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Last updated 01/05/13



Excerpts from a work in progress - a sequel to A Slight Mist on the Horizon


“You fuggin idiot !! – what the ‘ell is goin’ on !!” – Lackie’s face was crimson with disbelief and horror as he realised what was happening.

The wire snapped taught, the boggie came to a shuddering halt and the yacht – a classic and much loved Hilliard, slid………….and slid !

This was 1976 and l was working as a designer at a yard on Scotland's West Coast, a beautiful sailing ground attached to the north side of the Clyde and for some reason l cannot quite remember now, l was helping in the launch of a well cherished craft of beauty. That is, a craft of beauty and grace, until the “black squad” got hold of it.

I was first introduced to the “squad” on a cold and wintery March morning – a typical Gareloch morning with the mist gently moving over the water’s surface and a winter’s golden sun filtering through the low cloud over the snow clad mountains at the head of the loch – a scene of tranquillity and enough to get any man in the mood for a good day – a good day that is, until you swivelled round to face the motley crew standing in front of me – and then the heart sank as the complete corollary to nature’s natural beauty sank at the feet of what man can knowingly do to nature – five men of such awful demeanour and total uselessness.

To the left stood their leader, a certain Mr. Lackie – erect and strong from his feet to his stomach, after which his body took an alarming incline to the left like a weakened strand of grass to lean heavily onto an object as wide as it was high – it’s girth sheathed in an ancient apron of incredible filth above which rose a cardigan of ragged holes, a face of bulbous alcoholic stuper topped with a bonnet permanently glued in place and sporting a blunt pencil behind the ear – l give you Gibbie Cartwright – and to his left the “hurry brothers” – twins of ancient years with limbs that seemed to entwine each other so that it was difficult to work out who’s was who’s (but needing to stand entwined to remain upright) and given the name in honour of their complete inability to start any work on time.

I was going to turn quickly from this scene of awfulness to drink in once again, natures’ bounty as an antidote to the scene in front of me, when my eyes fell on the last member of the squad. Member, may not be the correct word – perhaps “appendage” may be better, for stuck on the end of the line was “Wullie” – sometimes known as “Barlinnie Wullie” – diminutive in size, diminutive in stature, diminutive in any form of intelligence but, as l learned later, lethal with his weaponry – namely, his “jaggy bonnit!” – a greasy piece of headgear laced along it’s forward peak with sewn-in razor blades – a deadly piece of equipment when Wullie wielded it in one of his favourite past-times – the traditional fist fight at the end of a Friday night drinking session in one of the less salubrious drinking establishments in Port Glasgow.

So there they were – the crew to launch a thousand yachts ! Five men all complete with around five brain cells between them and nine eyes – yes, just nine – you could not count Wullie’s left eye which seemed to have a mind all it’s own wandering off to vistas far away from what we were trying to do.

Back to the yacht –this craft of resplendent beauty in it’s lovely Donegal green paint job, lovingly finished with gold leaf on it’s cove line, was being lowered down the slip and out of the shed on a boggie and carriage. As usual, the yacht was allowed to run out and cross the coast road onto the lower slip ready for final launching.

Wullie was to watch for traffic along the road and warn the winchman, Lackie if any approached, in good time for the boggie, with the yacht on top, to be slowed and stopped gently…….but this was the morning after the weekend before and Wullie was suffering the after effects off his usual state of total inebriation over the weekend – his attention was on his bladder and he did not see the approaching car until too late – my immediate thought was, that in relieving himself beside the shed he had unfortunately been stung on his “dapper” by a thistle or nettle, for he spun round, “dapper” in hand, spraying the road as he rotated whilst doing an impression of a dervish on heat – the words “there’s a fuggin motor comin’ doon the road!” shot from his mouth as he frantically signalled too late for the winchman to apply the brake which Mr. Lackie did, by jumping on the brake lever with such force that the boggie simply stopped dead – the problem was, that 5 tons of yacht was not going to stop dead and it continued on it’s way towards the water – off the boggie and stood teetering on it’s keel with no visible form of support.

