So I went away again. Gretna Green, Glasgow, Loch Lomond. Tyndrum, the Black Mountain, Glen Coe and down to Kinlochleven and went to work. The contractor for the reservoir was Sir John Jackson and I lodged with the powder monkey. They were just vetting the foundations out for the dam then. I stopped there a few months.
They had a blondin across the valley there, as well, and a tally-man used to cross the valley in it to sell things to the navvies. He got stuck out over the valley from one Saturday midday to Monday. I bet he was yelling, too, but nobody heard him.
Moleskin Joe was there. He gave up religion and turned against parsons. There was a woman dead in the road. He went up and knocked on this parson's place. The parson and his dog come out.
Moleskin says: 'There's a woman dead in the road.'
'What's that to me, my man?' says this old parson, only talking grammatical. Moleskin didn't say no more. He picked up the dog and hit the parson with it.
He got a month for that, did Moleskin.
Moleskin Joe tramped to Kinlochleven with Patrick MacGill in 1906. They roasted and ate a stolen rooster by the waterfall at Altnafeadh and, instead of going down Glen Coe, crossed the col to Kinlochleven, boxed in by mountains, heavy-walking through whisky-brown peat water, past the little choked lochan near the top. It's a burnt out wildnerness, deforested by fire.
'I'm an anti-Christ,' Moleskin once told MacGill.
'One of them sort of fellows as throws bombs at kings.*
'You mean an anarchist.'
'Well, whatever they are, I'm one,' said Moleskin. 'What is the good of kings, of fine-feathered ladies, of churches, of anything in [98/99] the country to men like me and you ? One time, 'twas when I started tramping about, I met an old man on the road and we mucked about, the two of us as mates, for months afterwards. One night in the winter time, as we were sleeping under a hedge, the old fellow got sick, and he began to turn over and over on his bedding of frost and his blankets of snow, which was not the best place to put a sick man, as you know yourself. As the night wore on, he got worse and worse. I tried to do the best I could for the old fellow, gave him my muffler and my coat, but the pains in his guts was so much that I couldn't hardly prevent him from rolling along the ground on his stomach. He would do anything just to take his mind away from the pain that he was suffering. At last I got him to rise and walk, and we trudged along till we came to a house by the roadside. 'Twas nearly midnight and there was a light in one of the windows, so I thought I would call at the door and ask for a bit of help. My mate, who bucked up somewhat when we were walking, got suddenly worse again, and fell against the gatepost near beside the road and stuck there as if glued to the thing. I left him by himself and went up to the door and knocked. A man drew the bolts and looked out at me. He had his collar on back to front, so I knew that he was a clergyman.'
'What do you want?' he asked.
'My mate's dying on your gatepost.'
'Then you'd better take him away from here.'
'But he wants help,' said Moleskin. 'He can't go a step further, and if you could give him a drop of brandy . . . .'
The parson whistled up a big, black, snarling brute of a dog. 'Now you get away from here,' said the parson, brutish as his hound.
'My mate's dying,' Moleskin protested.
'Seize him,' the parson, in his deepest pulpit voice, ordered the dog.
'He was only a human being,' said Moleskin of the parson, 'and that's about as bad as a man can be. Anyway he put the dog on me and the animal bounded straight at the thick of my leg. I caught hold of the dog by the throat and twisted its throttle until it snapped like a dry stick. Then I lifted the dead thing up in my arms and threw it right into the face of the man who was standing in the hallway. "Take that and be thankful that the worst dog of the two of you isn't dead," I shouted. My mate was still hanging on the gatepost when I came back, and he was as dead as a maggot. I could do nothing for a dead man, so I went on my own, leaving him hanging [99/100] there like a dead crow in a turnip field. Next morning a cop lifted me and I was charged with assaulting a minister and killing the dog. I got three months hard, and it was hard to tell whether for hitting the man or killing his dog. Anyway, the fellow got free, although he allowed a man to die at his own doorstep. I never liked clergy before, and I hate them ever since: but I know, as you know, that it's not for the likes of you and me that they work for.'
MacGill and Moleskin arrived above the Kinlochleven dam one daybreak, sitting and smoking awhile on the high ground. All around was rough and tumble country, fierce peaks behind. From their hill you can see the small loch below the dam and the hillock that became Boot Hill for the dead of 1908. Opposite are two peaks like canine teeth with a gap between where the incisors are missing. Early morning light spot-lit Ben Nevis.
Derricks swung over the gutter trench like claws, hauling skips of muck. It was five o'clock on a midsummer morning just before the shifts changed. Below them in the hollow smoke rose from the jumbled shacks, standing floorless, the walls just planks hammered into bare earth among puddles and garbage piles. You could hear the hammers and, in the mountains, the falling torrents of the becks.
Moleskin went down alone and came back with a well-worn pair of boots.
