EXTRACT FROM: BORN WITH A TARTAN SPOON
IN MY MOUTH
January 1958. Snow storms turned the roads to porridge. A baby
blanket of white blizzard wrapped around the North East of England
and drifting snow harried the travellers on the old North Road.
The MacLeod parents pressed on to Newcastle.
In the Princess Mary Maternity Hospital, my mother, the actress,
was centre stage labouring over a fourth birth in front of an audience
of medical students. The climactic scene was a full blood transfusion
that saved my life. Argumentative from the start, I was rhesus positive
to Sheila’s rhesus negative.
Meanwhile my father was calming his nerves in ‘The Shallows’ pub,
nursing his pint to keep it warm. Norman had a right to be nervous.
This didn't just mean his first girl child might die, it meant draining
off her pure Scottish blood. Excluded from the performance, Norman
arrived for the curtain call. Sheila, having done all the hard work,
had to soothe her pacing husband, now inwardly fortified but still
'They're filling my daughter full of Sassenach blood!' Norman cried.
The doctors tried to access a vein in my head but ended up refilling
me at the foot. I was presented to my parents with shaved head and
affectionately nick-named Yul Brynner. I lived and we all went home,
15 miles south to Durham City. The legend grew that the MacLeods
were rushing north to have their child born the right side of the
Border, but the January snow had thwarted the plan. A kind colleague
assured my father that blood had been flown specially from the Hebrides
for baby Janet, so everyone relaxed.
As my hair grew back the colour of rusty claymore and the fresh
blood pumped, thickened and settled into its new home, I grew up
believing these creation myths. Our family doctor, with cold hands
and warm smile, colluded.
'Scots have green blood,' Dr Chapman teased. 'You've green blood
in your veins.' At five years old I caught some infection and had
to go into hospital for a fortnight. Several blood samples were
taken but, confusingly, they were always red. Obviously they were
siphoning off the Sassenach stuff. This was reassuring as the green
blood must have still been in there lining my veins.
Regularly, we ate haggis and porridge. In winter-time, Dad circled
the kitchen table at breakfast, eating his bowlful of steaming porridge
on the move. What was he doing? Expecting a sudden raid? Very likely.
We lived in a boarding school full of boys where he could be ambushed
at any moment and called away to do battle with some rebel caught
smoking or trying to escape. (Granny bought a hotplate to keep his
abandoned food warm during these skirmishes).
He would circle the table once, kissing us all on the head. Then
he circled again with porridge bowl in hand. No doubt this roaming
around the table was a throwback to a time when Highlanders had
to be alert to danger and eat on the hoof. To us it seemed perfectly
normal. We carried on eating and ignored him.
A generation later, I bought a bag of oatmeal and brewed up porridge
so my two young children would grow strong on it and learn Highland
‘Ugh, I’m not eating that!’ they yelped in disgust.
'You're putting salt in it!' cried the Health Police.
Slightly peeved, I began to pace the kitchen, bowl in hand.
'What are you doing?' my daughter Amy, then eight years old, asked
'Er - just keeping an eye on the toast,' I lied, suddenly embarrassed
at their catching me being alert to danger and eating on the hoof
like my ancestors.
'Well, sit down, it's rude!' Amy said briskly.
I tried to explain. 'You see Grandad used to do it ...'
'Well, Grandad does lots of crazy things,' she replied, 'it's okay
I sat down and pondered my cultural failure. Perhaps it was best
if some traditions withered on the spoon.
EXTRACT FROM: LAND OF BOY
The 'Boys' Side' was a warren of echoing corridors, bald carpetless
floors and pale paint. Through the swing doors, sounds of life from
this other world would waft to us - a shout, a slamming door, clatter
of boot studs on concrete, a blast of music. It was a foreign land
where the Boy species all dressed alike, slept in identical beds
and roamed around in packs.
Blindfolded, it would have been possible to map your way there
by smell. An exciting aroma of mud, jam, sweat and toast pervaded,
along with a whiff of carbolic soap and pink cleaning gumption.
The smell varied in subtlety and intensity depending on location.
The prep hall was odour of ink and stale trousers, the studies more
fragrance of marmalade and magazines with a hint of dead sock.
We made occasional daring forays into this mysterious world. At
the top of the first corridor was the drying room, always warm as
a muffin. We swung on the huge wooden racks and hid among the sails
of clothing - pirates at sea in the tropical heat, leaping from
ship to ship. We knew plenty of nautical banter from Dad, who used
to rouse us from oversleeping in the holidays with the shrill of
a bosun's whistle and some incomprehensible ditty about yardarms
and eyeballs. No doubt it made perfect sense to the grog-fuelled
sailor who first composed it, but it didn't translate well to children
under ten. It went something like this: (Wail of whistle)
'Eave o'! 'eave o'!
Lash up and stow!
Show leg, show leg!
Sun's up over the yardarm, burning your eyeballs out!
'Eave o', eave o'!
(Followed by more ear-piercing whistle blowing). By then, we had
usually got the message that hammock-time was over. Resentful as
we sometimes were at this saltish behaviour, it equipped us for
the language of the high seas.
'Hoist the main mast and pass over the yardarm!'
'Stow a leg in the topsail and pass the bosun's eyeballs!'
'Aye, aye, captain!'
EXTRACT FROM: MY DAD WAS RINGO STARR
Back in the ’60s, trips down-town were especially spiced with
excitement if we were going to buy some Beatles-related purchase,
for my generation had been bitten by the Beatles bug by the time
we started school.
Never mind screaming teenagers, there was a level of excitement
on the steps of St Margaret's Infants' School back in 1964 that
Ofsted School Inspectors would have died for. But we weren't discussing
the latest Janet and John book - those moronic children in our reading
scheme who could think of nothing better to do than help Daddy wash
the car (John) or Mummy in the kitchen (Janet). No, we were picking
up the scent of revolution on the breeze.
'Have you heard that new pop song?'
'Yeah! Which one?'
'She Loves You by the Beatles!'
'That's it! She Loves You, Yeah, Yeah, Yeah!'
Rory and I had been softened up for this experience. We had older
brothers who already bought records. Torq was a big Cliff Richard
and the Shadows fan and we knew the words to Summer Holiday as well
as Cliff did. One night, the lights snapped on in the nursery where
we both slept and Torq came in full of excitement.
'Do you want to see what I've got?' he asked.
Of course we did. Torq was our manager and mentor. He was good
at supervising games and every so often he would organise us into
putting on a play for the grown-ups which he would script, direct
and act in. Usually they were about cowboys or knights and full
of action. I once ruined a scene in a saloon by toddling unscripted
up to the bar and demanding a drink, which must have been a bit
scary to witness in a five year old. So Torq was used to working
with difficult actors.
But this particular night, Torq had something extra special to
show us which was doubly exciting because we were supposed to be
going to sleep.
'Yes, yes, show us!' we cried.
A moment later he was pushing a large board into the room. What
was this? Stage scenery? He turned it round. It was a large pin-board
covered in magazine pictures of Cliff and the Shadows. We were impressed
at the display, envious that he had managed to collect so many pictures.
'What do you think?' he grinned.
We struggled to act unconcerned. 'Well it's quite good. But we
don't like Cliff Richard. The Beatles are much better.'
'Yeah, we're going to collect ones of the Beatles!'
Torq gave us one of those looks that said he didn't understand
the younger generation and dragged his board away up the corridor
to his room. But he had given us the spur. We began to collect anything
and everything we could about the Beatles. With pop pictures from
comics like Jackie or Fab208 we did swaps with some of the boys
in the boarding house. Like black-marketeers, we would sneak around
the side of the house and knock on study windows.
'Pist! Want to do any swaps?'
'What you got?'
'Freddie and the Dreamers.'
'Get lost.' They were about to close the window again.
'Wait!' we cried like desperate Beatles junkies. 'We've got Cilla
Black. Give you Cilla for that one of Paul McCartney.'
'Done. Now get lost.'
I would probably have swapped my tricycle and half my family for
a photograph of Paul. He was my favourite Beatle and for a time
I was helplessly obsessed by him. Rory, who was a John Lennon fan,
once put me to the test.
'Who do you like best - Donald or Paul McCartney?'
I agonised, for our eldest brother, Don, was up there among the
gods. 'Paul McCartney,' I finally decided.
'You like him better than our big brother!' Rory exclaimed with
a mixture of awe and reproof.
'Well, I like them nearly the same,' I countered, feeling guilty,
'but Paul just a tichy bit better. I'd rather marry Paul.'
But it went deeper than that. For a time my identity with Paul
was so great that I wanted to be Paul McCartney. I had the fringe
and a tennis racquet as my guitar, so I could be a Beatle too. Once,
staying at Granny's, I had such a vivid dream in which I was Paul,
that the next day I asked to go to bed early in the hopes of recapturing
it. But it was a bit too early - the middle of the day in fact -
and was so out of character that Mum thought I was sickening for
When I protested that I just wanted to go to bed and dream about
the Beatles, this just confirmed my delirium and she called out
the doctor. I wonder if I was the only six year old who that bemused
Edinburgh doctor ever treated for Beatlemania?
