Sunshine Forever on Leith by J. P. Stewart – A Book Review

“Sunshine Forever on Leith – Our memories of a childhood and adolescence in the Port” is a follow on from John’s first, highly successful venture into publishing with “Water of Leith – Flowing in the Veins” which I reviewed in an earlier post:

Water of Leith – Flowing in the Veins

Once again, John has skilfully interspersed a range of old and modern photos with reminiscences from Leithers to bring to life, and more importantly, preserve, the memories of how life was in and around Leith.

The idea came from the section on John’s website http://www.oldleither.com called Icons, on which members discuss places, people, buildings, jobs … even Leith mothers. The beauty of this part of his site, and thus the book which brings it all together, is that the contributors bounce ideas back and forward and so a greater depth of information is forthcoming and the reader is both better informed and more engrossed as it brings what you are reading to life. Many, but by no means all, of the sections begin with an entry from John himself to start the ball rolling. Contributors hail from all over Scotland and range across the world to include Canada, the USA, New Zealand and Australia – it’s amazing where Leithers end up!

So, what topics can you expect?

Well, there’s a greeting from “The Proclaimers” at the start with some comments from site members following. Then there is a short item on MV St Ninian (not one of Robb’s ships). A series of memories of milk and roll boys follows and then comments on the store, the largest shop in Leith at one time, Leith Police Station, Trinity House (about which I have two previous posts:  Trinity House Part One  and Trinity House Part Two) and the Salvation Army.

A short item follows on Bonnington Toll and then there are some more extensive reminiscences about Victoria Baths (Vicky’s). One of the writers in that particular section makes reference to Portobello pool, ah yes, the joy of the freezing cold outdoor pool, funny, you don’t seem to get those in Scotland these days! After that we tour Lochend Park, Coalhill with it’s swans and a very poignant section about the Gretna Memorial at Rosebank Cemetery.

The subsequent section on favourite foods brings back memories of my own, fish and chips and ice cream, of course, feature heavily, but the mention of tripe reminds me of the awful smell in my Granny’s house once a week when she and Grandpa (the second Henry Robb) had it for their tea! There is, of course, mention also of good ol’ mince and tatties, stovies and clootie dumpling. My Mum, doubtless in common with many of us, has the secret family recipe in her very old, but still entirely serviceable book of handwritten recipes! We then take a wander down to the Wash Hoose (Wash House for those reading in English), King’s Wark, Newhaven Lighthouse and the Gaiety Theatre.

After that there is a sizeable section on various local schools including: Couper Street School, David Kilpatrick’s, Leith Academy, Newhaven Victoria Primary, Hermitage Park Primary, Links Place, Holy Cross Academy, Dr Bell’s Primary, St Mary’s Primary, Leith Academy Primary, North Fort Street Primary, Lorne Street Primary, Bonnington Road Primary.

Some of the comments on schools may be quite an eye-opener for teachers today, many of whom have never even been pupils at a school with the tawse. My own teaching career began just as it was being phased out and I have two abiding memories.

 

One was as a trainee teacher, where the class teacher never actually used her belt but used to sneak it out and slam it on the desk yelling the name of the kid who had offended her, which was generally a lass called Ruth! It wasn’t long before the class were asking if my name was Ruth, as I jumped out my skin every time she did it … guilty conscience from the past … well yes, probably but dinna tell my ma!

My other memory of the belt is of my first year in a teaching job when the sadistic head of department used to practise breaking pieces of chalk, rulers, all sorts of things with his tawse, in readiness for when kids were sent to him. I resolved there and then to find other ways to encourage children to behave in my class rather than send them to him!

Another thread which rang bells was the discussion about frozen milk in the winter and it being hot by the time we were given it at break time (even in winter as they put it by the radiator to thaw out). We found all sorts of ways to distract the teacher so we could get rid of it, so much for ensuring all kids had a daily quota of milk!

Anyway, I digress!

We continue our tour via Queen’s Park and Arthur’s Seat, The Old Leith Fort, The Docks, The Boy’s Brigade (which numbered 22 Leith companies in 1956 and today there are 6, namely the 1st, 10th, 12th, 19th, 20th and 24th), The Men’s Model Lodging House, The Citadel in Dock Street, Customs House and The Alhambra Cinema.

The next section covers “Our Homemade Toys, Gadgets and Other Amusements and Games” and there are too many to mention in a review, but girls’ clapping and rhyming or ball throwing games, cigarette card collecting, scrap collecting (Oh how clearly I remember the negotiations to swap those we had for others and how we carried them to and from school in between the pages of a printed book to ensure they were safe – always in order of favourite ones you wouldn’t swap with ones you would let go at one or other end of the book for easy access!), Diablo, spinning buttons on looped string ( there were string games too come to think of it, like cat’s cradle, and I can still make the Forth Bridge from a loop of string) and of course guiders/karties!

 Then we take a visit to the Corner Rooms and to Leith Hospital which includes John’s own fascinating description of how he and nine other boys took part in a war-time decontamination simulation exercise. Following that, we are whisked away to the State Cinema and Billiard Hall, Giant’s Brae and Leith Links, Leith Library, Eldorado’s and the Scottish Cooperative Wholesale Society.

Slipped in quietly after this is a gentle piece entitled “Our Lady Samaritans” about the women who, for no fee or expectation of any kind helped mothers to give birth and attended to the needs of the dead and dying. In a time before the national health service (which my dad and his father, who were doctors at the time of it’s inception, were proud to see coming into being precisely because they believed everyone should have access to medical help) the wisdom of the women of a community was paramount in helping people into and out of this world.

