Fire Stories - 4

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Ralph Glasser (1916 - 2002)

Ralph Glasser (1916 - 2002) was brought up in the Gorbals of Glasgow.   He left school at the age of 14 to become a barber's soap boy then a garment presser in a factory.   He studied at night for years and won an open scholarship to Oxford University, to which he cycled the 400 miles with all his belongings in a saddlebag.   He became a pyschologist and economist, concerned for many years with development problems mainly in the Third World, campaigning against the destruction of traditional communities.   

The following extract from his powerful autobiography "Growing up in the Gorbals" describes weekend visits to the Socialist Camp at Carbeth during 1936:

".....On the far edge of the [Carbeth] Muir had been the Socialist Camp. Tuppenceha’penny on the tram to the terminus at Milngavie, and then a tramp across the hummocky wasteland on a Friday night after work - if we were not wanted in the factory on the Saturday - tired but drunk with freedom.  Dreams could soar.  With every step we were renewed.  The track across it led out in every sense.
     On it you met habitués of the Socialist Camp, or hikers aiming further afield, sometimes singly, meditatively whistling or playing a mouth organ while striding along, or in little voluble groups whose voices came to you long before as a murmur on the wind. Or you came upon them in the shelter of an embrasure in an old wall or beside a massive oak felled by lightning, having a 'drum-up' - a halt to fill a gap with tea and bread and jam, and perhaps a fry-up of bacon and bread - at a fire of fallen branches.  You saw the red glow as a spark in the far darkness well in advance of the scent of wood smoke wafting to you.  You could count on a welcome at a fire, even from strangers.  Hikers were still few, the enlightened who were joined in a mystic affinity.  There would be a shout from the little group seated on boulders round it:
    ‘Come on an’ have a drum-up?’
You stopped and unshouldered your pack and dumped it on the ground and unhooked your enamelled tin mug from one of its buckles.  A space was made for you, and someone with spare tea in a billy can would pour you some, to refresh you while you brewed up your own, to be shared in its turn, and you moved into the flow of talk as if you had been there all the time.
    Talk was of politics, of jobs and apprenticeships and what to do next with one’s life, of sex and conquest, except when there were girls in the party, when there would be a strong admixture of gossip and mild sexual banter.  There would be talk of the outdoors and its freedoms and what it did for you, ‘the road’, of good places to sleep out and drum up - urban dwellers picking up scraps of intelligence about the country, learning from each other as guerrillas learn how to survive in alien territory; except that with us the mystic affinity made us protective towards it.  An enlightened self-interest, a shared ceremony of thanksgiving for what we breathed and dreamed on the road, for the expansion of the soul we found there.
    And then the people who had called out to you to join them might stretch and look up at the sky.  Thoughts of the waning hours, the moments of freedom drifting by.  Time to stow food and plates in packs, hang mugs on buckles, stand up and shrug the shoulders snugly into the broad webbing straps.  Time to move on. Turning away to rejoin the track, they called out the customary parting:
    ‘See you on the road then!’
    A benediction.
    And you gave an equal reply: ‘Aye. See you on the road!’
Staying and tending the fire while you finished your own drum-up, you might hear other footfalls approach, and you in turn would hail a pack-laden figure or little group to join you at the fire.  When they did, the flow of talk continued as if there had been no interruption. And then, moving on yourself, you handed over the fire to their care.  If no one else came along by the time you wanted to move, you would follow the rule of the mystic affinity.  You stamped out the fire and piled stones over the embers, after burning combustible left-overs, and buried empty cans or bottles.
    Encountering someone at a crossing of paths on the Muir, you might be told:  'There’s a fire about a mile back there.’
    So pilgrims long ago, meeting in the wilderness, passed on news of comfort to be found along the ways they had come.
    Sometimes, when hailed by people sitting at a fire, you might not be in the mood to join a group, or in a hurry to catch up with someone further along the track.  You shouted back: ‘Och, no’ the noo, thanks. See yese on the road!’
    ‘Aye, see ye on the road then,’ came the answering murmur, and they turned again to the comfort of the flames and the talk.
Most of us carried old army webbing packs, some brought back home by survivors of the trenches and handed down within families, but mostly bought for a shilling at the government surplus stores.  Some of the ‘surplus’ packs had never been used, to judge from the stiffness of the heavy cotton, nearly as thick as the be1ting that powered the sewing machines in the factory.  Others showed signs of many treatments of army blanco.  Here and there a dark stain would send a shiver down the spine. Thoughts of shot and shell, of blood.
    These square packs were just big enough to hold a spare shirt - often army surplus khaki - and pants and socks, towel and soap, a loaf of bread, a few small tins of baked beans, slices of sausage loaf wrapped in greased paper, tin plate, knife and fork and spoon, old tobacco tins for tea and sugar, salt and pepper in little twists of paper.  The pack fitted so closely on the back that, even with this light load, after half-an-hour of walking your jacket and shirt and vest were soaked in sweat; and sometimes the skin got painfully blistered.  We looked with envy at the superior equipment of some of the people we met, from the better-off parts of Glasgow like Kelvinside or Hillhead, near the University - the Bergen rucksack for example, one of the first with a frame to keep an air space between your back and the pack, preventing painful friction and the accumulation of sweat; and breeches and long stockings or puttees, and boots with tricouni nails round the edges of the soles.  Our boots were the single pair we possessed, perhaps with an extra sole hammered on at home.  To buy special hiking clothes was totally beyond us.
    The Socialist Camp, high on a stony hillside, was approached by an old farm track that meandered a mile or so up from the road that went north to Drymen and the Trossachs.  Large ridge tents, pitched to form a square, stood on wooden platforms, some with two or three broad plank steps at the entrance to offset the slope.  It was a place of traditional socialist earnestness and uplift. The grassy space within the square was used for community singing in the evenings round a log fire, and lectures and Socialist Sunday School meetings.
    As you turned off the road, and just before you began the stiff pull up a cart track lined with blackberry bushes leading to the Camp, you passed an old single-decker bus body standing alone beneath the spreading branches of a venerable oak.  Crammed with shelving, fitted with a sliding window in its side like that in a railway booking office, with a corrugated iron canopy over it to shelter
customers in rainy weather, it had been ingeniously converted into a rural general store.  In a tiny compartment at one end of it were sleeping quarters; and a lean-to at the back, made from old doors and tarred felt, contained a primitive kitchen and chemical toilet.  Here, running a business with many mysterious ramifications, Jimmy Robinson dreamed and preached......."

