In the landscape of extinction, precision is next to godliness. – Samuel Beckett
I reach the black hill of Sgòr na Chiche and follow the trail that dips up and down, wending my way through slate, heather and deer grass. I climb the craggy outcropping known as Signal Rock and look back over the glen and the river and can see smaller streams that converge at the Meeting of Waters and flow into the Loch of Achriachtan and beyond to the Field of Dogs at a place called Achnacone. (There’s still snow on the higher reaches of Bidean nam Bian.) It’s thought to be a preternaturally gloomy place, the so-called “Glen of Weeping”, where more than thirty MacDonalds were massacred in 1692, including Alastair Maclain, my namesake and 12th Chief of Glencoe, but it’s not just the memory of blood and betrayal that makes it such a memorable landscape. It’s the brooding scale of the “munros,” the dark mountain masses that crowd against one another like mourners around a grave. There’s a sense of sublimated violence in the outlines of Bidean nam Bian, a massif created when volcanic eruptions took place during the Silurian Period, followed by a million years of glacial erosion.
“Cruel is the snow that sweeps Glencoe,” goes the local ballad, while invading Norsemen called it the “Place of Wild Dogs”, and when Dorothy Wordsworth visited in 1803 she and her brother William couldn’t wait to get out. “Never did I see such a miserable, wretched place!” G. K. Chesterton visited after World War I and saw an allegorical landscape of death and resurrection with “star-crowned cliffs hinged upon the sky” and “clouds as floating rags across them curled.” Douglas Stewart came in 1924 and composed his well-loved “Sigh, wind in the pine; River, weep as you flow; Terrible things were done Long, long ago,” and when T.S. Eliot came in 1934 he was struck by a bleak sense of foreboding that he attempted to capture in verse: “Here the crow starves,” he wrote. “Substance crumbles, in the thin air, moon cold… shadow of pride is long, in the long pass. No concurrence of bone.”
My father made his own pilgrimage to the sacred bone yard in October 1945, a few weeks after repatriation and eleven years after Eliot’s visit. He took the “Silver Line”, a cream-colored bus with snout-nosed grille, to Oban and continued thereafter by small-gauge railway and foot. It was raining most of the way north and he wore a black oilskin and carried the leather valise his mother had given him as a homecoming gift. He brought extra socks, a small blue Service Bible and his new “hobby” camera, the Leica IIIC that his friend, Eric Moss, brought back from Dusseldorf. Moss sold him the black-market camera for eight pounds. It came in a black leather case with three Zeiss Jena lenses and a copy of Douglas Milner’s Mountain Photography: Its Art and Technique. He spent one night at King’s House and another at Clachaig Inn where he met an Army lieutenant named Graydon who’d been blinded in one eye at Chindwin River. Together, they hiked up the old Wade Road, across Rannoch Moor and onto an undulating green pasture that led to the River Etive and the foothills of Bedean Nam Bian. They scrambled halfway up the boulder-strewn escarpment called the Devil’s Staircase and on the way down, stopped to take a rest. This was when my father took the first of his landscape studies: Stob Coire Sgreamhach.
Graydon was an experienced climber and soon split off to try a more challenging trail, while my father, who had sore knees, continued through the lower-elevation moonscape, and tested a range of different exposures while making notations in a little blue notebook: “From the Coire Bar. looking over tip of Beinn Bhan. Taken with 13.5 cm. wide angle,” numbering every shot, recording the name of the mountain or loch, the time, date, type of lens, shutter speed and f/stop. It was quite unlike him to be so precise, so scientific. I can only imagine that he needed some kind of reference or benchmark and that the mountains, the so-called “munros,” served as a kind of framing device for his own process of recovery. I’ve heard how victims of trauma return to the scene of a crime to re-live and process their experiences. Was that what my father was doing? I don’t really know because he rarely told me anything about this period of emotional adjustment. In fact, he preferred not to talk about it at all, and would only answer my questions if I prodded him and even then it would only be some minimal detail, a date or place name, something about the camera or what he was carrying with him on the trip, but nothing of much substance. I only discovered the photographs when I was going through a box of his things and found them mixed in with old family travel shots, birthday parties, beach picnics, Christmas dinners.
They were oddly sized, almost square, deckle-edged, black and white, and stood out from all the other snapshots. Each one was moodier than the last with no buildings or people depicted, hardly any trees, just mountains, sky and rock, clouds and shadows, but they were strangely beautiful in their starkness. I picked them out and placed them on the dining room table, going from left to right, from lighter to darker, from smaller to larger scale, so that the photo of a loch gave way to low-lying hills, to a gorge, then to an actual mountaintop. This seemed like the most logical and lyrical sequence. Over the next few weeks, it gradually dawned on me just what the photographs were, when they were taken and what they represented. I was fascinated and felt as if I’d found an entry point to an otherwise unknown period of my father’s life, the otherwise blank period between his release from the camps–on August 12, (three days after the bombing of Nagasaki)–and his marriage to my mother, almost four months later, an agonizing period that, for the most part, he’d blocked from memory. I became quite obsessed with the photos and began wondering how, for instance, my father had managed to frame certain scenes and make the mountains look like overlapping folds of cloth, or how he came to choose the angle of light, the depth of field, or the length of a certain exposure.
