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Eddie Bruce
Orra Loon

Walter Gourlay became the orra loon at Logiewell when he left Aberlour Orphanage at fifteen years old. Orra loon is North-East of Scotland farming speak for extra hand or spare lad, the scornful label following the recipient into old age. The robust, handsome, introvert lad was taken to the farm in the warden's black Buick, his first experience of motorised transport, fed jam sandwiches by Ella Kirk, the farmer's wife, then shown his bothy - a shed between byre and the stable, next to Glen's kennel.

A month later he bought a bike to travel the forty-mile round trip to the home on Sundays. But soon enough friends of his age group were despatched to more distant airts. Walter knew he had to resign himself to the drudgery of Logiewell, which entailed blind obedience to his devoutly religious, tyrannical master, as well as to moody Alistair, his wayward son. Nonetheless, by the age of twenty-three, he had visited Aberdeen and also North Africa - although soldiers in World War Two missed out on the scenery.

The Kirks had farmed Logiewell, with its stones and uneven, marshy ground, for generations. Robert senior had returned from the First World War nursing a severe facial injury, acquired, some said, not in the trenches, but accidentally, on manoeuvres at Salisbury Plain. The wound healed badly, leaving his mouth permanently distorted, in a lopsided grin that belied, or maybe caused, his habitual dourness. Barring weekly services at nearby Edenkillie Church, he and Ella lived reclusively on their four-horse smallholding. Traditionally, their first son was named after his father, Then five years elapsed before Alistair was born, with their daughter Jean arriving a year later. They hired Walter as a replacement for young Robert, when he joined the Royal Air Force, just after the war started. Alistair was thrown out of agricultural college for misbehaviour.

The father tended to compare his enlisted son's skills with hapless Walter's uselessness. He imposed a strict discipline on the young orphan, peppered with biblical quotes and paternal counsel. The youth, who had never known his parents, accepted all of it in good grace, thankful for the crumbs of comfort dispensed by Ella, in the form of patronising praise and extra helpings of mince and tatties. When Robert junior was reported missing, shot down over the English Channel, the old man retreated even deeper into gloom. Alistair assumed more control of everyday affairs than his age and unstable disposition justified.

For two years Walter tolerated Alistair's hurtful 'orphan' remarks, knowing that at least the father was a man of principle. His high standards were cruelly illustrated in an anecdote conveyed to him by the blacksmith, soon after his arrival. The farmer had been called to Forres by his son's headmaster, where he was told of a serious charge of a sexual nature levelled at Alistair by the parents of a female pupil. The case went to court and Alistair got twelve strokes of the birch, which compared favourably with the extra hiding his shamed father gave him.

The two seventeen-year-olds were carting turnips home in the rain, both weary from their labours and Crabby, the old grey mare, was struggling to pull the cart along the winding muddy track. Walter jumped off to lighten the load, but Alistair yanked on the reins, guiding the horse on to a steep banking used as a shortcut by the cattle at milking time.

"Dinna be daft Ally," shouted Walter, "she'll never make it!"

"She'll bloody have tae! I'm soaked to the skin." He raised the whip, stinging the big Clydesdale's wet rump.

The panic-stricken beast scampered up the incline, but when the weight of the laden cart pulled against her, she collapsed in a heap between the shafts, puffing like a labouring steam engine. Walter advanced towards the stricken beast, penknife in hand.

"Aye, she's gettin' past it, anyway Watty," said his companion. "better put 'er oot o' her misery."

As Walter sliced the harness securing the shafts, the weight of the load forced the unshackled cart to tip backwards, throwing the driver to the ground amidst a heap of muddy turnips.

"You stupid loon! My father'll kill you! D'ye ken how much that harness cost?"

"No, and the harness is maybe mair important to him than an orra loon, but it's still cheaper than a horse."

Walter spent an anxious night in the bothy, but it was as if the traumatic event had never happened. Crabbie's harness was replaced and afterwards Alistair spoke to him only to discuss the day's work - almost, it seemed, with a tone of respect.


When Robert suffered his first heart attack, Jean left her boarding school and came home to help her mother. Now sixteen, Walter had scarcely noticed her development from gangling academy schoolgirl to attractive young lass. When she came home between terms, she was always confined to the farmhouse with the family - and Walter knew his place.

