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Keith Neilson

Mr Keith Neilson

Madras College Oral History Interview between Mr Ted Brocklebank (TB) and Mr Keith Neilson (KN).The recording was transcribed by Veronica Whymant (VW).]

[Start of Recording]

TB: So, Keith, although you have become a St. Andrews institution over all of these years, you were actually born and brought up in Kirriemuir?

KN: That's right. Yes. In the town hall. My father and mother were hall keepers of the town hall in Kirriemuir. We came here in 1943.

TB: What was it that persuaded your father to move the family to St. Andrews?

KN: Well, as you know, the war started in 1939 and round about 1940/1941, the town hall was requisitioned by the Ministry of Defence and the first soldiers that appeared in the town hall were the Durham Light Infantry and, of course, that meant that my father, there were no, what you would call, events happening in the town hall therefore my father was very short paid. Then, of course, round about '41, '42 [1941/1942] the Polish Army took over and so it wasn't very sensible. He couldn't raise a family because of the shortage of money so he applied for a job with the St. Andrews University and my mother and father became caretakers of the Women's Union, 79 North Street so we arrived in St. Andrews around September 1943.

TB: How many of you were in the family again?

KN: Seven.

TB: How many boys and how many girls?

KN: There were four girls and three boys. And I'm the youngest! I'm the bairn!

TB: And did you all go to the Madras?

KN: No. No, no, there was only Sheila, my sister, and myself went to Madras. All the rest were Kirrie educated, either at Reform Street Primary School or Webster Seminary, as it was known at that time, which I now believe is Webster Academy or something like Webster School.

TB: So then, did you go to the Burgh School first or did you go directly to Madras?

KN: No, directly into First Year at Madras. 1A. With Mr McLeod. Affectionately known as 'Tusker' McLeod, as Rector.

TB: I remember Mr McLeod but I am asking about you just now. So, when you went in to the First Year, what were your feelings, given that you had come from, basically, a village like Kirriemuir to the Madras College?

KN: It was very interesting but actually, I found it, I just fitted in. Everybody was so good. So kind, you know. And I can always remember our first lesson on the Monday morning that I arrived was gym with Tom Croll and, of course, I didn't have any gym pants or that because you don't do things like that in Kirrie! So, I arrived and had to tie my braces around the top of my trousers and that and what have you and everybody just accepted, it was great.

TB: And the war was on at the time - 1943 - how did that impact on you? Did that cause difficulties?

KN: None at all! None at all. We just took it as it came because, fortunately, in Kirrie we were far enough away from the big cities and so on that were getting bombed. We read about them but, being a youngster and that, we didn't know much about what was happening.

TB: What about the rationing and things like that?

KN: Rationing was quite tight. Even in the villages but the farmers were very good in those days and also, like all my friends, there was a wee gang of us up in Kirrie and we used to go to the Loch at Kinnordy, which is sort of like a marshland area. I believe now it is a wildlife centre and so on but we used to go and we used to collect gulls' eggs and sell them! It was great.

TB: So, who were the memorable teachers apart from, you've talked about 'Tusker' McLeod - who were the memorable teachers when you went to Madras?

KN: Dr. Jock Macdonald, Head of Maths, wonderful man. Johnnie Mason, his assistant - Maths - who was a great chap. 'Solo' Sanderson, Miss Sanderson - French, she was a wonderful lady but, unfortunately, we youngsters took the mickey out of her quite regularly! Miss Crosthwaite, 'Crossie' as she was well known. I can always remember when she got agitated the red started in her neck and worked its way up her face, oh boy! We always knew when we were going to get a row. And then, there was 'Fleckie', Miss Affleck - Music. There was 'Fung', Miss Ferguson - she taught French and English. And, of course, the curl of them all, 'Pussy', 'Pussy' Brown - who was English and History. And then, of course, I liked 'Daddy Young' - who was, of course, Head of Art. He was super! And then, of course, the one that we feared the most in some ways was 'Cleaser', Mr McLees - who taught English. He was good! English and History. Higher History. Then there was Jock Cauldwell - who taught Geography and he always let us know that he was Scottish University Champion in putting the shot at one time. Then, along came a chap called Gilchrist, Mr Gilchrist. And I still maintain that I am, my height is because I used to sit in the front at Latin and if I didn't know my amo, amas, amatis, there was a large, Latin tome that he used to plank on my head and he said that I would find it in there! So, that's why I have stunted growth! All the teachers were super! But, of course, the person who I thoroughly admired and, in a way, led me to become a teacher, was Tom Croll. A man who never said a bad word about anyone.

