The old folk sat round a large table in the Lewis Grassic Gibbon Suite, glumly eyeing three plates of assorted biscuits and a pristine row of cups and saucers.
“Far’s wer shumpain?”
Chester pretended not to hear the muttering. His launch, and he felt that it was very much his launch, had come hard on the heels of a directive from the chief executive urging austerity and retrenchment. He had bought the biscuits himself.
He anxiously patrolled the door of the suite checking the credentials of those who sought entry. A Craft Fair had just been declared open in the nearby Ballroom, and he was determined that members of the public should not drift in and help themselves either to the book – he had carefully counted out those for free distribution – or to the biscuits. But apart from the old folk themselves and some staff from the Eventide Home, the only others present were a few people from his own Department, doubtless on the skive. He could see no councillors, and no one from the media had made themselves known to him as instructed in his Press Release. This was disappointing. “Good afternoon Chester.” He felt a wave of apprehension as Baliol Tosh, the city archivist strode in. Soon after the project was announced, Chester had been summoned to Tosh’s eyrie in the Town House and confronted with a pile of musty volumes filled with unintelligible handwriting.
“You could usefully research the history of Kilpottie before you start on your project,” said Tosh, peering over his half moon spectacles. “It hasn’t been done properly before, you know.”
“Well actually,” Chester had said, thinking quickly, “this project involves only the spoken word as such. We really can’t allow ourselves to be side-tracked by anything extraneous.”
He looked at his watch. Time to start. “Elsie, Mary, Jessie, Willie, Jimmy, everyone, could you please stop talking for just a moment. You’ll get a chance to circulate and chat later on. Welcome everyone. Before we have tea, I just want to say a word about our book, well your book really: Kilpottie O’ Aul’ Lang Syne.”
He spoke the words awkwardly. However everyone was talking about the fight to Save the Doric. Even the chief executive who came from Larbert was, with assistance from the town sergeants, sending out memoranda in the Doric. Chester was jolly well going to do his bit.
“As you all probably know, I’m the city’s Senior Assistant in Creative Arts, with special responsibility for the Spoken Word. Yes, it’s a bit of a mouthful, isn’t it? About eighteen months ago I was asked to start work on Project Kilpottie, and perhaps I could just fill in a bit of background. I think that everyone here knows that in spite of being incorporated in the city for many years, Kilpottie village until recently remained the closely knit fishing community that it has been since time immemorial. Now, many of you folk, Kilpottie born and bred, are getting on a bit. I know you won’t mind my saying that. You’ve swapped your homes of many generations for one of the city’s very excellent Eventide Homes. Nothing wrong in that. But newcomers are moving into the village. It’s become a highly desirable place to live. So before too much time goes by and the old close knit community is totally forgotten, I was asked to record as much of the folk memory as I could.
“Many of you will remember how I came to visit you with my tape recorder, and when we all got to know each other and got talking, I was enormously privileged that you allowed me to record your memories. I think we made a good team …”
It had been sheer hell. The interviews had taken place in the lounge of the Eventide Home. Initially no one would speak into the recorder except a cocky Fifer, who had lived in Kilpottie for only twenty years. Reluctant to say anything themselves, the Kilpottie folk had no intention of permitting this incomer to speak. They continually contradicted his reminiscences with shouts of, “That’s nae right”, then argued the toss amongst themselves. Fortunately the Fifer’s recent decease had precluded his presence at the launch.
“The outcome of all our hard work has been this little volume of reminiscences.” Chester held up the booklet. He was rather pleased with the cover, which showed a cheerfully painted boat, executed in a cleancut, primitive style, bouncing on a blue-green sea. He had given the commission to an artist friend back in Norwich, where he had worked for the Regional Arts Board. To add a touch of authenticity he had stencilled a local number on stem and stern.
“Every family in Kilpottie had an association with the sea, so I’ve chosen a trawler for the cover. I think you’ll approve. Can I just say that this book is a treasure trove of all your memories, a repository for your rich cultural heritage and customs for all time, and all of it expressed in your own unique dialect …”
There had been huge gaps in the transcripts where he could not make out what was being said. He began to despair of the book ever being produced from the tapes until one of the town sergeants had kindly offered to decipher the cacophony. His old father, a town sergeant before him, had been something of an authority on Kilpottie.
