In June 2010 Colin Murray published his autobiography ‘Papering Over The Cracks’. In the early chapters he covers many of his experiences, particularly misdemeanours growing up in Portsoy in the 1960s and 70s. He has kindly allowed Portsoy Past & Present Community Group to print chapter 2 ‘Close shaves and thrilling escapades’ for people to read on our website.
Close shaves and thrilling escapades
If there was such a thing as a typical Portsoy family in the 1960s it was probably ours, the Murrays.
My father, Bill, the second of a family of eight, came from the village of Sandend, two miles west of Portsoy, a small town of less than 2000 inhabitants, situated 55 miles north-west of Aberdeen along the Moray Firth coast. Portsoy was once a vibrant, thriving fishing port. A bustling trade was done throughout the 18th and 9th centuries, when the herring fleets would come and go from its two harbours.
The dawning of the 20th century brought a decline in Portsoy’s maritime importance but the town faced these challenges over future decades by toiling admirably to reinvent itself. This culminated in the completion of extensive restoration work in the 1960s whereby the buildings around the old harbour were renovated to complement the popular open air swimming pool, as well as the camping and caravan site at the links, as the town established itself as a fashionable coastal holiday resort.
Portsoy was also famed for its marble, cut from a rich vein of blue and green serpentine rock which ran across the braes to the west of the town. This unique marble was so appreciated for its beauty that it was used for parts of the construction of the opulent Louis XIV’s Palace of Versailles.
My mother, Margaret, the eldest of four, was born in Blyth, Northumberland. She came to Portknockie, another Moray Firth fishing village, to stay with her grand-parents, at the outset of World War II. Like many of her fellow evacuees, she became so attached to her grandparents that she did not want to go back home to live – and she never did.
My parents were married in Portsoy in 1962.They set up their first home in Chapel Street, renting a small one-bedroom flat. My arrival came a year later and we resided there for a few more years before moving to a larger two-bedroom council house at the other end of the town, following the birth of my brother, Keith, in 1967.
We were not practising Christians, but the way we were brought up was certainly within the parameters and boundaries of a Christian family. There was no bad language or back-chat tolerated, by my father in particular, who came across as a strict disciplinarian. Mum, on the other hand, seemed softer and more flexible in how she dealt with situations. Although my dad was never a regular Churchgoer, he used to display a level of reverence for the Sabbath by always wearing a shirt and tie.
We could hardly be classed as an affluent family but we wanted for nothing, with my father always commanding a decent wage as a foreman joiner and the family income supplemented by my mother’s wages from part-time work at the school canteen and later at the geriatric hospital, close to where we lived. Keith and I became familiar figures in the town because of our bright ginger hair, inherited from both sides of the family.
I didn’t really get off to a comfortable start in life, as I had a bad stammer and lacked confidence. In addition, I was a slow learner and ended up in a remedial class during Primary 1 and 2.
However, as much as I struggled with knowing my right foot from my left and remembering the most basic of things, I used to look forward to our daily milk ration whereby we all received 1/3rd of a pint of the creamy pasteurised drink in a glass bottle. The sub-zero winters of the 1960s would quite regularly freeze the milk, leaving a layer of ice inside the bottle. This all changed with the introduction of milk in plastic bags, which meant that the unpleasant taste of the plastic was more distinct than that of the milk!
Like all the other boys in my class I had to wear short trousers in Primary 1.These were held up by a “snake belt”, consisting of an elasticated strip, fastened at the front with an S-shaped metal hook-buckle fashioned as a snake; it was obviously this feature of the belt which gave it its popular name. However, it did not take me long to find that it had other practical uses, most notably to defend myself against an older boy who was bullying my friend and me as we walked home from school, and also for a more light-hearted moment when I used it to tighten a towel I had placed on my head to imitate an Arab …with freckles, of course!
My mother made sure I attended Sunday School. It would be wrong to suggest that she pushed me out of the door kicking and screaming, but I could have come up with a multitude of more exciting things I would rather have done with my time.
My strongest recollections of Sunday School are of singing Away in a Manger at Christmas time, and There is a Green Hill Far Away at Easter. In fact, I vividly recall being in the garden shed with a little red Gideon’s Bible that I found in the house, reading ‘There is a green hill far away, without a city wall, where the dear Lord was crucified, who died to save us all’ through a stream of tears. The strange thing was that as much as I found Sunday School a chore, these seasonal favourites always provoked an emotional response from me.