TB: Tom, I remember Tom. Tom was a bit of a disciplinarian! I remember he had his leather belt.

KN: I've got it! I've got it. I was presented with it when I became a teacher with the belt that I was belted with - yes!

TB: And his wife, Lena.

KN: And Lena. She was a superb swimmer and diver, a member of the Step Rock Pool. They put on demonstrations and that in the evenings and so on, you know, when they held galas at the Step Rock pool.

TB: Dancing was a big thing, I remember, with the Croll's.

KN: Oh yes!

TB: Highland Dancing.

KN: Scottish Country Dancing.

TB: Scottish Country Dancing.

KN: And Highland Dancing, yes. And I can remember Tom Croll used to come in and he had a little bit of paper and he used to place it on the little stand at the piano and then play a wee tune because Lena had taught him how to play that certain thing! [laughs]

TB: And I seem to remember that you were quite a nifty dancer yourself?!

KN: Yes, I thoroughly enjoyed it because I was brought up, of course, in Kirrie and I was taught by, I had the privilege of being taught by the Queen's, the Queen Mother's, I should say, dancing teacher. One was Nancy Reid and the other one was Nancy Kydd.

TB: So you went to Jordanhill [Teacher Training College]?

KN: After school, yes.

TB: And were your studies interrupted there?

KN: No, from school I went in to the Forces.

TB: Sorry. I knew that you had gone into the Army.

KN: I finished in school in '49-ish [1949] to '50 [1950] and then I had a year where I couldn't get into College and I did this year. I spent it down the Post Office. I was telegraph boy! I used to deliver telegrams and then, Postie. And then, from 1951 I was called up.

TB: National Service?

KN: National Service. And I spent my two years as a Physical Training Instructor in the Black Watch there and then, when I came out, I went to College.

TB: Oh, was that it. So was that, you tell me it was the Black Watch that you were involved with?

KN: Yes.

TB: Was that at Fort George?

KN: Yes. Wonderful place, Fort George. I spent many, many, a couple of happy years at Fort George because at that time, of course, we were training men for the Korean War and Malayan business etc so it was an experience and I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of it.

TB: And then, of course, you went to Jordanhill and there must have been some memorable characters there when you were at Jordanhill, who went on to play rugby?

KN: Och yes, aye. Well, there was Rioch, he was a great, his sister was a great swimmer but, of course, at Jordanhill rugby was THE thing! Ian Spence from Aberdeen. He was an international swimmer. Eddie Still, he was an international table-tennis player and along came a young lad when we were in Third Year. A young lad came - Graham Leggat. Now that's a name to remember because Graham Leggat was Aberdeen and he played for Aberdeen and he was put through College by Aberdeen Football Club and we used to, if he had a big match on, he used to rope us in so that we played certain positions so that he could get his certain tricks that he had going so that was great.

TB: So then you came back to, did you come back immediately to St. Andrews after Jordanhill?

KN: Yes. I was very fortunate. I must admit I was very fortunate because when I came, when I finished my training, I applied to Fife Education Committee for a job and I was given North-East Fife. [Telephone rings]

TB: Right, sorry, we've got you back to St. Andrews and you initially did a number of schools?

KN: I did six schools. I did Tayport, Newport, Newburgh, St. Andrews Burgh, Madras and Bell Baxter - all within the week. Because, at that time, most of the schools fed into either Bell Baxter or Madras and at least when the Primary pupils came to the senior standard, they at least knew somebody that was at the Madras or Bell Baxter. But apart from that, what I found by having those six schools, each day was different because each school was different, every pupil was different, all the staff were different, it was like starting, each week you were starting with a, you know, making life so much easier! I wish they'd still do it because I think they would get experience. The other thing I enjoyed was that I could say I have taught from Infants to Sixth Year.

