"A born writer, especially a born story-teller. Dr. Sutherland, who is distinguished in medicine, is an amateur in the sense that he only writes when he has nothing better to do. But when he does, it could hardly be done better." G.K. Chesterton.
Merchiston was not the home of music, but of Rugby football in Scotland. The school excelled in this, and to compulsory games and running I owe whatever physique I now possess. Every morning we ran a quarter-mile before breakfast. On Wednesday and Saturday afternoons, if there was no football, we ran ten to fifteen miles, and on week-days there was a three-mile run before dinner in the middle of the day. At football I began playing forward in the most junior team, which not unjustly might have been described as the sweepings of the school. In a match against Edinburgh Academy we excelled ourselves by not even getting warm, and by leaving the field untouched by mud. That evening in the prefect’s room most of us received the punishment we deserved because we did not even know the score.
Although never in the First Fifteen I think school “rugger” is a faster, cleaner, more interesting game than any club or international match. The school produced more “internationals” than any other. In my time “Kemo” Simpson, a boy rare amongst boys because he followed Christ, was the best I ever saw at getting the ball out of the maul. He died of plague in India. Willie Welsh, who had run the hundred yards in level time, was a wing three-quarter unequalled at sprinting along the touchline to score a try. And David Cooper, captain and forward, scored a goal by a place kick from the centre of the field. True, the wind was with the ball, but nevertheless it was a record.
The only prize for athletics I ever won is inscribed “Special prize for swimming 300 yards” – and that prize was deserved. On a cold, windy day in March our swimming regatta was held off Granton Pier in the Firth of Forth. The sea was a little rough. I had swum the distance in the swimming-bath at Colinton Hydropathic, but when I undressed on the pier and felt the cold wind I wished I had never entered for the race. My friend, George Munro, rubbed me with an American liniment which he said was good for rheumatism. I had wanted something to keep out the cold, and had we thought of engine grease it would have been better. We were taken off to a boat 300 yards from the pier. Two other boats accompanied the swimmers. At the word “Go” I dived into the icy sea, and began my first struggle with a tide. The tide was against us, and to swim against a current whose strength one can feel may cause a man or a boy to lose heart. Cold is also disheartening. I felt numb, and wondered if I should get cramp. I was disappointed when the winner passed me but although there was no second prize I was determined to be second. I lost the race by ten yards, but the winner and I were the only two who finished the course, and on reaching the pier I collapsed from the cold.
My efforts to improve the teaching of Latin at Merchiston involved me in serious trouble. The master was in the habit of giving our class twenty lines of Virgil to translate at prep. This was beyond the capacity of his pupils, and I invented a labour-saving device. Each boy was to translate only one line and pass it to his neighbour, who would copy it but be careful to make some slight alteration. Thus at prep. twenty lines circulated amongst twenty boys. This worked well, until a slacker copied each line without alteration, was detected, and accused of cribbing a line from every other boy in the class. At this stage in the proceedings, in accordance with the usual code, I confessed. The master was very angry, but announced that in view of my confession nothing more would be done. Forthwith the practice was abandoned, and also my parallel scheme of translating English into Latin, which had escaped detection. In my case for the defence, now presented for the first time, that is a material point!
Next day the master discovered the parallel scheme, and although I assured him that both schemes had been abandoned, he took me upstairs and gave me forty strokes on the hand with a thick leather strap. At the end of that ordeal my hand felt like a piece of pulp.
The next week the Head sent for me and spoke of my offence as a matter of great gravity. I made no answer or excuse, because I regarded the punishment as unjust. In my school report for that term he wrote of “a tendency to moral obliquity.” That brought my father to see him, and to my father he explained that further punishment had been withheld, because from my conduct it was obvious that I was heartily ashamed of my conduct. Moral: To be “mute of malice” is sometimes useful.
In the debating society at Merchiston I took the first steps to speaking in public, which consist in reciting a speech committed to memory.
At a recent reunion in London, Hugh Turnbull told me that at school I could speak about anything from a pin to an elephant. Only once had he seen me stumped. I had forgotten the incident, but the Commissioner for Police in the City of London had a long memory. “Yes, we drew slips of paper out of a hat. Each had to speak on the subject written on the slip. You opened your paper and read aloud: ‘Is it better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all?’ You blushed, said you knew nothing about it, and sat down.” Alas, I know a lot about it now.
Note: The picture is of the Firth of Forth in around 1880, around 15-20 years before Halliday’s swim. It is fairly safe to say that the weather in the picture was milder than that for the swimming regatta!
From A Time to Keep
Next post: 20th December 2014.
Part 3 of 3 in the Merchiston Castle series tells how Sutherland and Munro did not support the school team in a school match as supporters, opting instead to see Lil Hawthorne at the Empire Theatre. They saw their heart-throb but were left with a dilemma: how to return to the school clutching the dolls she had given them? All this, and more, will be explained on 1st January 2015.
Post-script 6 Jan 2017: Part of the handwritten manuscript of A Time to Keep is shown below: