Thomas Ralston

     The Postman brought me a letter yesterday.

     Nothing earth-shattering in that, you might well say, but that letter was enough to move me to overcome the natural lethargy which has blighted my life since birth, and has prompted me to actually put pen to paper. (More accurately, it moved me to swithch on the ubiquitous word- processor.)

     The epistle to which I refer, was penned by one Hamish Mackinven, a native Campbeltonian now exiled in Edinburgh, and was prompted by Hamish having read My Captains, which was written by me and published last year. In his letter, Hamish reminisces about acquaintances of his from his formative years in the 'Wee Toon'. These people, it struck me as I read, were blessed withh wonderful names, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say 'nicknames'. 'Crusoe' Robertson and 'Bluefellow Martin were two of them.

     I recalled when speaking after the dinner marking the retirement of the remarkable John McWhirter as Hon. Sec. withh the Campbeltown Lifeboat, referring to nicknames. I used as an example, 'Glundy' - who made the best chips I ever tasted - and posed the question, "Where did this name come from?" I was somewhat nonplussed when a young lady approached me later that evening and introduced herself as a grand-daughter of the man whose name I had used as an example, but I was delighted when she was able to inform me that her grandfather, as a young man, was in the habit of singing a song called 'Oh Mrs. Glundy, what shall we do?' This party piece of his led to his being lumbered withh the nickname for the rest of his life!

     Thinking on from the path down which Hamish's kind letter had impelled me, I quietly thought of some of the characters from my own youth. 'Carnamp' (now where did that name originate?) sprang to mind. Harbourmaster in Campbeltown for many years, 'Carnamp' - or Charlie Mackinven as he was christened - was an acknowledged expert in putting to rights the ring-nets which had been badly torn and required patching, as opposed to simple mending. This sort of damage which often involved the loss of large pieces of netting, was common in the days of cotton nets, particularly when the Winter herring shoaled at the 'Broonheed' on the Arran shore.

     This area was renowned for being well endowed withh 'fasteners', and was certainly not one of our favourite haunts in our quest for the silver darlings. It was then common, when a net had been very badly damaged, to take it to one of the old Distilleries, the only places in the Town big enough to allow it to be spread out easily. These buildings also of course, afforded a degree of shelter from the biting East winds which often plagued us at that time of year. Benmore was a favourite destination of ours, when we got a 'Bad net'.

    The patching of a ring-net involved not only skill, but someone with authority to delegate work properly. For example, instead of one man having to mend down a stretch of say twenty fathoms, someone who really knew what he was about, could join this stretch at a number of points along its length, so creating several 'starts' and thus splitting the work among many hands and speeding it to its conclusion.

     'Carnamp' had the 'Power of Command' necessary to take overall charge of this complex operation, and offered his help freely, on many occasions. We young lads, who had not developed the experience to recognise his ability, resented his imperious manner, and scoffed at him whenever his back was turned and he was out of earshot. There were metal supporting pillars between the floors and ceilings of the buildings where we mended, and they were of course used as points to which we would attach the netting as we worked. One day as we were finishing mending, or as we put it then, 'had her nearly closed', it became obvious that a major mistake had been made. Two men were mending along a patch toward one another, when to their horror they realised that there was a pillar intruding between them - it was 'growing out of the net'. What had happened was quite simple, a patch had been joined in the middle of its length as usual, but no-one had spotted that the patching had not been properly taken on to the same side of the pillar as the net was!

     Great was our glee, though we were careful to hide it well, when it was announced that "It was Carnamp's fault"!

     My ultimate recollection of him and his natural ability to take command of a situation was when he 'saved my life'. My father's boat, the Golden Fleece, was lying one Saturday morning on the North side of the old quay, around where the oil tanks are situated now. I had completed my usual Saturday task of scrubbing out the fo'c'sle, and had in addition to this, done some work on the engine which involved turning off the fuel at the tank. I had barely finished when my father called from the pier, telling me to shift the boat round into the basin, as soon as I could. This instruction was received with delight, moving the boat enabled a young lad to become a skipper for a few heady minutes, so I called one of my pals to help, and started the engine as he let go the ropes.

