Lying at the hole’s lip the stonecutter marvelled at the works of men: he had after all spent his working life with granite and knew well what hard graft could achieve.
Aye, it must hae teen a damned lot o explosives and muscle ti howk this ane oot.
Guarded respect was his first feeling but he was puzzled.
There’s jist something a bit different fae aa the places faar I’ve tyauved. There’s the rauchle aa roon, nae doot, bit the soonds, surely nae fit yi’d expeck? That’s nae steam craan wheezing as it heists steen, nae dreels and haimmers, and far’s the scraich o the blondin rope lowering the skip tae the fleer? I hear men richt aneuch, and aye it myndes me o yoking time wi a puckle chiels nae sae croose in the craa at haen ti ging back t’it, and ithers, resigned ti gettin on wi the jobbie in han; still an on it’s an unca sicht..
His thoughts wandered off, seeking a firm foundation; bedrock of where and why. Back, back he went to his first day at work in the granite yard.
Up and oot afore sax o’clock, I wannered doon the Gallowgate, and timorous as a moosie wis into Chairlie MacDonald’s Froghall Works (a queer like name it seemed ti me). Timid but prood, prood that I’d been gien a chance ti be a mason. MacDonald’s wis nae jist ony yaird Na, the wirks wis braw, lang boasting fine conditions even gaan as far as biggin sheds wi fower waas ti keep weet and snell wins oot. But that day wis fine and me a bauch-hertit loon faa kent nae muckle mair than fit a haimmer looked like.
The foreman took me roon the wirks faar I expeck ti see mannies stannin, cutting and carving. I wis dumfoonert, hid I wannered into a dairk deevilish mull an nae a place of craft and skeel? On ae side o the shed a saa wis swingin back-an-fore, pechin at every lurch wi clarty watter pouring aneth the beast’s teeth. Jist ayont wis a thing like an airon brander fleein roon, wi sic a souch and mair clart (gie’n me a blink the foreman said it sang like Jenny Lind). Nae seener had I teen this in than my lugs caught the soond o a machine makkin a stoor, aneuch ti smoor a body: a dunter, a bauld thing that clouted granite sae hard that the steen surrendered.
For the life o me I couldnae oonerstaan, faar were the steencutters? Telling me nae ti fash the gaffer said saas, polishers and dunters were needed as much as wis the man wi the haimmer and puncheon. But I wisnae there ti become a mere machineman I wis ti be a mason. And there, in the next shed, were the steencutters, ilka man at his banker, wirkin on crosses and heidsteens . Some hid han haimmers ithers were cutting wi pneumatic chisels; the din wis constant and dist aawye. This wis fit I wanted: ti maister steel on steen. But siccan skeels were nae easily won.
An so I thoaled the years o it wi split thooms, raxed back, stoor in the een, aye and wirse in ma thrapple. There were times fin I thocht ti caa it a day and mony anither apprentice wis o the same myn. But they were peelie-wally craturs faa up-tail and were aff ti look for greener girse. Me, I’d hae neen o this. If it wis girse I wis aifter then I’d hae feed ti een o the fairmers that gaithered by Hadden Street. I hungered ti ken aathin aboot cutting granite and hid the gweed fortune ti be pit wi a cutter faa’d bin on the tools ower fifty years. An auld man, though he micht hae lost some o his speed he’d lost neen o his skeel. He could cut and carve by han in a wye that wid mak an airtist heave his mell ti the fleer. This wis the man faa telt me hoo ti ging wi the steen: “granite can only be gaared sae far and nae mair. Hans and een is the wye” he said, “feel and see the grist in the glintin granite. There’s a reed and a hem, find this and the wye ti cut is clair”. And damn if he wisnae richt.
Above the hole, amidst the confusion, the stonecutter’s reverie continued taking him further back to his childhood when his grandfather pulled ghosts from memory.
The images came, flickered in ma heid, as if back in the Alhambra packed into the het guff o the picter hoose. There’s granfaither, a douce lang-heidit man, wabster by trade, faa’d been brocht up in the Denburn. I’d sit wi him for oors as he telt me o the lang, slow deeth o han weaving and hoo the eenjustice o it aa guidit him into Chartism. He’d seen nae jist his skeel as a wabster connached bit wirse, hail faimlies beggin for wirk ti cam their wye. Nae muckle mair than a loon granfaither wis doon at the Links, miscaain the Provost and his cronies and aa the sichts and soonds o priveelidge. Oh he kent fine that the bonnie Chartists didnae win through but so fit? aa’s important wis that fowk widnae bou doon ti the laithsome few faa’d want coorse wirkers keep their moos shut. In his wye granfaither wis nae doot dooncast but being a man faad seen mony a warsle he wis gey stoical and kent that looms and wabsters and aa that wis the Denburn were awa. “Aye”, he telt me, “there’s been mony cheenges but this only means wirkers hae ti find new wyes o deein things. But ae thing disnae cheenge, the need for fowk ti stick the gither. Britherheed is aathin”.