Back in Durham, we'd heard that Woolworth's were selling Beatle
wigs. These would be just the finishing touch that we needed for
our performances on the tennis racquets. We had to have them! Pocket
money pennies were saved up and we waited with impatience for the
next visit to Woolies. Rory, it turned out, couldn't wait. Hearing
that a neighbour, one of Dad's colleagues, was going to Archibald's
the ironmongers, he applied his unique brand of charm mixed with
annoying persistence until he was taken into town too.
But the plan went awry somewhere among the hammers and nails.
The neighbour took so long in the ironmonger’s, that Rory thought
he would never have time to take him to Woolworth's, which lay tantalisingly
across the bridge like Shangri-La. In annoyance, Rory gave up and
stomped back up the hill alone.
The neighbour must have come out of his iron-filled trance to
discover his small companion gone. The search and panic that followed
ended in my brother being found at home and smacked for disappearing.
So the moment when we finally got to buy our wigs should have been
extra sweet. Sadly, those wigs were more magnificent in the anticipation
than the wearing. For some reason I was gripped by the delusion
they would be made out of something resembling hair. Mine would
transform me into a Beatle look-alike.
To my dismay they were fashioned out of moulded plastic. The wig
was a thin black plastic helmet. When worn for more than thirty
seconds, they were sweaty and itchy and the sideburns dug in painfully
to the cheekbones. Our reddish hair stuck out beneath these instruments
of torture. We looked more like Ken Dodd's Diddy Men than Lennon
and McCartney. But swallowing our initial disappointment, we strutted
around the house believing ourselves the height of grooviness, suffering
for our art.
Before we were old enough to venture down-town on our own and
go straight to the record counter in Woolworth's (or later to Musicore,
Durham's first real record store) shopping was an exquisite ordeal.
There would be meat to be bought from Dewhurst's and bread from
Carricks. We would be dragged into Greenwell's the delicatessen
where each item had to be queued for at a separate counter. Assistants
stood behind the long mahogany counters guarding dark wooden drawers
of spices and shelves of tea and tins. It was always smelly - an
exotic mix of cured meats and rich, spicy coffee beans - the kind
of atmosphere that heritage museums now strive to recreate. But
to the squeamish nostrils of a child it was a nose-pinching aroma
of used socks rolled in sawdust with a hint of spam.
Afterwards, Woolworth's, with its sweet counter and shelves of
gaudy treasures was an Aladdin's Cave of delights. But the biggest
thrill of all was to ask for the latest Beatles single and pay over
the specially saved pocket money or birthday token. Clutching the
new purchase with more anxious care than a security guard would
the crown jewels, that breathless walk back up South Street, along
Pimlico and up The Caffinites' drive could not be over quick enough.
The first record I ever bought was 'I Want to Hold Your Hand'.
I still recall the feverish excitement of taking the black disc
from its crisp, clean green Parlaphone sleeve and placing it on
I'd swing the metal arm over to hold the single in place and move
the play setting from 78 or Long Play to 45. Then the lever was
pulled to release the disc. It dropped onto the turntable with a
clunk and began to spin round, a dizzy whirl of thin black circles.
The arm with the needle glided across and landed on its prey with
a soft hiss.
A moment later, the first deep twangs of bass guitar boomed out
in time to the thumping in my chest and the Beatles were released
into the sitting-room. We'd be up on the furniture screaming, 'I
want to hold your hand!'
Few experiences in life since have quite touched that peak of
excitement felt on handling and playing that first single. A warm
sitting-room bathed in sunshine, a sofa as stage, Rory as John,
me as Paul. And a short blast of musical heaven that touches the
soul that will be played again and again and again.
EXTRACT FROM: PASTRY AND THE DEVIL (a
tale from the Isle of Skye)
Suardal may have been a picturesque family cabin, but life here
was no 'Little House on the Prairie' idyll. Catering presented another
challenge, not only for the hungry brood of MacLeods fresh off the
hill or football pitch, but for relations, neighbours, stray campers
and unexpected visitors who found their way to our remote home.
