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Open Features: Coatbridge's Daughter

...Back at home, his father taught him how to help out with the Croft: about hens, goats and lambs. There was no electricity, so home-work had to be done by paraffin lamp. The winters could be very cold and there was no double-glazing or central heating, and frequently he would wake up to ice on his windows.

Installed in the landscape of Easter Ross, Coatbridge was enthralled. He had only known industrial smoke and steel mills until now, and suddenly there was a whole new world right in front of him. He could enjoy it every day...

Linda McLean begins the story of her father who was born in a smoky industrial town, then, in boyhood, taken to live in a remote and beautiful part of northern Scotland.

Linda weaves her own experiences into a sensitive search for family roots and self-knowledge.

This is a work in progress. Further episodes of Coatbridge's Daughter will appear in Open Writing in the future.

Her real name was of no importance.

She stood alone in the Cemetery and drank in the view that surrounded her. To her left was the barren and rugged stretch of land known as Skaarvak to the locals. She had no idea why. Her eyes moved to the right, taking in the three little highland villages that were virtually conjoined, but each claiming its separate identity. Beyond them, out at sea, the sail of a yacht was silhouetted against the glowing orb of the rising sun. To her right she could see as far as the Well of Health, after that the promontory called The Nose blocked her vision.

There was no wind. It was extremely still, as if the whole world awaited her decision.

This was difficult. She was so unsure. She bared her head, and shook her hair free, trying to clear her thoughts. The main thrust of the story was of great importance.

So what were the facts, as she knew them?

The story had captivated her as a child, although maybe it was the way it was told, with its stark simplicity, and recounted as a child remembers that was the attraction. It began in Coatbridge in 1929, which was then a smoke and smog bound wilderness. It was at the peak of its manufacturing and industrial power, but this made it one of the most difficult and miserable places to live in Scotland. It was a poor grinding existence for many of the workers, and the Depression of the Thirties was about to strike with its full force.

This was the time her father had lived in that town. He was the son of a policeman, who on the point of retirement and with no prospect of a job in the Lowlands, decided to move north. It was essential that he earn some money over and above his police pension for his wife and young son. After much consideration the family removed to Easter Ross and took up crofting.

Nothing could have prepared the young boy for the culture shock he received. It was an awakening of immense proportions.

Never having been out of the town before, the journey North appeared to be one miracle after another. What was most confusing was that he was still in the same country – it wasn’t as if he had removed to a different continent. But that was how he perceived it. His destination was the Hill of Nigg, where his nearest neighbour was two miles distant.

Suddenly, there was peace, scenery and time to learn. The grinding pressure and the industrial smoke had gone, and in its place stood nature in all her beauty. School was seven miles away by bicycle, ther was no school bus, and although the thought daunted him at the start, he gradually began to enjoy these journeys more and more as he saw the countryside unfolding, changing from one season to the next.

If he found his new surroundings amazing, his peers were shocked at his ignorance. Here was a boy who could not identify a linnet or an oystercatcher or a peewit and he was twelve years old. It was almost unbelievable. They were thunderstruck that such lack of awareness of natural things should be able to occur. There was richness and poverty, and some had more than others, but nature was always there even for the poorest, they had believed.

And they did feel that he waxed eloquent about the scenery. It had always been there, and they supposed it was quite reasonable, but they wouldn’t have raved about it. It was simply home, and their perspective was totally different. Although when they heard about this Coatbridge place, they were very pleased that they did not live there, if there were no fields to play in or animals to tend, or beaches for when the sun shone. No - there was no doubting that the town Coatbridge sounded extremely depressing, and had obviously spawned an individual who knew none of the basics.
So it was decided to nickname the twelve-year-old boy Coatbridge, after his strange origins. None of them expected to go as far south as that at any point in their lives, and none had been farther south than Inverness. It was often said that there was nothing worth going south for.

“Coatbridge” became well versed in all things natural. Here was a world that he could explore and learn. Freedom now was his. He found that now his learning was not confined to the classroom, but was an ongoing process as he cycled to and from school taking in the sights and asking questions of his new friends. He carefully watched the changing seasons and nature’s various garbs – her dressing up and her dressing down, her fury and her gentleness entranced him.

Back at home, his father taught him how to help out with the Croft: about hens, goats and lambs. There was no electricity, so home-work had to be done by paraffin lamp. The winters could be very cold and there was no double-glazing or central heating, and frequently he would wake up to ice on his windows.

Installed in the landscape of Easter Ross, Coatbridge was enthralled. He had only known industrial smoke and steel mills until now, and suddenly there was a whole new world right in front of him. He could enjoy it every day for two hours all by himself, because of the cycle run. He had never believed that he could have enjoyed watching such simple changes so much from a bicycle. He had time to take in the budding flower or the changing colour of the leaves as the wheels went round and his legs pumped almost without his conscious knowledge.

