In his book, In Case of
Any News, Kenneth describes the charity he created The Young Programme
as his 'pride and joy'. In this speech, first delivered at an event
held by the Institute of Contemporary Scotland (another charity founded
by Kenneth), he explains where the idea came from and what guides its
A few years ago, I went on a journey to somewhere undiscovered in my own
country. A train took me to the northern city of Aberdeen and another
north-west to the small town of Inverurie. Even here, my journey was not
quite over. Still ahead of me lay the road to nowhere, a place that no
longer appeared on any map. I asked in the shops and streets for
directions to this place; no-one had heard of it. Eventually, an ancient
taxi driver was engaged someone who knew the lie of the land and we
drove in silence for some miles along a straight, ﬂat road ﬂanked by
sparsely populated countryside. And then, apparently in the middle of
nowhere, he stopped the car and announced that we had reached our
destination. I found myself on the platform of an abandoned rural
railway station, now reduced to a tangle of weeds and broken wood.
Something remarkable once happened at this exposed and overlooked spot,
and to understand what it was, I have to take you back 80 years to a
very different world. In the 1920s, you could take a slow meandering
train from Inveramsay to the town of Macduff, 29 and three-quarter miles
distant, stopping at Wartle, Rothie Norman, Fyvie, Auchterless, Turriff,
Plaidy, King Edward and Banff Bridge. If you were lucky, or unlucky,
depending on your point of view, you would buy your ticket at Inveramsay
from a singular young man known as the railway clerk before being waved
off in the general direction of Wartle. And if you were very lucky, or
very unlucky, depending on your point of view, the train would be badly
delayed and the railway clerk would usher you into a roughly assembled
shack known locally as Utopia.
I will describe Utopia. It consisted of two rooms. One half of it was
partitioned off for sleeping. In the other half, there were two chairs,
a table, a paraffin lamp, a paraffin stove, and scores of books gathered
into shelves to form an informal library or study. It was, as Utopias
go, rather Spartan.
While passengers waited for trains, they became subject to inquiry; and
the more important or self-important they were, the more challenging
that inquiry tended to be. The local minister, poor fellow, was once
asked to explain the difference between the ﬁrst three Gospels on the
one hand and St John's Gospel on the other; what Luke meant by The
Kingdom; and what proof he had that Matthew the publican and Matthew the
evangelist were one and the same person. The provost of Inverurie was
asked how many tons of coal Britain exported every year. A Church of
Scotland missionary became involved in a long debate about India. The
ideas of people like Wells and Shaw, Bertrand Russell and John Stuart
Mill, were discussed, dissected and disputed. Scripture was extensively
quoted and examined. All this, when all the travelling public had paid
for was a cheap day return to Macduff.
Sometimes, after the last train of the day had gone, the railway clerk
and his young friends would settle down in Utopia, light the lamp, and
talk long into the night about everything in heaven and earth; and the
only sound, apart from the sound of their intense conversation, was the
occasional glug glug of the stove. One night, they discussed at length
the problem about sex; I understand that, after many hours, they came to
the encouraging conclusion that there is no problem about sex.
On 1 October 1951, the branch line from Inveramsay closed to passengers.
They dismantled the line with the usual indecent haste. And many years
after that, in 1989, a dying man called Robert Mackenzie, a teacher and
radical, wrote about the shack at Inveramsay and the railway highwaymen
of rural Aberdeenshire who created a library and started a debating
society on the station platform. As a very young man, Mackenzie had been
an occasional late night guest at the shack an invitation to Utopia
being considered an honour and privilege.
Inveramsay, then, was a curious phenomenon; and perhaps a product of its
age. It was a world in slow transition from religious certainties to
political idealism; a world that had just endured the unimaginable
losses of the First World War; a world in which questions had to be
urgently asked, and just as urgently answered. All the same, we are
entitled to wonder what happened to that spirit of independent inquiry,
that burrowing into everything, that outburst of thought and
questioning, that longing of the young people of Aberdeenshire to make
sense of their experiences, that desire for something to give direction
and meaning to their lives.
Yes, we are entitled to wonder what happened, and of course, there is an
obvious answer. You could say that the spirit of Inveramsay has been
formalised and fostered in the great post-war scheme of higher and
further education. For don't we spend most of our youth thinking and
questioning? No need now for Utopia on a station platform when we have
Utopia on a grand and universal scale education as a commodity,
plentiful as tap water, assessed and graded for its various degrees of
purity. Yet there seems to be a problem not about sex, but about
The principal of a Scottish university with whom I had dinner recently
admitted to a feeling of despair. It seemed to him that, despite his
best efforts, and for those efforts he had gained nothing less than a
knighthood, it seemed to him that, among the young young men in
particular it is no longer cool to be bright. I thought of the railway
clerk transplanted to the year 2007, a 2:2 honours graduate of the
University of Inverurie, eagerly dissecting the copy of The Sun
discarded on the platform, and discussing with the provost and minister
the relative merits of this year's Big Brother contenders, a young man
striving hard to be cool and, of course, unbright.
