The History Boy

At school I was never very interested in History.

I just couldn’t find my way into the subject — not like English or Geography, where it was my mother tongue; our oxbow lake — and struggled to relate to the meaningless dates and unknowable kings that occupy its apparently endless domain. History was just “his story”; the deeds and dealings of some guy who died, like, ages ago.

The occasional fact or figure stuck, usually while on a school trip to a museum or historic site, but more often than not I struggled to form any sort of deeper understanding, not only in terms of the minutiae, but the big picture too. Was ancient Greece more or less ancient than ancient Rome? Was Anne Boleyn divorced or decapitated? Couldn’t we just learn about dinosaurs, instead?

In the years since school, however, I have developed something of an interest in past times. Having lived in Germany, the atrocities of World War II suddenly felt relevant — even tangible; Berlin, probably the most interesting place I have ever been (and I have been many times), was to me history incarnate, with the writing — quite literally in some places — on the wall. A trip to Russia, too, taught me my Turks from my Ottomans by putting them in some sort of context for the first time.

And then at University the unthinkable happened: I found the cortices and psychology of my contemporaries less interesting than those of my ancestors — in this case early man. Of all the courses I took, it was Dr David Carey’s lecture series on Evolutionary Psychology that most caught my imagination. Suddenly I was learning about history and actually enjoying it.

Inspired by a recent visit to St Fillans and Neish Island, I began to read into my own ancestry. Tracing the Neish name back to 1522 only gave me half of the story, however: my father’s. I was eager to learn a little more about my mother’s side of the family, and — without going quite so far back; just two generations this time — found myself in Aberdeenshire, where my grandmother was evacuated during the second World War. Her name then had been Winifred “Winnie” Sheret.

Dunnottar Castle

My mother had previously visited the refuge in question at Netherley with my two aunties in June, only to find that the current owners weren’t home. Despite leaving a letter, nothing had ever come of their visit. Unsure whether the same might be true on this occasion, and not wishing to waste a journey up north, we hedged our bets with a visit to Dunnottar Castle, seven miles to the south on Scotland’s east coast.

I had been to Dunnottar once before as a child, and unlike Glamis Castle I actually remembered it. Perched proudly atop the ragged cliffs that characterise the Stonehaven area, Dunnottar Castle — or, from the Gaelic, “fort on the shelving slope” — is a ruined 15th Century fortress that once played an important role in medieval Scottish tactics, particularly during the Jacobite risings of the 18th Century. Whatever they were.

Connected to the mainland by little more than the concrete stairwell used by visitors — which was in the process of being diligently swept by a volunteer when we made our descent to the pebble beaches at its base — the castle remains an imposing spectacle even in the 21st Century. Little wonder it was chosen as the hiding place for the Honours Of Scotland when Oliver Cromwell invaded almost four hundred years ago. He’d still be seeking now.

The castle was such a stunning sight that all of the best views came from outside its walls, from the jagged mainland which zig-zagged up the coast to my University town of Aberdeen, and back south towards my current home just outside of Dundee. Treading carefully between barley fields and a sheer drop into the North Sea, we headed for an outcrop that gave particularly dramatic views of the castle. I used the setting to film an introductory video to this blog.

Returning to the car, we travelled to Lairhillock Inn, only to find that its Crynoch Restaurant had stopped serving food twenty minutes earlier. Unable to convince the waitress to make us even some chips, we set off on foot and empty stomachs for the cottage. With a few miles ahead of us, we tried to imagine what it must have been like during the 1940s. 70 years is nothing geologically of course, but historically it could — and does — fill a fair few libraries.

Winnie, Jim and Ruby were from a very large family, but they were nevertheless the only Sheret children to be evacuated from Dundee — a city that saw more than its fair share of bombings — during the war. To earn their keep, they had been expected to help out on the farm, and would have most likely spent their time at the cottage — named Bentihowe — doing work that would by today’s standards hardly befit children. We saw the church where they would have prayed, and what was most likely the school where they would have studied.

Netherley

Luckily, the current residents were home on this occasion, and we finally turned a bend in the tracks to find Mr Robson taking his bagpipes outside for a bit of fine-tuning. He said that he would be happy to speak with us, and invited us inside to meet his wife, whose mother had lived there before them. Once settled, we explained why we had come, and the Robsons did their best to fill in the various blanks in the story we had so far managed to piece together.

The couple that my relatives had stayed with were no novice foster parents, and both before and after the Sheret children had come and gone they were looking after others in need. Their own daughters had lived well into their nineties, and it was following their deaths that Mrs Robson’s mother had taken over the property. Ardent travellers themselves (he had been a piper with the Army), the Robsons had never planned to settle in Netherley, but had for whatever reason yet to leave.

What was most remarkable was the size of the building. A conservatory had been added rather more recently, essentially adding a whole other room, but prior to that it would have been astonishingly small place to live. How a family managed to fit themselves into its tiny rooms was difficult enough to imagine; how it managed to accommodate a further three city children was anyone’s guess.

Not wishing to outstay our welcome, we left after about half an hour, leaving Mr Robson to resume his tinkering and his wife to make the most of the newly emerged sun. It was a lovely area; remote, but calm and pretty, and retained its sense of sanctuary even to the present day. It provides a striking contrast to Dundee now, so for an adolescent fleeing the war it must have been quite the culture shock. And, given the family’s survival, thankfully an unnecessary one.

So maybe history doesn’t have to be anonymous or boring. While I’m not exactly rushing out to bulk-buy books on the differences between ancient Greek and Roman cultures (or even their chronology), I’m happy to admit that my interests in the subject now go somewhat beyond Orrorin tugenensis and Tyrannosaurus rex.

After all, this wasn’t History as taught in the classroom. It was her story. My grandma’s story.

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