I just loved the meals at Primary School. I would sit in class, stare out the window at the grey Massey Ferguson tractor that was ploughing the field in the distance, dreaming of eating my favourite sausage-meat flan with mashed potatoes, topped, of course, with a unique hot cherry-red coloured sauce.
I would devour anything that was placed in front of me; from spam fritters to liver casserole. The desserts may often have looked vile and off-putting but sago or tapioca with prunes, and Swiss roll with pink custard were culinary delights, as far as I was concerned. At home, my mother could have fed me nothing except spaghetti hoops and I would have been entirely satisfied. She only needed to allow me to make my own special Cremola Foam powder-based drink of erupting raspberry fizziness, totally tantalising my taste buds, to complete what would have been my perfect meal!
Our Sundays were usually spent visiting either my mother’s relatives in Portknockie or my father’s in Keith, a distillery town 18 miles south of Portsoy, well-known as ‘The Gateway to the Malt Whisky Trail’, with many other distilleries in the surrounding area.
Portknockie, a cliff top village with a steep rugged coastline, was a welcome change, giving me a fresh lease of life from the familiarity of my home town. Part of its unique charm for me was a 50 meter rock, called ‘The Bow Fiddle’, situated just off the shoreline, only a short distance from my relatives’ house. The quartzite rock appeared white in colour from the layers of bird droppings left, over the years, by seagulls that nested there, and was shaped like a violin – unlike anything I had ever seen before.
As I wallow in halcyon nostalgia while typing these early chapters, I find myself having a vague recollection of travelling with my mother to Portknockie in a steam train – just prior to the transport secretary Lord Beeching’s short-sighted railway termination plan that left Portsoy and countless other towns and villages all over the country without a railway system.
Part of the freedom that growing up in a small North-East community brought was the ability to roam about freely with minimal parental supervision. My generation also had little in the way of entertainment devices, so we had to create our own imaginary worlds, which led to frequent misadventure. There was an incident when I was seven that I remember vividly as showing the fine line between life and death.
Keith and his best friend, Steven, had been playing in the fields near our house when they came across a donkey. Apparently, Keith went into the field and was tormenting the donkey. The near-fatal result was that the donkey turned on him and gave him a violent mauling. With the help of Steven, he somehow managed to get back to the house – bloodied from head to toe, with the thick padded yellow jacket he was wearing almost torn to ribbons.
He recovered, but poor old Neddy, who was minding his own business until Keith came along, had to be put down. I remember the doctor telling my mother that if he hadn’t been wearing such a protective padded jacket my brother would probably have been killed.
Just a few months later it was my turn to have a close call.
I was taken along on a fishing trip with my father and my uncle Alan. Being prone to calamities from an early age, it was no surprise that I fell into the deepest and widest stretch of water in the Boyne Burn, one mile east of Portsoy. I remember flapping about and shouting frantically – over my head in water.
I was convinced I would drown but my father jumped in after me and, in spite of my frenzied struggling, managed to pull me out.
Needless to say, they never invited me to go trout fishing with them again.
My main passion was football. Dad was not really interested, preferring fishing, but I became fanatical about anything related to the game. If I wasn’t playing I was watching it or reading about it. And I collected anything associated with it, such as chewing-gum cards, coins from the petrol station and old football programmes.
Strongly influenced by my mother’s cousin, Sandy Laing, who lived in Portknockie, my team was Glasgow Rangers. Sandy gave me two Rangers LP records when I was about seven years old. One was called Glory Glory, with a large red, white and blue rosette on the front cover; the other was named Follow Follow and featured the current Rangers team.
From then on I became entrenched in all things Glasgow Rangers. My mates were all big football fans and we seemed to be fairly even split between Rangers and Celtic supporters. Aberdeen was our local team but they never had the same appeal although, arguably, they had a finer team than Rangers around that time.
In those days everyone seemed to have a nickname and I became one of several Cocos who had Colin as a first name. Keith was given an equally unoriginal one when he was christened Keish by one of my friends.
We made go-karts or “Karties” out of Silver Cross prams and old fish boxes, complete with personalised number plates. My ambition was to own a whole fleet of them!
Home life was pretty settled. Mum and Dad had the occasional falling-out but I always found them a compatible couple, although diametrically opposed in nature and personality. Dad was quiet, almost introvert, sometimes appearing aloof. He was not very talkative at home but became more alive when he’d had a few drinks. My mother, on the other hand, was outgoing and chatty and she did a lot of my father’s talking for him.