But the car was fine – it was just Mrs. Shaw on her way to the post office in Rosneath and she gave a cheery wave and a wee toot on her horn as she sped past the gormless five - they watched and prayed – l watched and prayed, our six mouths open as the yacht – now a glistening thing of beauty bathed as it was in the golden winter sun light, teetered………and teetered, until finally – slowly at first but then quicker, fell sideways onto it’s hull shattering it’s complete starboard side into matchwood !

Lackie sat, Gibbie pulled his bonnet down over his eyes and tried to hide under the rim, the Hurry Brothers looked at each other, limbs inter-twined and Wullie, dapper in hand walked away up the road and disappeared into the morning mist.

“Is that Mr. Wilson ?”

“Aye it is – is that the yard? – how’s ma boat? – is she in the water yet? – l know it’s high tide early this morning, so there isn’t much of a time window to get her in and l want to come up this weekend with the family and take her down to Dunoon”

I leave the make-up of the rather stilted explanation and it’s effect on poor Mr. Wilson, to the reader’s imagination !

That afternoon l travelled to the Companie's other yard to take measurements off one of big T’s yachts – 'Slack Alice 3' which was in the sheds awaiting a new Teak deck (and the scene of an amazing scrap between his two mistresses – “wee Linda” and “big Linda”) – but l’ll describe that another time. I was still a little shocked and down over the demise of such a fine yacht that morning but ran into Doogie, the Yard Manager who sat back in his old leather chair in that old lime painted office with it’s reminiscences of the Second World War – old E-Boat binoculars hanging from the wall, an old gas mask box (now filled with odd brass yacht fittings) and lurid fading pictures on the wall of leggy, scantily clad show girls with “come-on” smiles – he leant back in his old chair and sucked on his pipe, filling the room with grey shag smoke and after hearing my dreadful explanation of the mornings’ events muttered the immortal words – “Och well – there ye are, for where you’re goin !” – a completely meaningless saying, but one which seemed to sum up what sometimes, appears to be the complete insanity of life !...................................


“I hear tell, ye have a fine wee bairn, a wee hen!?”

“Er yes, my wife gave birth just last night”

“Well, ye must teach her to protect herself! Teach her to kill !!”; and with this, John went off into a stumbling dance, where he fought an imaginary foe with kicking feet and punching paws until he fell over in a whirl of flaying limbs.

Actually, John was said to be an expert in self defence; and for that matter, unprovoked attack!! It was said that he had killed a man. “Aye, l did, in the bog at the head of Fort William jetty, panned his head against the “Shunk”, l did !!”

I know what you are thinking, that John the Horse got his name from the cowboy series Bonanza. Not so, John had been a horse breaker around the West Highland Estates and had broken his back by falling from a colt. His back, was mended with a steel plate, and he lived amongst the hedgerows of Mill Brae, overlooking PortKill Bay by the twin villages of Cove and Kilcreggan; one of several outlandish characters scrapping a living in an outlandish but extremely beautiful area, overlooking the fine waters of the Firth of Clyde, hugging the north peninsular shore with Loch Long and the forested hills of Argyll to it’s West and the Gareloch with the ever snow capped peak of the “Rest and be thankful” to it’s East, beyond Rosneath point.

Typical of the older inhabitants in this idyll, John was prone to imbibing a little too much of the local, strictly illegal spirits along with the local bobby who, was known for his arriving two hours late at a house fire, due to the state of his head. This after partaking of a little “nippy sweetie” with John. The “spirit”, deep red in colour and only to be taken in the smallest quantity if you wanted to continue to have any control over your legs, was the product of our neighbour Hendry. Hendry was once the village cobbler, and the proud but secretive owner of a “worm”. This device, for distilling his spirit from secret ingredients was heard, by my wife and l, to be dragged from under the flagstones of his kitchen each night. The resultant liquor was drunk with due reverence as the moon rose over the lush hills which form a back-drop to this peninsular community. It was on one such day, after John had taken a little too much of the ruby spirit, and lay comatose under the bushes between our Manse and the village church, (both beautifully designed by the famous architect Greek Thompson in Victorian times), that we were able to remove from him his old kilt, which had never before been washed and which stank to high heaven.

