There is a country lane outside our front door which, whatever the season, is often filled with moonlight late at night. I venture out there for a stroll last thing in the evening, where I can see the distant lights of Arran twinkling from the Ayrshire hills, and think of my father. We often did this walk together, especially towards the end of his life, when the acts of reflection and togetherness were very special.
It is now nine months since my dad died and, like many a privileged son, I still miss him. He lived until he was 80, a wise, caring, fun parent. I loved him deeply. Every day of my life, even when I got into my forties, I couldn’t wait to see him, to speak to him, to recount some experience I’d had and hear his reaction. As he got older, naturally, he grew slower, but the mere thought of seeing him still filled me with joy.
There must be many a lad like me – now a grown man – who can express similar sentiments. I grew up in three different locations – Edinburgh, Fife and Glasgow – but my dad was the constant in these shifting environments. If I close my eyes I am transported back to my youthful days, when the deep contentment of knowing him and being around him seemed to me to stretch on into an endless harvest-time ahead of us. Until late last year I thought it was never going to end.
My dad was a very Scottish man: a minister who loved football, loved the Highlands and the Borders, and who guffawed at the sharp, sometimes coarse, often self-deprecating wit of the Scots. His sermons, in his punchy, animated style, teemed with images of our country, from a shepherd tending his sheep, to a miner howking coal, to the fishermen of Anstruther or Peterhead who once returned to harbour in boats laden with catch. It is not lost on me that, through my love of my dad, my love for Scotland has grown ever richer through each stage of my life.
A tactile relationship with a parent is sometimes spoken of with wariness these days but I cannot think of my dad without remembering him in this way. The roots of my relationship with him were based primarily, from our earliest times, in touch: in a kiss, a hug or an embrace when I left to go to school, or to play football, or to run amok along a Fife shoreline with pals when I was little.
That same touchy love, more often than not, would be repeated when I stepped back through the door. “Hiya wee guy!” Dad would say to me as I returned home, lifting me up in his arms. I didn’t know it then but our physical warmth and comfort – even the sense of smell between us – made for loving bonds that would tether us all our lives.
Tactility remained between us right to the end of his life. I am now 48 years old and Dad was 80 when a stroke finally claimed him last year. But even then, when I saw him, my first reaction was to kiss him or embrace him. Our love for each other – emotional, intellectual, spiritual – had its base in the act of touch.
Religion in Scotland is often mocked but it can also deposit layers of goodness and kindness in our lives. I know this from personal experience, having grown up in a church manse which was never austere or pious, but which treated the ideas of God and the Church with a certain reverence. My dad read voraciously, stocking his mind with ideas that he might preach about on a Sunday, and I grew up a witness to the way he loved people and saw everything through a theological prism. It’s an old-fashioned thing to say but Dad believed in the Christian faith, and thus, by extension, in the beauty and quality of people.
Here is a very Scottish scene from his life. When I was small we lived in Anstruther for four years, where Dad was the Baptist minister. In that little church, which is built right on the rocks above the shore, his office or “vestry” was at the back, a tiny little room up in the sea-facing wall, against whose small window the wind and rain and spray from the sea would beat on winter nights.
I imagine the scene in there often: Dad speaking to members of his congregation in that setting, hearing their problems and praying with them as the water lashed against the window. Here is but a tiny microcosm of Scottish church life, of love and care, inside a candle-lit window in the East Neuk. In my dreams I sometimes imagine being on the outside of that window – that is, on the seaward side – somehow hovering and peering in on a rain-lashed November night.
Seeing Dad in his pulpit initially confused me when I was younger. What was this pageantry, what were these big words? His voice boomed from up there in the pulpit. In this setting he wasn’t someone to be kissed and cuddled, he was a shouter, a figurehead. I preferred him back down to earth, ruffling my hair and bamboozling me with his football dribbling.
In time, like many a son, I grew to take on his principles and ideas, adopting them as my own. In my case, my dad’s idea of being “both a man of the Word and a man of the world” has stayed with me, at least as an aspiration. The truth of our lives, he believed, was found in the written word.
Anstruther remained a significant influence on us. The little fishing village back then had a harbour teeming with boats, worked by men in bob-hats with cigarettes sticking out of their mouths, whose yelling and shouting at each other across their port-sides intrigued me as I stood and watched. Winters in Anstruther were blowy and rain-strewn but then came the spring and the summer, often hot days which would see us tiny children leaping off the pier into the water.
It wasn’t just the poet Matthew Arnold who linked the sea with faith. Dad watched this coastal community around him and it triggered ideas and insights in his mind about the human condition. One day he and I were walking along the beach at Cellardyke when an old fishbox was washed up on the shore in front of us. On the side of it, to Dad’s delight, it said in fading letters: “Made in Israel”. He cackled at this metaphor for our faith: a piece of driftwood having washed up from the holy land. I hardly need to explain the sermon material he derived from that morning’s walk.
As he began to make his way as a preacher of renown in Scotland – it seems such an old-fashioned idea now – Dad also began to get some recognition as a religious broadcaster on Scottish television. As a young minister he was quickly signed up as a regular presenter on Late Call, STV’s infamous and sometime lugubrious late-night spot for religious reflection. Looking back I’m amazed now at the way he pre-recorded batches of these shows in the early 1970s. For quite a few of them, without the use of an autocue, Dad would record five four-minute pieces in one day, speaking each homily to the camera merely from his mental notes.