In one shot there are rhythmically stacked layers that rise along Aonach Eagach with morning light brushing the edge of one peak, radiating behind an almost vertical precipice of pitch-black granite, a composition for which my father notes dryly: “taken with Tele P. lens,” in his unmistakable penmanship. Another shows a patch of snow on Beinn Fhada with darker striations, knobs, shadows, a fractured tumulus near the top of Sgur-mam-Fiann. In yet another, there are bands of moss at a lower elevation, and light streaming from behind one of the “paps” turning a solitary pine into a blurred emanation. But as much as I wanted to find answers, the photographs were surprisingly devoid of sentiment or conventional meaning and I found myself seeking clues to a “narration” that wasn’t necessarily even there.
Parts of the glen appear to be without exit, closed off from the rest of the world. The north side is formed by the almost vertical Aonach Eagach ridge, while the conical Pap of Glen Coe (Sgurr na Ciche) encloses the western end of the U-shaped vale and eventually opens out to Loch Leven. A facile reading might be to see an allegorical chasm of dark, impenetrable walls, lowering clouds, inescapable truths–at least one of my father’s fellow survivors had taken his own life since returning from the camps–but I don’t think he ever considered suicide. More likely, he was bewildered by such a precipitous reentry to the civilized world. I kept going back to one photograph in particular that had a mysteriously dark foreground and the peaks of the Three Sisters looming along the right-hand side of the frame. A narrow roadway threads through the bottom of the valley, reflecting the sky and providing the only contrast in an otherwise leaden composition.
Was this a thread of hope, a narrow escape to salvation? It’s the same road that Eliot wrote about when he visited Glen Coe in 1935: “The road winds in / Listlessness of ancient war, / Langour of broken steel, / Clamour of confused wrong, apt / In silence. Memory is strong / Beyond the bone…” My father hadn’t allowed himself the luxury of a future, any sort of future, much less the prospect of marriage or a family life. He’d seen my mother once on the promenade at Inellen and once at a tearoom in Ardentinny, although that may have been after the Glen Coe outing, I’m not sure, but he was starting to think about the possibility of a romantic relationship, a thought that would have seemed ludicrous only a few weeks earlier. However much of an amateur he may have been, however many ideas he may have borrowed from Milner’s Guide to Mountain Photography, he achieved a surprising sense of scale within the 2-1/4-inch-square format by consolidating the major landscape elements and rendering them as monolithic forms. The light throughout is crepuscular, elegiac; the skies high and wide, alabaster panels veined with gray and there is something about the gradations of shadow that made me start to read the photos as self-portraiture, as if the lens of his Leica were pointed inward as well as out towards the scenery.
When I look up to my own sky, it’s patterned with sieves of pink and purple that alternate with furrowed pockets of gray. The valley seems an infinite funnel between present and past, a worm hole through time, and I feel as if I’m still moving along the narrow tarmac of A82, even when I park the car and start to walk across the moor, over humps of gorse and moss, it’s not what I expected. There are hardly any points of transition except for where the main trail intersects with other trails, an occasional cattle crossing, or a small cluster of birches near the Etive River Bridge and a triangular white sign that reads “King’s House Hotel, circa 1754,” pointing up a narrow track that leads to nothing. I’d driven in the morning from Tarbet to the head of Loch Lomond and onto Rannoch Moor the back way, from the east, while my father had come from the west, through Oban and Ballachulish. I carry his photographs in a waterproof folder, the idea being to track his movements and stand in the same spots where he stood when he came here in 1945, but it’s almost impossible to line up the angles. The light and shadows are oddly skewed and everything’s saturated with a deep, living color: the heather, the rocky knolls and peat bogs fringed with moor-grass. It’s so different from the black-and-white world of post-war Scotland. Nothing seems to be in the right place, and while I’m sure there’s a way to triangulate his movements from exposure to exposure, it’s beyond my capabilities. In fact, the very thought makes me light in the head and I have a kind of spatial-temporal dyslexia, a horizontal vertigo, in which foreground and background become inverted, and for a moment I feel as if I were walking through a pinhole aperture into one of my father’s own photographs. There’s too much information, too much material to work back from. His were tightly framed views that left almost everything to the imagination. His glen was more compressed and packed with shadow than mine, his depth of perception more shallow, like bas-relief. I’m standing in the same place as he was and can see what was left out of those closely bracketed landscapes, how the glen is all around and continuous, even wilder than imagined. My boots are soaked and I’m distracted by a group of hikers who say hello in a such a cheery way that it brings me hurtling back to the soggy present. I take a slow breath and remind myself that I’ve come here to retrace my father’s footsteps, not for a leisurely stroll or an afternoon of sightseeing.
