Northwords Now Issue 39

The FREE literary magazine of the North

Spuds

by Hamish Brown

I am almost certainly the only person to know anything about Spud, at least outwith the bothy and climbing setting where he was landed with that moniker. Potatoes and a certain island malt began the connection.

Spud was already at the bothy – our bothy – so much our bothy that most other gangrels gave it a wide berth. I’m not talking about Jacksonville, though there were similarities. I have to choose my words carefully or I’ll be in trouble with my clannish mates, even though, these days, we are all on life’s long downclimb and bothy nights are rare. I arrived first that Friday night. Iacta alea est.

The top half-door was open, so I expected one of the gang was already in, and was surprised, on entering, to find a stranger. He stood up and nodded. Over six foot I reckoned, thin as a broom handle, fine features, tidy hair. Only much later, when we were all having a dook in the loch, did we see why he so easily outstrode (and outclimbed) us all. He seemed to have no torso; he was all legs. As Jimmy quipped: “his legs sterted at his oxters”.

I could hardly order the man to shove off, but certainly remained unsociable and silent. This seemed acceptable; he was not a talker, it seemed. There was something of a smile about his lips, his eyes sharp, a man at ease, in control. In our bothy! Hell! Jimmy arrived an hour later and then Willie and others of the crowd. All were equally put out at the presence of a stranger,  though they tried hard not to convey their ill-will. The stranger, I may say, was dressed every bit as down-market as we were. Not a new-gear ninny! He had a wee primus on the table, a Dixie, and not much more than a bag of tatties. We were six in number that night and Graham, our nominated cook, was soon onto supper preparations: his wife’s home-made soup (still half frozen), Turkish merquez sausages and couscous, and a tart (Tesco’s). Our days of humping-in tins of baked beans to bothies were long in the past, you’ll have gathered. We aye grumbled at heavy rucksacks, but still carried coal to the howf. Rewards have to be earned. Once we’d cleared up a bit, we watched the man start his culinary proceedings.

The golden-coloured spuds were all of a small size, as if graded. They went into the Dixie to boil, while he chopped up a wee – purple – onion with the rapid strokes of practice and added that to the Dixie. Over succeeding minutes, as the spuds boiled, he then added goodness-knows what; the only thing I recognised was a big dollop of butter. We were all mesmerised by the surreal performance. (“I thought he was an effin chef” Graham said later.) Some of the spuds, with what was now a sauce, were tipped into the Dixie lid used as a plate, and eaten with obvious content. We could have applauded - we certainly had our saliva glands activated – and then he held out the pan to us and gestured for us to finish off the spuds.

“I aye thocht a spud wis jist a spud,” Jimmy said to me as we were watering the rushes by the east gable before turning in. “Yon wis a revelation” – which just about summed up our satisfied feelings, feelings which had been well complemented by the mannie passing round a hip flask which contained a certain island malt. In the whole evening, I doubt if the man had spoken more than six words.

In the morning (gold as a Turner watercolour) the man was up and away while we still lay cosily in our sleeping bags on the bedshelf we’d built the year before. We watched every move. He had muesli, something which you only saw in a delicatessen at that time, and into this he chopped a banana and an apple, and yogurt, another new-fangled foreign gimmick; (we had porridge soaking overnight.) He packed-up efficiently and, after snubbing the bottom door, gave us a smile and a wave over the top and was off.

Jimmy called out, “Come again – Spud!”

So that was how he received his name, which he accepted with a laugh next time, for he did come again. And again. Spud became one of the gang. Weirdly, we thought, he always brought potatoes, so the nickname was apposite. To most of us, as Jimmy had put it, “a spud is a spud” but “yon mannie mun be creatin the things” for, indeed, there was a range of textures and tastes and even colours, some not very appealing. We were highly suspicious of purple tatties, and that experience had me calling-in to the library on George IV Bridge to find out more about the potato. There were all sorts. They came from the Americas originally. Our wives thought us daft when we started to make demands about the humble spud back home.

We were never to learn much more about spuds, or Spud, who remained as monosyllabic as ever. He was a benign, if mysterious, presence in the bothy and, once he’d done all the Munros within a day’s hike from the bothy, soon became as hooked on climbing as we were. With his spider’s legs and arms, he was a natural, and before long was far the ablest of us. If I mentioned the names of routes he was to put up on ‘our’ mountain, I’d be giving away secrets – so I won’t. It’s our hill – our bothy – our Spud.

Bright readers will no doubt be looking at the guide book for that particular hill, thinking they’d get his name from the details of first ascents – except, we were all convinced that the name Spud allowed us to record for firsts was fictitious. (It was!) Those knowing eyes, that ready wee smile...he gave nothing away, toyed with us, dominated us in a strange way. We all accepted each other after all, and you don’t rope-up with someone you didn’t feel happy to trust your life with. Two or three years passed before I discovered the true Spud, and was sworn never to pass on what I knew to the rest of the bothy boys. They thought me a bit of an intellectual anyway. I taught Latin at what they called “a posh school”.

