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The Road to Inveramsay
By Kenneth Roy (2001)

In his book, In Case of Any News, Kenneth describes the charity he created – The Young Programme – as his 'pride and joy'. In this speech, first delivered at an event held by the Institute of Contemporary Scotland (another charity founded by Kenneth), he explains where the idea came from and what guides its ethos.

A few years ago, I went on a journey to somewhere undiscovered in my own country. A train took me to the northern city of Aberdeen and another north-west to the small town of Inverurie. Even here, my journey was not quite over. Still ahead of me lay the road to nowhere, a place that no longer appeared on any map. I asked in the shops and streets for directions to this place; no-one had heard of it. Eventually, an ancient taxi driver was engaged – someone who knew the lie of the land – and we drove in silence for some miles along a straight, flat road flanked by sparsely populated countryside. And then, apparently in the middle of nowhere, he stopped the car and announced that we had reached our destination. I found myself on the platform of an abandoned rural railway station, now reduced to a tangle of weeds and broken wood.

Something remarkable once happened at this exposed and overlooked spot, and to understand what it was, I have to take you back 80 years to a very different world. In the 1920s, you could take a slow meandering train from Inveramsay to the town of Macduff, 29 and three-quarter miles distant, stopping at Wartle, Rothie Norman, Fyvie, Auchterless, Turriff, Plaidy, King Edward and Banff Bridge. If you were lucky, or unlucky, depending on your point of view, you would buy your ticket at Inveramsay from a singular young man known as the railway clerk before being waved off in the general direction of Wartle. And if you were very lucky, or very unlucky, depending on your point of view, the train would be badly delayed and the railway clerk would usher you into a roughly assembled shack known locally as Utopia.

I will describe Utopia. It consisted of two rooms. One half of it was partitioned off for sleeping. In the other half, there were two chairs, a table, a paraffin lamp, a paraffin stove, and scores of books gathered into shelves to form an informal library or study. It was, as Utopias go, rather Spartan.

While passengers waited for trains, they became subject to inquiry; and the more important or self-important they were, the more challenging that inquiry tended to be. The local minister, poor fellow, was once asked to explain the difference between the first three Gospels on the one hand and St John's Gospel on the other; what Luke meant by The Kingdom; and what proof he had that Matthew the publican and Matthew the evangelist were one and the same person. The provost of Inverurie was asked how many tons of coal Britain exported every year. A Church of Scotland missionary became involved in a long debate about India. The ideas of people like Wells and Shaw, Bertrand Russell and John Stuart Mill, were discussed, dissected and disputed. Scripture was extensively quoted and examined. All this, when all the travelling public had paid for was a cheap day return to Macduff.

Sometimes, after the last train of the day had gone, the railway clerk and his young friends would settle down in Utopia, light the lamp, and talk long into the night about everything in heaven and earth; and the only sound, apart from the sound of their intense conversation, was the occasional glug glug of the stove. One night, they discussed at length the problem about sex; I understand that, after many hours, they came to the encouraging conclusion that there is no problem about sex.

On 1 October 1951, the branch line from Inveramsay closed to passengers. They dismantled the line with the usual indecent haste. And many years after that, in 1989, a dying man called Robert Mackenzie, a teacher and radical, wrote about the shack at Inveramsay and the railway highwaymen of rural Aberdeenshire who created a library and started a debating society on the station platform. As a very young man, Mackenzie had been an occasional late night guest at the shack – an invitation to Utopia being considered an honour and privilege.

Inveramsay, then, was a curious phenomenon; and perhaps a product of its age. It was a world in slow transition from religious certainties to political idealism; a world that had just endured the unimaginable losses of the First World War; a world in which questions had to be urgently asked, and just as urgently answered. All the same, we are entitled to wonder what happened to that spirit of independent inquiry, that burrowing into everything, that outburst of thought and questioning, that longing of the young people of Aberdeenshire to make sense of their experiences, that desire for something to give direction and meaning to their lives.

Yes, we are entitled to wonder what happened, and of course, there is an obvious answer. You could say that the spirit of Inveramsay has been formalised and fostered in the great post-war scheme of higher and further education. For don't we spend most of our youth thinking and questioning? No need now for Utopia on a station platform when we have Utopia on a grand and universal scale – education as a commodity, plentiful as tap water, assessed and graded for its various degrees of purity. Yet there seems to be a problem – not about sex, but about education.