I have always marked and measured my life against his, to a sometimes pathological extent–my age, my gains and losses, my accomplishments, my career, my two marriages, my own children–wondering what he was doing at different stages of his life, at twenty, thirty, forty, and comparing it to whatever I was doing at the same age. Where others saw a selfless servant of Christ, I saw a needy, sometimes helpless man, who always had to be the center of attention. I loved him. I adored him. I happily acknowledged every part of his legend, the stories and heroics, the near-death experiences that so many admired. He was a war hero but he also read ancient Greek. He read Anglo Saxon. He read Plato. He read Kierkegaard. He read everything and possessed a golden Rolodex of names and dates and philosophical notions that rotated constantly inside his head. You could see it, spinning in there, behind his watery green eyes. I never understood what he was talking about until I was older and even then I found it impossible to keep up, impossible to compete. If I threw out a name, or a book, or an idea, he had twenty other names and books and ideas ready to throw back at me, to impress, contradict and confound. It was exhilarating but it was also exhausting, and I learned to assume a quiet, deferential attitude whenever I found myself in his presence.
William Aytoun visited Glen Coe in 1835 and described the moorland as “black amidst the common whiteness.” Horatio McCulloch came from Glasgow to paint the unruly wildness of the glen with radiant bands of gold falling across the Aonach Eagach ridge. Thomas Moran traveled across the Atlantic to make studies of the morbid shadows and extreme weather. In his Pass at Glencoe, a storm sweeps over Bidean nam Bian as the Etive floods beneath the Bridge of Coe. Edwin Landseer painted sentimentalized renderings of a stag rearing his head against a multi-hued background of glowing mountains and wind-ravaged trees. All of the artists and poets, all of the ones who’d come before, were seeking some sort of convergence with the Sublime, but why did my Dad come? I can only guess that he was trying to recapture the landscape he’d lost during six years of war and find a way to map himself back into the world of the living. As E.M. Forester wrote: “Landscape is personality,” and for those few days in October, 1945 my father claimed the rugged landscape of Glen Coe as his own.
His camera and the photographic process with its f-stops, apertures and technical rigor, gave him a methodology and a set of coordinates that were both spatial and emotional. It gave him a reason for wandering these hills, for being aware of the position of the sun as it moved across the sky and the angle of light and how it extended or distended shadow, emboldened or diminished a silhouette. He could reassure himself along the way that he wasn’t losing his mind, even though he was still haunted by the faces of the dead. He had palpitations and night sweats and diarrhea and the lingering effects of dyptheria and malaria and beri beri and tropical ulcers. He would pray every morning but it wasn’t quite the same as when he prayed in the camps. He could hardly sleep and when he did he saw clouds of insects and railways cutting through jungle. He saw his friends, Dusty and Stewart, standing over the mass grave at Tarsau and the faces of the dead laid out for burial, faces from Clydeside and Liverpool, faces from Hull and Aberdeen, all the ones he failed to save. The River Coe flows west along the glen before turning into a waterfall near the head of Loch Leven. This was where my father stopped to compose his final photo and it shows Eilean Munde, the burial island of the MacDonald Clan, probably the most conventional of all his studies, but one that captures some of the unfathomable emptiness that he felt that week. The moon reflects off the surface of the loch and turns it into a darkly enameled shield, an image that seems all the more spectral for the way that the surrounding trees lean away from the camera. It’s a photograph about time and memory and the mysterious banality of death, or so it seems to me.
Only a month earlier, he’d been on board the M.S. Boissevain, an old Dutch liner that left Rangoon on September 18 and crept slowly across the Indian Ocean. He was sitting on the upper deck, writing a letter home to his parents and smoking one of the “Navy Cuts” that the captain had handed out to all the officers. Sept. 20, 1945: Dearest Mother, It’s really true! We’re at sea, bound for Blighty. Corstrikemepink! Now I believe that I am Free… When he dozed off he saw an emaciated body rolling out from its covering and the cruel eyes of Lieutenant Sasa looking on. He awoke to thick coats of paint on the Boissevain’s smokestack and the Bay of Bengal shining silver and bronze under a tropical sun.