There was fantastic undulating scenery, which stretched all the way to the sea. There were hidden caves to explore; there were miles of beach; there were flowers and gorse to add to the season’s distinctive flavour, and he perceived these qualities almost as a flavour as month succeeded month and the landscape changed day after day in front of his eyes. When he was convinced that it had reached its most beautiful, it altered again, and he was forced to revise his opinion.

It was as if layer upon layer of beauty was being added daily by nature, until it stretched the bounds of credibility. It was a world that had remained totally unknown to him, and he was saddened by the years he had been missed. The town could not compare nor have the same amount to offer as the country. Of course, he had to pick up the essentials at a rapid rate. There were birds’ names to learn, like linnet and oystercatcher, which he had never seen nor heard of before. He developed a hunger to be able to identify these birds by their call, and there were very few birds that Coatbridge was not familiar with after eighteen months. There was the sky at night, which looked so much brighter and clearer without its coating of fog, smokes and steams. He carefully took note of the constellations and began to practise naming them.

There was one very different advantage, his very special secret, and he kept this to himself.
High up on the hill beyond the croft his father had taken, lived an old lady. She lived a hermit-like existence, but she would welcome Coatbridge to her door. She had been widowed several years before, and had had enough of people, gossip and the world in general. Left childless, she intended not being a nuisance to anybody in her old age and she kept herself to herself. This kind of existence for a female, in this situation, was totally new to him and her fierce independence fascinated him.

Gradually, over the years he came to know her better than anyone else, and she became his confidante and friend. There was no schoolboy prank he could not tell her about, and nothing he could not ask her advice on. Equally, his lighthearted appreciation of the world and all living things came to her as a breath of fresh air. The young and the old completely complimented each other. He too had his loneliness, in the very new environment where people talked strangely and refused to acknowledge him by his own name. It rankled at first. The more he attempted to correct them the more he became Coatbridge. She helped him with this issue, telling him that it was part of the way of things in the North – everyone who was anyone had a nickname. This was of some comfort, and he gradually fell into the role expected of him. She held her own views and cleverly won round his arguments when they held debating sessions in the long dark winter nights.

It was nothing short of a magical existence.

There may have been an overload of beauty, but there was very little money. Frugality was the order of the day.

Remembering his stories, she wondered what particular parts were going to help her now.
She had now led a large part of her life in the central belt of Scotland, although with transport and connections that much quicker, she had access to her father’s paradise very easily. It was certainly a different world. Being overloaded with her problems, she had gone back to find an answer to where she herself had spent many childhood days, and to attempt to view her problems from a distance and less passionately.

For a large part of her life she had given of her time and expertise in working with a severely disabled friend. This friend was now dying. There was now going to be a large gap in her life, which had been so full before. What was she going to do with her time? Every service, every port of call had let her down. Could she use the knowledge she had gained and the difficulties that she had experienced to assist others? Could she, dare she, tell the story? A story which she was now certain, hundreds of other people knew to their cost, and she could not estimate how many had given their lives, simply because they cared, but were given little or no support.

What do you do in that situation, where there is somebody you care about, who is too vulnerable to leave?

When the simplest of your requirements is brushed aside by the very people you would expect to be helping?

You get downhearted.

You get stubborn.

You reckon that if nobody will help you, you will do it alone.

You begin to experience the loneliness of the long distance runner.

This was the spiral into which she had fallen, and emerging from it into the world again, was going to be extremely challenging.


The Rebirth

There are many amazing coincidences in life, and strange incidents of timing corresponding perfectly to match needs. Events, experiences, disasters all meld together in an individual’s experience to form character. The more testing the trials, the stronger the persona that emerges.

So it was then. She found herself beset with problems. Nothing was easy – everything was challenging. Sometimes she wondered if she had the strength to go on….. other times she was determined not to give in. Life was confronting her at every turn, and she was not resting on her laurels. It was obvious to her that her friend was dying- a process he had to go through alone. So much time had been devoted to writing policies, training staff, working her hours round the needs of the staff, doing without a life of her own, that she viewed the prospect of this loss with dread. The house had become very busy. There was a constant buzz of things happening as Peter, though even less able now, directed his staff in various directions. It was fun for them. They had not had such a varied job before – he could be very ill on a ventilator one minute and wanting the fish pond emptied the next. It could be the garden hedge that needed cutting or his hair. They all had their various strengths and weaknesses, and he worked round them all until he had found the one best suited to any particular task.

It was truly amazing where he found the strength from to maintain his interest in life. He was unable to do anything at all physically, paralysed from the neck down, but his was a silent if strong crusade to teach his staff what it could be like when the services were so poor, when there was no transport (although the government said there should be: when small faults were not fixed quickly, the impact it had on him. In the Health Service, it was desperate for him. For example, if his wheelchair broke down, it could take three days for someone to come and fix it. He had to sit in the one place, with his remote control and telephone beside him, and the staff used to become even more frustrated than he did. There was so little he could do then – and he was unable to supervise his staff at any outside job, which was essential to both parties. They knew he enjoyed directing, and they benefited from his input.


To be continued.


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