The principal of a Scottish university with whom I had dinner recently admitted to a feeling of despair. It seemed to him that, despite his best efforts, and for those efforts he had gained nothing less than a knighthood, it seemed to him that, among the young – young men in particular – it is no longer cool to be bright. I thought of the railway clerk transplanted to the year 2007, a 2:2 honours graduate of the University of Inverurie, eagerly dissecting the copy of The Sun discarded on the platform, and discussing with the provost and minister the relative merits of this year's Big Brother contenders, a young man striving hard to be cool and, of course, unbright.

It is the hope, indeed the contention, of our programme that coolness and brightness are not necessarily incompatible, but that, somehow, the mass industrial approach to education needs to be softened by an alternative more intimate and more intellectually free; that, in some way, it is possible to recapture Inveramsay and reinterpret it for the modern world. All our programme seeks to do, and it is essentially a modest aspiration, is to create for a tiny group of disparate individuals, from many different backgrounds and life experiences, a climate, an atmosphere, a setting, which encourages the same sense of intellectual excitement, the same human bond, the same explosion of restless energy as was once spontaneously combusted in a lonely railway shack.

We have to believe, do we not, that some things still matter. Otherwise, what is the point of our existence? What matters about Inveramsay? What is it telling us?

Accept nothing: challenge everything: that matters.

Question authority: that matters.

Scrutinise established ways of thinking and doing: that matters.

Apply individual personal understanding to known facts: that matters.

Other more complex things matter too. The unmapped places of the world matter. The road to nowhere matters.

Branch lines matter. They have all gone as physical artefacts – grassed over and eroded by rain and gravity as completely as any Roman road or earthworks. But they can still exist in our imagination. The main line proceeds at speed to a predictable and deadly terminus. On a mainline, the light at the end of the tunnel is that of the oncoming train. Choose instead the gentle and meandering branch line of unorthodox thought and feeling. Non-conformity matters.

The cross-section matters perhaps as never before in our history. That principle which brought together the people of rural Aberdeenshire, rulers and ruled, old and young, alike. The same principle that inspires and motivates our own programme, bringing together under the same roof the jailers and the jailed, atheists and true believers, gay and straight, those who would torture and those who would not.* Bring together such a cross-section and get them talking long into the night, and discord can begin to sound unexpectedly harmonious. The cross-section – our best hope; perhaps our only one.

Inveramsay also informs us that nothing lasts. The recognition that nothing lasts also matters. The branch line to all those lovely places had a life shorter than some human spans. The shack was of flimsy construction – fragile and vulnerable – as easily destroyed as the glittering city. And the railway clerk – he was last heard of in Putney, working as a barman – what on earth happened to him? Where did all that curiosity go? All that hope? What was his name? Who remembers him now? Nothing lasts.

The ultimate award in our annual programme, the award of Young Thinker of the Year, is named in memory of a young Scottish journalist, Richard Wild, who was murdered in Baghdad. I call to mind two sentences of devastating truth and simplicity expressed by Richard Wild's father on the final night of one Young Scotland Programme: 'If you want to say something to somebody, say it now. If you want to do something, do it now'.

Of course, that matters more than anything.

* This refers to a question often debated at programmes in the first few years of the new millennium: 'In the war on terror, is the use of torture ever justified?'


Postscript. When Kenneth first delivered the Inveramsay lecture, he never imagined that he would one day know the name of the railway clerk. However, Barbara Millar, with the help of a genealogist friend, succeeded in discovering who he was:

R F Mackenzie said the unnamed railway clerk was last heard of working as a barman in Putney. He never actually had such a job. And he is no longer unknown.

The railway clerk was Allan (later changing the spelling to Alan) Gray Law, born on 7 May 1907 at Kirkton of Rayne in rural Aberdeenshire, one of 11 children. He was brought up on a farm where his father bred heavy horses. He was a contemporary of R F Mackenzie whose own father was stationmaster at Wartle, one stop on the line from Inveramsay.

Alan Law took up employment on the railways in 1927. His friend, the shunter, with whom he shared the two-roomed shack they called Utopia, was Bill Drummond, who was also his brother-in-law. Alan had married Bill’s sister Bella and they had four children – Michael, Lizi, Alan and David. Alan resigned from the railways in 1930, left Aberdeenshire and moved to London.

For most of his life he worked on the financial and administrative sides of civil engineering projects, his work taking him to the Middle East, Africa, North and South America: he was involved in work on the docks in Port Talbot, the Suez Canal, the port in Aden and bridges in the Caribbean. In later life, he and Bella moved to Winchester. He died on 27 September 1979 from prostate cancer. He was 72. He maintained a well-stocked library throughout his life. And he never told his children about Utopia.

Kenneth Roy died in 2018

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