by the glow of the paraffin lamp. He cradled her in his arms,
his guilt shut out by the heady mixture of longing and lust. Then, as
desire overtook them, more fear of the unknown.
News of Robert's second and
fatal stroke reached Walter as he sailed from Southampton. On the voyage
he contemplated life at Logiewell with Alistair in charge. He could always
sign on again, he thought, should he be lucky enough to return. Then as
the campaign raged on in North Africa and his division engaged the enemy
at close quarters, the scenes of mass slaughter in the unbearable heat
concentrated his mind only upon survival.
With no word from Jean
since embarkation, in quieter moments he took to reading the small volume
of poems and songs by Robert Burns he'd bought from a stall in Aberdeen's
Market Street. The last four lines of a ballad held significance for him,
even in that bleak, desert wasteland -
There's no' a bonnie
flower that springs
By fountain, shaw, or green;
There's no' a bonnie bird that sings,
But minds me o' my Jean.
When an infected shrapnel
wound to the thigh ended his tour of duty, Walter spent many months in
army hospitals abroad and back in Britain. Letters from Jean were
assuring, but hints about Alistair's drinking, his neglect of the farm and
her mother's worsening TB, suggested the welcome might not be unanimous.
When he was discharged,
just before VE Day, he went back to Logiewell, the only home he had.
The aging collie ran out to
greet him, warily. It wasn't just the daft navy blue pinstripe demob-issue
suit that made Walter feel strange, but the sight of the neglected
whitewashed walls of the house and stedding, with rusty, abandoned
implements scattered around. Huge nettles sprouted through gaps in the
cobbled yard while the once-tidy drying green was a mess of cornflower and
Alistair opened the front door. "Well, well - look what Glen brought back
fae the midden!"
Jean came running,
instinctively hugging the homecoming soldier, before reverting to the
casual, formal attitude she was brought up with. "Aye, come awa in Watty.
You've been sorely missed. Put your suitcase doon by the door."
"So you're a hero noo, eh
Watty?" said Alistair, as tea was being poured. "Killed three Germans, I
hear. Is it true?"
Walter stared at the
carpet. "Where did you hear ..."
"Robertson fae the Hatton.
His son Tam joined the Gordons, jist efter you. Well, is it a fact?"
"Leave him be, Ally," said
Jean hurriedly. "Think shame! Whit a thing to ask onybody!" Then to
Walter, hurriedly, "We've been short-handed these past years. You'll be
staying: at least for the harvest eh? I've tidied the bothy. Mither'll be
relieved to ken you're safe," she said, with a meaningful glance at her
brother, "my auntie in Nairn is lookin' efter her. I visit every week."
In spite of Jean's
ceaseless flow of conversation, Walter didn't doubt who was the dominant
sibling. Although he appreciated her intervention, he knew Robert's death
hadn't changed Alistair's attitude towards him. But her eagerness for him
to stay was more than matched by his own desire to be close to her. And
the bothy now boasted an electric bedside lamp.
His physical wound would
heal, he knew, but the scars on his soul would remain forever.
A Fordson Major tractor had
replaced the Clydesdales, with the stables converted to garage it. Gone
too was the herd of Aberdeen Angus beef cattle, their show-winning
rosettes still tacked to the wall. Only a few of the Ayrshire milkers
remained in an untidy byre, a symptom of the malaise that pervaded the
Harvesting of the corn and
barley was already behind schedule, and Walter had his own reasons for
working most of the daylight hours to catch up. First amongst these was
the need for a proper, nightmare-free, sleep. While Alistair sloped off to
the Masons Arms, he would spend time fine-tuning the tractor, the farm's
only workhorse now. He acquired spare parts and turned the garage into a
workshop, experiences of vehicles abandoned in the desert a constant
reminder to him of mechanical fallibility. Jean was equally busy,
contending with the cooking, visiting her mother, and even helping out in
the fields when she could. Alistair just kept on being Alistair, despite
the shortage of labour at the time, and provoking Walter was still his
"Ye ken, Watty, I
dinna believe you killed any Germans at a'. Ye widna hae it in ye. Whit do
you say Tam?" His second remark was to young Tom Robertson, who'd come
over for the day to help with the threshing. It was traditional that
neighbouring farmers would rally round on the busiest day of the season.
Jean had brought tea and homemade scones and the tired workers were
sitting by the last of the corn stacks for their afternoon break.
Tom squirmed and toyed with
the straw beneath him. "Aye, well, my regiment never got as far as Africa
- and I'm bloody glad they didna. That's a' I'm saying."
"Aye, but ye ken Watty well
enough. He couldna even put auld Crabbie oot o' her misery when she was
nearly gasping her last. C'mon Watty, own up!"
Walter finished his tea and
stood up, staring long and hard at his employer. "I'm warning you noo,
Ally - stick tae things that ye ken aboot." He turned away to check the
tension on the drive belt between the tractor and the threshing machine.
