Our November tour of Maritimes universities began in Saint John. That Saturday UNB kindly allowed us a day to recover from our flight, and from our room at the Hilton we went exploring the old city, the biggest in New Brunswick.
I was glad to show Jane the downtown church that features a codfish on its spire, in tribute to the huge importance of the mighty cod fishery to the city’s past. I also showed her the snow-covered patch in front of that same old Loyalist church. There, on a mid-summer visit in broiling weather, I once watched two healthy young women in bikinis, sun-bathing shamelessly on the sacred grass. Behind them the minister of the church stood with his angry hands on his hips. Steam was rising from his ears as he ground his teeth, trying to work out what to do.
I had to leave before he reached a decision. I can report that he is no longer there, and the sun-bathers are gone.
I can also report that our visit to The New Brunswick Museum revealed that in the Scottish countryside I had a Maritimer’s boyhood. We had the Atlantic Ocean in common, of course. Our village was only 11 miles inland from the Ayrshire coast, and storms from the west sometimes speckled our windows with salt.
But the museum astonished me by revealing how little I had in common with my urban schoolmates in Glasgow. Our train journeys into the city were often delayed by snow, which we did not minimise as we reported in late to impatient teachers; if bears and wolves had been even a possibility, they would certainly have featured in our late reports.
But room after room in the Museum would have baffled my city friends, while reminding me very happily of my youth. My Dad was in the timber trade, which meant that, like most kids in New Brunswick, I grew up among saw-mills. I knew to shake hands cautiously with my father’s friends who worked in the mills; very few right hands contained five fingers.
In our house we burned nothing but wood. It was dumped in our field near the house in foot-long rounds, mostly hardwood, that had to be split into stove-lengths, and then stacked for drying. I spent hundreds of hours a year at this task, and was able to split over the left shoulder (slightly more accurate, thanks to the guiding right hand) and over the right (slightly more powerful, in a slashing way). Taught by my father, I used a 7-pound Splitting Axe……and there it was, in the New Brunswick Museum!
Not only did I grow up with an axe in my hand, and a spade, as I dug new potato patches in that field, my first job was working at a local dairy farm. And in the next New Brunswick Museum room was the very pitch-fork I used to turn over the drying hay, as it waited for the baler. The grandfather on the farm, old Mr. Young, ( who was born in the 19th century, and spoke pure Robert Burns) was suspicious of the mechanical baler, so preferred to take the reins of the horse pulling the hay-rake. As you can see, I was part of an ancient rural tradition.
My first job away from home was as a fishing “ghillie” at a hotel in the Highlands, taking rich tourists out in a boat rowed by outriggers to catch salmon in season. And there, to my surprise, was that very boat! Perhaps a foot or two longer than the one I rowed up and down Loch Awe, but undeniably the same construction, and the Museum was rightly proud of the fine specimen they had on display.
Later, as the Museum devoted rooms to the Days of Sail, I realised that I knew about these old boats. When I was 16 I was invited by friends in the village to join a three-week charter of an old, 40-foot ketch. We sailed it from the Clyde all the way up the West Coast, until north of Skye we set out across The Minch, to the dangerous Outer Hebrides. The weather was so unusually mild that after surveying many Standing Stones (with my theodylite I was helping Professor Alexander Thom re-write British History… or Pre-History ) we sailed out into The Atlantic.
Next stop Newfoundland! And just beyond that, Saint John.
When we stopped in at Barra Head, the lighthouse at the southern tip of the Outer Hebrides, they told us that they were the first boat under sail that they had seen in seven years! So, as you can see, I was right at home in the 19th century world of New Brunswick. If you think of me as a slick, urban figure, please think again.
A further link: as we roamed the centre of Saint John we walked around the central square, where statues commemorated historical figures like Leonard Tilley, who came up with the idea that Canada should be a “Dominion”. One statue was a surprise to me. Since my father’s mother was Janet Young, I was intrigued to find a large statue dedicated to “YOUNG”, John Frederick Young, to be precise. Might he be a relative? A little research revealed that young John, a song-writer, died at the age of 18 in the sea near Saint John, trying to save a young boy from drowning.
I like to think that we may be related.