The war years


My dad passed away at Easter and took many of his stories with him. I was lucky to be able to go back to Scotland and spend some time with him, not enough time of course. His health was failing and he had Alzheimers. It was a bitter-sweet experience being with him; bitter because I knew it would be the last time I saw him but sweet because we talked a lot about the past and that was precious to me. Dad, of course, couldn’t remember what he had just had for lunch but he remembered everything very clearly from his youth and talked a lot about the war.

Here are two of my favourite stories.

Dad was born in Glasgow in 1925 so was around 14 when the Second World War broke out. When old enough he was balloted out to a coal mine in Newcastle as a “Bevin Boy”. He had been very angry as he wanted to be a soldier. The work was typical coal mining, usually more than a mile down dark, dank tunnels. Bevin Boys were supplied with helmets and steel-capped safety boots but no uniforms or badges, instead the oldest clothes they could find. “Being of military age and without uniform caused many to be stopped by police and questioned about avoiding call-up.” Life as a Bevin Boy wasn’t pleasant.

Dad worked with a pony called Claude who pulled the cart which I believe dad had to first fill then lie on top of while they found their way through low, dark tunnels to deposit the coal.
“Great pony,” Dad would remember with a smile on his face and a faraway look in his eyes, “you know, when I tried to pass him on the left, he would move over so I couldn’t get through. Then I would try to pass him on the right and he would shuffle over again so I couldn’t get passed.”
I let him remember and then I asked him why.
“Because it was very dangerous in front” he said.


Before the war broke out, my grandfather (dad’s dad) bought a plot of land and built a small hut in an area of Scotland called Carbeth, out in the country. He told people he was going to send his family there when the war came. Everyone laughed at him. Down the back of his house in Glasgow, he built an air-raid shelter and the whole street thought he was mad. When the bombs dropped on Glasgow, his neighbours were the first people to reach his shelter!

Dad told me their street was bombed. They were hiding in the air raid shelter when his older sister, Christine, remembered her brand new fur coat was in the house. She pleaded with my dad to go and get it and finally he did. He ran through the ruins to the house, went inside and retrieved the fur coat. Then he ran out towards the shelter straight into the arms of the police who thought he was a looter! Luckily after a lot of explanation they allowed him to pass.

As children we spent many holidays at Grandpa’s hut in Carbeth. The hut was tiny and dark but the setting was beautiful. From the garden we could walk down a short path to the loch and feed the swans. We did lots of walks in the beautiful countryside, swam in the very rough swimming pool there which had been built many years before and swung on the rope swing across the small river. My sisters and I had a “cubby” inside a beautiful old willow tree.

When Grandpa died, the hut was left to his youngest grandson (Dad’s nephew) who sold it without ever telling anyone he didn’t want it. I know it broke my dad’s heart as it was a special place to him and he would have gladly bought the hut back to keep it in the family.

1985, Braco, Perthshire, Scotland

Dad and me, 1985, Braco, Perthshire, Scotland

Who would have guessed?


Recently in my Year 9 English class, we have been studying a picture book called MY PLACE by Nadia Wheatley and Donna Rawlins. It tells the story of the owners of a piece of land through the decades, beginning at 1988 and going back every ten years to 1788. Each story is told from the point of view of the child living there at the time. I had the students choose a character and work out his/her family tree from the story. The next task was for them to find out a bit about their own family history. As usual, I was the only person enthusiastic about the task and most of the students “forgot” to ask at home for information. I persevered until almost the whole class had some information to put on their family tree sheet. Reluctantly they started to put in the information. I put some of my family tree on the board and told a few little stories about some of my ancestors. There was a bit of interest. Then one student, put his hand up and said “oh my great-grandfather was in charge of building the MCG (Melbourne Cricket Ground)” and my response was “Wow! That’s something!”. So another student put his hand up and mumbled that his family were the first aviators in Australia! Yet another put his hand up and said “my ancestor on my father’s side was one of the policeman who shot Ned Kelly”!!!

The following day, almost every student had their family tree filled for at least 3 generations and many had a story to tell. One girl brought in two big thick books put together by a relative years ago. It had her full family history – hand written – complete with certificates and documents. Other students had old photos. A couple of the students asked if they could have a blank family tree sheet from the ones I had made up as they and their parents wanted to look into it more deeply and do it properly. A few students said that their parents had decided to contact long lost relatives and find out more about their own family history.

After all the initial grumbles when I first asked them to bring in information to the end result when everyone was engaged in stories and wandering around looking at each other’s family trees, I decided it was a worthwhile task. And perhaps we have some unlikely future genealogists in the next generation!

Happy researching!


Maybe I could have been rich…….


Talking of my great-grandfather, James Sutherland.  The story goes that he almost invented the combustion engine.  The reason I say “almost” is because he did invent the combustion engine but….the fuel required for it had not yet been discovered.    So it was sitting there ready to go but with no fuel to drive it.   That came a little later.  Shame!  It could have been my claim to fame.

Ironically, James Sutherland came from Dundee – the city of invention.

A lucky escape…


James Cameron and his wife, Christina Sutherland – my great grandparents on my father’s side – had a very lucky escape.  My dad mentioned once that they were almost killed in a bridge collapse.   He said they were on an old steam train from Edinburgh about to cross the Tay Bridge when it collapsed.  If they had been just a minute or so early they would have been killed.


The working class


I have listened eagerly to friends telling me about the exciting discoveries in their family research.  It seems very romantic to find out you are descended from convicts or royalty or from an inventor, author, composer.  I have been hoping to find something as exciting in my own family research.  Not so, so far.  It is quite clear that I come from simple, working class stock.

As I searched back one generation after another I thought – ‘how boring, another ploughman!’  But as  my story comes together, I don’t see it that way now at all.  As I learn about my ancestors and get to know them a little, I find I admire them and respect them and….yes, it has to be said, feel a bit sorry for them.  They were all hard workers, that is clear.

The employment history on both sides of the family includes farmers, farm servants, domestic servants,  journeymen, cattlemen, agricultural labourers, blacksmiths, coal dealers, yarn winders, handloom weavers, soldiers and sailors.  I don’t think any of these occupations would be easy.  I had to google “journeymen” to find out that they were tradesmen who did not, for some reason, complete their apprenticeship.  I wonder why?  Could it be that they were not educated, or not ambitious, or perhaps couldn’t afford it – or maybe they were just never given the opportunity?  Certainly, there were a lot of journeymen in my family.

I think back on my own working life and it has been quite varied – secretary, pub manager, jillaroo, business owner, English teacher – to name just a few.  I have done what I wanted to do.  If I had been born in the 1800s and sent to work as a domestic servant, there would have been no opportunity for me to “better myself”.  No choices in life.  How the world has changed.

Having, so far, gone back five or six generations, everyone was born within a few miles of each other in Scotland and the only people to leave the country were my father’s Aunt and Uncle and myself!

I know the soldiers and sailors in my family are responsible for the freedom of choice my children and I have now enjoy in our lives.  I would like to think that some of the genes of my hard working ancestors have passed through to us and their hard, probably poverty stricken lives, were not in vain.  Certainly my promise to myself is that every time I start to complain about my work or my life, I will stop and think of what my ancestors had to endure, and remember just how lucky I am.


2 worn-outs, their 2 eager children, a trusty dog...... and a boat. What's down the road?


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