There’s a photograph that shows David Leckie standing in the middle, while my father’s on the left wearing baggy shorts and battle jacket. Tim Smythe, a Captain in the Norfolks, stands beside him, very tan, almost black, with a boney David Niven face (both Smythe and my father survived the death wards at Chungkai) and you can see a capstan in the background and the temporary officers’ quarters made from shiplap with a corrugated metal roof sloping down to the gunwales. In the letter, my father was explaining that the ship was expected to arrive by the first week of October, but didn’t know where. He was hoping for Glasgow because it would take them past the island where his parents lived. “There is a possibility that I might come sailing up the Clyde,” he wrote. “Tell Dad to look out for me – I’ll try to borrow a flashlamp so that I can morse my name as I pass. We are to pass through a Transit Camp first, but should be home within 48 hours. I’ll ‘phone you whenever I get ashore…” It was an almost delirious sensation to be writing these words, imagining what it would be like to come home after so many years. Would his family and friends even recognize him? He was no longer a boy, but a hardened man of twenty-nine. He’d lost the bushy mop of brown curls. His face was dark and gaunt from starvation. “I’m putting on weight as fast, as fast can be. I weigh myself daily and find the score mounting. As well as good food we are being stuffed with vitamin pills. At times I feel rather like a turkey being prepared for the Xmas Dinner.”
The Boissevain stopped for two days in Ceylon, then crossed the Arabian Sea, passed through the Gulf of Aden, the Red Sea, the Suez Canal, the Mediterranean, the Straits of Gibraltar and finally turned north towards Great Britain. The ship never did go up the Clyde as my father had hoped, but sailed up the Mersey and berthed at Wapping Dock in Liverpool. An express train from Lime Street Station took my father and dozens of other repatriated soldiers to Glasgow. On the way north he sat on the patterned velvet seat and envisioned the white buildings gathered like a village on the point. He nodded off, somewhere near Carlisle, and saw the skerry slip that cut through rock at a diagonal, the prow of Vim cutting through the current off Ardrossan, his father walking on the shore, distant and unreachable. It was only when the train reached Glasgow Central and his brother Peter was there to meet him, waving from behind the barrier, that he snapped out of his reverie and realized that they wouldn’t be going to Toward Point, but to an island that he hardly knew. The train to Largs was late and he could only see some murky roofs passing in silhouette against the night sky and the dim but familiar platforms at Lanbank and Wemyss Bay. The train picked up speed as it moved inland through Knock Hill Cut and curved back to the coast with a sudden, shuddering stop at the old station on Crawford Street, but the actual moment of reunion was so eerie that it eclipsed the train ride and everything else he’d had in his mind that night.
Three separate pyres were burning along the shore, casting a milky, orange glow through the veil of fog. The rolling of the launch and the smell of diesel fuel made him queasy as he watched a single figure standing on the beach waving her arms and beating on a metal pot. It was his mother, Sarah, beating the pot and keeping the bonfires stacked with driftwood to guide them into shore. She almost fell over herself running up the concrete landing, reaching out to embrace him when they made their landing. He knew nothing. He understood nothing. He had arrived, but his sense of home, his internal mapping was completely askew. It wasn’t the cozily familiar cottage with whitewashed walls and slate roofs that he’d left in 1939, but a rugged, slightly terrifying landscape in the outer-most reaches of the estuary. My grandfather had been posted to Cumbrae in 1940, and Ernest had only ever stepped foot on the island once, eight years earlier, while sailing Myfawny on the final leg of a Royal Clyde regatta. They’d limped into the castle side of the island with a broken spar, anchored in the lee of South Gellet, which was nothing more than a cluster of sharply slanting rocks, and it seemed as if they’d reached the end of the world, even then, on a relatively calm summer day in 1937. Sarah made every effort to make his return as comfortable as possible. The bedroom was tucked beneath a gable in the keeper’s house. There was a rugby ball, a few books and a framed photo of a boat tacking up the Clyde. His mother had brightened the room with a vase of blue bells on the bedside table. Oh where does your highland laddie dwell, He dwells in merry Scotland where the bluebells sweetly smell… But he felt trapped, and in the morning looked out the corner window, past the flame-shaped chimney pot, across the estuary to the hills of Bute, streaks of silver-pink light streaming down the channel, and he was already making plans for an escape. During the next few days, he went shivering up and down the High Street in Largs, back and forth in the launch to Millport, up to Gourock and over on a Clyde steamer to Dunoon. He couldn’t sit still. It was as if he’d awoken from a nightmare in the middle of the night but couldn’t find the light-switch. He had leg cramps and headaches. He wrote furtive entries in his journal and went for long walks to escape the suffocation of his parents’ house on Cumbrae. Cousin Sally was playing Peevers–a Scottish form of hopscotch–in the laundry court, clicking her heals and slapping hands against her thighs, picking up stones in one square and placing them in another. She was terrified of the dark stranger who’d arrived late in the night like an apparition. “He stayed at Cumbrae for some time to get himself back together,” she wrote in a letter to me from the south of England in 2010. “Mum had the room next to him and could hear him shouting in the night and pacing the floor but they were told not to go to him as this might be a little dangerous because of all that he had been through.” Those first few nights were Hell. The bed was too soft, the goose-down pillow impossible, so he lay on the drafty floorboards, his toes twitching like the wings of a dying moth, spasmodic leg muscles, hands clenched into fists, flailing arms, torso turning and twisting beneath the woolen blanket, and then–it was as if he’d kicked himself in his own forehead–awoke with a gasp as he heard the strange half-echo of his own voice beneath a bell jar, that’s how it sounded, and the words were meaningless, random names and threats shouted at no one, into the void, and this would snatch him from the shallow ditch of sleep.