"Even if that's little enough," he added.
She came to him in his
bothy at dusk, the first time he'd seen Jean on her own since he came
back. Not that he had made any effort to persuade her; there were things
going on in his head that no-one could share, least of all the girl he
loved. They held each other close, then sat on the bed.
"I came to tell you
there's nae much money for your wages. We've been in debt since we bought
the tractor, but we'll be selling the grain soon..."
"So you've come tae share
my bed instead, eh Jean?" he chided. "That's fine wi' me. The debt widna
be because Ally's drinkin' a' the profits, would it?"
"It's nae funny Watty. And
that stuff Ally keeps askin' aboot Germans; maybe you'd feel better tellin'
me," she said gently. "Ye need tae get it aff your conscience.."
"You jist widna believe
whit happened oot there; there's nithing I can compare it wi'." His eyes
pleaded for understanding. "Maybe sometime...but you've enough to worry
aboot wi' your mither's illness and your brither running the ferm into the
"But Watty, you've been sae
quiet since you came back. Can you nae be strong, stand up to
"No, I canna fight your
battles lass. I'm still jist the orra loon in the bothy an' that's a' I'll
aye be to your femily. Aye, and tae think this is whit I fought for, this
is whit I ki..." He reached over and pulled her close; she was sobbing
now. "Oh, Jean, I'm sorry. Pay nae heed. I dinna ken whit gets into me
She shook him off and
rushed out, dabbing her handkerchief to her eyes.
Ella's funeral was at
Edenkillie Church. Local farmers were there in their dark Sabbath suits,
though they'd hardly known the reserved farmer's wife. Besides Alistair
and Jean, the only close relative there was Mary, Ella's more robust
younger sister. When Walter tried to express his condolences, she turned
away, scooping up the little girl she'd brought with her, as if the farm
labourer might be harbouring a disease.
Following the harvest,
incessant rain added to the depressive mood at Logiewell. Neglected
drainage caused fields to flood and ploughing becoming a hazardous chore.
Walter was offered well-paid work with the only agricultural engineer in
the district, which he declined without really knowing why. Jean was civil
to him, but distant. If he wondered whether she was avoiding him, with her
almost daily visits to her aunt in Nairn, he never mentioned it And his
tormenter was testing his patience with continual snide references to
Walter's active service.
Because of his dedication
to work, and his boss's lack of it, the orra loon was given a free hand.
"I'm takin' a
plough-share tae the smiddy," he told Alistair, late one afternoon. "I'll
nae be hame for supper. Tell Jean for me; I'll maybe stop in by the Grouse
Inn on the way back."
"Aye, okay loon, tak yer
time. It'll dae yi' good."
In the relaxed atmosphere
of the remote little public house, Walter was sipping his fourth pint of
heavy beer, grateful for the dulling effect of the alcohol on his senses.
Only the friendly tone of Alistair's parting remark troubled him. Two
drinks later, he bid the landlord goodnight and strapped the piece of
heavy steel to the handlebars of the solid Raleigh Roadster, worrying
about Jean, and convinced that his devious employer had something in mind,
other than his employee's welfare.
The day-long blue sky,
cloudy now and darkness falling fast, he turned off the main road, on to
the beech-lined, pitted track that led to Logiewell. His eyes now
accustomed to the gloom, he freewheeled the down slope, carefully avoiding
familiar potholes. Nearing the bend close to the farmhouse, he looked up
fleetingly. What he saw, just yards ahead, made him lose all
co-ordination, except the instinct to brake. The bike fell to the ground
as he tugged on the straps securing the ploughshare.
As the moon broke through
the clouds, it lit up a white-shrouded apparition, calling his name and
uttering insulting phrases in a strange German accent. His heartbeat raced
as the ghost advanced slowly towards him. He thought, momentarily, of the
last, quite recent, time he had experienced such terror, but the heavy,
sharpened steel share was in his grasp now, and his regimental motto was
in his mind - Stand Fast.
He judged his swing well,
ensuring that the sharpened weapon made contact with apex of the white
target, as soon as it came within arms reach. The pole-axed figure groaned
only once, then twitched a few times in the moonlight. Walter remounted
his bike and cycled back to the main road. There he gathered his thoughts,
before turning towards Forres and the police station.
He knew by the feel and
sound of the blow that he had killed - again. Then he saw in his mind, the
bodies of three German soldiers, lying by their retreating gun-carrier -
axle-deep in sand. Three young men with more to live for than he ever had.
He screamed to his God for understanding.
Jean didn't come to see him
before the trial, nor did she attend the proceedings. On the stand,
Walter's commanding officer described him as an exemplary soldier, whose
bravery in action accounted for the deaths of least three enemy soldiers.
