Out of the Camp

Out of the Camp Ch. 38 – Gilmerton Dykes to Hyvots to … 

It didn’t take long thanks to Edinburgh’s council house tenant exchange programme, for Mr. Smith’s singing and drinking and yelling to move us along once again to our next destination, Hyvot Avenue. At least this time we had the consolation that, at barely five-minutes from Gilmerton Dykes Crescent, it wasn’t so far to drive as last time. Our new home was a flat on the first floor of a council block with a terrace running along the length of the building giving access to each home. I didn’t like it much; I was actually surprised, that my mother agreed to the exchange because there was no garden and my mother loved to garden. Our partners in the exchange must have been thrilled to be moving from a block of flats (apartments) and into a house with only four flats in a block, and all with their own garden. I hope their nerves were in better shape than my mothers and that Mr. Smith’s singing wouldn’t bother them otherwise they’d be getting back onto the exchange register again. We discovered shortly after moving in that it seemed we had a semi-famous neighbour, Jimmy McKinlay living next door. He told my parents that he was a former member of the Corries Folk group. He seemed like a nice guy and was always very interested in my singing activities whenever we spoke. The funny thing was that there was a boy in my class at school called Tom Smith, no relation to our sozzled former neighbour, and who’s brother, Bill, had been a member until he decided to leave the group. Anyway, I wanted to get my facts straight, so I was checking the Corries’ history on Wikipedia and discovered that there is no mentioned of anyone called Jimmy McKinlay ever having been a member. I expect that there’s a perfectly simple explanation but one that I’ll probably now never know. 

I’d given Jimmy a lift into town one morning on my way to work and we were sitting on Gilmerton Road at the Liberton Road traffic lights waiting to turn right on our way into town when out of the blue we were rear-ended by a car. We were both thrown back quite violently and in fact Jimmy complained of neck pain from whip-lash for a few days following the accident. It mightn’t have been so bad had I not been driving a small Renault van which, in those days, seemed to be made from a very soft metal. Mr. Crombie, my boss at Tynecastle Radio, owners of the brand new van, was apoplectic as it was a total write-off and, despite the fact that we weren’t moving when it happened, he obviously held me responsible and couldn’t bring himself to look at me. Anyway, it was decided that they wouldn’t be buying any more of those puny Renaults and in future stuck to the tried and tested Austin A60 vans.

Years later, when we were living in MacDuff in the mid-70s Mary and I went to a Billy Connolly concert across the Deveron Bridge at the Banff Springs Hotel in Banff. I don’t think they could have had a suitable hall to hold the event in because they sort of modified the restaurant and put a platform in one corner for Billy to stand on. This should have been an adequate solution to a fairly straightforward problem, and it would have been but for two critical issues that may not have been properly addressed. He wasn’t all that well known at the time although he certainly had a loyal following in Scotland and its possible that the numbers taking up the ‘pay at the door’ option, took the hotel staff totally by surprise and utterly overwhelmed the room. Restaurant chairs had been laid out in rows facing the temporary platform, but they were totally inadequate, and staff were hurriedly bringing in more chairs and increasing the rows to accommodate the rapidly swelling audience. Shortly after Billy started there were several incidents of shuffling chairs by people who had been placed behind pillars in the room – presumably there to support the roof – and who couldn’t see the show. There were a few angry exchanges between people who were being disturbed by others shifting their seats because they couldn’t see, and this might have escalated into a physical altercation had not Billy’s quick wit intervened and alleviated the situation. Ultimately, the problem was resolved by staff members who rearranged the seating in such a way that no one was left stuck behind a pillar.
You’d think that the potential for just such a problem as this might have been foreseen, but apparently not!  However, things went from bad to worse when the sound system, which wasn’t up to the task in the first place, started to malfunction and there began a chorus of cat-calling and general complaining from people who couldn’t hear, and this wasn’t isolated to one area. Complaints were coming from all quarters of the hall. The issue wasn’t ever resolved completely, and a lot of folks went home that night very unhappy and feeling cheated. Years later, Billy, putting a lighter spin on things, was still alluding to this incident in his act, sending up the whole evening and referring to the blameless city of Banff “a slight explosion between the legs.”
The door was opened by a middle-aged lady in what I think was a dressing gown. She kept the outer screen door closed and I think simply said, “Yes?” Continuing the conversation through the screen, I asked if Mr. ________ was home and she said that “No, he’s out of town for a couple of days. Can I help?”  This really threw me. In all my optimism and naïveté, I hadn’t anticipated this, and I had to get back to Boston in a couple of days for the recording session so I couldn’t hang around. I said, “Oh, that’s a pity. I’ve come a very long way to see him. Would you mind if I asked you one or two questions?” I think she was intrigued and could see that I was shaken by this development and, with me dressed up all nicely in a suit, collar and tie, felt comfortable enough to open the screen and continue the conversation face-to-face. I asked, “Was Mr._________ in the Royal Canadian Air Force during the war?” Looking even more intrigued she answered, “Yes?” I continued, “Was he by any chance in England in the mid-40s, say 1945-46?” By this time the intrigue was slowly transmuting into apprehension. “Yes?”, she repeated with even more of a questioning inflection, and waited. I hesitated. What the hell was I to do. Remember, I’d been on the go since early morning and it was now 10.30pm eastern time, 7.30pm where I now was in the west, and I was mentally and physically exhausted and not a little anxious. In hindsight, of course, I should have checked into an hotel for the night and faced my challenge the following morning, fresh and rested. Seconds ticked by as she watched me, my brain spinning, curiosity written all over her face and I repeated, “I’ve come such a long way.” “I’m sorry”, she responded sympathetically. Of course, one might say that I should have called ahead and saved myself a wasted trip; I had their phone number after all. But if I had, it would have been so easy for them to blow me off as a crank caller. I had considered this, of course, and discarded such a risky strategy. It was a calculated risk that unfortunately didn’t come off. I couldn’t stand there any longer and just blurted out, “I think I might be his son!” Her demeanor changed in an instant. “You shouldn’t be telling me this, you should be telling him.” She was, naturally, very upset. During our exchange, the dog which was small – I can’t recall the breed – had run past my legs and out into the street where he/she was sniffing around the gate area. She demanded crossly, “Could you bring my dog in?” I immediately ran down the steps and tried to pick it up, but it growled and snapped at me and then, mercifully, ran back up the steps and into the house. The door was then closed without another word being spoken.