Before we describe the cleansing of John’s kilt, let us stay for the moment with matters spiritual. At one time, the villages boasted two churches, one beside us at the top of the long winding brae with powerful views over the Clyde. From his high pulpit, the Vicar could espy his wayward parishioners, out sailing in the Sunday regattas, when they should have been kneeling and listening to him droning on. The other church was at the bottom of the brae and was more puritan and consequently ugly in it’s form. At one time, many years ago, it was decided that there was not a big enough congregation to fill both churches (so many having taken up the sport of sailing one presumes) that one church should close. It was decided, by the then fairly youthful church goers to keep the church at the top of the hill – “sure it’s so much more beautiful and the steep walk will do our bodies good as we go to cleanse our souls”, forgetting that age and infirmity would make the climb in later age almost impossible or simply not worth it, to hear the vicar’s droning sermons. So now, the aged parishioners have to be bused up!

Back to John’s stinking kilt. During the spring and autumn, the bushes here about, always swarmed with pesky midges that would bite with wicked tenacity all the inhabitants except John. It was believed that this was due to the awful stink that emanated from under his kilt. Not even a hungry midge could survive up that skirt for long and if the wind was blowing from the North whilst John did his ritual bagpipe playing on the Middle Road just above our Manse, his stench could be sampled all the way down to the Shore Road which is the main thoroughfare for the village and the main road out, east and west. This road is bounded on one side by large Victorian and Edwardian houses, owned at one time by the Glasgow rich and which all had great festoons of rhododendron in their front gardens, and on the other by the northern shores of the Clyde. In the evening, many of the villages would walk with their dogs along this road and sit on one of the bench seats to look over to the opposite side of the great river where the lights of Greenock, Gourock and Port Glasgow twinkle.

John could not play the pipes to save his life, but no-one dared complain, not with those great paws of his ready to strike! It was the brave Mrs. Summers, who washed his skirt, only to find that the threads holding it together shrunk, giving the kilt a distinctively feminine bell-like shape. To give us more time during this awful crisis, John was kept in anaesthesia with more spirit, whilst we all decided how best to save our skins when he found out! The solution was to resew the kilt.

Now, John would often be seen imbibing with his mate Larry in the Linga-Longa bar of the local Hotel and it was he who l bumped into on my way to Maro’s, the village store, to get some thread to resew John’s kilt. The hotel itself is a rather magnificent gothic pile, set in resplendent grounds on the Western edge of Cove, another of what used to be summer houses for the Glasgow elite which would have had it’s own jetty onto the Clyde so that the owners could be delivered in style by steam yacht. Now, it is a smoke filled repository for the locals who sit around the great hearth fire talking of old sailing and poaching days. In fact, poaching was obviously what Larry had been doing. Poor old Larry could not hide the still living salmon, flapping furiously under his coat as he transported it illegally from Clyde to hotel kitchen where it would pay enough to keep Larry in whisky for half a week.

Kilcreggan still boasts both a Post Office and Maro’s, the village store, which is a cross between a large off-licence and a small supermarket at the head of the pier. The off-licence has to be large in order to cater for the twenty bus loads of “Bears” who arrive daily at 5pm for the trip on the McBrain ferry back across the water to Gourock Pier. At all costs, avoid going to Maro’s at 5pm, the queue off the buses snakes for several hundred meters as each “Bear” waits for his “carry oot!”, usually two cans of McEwens and a half bottle of Bells whisky, all to be consumed on the twenty five minute ferry journey; and this is only the second part of the day’s drinking spree. The first starts when they join the ferry in the morning for the journey across the water from Gourock to Kilcreggan. Most get on the early ferry at 7.30 which gets into Kilcreggan Pier at around 8am. The bar on the ferry does not open for this journey but does open for the journey back, so the “Bears” remain on the boat and go back to Gourock partaking of the treasures in the ferry’s bar as they go. They then wait on the ferry once more, to journey back again to Kilcreggan. Three journey’s, one ferry fare and, by 9am, most have consumed at least two or three cans plus a goodly amount of the amber nectar; and this before they are bused from Kilreggan pier to RNAD Coulport where they work as “industrials”, unskilled labour, in a facility producing nuclear missiles for the Navy!

