We are very grateful to Robert Leslie for allowing us to publish here the piece he wrote on Facebook late last night and in the small hours of this morning. It was prompted by recent events – the death yesterday of Prince Phillip, Duke of Edinburgh, and last week’s broadcast on Radio Orkney of the first George Mackay Brown Memorial Lecture given in 2007. It was delivered by Maggie Fergusson whose biography of the writer, George Mackay Brown: the Life, he had reviewed for Orkney Today in 2006. It is a moving reflection on three very different men, born in the same year, who lived in quite different circumstances.
Saturday 10 April 2021
“It’s no much fun when they start picking oot o’ wur pen.” This comment – or words to that effect – was made to my mother by a friend as they paid respects to someone about the same age as them not too long ago. Taking a pen to mean the same year of birth, then my Grandad Robson and George Mackay Brown were from the same pen – and a Stromness pen at that. Both were born in 1921, so would have been 100 on their birthdays this year.
I thought about that as I listened the other night to the Radio Orkney broadcast of Maggie Fergusson giving the first George Mackay Brown Memorial Lecture in 2007. When Maggie’s biography of George came out in 2006, ten years after his death, I reviewed it for Orkney Today. As an introduction, I related a story of when, on realising that Grandad Robson and George were the same age, I’d asked my grandad about him.
This was one day out in the Highland Park peat hill at Hobbister in Orphir. My grandad had retired by this time, in 1986, but was back at Highland Park to look after the students who were employed each summer to raise the peats.
In answer to my question, Grandad Robson replied that George was a bit lazy and had liked a drink, telling me the man I kind of revered as a writer had once been ‘taken home in the Black Maria’. I was kind of surprised by this, but then again when a few years later I got a job as a junior reporter at The Orcadian, my grandad had wondered ‘what kind of job that would be’, possibly not sure at the fact it wasn’t manual work.
Grandad Robson was a joiner to trade. During World War Two this meant that he built things rather than being called up. He later worked at Highland Park in the cooperage and drove the malt lorry, collecting that valuable ingredient for the spirit produced at the distillery from boats that docked at Kirkwall Pier.
Writing for a living – whether as a critically acclaimed author or as a local newspaper reporter – wasn’t maybe his idea of work. Anyhow, that was my Grandad Robson’s reflection on a man he had grown up with, in the same pen, in Stromness. He and GMB inhabited slightly different worlds within Orkney.
Sure enough though, the story of the taking home of GMB in the ‘Black Maria’ is related in Maggie Fergusson’s book, although somewhere in there – or another book maybe, as I can’t find the passage tonight – his mother, Mhairi, defends George, saying that it wasn’t a Black Maria, but a grey van, because she saw it.
Tonight, as I walked Gaia down the same Kirkwall pier that Grandad Robson collected the precious Highland Park malt from many moons ago, I listened to stories of another man born in the same pen as him and GMB, but on an island far from Orkney – in a villa on Corfu, Greece, and who died on Friday morning.
Prince Philip, later Duke of Edinburgh in the British royal family (the Windsors, previously of the House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha), was born into the House of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg, shortened to House of Glücksburg, on 10th June 1921, later becoming Mountbatten.
While GMB and my Grandad Robson were ‘picked’ from their pen in 1996 and 1998 respectively, Philip has had a longer innings – just short of his century.
I suspect that my Grandad would have had some respect for the Duke of Edinburgh, as he came from an era when folk like that were given a greater degree of respect. Grandad Robson described Pat Scott, a former manager at Highland Park, as ‘a fine man’ and talked warmly of him. A few years ago I heard the same Mr Scott described in less than glowing terms by a former employee of the group that owned Highland Park at the time, who related that Mr Scott was the nephew of a director of the firm and had been sent north basically to get him out of the road, calling his appointment to the manager’s post at the distillery ‘nepotism’.
Different views of the same person, depending on your point of view. George might have had a different view of Philip, having a left of centre view of life, although he did accept his OBE in 1974. But what crossed my mind most as I walked with Gaia was that no matter what you are born into and how and where you live your life, you’re going to leave a mark in some way.
Grandad Robson was a big part of my growing up and if I started relating the memories now they would go on far too long. I can still see him kneeling on the floor of our sitting room in Snelsetr on the night he retired from the Highland Park, singing ‘Toot, Toot Tootsie!’ into an imaginary microphone – before driving home to Sebay, much to my mother’s consternation!*
Among all the fun times that were had, there must have been endless patience on his part. As a youngster going out to Sebay Cottage when my Granny Robson was still alive (she died when she was the same age as I am now, 51) I remember sitting between them in their bed as Grandad Robson cast rabbit-shaped shadows on the bedroom wall to entertain me. Goodness knows what time of night that was, but I guess I hadn’t settled in my own bed! I never recall him utter a cross word towards me. I’m glad that he lived long enough to see our oldest daughter, Ria, born, but wish he’d been around a bit longer to enjoy being a great grandad.
GMB of course has left a massive legacy of writing for the world to enjoy, and is rightly seen as one of Scotland’s greats of the 20th century. His funeral, so fittingly on St Magnus Day in 1996, was memorable for the Catholic Mass in the Cathedral, but the real moment was Peter Maxwell Davies playing ‘Farewell to Stromness’.
I can’t recall right now what hymns were sung at my Grandad Robson’s funeral, but if he’d had a choice of a bit of music it might have been something by Johnny Cash or Charley Pride, or maybe even Jim McLeod and his Scottish Dance Band – ‘The Lights of Lochindall’ was a favourite.
I look forward to hearing what is played for the Duke of Edinburgh.
All I can think of now is that these three men, born in that ‘pen’ of 1921, lived very different lives but touched many people through their words and deeds, and they all mean something to the folk with whom their paths crossed.
There are members of a family mourning right now, as there are families across the world mourning. And, like myself tonight, there are likely folk for whom today has triggered memories of those who have gone before them that meant so much.
I’ll think more about Grandad Robson in the days to come likely, and of George Mackay Brown, and of Prince Philip of Greece and Denmark, who became the Duke of Edinburgh – all born into the ‘pen’ of 1921 and taking their different routes through life before the picking took place.
(If you’ve reached here you’ve done well. Goodness knows what my Grandad would have thought of this rambling, and GMB would almost certainly have chucked it in the fire, or stuffed it in an envelope by now!)
[* My memory was not as good as I thought. From my mother’s diary, Grandad Robson eventually relented to pressure and agreed to Jim Baillie of Sebay coming in for him. They took fellow cooperage worker Dwight Heddle out to Sebay with them.]
Energy Officer, Orkney Housing Association Ltd.; Manager of the fuel poverty charity THAW Orkney
Robert Leslie is a husband and a dad who is, he says, ‘trying to find a way Orkney’s energy resources can deliver affordable warmth for all’. This year’s temperatures so far leave little doubt of the importance of his work! He is former Chief Reporter and Sports Editor at Orkney Today and a former News Editor/ Reporter at The Orcadian. He is the SNP candidate for Orkney in the 2021 Scottish Parliament election.