I left there in a daze and headed back towards the airport. I’d noticed a few hotels earlier on the way into town and decided to check in to one of those for the night. I don’t remember anything about my return trip, whether I’d gone via Ottawa or flown directly back to Boston. It’s all a complete blank. What I do remember is telling Keith and the others about my trip; they were really, very keen to hear how things had gone and were pretty disappointed for me when I related the sorry tale. The recording session was the following day, and I don’t remember much about that either. The trip to Canada had really thrown me and had eclipsed everything else. I’m not sure if I have a copy of the material we laid down, I need to check. The next day, the third day, I called him. He picked up. I said that I had called at his home a couple of days ago and spoke with his wife, and I wanted to apologize for upsetting her. He was angry. He said something to the effect, “I don’t know what kind of civilization you come from, showing up here out of nowhere and making outlandish statements like that.” I tried to explain but he wasn’t interested and continued, “What are you hoping to gain from this?” I told him that I wanted to meet him and asked if he ever got to England on business. He told me that he only travelled within Canada and the continental US. Clearly intrigued, he asked what had led me to him, and I explained briefly the research I’d been working on for a number of years and, finally, how my day ploughing through Canadian telephone directories had led me to his door. He seemed amenable to continue the conversation when his tone suddenly changed. He asked, ‘Where are you now?” I replied, “Boston” and he said, “Pity! If you were still in Canada, I’d have you arrested for harassment!” I was completely thrown by this, and the thought suddenly struck me, ‘his wife has come into the room’. In my mind that’s the only comprehensible reason for the sudden, dramatic change. The call was then brought to an abrupt end.

Back in London a few days later I was filling Mary in on the details, and she decided she was going to write to him. I thought we’d better let things calm down for a while and her response was “Rubbish! Now you’ve started, we should carry on”. She was as good as her word. Over the next few months, she wrote about the adoption, my background also extolling my virtues (sic) and details of our family, and what looked like acres of material and sent them off with photographs. The months and years went by, and we never heard word one from him, and so the matter was allowed to slide.


(1) This Renault Van is identical, apart from the absence of the ‘Tynecastle Radio’ sign on the side, to the van I ‘totaled’ while waiting at a Stop sign. (2) Austin A60 Van. The replacement, and a tried and tested workhorse used by ‘Tynecastle’ during the 60s together with thousands of businesses across the UK. (3) ‘King’ Billy! (Connolly.) (4) The Banff Springs Hotel, Banff, Scotland, where Billy Connolly performed way back in 1976, never to return. (5) Vancouver skyline, British Columbia, Canada. (6) Mary, me and the boys stopping over at my parents in Hyvots, Edinburgh, on our way to our new ‘home’ at the croft in Boddam, Peterhead, 1974. (7) Berklee College of Music, Boston, Mass.