There’s me, jist a laddikie, sittin wi granfaither, like some drouthie nyagg aye gaan back ti the troch for anither suppie. Mither lauched telling me that I’d drink the Don dry an then sook the banks for mair. But granfaither hid me. Skeels and smeddum wis his wye and dang if it widnae be myne. Aiblins the auld man saw his youngsel in the loon wi mizzlet shins sittin at the reenge hingin on his every wird; and the tales kept comin, tales o muckle gaitherins wi aabody kittelt-up by the braw speechifying. But he took me back ayont his days ti lang, langsyne fin his faither hid been wi Aiberdeen fowk, fechtin agin thieving dealers faad beamfill their girnals, huddin meal back, aa the better ti mak extra siller. Great granfaither an aa the rest, weel breid wis there richt as they saa it. They micht be poor bit they wernae feart so it wis aff ti the hairbour faar they caad doon the doors o the thieves and tyeuk fit wis theirs even fan the militia wis on the streets.
And that wis me, draain fae the kist o memories and then it wis on ti granfaither’s beuks. A smaa library but wi choice wirks. He wisnae Christian an put my wye Tam Paine’s Age O Reason a grand tale that made me suspeck aa the fine words o meenisters. There wis anither Tam, Carlyle, a Scotchman, a sage some said, and I’ve nae doot he was verra clever bit there wis something aboot the gabby man that made him seem mair feel than pheelosopher. The man seemed ti think that in times fin knights were galloping aa ower the kintraside, well he seemed ti think this wis grand and we hid ti find a wye of re-kinlin a gowden age. Granfaither was fair teen by him but for me keeking backwart an girnin about the wye of the warl wis jist wind. As the auld man said aboot meenisters and their hivven, you micht jist as weel look for partans in mosspots and puddocks in the sea. But ae thing Carlyle got richt, this wis his gweed words for skeeled chiels wi hans, hert and brain aa wirkin the gither; wis this nae jist fit a steencutter did? Granfaither’s library hid the poems o Wullie Thom, a wabster ti trade and an Aiberdonian. He’d kent the poet and said he wisnae the easiest body ti get on wi but the man’s words, weel they brocht haim ti me the muckle cheenges needed.
Beuks and granfaither’s tales, maist o this wis fin I wis gey young and still withoot a noshun o foo the hale jing bang micht hing the gither. But a bit later I cam upon the screeves o Wullie Morris and for him the wye wis forrit, wirkers fechtin for socialism and haen han skeels that wid turn fit they made inti airt: a soond veesion, biggit on granite foons, nae sand.
At the crater’s lip, the mason could see figures moving, struggling, far below. They appeared to him like quarrymen, working their way through the debris of an explosion gone wrong.
Wrang – there wis sae much wrang wi the warl but noo that I’d served my time and become a journeyman, as I saa it, I wis ready ti dee mair than shape steen; noo I’d fashion wirkin men into socialists. I’d been gaan ti peelitical meetings o the SDF, ance Morris’s pairty, faa were verra keen on haen the bawbees fae the pooches o the weel-aff. I wis affa fierce and fit I widnae dee if I got hud o them but I foond that maist o the men in the yaird wid raither thole me than jine me. Fooivver, as a journeyman I could jine the operatives’ union, the finest craft society in the toon and fae there I began fechtin for better conditions in Aiberdeen yairds and in kintra quarries. Wi my brither operatives we tyauved ti get an extra maik or twa and even a shorter wirkin wik. Stoor fae dunters, that wis anither lang sair fecht. These muckle skelpers o granite were gweed at makin a profit for the maisters. But they turned men deef and wirse the stoor wis teen into their lungs Yairds were full of wirkers faas lungs wis rived by fit we caad the kirkyaird-hoast and fit the quacks said wis the soond o phthisis brocht on by dist. We tried ti gaar the maisters tak tent but verra little cheenged.
Nae maitter, as my granfaither wid hae said, we hid ti keep trying. And I did. Fooivver, this gave me tribble. On ae han I wis trying ti win a hantle o cheenges ti mak things tholeable but on the ither I wis looking ti caa doon the maisters an aa their wirks. As you micht say nae seeking ti tak a puckle crums, gaan instead for the loaf and the gullie ti pairtit. Wis ther ony wye o yoking the twa sides the gither? At nicht fin I wis aff doon ti Belmont Street wi my SDF freens pittin the warl ti richts, kennin the maisters’ days wid seen be ower; well britherheed seemed affa easy. Then aifter the claik it was haim and up in the morning into the yaird wi the argie-bargie stairting again. This wis like haen twa heids, ain for socialism and anither for the tyauve o wirk and the union Aiblins I should hae seen the gate I wis on but ony anxeeity I hid wis seen through a damn mirkie gless.