Now skilled and strong, the farm servant followed war reports on his wireless in the bothy he now shared with border collie Glen, but he brooked no grand illusions about serving king and country. Wasn't the ailing king partly German? And what chance did an orra loon have of owning a square inch of the country? All the same, there were times when he felt drawn by a desire for adventure, maybe even heroics. Yet the reality of battle scared him.

When he passed his medical examination for the Gordon Highlanders, he accepted his fate philosophically, celebrating his imminent departure with his first visit to the Highland Games.

The carefree atmosphere shocked the serious young adult, his formative years being devoid of social interaction. He wandered around in shy confusion, eventually taking refuse in the beer tent.

"Whit are you doiní here, Watty?"

Shocked surprise was followed by disbelief that anyone there should know him. And who dared challenge his right to be wherever he wanted to be? He blinked to gather his thoughts, staring blankly into the bright blue eyes of his boss's daughter. "Nane o' your business, Jean, I've the day off. I'm awa tae the Brig o' Don barracks on Monday, ye ken."

She shifted her weight awkwardly from one too-tight court shoe to the other, nearly tripping on the uneven grass surface. " didna mean tae be bossy. It was jist the shock o' seeing you sitting a suit!"

"Aye, well..."

"I jist wanted to see the games, Watty, that's a'. Mither's awa to Elgin getting' the messages. She'll be back aboot six." As she blushed a deep crimson, she added "Whit are you blushin' for loon?"

Walter pointed to the bench. "Sit there and I'll buy drinks." He stuck his chest out as he walked to the refreshment area. "I'm goin' tae be a sodger," he confided to the barman, who allowed him a large whisky and a pint of India Pale Ale.

The young man, about to spend three years at the beck and call of corporals, sergeants and other ranks, felt a strange sense of freedom. The alcohol dispelling inhibition, they were drawn towards the marquee by the stirring country-dance music played by an accordion band. They staggered around the temporary flooring, improvising a routine that bore no relation to the Eightsome Reel - or even the Gay Gordons. Soon Ella arrived to frogmarch the dishevelled pair from the tent. In the back seat of the Austin Eight, Walter crooned bothy ballads he'd heard on the wireless, while the farmer's wife lectured her errant daughter about the evils of drink.

Walter lay awake in the lamplight, euphoria now replaced by guilt and fear, yet it was no surprise when she came to him just after midnight. Earlier she had been telling him of her lonely life at boarding school, which he related to his own experiences in the orphanage. She added that when her mother showed her affection, the old man would intervene and make her feel worthless. They recognised a need in each other.

When the door hinges creaked and Glen growled softly, he'd been lost in thought. Then she was kneeling by his bed, angelic in a white cotton nightdress, her pale beauty accentuated by the glow of the paraffin lamp. He cradled her in his arms, his guilt shut out by the heady mixture of longing and lust. Then, as desire overtook them, more fear of the unknown.


News of Robert's second and fatal stroke reached Walter as he sailed from Southampton. On the voyage he contemplated life at Logiewell with Alistair in charge. He could always sign on again, he thought, should he be lucky enough to return. Then as the campaign raged on in North Africa and his division engaged the enemy at close quarters, the scenes of mass slaughter in the unbearable heat concentrated his mind only upon survival.

With no word from Jean since embarkation, in quieter moments he took to reading the small volume of poems and songs by Robert Burns he'd bought from a stall in Aberdeen's Market Street. The last four lines of a ballad held significance for him, even in that bleak, desert wasteland -

There's no' a bonnie flower that springs
By fountain, shaw, or green;
There's no' a bonnie bird that sings,
But minds me o' my Jean.

When an infected shrapnel wound to the thigh ended his tour of duty, Walter spent many months in army hospitals abroad and back in Britain. Letters from Jean were assuring, but hints about Alistair's drinking, his neglect of the farm and her mother's worsening TB, suggested the welcome might not be unanimous.

When he was discharged, just before VE Day, he went back to Logiewell, the only home he had.

