Of School Days in Kirriemuir
|Bellies Brae Kirriemuir by Gwen and James Andersonunder Wiki commons|
There were two primary schools in Kirrie, ours, the Southmuir Primary School part of Webster’s Seminary and the Reform Street Primary up the town which might as well have been another country for all the contact we had with it we definitely felt superior since ours was attached to the high school, proudly the only non-Catholic Seminary in Scotland at that time.
The Southmuir primary was a pretty red stone building that stood at the top of Bellies Brae and had served countless generations before becoming too small to service the growing population. From our side it was on the level but anyone coming from the town had a long climb from the Gairie Burn and Bellies Brae up to it. Those old steps were uneven rough stone of undetermined age. Everyone and their granny used those steps and the playground as a short cut from one side of the town to the other, much to the annoyance of Mr McIntosh the school janitor.
When I was little I thought McIntosh owned the school, living as he did in a small house in the grounds; it took a while before it clicked that he was the caretaker and groundsman. A great brute of a man, he looked like a giant to our five year old eyes, much like Hagrid before Rowling created him. Not as soft as that giant though. McIntosh – I never knew his first name - took everything personally within his well kept grounds. Gruff and dour, he glowered at everyone from under heavy black eyebrows skimmed by his old army bunnet.
Young and old alike ran the gauntlet of his wrath in taking the short cut. Many arguments would drift in through the windows while little ears flapped listening to McIntosh tearing strips off some old lady who had just panted her way up one hundred steps. In response, people either ignored him, or gave back as good as they got,
‘If ye think...’ pant, ‘I’m gawing back doon they steps McIntosh...’ pant, ‘ye can think agin. I pay my taxes like abody else.’
Some people even he wouldn’t challenge; specifically, Mrs Elder. The sight of her tartan headscarf coming into view above the parapet of stone wall would see McIntosh disappearing in the opposite direction. Sometimes he didn’t quite make it round the corner of a building before she topped the steps and Mrs Elder would catch a glimpse of him,
‘Aye, ye scurry awa ye wee rodent ye,’ would drift through the windows and she would mutter her way down passed primary’s four, five and seven. Mrs Elder stood five foot nothing in her stocking soles to McIntosh’s six foot four, proving size didn’t matter when it came to dealing with bullies.
Inside, we didn’t actually see any of this; the windows, great arched things with impressive stone lintels, were high off the ground, presumably to prevent distraction from our chanted times tables. The general layout was simple; classrooms on each side and a square in the middle lined with gym benches, for PE, assembly, choir practice and the odd play.
You started with entry through the left-hand side door progressing annually from primary one to two to three down the left of the building, let’s skip over the boy and girls toilets that formed the top of the square, then on the other side, down to four and five - one big room divided in two by a glass and wood screen. There was a brief side step into primary six at the front beside the office, then back to primary seven, the last class room before you exited the right hand side door and up to the BIG school.
When we were five, Gracie Bruce and I went eagerly to this familiar building. We had been inseparable since we were two years old, and together, we could do anything. There is a photograph somewhere of that first day, of the pair of us in cotton dresses, school bags on backs and grinning manically into the camera at the door of Grace’s house, our introduction to the world delayed by the necessity of recording it.
Besides having each other, it also helped that the school was at the end of our road, familiar territory and well within our comfort zone. Not so for Lesley Cameron, this was her first extended absence from her mum and she spent the whole day hanging onto the door knob, howling. I can remember being puzzled that anyone would be so reluctant to leave home. Maybe she had the right of it after all, to clinging as long as possible to childhood. Miss Petrie, by that time Primary One teacher for three decades, let her stay by the door, obviously watching to see she didn’t harm herself, and simply raising her voice above the noise. Next day Lesley came and sat behind Gracie and I, and that was that.
Behind me also, and for the next seven years, sat the Thomson twins, Peter and Andrew, the same pair who shared my baptism day. For some reason, I have carried that tenuous connection to the twins with me throughout my life. Everything twin-like got my complete attention, and I thought nothing would have pleased me more than to be the mother of twins. Not to be, but later as a midwife I did delivery a couple of pairs of twins to my great delight, and that must serve. But I digress.
Memories of primary school days are scanty. I remember the old oak tree that dominated the playground at the top of the steps. That tree was used for everything; it formed shelter from rain and sun, around its raised roots we created our own games, swarmed in its branches, and, later on, it became a trysting place for our first romantic encounters. That tree was solid. I always imagined the roots grew down inside the whole of that hill, a huge anchor that kept us earthed to Scottish soil.
For those years, the school was the centre of our universe, the spot from which we surveyed the rest of town life. From its grounds on one side and down the brae was the Commonty, the jute factories and the old gas tanks, empty but still stinking.
Waterfall at the top of the Gairie Burn, Kirriemuir
The Commonty was common land, a swathe of green, a path along the top, another down the far side going toward the factory. At the bottom, another path and then the burn. It’s important to remember that the burn was at the other side of the path in winter. When the snow came, at every playtime and lunchtime there was a scramble to find a cardboard box to slide down the Commonty. If you timed it wrong, you hit the bottom of the slope, flew over the path and into the burn. Shrieking kids, who normally hated being wet, were willing to forego comfort and were content to spend afternoon classes steaming gently in classrooms whose perfume then became wet wool and leather.
Funny - the scents and smells that take you back.