Jimmy Donaldson spotted my father on the dock at Kirn, waiting for the ferry, less than a week after his return. Margaret Dutton saw him walking up Argyll Street and thought he looked surprisingly fit, considering his ordeal. He ate the buffet lunch at the Buchanan Hotel and went to the Odeon Cinema on Renfield Street to see Fantasia, Disney’s epic animation, and found himself weeping for the colors and Stravinsky’s score. He kicked around the yards at Lorimer’s and Robertson’s looking over the yachts that lay idle through the war. Dionne was ravaged with her teak pitted, varnish peeling, and in desperate need of repair. (He dreamt of sailing her to Tobermory.) Skilly the Poacher, otherwise known as Wull Allan, saw him walking briskly round the head of the loch, near Dalinlongart, where Skilly lived throughout the war inside the upturned hull of an old fishing boat. Jean Robertson, my grandmother, first heard the news of Ernest’s return from Kathleen Lorimer who told her that the Anderson sisters had already invited him to tea at Rubislaw. The Andersons! Gran passed the news onto my mother, Helen, who was pretending not to hear, fixing her hair in the hall mirror at Ardmillen, trying to ignore her mother who seemed particularly agitated and out of sorts. Helen stood back from the mirror and turned to look at her own figure, sideways, smoothing down the folds of her jacket. She would get her hair cut. She would throw the ATS uniform into the bin and find the dark blue woolen suit, the one that hung in the upstairs closet, the one that made her look so tall and slender. Ernest did go to the Andersons, on at least two occasions. Rubislaw was a stately Victorian house made from pinkish stone with high windows and steep gables. There was an iron gate, a greenhouse and a stream running in the back, and inside there were four sisters standing by the window, looking out: Jean, Sally, Eileen, Maureen, all of them attractive and available except for Sally who was engaged to an officer in the Royal Navy. When I met Eileen many years later, she told me the impression that my father made walking up the pebble pathway that day, how thin and dark and good looking he was. What she remembered most was the swooshing sound that his kilt made as he walked up to the front door–that’s what had stuck forever in her memory–the way that the pleated tartan fabric swung back and forth across his knees.
A week after his photographic odyssey to Glen Coe, my father found temporary digs in “Brading”, a boarding house on Nelson Street, just off Largo Road, not far from the St. Andrews campus, where he hoped to complete the classes that had been interrupted by war in 1939. The following week he sent my mother a marriage proposal, “I’ve been thinking and thinking, going almost mad…” and it came with a package of silk stockings, a photo of himself, and a poem called “Escape” that he’d started to write while still aboard the Boissevain on his way back from Rangoon. Helen received the proposal on the morning of November 30, a Friday, and accepted it in writing by return post: “Darling, I don’t know whether I’m on my head or heels. Your 2 letters this morning put me right into a flat spin. I’ve been thinking of you every minute since you left and wondering if you were serious and knowing that I was serious and the answer is yes, I’ll marry you, darling. As you say, it’s so obvious. It was always meant to be this way…” My parents got married on December 17 at Ardmillen, my grandmother’s stone house in Sandbank, and it was a simple affair with a small group of family and friends in attendance, and Reverend Lithgow of the Kirn Parrish Church conducting the service. The next morning, they were off on a honeymoon, down the west coast of Scotland by train, to Girvan where they stayed four nights at the Royal Hotel. It wasn’t much of a hotel, certainly nothing royal, but it was all my father could afford and it had a little pub and a decent view over the estuary.
