Every summer during school holidays I would be packed off to Granddad's out in the country. The change from the bleak streets of the city was more than just pleasing to the eye. It was physical. After two weeks in the country when I spat, my spit was white. Being a kid I had no idea the smog which choked us in the city was burrowing its way into my lungs. I put the whiteness down to the fact Granddad made hot milk for me each morning. Little did I know.
Granddad's house was tucked snugly inside the village of Dail in South West Scotland. It was just a hop, skip and leap to cool fresh water, rivers where no foam or froth from detergents had ever been, and fish stayed alive long enough to catch with a rod. The main river, the Girvan, snaked its way slowly through lush green meadows as far as the eye could see.
At ten years old he treated me like a grown up. Every morning I would rise at six and make ready for the Gypsies and Tinkers who would pass through the village on a lorry, stopping only outside his house. Waving goodbye I'd climb on board and head for the fields to pick potatoes for ten back breaking hours. This wasn't exploitation in the sense we understand it now. The work was hard but it meant ten year old me came home with a pay packet almost the equivalent of a grown up. It made me old before my time but I loved every single second of it. Not only that, but the weekends were all my own.
A mile from Granddad's a solitary run-down bothy stood rotting gently in the hot summer sunshine. The village kids had told me 'Tam the Herd' lived there and if I ever went fishing, I should avoid passing his bothy as Tam had been known to steal children from the city, and lock them up in his bothy - they'd never be seen again. Very few of those same village kids had seen Tam, he needed no trips to the village shop as he found food in abundance in the fields around him and drew water from a nearby stream. At times I thought he might be a myth used to scare 'townies' like me. It was working.
I saved as much money from potato picking as I could. I always wanted to thrill and please my mother by returning to Glasgow as the famous song went, ‘with gold in great store'. Weekends though, were for hunting, running, fishing and simply soaking up the country air, all of which were free.
It was Saturday afternoon and I was high on the hill at the village play-park, getting ready to race a bicycle downhill, over a bumpy dust-track, all to prove to the village kids us city boys are as stupid as they are. Suddenly one of the kids shouted 'Stop!'. I've no idea how many teeth and stitches that yell spared me, but it was welcome.
'Look!' The yelling kid pointed an outstretched hand in the direction of the main road - 'It's Tam the Herd!'
Sure enough, a figure walked purposefully down the road. Before I could focus properly the kids were running full pelt down the hillside in his direction. I've often wondered since if kids have some kind of psychic ability, some kind of telepathy, because no sooner had he been spotted than it seemed the entire village's population of kids were streaming out of doorways and rushing headlong in the direction of Tam the Herd. Not sure of what was going on, I followed but kept a healthy distance on my bicycle. Getting a little closer I could see an old man, tall, with whiskers down past his chest and wild, shining eyes. He wore Wellington boots, which almost passed his knees, and they made a flopping sound with every step he took. Baggy trousers were held at the middle by a piece of rope and he wore only a jacket with nothing beneath. As he strode alone down the centre of the road he pushed a large stick before him, simultaneously using it for walking and shaking at kids who were now taunting and teasing him. Every now and then if a kid got too close he would wield the stick high in the air before swinging it but never was any contact made as the kids were just too nimble.
I followed the pack as Tam rounded the bend at the foot of the road and watched as he made his way inside the Green Man Tavern. It seemed to me there were hundreds of kids staring through the doorways and climbing up onto window ledges to see what was going on inside. Soon the owner of the bar emerged and threatened us all that if we did not leave he would telephone the police. Given that my Granddad was one of only two people in the village at that time who had a telephone, and that he never let anyone use it, coupled with the fact the nearest police station was 17 miles away, there was no great urgency as the kids started to split up and make their way home. I decided to go back to Granddad's, get my fishing gear, and get ready for some night fishing.
I caught an edible, not a large one but four or five pounds worth of Salmon was still a treasure. It was late and with no way of keeping the fish fresh, I decided that as the full moon was high, I really should get back to Granddads. Taking care not to get caught on the barbed wire fences surrounding the fields, I made my way through the darkness. Although a small road skirted the field I was in, I ignored it. It led to Tam the Herd's bothy and there was no way I was emerging from the gloom to walk past there. Using the field I walked on until I was sure that Tam's bothy was behind me before climbing the last fence and stepping onto the track clutching my rod and salmon. I had only taken a few paces when through the darkness I thought I heard a strange sound. Once more I heard it and it sounded like a moan. My heart was in my mouth. I couldn't see a source for the sound and in such a state of fear I froze. I could neither run for Granddad's, nor run back the way I came, as the sound was so close it could be anywhere around me. Once more I heard it - only this time it was clear and discernible 'Help me!' it said. With the moon as the only source of light I scanned the bushes surrounding the field on the opposite side of the road. The unmistakable shape of a man lay partially covered by grass and down in the ditch by the side of the track. 'Help me son...please help me' the voice pleaded. I moved closer and realised to my horror it was Tam the Herd.
Keeping a safe distance, I called 'What's wrong?'
'I have fallen laddie, fallen, and I think I shall never get up without help.'