The aging collie ran out to greet him, warily. It wasn't just the daft navy blue pinstripe demob-issue suit that made Walter feel strange, but the sight of the neglected whitewashed walls of the house and stedding, with rusty, abandoned implements scattered around. Huge nettles sprouted through gaps in the cobbled yard while the once-tidy drying green was a mess of cornflower and dandelion

An unhealthy-looking Alistair opened the front door. "Well, well - look what Glen brought back fae the midden!"

Jean came running, instinctively hugging the homecoming soldier, before reverting to the casual, formal attitude she was brought up with. "Aye, come awa in Watty. You've been sorely missed. Put your suitcase doon by the door."

"So you're a hero noo, eh Watty?" said Alistair, as tea was being poured. "Killed three Germans, I hear. Is it true?"

Walter stared at the carpet. "Where did you hear ..."

"Robertson fae the Hatton. His son Tam joined the Gordons, jist efter you. Well, is it a fact?"

"Leave him be, Ally," said Jean hurriedly. "Think shame! Whit a thing to ask onybody!" Then to Walter, hurriedly, "We've been short-handed these past years. You'll be staying: at least for the harvest eh? I've tidied the bothy. Mither'll be relieved to ken you're safe," she said, with a meaningful glance at her brother, "my auntie in Nairn is lookin' efter her. I visit every week."

In spite of Jean's ceaseless flow of conversation, Walter didn't doubt who was the dominant sibling. Although he appreciated her intervention, he knew Robert's death hadn't changed Alistair's attitude towards him. But her eagerness for him to stay was more than matched by his own desire to be close to her. And the bothy now boasted an electric bedside lamp.

His physical wound would heal, he knew, but the scars on his soul would remain forever.

A Fordson Major tractor had replaced the Clydesdales, with the stables converted to garage it. Gone too was the herd of Aberdeen Angus beef cattle, their show-winning rosettes still tacked to the wall. Only a few of the Ayrshire milkers remained in an untidy byre, a symptom of the malaise that pervaded the farm.

Harvesting of the corn and barley was already behind schedule, and Walter had his own reasons for working most of the daylight hours to catch up. First amongst these was the need for a proper, nightmare-free, sleep. While Alistair sloped off to the Masons Arms, he would spend time fine-tuning the tractor, the farm's only workhorse now. He acquired spare parts and turned the garage into a workshop, experiences of vehicles abandoned in the desert a constant reminder to him of mechanical fallibility. Jean was equally busy, contending with the cooking, visiting her mother, and even helping out in the fields when she could. Alistair just kept on being Alistair, despite the shortage of labour at the time, and provoking Walter was still his favourite sport.

"Ye ken, Watty, I dinna believe you killed any Germans at a'. Ye widna hae it in ye. Whit do you say Tam?" His second remark was to young Tom Robertson, who'd come over for the day to help with the threshing. It was traditional that neighbouring farmers would rally round on the busiest day of the season. Jean had brought tea and homemade scones and the tired workers were sitting by the last of the corn stacks for their afternoon break.

Tom squirmed and toyed with the straw beneath him. "Aye, well, my regiment never got as far as Africa - and I'm bloody glad they didna. That's a' I'm saying."

"Aye, but ye ken Watty well enough. He couldna even put auld Crabbie oot o' her misery when she was nearly gasping her last. C'mon Watty, own up!"

Walter finished his tea and stood up, staring long and hard at his employer. "I'm warning you noo, Ally - stick tae things that ye ken aboot." He turned away to check the tension on the drive belt between the tractor and the threshing machine. "Even if that's little enough," he added.

She came to him in his bothy at dusk, the first time he'd seen Jean on her own since he came back. Not that he had made any effort to persuade her; there were things going on in his head that no-one could share, least of all the girl he loved. They held each other close, then sat on the bed.

"I came to tell you there's nae much money for your wages. We've been in debt since we bought the tractor, but we'll be selling the grain soon..."

"So you've come tae share my bed instead, eh Jean?" he chided. "That's fine wi' me. The debt widna be because Ally's drinkin' a' the profits, would it?"

"It's nae funny Watty. And that stuff Ally keeps askin' aboot Germans; maybe you'd feel better tellin' me," she said gently. "Ye need tae get it aff your conscience.."

"You jist widna believe whit happened oot there; there's nithing I can compare it wi'." His eyes pleaded for understanding. "Maybe sometime...but you've enough to worry aboot wi' your mither's illness and your brither running the ferm into the grun."

