Born in Kyle: A Love Letter tae an Ayrshire Childhood

The sub-title of my book is A Love Letter tae an Ayrshire Childhood and, to paraphrase Lewis Grassic Gibbon in Sunset Song, it is a fond recalling of the ‘far off youngness’ of my life. Mine was the last of the pre-television generations and so my first decade was lived in a Scottish, rather than a global, village. My family had belonged to Galston for generations as weavers, stonemasons and miners, so the book became a celebration of their culture, as well as a record of my own personal experiences. My time in life was also important. When you reach three score years and ten, you realise how exotic the past appears to the modern generation, so I was anxious to preserve a perspective on the rich culture I inherited. I hope I have added to the culture with the book. This is from the chapter ‘Hame’:

Front cover of Billy Kay, 'Born in Kyle: A Love Letter tae an Ayrshire Childhood', including a black-and-white photograph of Kay as young boy positioned to the left of current-day photo of Kay.

Luikin back tae Gawston in the 1950s, whit comes intae ma mind mair than ocht else is the sense o belangin tae a community. That in itsel brocht comfort cause ye were happit in the warmth o an extendit faimily. But it cam wi responsibeilities tae – ye cuid be blythely heidin doon the road for a gemme o fitba at the public park, when an auld bodie, ony auld bodie, cuid cry oot tae ye an say, “Come here, son, wad ye run a message for me? Awa doon tae the bottom store an get me hauf a punn o ham for ma man’s tea. Here’s hauf a croun an I’ve written doon ma store nummer in case ye cannae mind it.” There wis nae wey ye cuid refuse an auld bodie, sae ye had tae trauchle awa doon tae the shoap an back while yer pals got tore intae wan anither at the fitba. Noo ye invariably got a wee reward o a threepenny bit or some sweeties, but whit sticks in ma heid noo is the communal nature o it. Ony auld wumman cuid commandeer ony wean gaun by their windae tae run a message for thaim. It wis jist the duin thing. 

Almost two thirds of the book is memoir, but I felt that some of the ideas could be conveyed better as short stories or sketches that use the imagination and creative writing to convey the recent past. Those stories on mining history are very much based on the oral history I collected from people in the area and oral traditions passed on to me by my extended family.  

One tells the story of an incident during the miners’ strike and lockout of 1926 involving the son of a neighbour of my grandparents in the tightly knit Manse Close in the village. On arrival off the bus in Galston clutching the godsend of one pound from a brother working in the Glasgow shipyards, the boy – instead of giving it to his own impoverished family – proceeded to buy fish suppers for every man, woman and wean in the miners raw! Another, ‘Inrush at Nummer Fower’, I heard from my great uncle Mattha, who was the man sent down to find the missing men following an inrush of moss at the Gauchalland Number 4 pit in 1927. It was first published in Genie, a short story collection from 1974, that also contained a story by a very young James Robertson, who wrote this to me:  

One of the most memorable things about Genie was your story. At that time the only other piece of prose in Scots I’d read was ’Thrawn Janet’. It wasn’t my home language and ’Thrawn Janet’ wasn’t an easy read but I recognised what was going on and that this was the same language I heard going on all round me and could even use a bit of if/when I had to. 

Then I read your ‘Inrush at Nummer Fower…’ and it was a light bulb moment. It was a direct link to Stevenson on the one hand and to everyday spoken Scots on the other. It was the standout story of the publication and it was a first step on the brae for me. Two years later MacDiarmid died and I started reading his work. Never looked back after that, but I do now and thank you, Billy, for that story at that moment in my life.

In novels like The Fanatic, James uses Scots brilliantly, so I was delighted to have been a catalyst in opening him up to the possibility of creativity in the language. 

Another literary connection I was very conscious of while writing the memoir part of the book was John Galt’s work Annals of the Parish, aware that I was attempting to do for an Ayrshire parish in the mid-twentieth century what Galt had achieved so brilliantly in his fictional, late eighteenth-century parish of Dalmailing. I loved the understated irony of Galt, who has the Reverend Balwhidder utter these words in the year 1789 when a certain bloody revolution engulfed France and news of it rampaged through Scotland: ‘This I have always reflected upon as one of our blessed years. It was not remarkable for any extraordinary occurrence….’

The potentially world-shattering event that threatened Kyle in 1962 was the Cuban Missile Crisis. What do Scottish weans do in the midst of such a crisis? My P7 pals and I organised the last game of football to be played on planet earth, just in case the world we knew would be blown to smithereens in a nuclear war! That story is combined with the remarkable coincidence that it was a Scot, and a friend in later life, Paul Scott, who was a British diplomat and the man on the ground in Cuba who actually informed the Americans that the missiles had been moved and were no longer a threat to the United States. Paul loved the Scots language and was a regular attender at the Cross Party Group for Scots in the Scottish Parliament before the Referendum in 2014. I told him about us playing the last game while he was saving the world from Armageddon. He would have loved the fact that his story was being told in Scots in Born in Kyle.

