Non Rebel and Rebel Unite

By Alex Nicoll, @@

“You’ll be starting at the farm on Monday,” my dad said. I stood silent, dumfounded. Words wouldn’t come. No rebellion. How could I, a bookish 15 year old, possibly cope with such a job? I’d just left school, after 3 years secondary education, and for this. The 2nd youngest in a family of 10 children, I was the only one given such an opportunity. Though brought up on farms I knew little farm work, and even less about horses. Gathering Kerr’s pink tatties into sculls every autumn, was the limit of my knowledge. Well, it was wartime and job openings were scarce; I just had to get on with it. It meant I’d be working with grown men, and expected to be capable of all the normal jobs of the farm. Tending and harvesting Chance (the farm’s horse), and hard grind in the fields at harvest time, were now to be my lot.


On the first morning, I wasn’t sure how to harness Chance, and only managed by watching what the other men were doing. The gaffer kept saying I looked awkward, and I certainly felt it. At that stage, I should have rebelled, and walked out of the stable, but I didn’t. In the following weeks, my knowledge of the work improved a bit, and I began to cope. However, the pattern of my response to difficulties had been set, and it was to govern my behaviour for the rest of my life. Say nothing, keep the head down, and don’t complain.


As time went by, I became fond of Chance. However, a serious incident occurred in my work with him, and the memory of it still bothers me. One afternoon, the gaffer told me to get a load of turnips from a field with a steep brae, and I set off with Chance. As I threw turnips into the cart, it started going backwards – as did poor Chance. He fell over, and kept thumping his head on the ground, as he tried to get up. He ended up going blind in one eye as a result. We continued to work together during the rest of my tenure on the farm, but I always felt guilty about it. If I’d had the courage to rebel when told about the job, Chance would not have suffered.


In the autumn of that year, the farmer sold up, and my job ended. I started to think about other careers, but my dad took charge again. He engaged me to work with a single horse on a farm about ten miles away. Moreover, I now had to live in the farm bothy, and care for myself. At 17, I was totally unprepared for such a life – I didn’t know even how to make porridge. Fortunately, the only other occupant of the bothy was a 35 year old man, who was helpful and understanding. The gaffer and his wife were childless, and they too recognised my lack of knowledge and insecurity. This all helped me to settle down to bothy life.


Ten months later, I was able to get away from farm life when I was called up for a flying career. I had been a member of the Air Training Corps and was eligible for that branch of the Navy. I was all set for my new career but, sadly, I failed the initial exams. The country chiel wasn’t really prepared for realms of psychology tests. I was reclassified into the R.N. proper and qualified as a coder in the Communications Branch. I kept my head down and stayed out of trouble. I met a nice girl in England who was keen for my company, but I didn’t do right by her. When posted overseas, I just stopped writing, and gave no explanation. Not a nice way to treat anyone. My way of dealing with the serious aspects of a situation was just to opt out.


After demobilisation, I found employment with firms which supported the farming industry. In one, at the annual dance, a female secretary, much older than myself, suggested I escort her home, at the end of the night. I agreed, and said I’ll see you later. But I left early and hurried home. I was definitely not an honourable young man with red blood. The next day, she asked me what happened. I lied, and said I’d missed her in the darkness. Looking back to that night, I regret that I left.


Where is all this leading? This unwillingness to rebel, or stand up for myself. Well I met a Highland girl. Despite her quiet manner, she had the strength of character to hold to her beliefs. She had served her time training to be a bookbinder, and one day was asked to sweep and clean the floor. She refused, and, after an argument with her supervisor, walked out of the job. She found employment with another printing firm fifteen miles away which meant early bus journeys, and longer hours. Importantly too, despite parental objections, she continued her relationship with me, and, against their wishes, we got married. Yes, a real rebel had joined a non-rebel in marital union, and it lasted until she passed away 57 years later.


In our lives together, we seldom had any serious disagreements. This was especially true in family matters, and in the raising of our two daughters. When they were very young children, she had to cope on her own with them, when I was away in Glasgow working. She sometimes tried to provoke me into standing up for myself, and kept asking why I was being overlooked for promotion. I was just behaving in my normal way, and avoiding the difficult tasks. My wife didn’t seem to be all that curious about my early years, and I never did tell her about my life in the bothy. “Aye, keep some things tae yerself,” as my mum used to say.


rebel partnership, memory, identity