This book was bought for me by my partner when I began my research for the book on Robb’s last year. Whilst not too directly linked to the yaird, it does give an excellent flavour of Leith Docks and life in Leith.
The book is developed from recorded interviews by the Scottish Working People’s History Trust with seven veteran Leith dockers in 1996-7. At the time their ages ranged from 58 to 87 years and six of them had worked at Leith docks for 34-40 years, and the seventh for 26 years.
In the introduction we are given some more details about the seven contributors’ time served and how they came to work at the docks. There is an explanation of the nature of oral history and memories by comparison with documented history; discussion of the need to help the family by earning and so begin work early and so often to leave school when still quite young; an examination of the uniqueness of dockers getting priority consideration for jobs if their relatives worked the docks through their union along with some of the history of dockers unions at Leith which can be traced to at least 1858; it includes some background on the 1989 dockers’ strike; description of how dockers would crush to try and get to work for the best employers twice a day; comments on the wide variety of the work; a paragraph which points out that almost all the contributors were injured at one time or another during their work at the docks; mention of some of the characters and the cameraderie amongst the dockers (salient features of the memories of the Robb’s workers with whom I am in touch as well) and finally goes on to talk about the take-over of containerisation and its effects on dockers’ work.
The picture below, which is not from the book, is from Peter Stubbs’ excellent site. Other related ones can be found on: www.edinphoto.org.uk
There then follow seven chapters of transcribed interviews with:
The transcriptions are written in Scots and, like John Stewart’s books, Water of Leith – Flowing in the Veins and Sunshine Forever on Leith, range over a whole gamut of topics related to life in Leith.
Jock McDougal starts off by describing how he worked for a fruit merchant as a lad before going on to work at the docks. He describes some of the hazards such as sulphur cargoes catching fire when the grab bit into them, breathing in dust and swallowing dust and grain when dealing with grain cargoes and the dust and dirt from coaling trawlers. He remembers fondly the trawlermen giving the men fish at Newhaven, and piles of sprats being landed at Leith.
Jock talks of some of the characters he worked with: “Huddie box” who always stood on a fish box (huddie box) to reach into the coal wagons and “leave-it-tae-me” whose nickname speaks for itself!
He describes the influence of the union and the General Strike of 1926 and talks about his break from dock work when he won money on the pools in 1937. When his papers came up he went to war and joined the 3rd Cheshire Field Squadron with whom he spent time in the Western Desert before they went through Alamein to Tripoli. For the gruesome or curious, there is also a tale of the medical officer’s use of maggots to clean out the wound from a scorpion bite he received. At the time of the interview he describes telling others as being met with disbelief, how interesting that medical science is now reverting to some such techniques today – the will believe him now! After he recovered enough he was posted to Gaza, was amongst the first troops landed on Sicily and then round the Messina Straits to the mainland from where his company made it’s way right up the mainland of Italy.
Jock returned to the docks and found that things had changed, mostly for the better, discusses the dangers and the improvements over his time as a docker, particularly the move to using containers, before finishing up by saying:
“Ah had no regrets about workin’ in the docks. Ah wid go back again if ah wis startin’ up again”.
Copyright: Ruth Patterson 2010