Chester’s original appointment had been as Senior Assistant in Creative Arts with special responsibility for Dance, but shortly after his arrival Dance had become the victim of a new round of civic cutbacks. His presence initially caused a problem for the city’s administrators. There was always the fear of sacked staff taking them to the industrial tribunal for wrongful dismissal which was not good for the civic image. Then someone had remembered Project Kilpottie, mooted years before but given a low priority. Now its implementation would be far more cost effective than the development of Dance could ever have been, and in view of the Save the Doric Campaign, popular and timeous as well as expedient. Chester was appointed Project Leader, and ‘The Spoken Word’ was substituted for ‘Dance’ in his job description.
He was drawing towards the end of his speech.
“Before we have tea, I’d like to introduce …”
But his words were drowned in a buzz of anticipation as a puckish, baldheaded man darted in.
“Here’s Provie Coutts sneakin in fer his fly,” someone shouted.
“Heymin, fit like?”
“Foo ye daein, Provie?”
The small man jinked round the seats, acknowledging the greetings with a wave here, a pat on the back there. How had this man got in, Chester wondered. He had seen him before, hanging around the Town House, chatting with the town sergeants. He usually wore a red and white scarf and a peaked cap, though he somehow looked too small to have been one of the city’s official chauffeurs. More likely a retired doorman, returning to pass the time of day with his erstwhile colleagues. A place was found for him beside Willie Ryles, who was something of a spokesman for the old folk. He settled down, wide-eyed and childlike, fixed Chester with a look of courteous attention.
“Now before we have tea,” Chester repeated rather more loudly, “I’d like to introduce someone you all know, Mrs Isabella Buchan the Kilpottie poetess. Isabella will read some work-in-progress. Then after tea, you’ll all be given your complimentary copy of the book – at least those of you who took part in the project,” he added, looking sternly at Provie Coutts. Mrs Buchan, a stout lady with a tight perm and a floral dress of antique cut had risen to her feet.
“I’m nae een fer public speakin,” she was saying, “but here’s a puckly poems onywye.”
She launched into an epic on courtship in Kilpottie in the inter-war years: Noo, I’m a ‘Pottie quine masell …
“Sit doon, Beldie Buchan,” someone roared. “Abidy kens yer a Bluemogginer.”
“I’m nae sitting doon,” Beldie retorted amid a roar of laughter. And she added in a mock genteel voice. “I’ve started so I’ll finish.”
Suddenly Chester noticed that Provie Coutts had left his seat and was talking on the internal telephone. What impertinence. He marched smartly over, and heard the little man saying something about “the Gents” before replacing the receiver.
“My God,” thought Chester, “what if he’s incontinent?” It was a fear from his tape-recording days at the Eventide Home. He wouldn’t know how to cope with any little accident.
“There’s a Gents just along the corridor, Provie,” he said. He believed in calling the old folk by their Christian names. It put them at their ease. He took the wee man by the elbow and started propelling him swiftly towards the door.
“Thank you laddie, but I ken fine far the lavvy is. I’ll just bide fer ma fly.” A scattering of applause indicated the end of Mrs Buchan’s recitation. Provie broke loose. To Chester’s astonishment, he clambered onto a chair and blew a whistle.
Everyone turned to face him.
“It’s great tae see sae mony kent faces,” Provie began. “An I jist wint tae say this. I didna ken onything aboot this book. But if it’s onything tae dee wi Kilpottie and Kilpottie folk, it must be a corker. And I’m willing tae bet it will be hailed as een o the all time greats fae this airt. And I hinna forgotten Lewis Grassic Gibson, namesake o this splendid room.”
The doors of the suite were suddenly flung open and a flock of waitresses entered, some carrying silver trays laden with drinks, others trays of canapes, sandwiches, and cream cakes. They made a beeline for Provie Coutts, offering him first choice.
“Now, sherry for the ladies, whisky for the gents.” Provie, reiterating his recent instructions on the internal telephone, was directing operations from his vantage point on the chair, a whisky in one hand, a curry puff in the other.