We are then treated to a few reminders of programmes which used to be broadcast on the radio, some comic captions with a Scottish/Leith flavour to accompany a picture of the Queen and Ronald Reagan, then on to The Water of Leith, Bonnington Bridge and “The Buroo” or Leith Labour Exchange to give it it’s ‘proper’ title.

A series of entries about the buses follows, including the trials and tribulations of dealing with awkward customers as a driver. We move from there to Powderhall Stadium, the old air raid shelter, the Statue of Queen Victoria and a feature on May Stewart the astounding 100 year old mum of the book’s author which leads neatly into a more general section on mothers. Next we wander through Central Station, the Kirkgate followed by some reminiscences on various matters from pies to knitwear, including a saying my granny also used to use “ne’er cast a cloot til May is oot” on the inadvisability of wearing summer clothes in Scotland until June is established!

Thereafter we potter off to Cramond, the Assembly Rooms, a wee mention about Hearts FC and then a mention of the various visitors who would come round houses from the coalman to the provvy man and including the fishwife which sparks a memory of my own of being taken out to Fairmilehead as a teenager by mum on a regular basis to buy fish from the one remaining fishwife in the city and it was lovely fish, so well worth the effort.

Then we are off on our travels again, to the Foot o’ the Walk, Boundary Bar which is half in Leith and half in Edinburgh and at one time had different closing times for the two halves, but crossing the brass strip on the floor was not allowed, so punters had to go out one door and in the other to order a drink before the second call of last orders! The book then moves on to some more transport related sections, the former Cowan’s Stables and Caledonian Station, then a wee rest follows with a drop in at the Capitol Cinema and Peacock Restaurant.

There then follow some reminders about ailments and the cures supplied by doctors and family remedies used as alternatives. One of the entries in this section remembers the nit nurse pawing through our hair, which led to a letter home for me once. However, in her angst, my mum did not read it all that carefully, slathered me in the stinky gloop you had to have on all evening to deal with them, and only after it had all been rinsed off, combed out etc did she read the crucial sentence properly, informing her that someone in the class had nits so could she keep an eye to make sure they didn’t get to her child … gggnnnnfff! There are least things have improved with modern preparations which only take half an hour to clear the problem and they don’t pong either!

The Forth Bridge and Leith Colonies get a mention before the section on Robb’s. After a brief visit to Woolworths we head off on a tour of various churches and people’s memories and experiences of these including: Pilrig Church, South Leith Church, North Leith Church and the cemeteries. Next comes a feature on first jobs after leaving school, followed by the inevitable section on Hibs (well you wouldn’t expect John to leave them out if he’s mentioned their old rivals the Hearts, would you!).

Then it’s a dance through Leith Pageant, corner shops, advertising slogans and the old street drinking fountains and police boxes before we get a wee glimpse into the memories of the 2004 Ontario Leithers reunion and a selection of website comments. These are followed by a reflection on Leith Walk, a very comprehensive list of Leith employers from the past and a list of famous Leithers and ending with a cheeky wee section on food reminiscences.

All in all, a good “flavour” of Leith comes over in the book. On my visit to Leith Links for the Mela, a couple of weeks ago, I passed a corner shop which still reflected the down to earth approach of Leithers and brought a smile to my face, below is a photograph of the sign by their door …

The book includes an index, which is useful if you should feel you want to return to a particular topic, but frankly it is the kind of book you want to pick up and work through from cover to cover as each page brings fresh glimpses and reminders of a world which is so well brought to life in this type of format. An ideal read to sit with by the fire on the winter evenings and quote to others in the family whilst adding in your own linked memories and so to keep them live.

In conclusion, I would echo the sentiments of the Revd Ian Y Gilmour, in the preface, that John “has done a super job to collect these tales, without him they would have remained buried treasure” but would also suggest that the treasures might have been lost were it not for this opportunity for them to be unearthed and recorded for posterity.

Copies can be ordered from the website at: http://www.oldleither.com/IconPublicationIcon.html

Copyright: Ruth Patterson 2010

PS Scroll right down to the bottom to read or add comments, thank you.

 

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About Ruth Macadam

Great Granddaughter of Henry Robb. School teacher.
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4 Responses to Sunshine Forever on Leith by J. P. Stewart – A Book Review

  1. Bill Patterson says:

    Wow! My memories of working as the only Junior House Doctor in Leith Hospital Children’s wing have all been reawakened. My six months there in 1958 were the hardest work in all my life. The experience of being the first line doctor for medical, surgical and ENT emergencies was hugely valuable to my future confidence in diagnosing and treating children throughout my years of practice. We were on call for Leith, Musselburgh and East Lothian all the time – no rotas with other hospitals in those days! The Leith children and their parents were amazing – taking the rough with the smooth and full of information and appreciation of the hospital’s help. Above all, I learned so much about communication with adults and children. Professor (then Dr) John Forfar would often sit on the ward floor to be on the same level as the child he was examining – even ill children did not seem to cry when he was working on and with them. Many a time in practice, I would kneel or sit on the floor beside an ill bed-ridden child. Parents often offered me a chair but I always refused it, explaining I wanted to be down beside my little patient. Many years after my retirement, an ex-patient mentioned how this had made their frightened little boy quickly relax for me to examine him. The late Mr. Willie Bissett was ever willing as Registrar to come out at any time if I was worried about a patient and was hugely supportive of an at times extremely tired young doctor. Leith was a great place to work with superb Consultants and excellent, hugely caring nursing staff. That summer was sunny and dry for weeks on end and we relaxed when we could, lapping up the fresh air on the flat roof of the hospital – Health and Safety would not have allowed that!
    Thank you Leith for a wonderful if exhausting start to my medical career.
    Bill Patterson

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