The shack at the end of the road to nowhere Kenneth Roy


  By Kenneth Roy
For the book project – 176,000 words down and no end in prospect – I leapt forward a year or two to see what 1974 might produce and came upon this paragraph in a Scottish newspaper:
A request by R F Mackenzie for his reinstatement as headmaster of Summerhill Academy, Aberdeen, is to be considered by Aberdeen Education Committee. He was suspended on the grounds that he failed to provide ‘effective administrative control of the school and to implement a policy document on discipline laid down by the committee’.

There in a few lines is – or was – official Scotland at its most crushing and levelling. There was no room in the prescriptive educational establishment of his day for a man of Mackenzie’s individualism. He was an outsider, a non-conformist, a radical. John Aitkenhead was another teacher from the same lonely class.

They destroyed Mackenzie’s career, but they did not destroy him. He lived long enough to write one of the great books about modern Scotland. ‘A Search for Scotland’ is the account of a personal journey through his native land and, as such, wildly unbalanced; it says a great deal about rural Aberdeenshire, the place of his upbringing, but very little about Glasgow and its vast contribution to Scottish life. But the journey is essentially spiritual and meditative rather than geographical. I think it was Allan Massie who said that there was more of Scotland in it than anything he had ever read.

On my own first reading of the book, years ago, I stumbled on this evocation of a vanished world:

At Inveramsay, the junction where a branch line to Macduff left the main Aberdeen-Inverness line, the railway clerk and a shunter shared a two-roomed shack which they called ‘Utopia’. One half of it was partitioned off for sleeping. In the other half there were two chairs, a table, scores of books later gathered into shelves, a paraffin lamp and a paraffin stove that went glug-glug as we sat into the night discussing everything in heaven and earth.

It would be going too far to claim that this paragraph changed my life, but it certainly influenced its future course. I was so intrigued by the idea of Inveramsay, by the extraordinary goings-on there in the 1920s, and by its symbolic possibilities, that I went to see it for myself. After a long trek to the back of beyond, I arrived on the platform of an abandoned rural railway station, now reduced to a tangle of weeds and broken wood. The branch line from Inveramsay was closed to passengers in 1951 – it lasted less than the average human life – and they dismantled the track with the usual indecent haste. There is nothing left of Utopia. Inveramsay is now so insignificant that it no longer appears on the map. I had taken the road to nowhere.

Mackenzie recalled the shack at Inveramsay because he was wondering (in the final months of his life, as he wrote the book) 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. He pondered aloud why so many sought refuge in drugs and anti-social behaviour. He didn’t have to look far for an answer. It was devastating.

Everything that is proposed from the establishment seems almost calculated to minimise the role of people, to miniaturise man. I can understand how attractive this prospect must be to those at the top. Those of us who refuse to be pawns in their power game can be picked up by their bureaucratic tweezers and dropped in a filing cabinet under ‘M’ for malcontent or maladjusted. When you think of some of the high flats around us it can hardly be an accident that they are as near as one could get to an architectural representation of a filing cabinet.

Mackenzie was dropped into the filing cabinet of Scottish education under ‘M’ for malcontent. But so were many young people. They were living in a filing cabinet and they were being taught in a filing cabinet.

I decided to establish the Young Scotland Programme as a tiny expression of intellectual freedom outside the filing cabinet, aiming it at a neglected group – young people who had recently left formal education. Through the Institute of Contemporary Scotland, I invited employers to nominate and sponsor promising people on their books. At the same time I appealed to members of the Institute to supply the funding for young people, including disadvantaged young people, who would not otherwise have an opportunity to participate. Both these sources of support responded magnificently and continue to do so a decade later.

The programme is simplicity itself. A group of between 25 and 40 comes together for several days. A shack is impractical; we have to settle for a hotel. One part of the building is partitioned off for sleeping; in the other part – the bit we think of as Inveramsay – they talk all day and long into the night, ‘discussing everything in heaven and earth’.

Just as the railway workers did, we invite important people to come along and join in. We have had a Nobel prize-winner and a first minister, poets and artists, but we have also had survivors of atrocities, ex-prisoners, people recovering from addictions. The shack is an inclusive place; and it is challenging. One prominent person got such a tough time from the delegates that he stormed off and refused to speak to me again. We never said Inveramsay was easy.

How I wish R F Mackenzie had lived to see the Young Scotland Programme. Jimmy Reid did live to see it and to become one of its greatest ambassadors – the delegates loved him. Magnus Magnusson was another. It will be 10 years this weekend since the inaugural Young Scotland Programme. On the opening afternoon we asked Ian Hamilton QC and Sir James Black to address the delegates. The scientist spoke of the need to grasp life’s happy accidents, while the advocate advised 54 young people, fresh off the streets, never to trust authority.

Inveramsay is light and portable. It seems you can take it anywhere. Under the direction of Fiona MacDonald, there are programmes now for England and Wales, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland as well as Scotland. Maybe next year the programme will go international. It’s not a bad result from a short paragraph in a book.

You may be wondering what happened to the railway clerk at Inveramsay, the young man of insatiable curiosity who started it all. He was last heard of in Putney, working as a barman. What was his name? What became of him? No-one knows.  He disappeared into the anonymity of London and never returned to his roots in rural Scotland. But I’ll be thinking of him this weekend – and of the shack he turned into Utopia at the end of the road to nowhere.

Courtesy of Kenneth Roy and the Scottish Review