Some of the chapters are a mixture of memoir, autobiography and short story, with one describing the way the community looked after a local worthy who had severe educational disabilities. This chapter, which opens the book following the Prologue, is called ‘Gugs an Teamrollers’ – part of an exclamation of joy the lad Robert gave when my dad’s dog Crofter left his heel to go and play with him. Laughing and petting the dog as it lowped and daffed with him, Robert exclaimed to my dad as he clapped his hands, that he loved Gugs and Teamrollers – Dogs and Steam Rollers! 

They cry me Robert, Rubbert, Roabert, Rabbie an Rab… or Gowk, Daftie, Gaun Bodie, Puir Sowel an Glaikit, but I ken I’m ane o God’s ain lang forsaken Gawston weans. I run roun the Toon, an folk nod tae me wi a wee shak o the heid tae the side, say ma name, whiles wi a wee smile or whiles jist recognisin that I’m there, but it’s welcome tae me an tells me I belang, I’m pairt o it as much as the miners comin hame fae the pit, the workers skailin fae the mills or the weans rinnin fae the schuil. I belang.

Robert very much belongs to the tradition of the dafty in Scottish literature and in plays such as Sue Glover’s Bondagers. He also came to mind when I read William Faulkner’s novel The Sound and the Fury, which was partly seen through the eyes of a similar character. In the early 1970s I hitch-hiked across the American South and, on hearing that I was a fan of Faulkner, some students at Ole Miss gave me a tour of Oxford, Mississippi, which included the author’s home and the white picket fence they insisted was the model for the one Benjy Compson runs alongside in the novel.

Another significant strand in the book, which I hope will appeal to members of the Assocation for Scottish Literature, is the pervasive influence of Scottish Literature throughout, from John Barbour’s citing of Galston before the Battle of Loudoun Hill in 1707 –

The King lay in-to Gawlistoun
That is rycht evyn anent Lowdoun. 

to the popularity and influence of Scots song to the local identity of the Irvine Valley from Burns through to Alan Ramsay: 

The lass o’ Patie’s Mill,
Sae bonnie, blythe, and gay,
In spite of a’ my skill,
She stole my hert away.
When teddin’ oot the hay,
Bareheidit on the green,
Love mid her locks did play,
And wanton’d in her een.

Meikle later in his life, he saw Catriona sing it as a young wumman at the waddin o a Grand-niece. Noo she had the flashin daurk een that wanton’d and blintered bricht in the herts o aw the boays watchin, an there wisnae ane o thaim watchin that didnae gree wi the wey the poet brocht the sang tae its joyous endin…

Oh! had I aw the wealth
Hopetoun’s high mountains fill,
Insured lang life and health,
And pleisure at my will;
I’d promise, and fulfil,
That nane but bonnie she,
The lass o Patie’s Mill,
Should share the same wi me.

The air she sang it tae wis perjink and gleg and garred ye smile and tap yer feet – nae wunner it had been ane o the sangs that made Ramsay’s musical play The Gentle Shepherd sic a resoondin success when it played in London an stowed oot theatres lang syne, when “Scotch Songs” were in vogue an the heicht o metropolitan fashion. Catriona lauched at the idea of her singin a hit sang fae the charts o the 1750s!

And the continuing influence of more contemporary writers who belong to the tradition:

Despite it [the language] bein sair negleckit amang the unco guid, the elocutionally doun-hauden, the Scots leid deniers, an aw the puir sowels wi a permanent Scottish cringe, Wullie himsel had a guid conceit o the people he stemmed fae, an the chiels amang them that had taen notes an expressed their culture ower hunners o years fae Blin Harry an Barbour lang syne tae the likes o Willie McIlvanney fae Killie an Janice Galloway an Andra O’Hagan fae Cunninghame the day. They were wha he wis. But withoot doot, the wan that gied him the maist pleisure wis Burns himsel. Wullie kent that his ain raucle mither tongue wis the ane Burns lued an graced wi poetry an sangs that were sung roon the haill wide warld. He kent that the people he belanged tae had produced a world cless makar no only admired but enjoyed in aw the airts the wind could blaw. 

There’s even a rather risqué tale with echoes of the Scots bawdry celebrated with gusto in Burns’ Merry Muses of Caledonia!

While writing I was aware of the fine line between hard truth and couthie nostalgia and was anxious to avoid the latter. In the Odyssey oral history books I edited in the early 1980s, I scoffed at the establishment’s dismissal of working-class oral history in quotations like this from A. J. P. Taylor: ‘In this matter, I am an almost total sceptic … old men drooling about their youth — No.’ Thus, coarse sexism, class prejudice, and casual racism and sectarianism are all depicted against the backdrop of what was still a remarkably homogenous community, one where even an English accent was a rarity back then.