     Off I went withh a great flourish of revs - everything had to be done with panache, especially if there was an audience - heading for the basin but planning a wee sail 'doon the Loch', when to my horror I saw the masts of another boat - the tide was low - coming across the front of the pier, on a collision course.

     'Full astern' was my first action, but to my horror, the revs just died on the engine. The fuel system was air-locked as a result of the work I had done on it! There was a tremendous crash and noise of smashing timber as the East-Coast seiner to whom the masts belonged came around the end of the pier and ploughed into our starboard side, heeling the Golden Fleece well over to port. When I got her alongside the pier I clambered up to where my father stood, grim-faced and very, very angry. "He hit ye on the starboard side" he began, "Ye havena a leg tae stan on." This deduction was based on the 'Rule of the Road' which stated generally that vessels should give way to other vessels on their starboard side.

     I knew beyond doubt that no matter what I offered as an excuse, the result was going to be a severe 'siraxer' on the side of my head, a daunting prospect, when 'Carnamp' arrived on the scene. Thrusting his way through the throng of onlookers - (why are there always so many witnesses around when one does something really stupid?) - he immediately and typically took over control of the situation.

     "I want to see the skipper of that seiner immediately," he announced loudly to no-one in particular, in his authorithative way. "He was travelling much too fast under the circumstances, and" - this in an aside to my father but looking directly at me - "I am sure you are all aware that vessels entering a harbour must give way to vessels leaving!"

    That one remark saved my bacon. I was not in the wrong, and 'Carnamp' immediately became a hero of mine, which reward was his due for having undoubtedly having stayed my father's ready hand!

     Hamish's letter also related his delight in taking surreptitious 'sooks' at the open cans of condensed milk which were in use then. This reminded me that one of my favourite 'pieces', was a slice of bread liberally soaked withh the white nectar!

    That thought led to another regarding the bread which we used to be able to get in Campbeltown. I refer to the locally baked 'batch' loaves, the ones withh the well-fired rounded black tops, and the equally hard but whiter flat bottoms. I loved them, when I still had my own teeth, to 'crump' these delicious treats.

     One day I with a pal, had fallen heir to enough money - I think it was fourpence-halfpenny - to buy a treat. After due consideration, we plumped for a loaf! This bought, we fed the doughey centre to the gulls and sat on the pier crumping away on the crusts. Of course we were spotted, and a malicious neighbour took great delight in telling my mother in a most solicitous way that, "Poor Tommy must have been affa hungry the day. The poor wee sowl wis sittin on a fishbox doon the Quay wi a crust o loaf. Uvrybody wis affa sorry for him!"

     Another skelped erse resulted when my mother got me home!

     The final thought stemming from this letter prompts me to ask for help. I remember being told a long time ago that a man, who I believe had worked for the Courier, had during a long fatal illness compiled, with the help of callers, a long list of nicknames. My brother, who I recalled as being my informant, denies all knowledge of this list. Can anyone out there help?

Editor's Note:

When I was a lad there were still about seven Loch Fyne skjffs anchored off Dalintober. The largest and last of these boats to be built was Crusoe's Fairy Queen. Crusoe was of course James Robertson. Hamish and/or Tom are, I believe, mistaken in the identity of the 'Bluefellow'. His name, as I recollect, was Dan Mckinlay. Bob Albyn was the Courier employee alleged to have compiled the list of nicknames. Does it still exist? Old Courier colleagues disclaim any knowledge.

No 39 Spring 1996

Return to Page One

Wee Drams

Page  3:   Pigs, Police, The Peace and Dr. Pirie

Page  4:   Sheriff Court, Tarbert, 1683 - Part 2

Page  5:   Campbeltown Whisky

Page  6:   The Galbraith Poet-Harpers of Gigha

Page  7:   The Victorian Largie Castle

Page  8:   By Hill and Shore

Page  9:  Hamilton, Prince Edward Island // Castlehill Church Glebe // Gigha Tenants, 1779 //
                Gigha Fisheries in 1792 // The Whalers // McShannon Harpers // Geneaology

The A.I.B. Stewart Page