A puckle o my socialist freens said it wis aa for nithin, that I’d spend my time in the parlours o maisters, bunnet in han jist waiting for a han-oot. I widnae hae this. The union did mak things better, maisters supplied tools, wirkin oors were shorter and even wages had gin up. Wis this nae the wye forrit, and onwye britherheed amang wirkers surely this wis the union? Some o these socialist billies didnae unerstan. Maisters could be a hard-faced lot, a puckle o them widnae want ti gie onything ti the men, grippy disnae dee them justice, they would hae raiked hell for a saxpence. An fan this happened it wid be neives heisted, us threetnin strike and them lock-oot. But some of the employers were fair-hannit and we wid find wyes roon tribble: give-an-tak as you micht say. Och aye, we widnae win aathin but fit did my freens expeck: ging ti the maisters and demand socialism?
What would his friends now think of the mason in a world where give and take had transmuted to something far beyond the tactful diplomacy of a negotiating table? His vision of internationalism and brotherhood dissolving and re-forming much as the dust around him settled and rose.
Wirkers fae aa the airts gettin the gither, this wis my granfaither’s dream and it wis myne. The union, weel it wis a stairt. But the streetch o my veesion o britherheed wis sair tested faan steen fae Norway came inti Aiberdeen. Och aye some o the maisters were contentit, they wid mak some siller but nae aabody wis happy, especially merchants wi quarry interests. They said only oor granite should be wirked; or at warst Scotch, or at verra warst British steen. Aa foreign muck wis ti be stopped itherwise trade in yairds and quarries wid be lost. This vext me and like a thoom that’d been skelped by a haimmer ma conscience began ti stoon, winnerin far britherheed came inti this? I sair needed, something ti tak the pyne awa.
I hid a freen Wullie, oot by Alford, secretary o the union at Cluny. A fine man, gweed at his trade and nae feart o stannin up for his preenciples and fyles he’d bin a soondin board for my thochts. So it wis awaa doon tae the station. On the rinnie oot in the train I hid a chance ti think aboot this britherheed. My workmates were unca happy tae fecht and tak fit could be won but a fair puckle o them were jist as contenit ti keep the men on saas and polishers doon (mere machinemen I’d aince caad them). Britherheed in a yaird seemed hard aneuch withoot takkin on the warl. Gaan oot in the train wis aye a trait and my speerits lifted as we steamed into quarry kintra faar fowk hid howkit at coorse and rochsome grun ti mak a living. Nature can hae a bonny face but only ance the faimly is hoosed and his mait on the table .
Wullie had been brocht up in the Vale and he kent as weel as onybody the hardships o quarriers. Toon wirk, weel it seemed safter. For a stairt in Aiberdeen we didnae hae the fell winters that hit the quarries wi grun beeriet under deep snaa an men getting peyed by the piece for steen wirked and naething for staanin up ti their oxters in fite pouther. In Aiberdeen cutters were peyed by the day. I speired ti Wullie fit wye the Donside men didnae wint redd o piece work. This wis nae mystery, he telt me, twa gweed reasons for keeping it were, auld near-caad-deen quarriers were able ti tyauve on an mak a puckle bawbees and keep the maisters happy and anither thing, a chiel wi a craft could ging aff in a quait spell an wirk their lan and nae loss ti onybody. But I saw it as jist anither wye o the dirt o property skaillin the sharny-bree o oonjustice ower common fowk. Nae doot there were honest an gweed-hertit quarry maisters, but they were catcht in this guids-an-geer fankle. Wullie agreed that men like Fyfe o Kemnay were dacent aneuch bodies faa didnae draa bleed fae men, even if in winter wirkin in the slabber o snaa an dubs the bleed wid come. But there were ithers he said, lairds, men sleekit in their beesiness and faa gripped on tae lan and if they hid their road wid close the quarries and be rid o the dirt of quarrymen. “Fur and fedder o Bennachie and roon aboot”, said Wullie, “this is their interest nae men and wirk. Pheasants and rubbits dinna spik back. Lairds want the moos o quarrymen stapped and fowk ti beck an bou afore their betters.” Aa this wis hinnie ti my lugs, a sweetness o thocht but a clearance o the clart o lairds still left me raivelt aboot britherheed. Spikkin ti Wullie I felt a bit like a loon again, sittin in a neuk by the fire, a micht even had mizzlet shank. “Things in Donside”, he said, “arenae gweed. Dreelers, cutters, settmakkars are aa streevin for wirk, maist are fit wi caa loafin” and “men are gaan across the pond ti America in the howp o job. And for them that hinna shipped west it’s a maitter o inti an Aiberdeen factory or aff ti be third billies at twa-horse fairm toons.” Soondin like granfaither, Wullie raged at the eenjustice, “ if things ging on like this the quarries’ll be seelent, as if the warl had teemt the men fae the holes”. For a meenit I couldnae meet his een for I kent fine that like ithers I’d wrocht Norwegian granite and even if I’d makkit the grandest o heidsteens I jaloused that it could mark the deeth o the quarries. Faar wis britherheed here?