Dad liked to unwind by having a social drink with his friends at the weekend and my mother, although almost teetotal, never seemed to mind. I quite liked it when Dad came back from the pub because he seemed more relaxed and easier to speak to; I think alcohol was a crutch for him to overcome his natural shyness. On the outside I appeared to be more like my mother by nature, being excitable, talkative and comfortable with people, but I also had a tendency to be intense and serious like my father.
My dad was a joiner but he really always wanted to be a fisherman, like two of his brothers. He did go away on a trip with a skipper he knew but suffered badly from sea sickness.
Out of his whole family he was closest to his brother Alan, who was twelve years his junior. They decided to build a boat, and my father spent several months building a sixteen-foot one inside a polythene canopy he had erected in our back garden. I remember the day he went up to the fishing village of Burghead, near Elgin, to purchase an outboard engine. His boat and this 7.5 Mercury engine were his pride and joy, and his trips out fishing and laying creels were the ideal distraction from the rigours of the building sites.
Although he caught mainly mackerel, and the odd codling, my father’s favourite catch was lobster, which he viewed as delicacy. As a young boy, I vividly recall being horrified to see my father boil the lobster alive in a large pot. I could never fathom out how someone who was such an avid watcher of nature programmes could possibly do such a thing.
By the time I reached Primary 5 I felt I was holding my own at school regarding the different subjects we were taught. This was an improvement. I liked all my Primary School teachers but the one I recall with most fondness was Miss Davidson. I was a little frightened of her at first, for she came across as very strict and demanding, but once I got used to her old-fashioned style of teaching I really grew to respect her and her methods, which were always consistent and fair.
She was a stern, diminutive lady in her 50s and I will always have this picture of her in my mind, standing in front of the class with a long wooden pointer in her hand, asking us to repeat the names of all the Firths on the coast of Scotland as she pointed to them on a large scrolled map that was hanging on the wall.
My father was frequently bragging to me about how fit he was when he was my age, recounting stories of regularly swimming the two miles from the new harbour in Portsoy to his home community of Sandend.
His once slender physique had now given way to a more chubby build –mainly due to his weekend beer drinking – and his jet-black wavy hair was turning grey and thinning on top, yet he still reckoned he could beat me over a 60 yard sprint. So, when he challenged me to a race one weekend at Aviemore, I felt it was time to put him in his place by beating him easily. I did beat him, but only by a whisker, proving to me that many years previously he would have been a real whippet!
For the Murray family, the two-hour car journey to Aviemore was always something to be eagerly anticipated. Aviemore became famous in the late 1960s as one of the first established ski-resorts in the United Kingdom. The resort blossomed when the Aviemore Centre complex opened, with such innovative facilities as an ice rink, and a heated indoor swimming pool that made artificial waves. These futuristic recreational amenities only began to grab my attention when I had outgrown the small electric cars that ran on 6d (sixpence) coins.
Sadly, Scotland’s answer to Chamonix rapidly deteriorated into a hideous eyesore during the 1980s and early 90s when ski enthusiasts chose instead to go to the Alps and Pyrenees, where real snow was guaranteed!
Although I was never much interested in reading as a child, I clearly recall being transfixed when I first read The Last of the Mohicans when I was about 10, and became fascinated with that story after receiving the book from my great-aunt in Portknockie. Why, I thought, was Uncas allowed to die, rather than his father, Chingachcook, which meant that the Mohican tribe could not continue?
Even at that young age I felt a shiver going down my spine when I saw the spectacular coloured pictures in my book, depicting unspoiled nature and wilderness. Though it certainly owes much to the romantic style it had been written in, as a young boy I was getting so intrigued by the characters and events described by the author, James Fenimore Cooper, and my imagination set off by the plot in such a powerful fashion that even the Sunday evening television dramatisation of that time did not come close.
Growing up in Portsoy in the 1960s and ’70s could not be described as boring. As I have said, we had no shortage of pastimes in the days long before iPods, mobile phones and home computers.
A vibrant open air swimming pool and two harbours were some of the places we frequented, as well as a massive playing field, only a stone’s throw from my house, where we would go and play football for hours on end with seemingly boundless energy. And my idea of recycling consisted of returning empty lemonade bottles to the shop and getting a few pennies back on them. In those days, it was quite acceptable for friends to share a can of coke without getting germs!
Something that struck me as a kid was the sheer optimism of the time. Even with the constant Cold War threat of nuclear destruction and with memories of the 2nd World War still vivid in most adults’ minds, many people seemed to believe that the future was brighter than the past.
On February 15th, 1971, the long awaited Decimalisation came with little fuss involved. On that day, the United Kingdom changed from the centuries-old custom of using 12 pence to the shilling and 20 shillings to the pound to a new decimal 100 new pence to the pound.