The Royal is still there, just off A77, a busy road that runs from Dumfries to Ayr. It’s a simple, two-story stone building with whitewashed walls and pale blue trim. I approach from the north but miss the turning and have to pull off at a gas station and swing back. I tell the rosy-faced proprietor about my parents. He smiles and insists that I take a peak at their former honeymoon suite. He hands me the key to Room #4 on the second floor, and it’s pretty much the same as it was when they stayed there in 1945, only now decorated with peach-colored wallpaper with two single beds–“Twin Peach” is how it’s described on the hotel’s web site–but it has the same view they had then, across the estuary to Ailsa Craig, the oddly symmetrical dome of rock that looms up from the sea, bleak and solitary, inhabited only by puffins, seals, and a lonely lighthouse keeper. My parents could see it out the window of their room and whenever they went on one of their chilly outings along the beach, or poking around the ruins of Crossraguel Abbey, or following the footpath up Dow Hill, it appeared as if the Craig were following them like a luminous presence. And what was this strange volcanic rock rising from the waves, struck by moonlight? In the morning it looked blurry and distant, but as the sun rose higher and caught the contours of its vertical granite shafts, the island appeared to jump up from the sea and come alive with so many facets and craggy outcroppings. To early Scots it was a hiding place for mystical, sentient beings and the name in Gaelic, Aillse Greag, literally means “Fairy Rock,” but it was also known as Carraig Alasdair, or “Alasdair’s Rock”, and when John Keats traveled through Scotland in the summer of 1818, he sat, transfixed, at the King’s Arms Inn and wrote a poem about the geological anomaly across the water: “Hearken, thou craggy ocean pyramid… Thy life is but two dead eternities, The last in air, the former in the deep!”
Two dead eternities… I stand in the doorway, staring into the room, and try to imagine them snuggled together, but something stops me cold from going any further. I feel like a time-traveling voyeur, a peeping tom, gazing in at my own parents’ love nest. I hurry back downstairs, oddly embarrassed, and order a Belhaven lager in the pub. Evening descends and I walk outside, past a stone barrier, and watch the light shifting wildly across the slopes of Ailsa Craig, rocky vision, wondering about my parents’ oddly intertwined destinies. Ernest was stronger and more confident than he’d been during his trip to Glen Coe a month earlier. He was madly in love and had even started to write poetry again, encouraged by my mother. He carried the collected Keats and a brown notebook tied with string with his initials scribbled on the cover. He was reading the final part of Endymion while reworking one of his own poems: The wings of great birds are beating / Against the window pane… that he’d started aboard the Boissevain sailing back from Rangoon, and had picked it up again in his parent’s living room, overlooking Kilchattan Bay: My soul flies out to greet them / One with the wind and the rain… I found it sixty years later among his papers, printed in fading blue typeface, copied for posterity on a mimeograph machine. Inside the same manila envelope, I also found the original receipt from my parents’ stay at the Royal.
22/12/1945, Capt. & Mrs. E. Gordon: 4 days and morning tea at 15 shillings per person… 2 high teas for 6 shillings… 13 shillings/ 8p for “Beers, Wines, etc.” / Total: 6 pounds, 19 shillings and 8 pennies, a modest honeymoon to be sure, but they were lucky to have survived the war and found each other like that in the shortened daylight and freezing rain of Scottish winter. He was no longer scarecrow thin like he’d been on the ship coming back, and was up to 10 stone–close to 140 pounds–the hollowness in his face filling out, almost back to his handsome former self. Girvan’s Atlantic Breezes Cures Winter Sneezes read a poster in the railway station, and they kissed in the lee of the lighthouse and walked along the edge of the links, across the fairway and made their way through the rolling dunes to the beach. He’d been married for two days and couldn’t suppress a smile on his face. Despite the frightful weather, despite his crumbling teeth, he couldn’t stop smiling. It was a peculiar sensation.
A few weeks later they moved into a small, cold water flat at No.100 Willowbrae Avenue in Edinburgh, and spent the rest of the winter there, attending classes by day, seeking simple pleasures by night, lying in bed beneath the eaves, reading verses out loud, picking their favorites and reciting them again with rain lashing against the windows of the second-floor flat, dining on shepherd’s pie, baked beans and Bird’s Custard. Rationing was still in effect and everything from eggs, milk and tea to toffee and chocolate were scarce. It was a miserably cold winter and my father remembers inserting endless pennies into a heater–some kind of paraffin-powered device–that was always breaking down and almost setting the place on fire.