Wullie calmed my anxeeity and for him the answer wis ae step at ae time. Socialism and britherheed wid hae tae start at oor ane front door. There wis nae eese in being vext aboot steencutters in Norway or ony wye else if the granite beesiness here wis feenished. We hid ti hud oot for oor ane fowk afore aathin else argued Wullie and ti mak his case he pynted ti the Navy buying foreign steen for biggin hairbours. Turning aa poetic he pit a verse ti me,
“If for our Fleet we feel it meet
With natives true to man it,
Why make a dock of foreign rock
Inferior to our granite?”
It wis like licht gaan on in my heid: a wye forrit wis seen, ane that conneckit wi aathin I’d deen as pairt o the union. Fechtin that hid ti ging on, but fyles ca-canny and wirk wi the maisters for the steen industry itherwise we could wak-up wi, nae yairds and even fewer quarries.
And as the dust around him settled and the noise ebbed and flowed he could see that the Cluny man’s arguments had been sufficient to propel him further along a path upon which he had already embarked. This was the path that led him to the hole.
I teuk my thochts on aa men being brithers and union wirk and wupped them the gither ti mak a stepledder o richts and loyalties, wirken up fae the yairds ti aa the warls ayont. It wis at the Mairket Stance fan the fou meanin o the cheenge wis brocht haim ti me. Jist anither day, haen a dauner ower the plainsteens, keekin up at the braw sicht o the Toon Hoose, a work o airt in granite but wastit on Cooncillors. My scance at the fine Kemnay steen wis distractit by a stramash at the Cross. Gaithered there were kiltit sodgers surroondit by local billies an it wis plain as porritch this wis nae stoorie atween Aiberdonians an militia, scantlin an inklin o meal riots o langsyne. Aabody respectit the sodgers and winted ti jine them. Granfaither wid’ve been scunnered but I kent that ance a waar stairts fowk aften rin ti the flag. And a waar hid stairted. I got ti thinkin, and wis clair that I hid tae tak a puckle steps up the loyalty ledder and look ti britherheed wi fowk ootside the yairds. I widnae jouk the deecision aifter-anaa wis it nae the case it wis my ain kintra, and the great chiel Hyndman, ance o the SDF, hid screeved it wis a man’s duty ti fecht against the Hun faa wis ettlin ti pit Britons in thirl ti Germany. It wis only a step or twa ti the Barracks tae tak Geordie’s shillinn.
Sic a few smaa steps but they took me a lang wye. On this new gate I wutnessed muckle things, men fechtin ower pooshened grun, aneuch ti mak a plooman greet. In the mirk o aa this I did find britherheed at least wi aa the Britons and French fowk but universal? weel that wid hae ti wait. Gey blaik noshuns swirled in ma heid as I watched britheheed gaither in heeps afore my een: some micht miscaa the waar, bit ae thing aboot this ledder o fraternities, at the hinner-en o the slauchter there’d be damn gweed beesness for masons an maisters, aa the heidsteens wid keep them at the bankers and the order beuks weel past the dainner oor. Ah weel I’d chosen my gate an I jist gid on wi it.
The stonecutter was at Mametz when off to the west there was a sound of such force that even amidst the carnage he was awed. Distracted with his mind wandering to ghosts of far-off places and knowing not how, he found himself at the lip of the hole and the enormity of his journey all but overwhelmed him.
I looked doon and I could see this wis nae quarry, nae a place far men tyauved ti win bonny steen fae the ooncarin airth – na this hole wis far caring men focht ti win ither treasures. And as I dwalled on this, like the grun aneath, I shuddered.
I survived the waar and foond oot that the hole wis caad Lochnagar Crater, made by moudiewart men wi ower twenty tons o explosives. Neen o Byron’s frowning glories here, dairker than onythin the hirplin Laird could hae imagined; the braw days o spikkin tae granfaither, anither warl, sae far awaa.
Foo far doon? A helluva lang wye.