However, of far more importance to me was a tragic event that happened just six weeks earlier.
I clearly recall watching Grandstand that Saturday afternoon, when grainy black and white images and newsflashes of the Ibrox disaster started filtering through that would cause a whole nation to mourn.
New Year bells had been ringing less than 48 hours before; the old year had died, and the new had been birthed. In the last dying moments of the annual New Year ‘Old Firm’ game, Jimmy Johnstone had scored for Celtic and Colin Stein had equalised for Rangers.
As the crowd was leaving the ground, barriers on Stairway 13 gave way, causing a massive chain-reaction pile-up of spectators. The tragedy resulted in the loss of 66 lives, many of them teenagers, including five schoolboy pals from the small town of Markinch, in Fife. Most of the deaths were caused by compressive asphyxia, with bodies being stacked up to six feet deep in the area. More than 200 other fans were injured.
I read this perceptive observation regarding the disaster: Tragedy is never genuinely portrayed in this post-modern society unless seen through the lens of a television camera but this disaster in Glasgow, nearly 40 years ago, was almost concealed from public view.
Unlike the more recent Bradford, Heysel and Hillsborough tragedies, there are no graphic images of the Ibrox disaster to be hauntingly replayed. When those 66 fans died on staircase 13, it was only just one horror beyond the horizon for the cameras covering the match.’
I was too young to grasp the full magnitude of the tragedy, but not too young to forget the unfolding events of that horrendous day.
Ironically, soon after, my father took me to see my beloved Rangers play for the first time. Rangers’ opponents were Aberdeen that bitterly cold Saturday afternoon in January and walking to the match amongst thousands of football supporters, mostly grown men, was a daunting experience for me. Even holding my father’s hand did little to quell the strange mix of anxiety and excitement that I felt.
This was in the days before all-seated stadiums, and crowds at the smaller grounds, like Pittodrie, often exceeded 30 000 when the big Glasgow teams came to visit. Nothing was what I had expected. As we huddled like sardines behind the Rangers’ goal the atmosphere was tense and hostile – and the noise deafening. I could hardly see a thing; everyone else was massive. I recall turning round to see a guy – barely able to stand due to drunkenness – urinating on the back of another man’s coat. He stumbled forward and knocked me off balance.
‘Hey pal, watch the wee laddie,’ came a voice from somewhere. I looked over and a man of about my dad’s age said, ‘Are you okay, son?’ It was good to hear a voice of sanity amongst all the mayhem and madness. I looked up at Dad. I could see he was tense; ill at ease with the whole experience.
Later in the game, another intoxicated man, in a grey pin-stripe suit, tapped my father on the shoulder and slurred, ‘Gies a fag there, Jim’ – noticing him taking a cigarette out of his packet. My father just gave a deep sigh of resignation and disgust before handing him a cigarette, without even giving him a second glance. I was baffled at the man calling my father ‘Jim’ and a thought went through my mind at that moment: Should I tell him his name is Bill, not Jim?
I cannot remember much more about the game other than that it was a relief to get out of the ground at full time, for I felt intimidated by the whole experience. And I know it had been an ordeal for my father who never really liked football anyway. The score was 1-1, and in many ways it was an anti-climax, but I had seen Rangers ‘live’ for the first time and that was all that mattered.
Keith and I were fortunate in that we, as a family, went on camping holidays every year, and they were always something to look forward to months in advance. We travelled to such non-tropical destinations as Ireland, Skye, or Devon and Cornwall.
Our camping holidays were consistent in their lack of frills but it was always great to hear the rain battering against the canvas tent through the night, then wake up to the fresh smell of dew on the grass.
The only downside for me was being a passenger in our car, in the middle of July, suffering from motion sickness, with my father, smoking cigarette after cigarette, seemingly oblivious as to how I was feeling.
I still remember the thrill when we purchased our first colour television. My father had promised us one for the 1974 World Cup and, true to his word, it was delivered on the eve of the tournament. I had only seen fleeting glimpses of colour TV before then, and it was a fantastic feeling to watch Scotland play reigning World Champions Brazil in colour, from an armchair in our own house.
I was also a big Star Trek fan and seeing an episode in colour for the first time was truly amazing – discovering that Spock had a blue jersey, Captain Kirk a yellow one, and that Scotty’s was red.
