Monday, 12 January 2015

Old Greenock Characters - A Thrilling Adventure!

So aye, we told you what we did last year, and what we're doing this year, but y'know's been awhile since we've had an excerpt from John Donald's inspirational Old Greenock Characters - here is a tale from John Donald's own childhood memories...

I may here relate an unusual· and interesting experience I had along with some companions shortly after the West Burn had been filled in between Crawfurd and Dalrymple Streets.

A square hatchway was left behind Mr. Beaton's premises already mentioned, so as to give access to the stream for some purpose, and it was quite a common practice for boys to remove the cover and drop down into the bed of the burn in order to sail boats or otherwise amuse themselves.

We were engaged in the nautical pastime, under the direction of Jamie Docherty, whose father carried on a fruit business at the corner of West Burn and Crawfurd Streets. Jamie had made the traditional voyage to Quebec, and so was an acknowledged authority in navigation.

It was a strange conventicle. An odd professor discoursing to odder students in the oddest of all lecture-rooms. Seated on stones in an irregular ring in the centre of the murmuring stream, illuminated by a glare of daylight from above, which also weakly revealed the dull red brickwork of the side walls, but failed to pierce the darkness on either hand, we listened with deep attention to our "lecturer," when the order, "Come up out of that!" rang out from above, and smote us with awe.
"The skufter," someone whispered; and we backed hastily and noiselessly into the gloom.
"Come Up out of that!" again came the stentorian command.
There was no response.

It was Hughie Reid, and each of us knew very well what to expect if we should clamber up the hatchway while Hughie with his cane stood by, so we maintained a discreet silence, knowing that he would not dare to come down, and hoping that he would go away.
"Come up out of that, or it will be the worse for you."

Still no reply.

Docherty whispered: "It's all right, boys; let him shout; he can't stay there all day; he'll soon go away;" and we were comforted.

The bobby's repeated orders to ascend continued to be ignored, and at length, to our great relief, we saw him straighten himself up, and apparently pass from the aperture. Our gratification was short-lived; for suddenly the hatch cover was thrown on with a bang, and we were imprisoned in Cimmerian darkness. With sinking hearts we heard Hughie's retreating footsteps; yet we believed that we might be able to push up the cover from below. But even that hope was taken from us. Imagine our feelings when the constable returned, and we realised by the heavy thuds which followed that he was piling ponderous granite blocks on top of the hatch cover! These stones had been left over when the burn was built in.

We were in despair. What should we do? What could we do?
Somebody whimpered.
Docherty heard, and said, "Bubblin' won't help us. We've either to tramp down to Caird's yard or up to the cooperage at the heid o' the square. Which is it to be? "
Either alternative seemed dreadful, and no one spoke.
The silence was broken only by a partially stifled sob, and the lapping of the water.

 At length one of the boys faltered, "It's no sae faur to Caird's."
"Aye, but whit's yon?" exclaimed another.
 ''What!" we all cried, startled.
"Aweh up the burn-see!"
We looked, and lo ! a pin-point of light was visible.

It seemed a long, long way off; but, as Patrick McGill says: “Nothing looks so cheerful as a lamp seen through the darkness," and the tiny spark decided us. It should be our beacon, our guiding star! So we waded up the stream with lightened hearts, for that luminous atom gave us courage and awoke the spirit of adventure within our breasts. When a rat scuttled across the burn, followed by another, and another, we laughed.
"Splash, you wi' boots on, an' frighten the rats," said Docherty; and we splashed.
Some of the boys were barefooted, and the fear of broken bottles possessed them; but in the pitch darkness they had to take their chance.

 An exclamation and a splash, followed by an unearthly yell, brought us to a sudden stop. Our hearts were in our mouths. The yells continued, and I think Docherty said a bad word. Guided by the noise, he stepped over to investigate.
"Whit's the .matter?” we heard him ask; “Hev ye cut yer fit? "
"N-n-o-o," came a quivering reply from someone apparently in terror.
"Then, whit the duvvle's wrang wi' ye? " demanded Docherty angrily.
Then silence.
"Ugh! Hoo! Gurr-r-r! Hurry up oot o' this. That wis awfu'," and Docherty splashed ahead. We speedily followed, although quite unaware of what had happened.
"Whit wis it? " a lad asked, a few minutes later.
"A-a don't know," replied the wee chap who had stumbled. He was still trembling.
“It wis a deid dug," said Docherty.

Bigger and bigger grew the light as we plodded on under West Burn Square, until our guiding star assumed the prosaic dimensions of a tallow candle stuck 111 a bottle on the top of a cask.

There was no one about, and none of us was sorry when, having climbed over the wall opposite Rennie's spirit store, we stood again in West Burn Street.

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