His voice was not at all what I expected. For someone who had the appearance of an old tramp he sounded polite.It was clear that he had fallen and even through the half-light I could see blood winding its way down his face from a gash on his head.
'You won't try anything funny?' I asked, terrified that at any moment he might leap up and grab me, just as the village kids had warned.
'This is a very unfunny situation laddie. I simply don't have the strength to get up.' There was something in his voice reassured me of its truth. Even so, when the moon caught his eyes they looked wild and fiery. Stooping to help I put my rod and fish to one side and placed an arm beneath his. Doing so I became aware of the horrid stench coming from him. Getting to his knees he pulled himself up and the reek of alcohol threatened to make me sick.
He placed a hand on my shoulder 'Thank you Laddie. Could you find my stick down there?' He pointed to the long grass in the ditch.'
Handing it to him he asked, 'Will you see me to my door? It's not far.'
Knowing no-one would be this way until morning I left my rod and fish by the track side and let him lean on my shoulder all the way back to his bothy. He talked as we walked 'I don't know your face, you don't have a village face' he said between groaning at the pain his movements were causing him. 'I'm Betty Dorans' son' I said.
He stopped in his tracks 'A Dorans!' He exclaimed 'Now there's a family to be proud of! Burma, Palestine and Indo-China!'. I knew vaguely what he was referring to as Granddad had been someone famous in the Black Watch regiment and had been decorated so many times he needed two large wooden boxes to keep his medals in. It was something he spoke rarely of though.
As we approached his door he beckoned me to enter. 'I dunno sir' I said 'I don't think I should'.
'Fear not young Dorans, I simply need some water for my head. If you fetch me it from the bowl in the kitchen, I'll keep you no longer'. After fumbling in his jacket pocket for matches, he lit up an oil fired lamp which stood on a wooden box outside his doorway and pushed open the groaning, rotting door. A musty, damp smell rushed to greet us. 'See, just through there' he pointed.
His unsteady hand caused the oil lamp to swing throwing shadows within the cottage which to my imaginative mind resembled contorted creatures racing around inside. Peering inside I could make out the bowl by a large copper tub, which he used presumably as a sink. He stepped inside, turned left into a room and was gone leaving me with the decision to make. Quickly I made my way toward the bowl but as I did so I could feel my feet sinking deeper into the floor, it caused no small alarm in me. Looking down I could see that his bothy had no carpets or floorboards, instead were layer upon layer of empty hessian potato sacks. Fetching the bowl I made my way carefully to the other room and found him seated by the oil light. It seemed to me his wild eyes burned brighter than the lamp. 'Here sir' I said.
'Thank you laddie, I should have known a Dorans would never desert a needy soldier'. His tone was pleasant, his voice warm and mellow and I stopped feeling so terrified.
'Why do they call you Tam the Herd?' I asked, as he dipped his hand in the bowl of water using the sleeve of his jacket to rub it over it his head.
'Because that’s who I am.’ He almost smiled as he said it. ‘I was a soldier in the great war and after that I became a Shepherd, it's what 'the herd' means. If I was still a soldier then maybe I’d be Tam the Gun. But I’m not, I’m Tam the Herd. Your Grandfather knows me well. Many a day we’ve shared at the Green Man Tavern and we remember...' His voice quietened and the words began tapering off '...friends, fallen, days when we had other names…'
With all the innocence of youth I asked 'Why do you live like this?'
He pulled on his beard and his wild eyes looked upward, he gave a pained expression. I flinched a little at asking.
'Maybe you're granddaddy will tell you' He said looking toward the gaping fireplace which looked as though no flame had danced there in years.
'Please. Can't you tell me Sir?'
His wild eyes turned to fix themselves firmly on me, but his voice remained calm, his gruff tone dropped a decibel or two, 'I fought in the war to end all wars Son. I watched the flower of two countries fall beside me. I saw things I prayed to God would never happen to ones like yourself.' His eyes began darting around the gloom 'When it was over I came home to Scotland from France and with the promise of peace I built this little house, married a fine lady, a fine, fine lady, and had three strapping sons of my own.' At the mere mention of his sons his mouth spread across his face.
I was about to interrupt saying 'that doesn't explain anything', when he raised his hand to quell my words. 'Angus, Fraser and Stuart, my sons, three more beautiful and strong laddies you will never meet. Oh what possessed me? Oh what possessed me?' His smile waned, the spaces between his words filled with pain and the pain clearly formed questions in his mind, his eyes continued their hurried glancing as if looking for the answers. Once more he turned to me and there was no mistaking the tears filling his eyes. 'The evil that filled Europe returned. And my stock Laddie, aye my stock rose to the call. My laddies, my beautiful laddies.' The tears were flowing freely and he reached to hold my shoulder. 'I sent them to war laddie…and they never came home'. As the words left his mouth he pulled me tighter and howled like a hurt fox.
I didn't know what to do. A lump welled in my throat and he clasped me tight whilst weeping openly on my shoulder.I knew I would have to leave soon but in some small way, for a brief moment in time, I hoped however fleetingly, he felt like one of his laddies ...had come home.