Although my father had the final say on what we watched on TV, we had our own favourite programmes that we dared not miss. While he loved Tom and Jerry cartoons, nature programmes, and Spaghetti Westerns, my mother would never miss Bruce Forsyth’s Generation Game on a Saturday night. I would regularly see her tense with excitement near the end of the programme, when the cuddly toy and coffee percolator passed along the conveyor belt as predictable prizes for the contestants.
I myself was hopelessly addicted to The Banana Splits on Saturday mornings. As I recall, the show’s live action included Danger Island – a cliffhanger serial running alongside the animated segments of The Arabian Knights and The Three Musketeers. Football, of course, was a must watch – especially if it meant staying up really late to watch the extended highlights.
Around the age of twelve or thirteen Gary, my regular partner-in-crime, and I were involved in an unforgettable lark that could well have had tragic consequences. While playing in a room in the Boyne Hotel, owned by Gary’s parents, we came across an unopened bottle of whisky. Never having had alcohol before, we thought we would taste it to see what it was like. We decided, in our folly, to go up to a large bathroom in the new wing of the hotel. We grimaced at the horrible taste as we took our first sip. However, that was no deterrent for us and we continued drinking.
After a short while I blacked out, but I do remember being in the bath and unable to get out. I heard someone knocking on the door and then Gary’s father bellowing, ‘What’s all that noise about?’
Gary replied, ‘It’s only Colin. He’s in the bath pretending to be drunk. ‘Even at that early age he could hold his consumption of alcohol. The next recollection I have is waking up in one of the hotel beds, with an aching head and feeling extremely sick. I also had a badly grazed face; a painful legacy of an apparent fall that I’d had somewhere outside that I could not remember. I still cannot believe how stupid and dangerous a stunt that was.
After a while I “progressed” from the more mundane misdemeanours. Stealing apples, and ‘Ding Dong Dash’ were no longer enough to excite and challenge someone like me who craved any pointless pursuit to achieve a cheap adrenalin rush.
This inevitably led to a more shameful misadventure involving me and two friends spray-painting graffiti on various walls around Portsoy. This senseless exploit resulted in a visit and a caution from the police and was the first of several brushes with authority I was to have throughout my formative years.
Despite these odd examples of wrongdoing I have to say that on the whole I was contented and happy. Any trouble I found myself in was more a reflection of my own compulsive nature and desire to be popular rather than any disharmony in my home life. Gary and I decided to go for a more legitimate type of adventure by joining the local army cadets. Playing with real rifles seemed like a good idea but requiring to have our hair cut was not!
I never really excelled as a cadet; I found the rifles too heavy and difficult to manage and I did not take kindly to the discipline that was part and parcel of the training. However, I did like the cross-country running, and at a camp in Inverness I was picked for the North of Scotland football team, playing against teams from other regions.
I remember pleading with my mother to let me stay up to watch Alfred Hitchcock’s famous suspense thriller The Birds. She knew I would probably suffer recurring nightmares, due to its gruesome content and frightening storyline, but she relented when I convinced her that all my friends were allowed to watch it.
After the inevitable restless night with the light on I found myself being a bit more wary and respectful of any flock of birds I came across in the following weeks. A real life plague did appear during what felt like a sub-Sahara heat-wave in the mid seventies when the entire ladybird population of the British Isles seemed to descend on Portsoy. These apocalyptic swarms of bugs meant that I couldn’t even eat an ice cream outdoors or ride my bike with my mouth open – unless, of course, I wanted an undesirable free snack!
I vividly recall being involved in an aborted attempt to communicate with dead spirits through the ritual of a séance. I was in the company of two friends, Micky and Allan, when Allan hatched the idea of having a séance – he’d participated in one with another two friends and was keen to pass his experience and knowledge on to us. Micky was the son of the local doctor and he lived in a large house, so we decided to go up to Micky’s bedroom and give it a go.
As we did not have a Ouija board, we decided to cut out the letters to Z, the numbers 1 to 10, and the words yes and no, which we divided evenly round a table. The light was switched off and we placed a glass upside down in the middle of the table.
This was all new to me but I found the whole thing exciting and scary in equal measure. Each of us tentatively put a finger on the glass. We closed our eyes – well almost closed them – and one of us asked a question about a dead relative in as spooky and haunting a voice as possible. We did this several times and although the glass moved a few times, I was never quite sure if it was being pushed or not. Suddenly, a loud, sharp, shrill voice came from downstairs demanding us to, ‘Stop that damned s. . .in this house, Mick!’Camilla, Micky’s older sister, had obviously overheard us and as we looked at each other in total shock we realised that our supernatural experience had come to an abrupt end.