This is a memoir of my days as a Cub then a Scout in Lasswade, a village near Edinburgh in Scotland. It is the late 1950s when life was simple and uncomplicated. The next decade, the Swinging 60s was about to kick off.
I was about to embark on my first Scout camp. I was still a cub, so it is probably 1959 which would make me 9 years old. In the picture, taken outside the Scout Hall in Lasswade opposite the Laird and Dog, I am in the middle, the second blond up from the front row. My brother Willie is standing to the left of the Scoutmaster Tommy Green. For the photograph, taken by my dad, Jim Wilson, we were arranged on the loading ramp of a cattle truck, which still reeked of recent and more appropriate passengers. This truck would be our mode of transport to the campsite at near Tantallon Castle on the coast of the Firth of Forth. The equipment for the camp, the tents, cooking gear, food supplies, our personal luggage (usually packed in military surplus kit bags) and so on were loaded first, followed by us, the Scouts and Cubs, on top. In those days, Health and Safety was not a consideration, in fact the only concern was that we didn’t fall out of the back.
The journey probably took a couple of hours as we meandered across the countryside, then along the coast roads. I recall the fun we had, as we passed slowly through the towns and villages, mimicking the cattle and sheep that would have been the normal cargo. Unsuspecting pedestrians were startled by the cacophony of moo’s and baa’s that came from behind the wooden slats, followed by hoots of raucous laughter.
At the campsite we were released from the cattle truck, clattering down the ramp like a herd of beasts. The equipment was unloaded, tents set up and the latrine excavated; a long deep pit like a grave with a canvas screen and as time passed an evil smell. There was a large tent that acted as a kitchen where, in the morning, you could watch the porridge cooking in an enormous black pot while one of the scout leaders casual tapped his fag ash into it. I think there was probably about six occupants to each tent where at night, after lights out, gruesome stories and jokes were told. The photograph shows my brother Willie, standing by the tent pole, with his group posing like a nonchalant Edwardian safari party. I recall a torchlit midnight ramble along the seafront, games of rounders, campfires and learning scouting skills. I also remember the smells; damp grass, damp canvas, drinking chocolate. And the latrine.
This photograph is of my initiation into the Lasswade Scout group. I would be about ten or eleven years old, dressed in a kilt, but hatless. Everyone looks a bit gormless, Dib, Dib Dibbing, and giving half hearted three finger salutes. The troop was organised into four patrols and mine, somewhat disappointingly, was called the Owls. The others had more inspiring names; the Hawks, the Eagles and the Ospreys. Inside the scout hall there was a canvas enclosure in each corner, one for each patrol. At the start of each session there was a pledge allegiance to God and the Queen followed by inspections by the Scoutmaster, who peered critically at the uniforms, shape of the hats (achieved by steaming and ironing) and position of the woggles. The enclosures were then scrutinised for cleanliness and order.
Activities included learning the scouting skills, knot tying and stiff, necessary to gain the various badges, and a variety of games. In the summer we could be found following trails through the local woods, the Braeheads and in the dark winter months we played indoor games. A particular game that I recall involved a boxing glove. The troop formed a circle facing inwards, eyes firmly closed and a boxing glove was handed to a scout who then started beating his surprised and startled neighbour with the glove as he chased him round the circle back to his place, bruised and panting. The glove was then randomly passed to another scout and the frantic pursuit repeated; an opportunity to settle scores.
In those uncomplicated days, the Scouts, Guides, Cubs and Brownies, like the church and school played an important part in the life of the village.
But soon, to the great disappointment of my dad, a King Scout in his youth, I left the Scouts.
One dark Winter evening, I was climbing the Post Office Steps, on my way home from a Scout meeting.
“Ye heard, Pal?” A voice in the dark..
“President Kennedy’s gone and been assassinated, Pal.”
It was 7.30 on Friday the 22 November 1963. I went home and sat on my bed in a state of deep shock. At a time when political leaders were old men with grey hair, pipes and moustaches, Jack Kennedy, with his film star looks, was someone we teenagers could relate to. He had celebrity status; a year before we had followed the Cuban Crisis with apprehensive awe.
Suddenly, life was no longer simple and uncomplicated. Not long after, I drifted away from the Scouts, an organisation that didn’t seem relevant in this new world, the world of the swinging 60s.