Peter Ross: New year, old memories

‘Like so many of his generation, my grandfather said very little about his military service. Strange to think of him in a war’

ON NEW Year’s Day, growing up, we’d visit my grandparents in Stirling and gorge ourselves on the traditional steak pie. They lived on the upper floor of a very old, very tall tenement on top of a steep hill. From the living room window, the Wallace Monument stood out from the carse like a centrepiece candle on a table laid for dinner.

My grandfather – his name was Eric; I called him Grumps, for hazy reasons – died in 2009 and by then I hadn’t visited on New Year’s Day for too long. But I still think of that flat and of him quite often, especially around this time of year. My family moved around a lot when I was growing up (I attended five different primary schools) and so the flat in Stirling is the only set of rooms I have known my whole life. My gran lives there still.

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There were two rooms in particular to which I was always drawn. The first was the attic. Stairs led up to it from the hall, and it was always a few degrees cooler than the rest of the house. You could press your face against the skylight window, feeling the hard cold glass on your forehead, and peer out at the slates and Ochils. Grumps built buses for Alexander’s and had grown up as the son of a gamekeeper; he was good with his hands and the attic was full of tools and odd bits of wood. Also: bottles of home-made elderberry wine and large glass jars of old brown coins – the heads of long-dead kings worn to their outlines.

The flat had plenty of fascinating flotsam. In the kitchen, in the cutlery drawer, was a butter knife, its metal hilt stamped with a tiny eagle and swastika. He had brought this back as a souvenir from the Second World War, together with a Latin textbook that had belonged to one of Mussolini’s daughters and which she had annotated in fading pencil. Like so many of his generation, my grandfather said very little about his military service.

Strange to think of him in a war. He was one of those quiet men whose kindness and gentleness is instantly apparent. He always seemed to me to be a very clever person, though he didn’t think of himself as such. He admired intelligence in others and was proud of his Aunt Mary, who had graduated from Aberdeen University and gone to work as a secretary for Andrew Carnegie. I admire the fact that my grandfather was an auto-didact. He was a great reader of newspapers – The Scotsman, in its broadsheet days, was always spread all over the living room floor – and he had a small but impressive collection of books.

These were kept in the ‘end room’ – to call it a study would have been considered pretentious – on two wooden bookcases. Politics and history were the main subjects, but also the poetry of Burns and some historical fiction, notably the novels of Nigel Tranter. Grumps was a patriot, but not a nationalist; indeed, he had been a Labour councillor, involved in the construction of quality local-authority housing, and kept pamphlets by Nye Bevan on his bookshelves. He also had a copy of A Scots Quair, which I borrowed for university and never returned. His father’s family were from Arbuthnott, in the same corner of the north-east as Lewis Grassic Gibbon, and recognised many local people as the models for characters in the novels. Maybe they were in there themselves and never knew it.

My dad told me recently that I was welcome to take any of my grandfather’s books. In a way, I’d like them. But I think I prefer the idea of them sitting there on the shelves, arranged as he ordered them, evidence of a keen, compassionate mind and of a hunger for knowledge that surpassed even his considerable appetite – and mine – for steak pie served steaming hot on the first day of the year.