The irony, in a murder trial, of being described as a killer, didn't
escape Walter, although it made him think long and hard about that fateful
night at the farm. Was his reaction simply panic? Self-preservation? Or
was he aware, even in that fleeting moment, that the spectre was just his
deranged employer dressed up in a sheet? Did he wield the weapon in fear
or anger, even hatred? The charge was reduced to culpable homicide and he
was sentenced to five years.
It was a year later when
she visited him in prison. She looked distressed.
"I've something to
tell you Watty."
He studied her face,
seeking a clue to the betrayal. She was still lithe and bonny, but her
eyes no longer sparkled. "Oh aye? Took ye lang enough, lass."
"I'm getting' merried...tae
Tom Robertson fae the Hatton. I canna cope wi' the ferm by mysel' and
Tam's been a big help."
"Aye, and his father's nae
short o' a bob or two either."
"I'm fond o' him..." She
"I'm sorry if ye think I
deserted ye by getting' jailed," he said eventually, "but it was Alistair
doin,' nae mine."
She turned and walked to
the exit, glancing round once. "I owed it tae ye to tell ye tae yer face,
He pursed his lips, shaking
his head slowly from side to side. "I'm thinkin' maybe you owe me a wee
bit mair than that," he murmured, but only to himself.
Suicide attempts delayed
his integration, but after a while Walter accepted the prison regime,
making plans for a future upon his release. It was much later that he came
to accept his situation. Orphans, he decided, had little or no chance of
living a normal life. Without parents, they were set loose with only a
strict grounding in Christianity to guide them, bible wisdom that was
irrelevant in the real world, and people who sought to employ kids from
the home were seldom inspired by selfless motives. Life in the army was
more akin to that in the home. With nowhere to turn in his loneliness, he
penned a letter to the warden.
He was amazed when he
received four letters from former classmates, answering each of them on
the day they arrived. Three were from boys he had known and liked, two of
whom had gone to HMS Ganges as naval cadets and the other now a corporal
in the Black Watch. The other note was from Margaret Fraser. He remembered
her well enough as a nice-looking, shy girl, who embarrassed him regularly
by leaving love letters in his desk, during the third year. From the tone
of her correspondence, it was plain her feelings hadn't changed, not even
asking an explanation for his current dire circumstances.
As Margaret proved her
commitment by visiting regularly, he became aware that their renewed
acquaintance went deeper than just a shared upbringing. When he wrote to
Allan Shaw, who owned the farm machinery workshop in Forres, the offer of
work was still open. Indeed the man's faith in Walter was such that he
guaranteed lodgings as well. A year later Margaret was able to leave her
life of refined slavery, as a housemaid at Tulloch House, on the Countess
of Shellfield's estate. They married at Elgin Registry Office, renting one
of the many farm workers cottages left empty after the war. Though post
war shortages continued to affect the lives of many, the couple hardly
They took the twins to the
Nairn Games when they were two. The event was historically a family day
out, where sideshows, dodgem cars, coconut shies and shooting galleries
vied for patronage alongside serious sporting events such as caber tossing
and Cumberland wrestling. By late afternoon, parents as well as
youngsters, weary of the noise and heat, gravitated towards the gates
leading to the bus stop.
The two families were
facing each other at close quarters before they realised. Walter
instinctively stopped walking, placing his arm around Margaret as she
frowned and steadied the pushchair.
Jean looked much older than
passage of time could account for, having acquired her mother's unbecoming
seriousness. For a few seconds he pictured how she had been on the night
of their fumbling lovemaking in the bothy. Tom Robertson towered
protectively over his wife, while aunt Mary stood some distance away,
fussing over an ice-cream stain on the young girl's dress. The girl seemed
surprisingly tall for her age.
"Aye Jean, it's been
a lang time." He nodded to the man. "Tam."
"Watty," she acknowledged,
her eyes moving towards the mother and children.
Walter, who had earlier
fought off the instinct to doff his cap, now struggled for words. "This is
my wife Margaret... Eh...the loons are twins...they're, eh, two an' a bit.
Meg, this is Jean an' Tom. They ferm Logiewell, ye ken - where I used tae
Margaret dropped her eyes
in deference, blushing awkwardly, looking as if unsure whether to shake
hands or curtsy. "Pleased to meet you, I'm sure."
At the bus stop, Walter
turned to watch the other family as they boarded their car. The young girl
appeared to be gazing at him as they drove past.
Margaret broke the
silence. "Watty, ye' hivna said a word since we met that couple. Is there
Walter shook his head, a
wry smile on his lips. He pulled her close. "No lass, nothing's wrang.
I've a bonnie wife and twa strappin' bairns; whit else could a man ask
The girl in the car looked
back at the bus stop until it was just a speck on the horizon. She was a
healthy ten-year-old, who would never lack love or security. Yet, like
Walter, she would never know her real father. Then again, with luck, she'd
never need to.
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