“Come on Lairdie, rise and shine, the morning’s fine, wakey wakey!” She was calling her favourite toy, emulating her Dad’s wake-up call on Sundays when everyone was getting up later. As always, her large stuffed kilted hare snapped into action to comply with four-year-old Catriona’s idea of the day’s programme. The hare was “The Laird o’ Cockpen”, an unusual name for a cuddly toy, but then he was more a personality to be dealt with than a cuddly toy. Her father had invented this grand name, which inspired Catriona to imagine he spoke in a grown-up way. And he had a lot to say, always in full agreement with Catriona’s point of view. Solidarity was his main characteristic. Together they had lively dialogues, usually on major topics that they saw as a restriction on their lives, everything from being forced to go to bed early to being kept indoors in storms, when the world outside looked temptingly transformed by a blanket of deep snow, or by gale-force winds that howled and flung objects that weren’t chained down through the air. At this stage of her life Catriona did not yet know that her small self would also be in danger of being blown away by the wind.
Her play routine, however, was mostly unrestricted by too much grown-up intervention. Boredom was something unknown to her, busy as she was enacting hospital scenes with caterpillars as patients in beds of matchboxes and collecting eggs from her grandmother’s hens. She even once became involved in international affairs, such as when she had heard a radio report about a campaign in China. Mao Zedong had exhorted his people to engage in a national effort to extinguish all vermin in China. She spent a forenoon trying – helpfully, but unsuccessfully – to stamp all the flies to death as they landed on the little wall at the back of the house in St Combs on the North East shoulder of Scotland.
There were also plenty of exciting activities outside the house and garden, such as going to the beach by taking a path through the dunes. Crossing the dunes to get to the beach was in itself a challenge, because it meant you might be chased by the big turkey cock that often pecked for seeds in the marram grass that held the dunes together. Noticing the young intruder, he would run towards her threateningly with his deep “gobbledy gobble” in a flurry of dusty black feathers all puffed up, head down to charge with his red wattles wobbling and his feet splayed out as he ran towards her. He never caught her, and she suspected he was not really trying hard. The Laird o’ Cockpen confirmed this with a disdainful nod: “Just a bag o’ wind, him. All gobble and no peck.”
That excitement over, she would set up shop on the beach with any human playmates who were around. They used shells, sand loaves, pebbles and bits of broken porcelain as goods to sell from the driftwood shelves stacked as neatly as their irregular shapes allowed. Little liquorice cakes could be formed either from sun-dried “sheepies”, the socially acceptable word for droppings the dune-wandering sheep had left behind, or much better, if the temperature was high enough, from the melting caulking on the upturned rowing boats on the beach. It was satisfying on a hot day to pick out springy little tarry balls of this great material for moulding. There seemed to be no clouds in those days of pre-school freedom.
Everything changed one day when her mother informed her it was time to buy a school bag because she would soon be going to school. School-bag, fine. Handy to keep things in. But go to school and be inside all day? She put up the show of determined resistance she had become accustomed to in face of anything that challenged her contented routine of playing. As always, the Laird o’ Cockpen agreed with a “Waste of time, that!”, nodding his head supportively. “But you have to learn, Catriona,” her mother insisted, in the tone of voice that meant any further opposition was futile. So she agreed to go, thinking to herself, “Well, just this one time.” When “play-time” came round that first day, letting everybody loose into the fresh air, she made her way home to their little house just round the corner. “Now I’ve learned enough,” she announced to her mother. Of course, her mother marched her straight back and for the rest of that week, she returned to stand outside the gate at “play-times” to make sure her daughter didn’t break out before three o’clock in the afternoon. This educational debut was at the Infant School known as the “Chucknie”. This nickname (meaning “little chicken”) was not meant to suggest cowardliness, it was just a kind of affectionate name for very young ones starting out in life. They were, after all, only five when they started school in their little grey uniforms and restrictive ties.