He called me by my name

“…the crofter has gone, the man with the house and the steading of his own and the land closer to his heart than the flesh of his body …”

The sudden and unexpected death of a beloved cousin has devastated our extended family.  I wrote about his father in “Cold mince” at the end of last year; his son was known to the wider family as Wee George to distinguish him from his father – Big George.  Wee George’s funeral two weeks ago was huge: the kirk was packed, with the balcony opened almost for the first time in living memory and there was standing room only in the village hall afterwards where the preparation, the catering and the clearing up was done by the community.  What a demonstration of how much George was loved.

I have to confess that the Free Kirk minister did a good job in the circumstances with his largely non-churchgoing congregation, talking about George at some length; they had known and liked each other. But George also got, from my sister, some Taoist prayer messages and a candle lit in his memory in Borneo.

He and his father were the only people in the family who called me by my name.  My given name was never used by the rest of the family, and outside of school, I never heard it except from them.  One letter in it was changed and I’ve always been happy with this different version but now, never again will I hear it used outside officialdom.

My earliest memory of George was of him in his high chair in the narrow croft kitchen; Aunt Jeanie put a plate of food in front of him and then went back to the sink at the window.  Assorted other bairns were sitting round the table and I had a good view of George as he lifted the edge of his plate and tipped it over onto the floor.  I was maybe 7 and never before, had I seen such an act of cold, calculated and deliberate wickedness; I waited for the wrath of god to descend but his mother just turned round and then bent down to clear up the mess without saying a word to the miscreant.

Then, I recall him at Aunt Jessie’s wedding, maybe 3 years old and in his kilt.  The carpet in the hotel’s reception area was covered in confetti and my older brother led us all in the game of scraping it up and then, when we had a good boxful, throwing it over each other.  This went on and on and the fun seemed to last forever.

Wee George could be an eeshan.  My younger brother remembers him swinging on the living room curtains at Granny’s and bringing them down; this resulted in him being named a “holy terror”.

When he returned from his first day at school, his mother, not unnaturally, asked him how he’d got on.  “Don’t be speaking about it”, was his memorable reply.  He knew he had to endure school but he wasn’t going to enjoy it and he certainly wasn’t going to discuss it.  I have adopted this response and find it especially useful when my sister starts asking me about some unpleasant or worrying experience; she likes to know all the details but I’m with George.

To get to school, he had maybe a 15 minute walk and he’d occasionally be asked to go down to the baker’s after school to bring home a loaf of bread.  On at least one occasion, the loaf was half-eaten before it was delivered to his mother.  He was choosy about what he ate, sometimes managing to smuggle unwanted bits of food into the drawer of the table where they’d be discovered days later.

When he was 17, he got a motorbike and offered me a hurl to the end of the croft road.  We got round the first bend, then, before we even got to the burn, he swerved to avoid a puddle and we went into the barbed wire fence.  I can hear him yet shouting “your leg, your leg” cos the bike was lying on top of it; my leg was perfectly fine but I still have the scars on my right shoulder.  I can remember Uncle George patching me up with some cotton wool and a bottle of Dettol.  That’s what we got for gallivanting on the Sabbath.

George’s burn

On my holidays many years later, I was part of a working party in the neep field, lifting and throwing them into a trailer.  George must have noticed that I was not going as fast as the others, so he moved me into his place in the cab of the tractor and instructed me on how to release the handbrake to move it forward.  I felt not criticised but rewarded with an important role.

Another time, at one of his summer barbecues he realised that I was kind of underdressed for a cool summer’s evening.  He came from behind and draped one of his thick jackets over my shoulders, without saying a word.

After the funeral, in the village hall, the wife of one of his neighbours was doing a long stint in the sink.  She spoke of how it was George that her husband phoned when he needed help or advice about his own croft; the help always came.  Her husband was  getting on a bit but who would he turn to now.

George had been a son, a grandson and a nephew. When he died, he was a husband, father, brother, cousin, friend and neighbour; he was a crofter, a shearer, a cyclist, a cook, a music lover and a hoster of parties. Nobody had a bad word to say about him.

As I’m borrowing from Sunset Song, I’ll end with this:  George was one of those who had “a lamp quiet-lighted and kind” in his heart.



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