Memory is strong beyond the bone and Helen was the one who endured his midnight shakes, his twitching toes and flailing arms, his sudden outbursts of anger, and irrational mood swings, and the ravenous hunger that was never fully sated. She was the one who brought him back, finally, to the land of the living and the righteous. In January she gave him a copy of Other Men’s Flowers, a popular anthology of poetry compiled by Field-Marshal Viscount Wavell, published by the Alden Press, Oxford, in 1945. I know this because I have the book in my possession and can see that the frontispiece is signed in my mother’s distinctive handwriting: “Edinburgh, Jan. 1946. With all my love, darling. – Helen.” It’s not much to go on, but inside, there are dozens of markings, under linings, dog-eared corners, checks and dots in almost all of the margins. It seems as if every poem had not only been read, but had been analyzed and reread, swallowed in its entirety. My father was still starving, in a sense, no longer hungry for food but craving something beyond the superficial routines of daily life, and the books that came into his life at this point were far more than cherished possessions: they were bulwarks against darkness and death. “Who sings unconscious of their song, / Whose lips are in their lives” was heavily underlined on page 174 with blue ink in “The Song of Honour,” a lengthy ode by Ralph Hodgson which I understand in some ways–whose lips are in their lives–as I imagine my father still trying to put the horrors into perspective, looking for meaning. I know that the little pencil chicks on page 316 have to be his because this was how he always marked his books. The passage that he singled out–“A prison wall was round us both / Two outcast men we were…”–was from a poem by Oscar Wilde and had been annotated in several other places with pencil and then again, with pen: “The world had thrust us from its heart, / And God from out His care…” and then, underlined twice: “Yet each man kills the thing he loves, / By each let this be heard…”
I take a taxi to Willowbrae and walk up the long curving street on a clear morning to find a two-story stone house, still split into separate apartments, set back with a small but neat front garden, a painted gate and old rain-spouts made from lead. It’s a quiet neighborhood, buffered from the city’s clamor by the hills of Holyrood Park. I stand there for a moment, feeling no connection or further insight, just a kind of claustrophobia and desire to be somewhere else, so I hail the next taxi coming down Abercorn Road and return to my hotel on Princes Street. My father was still torn between secular and spiritual forces, wrestling with horrific memories, trying to forgive and forget the worst, while adjusting to the weather and day-to-day austerity of post-war Scotland. He went twice a month to Dr. Duggan, a tropical specialist at the Royal Infirmary off Dalkeith Road, where they took blood and stool samples and made him pee into a glass vial. He was given anti-inflammatory pills for diphtheria, copper sulfate for his jungle ulcers, charcoal and creosote tablets for lingering effects of dysentery, and a foul-smelling vermicidal called Thiabendazole that he took for hookworm. Duggan also prescribed an early version of Chloroquine for malaria but the drug made my father throw up so he stopped after the first few weeks. In general, however, he was feeling stronger and loved to walk through central Edinburgh looking at the bridges and railway lines beneath the North British Hotel, the broad steps leading down to Waverley Station, and the saw-toothed roofs of the big train sheds. He watched shoppers mingling on Princes Street, gazing at the displays in Jenners, or climbing the Scott Monument and always, wherever he went, he felt the brooding presence of the Castle high upon its rocky perch. He was taking classes in the Faculty of Divinity, studying under the tutorship of Rev. Charles S. Duthie M.A., B.D., attending classes in Old and New Testament Studies, Systematic Theology, Dogmatics, Ethics, Apologetics, Homiletics and won the prize that semester for Elocution.
He would make it back to Glen Coe five years later, a changed man, his future bright. He finished theological seminary in Connecticut, accepted a position at Paisley Abbey and purchased a second-hand Vauxhall Velox. Again, he brought a camera, but the results were nothing like the photos he’d taken in 1945. The corries of Bidean nam Bian look buoyant compared to the ominous silhouettes of the earlier black-and-white shots, as if he were seeing the world in more granulated and aspirational tones. The Leica IIIC had been stolen on the way back from his honeymoon and the lens of the new camera, whatever its make, was inferior to the finely ground Zeiss Jena lenses that he’d used before. He was also trying out a new kind of film, Kodachrome Transparency, and the slides have brilliant but highly unstable colors that create a kind of Fauvist distortion. In some, the azure sky turns deep cerulean, almost black at the edges of the frame due to silver halide breaking down the integrity of the film’s sixty-year-old emulsion. Viridian green of the pines jumps out sharply in some of the slides, but rock, moor-grass and heather bleed together with watery edges, purple being the least stable of photographic dies, thereby flattening any sense of depth.
All line drawings are from C. Douglas Milner’s
Mountain Photography, London: The Focal Press, 1945.
All of the square-format, black-and-white photographs
(and the last image in color) are by Ernest Gordon, 1945.
This is the third in a series of “discoveries” about
my father’s life. See also:
#1 Reconstructing My Father’s Plane Crash, 1936
#2 Comrades of Night: River Kwai, 1943
Wonderful writing, thanks, about places I know well, in an era I could only sense when young. Is the photograph of Robertson’s or Morris & Lorimer’s boatyard by your father? Did he take more? Fair winds, Iain McAllister
Yes, my father took it of Robertson’s yard, my mother’s family business.
And yes, I have quite a few that he took during the same period.
Thank you for your comment!
Aha, that explains it. I’d like to send you a copy of our book about Scottish yacht designer G.L. Watson. Many of his and his firm’s designs were built by Robertsons of Sandbank. Perhaps we could find a way via my email address that shows on your dashboard?
