The President of the Burns Club must select the Guest Speaker. So how did I go about that task in the Millennium Year?
In Search of a Speaker
In the lay-by on the A711 , I listen to Lesley Riddock . She invites her listeners to the air waves, then dispatches them with a curt strike. The tuna in my sanny probably underwent a similar process in more salty waves. Sustenance of mind and body complete, I set off to the office in Dumfries.
The case in the Sheriff’s Chambers at Kirkcudbright had lasted no more than 15 seconds. He is perplexed by the insufficiency of the law. A toddler’s case fully accepted by the parents at a children’s hearing but not understood by the 17 month old child, is to be remitted back to a hearing for disposal, from whence it came. The learned Sheriff felt a helicopter would have saved us both time. Indeed it would have returned him to Stranraer and me to Dumfries in a matter of minutes. My regular rendezvous with Ms Riddock on the A711 would be at risk if the Scottish Courts Administration and the Scottish Children’s Reporter Administration took the suggestion on board.
Lunchtime lay-bys in south - west Scotland have proved to be ornithological and inspirational. Check out the sand martin bank on the B7068 (post Langholm hearings) and the penduline tit on the A713 at Patna (post Dalmellington hearings). Prior to working in Dumfries and Ayr, few interesting ornithological opportunities arose in John Finnie Street, Kilmarnock, where the lunch-time dauner was more of an opportunity to re-stock pampers or converse with Killie acquaintances. Burns country you realise.
Life would be so much easier if I had a matching south - west accent. Having Glasgow on my passport as place of birth has always been a niggle. It could have read Redlands Hospital, by ambulance from Bishopton, Renfrewshire, but there is no room on the page and anyway that was for only two years before Kirriemuir in Angus “ provided his formative years”. A genuine spell of education at Glasgow before meaningful sojourns in Edinburgh, Ghana, London, Stirling and Troon followed. Arriving in Dumfries some eight years ago, we wondered if our travels had really ceased. Consequently, I possess a frustratingly nondescript accent.
Yet it was Dumfries which managed to discover real south-west roots for me. Robert Burns’ first child was Elizabeth (1785-1817), ‘dear Bought Bess’. Elizabeth’s great granddaughter was my grandmother Jemima Helen Walker Caldwell (1878-1968). The Dumfries Burns Club took notice.
So, in this my presidential year, I had to engage a worthy speaker for our Anniversary Dinner. This was on my mind last February as a robin inquisitively perched on the damp dyke, eyeing the contents of my lunchbox. Lesley Riddock silenced her adversarial contributors for a lunchtime news report and that was when inspiration struck. Reference had been made to the UN Secretary General.
Kofi Annan had been the Director of Tourism when my wife and I lived in Ghana. His family village at Bekwai, Ashanti Region, was also the village where my wife had taught as a VSO. Annan was our neighbouring town and his namesake. Would the Freedom of Annan be given to Kofi before Jim Wallace? Hadn’t Langholm taken the lead, three decades ago by making Neil Armstrong one of their own? Inspirational lay-bys!
If I got Kofi Annan to come, then I could confidently count on the First Minister (serva fidem) who was a well- known Burnsian , frequent Dumfries and Galloway visitor, speaker at the Howff Club, the Hole in the Wa’ and our own Burns Club in the town and former children’s reporter besides! The helicopter was no longer a fantasy.
In July, on vacation, we found ourselves in the Secretary General’s New York Office. He regretfully declined to give the Immortal Memory on this occasion while wishing to visit Annan one day, beyond his term of office. There was no need therefore to contact Donald Dewer who was recovering at that time from his serious heart operation.
Meanwhile I was invited to Hampden (sans kit) by the Chief Constable of that fair city to a Conference on Safer Scotland. The answer is of course simple. Move to the rural Stewartry of Kircudbright! The problem is equally clear. Young men in fits of alcoholic rage attack each other leaving permanent disfigurement. Medical slides confirmed their youth and Policing tactics were shared amongst all eight Police Forces. It was a sombre morning delivery and not too comfortable for those like myself who frequently strive to prevent such juvenile offending.
Then strode on to the stage, a young eighteen year old six former. “This is my town”, she announced with her PowerPoint projection. Kirriemuir! And plumb centre of the slide was the former St. Ninian’s Manse, my childhood home. Defying the flavour of the morning, Gemma told the conference that parents buy mobile phones for their children. Why? “Well, all we hear about is paedophiles in the community and if someone slips us a drug, maybe we’ll have time to dial 999. Yes, we do move in groups, she admitted. That’s not a threat. We are protecting ourselves. Anyway on a night out in Dundee, we have to catch the last bus home to Kirrie at 10.45p.m.” Bravo! Gemma could have been speaking for the youth of rural Dumfries & Galloway and every rural place as well. Lesley, if Gemma phones in, please don’t cut her off. Had Gemma been from our neck of the woods, I could have asked her to reply on behalf of the Lasses.
One last trawl for a potential speaker took place on 6th October. How did you celebrate your 50th?
We opened the house to a variety of neighbours, colleagues and friends. As an Ice Breaker, I prepared a quiz sheet of facts about the guests. There was no shortage of detail for each of them to identify each other but to give you a flavour of the challenge inter alia:
In 1976, I was Miss France……….(my wife)
This man’s cousin is the President of Ghana………(Tony Barbour)
I won a sub-machine gun shooting trophy ……….. ( Hilary Clark my female work colleague. Wow, did I need to know this?)
One of two Wigtown personalities present, this musician performed in her maiden years, as C. Sharp…… (get it?)(Christine Barbour)
I was at school with Tony Blair……………………(John Henderson)
Just back from sailing David Coulthard’s yacht in the Mediterranean……….Jock
In 1974, I was mistaken by 10,000 people for the German international football striker, Gunter Netzer…………….. (that was me actually.)
Lady Lucan informed me that her husband had tried to strangle her ……………(Jenny Henderson)
A week later Donald Dewer died. Serva Fidem, the school motto, seemed very appropriate. He had kept faith with Scottish devolution and kept faith with the people he served. Alas, neither he nor the UN Secretary General would be attending the Burns anniversary dinner.
Roving Sheriff, Children’s Reporter and above all Dumfries Doonhamer, Alan Findlayson, will return to his home town to give the Immortal Memory and the former European Director of UNICEF, Canadian, Paul Ignatieff, will toast his adopted town. The Lord Lieutenant will reply as many do around the country at this time. The singers have agreed to entertain and so has the piper.
Invitations go out immediately after New Year. Burns Night is often the first social event of the year promoting hibernal stirrings. Lets hope the wintry Devil’s Beef Tub will not hinder Alan’s southward journey on 25th.
Like the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, the President’s term of office lasts just one year. That should free me up soon for south west representation for the Institute of Contemporary Scotland’s affairs. The scenic and inspirational lay – bys of Scotland must be worthy of contemporary recognition. Lesley Riddock’s Paxmanian jousting must too…..but lets save that, on another drive.
Ends. 1,300 words.
Miller H. Caldwell