New 44 Scotland Street Chapter 66: Doon the watter

Nicola liked the look of Mrs Campbell. And it seemed to her that Bertie and Ranald Braveheart Macpherson thought the same as they were ushered into the sitting room of the house in Bearsden.

44 Scotland Street
44 Scotland Street

“They’re very excited,” Nicola told the teacher as Mrs Campbell’s husband showed the boys round the house. “Ranald was a bit too excited, in fact. He was sick in the car, I’m afraid. He talked about wanting to go back to Edinburgh, but Bertie seems to have settled him and he’s perked up a bit.”

Mrs Campbell looked sympathetic. “They’re very young to be away from home,” she said. “But the fact that there are two of them should make all the difference.”

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

Nicola agreed. “Yes, and Bertie is terribly happy to be in Glasgow. He’s talked about nothing else over the last few weeks.”

“Dear wee soul,” mused Mrs Campbell.

“Glasgow is a sort of promised land for him,” Nicola continued. “The background is a bit complex, I’m afraid. I’m his grandmother on his father’s side. The mother …” She paused. How could one describe Irene in her full enormity?

“Pushy?” prompted Mrs Campbell.

Nicola nodded. “I’m afraid so. Although pushy doesn’t quite do it justice. She’s pushy on an ocean-going scale.”

Mrs Campbell laughed. “Edinburgh is full of pushy mothers. It’s very strange – travel a few miles west, and the pushiness disappears. We don’t have that sort of thing in Glasgow at all.”

“You’re very fortunate,” said Nicola.

“We can be a bit boisterous,” went on Mrs Campbell, “but we’re not pretentious. Unlike Edinburgh.”

Nicola’s smile faded. “Not everyone in Edinburgh …” she began.

Mrs Campbell flushed. “Oh, I’m sorry, that was a bit tactless of me. I don’t really know Edinburgh. I went there once, but didn’t stay long, I’m afraid.”

“Well, there you are,” said Nicola. “I’ve brought you some pies, by the way. We visited a pie factory on our way here.”

She handed Mrs Campbell the packet of Scotch pies that she had been given in the factory. The teacher looked at the label. “Inclusive Pies? Oh, I love their pies. My absolute favourite. And Will’s too. He likes nothing more than a Scotch pie and these people make the very best in Glasgow.”

This pleased Nicola greatly, and she was still smiling when Will Campbell brought the boys back from their conducted tour of their new temporary home. He had shown them, too, the workshop at the back of the house, where he made and restored cellos. He offered to start them off on a woodwork project while they were staying – and Bertie and Ranald had eagerly accepted. If he could not be an apprentice pie-maker in Glasgow when he turned sixteen, Bertie thought, then he might become a woodworker instead. For his part, Ranald’s life ambition was rarely disclosed, although he did occasionally mention it to Bertie. He hoped to be a soldier in a Highland regiment and to lead his men against the English at some point.

After that, Nicola thought it best to go, as a prolonged leave-taking might bring on a recurrence, she feared, of Ranald’s incipient homesickness. Her departure, though, was a cheerful one, with the two boys standing at the window and waving to her as she got into her beige-coloured estate car and began the journey back to Edinburgh.

Mrs Campbell helped the boys unpack their clothes and place them in the drawers that she had cleared for them in the guest room. Then she revealed what was planned for the following day, a Sunday.

“Have you heard about the Waverley?” she asked. “It’s a paddle steamer. A very famous one.”

Bertie had. Ranald Braveheart Macpherson had not – which did not surprise Bertie, as he had found that Ranald knew very little about anything. “Do you mind not knowing anything?” he had once asked his friend, and Ranald had replied, “Not really, Bertie. I might know a bit more when I’m a bit older. Who knows?”

They went to bed early, as excitement had taken its toll and they were both exhausted. With the light in their room turned out, they went over the events of the day, reliving every detail of the visit to the pie factory and the drive to Bearsden. Ranald Braveheart Macpherson was still slightly nervous, but Bertie reassured him that it was highly unlikely that Mr and Mrs Campbell, in spite of their name, were directly descended from the Campbells at Glencoe whose standards of hospitality fell so short of what was expected.

They made an early start the following morning, and by ten o’clock they had embarked with the Campbells on the Waverley. The ancient paddle steamer drew away from the quay at Greenock, bound for the isle of Arran; on deck, Bertie and Ranald Braveheart Macpherson watched as they slipped out into the Clyde Estuary, the giant paddle wheels drawing them smoothly across the glassy surface of the water. Bertie’s heart was full. He was in Glasgow – or close enough – doing something that he knew was an old Glasgow tradition – going doon the watter. He had dreamed of this moment and now, so improbably, it had come true.

Will Campbell bought them fish and chips from the café, and they ate these on deck. There was a large party of young Glaswegians, a boys’ club, it seemed, and Bertie and Ranald stood shyly by as these boys started to sing Ye cannae shove your granny aff a bus: Bertie had heard of the song before, but had never had the chance to sing it in its correct cultural context. One of the boys in the group smiled at him and introduced himself. “They call me Wee Lard,” the boy said, smiling in a friendly fashion.

Unknown to Bertie, this was the son of Lard O’Connor (RIP), whom Bertie and his father had met before.

“You’re no frae Glasgow, are you?” said Wee Lard.

Bertie shook his head. “No, Edinburgh.”

Wee Lard shrugged. “There’s some things you cannae help,” he said, and offered Bertie a swig from his can of Irn Bru, which Bertie accepted.

It was perfect. The sun was out; the river was sparkling; the air was warm. Arran was soon before them, a green hill in a blue sea. Bertie had waited for this for years. For years he had endured a regime from which freedom and light had been excluded. Now that was over, and in his heart was a chorus of delight, like a swelling of exalting birdsong. No boy was ever happier.