Hello Alastair…I finally read this whole entry in your blog and found it fascinating. Wonderful and sweet to read about your Dad and Mom’s meeting and marriage. What a trip this must be for you to immerse yourself in your Dad’s history. You certainly don’t leave out any details. Best to you. Vicki Kleban
this is o fucking interesting on so many levels.. i am going to read it very slowly…
This is one of those meals that needs to be eaten slowly, chewed well, and digested. I’m going to print it out and read again on the plane tonight to Europe. Thanks in the meantime for sending. We are all in the process of sifting, sorting, making sense of both what we have lost, and unexpectedly found. Michele
Wonderful to read this, about looking for a parent in the landscape and through the lens. It captures the mystery and bewilderment of both (guessing about ones parents/guessing about a landscape). Beautiful writing. I hope this will appear in print, and that when it does that your father’s photographs will be bigger–can’t quite see, and they look amazing and are I think the focal point of this piece? The mountain diagrams are perfect!
Alastair, I love your travels, following Ernest through thick & thin and into the inhospitable wilds, fearless and inquisitive, exploring the boundaries of filial love. I’m enjoying the read, happy to have the time this story deserves!
These post-war years for the surviving Far East POWs are mostly very well hidden by their silence and also the prevailing mode of thinking ‘least said, soonest mended’. I have copious correspondence between my parents, married in 1939, from the time of his release up to his arrival in England, then nothing more contemporary, though they were lucky in that they clearly talked to each other about his experiences. It was not until his eighties that he wrote about them. Once in the weeks before he died he hallucinated that he was back in camp and I was given a glimpse of the terror of waking each morning there. Thank you for your account.
Alastair , how pleased I was to come across your writing of your father, who also was my Uncle, possibly you won’t remember me, My name is Morag Broadfoot, Maiden name Gordon. daughter of Peter Gordon. I always remember your fathers polished Brogue shoes , woundering how anyone could get them to shine as well as he did. My father Peter, also had a thing for polished shoes. Enjoyed your writings about your fathers life. A worthwhile and a productive life.
How lovely to hear from you!
I remember staying with you in London when you (and I) were very little.
I loved your dad, my uncle, and always wished I had known him better.
He insisted on buying me a Queen’s Guard soldier at a toy shop.
My father loved him very much, and yes they must have both learned
to polish their shoes very well. I remember my dad sitting in the back of
our kitchen in Princeton and polishing away… It was a mark of something!
And yes, these posts I’ve been doing are a sometimes painfully slow way to finish the book
I started about Ernest when he and I went to the River Kwai together
in 2000. They made a movie about him called TO END ALL WARS and he was able to see
a screening of it just before he died.
I think you sent a note to the movie web site and I desperately
wanted to contact you but the comments section of the site crashed and
all of the info was lost!! So I am very happy that you reached out now.
Where do you live? My daughter Iona is 18 and living in London this year.
We were all there last summer, in both Scotland and in London. My wife is Dutch and I
have three other kids: Kiki and Leila who are identical twin girls just turning 15,
and a son named Iain who is now 27 (from my first marriage).
My sister Gillian is still in London although she seems ready to move on
or move back to the States.
I met Sally/Morgan, daughter of Aunt Grace, again when dad died and she
came over for the memorial service. I learned quite a bit about my dad’s
early years from her, but haven’t actually seen her again and that’s probably my
Please stay in touch! I would love to learn about your dad.
I seem to recall that there were four of you kids? Or more?
Very very happy to hear from you Morag!!
Let’s stay in touch…
Thank you for replying so quickly, nice to hear about your family,
I am one of three, Alexander, Helena and myself.
My father Peter was a very soft natured person, who I am told by my mother was deeply loved and protected by Ernest and Grace. So when Dad died in 1969, we understood how your father found his death hard to cope and deal with.
I remember Sally, as a young child, I always thought how fashionable she was.
Good to hear about your family, hope Iona is able to settle, especially if Gillian is still in London it may help her to settle , if not , give her my e Mail if she needs me. I live in East -Kilbride, Glasgow, married to Billy and have a son Bobby, who will be getting married in a months time, so we love Keara, to whom he is getting married, so lots to be happy for.
It was my Sister, Helena, who replied to the movie web site. Have told her I have been in contact with you, so no doubt it won’t be long before she contacts yourself.
She is the story teller of the family, and may have more details than myself of things that may be of interest to you.
My Mother, Evelyn died five years ago. Suffered from Dementia for ten years, before she got too bad , we able to watch your fathers film TO END ALL WARS
together. To which she replied, “at last I’m glad he was able to see it get made.
Also when she saw your father at the end of the film, she remarked how like his mother he looked.
She always said it was your Mother, Helen who nursed him back to life.
Contact me at my e mail address, with yours or yur address as I would love to send you photos of your uncle Peter and his stories of the little cumbrae.
Alistair, I have immensely enjoyed reading your post about your Dad’s life. I was just wondering if you have completed the book about your Father’s post War years? If so -who has published your book? If not, when do you intend to complete it for publication?
thanks James Chaousis
Niice blog thanks for posting