TB: When I was going around with you in my political days, that people you knew, whichever village you went to in Fife, they seemed to, somebody would come to the door - "Oh! I remember you!" Or, "I remember your father!" or something. They've a great memory.

KN: Aye, that's right. Either that or they say, "Are you still alive, ye old devil?!" [laughs] I remember that!

TB: You played rugby when I first knew you, well, you taught me at the Burgh School. But you played rugby and I think, once or twice, I was in the same rugby team as you.

KN: That's right. Loss and Campbell. Bill Campbell. Aye, cor blimey!

TB: Jock Steven!

KN: Jock Steven. Actually all the Stevens' when you think of it.

TB: Aye. Buster. Alan.

KN: Buster yeah. Johnnie King. Oh God, those were the, I honestly can say that I thoroughly enjoyed life. People have been so good!

TB: And then you, of course, started to give an awful lot back after your teaching career and, possibly, even before your teaching career ended because you started to get involved in politics.

KN: Och, yes, well, you see, when I came out the army, I was, I would say I was one of the young Conservatives for the simple reason it was the time of Sir John Gilmour and I used to canvas for him and actually I joined the St. Andrews Branch and, at one time, I was, what, Secretary, Treasurer, President! And then of course I became a, when I retired from teaching I was, fortunately, elected as a Councillor, a Regional Councillor at that time and I thoroughly enjoyed that too, for eight years.

TB: And then after regionalisation did you stay on or did you...?

KN: No. I was de-selected! With politics you are never sure whether you are going to be elected or not. If somebody else comes along and has different ways of getting you elected, shall we say. Aye, so I didn't get re-elected by the population of St. Andrews.

TB: But that didn't stop your public service. I mean, gosh, I know of a whole pile of things! I mean, your involvement with the Burns Club.

KN: Yes.

TB: You became President there, didn't you?

KN: No, no. I was so surprised at one meeting that we, you know, one Burns' Night, my name was mentioned and I had to go forward and I received the A. B. Paterson Glass!

TB: For contribution to, for services to the local community, yes. I remember that. And you were Santa Claus for a lot of years!

KN: Santa Claus started, yes. That was interesting, the Santa Claus side because it started when, of course I was President of the St. Andrews Angling Club and Brian Roger, of course, who had the Garden Centre down there and, of course, I knew people on the Round Table. They started it and roped me in, got me dressed up and therefore I was Santa Claus!

TB: How many years?

KN: Well it was long, it was before I retired and I've been retired for thirty-one years so it would be about forty years.

TB: You were the Santa at every time, at the beginning of December when they switched on the lights, you were the Santa.

KN: Yes. And then somebody (I won't mention names), some two people wanted Santa to wear a kilt and I refused and I said, "That's not Santa!" So! It's amazing what ministers do!

TB: That's a good tack to get on to your service to the Church because, of course, you've been an Elder for I don't know how many years!

KN: Fifty-five! I've retired.

TB: Fifty-five years an Elder.

KN: And Dr. Eric Rankin, John Rankin's father, asked me to become an Elder in 1962 and actually, I've just retired last, well, a couple of months ago. So, I've done fifty-five years.

TB: What do you think is going to happen to the building? The Holy Trinity? Because it seems to be in some real peril at the moment.

KN: Well, to my mind, the Presbytery, I am sorry to say, has let us down because they couldn't make up their minds. They've always said there are too many churches in St. Andrews. They were going to do this and they were going to do that and they've done nothing! The Minister that we have, the interim-Minister that we have at the present moment is doing a great work but, with, what I would call the people who cannot come to church, the elderly and that but he's still not our Minister and I think that's the, behind it all. We haven't got a Minister and the Presbytery should have, instead of allowing the other churches to call Ministers should have said, "Right! Holy Trinity is THE church and you are all going to go to it!" and close the others.

TB: But now we are in the situation we are in, things seem to be pretty crucial, given there's a loss of seventy thousand a year, from what I read, can you ever see a time when, you know, it will maybe have to be taken over by the Council or by somebody and the Members lease it back or something? Or, at least, part of it back?