"But Watty, you've been sae quiet since you came back. Can you nae be strong, stand up to Alistair...?"

"No, I canna fight your battles lass. I'm still jist the orra loon in the bothy an' that's a' I'll aye be to your femily. Aye, and tae think this is whit I fought for, this is whit I ki..." He reached over and pulled her close; she was sobbing now. "Oh, Jean, I'm sorry. Pay nae heed. I dinna ken whit gets into me these days."

She shook him off and rushed out, dabbing her handkerchief to her eyes.

Ella's funeral was at Edenkillie Church. Local farmers were there in their dark Sabbath suits, though they'd hardly known the reserved farmer's wife. Besides Alistair and Jean, the only close relative there was Mary, Ella's more robust younger sister. When Walter tried to express his condolences, she turned away, scooping up the little girl she'd brought with her, as if the farm labourer might be harbouring a disease.

Following the harvest, incessant rain added to the depressive mood at Logiewell. Neglected drainage caused fields to flood and ploughing becoming a hazardous chore. Walter was offered well-paid work with the only agricultural engineer in the district, which he declined without really knowing why. Jean was civil to him, but distant. If he wondered whether she was avoiding him, with her almost daily visits to her aunt in Nairn, he never mentioned it And his tormenter was testing his patience with continual snide references to Walter's active service.

Because of his dedication to work, and his boss's lack of it, the orra loon was given a free hand.

"I'm takin' a plough-share tae the smiddy," he told Alistair, late one afternoon. "I'll nae be hame for supper. Tell Jean for me; I'll maybe stop in by the Grouse Inn on the way back."

"Aye, okay loon, tak yer time. It'll dae yi' good."

In the relaxed atmosphere of the remote little public house, Walter was sipping his fourth pint of heavy beer, grateful for the dulling effect of the alcohol on his senses. Only the friendly tone of Alistair's parting remark troubled him. Two drinks later, he bid the landlord goodnight and strapped the piece of heavy steel to the handlebars of the solid Raleigh Roadster, worrying about Jean, and convinced that his devious employer had something in mind, other than his employee's welfare.

The day-long blue sky, cloudy now and darkness falling fast, he turned off the main road, on to the beech-lined, pitted track that led to Logiewell. His eyes now accustomed to the gloom, he freewheeled the down slope, carefully avoiding familiar potholes. Nearing the bend close to the farmhouse, he looked up fleetingly. What he saw, just yards ahead, made him lose all co-ordination, except the instinct to brake. The bike fell to the ground as he tugged on the straps securing the ploughshare.

As the moon broke through the clouds, it lit up a white-shrouded apparition, calling his name and uttering insulting phrases in a strange German accent. His heartbeat raced as the ghost advanced slowly towards him. He thought, momentarily, of the last, quite recent, time he had experienced such terror, but the heavy, sharpened steel share was in his grasp now, and his regimental motto was in his mind - Stand Fast.

He judged his swing well, ensuring that the sharpened weapon made contact with apex of the white target, as soon as it came within arms reach. The pole-axed figure groaned only once, then twitched a few times in the moonlight. Walter remounted his bike and cycled back to the main road. There he gathered his thoughts, before turning towards Forres and the police station.

He knew by the feel and sound of the blow that he had killed - again. Then he saw in his mind, the bodies of three German soldiers, lying by their retreating gun-carrier - axle-deep in sand. Three young men with more to live for than he ever had. He screamed to his God for understanding.

Jean didn't come to see him before the trial, nor did she attend the proceedings. On the stand, Walter's commanding officer described him as an exemplary soldier, whose bravery in action accounted for the deaths of least three enemy soldiers. The irony, in a murder trial, of being described as a killer, didn't escape Walter, although it made him think long and hard about that fateful night at the farm. Was his reaction simply panic? Self-preservation? Or was he aware, even in that fleeting moment, that the spectre was just his deranged employer dressed up in a sheet? Did he wield the weapon in fear or anger, even hatred? The charge was reduced to culpable homicide and he was sentenced to five years.

It was a year later when she visited him in prison. She looked distressed.

"I've something to tell you Watty."