Jimmy was a painter, Graham a postie, Willie and Joss (Joseph) ran a garage, Colin (‘Red’, from his hair, not politics) and Ian (‘Fidel’, for his politics) worked for the Council, others I’ve forgotten. The bothy had united us, climbing inspired us; who we were was of no importance. If Spud was a “secretive bugger”, so what? The bugger could climb! And provided potatoes irregularly regularly all through those years and, as inevitably, a taste of another island malt. Twinned memories, now.

Spud always arrived at the bothy early and went ‘home’, however late, on the Saturday night. We assumed he had a Sunday commitment – maybe church – though not appearing a holy Willie. In that, we were more or less correct, I found out.

I’d gone to a performance of The Messiah at the Usher Hall and, being a bit hard of hearing, sat near the front (bloody expensive seats!) and there, singing his heart out among the tenors, was Spud. The incongruity almost made me laugh. I had one heck of a time at the weekend not to give away what I’d learned. (He had not spotted me in the Usher Hall – I think.) Later, I knew Spud sang in a cathedral choir, hence there were Sunday obligations. I was also to find out what he did on Sunday afternoons.

At half term, I visited the National Gallery on the Mound, that exquisite collection of which one never tires, having something by everyone it seemed and, of course, firm favourites. I’d been paying my respects to the Velasquez (so different a work to ones like Las Meniñas) when I heard someone talking to a group in front of a Flemish painting in the next room. Always happy to learn, I joined the group – and found myself face to face with the speaker: Spud! I knew I grinned, mightily, but he, apart from a brief raising of eyebrows, never paused in his – fascinating – talk about the Flemish-Dutch realist flower-painters of the period. Session concluded, the group began to disperse. There were many ‘thank-you’s’, some hand-shakes,  and an American tried to put a note into his suit’s breast pocket – and then we were left there, together. Mine was not the only grin. Keeping the secret from the bothy gang was an intolerable imposition thereafter. So often I wanted to ask questions about Art, about lots of things.

We crossed Princes Street and went up the stairs to the Brown Derby Tea Rooms (now a Costa) and more words followed than we’d spoken in the years since the first bothy meeting. “Why so silent?” I naturally wanted to know. He just smiled that he wanted one part of his life to be more solitary, undemanding, and without always explaining, discussing, become involved. As I’d seemingly not bothered about his silence on meeting, he just continued the pose. “You’ve no idea how refreshing it is to be free for those precious, stolen days away from the thrum of life.”; (as a teacher, I had a fair notion myself).  “I’m so heavily involved with people, so often such fatuous twits, that my escapes are absolutely vital.”  We then lost ourselves in talking about paintings, with as much enthusiasm as Jimmy and Graham would, at the bothy, be talking about football.

Professor So-and-So (Spud) and I met periodically after that in Edinburgh (you could hardly not) and later he admitted what a strain our friendship was when keeping up his bothy- weekend Trappist pose. He might once have slipped up. We had completed a new route in darkness, well - sort of darkness - for a full moon flooded the landscape and the etched peaks rose strangely lit and black-shadowed. “Caspar Friedrich, eh?” he grinned at me, and quickly looked round; but we were alone.

We were all sorry when he, briefly, said he was having to move to London. “I’ll miss the bothy. And you lot” was quite a speech, for the bothy. (He was heading for a top job at the Tate.) I recall the same quiet smile when he left that Saturday night, the last big paw-shake from Jimmy, with “We’ll miss your spuds, Spud” then, turning to us with: “Noo we’ll nivver find oot about aw they tatties”. Well, I did, but I couldn’t be telling them now, could I? But it’s a nice wee coda to the story of Spud.

One period a week at school, I took a class for what the head called “Audible Essays” and the Timetable marked ‘Free Speech’, where boys (we were not co-ed then) had to spout on some topic that interested them. I’m amazed at the facts that an enthusiastic lad can acquire and absorb about anything, never mind sport. On this particular Friday afternoon, one boy began to hold forth on the subject of potatoes. You can imagine how I sat up and listened. He gave an excellent spiel, about their Andes origins, the story of Walter Raleigh supposedly introducing them to England, and on through to modern cultivars. As the class was leaving, I complimented the boy on his talk and asked how he knew so much on such a recondite topic. The answer: his father ran the Potato Research Centre at Longniddry in East Lothian and he often went there on Sunday afternoons. “I found it sort of interesting, Sir.”

“Mm; and was there by any chance a Professor So-and-So there?” I asked.

“Oh yes, Sir, he’s one of the volunteers and a real research expert. He makes new kinds. You’ve no idea Sir...” (he paused for breath) “It’s him told me everything and, Sir, because I was keen, he gave me a nickname” (he looked at me). “You won’t tell, will you Sir?” (I shook my head.) “He called me Spud.”

I think they were rather proud of their nicknames.