KN: There's some things floating about. They are wanting to, of course, to us elderly people, Holy Trinity is Holy Trinity. It's not a museum, it's a church and they are wanting to redevelop the inside of it and immediately they start doing that, they lose, to my mind, they lose something of it but I presume, it's just me, I'm old-fashioned and I don't like change! But I think what, they are thinking of, what they call, they are bringing up various names of things that mean nothing to older people. They are wanting an interim-Minister all the time so that you don't really have a Minister. It's you've got this Minister for so long and then another Minister for another length. It's unsettling. I just don't know but I hope, actually I'll no' see the finish of it anyway!!

TB: But, at loses of seventy thousand a year, it can't go on indefinitely, something will have to be done!

KN: No. But the funny thing is, we didn't use to lose but, of course, like all churches, the congregations have disappeared. The people who work for the church have disappeared. I mean, I was just saying to my wife (she's an Elder as well), and I was just saying to her - "What's happening?!" You know! Where are the people?! They are not there! They are not there. There's nobody to replace us. Because the young people, unfortunately, they are not keen to settle down and, you know, do the things that we used to do. I mean, when I was an Elder, I was also Superintendent of the Sunday School and I had a hundred and fifty in the Sunday School! I'd twelve teachers!

TB: But now the Minister said, you've got a congregation which averages sixty on a Sunday and it's inside a building that's basically a cathedral, which is vast for sixty people.

KN: For sixty people. Well, you see, again, it's an argument that I have with people and quite often they tell me that I'm right - I said, "You know what brings in the people? It's the Minister! If the Minister is good, the folk will be there!" That's why some of the other churches are prospering.

TB: Moving, finally, I suppose, to things that still interest you, you talked about your angling and fishing and so on. All your life you've been keen on fishing and you teach people how to tie flies!

KN: It's great! I've still got a class going forty years on so it's great. But, of course, what we, my life, oh well, I would say half my life has been, of course, with people with learning disabilities and problems and so on and, of course, I've now got my daughter into a house that I always say was my 'baby', that I built. Helped to build Rymonth House. And it's thirty-odd years old now. And then I had the branch of the Scottish Society for the Mentally Handicapped, which Isobel and I started in 1971 is now called Enable but that's been our life, you know, helping folk.

TB: I knew you'd done tremendous work there with Rymonth because of your daughter herself being mentally handicapped but there was a time that you thought that maybe you wouldn't be able to get her in to Rymonth and that seems appalling, given that you were the one that had done the work.

KN: Fortunately, well, again, it's all politics really because, at one point, Fife Council thought we were a private organisation and they wouldn't feed people into, if you don't have your beds full, you lose money! And what was happening was, we weren't getting clients when we were, when it was the Rymonth Housing Association, we weren't getting the clients therefore you're losing finance therefore you were having to do various things and we were on the verge of nearly closing, too, went way back to 1970, about 1974 or so when we had a person called Malcolm Muggeridge gave a talk on a scheme called Larsh and this group who formed little communities with people with learning difficulties, you know, Down's Syndrome and all that, and he gave us inspiration and that was run by a Baptist Church in Edinburgh so when we found that we were in difficulties we looked for another provider for the clients that we had and we went back to ARK, as it was known. ARK was the provider and it's a big institution now and they said, "Yes." and from there we blossomed. And the funny thing is, Ted, we've always tried to get in everybody else's children, you know, but our own and from the day that, from the time of 1971 when we had the Club, the Scottish Society for the Mentally Handicapped Branch, we got all those people that we had there through Rymonth and Fiona was the last one to go in.

TB: Is she quite settled?

KN: It's a most wonderful place! She's changed completely! She's more outgoing! She's, oh! Of course, she's away from two old fogies which has just changed her life altogether and there's fun! There's the banter! We've had her on holiday. She only comes with us when we are going away up north but, she won't come to the other holidays that we have but, she informs us that she is going down to York. They are having a weekend down in York. There's two of the disabled people plus two carers going down and they are going down and they are staying in a hotel and what have you. You know! She has a better life than I do!

TB: You've had a pretty good life!

KN: To be honest with you, I've had a super life! Thanks for having me!

TB: Thank you. Thank you, Veronica, for being so patient with us.

VW: And that was recorded on Tuesday 1st August 2017.

[End of Recording]