He studied her face, seeking a clue to the betrayal. She was still lithe and bonny, but her eyes no longer sparkled. "Oh aye? Took ye lang enough, lass."

"I'm getting' merried...tae Tom Robertson fae the Hatton. I canna cope wi' the ferm by mysel' and Tam's been a big help."

"Aye, and his father's nae short o' a bob or two either."

"I'm fond o' him..." She blushed.

"I'm sorry if ye think I deserted ye by getting' jailed," he said eventually, "but it was Alistair doin,' nae mine."

She turned and walked to the exit, glancing round once. "I owed it tae ye to tell ye tae yer face, that's a'."

He pursed his lips, shaking his head slowly from side to side. "I'm thinkin' maybe you owe me a wee bit mair than that," he murmured, but only to himself.

Suicide attempts delayed his integration, but after a while Walter accepted the prison regime, making plans for a future upon his release. It was much later that he came to accept his situation. Orphans, he decided, had little or no chance of living a normal life. Without parents, they were set loose with only a strict grounding in Christianity to guide them, bible wisdom that was irrelevant in the real world, and people who sought to employ kids from the home were seldom inspired by selfless motives. Life in the army was more akin to that in the home. With nowhere to turn in his loneliness, he penned a letter to the warden.

He was amazed when he received four letters from former classmates, answering each of them on the day they arrived. Three were from boys he had known and liked, two of whom had gone to HMS Ganges as naval cadets and the other now a corporal in the Black Watch. The other note was from Margaret Fraser. He remembered her well enough as a nice-looking, shy girl, who embarrassed him regularly by leaving love letters in his desk, during the third year. From the tone of her correspondence, it was plain her feelings hadn't changed, not even asking an explanation for his current dire circumstances.

As Margaret proved her commitment by visiting regularly, he became aware that their renewed acquaintance went deeper than just a shared upbringing. When he wrote to Allan Shaw, who owned the farm machinery workshop in Forres, the offer of work was still open. Indeed the man's faith in Walter was such that he guaranteed lodgings as well. A year later Margaret was able to leave her life of refined slavery, as a housemaid at Tulloch House, on the Countess of Shellfield's estate. They married at Elgin Registry Office, renting one of the many farm workers cottages left empty after the war. Though post war shortages continued to affect the lives of many, the couple hardly noticed them.

They took the twins to the Nairn Games when they were two. The event was historically a family day out, where sideshows, dodgem cars, coconut shies and shooting galleries vied for patronage alongside serious sporting events such as caber tossing and Cumberland wrestling. By late afternoon, parents as well as youngsters, weary of the noise and heat, gravitated towards the gates leading to the bus stop.

The two families were facing each other at close quarters before they realised. Walter instinctively stopped walking, placing his arm around Margaret as she frowned and steadied the pushchair.

Jean looked much older than passage of time could account for, having acquired her mother's unbecoming seriousness. For a few seconds he pictured how she had been on the night of their fumbling lovemaking in the bothy. Tom Robertson towered protectively over his wife, while aunt Mary stood some distance away, fussing over an ice-cream stain on the young girl's dress. The girl seemed surprisingly tall for her age.

"Aye Jean, it's been a lang time." He nodded to the man. "Tam."

"Watty," she acknowledged, her eyes moving towards the mother and children.

Walter, who had earlier fought off the instinct to doff his cap, now struggled for words. "This is my wife Margaret... Eh...the loons are twins...they're, eh, two an' a bit. Meg, this is Jean an' Tom. They ferm Logiewell, ye ken - where I used tae work."

Margaret dropped her eyes in deference, blushing awkwardly, looking as if unsure whether to shake hands or curtsy. "Pleased to meet you, I'm sure."

At the bus stop, Walter turned to watch the other family as they boarded their car. The young girl appeared to be gazing at him as they drove past.

Margaret broke the silence. "Watty, ye' hivna said a word since we met that couple. Is there something wrang?"

Walter shook his head, a wry smile on his lips. He pulled her close. "No lass, nothing's wrang. I've a bonnie wife and twa strappin' bairns; whit else could a man ask for?"

The girl in the car looked back at the bus stop until it was just a speck on the horizon. She was a healthy ten-year-old, who would never lack love or security. Yet, like Walter, she would never know her real father. Then again, with luck, she'd never need to.

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