In the settlement, midsummer mud oozed over their boot uppers. In the huts, some windowless, those who had gone to bed were just getting up, standing about naked and scratching. The gamblers, still gambling, hadn't gone to bed at all. Bacon fried, sizzling and spitting, in grubby pans on dirty hot plates. Black tea bubbled in soot-stained cans. Beneath their rags, men's skins were coated with fine clay. Flexed muscles cracked the caked muck into dry scales.
Moleskin found Red Billy, a ganger, whittling a stick by a steam crane.
'Can you snare an old hare this morning?' Moleskin asked him.
'A tanner an hour, overtime seven and a half.' Red Billy had a big red beard 'You can take vour coat off now.' [100/101]
'This mate of mine's looking for work, too.'
'He's light of shoulder and lean as a rake,' Red Billy weighed up, summed up, and dismissed MacGill.
'He knocked out Carroty Dan in Burn's model,' Moleskin defended him.
'If that's so,' said Red Billy, instantly impressed, 'he can take his coat off too.' He added to Moleskin, 'You've to pay me four shillings when you lift your first pay.'
'That be damned.'
'That's the price I charge for a pair of boots like them,' said Red Billy, pointing at the stolen boots on Moleskin's feet.
Red Billy's was a rock blasting gang. MacGill and Moleskin joined a crew of five, working one drill, the drill holder sitting splay-legged holding the point of the steel rod on the rock between his knees while four hammermen struck in turn, the hammers describing four constant rings as they swung in a big circle from hip to drill. The rings circled at a steady rate like a juggler's spinning hoops.
Everybody ignored MacGill for some hours until Red Billy sloped off.
'Do you know that kid there,' Moleskin then said, thumbing at MacGill, 'that mate of mine?'
'A blackleg without the spunk of a sparrow,' said Hell-fire Gahey.
'That kid, that mate of mine, rose, stripped naked from his bed and thrashed Carroty Dan in Burn's model lodging house.'
'I knocked Carroty out,' boasted Hell-fire, stabbing at his own chest with fingers like pick blades.
'There's a chance for you,' Moleskin delightedly told MacGill. 'Just pitch into Hell-fire Gahey and show him how you handle your pair of fives.'
Moleskin and MacGill worked till yo-ho, then subbed a florin each and went to the tommy shop where they bought a loaf, a pound of beefsteak, a can of condensed milk and a pennyworth of tea and sugar. Three shillings a week bought a third of a flea-ridden bed and a share of a communal hot-plate in Red Billy's shant. The shant's walls were tarred planks hammered vertically into bare ground and strapped together with wooden couplings and iron bars. It was built around a mountain spring which welled up in the middle of the shack. Floor boards, the only ones in the place, covered the spring. In fine weather they sufficed: in wet, water sluiced all across the earth floor turning it into a private, [101/102] self-contained mud hole.
Bunks were stacked in tiers of three around the room. No windows broke their money-making line. 'If you go outside the door, you'll get plenty of air,' Red Billy replied to objectors, 'and if you stay out it'll be fresher here.'
Red Bill was an old man, twice married, with a habit of eating his tommy with a tobacco-stained clasp knife. He could regurgitate food like a ruminant, a knack he'd learned as a child when he was so hungry he wanted to re-eat the food he'd already swallowed.
MacGill and Moleskin shared a bed, an upper one, with Hell-Fire Gahey, In the middle of the night a fight broke out over should have the blanket. The fight spilled off the bunk into the blackness of the windowless shack. 'My blessed blankets,' yelled Red Billy in the dark. 'You damned scoundrels! You'll not leave me one in the hut. Fighting in bed just the same as if you were lying in a pig-sty.' In the black-out Red Billy was knocked out and a fight, a proper one, was fixed for that evening in the Ring.
The Ring was a circle of shants. In reality it was a garbage dump littered with sardine tins and bottles. Four men were already fighting: an English wagon filler versus a Glasgow craneman, and a big Irishman versus a small Pole (several Poles were there, oddly enough.) The Pole was winning as well until the big Irishman picked him up and tossed him into the old cans and broken bottles.
Moleskin's strategy and tactics were simple: plod after Hell-fire until he could grapple with him. Hell-fire was nimbler and circled out of reach, striking swiftly and hitting every time until Moleskin hoisted him off the ground and over his head.
'For God's sake don't throw me into the tins,' pleaded Hell-fire.
'I don't want to dirty the tins,' Moleskin reassured him. 'Who was right about the blankets last night?'
Hell-fire wouldn't answer. Moleskin dropped him on the ground and kneed his chest. 'Who was right about the blankets last night?'
'You were,' admitted Hell-fire sulkily.
It was MacGill's turn. For a time he got the worst of it until he, too, got a wrestling hold on Hell-fire and threw him slithering along the ground. Hell-fire got up but another hard blow to the chest stopped him for good.
That night MacGill gambled. And won. Silver heaped at his elbow, threaded with bits of gold. He kept on winning and the cards, the whisky and the fight lifted him higher and higher until he began to falter physically and had to give up. He tossed a fistful of [102/103] winnings on the floor to appease the losers and went to bed. After that it was gambling, whisky and work, day in and night out. Hundreds of men, without women, lived up there in a couple of square miles of moutain. Unwashed they were, unshaven, and brutalised. Once, MacGill said, he gambled from seven o'clock one Saturday until six-thirty Monday morning and he only broke off then to put in a long shift on the hammers.