As an aside, l soon learnt that, apart from avoiding Maro’s at certain times, it was a good idea to avoid Gourock pier at 5.30 on Thursdays. To greet the “Bears” on the pier at Gourock, the day they received their weekly pay packets, were their wives, complete with rowdy “bairns”. The exercise was simple enough. The wives had to wrestle the pay packets from their men, before the men drank it all. Trouble was, the women folk were often the worse for drink too; the spectacle was interesting and even exciting the first time l observed it, but then l became sickened at this awful Dickensian spectacle which still goes on to this day.

On heading for Maro’s, to get that life saving thread for John’s wretched kilt, there would be no doubt that l would bump into another of Cove & Kilcreggan’s infamous characters. Little Miss Flaherty and her little black poodle “Typhoo”, as she walked her continuous daily patrol along the Shore Road. Miss Flaherty’s mind had largely left her several years before and her only concerns were to continuously ask what time of day it was and to ask for a “jamy piece”. Where she lived in the village, l do not know, but it was almost certainly amongst that strange community who resided in little wood shacks just above the shore line at Portkill bay; strange people indeed as the rather plump women who lived there would often walk the Mill Brae mid summer sporting gaily coloured French Parasoles and large resplendent bare breasts, the sight of which had almost caused me to drive into the Clyde on more than one occasion!

Miss Flaherty caused the vicar so much trouble with her continuous questions concerning the time of day, that he bought a large clock for her as a Christmas present one year, only to receive it back again as a Christmas present from Miss Flaherty, the next year.

Talking about driving reminds me that keeping speed down on the roads here abouts is essential. Half way up the hill on which Cove and Kilgreggan is perched and behind the shore – side dwellings, is Middle road which spurs off the Mill Brae following a contour around the south face of the hill with resplendent views over the Clyde and which strangely comes to an abrupt end where it meets School Road. This sudden end has, in the past, been the death of several motorists who, in the wee small hours of the morning, after a long session in the Linga Longa bar, have forgotten the road’s end. Forgotten that is, until their speeding motor has hit the low dry stone wall and attempted to fly over the gully that allows the School Brook to wend it’s way down to the Clyde. This event last happened, not long before l left the village for the last time, a young idiot, the worse for wear with drink, managed to sail clear over the wall and land with aplomb in the branches of a large Horse Chestnut on the other side of the brook. The driver didn’t wake and he was not found until the next day when a little boy undertaking his nature project on the nesting habits of the local bird population, remarked to his teacher ”hey miss, there’s a motor nesting in that big conker tree down the road!” The tree, the wall and the young idiot still bare the scars!

Eventually, I got the thread and delivered it to Hendry's wife who deftly sewed John’s Kilt back into a good shape just before he woke from his alcoholic stupor. I don’t think he liked having a washed kilt and he delighted in getting it dirty again quickly, but, at least we were saved the anger he would have had if he had seen it directly after it was washed.

And so, as always, the sun would set over the snaking Clyde after another typical Highland day. As we used to peer South across the water, the Cloch Lighthouse would spread it’s beam to flash over Dunoon and the Holy Loch and then to seep down towards the island of Arun. The lights of a far off car would be seen as it snaked it’s way down over the hills above Greenock far to the south towards Kilmacolm. From the east, the panorama would end with the upper reaches of the Clyde over Port Glasgow and the wreck of the old rusting sugar boat lying on it’s side, a black hump in the water and the only thing seemingly dead in this scene.


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