Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Utopia – a search for Scotland

Inveramsay Station image: Bob Smith, Scottish Review


In 1978 I was fortunate to meet and interview radical educationist and writer Robert Fraser MacKenzie. He spoke of his childhood in Aberdeenshire. He and Alan Law, the Inveramsay railway clerk, were born in the Garioch; both were steeped in railway life.

In his classic book, 'A Search for Scotland', R.F. MacKenzie (1910-1987) recalled a two-roomed shack on a remote station platform in Aberdeenshire in the 1920s. Two young men - the clerk and a shunter friend - had established a place of study and discussion on the platform. They called the shack 'Utopia'


Robert Fraser MacKenzie (1910-1987) and Alan Law, a railway clerk, were born in the Garioch; both were steeped in railway life. In his classic book 'A Search for Scotland', Robert MacKenzie recalled Inveramsay, a remote railway station in rural Aberdeenshire in the 1920s. Alan and his shunter colleague had converted part of a shack on the platform.

The two railway workers had established a wee pocket of study and discussion, a place where the young people of Inveramsay and beyond could meet to talk long into the night. The railway clerk, conducting enquiries into the nature of life and society, takes up only a few pages of  'A search for Scotland', but his experiences in the shack had a profound impact on University student Robert.

Alan Law had left school at fourteen. At seventeen he started reading voraciously, everything he could feast his eyes on, often buying  second-hand books from Aberdeen's New Market. 1920's North-East Scotland boasted other enquirers - James Leslie Mitchell/Lewis Grassic Gibbon was asking similar questions in the Mearns at the time, transferring enquiries from religion to socialism. Alan had stopped saluting local worthies when he met them on the road or at the station. Cycling, he and Robert visited churches far and wide on spring and summer evenings, seeking knowledge, answers and salvation, looking for a way of life that would command their allegiance. From the kirk folk all they got was hymns, homilies and epistles.

Unsuspecting ministers of the kirk entered the shack for warmth, unaware that Alan, his shunter colleague and Robert had been reading and discussing Shaw's 'Androcles and the Lion' before they had invited passengers in from the cold. They were even harder when it came to dealing with politicians. Alan introduced Robert to Well's 'Outline of History', not a book he had encountered at Aberdeen University. They devoured More's 'Utopia'. 2017 marks the 500th anniversary of its publication. Scottish history doesn't always focus on the perspective of time. Perhaps simplistically, Robert came to believe that we all start as questioners, then education, upbringing and peer pressures crush down upon us to channel most folk into conformity.

I spent a few hours with radical educationist R.F. MacKenzie after his 1974 sacking from his school, Summerhill Academy in Mastrick, Aberdeen. My fellow Aberdeen Trades Council delegates were teachers there when he was headmaster: efforts to establish a National Union of School Students branch at Summerhill had floundered. Robert spoke of his upbringing in Aberdeenshire, in the course of which he mentioned Utopia. He also addressed a meeting of the Aberdeen Young Communist League.

Kenneth Roy met and interviewed Robert a decade later; part of his his account in Scottish Review can be read below. 

'MacKenzie recalled the shack at Inveramsay because he was wondering - in the final months of his life, as he wrote the book at the time I met and interviewed him - what happened to the spirit of independent inquiry of the young railway workers, their outburst of thought and questioning, their fierce desire for the knowledge and understanding that would give meaning to their lives. There is an answer of sorts. It is to be found in the post-war scheme of further and higher education. What need of Utopia on a station platform when Utopia is everywhere – education as a commodity, plentiful as tap water? Yet, for many young Scots, perhaps a majority, the factory system of education has failed to be deeply satisfying. MacKenzie knew it from his own experience as a teacher. Some of us experienced it as consumers, as we are now called. When another Scottish radical, Jimmy Reid, astonished the world with his Glasgow rectorial address in 1972, he chose as his theme alienation; the alienation of young people in particular.'  The shack at the end of the road to nowhere' - Kenneth Roy writing in Scottish Review

 Peter Murphy's Doric poem, 'Farewell to R.F. MacKenzie', sums up his experiment, experiences and the outcome.

Whit’s that? They’ve gi’en him the sack?
Nae afore time! Gi’es mair o’ yer crack!
Nae man deserved better tae get the shuv…
Gangin’ aboot sayin’ skweels are places for luv!
Whit next? A’ they young anes need nooadays
Is a gweed skelp, nane o’ yer sympathy an’ praise,
An’ sic like trash. A’body kens whit skweels are for!
Ye’re there tae learn an’ dae whit yer telt
Nane o’ this speakin’ back… that deserves the belt!

Teachers hae enough tae dae in the classroom,
Withoot fowk haverin’ oan aboot the impendin’ doom
O’ Scottish education near deid frae a glut o’ exams…
Whaur wid oor lads o’ pairts , oor Jeans an’ Tams
Be without their O Grades an’ Highers as weel?
Na,na, oor kids dinna want a holiday camp,they want a skweel!
Ach weel, maybe things’ll quieten doon noo in the Lang Stracht
Noo that mannie wi’ the daft notions been sacked!

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