I was aware, too, in writing that I could add other layers and textures to the memoir by recounting the trips I made when I was fifteen years old and hitch-hiking to France and Germany, and a year later going on a Scottish Schools trip to Russia. There I first came across the story of the great John Maclean celebrated in the songs of Hamish Henderson. The other exotic place I did get to back then was Bowhill, Cardenden in West Fife, home of my mother’s family. That is where one of the most memorable incidents I have ever experienced took place, which took me into a fey realm of second sight and prophecy of a mining disaster at the Michael Colliery in East Wemyss that came to pass on 9 September 1967, a few weeks after I was told about it.

My own Scots tongue is at the core of the book too, with two chapters devoted to the language surrounding me as a child in this Scots-speaking heartland of the Irvine Valley – ‘A Saw for a Sair Leg’ and ‘A Guid Scots Tongue in Yer Heid’. Here is a short passage from the latter:

I hae scrievit elsewhaur o the irony o an Ayrshire childhood whaur ye got a prize ae day a year for recitin Rabbie Burns’s poetry, syne were in danger o gettin a lick o the tawse the ither 364 days for speakin his language. That wis true up tae a pynt, but maist o the time ye werenae speakin tae a teacher, ye were speakin tae friens an faimily an they gied ye a gowden treisure o Scots words tae tell tae yer hert – tae paraphrase the wark o the makar Lewis Grassic Gibbon: a mogrewis whan awthin wis tapsalteerie an oot o kilter; a clype wis a bodie wha telt on ye ahint yer back; a gomeril wis an eejit; a bauchle wis a wee roond bodie wi no eneuch sough tae sprachle oot a sheuch, a muckle sumph wis a boay that wis challenged in the maitter of harns and didnae hae muckle chance o gettin onywhaur acause o that; a lang staund wis whit a daft boay jist stertin a new job o wark wis sent tae ask for; a gleg wean wis ane that wis alert tae life an aw its possibeelities, ane that wis weel at hersel (English, well at hersel), a wean that wis gled tae be whaur she wis and totally at ane wi her environment; halliket meant somebody that wis kinna muckle, clumsy an awkward in their movements; a sleekit wee nyaff wis a totie wee stunted bodie that wis devious in the wey he traited fowk, trig wis yaised tae descrieve a weel turned oot quine an warstle wis yaised tae describe when life wis a chave or a struggle and ye had tae warstle or wrestle wi aw the things confrontin ye. It literally wis yer mither’s tongue as a bairn, an she luikit efter me an ma sisters Mary an Janette wi groomin words an expressions like “gie that face o yours a dicht wi the cloot”, or “come here tae I gie yer lugs a guid wash, ye could plant tatties in thaim!” Thir’s jist a puckle fae aff the tap o ma heid. But I’m shuir I cuid easily gie ye page efter page o siccan words an no hae tae think that lang aboot thaim. That’s jist the wey it wis.

The Grassic Gibbon quotation I adapted at the beginning of the piece goes on to explore the bi-lingual world inhabited by Chris Guthrie and by me in 1950s Ayrshire: 

… you wanted the words they’d known and used, forgotten in the far‑off youngness of their lives, Scots words to tell to your heart, how they wrung it and held it, the toil of their days and unendingly their fight. And the next minute that passed from you, you were English, back to the English words so sharp and clean and true – for a while, for a while, till they slid so smooth from your throat you knew they could never say anything that was worth the saying at all.

I was lucky enough to receive A Scots Quair as a school prize in my fourth year at Galston High School, and it enthralled me and changed my life. It was so influential on my cultural and linguistic identity that in later years, I always found it problematic to accept writers from a similar working-class and Scots-speaking background who refused to use or sometimes even acknowledge the existence of Scots in their writing. 

At a conference for writers in lesser-used languages in Luxembourg, which I attended, someone asked provocatively, ‘why do you choose to write in these languages when you are all bilingual and could write in the principal languages of Europe?’ Pierre‑Jakez Hélias replied for all of us when he said that it was not a matter of choice, he was enceinte, pregnant with Breton, and his creativity had to be given birth in that language. 

For me, to stay true to the people I came from and the culture I inherited, I had to write in the living language of my time and place, Scots. If I had written it in English, it would have reached a much bigger audience, but what good is there in writing a love letter in English to a community whose cherished mither tongue is Scots?The book ends with my poem called ‘Glencoe’, which won the Grierson verse prize at Edinburgh University in the early 1970s and was chosen by the late, great makar Robert Garioch for inclusion in the Made in Scotland poetry collection that he edited for Carcanet in 1974. I remember vividly visiting Robert at his home in Nelson Street in Edinburgh to pick up my copy of the book and the thrill of holding it in my hand. If I did nothing else in my life, I thought, with this I’ve added a totie wee chuckie stane onto the cairn of our national literature. ‘Tis Fifty Years Since, an I’m gey prood tae eik anither stane in the form o Born in Kyle on tae the muckle, ayebydand cairn o Scottish Leiterature.

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Billy Kay

Billy Kay is a writer, broadcaster, and language activist. He will appear at several book festivals this year, including Aye Write in Glasgow and The Boswell Book Festival at Dumfries House in Ayrshire. For details, visit

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