Cycling, youth hostelling and politics in 1930s Scotland (object 20)

Dad's notebook

The first entry in this notebook is dated Sunday 4th June 1933, and reads: “Cycle no. S.P. 4816 arrived Friday last. Got the hang of it by Saturday. Sunday wandered through P’Shields, ‘Shaws to Newlands and Giffnock. From there via Burnbank Rd to Thornliebank and Carnwadric and along a couple of country roads to Paisley [and home]… about 20-25 miles. Time 1.30 to 4.15. Day very hot.”  So begins the log of my Dad’s cycling adventures over the next two years, as he spends weekends and holidays touring the countryside around Glasgow with his friend Johnny Smillie, a fellow watchmaker, or his brother John. I believe this blurred photograph may be of Dad with this bike (I wonder if it was the same bike that took him around France on his honeymoon years later?):


Many of these accounts are basic, factual logs of distance, terrain and weather, but in some of them Dad’s natural gift for storytelling makes for amusing, and fascinating,  reading. Tiny stick-man sketches illustrate the odd anecdote. James (Dad) is 20 years old at this time, a keen member of the emergent Youth Hostels movement, and starting to become interested in socialism.
By September he has covered approximately 2000 miles in his trips to beauty spots such as Largs, Wemyss Bay, Saltcoats, Prestwick, Helensburgh, Ardrossan, Loch Lomond, Loch Ard (where the lads cool off with a swim), Gareloch, Loch Long, Strathaven, Edinburgh, Stirling, Ayr, Campsie Glen and the Trossachs. They often stay in youth hostels were they meet other cyclists and  hikers. In February 1935 James and Johnny embark on an ill-advised trip to Ledard Hostel in Aberfoyle. They leave Glasgow in a blizzard (“daft idea”) and spend most of the weekend battling snow and icy roads: “Roads began to turn nasty. Outside Strathblane the bike put me down gently and bent a pedal. At Aberfoyle the snow was at its worst and then cleared. From then on, past Loch Ard, we could hardly press pedal.”
At the hostel they meet 2 hikers: “a girl (cyclist) and another (the big fellow). The last named talked all the time, mostly about himself. A Fascist, although he couldn’t tell me what his party was for.” They argue politics and win “hands down”  (“I’m branded as a red-hot communist now”), and after lunch all  set off at the same time:
Going down hill was like riding a wild horse, the bike plunging from side to side, twisting, skidding, gathering speed then scraping round the corners, with fearsome glimpses of Loch Ard a yard or two to one side”. They catch up with the Fascist who has crashed his bike, and help him to fix it and get back on the road. Shortly afterwards when James also crashes in the treacherous conditions, “There was no sign of the fascist…” Johnny comes to his rescue however and they struggle on, falling off at least 8 times before reaching home with much relief. This is one of the stories Dad has illustrated (click to enlarge image):

Occasionally the lads stay in alternative accommodation. On one trip to Edinburgh and Port Seton with his brother John, they spend the last night in a shed on a country estate in Kilsyth, where the gamekeeper is an acquaintance of John’s.  On another occasion James and Johnny have an argument with the warden of the South Queensferry hostel and are thrown out, throwing themselves in turn on the mercy of a nearby farmer’s family  who not only allow them to sleep in their hayloft but throw in a free breakfast as well. I remember Dad telling me how they would sometimes sleep in barns once they persuaded the farmer that they really didn’t smoke (a rare thing in those days) and how comfortable it was. Here, he writes “Dry straw is perfect for sleeping on”. They sneak back into the hostel for a dance that is in progress, but the warden throws them out again. Music is very much a part of their youth hostelling experience; at the Monachyle hostel someone finds a mouth organ and a fiddle, and “Therewith he organised a barn dance, in a real barn, with the hostelites, the farmer’s son and daughter, and girls from the farm…I was sorry when it was over”. The next day, James uses his watchmaking skills to “set going an old alarm [clock] here, repairing the balance spring, and making a clickspring out of a safety-pin”.
Later, cycling alone at Aberfoyle, he comes across the aftermath of a car crash: the occupants have escaped safely and he gives them water from his “dixie” for their shock and injuries, and helps to put out the flaming engine.  Various purchases are recorded in the log book, including a Primus paraffin camping stove for 12 shillings, which is “fine  until Sunday 16th June, when Dad writes: “Memo: Never to forget the little piece of cast iron that goes on top of the stove. Won’t light without it, as testified by a dozen used matches floating about Loch Lomond”. (I wonder  if this is the same Primus stove that we took on many a family picnic years later, and kept us in cocoa during the power cuts of the 1970s?). On 29th August 1935 he buys a Lucas Carbide lamp for 5 shillings, which nearly lands him in jail a month later when the rain puts it out on a trip to Craigmaddie. A policeman stops him and books him for having no light; a week later the summons duly arrives: “ did during the hours of darkness ride upon a pedal bicycle on which was not carried a lamp showing to the front a white light visible from a reasonable distance….” He has to appear in court and pay a penalty of 5 shillings, or spend 5 days in jail. On the appointed day he is at work, so his father represents him. “5 shillings or 5 days. We paid.”
It’s wonderful to have my Dad’s first hand account of his youthful adventures, but there is more in the notebook.  Every time he is out touring on a Sunday he notes where he has attended Mass (at Doune or Dunblane, for example).  However, in another section of the notebook he sets out, in a heartfelt and considered account, his reasons for making the life-changing decision to leave the Catholic church. He has been a good and loyal Catholic and has resisted the pull to Socialism because the Church preaches against it, but in the end he can no longer reconcile the two, and chooses socialism. He once told me that the Jesuit priests forbade him to read Darwin, whose work he had become interested in, telling him that he could believe in evolution or religion but not both. This is borne out in the words he writes here:
by the time I was approaching manhood, I had developed a feeling of revolt against the idea that I was not to think of these things. I came to regard this as a sort of principle, knowing full well that it was against the catholic discipline. Not being free to read what I liked was another sore point – but as a good Catholic I gave in, and did not read a single book against the Church until I left. ” He even attempts to protect the church from these threats, taking part in anti-communist meetings and reading church propaganda; but in the end “Things finally came to a head. I was in an absolutely intolerable position and felt it keenly. So I prayed a little, thought it over and finally decided that I would leave the Catholic Church. I then made the discovery that I had in reality left it long ago – I was now merely finishing the process by finishing the actual mechanical habits of religion.”
He left “abruptly and with no regrets”, and never looked back.


About Hoarder of Babylon

A chartered librarian and curator of my family archives.
This entry was posted in 1930-1949, Dad, Diaries and journals and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Cycling, youth hostelling and politics in 1930s Scotland (object 20)

  1. Lisa Randall says:

    Puts me in mind of Motor Cycle Diaries, especially the bits about repeatedly falling off the bikes!

  2. I’m sure my dad would be honoured to be compared to Che Guevara!

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