On Skye it was always best to expect the unexpected. We weren't
on the telephone and the mail arrived in the late afternoon, so
the only advanced early warning system was from one of us scouts
on the hill, spotting approaching walkers or occasional cautious
My parents' afternoon snooze would often be shattered by cheerful
cries of, 'Hello, Sir!' as a wave of old boys from Durham School
breached the remote hilltops and poured down into Suardal's secluded
glen. Mum's heart would sink at the invasion. 'Oh!' she would sigh
at the realisation that they could never truly get away from the
job. Then, being the professional actress and entertainer that she
was, she would go out to greet them and somehow magic up enough
food to feed whoever came.
As we grew older, we became privy to the conjuring tricks in the
kitchen. For a time, there was only one grocery shop in the village,
so Mum relied heavily on tinned and packet foods - soups, dried
mashed potato, instant whip pudding mixes. Nothing was wasted. If
some child dropped the precious 'fluffy' pud on the carpet, it was
swiftly scraped up and served with a flourish. If resources were
scarce, a coded message would go out with whispered urgency, 'Family
On one occasion, we had friends from the village out for a meal,
Charlie and Cathy Heron. Charlie, an Aberdonian, was the retired
butler at Dunvegan Castle and as a young man had met and married
local girl, Cathy who was a maid to the chiefly family. They brought
friends with them who were visiting from Aberdeen, with their son
who was working in London. Word had it, he was doing rather well
Things were going swimmingly - drams and good conversation, soup
and the main course nearly over - when someone asked Iain what it
was he actually did in London.
'I'm the pastry chef at The Savoy,' he admitted with a bashful
There was an audible in-take of breath around the table. Even
we had heard of The Savoy. It was famous, high-class, renowned for
its teas and pastries. Mum didn't bat an eyelid as we cleared the
plates and regrouped in the kitchen for serving out the pudding.
Well it was pastry based - plate size apple and mince pies - but
that was where the similarity to The Savoy ended. They were a hasty
purchase from the village of unknown origin. Still there was plenty
of tinned cream to go round and lift the taste. Mum was not going
to be daunted by having a world class pastry chef sitting beside
her at table. In MacLeod philosophy, it was less about what you
ate, than the spirit in which you ate it, that counted. Hospitality
ranked higher than haute cuisine.
Pieces of pie began to be carved up and sent out to our discerning
diners. It was at this point that Mum gave a startled little yelp.
'What's wrong?' I asked.
'It's mince!' she gasped. We peered closer in confusion. 'It's
not sweet mince - it's mince!'
Mum was staring hard at the offending pie as if willing it to
turn back into the mincemeat of her dreams. But there was no getting
away from it - this pie was a savoury meat pie.
For a moment we stood around opening and closing our mouths like
fish, then Mum took command of her paralysed shoal.
'Make sure all the guests have apple pie in front of them,' she
We scuttled back into the room and did a quick check. Thankfully,
so far they had opted for apple. All except Dad, that was. He was
holding forth at the top of the table, quite oblivious to the culinary
time-bomb in his bowl.
We retrieved the other rogue pieces of mince pie and reported
back. 'It's okay - apart from Dad.'
'Well bring his back,' Mum said.
'But he's already putting cream on it!' we whispered, trying to
smother small squeaks of laughter.
Mum glanced through the kitchen door in alarm. There was no way
of alerting him without the terrible secret of the Suardal pastry
crisis being exposed to one of London's top chefs. She rolled her
eyes and gave a shrug as if to say, Dad might not notice. Dad was
not renowned for his discerning palate and on holiday was more interested
in a leisurely drink while his food grew cold. But surely this would
leave even his taste buds gastronomically challenged?
We looked at Mum for our lead.
'Family Hold Back,' she said briskly and divided up tiny slivers
of apple pie for the rest of us.
We returned and Mum took up the conversation where she had left
off, as if the emergency in the kitchen had never been. But try
as we might, we couldn't keep our eyes off Dad and his reaction,
if any, to meat pie and Carnation cream. It held a horrible fascination,
like going to witness a public execution. We all felt bad about
leaving him to his lonely fate at the end of the table, but couldn't
wait to see him take his first mouthful.
Dad being a slow eater, we were almost in a frenzy of anticipation
by the time he started munching. In it finally went. He stopped
momentarily, a puzzled look on his face. He glanced around the table.
Quickly looking away, I concentrated hard on making my piece of
pie last as long as possible. By the time I shot him another furtive
look, Dad was once again tackling his pudding. It was almost unbearable
He didn't finish it, but he didn't rush to the sink and throw-up
either. He was a team player to the end. So a pastry scandal that
could have rocked the nation was averted and the guests went away
none the wiser.
'What was in that pie?' Dad asked afterwards. It took several
minutes before anyone could stop their hysterical laughter long
enough to explain.
Beatles and Chiefs
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