It is the hope, indeed the contention, of our programme that coolness
and brightness are not necessarily incompatible, but that, somehow, the
mass industrial approach to education needs to be softened by an
alternative more intimate and more intellectually free; that, in some
way, it is possible to recapture Inveramsay and reinterpret it for the
modern world. All our programme seeks to do, and it is essentially a
modest aspiration, is to create for a tiny group of disparate
individuals, from many different backgrounds and life experiences, a
climate, an atmosphere, a setting, which encourages the same sense of
intellectual excitement, the same human bond, the same explosion of
restless energy as was once spontaneously combusted in a lonely railway
We have to believe, do we not, that some things still matter. Otherwise,
what is the point of our existence? What matters about Inveramsay? What
is it telling us?
Accept nothing: challenge everything: that matters.
Question authority: that matters.
Scrutinise established ways of thinking and doing: that matters.
Apply individual personal understanding to known facts: that matters.
Other more complex things matter too. The unmapped places of the world
matter. The road to nowhere matters.
Branch lines matter. They have all gone as physical artefacts grassed
over and eroded by rain and gravity as completely as any Roman road or
earthworks. But they can still exist in our imagination. The main line
proceeds at speed to a predictable and deadly terminus. On a mainline,
the light at the end of the tunnel is that of the oncoming train. Choose
instead the gentle and meandering branch line of unorthodox thought and
feeling. Non-conformity matters.
The cross-section matters perhaps as never before in our history. That
principle which brought together the people of rural Aberdeenshire,
rulers and ruled, old and young, alike. The same principle that inspires
and motivates our own programme, bringing together under the same roof
the jailers and the jailed, atheists and true believers, gay and
straight, those who would torture and those who would not.* Bring
together such a cross-section and get them talking long into the night,
and discord can begin to sound unexpectedly harmonious. The
cross-section our best hope; perhaps our only one.
Inveramsay also informs us that nothing lasts. The recognition that
nothing lasts also matters. The branch line to all those lovely places
had a life shorter than some human spans. The shack was of ﬂimsy
construction fragile and vulnerable as easily destroyed as the
glittering city. And the railway clerk he was last heard of in Putney,
working as a barman what on earth happened to him? Where did all that
curiosity go? All that hope? What was his name? Who remembers him now?
The ultimate award in our annual programme, the award of Young Thinker
of the Year, is named in memory of a young Scottish journalist, Richard
Wild, who was murdered in Baghdad. I call to mind two sentences of
devastating truth and simplicity expressed by Richard Wild's father on
the ﬁnal night of one Young Scotland Programme: 'If you want to say
something to somebody, say it now. If you want to do something, do it
Of course, that matters more than anything.
* This refers to a question often debated at programmes in the first few
years of the new millennium: 'In the war on terror, is the use of
torture ever justified?'
Postscript. When Kenneth first delivered the Inveramsay lecture, he
never imagined that he would one day know the name of the railway clerk.
However, Barbara Millar, with the help of a genealogist friend,
succeeded in discovering who he was:
R F Mackenzie said the unnamed railway clerk was last heard of working
as a barman in Putney. He never actually had such a job. And he is no
The railway clerk was Allan (later changing the spelling to Alan) Gray
Law, born on 7 May 1907 at Kirkton of Rayne in rural Aberdeenshire, one
of 11 children. He was brought up on a farm where his father bred heavy
horses. He was a contemporary of R F Mackenzie whose own father was
stationmaster at Wartle, one stop on the line from Inveramsay.
Alan Law took up employment on the railways in 1927. His friend, the
shunter, with whom he shared the two-roomed shack they called Utopia,
was Bill Drummond, who was also his brother-in-law. Alan had married
Bills sister Bella and they had four children Michael, Lizi, Alan and
David. Alan resigned from the railways in 1930, left Aberdeenshire and
moved to London.
For most of his life he
worked on the financial and administrative sides of civil engineering
projects, his work taking him to the Middle East, Africa, North and
South America: he was involved in work on the docks in Port Talbot, the
Suez Canal, the port in Aden and bridges in the Caribbean. In later
life, he and Bella moved to Winchester. He died on 27 September 1979
from prostate cancer. He was 72. He maintained a well-stocked library
throughout his life. And he never told his children about Utopia.
Kenneth Roy died in 2018