Fights were too common to notice. A man could lie dead drunk in filth for hours on end and be disturbed only by people stealing the clothes off his body. Even the postman was escorted by armed police. Tommy came up the mountain on a blondin-like contrap- tion of wires which sagged under the weight of the beer kegs and bread hampers, dragging the skips close to the tops of the smaller hills where navvies looted them as they passed.
One evening Moleskin, MacGill and English Bill drilled and fired several shot holes. Next morning they went back to shift the muck, English Bill in his new boots. He struck the rock with his pick, hit a misfired charge and shot his own pick blade through his throat. 'He's no good here now,' Moleskin said, sadly. They went for a wheelbarrow to carry him away and somebody stole the corpse's boots. 'We should have taken them before we went,' said MacGill. 'Damn right,' said Moleskin.
The only show of gentleness was towards Sandy MacDonald, an Isle of Skye man, dying of tuberculosis. Sandy was not a proper navvy. Once he was married and settled in Greenock where he worked in a sugar refinery. His wife died. He got TB. His home broke up and he ended at Kinlochleven.
'Life burned in him like a dying candle in a ruined house,' said MacGill. The navvies were kind enough to him. Moleskin made him gruel. MacGill read to him from the Ohan Times.
'Man! I should like to die there awa' in the Isle of Skye,' said Sandy one day.
'Boys, Sandy MacDonald wants to go home and die in his own place,' Moleskin told Red Billy's gang next pay day. 'He'll kick the bucket soon, for he's the look of the grave in his eyes. So what do you sav, bovs, to a collection for him, a shilling a man, or whatever you can spare?'
That was Saturday. Sandy meant to leave for Skye on Monday, his fare paid by the gathering. Sunday night he went to bed early and died in the small hours of the morning, his fare to the island in a leather purse around his neck. MacGill said they should spend the [105/106] money on a cross.
'If the dead man wants a cross he can have one,' Moleskin said, putting the money down as the stake in a card game. Clancy won it and was called Clancy of the Cross ever after.
'Bur where is heaven if there is such a place?' Moleskin asked MacGill one day.
'I don't know.'
'If you think of it, there's no end to anything. If you could go up above the stars, there's surely a place above them, and another place in turn above that again. You can't think of a place where there's nothing, and as far as I can see there's no end to anything. You can't think of the last day as they talk about, for that would mean the end of time. It's funny to think of a man saying there'll be no time after such and such a time. How can time stop?' Moleskin asked. 'Is there a God in Heaven?'
'English Bill may know more about these things that we do,' MacGill told him.
'How can a dead man know anything?' Moleskin asked, borrowing a shilling to gamble with.
That, said MacGill, was Moleskin all over. Philosophy one minute, gambling the next. Perhaps the world's a big gambling table, Moleskin once suggested. God threw everything down like a roll of dice: men, nations, animals and the elements. Then He and His angels watched the struggle and betted with each other on the outcome.
'Of course the angels won't back Kinlochleven very heavily,' Moleskin added.
In Octoberober MacGill wrote some articles about Kinlochleven for a London paper. Kinlochleven was amazed. They handed each other the acceptance letter until it was unreadable. Then it was winter and for MacGill all longing and passion calmed away to numbness. Snow fell. Tools froze in men's hands and scarred their skin. Cold stopped men gambling as they huddled by the hotplate at nights, yarning now about hard times and the deaths of navvies. About men who worked so hard in weather so bitter sweat froze to icicles on their eyelashes.
Then one warm evening next summer, the dam nearly done, hundreds of navvies were paid off, straggling down the mountain with the sunset in their faces, high above the River Leven flowing noiselessly in its chasm, all grass and bracken, birch woods like dustings of powder in its depths. A blue jumble of hills blocked out the sea to the west, the peaks like teeth above the lips of the lower [104/105] mountains. Many men tramped to Rosyth where they built a naval base for the war with Germany.
The waterworks are finished and the boys have jacked the shovel,
See, the concrete board deserted for the barrow squad is gone,
The gambling school is bursted, there is silence in the hovel,
For the lads are sliding townwards and are padding it since dawn.
Pinched and pallid are their faces from their graft in God-shunned places,
Tortured, twisted up their frames are, slow and lumbering their gait,
But unto their hopeful dreaming comes the town with lights a-gleaming,
Where the bar-men add more water, and the shameless women wait.
— Patrick MacGill, "Back from Kinlochleven," Songs of a Navvy [105/106]
[Note: Full citations for works cited by the name of the author or a short title can be found in the bibliography.]
The conversion of Red Bill Davis is from Quarterly Letter to Men on Public Works 169, October 1922. Otherwise most of the chapter is from Children of the Dead End.
Last modified 21 April 2006