He took me with him for one such recording session – I was about five years old – and Nelson Gray, the much-admired head of religion at STV, allowed me to ferret about in the studio while Dad did his stuff. When I think about this now, were I today going off to a TV set to do such a stint, I wouldn’t think of taking either of my wee boys with me – I would just want to concentrate on the job at hand. My dad, however, thought nothing of indulging my excitement.
Years later, when I had the good fortune to appear on the slightly less pietistical Scotsport, also on STV, Dad would tease me about the tripe I had to talk about – groin strains, games of two halves and the like – compared to his “weightier issues” of life and faith. He was also withering about the fees he claimed I received for talking about football, compared to the peanuts he would be paid for doing Late Call.
I am moved to tears when I think of his love of people – especially poor people. In the 1970s my dad had an especially effective and well-known ministry in Hillhead Baptist Church in Glasgow, and it was characterised by his outreach to those who lived in the gutter: the homeless, down-and-outs, chronic alcoholics and others, who would turn up at our door with their ravaged faces pining for some sort of help.
It is a rare gift, and one Dad had in abundance, to be able to relate to such people via care, love or humour, without seeming to be patronising. He started a Friday Friendship Room in Hillhead for these men and women, when various misfits of society, some of them extremely broken, would turn up for an evening of games, conversation and friendship before 9pm prayers of healing led by Dad.
My abiding memory of him was one of those Friday nights when, standing maybe four feet tall, I crept to the door of our church hall where all this was happening, to see my dad plunged amid this grimy human mayhem: his tie loose, his sleeves rolled up, laughing and teasing and – I now know – loving these men and women. It is a most moving memory which I cherish.
In this context his favourite reference in a sermon came not from the Bible, but from The Power And The Glory, the great novel by Graham Greene. The story chronicles the emotional and spiritual agonies of the whiskey-priest on the run in Mexico, and the priest, in one scene from the book, stumbles upon a village of seeming squalor, whores, drunkards, thieves and every other type of human inadequacy.
My dad loved what happened next. “The priest looked out at this scene of desperate squalor and only one thought entered his head: ‘God so loved the world …’” That anecdote, which I heard my father refer to often in sermons, absolutely captured his theology.
All the while we played football together, and went to Ibrox Stadium to watch Rangers on Saturday afternoons, after which, late into a Saturday evening, I’d hear my dad’s typewriter clacking away as he finished prayers and sermons for the next day’s worship. Back then in Glasgow he might be preaching to 300 or 400 people on a Sunday morning, so he had to hone his act. But, as Sportsreel with Archie Macpherson loomed on BBC1 at 10pm on a Saturday, I’d wander through and push open his study door and say: “Dad, the football’s coming on, come on!” He would instantly down tools, ruffle my hair, and we would make our way to the TV.
I grew up and he grew older. I became a man and, now into his late seventies, he grew more frail. Gone was his liveliness, the sharpness of his mind and his ability for keen intellectual engagement. My dad was invaded by Parkinson’s, which was no calamity in itself, but which diminished him as the years passed. I looked on in sorrow as this great man, who had once dragged me up and down glens and played football for hours, was worn down.
I lost my dad on September 29 last year. He had suffered a stroke six months earlier, on Maundy Thursday of Holy Week, after which I would go and see him lying stricken in his Glasgow hospital bed and read passages of scripture to him. He held up bravely, though death was approaching.
Just four weeks before his stroke we had been in Strathspey together for three days, walking the beautiful forest road between Boat of Garten and Nethybridge. I had asked him then, perhaps sensing that our time together might soon end, if he feared death. “No, not in the slightest, of course not,” he replied. He then said something I will never forget. “All my life I’ve encouraged people through faith to have no fear of dying. Sometime soon it might be my turn.”
On the day he died I went to see him at midday and, with his breath now quickening and sounding rattly, I phoned my sister and mum and told them I believed the end was coming. So we sat with him over his final three or four hours as he slipped into unconsciousness and ebbed away.
I stared and stared at him during this closing chapter and felt filled with love. It was strange in one way – I was not hysterical with mourning in the slightest. On the contrary, I felt a sense of deep gratitude as I watched this man, who had led me up and down hills in Ardnamurchan and chased me across beaches as a kid, slip away. There was nothing left unsaid. Dad knew I loved him deeply – I had told him repeatedly – and I knew myself how lucky I had been. In those final hours I just wanted to look into his now-craggy face, a face once blossomed in handsome youth, and give thanks.
When he died at 6pm that day I lifted his brown, warm hand to my face and tasted again the lovely scent of my dad. Even in death, it was a beautiful experience. “Smell his hand, it’s lovely,” I urged my sister as we caressed his lifeless body. An ordinary Scottish life of great energy and accomplishment was done.
My sister and mum went home but I stayed at that Glasgow hospital to make some calls with the news. Then, an hour after death, I went back in to see my dad for one last time. I pulled back the curtain to see him propped up in bed, his face now glowing and almost youthful in the way that often happens in the post-death period. I took his clasped hands in mine, said one last prayer with him, kissed his forehead for a final time, and left.
I will never forget him. He was – there is no more articulate way of putting it – a great dad. I have been a deeply privileged son. I remind myself of this every time I walk our moonlit country lane late at night.