Thomas Valentine of Yoker  

The following account was given by his grandson, Scott Valentine, a member of the Orion Mountaineering Club:

"My Grandad lived his entire life in Yoker. He was a brass moulder to trade and a very quiet and gentle man who was a pacifist and a committed socialist, the latter not being uncommon on Clydeside at the time. He had a real love of everything outdoors and that, combined with living in squalor bringing up five kids, was probably the catalyst for him to run away into the countryside at every opportunity. He was never a climber but was a hiker and general explorer of the outdoors.

He would pass by the Fire en route to the hills and probably take a brew while enjoying the craic or debating the pros of socialism, Clydesider style. After the Second World War, he used to take my Dad and all the other boys from the street in Yoker out to places he used to visit close to Craigallian .....the Campsies, Kilpatricks and the Milguy (Milngavie) Moors. It was on these trips that he would tell the boys of his early hiking days. The image of my Grandad is irresistible...when hiking he would always wear his long army kilt and when he found a place for himself to sleep he would pull out his old army groundsheet from his knapsack to use as a roof or a bed on the ground then he would raise the Scottish Saltire and finally drum up a brew !!

Eventually it was then my Dad's turn to introduce me to the outdoors. The legend of the Fire has always interested me and not solely because of a family link. As a keen outdoor person myself, I recognise that the people who passed through this spot in the 1930’s were unknowingly starting something which would be taken for granted by future generations…..the everyday use of the great outdoors by the ordinary person."

Margaret Cadenhead of Bearsden, Glasgow

In a letter accompanying a donation to the Fund, Margaret Cadenhead, 87 years of age, recounted visiting the Fire as a wee girl and told how these visits to Carbeth and the surrounding countryside catalysed an abiding love of the outdoors and the remarkable feat of scaling all the Munros with her husband by the age of 61:

" I may be one of the oldest persons to let you know what happy memories I have of the Fire and the surroundings at Carbeth.  I was only seven when I used to sit with my family and my mother and father, a billy can on the boil and my parents enjoying some very interesting conversations.  My father John McIntyre had been a miner in Lanarkshire and my mother's father had been killed in the pits and she persuaded my father to go to Clydebank (with three small children under five).  A wonderful mother and my father had managed to come to Clydebank after getting a job at the Albion Motor Works [and] retired from there.  The Kilpatrick Hills and Carbeth and so many places including walks to Bowling and back.  This lore of the outdoors was the opening up of the great outdoors to us and because of this I am still grateful to my parents.

On growing up I met my wonderful husband Charlie who came from Carstairs and after we married we both started venturing out to the mountains.  One Christmas time at dinner, Charlie said "I was counting the number of Munros we have done Margaret – how would you like to try and climb them all ?"  He didn't have to ask me twice and so we started.

We had completed 75 [Munros] at this time; I was 47 and Charlie 49.  What a wonderful joy it was and we completed them.  We did them all together and I was 61 and Charlie 63 when the great day arrived.  We both worked at British Rail Headquarters in Buchanan Street and every weekend and holidays were spent in the mountains – we had a Caravanette.

On retiring, I at 57 and Charlie at 59, we took off for a 120 mile trek in the Bernese Oberland and straight from there we did almost 25 miles in doing another trek that I had read about in a book.  [We] started in Italy, walked into Switzerland, into France and ended back in Italy – it's called the Tour of Mont Blanc going through wonderful mountains back to the starting point.  In another year we went to the Pyrenees going from refuge to refuge spending our 38th wedding anniversary in a refuge lying on straw mattresses with about 32 other walkers.

Sadly Charlie died over 9 years ago and was registered blind but had a little vision and we still managed on Charlie's 73rd birthday to celebrate by climbing a Munro………"

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