“I noticed you in conversation with our former Lord Provost.” Baliol Tosh was standing at Chester’s side. “I expect you know that he was councillor for Kilpottie ward for many years – but before your time, of course. He is the most remarkable man. He has a certain magic. He was Lord Provost the year the city won the European Cup or some such cup at football. When he appears, there is a feeling that all will go well. You see how swiftly he assessed the situation here, then organised these excellent refreshments.” He accepted another whisky and walked off to chat with Provie Coutts who had returned to terra firma.
Somewhat flummoxed, Chester now found himself surrounded by an angry mob of Kilpottie menfolk. While listening to Baliol Tosh he had seen them out of the corner of his eye, seizing copies of Kilpottie O’ Aul’ Lang Syne, eagerly leafing through it with fingers no doubt made greasy by miniature sausage rolls. This was annoying. He had intended to hand out the books personally at the end of the afternoon, calling each of the participants forward individually, making an appropriate comment on his or her input. Willie Ryles pushed the book at him and pointed angrily towards the registration number of the boat on the cover.
“This is nae the A374. The A374 wis the Christabelle Stephen. This is nae the Christabelle Stephen“. The others were nodding in agreement. They confronted Chester, their faces reddened by whisky and indignation. Some of the womenfolk had joined the posse.
“The A374 wis never the Christabelle Stephen said Jessie Hood. She wis the Schiehallion. My Da wis fireman on the Schiehallion.”
“Onywye,” Willie Ryles was still gesticulating at the offending cover, “she’s nae a traaler. She’s a drifter. Ken fit I mean?”
A chorus of affirmation arose from his peers. “There’s something nae right aboot her,” Willie was saying.
“She’s nae fae here.” The menfolk paused. In old age, visions from their seafaring days were clear in their minds’ eyes. Someone said: “She’s fae Yarmouth.”
“Na, na,” another voice shouted, “She’s a Grimmer.”
“I must circulate.” Chester moved away.
Baliol Tosh, his conversation with ex-Lord Provost Coutts concluded, was again hovering nearby.
“Actually,” he said, “these Kilpottie people are every bit as English as that boat on the cover.”
Chester looked at him in astonishment.
“A generation or two back, that is. It would have been to your advantage to read the city records where they touch Kilpottie. It’s first mentioned as a leper colony, then later as a sort of ‘no go’ area. When felons or harlots were sentenced to be scourged through the town and banished, they simply forded the river and settled in Kilpottie. Then early last century they, or at least their descendants, were all evicted when the course of the river was altered and the harbour developed.”
“What happened to them?” asked Chester.
“They went back across the river. Set up in the city slums. These Kilpottie people here are all of Tyneside origin. They came up to deploy their expertise and to man the trawlers at the end of last century when the locals initially shunned the newfangled fishing methods.”
“But what about their unique cultural heritage?” Chester cried. “What about the unique Kilpottie dialect?”
“They were romanticised as a unique and ancient race of fisher folk in a totally inaccurate newspaper article of the 1930s,” said Baliol Tosh. “It was written by an amateur local historian – in fact he was a town sergeant – and it’s been taken as gospel ever since. As for their dialect, it’s not a unique variation of the Doric, it’s just the coarse argot of the city, with the occasional Tyneside expression like ‘Da’ thrown in.”
“You must excuse me,” said Chester. “I’m just nipping off to the loo.”
He closed the doors of the suite behind him, very firmly.
He was joined in the Gents by ex-Lord Provost Coutts.
“I hope ye dinna mind me highjackin yer meeting, laddie,” said Provie, “but I aye like a crack wi my aul constituents – and they winna say no to a dram. I’m awa back tae the beano in the Ballroom,” he continued, zipping up. “A the big cheeses and a the press boys are there.”
Chester strolled comfortably along the gilt and scarlet corridor at Provie’s side. The reception referred to by the ex-Lord Provost, the source of the pensioners’ unexpected refreshments, was being held to mark the inauguration of the Craft Fair. A commissionaire leapt to open the great doors of the Ballroom for them. They were greeted by scenes of chaos, with stalls cheek by jowl and customers vying to be served. Christmas was drawing near.
Provie led the way. The crowds parted at his approach. He acknowledged their greetings. It occurred to Chester that Senior Assistant – no – Officer for the Creative Arts and Crafts – might be a more suitable job description. It had a certain ring about it. “Could I suggest, sir, that we could perhaps provide a greater input of organisational skills in the running of these Fairs?” said Chester as Provie ushered him into a crowded wee back room.