Once again, Herald readers have proven they do not merely like to read the best in journalism and well-written pieces – they like to write them too. The recent writing competition organised by The Herald and Mighty Pens not only attracted another vast number of entries but the standard was higher than ever.

Mighty Pens team leader Bernard Bale said: "It took us quite a while to read every entry, partly because there were so many but also because every single one was worthy of reading at least twice. That is an indication of how much quality has been received from The Herald readership. It is also an indication that instead of three winners we have extended the top place on the podium to four winners.

"I know that this is the usual statement when winners are being announced but everyone who entered should consider themselves as having been 'commended'. Please do keep on writing, there is so much talent among you."

Suzanne Cobb of Port Askaig on the isle of Islay was inspired by a childhood book. "As a child of six I was fascinated by a book I had been given about volcanoes, earthquakes and storms. Among the images that I’ve never forgotten was an artist’s impression of a train plunging into the Tay during a storm in December 1879, killing all those on board.

"While visiting a friend near Dundee some years ago I saw the stumps of piers that once supported that bridge, still visible, even, from a train passing over the modern bridge next to them. I wonder how many passengers either notice them, or are aware of the disaster that occurred there all those years ago.

"Attracted by The Herald’s idea of a story about winter, I never expected that, considering my inexperience, it might even be noticed. Now, at the age of 76, I’m thrilled to be a winner for the first time!"


December 28, just a week after the shortest day. After lunch we took Beagle, our collie, for a walk along the shore. By the time we returned home it was almost dark. Flurries of snow, driven by the wind, drifted across the fields, leaving a smattering of white. Neither of us had broached the subject of that dreaded night, ten years ago to the day, but I knew we would before the evening drew to a close. Flora will mention the old man at the station, as she always does. She still refers to him as my guardian angel.

‘Just an old man struggling with his case,’ I will say, although I sometimes wonder.

‘Yes, my dear.’ She smiles indulgently, but I know she remembers as vividly as I do, and suffers the same terrifying nightmares...

It was a Sunday, December 28, 1879, a night I’ll never forget as long as I live. I was in Burntisland, on the northern banks of the Forth, to see a friend who was staying with his aged mother over Christmas. Flora was expecting me home on the 5.20 to Dundee.

Darkness had fallen early, with low, scudding clouds from which the moon peeped fitfully, ghostlike, and then disappeared again. The wind had risen to gale force during the afternoon. I battled my way along the street, buffeted by gusts that ripped branches from trees and swirled them round in a fury. It was winter in its fiercest and most hostile guise.

Bent forward, head down and my collar turned up, I hurried to the station, fearful of nothing weightier than losing my hat to the ferocity of the storm. I should have left earlier but time had slipped by, lost in conversation. When I mentioned leaving, my friend’s mother produced more tea, and a dram to warm me before I ventured into the storm.

By the time I reached the station the train was hissing steam. It seemed strangely menacing, as if the journey boded ill. But that was fanciful, and ridiculous.

Doors banged, the signals were raised, and the guard stood, whistle in hand, set to blow when the train was ready for departure. I rushed up the steps two at a time and didn’t see the old man until we almost collided.

‘Ye’ll help me wi’ this, laddie?’ He indicated a battered suitcase.

‘I have to hurry. It’s the last train for several...’

‘Aye, but ye’ll nae....’ The words trailed away, lost on the wind.

His voice was cracked and old, but his presence commanded attention. He looked frail, as if the gale might carry him away, though his grip on my arm, which he grabbed when first I hesitated, was vice-like. I looked, as if seeing him for the first time. His appearance was striking, prophetic, with long white hair and intense, impelling eyes that seemed to bore into my very soul.

Anxious to catch my train, I was frustrated by his apparent determination to impede my progress. But under his gaze my impatience evaporated with the steam. Instead of apologising and running for the train, I stood, rooted by some invisible force from which I was unable to extricate myself.

With an ill grace I bent to pick up the bag, watching the train as it puffed slowly away, dark smoke belching from its chimney. I glimpsed the driver peering from his cab, his face blackened with soot. The memory of that face haunts me still.

I carried the suitcase across the bridge and down the steps to the opposite platform. ‘Thank’e, laddie,’ said the old man. ‘ Ye’ll nae regret the kindness, that I promise.’

Pondering the strange encounter, I sought shelter in the waiting room. A fire burned in the grate, ineffective against icy draughts that whistled through the windows and open door, but it was warmer than outside. As I closed the door, I glanced across to the opposite platform. The old man had disappeared.

Flora would be expecting me home in about two hours. I could imagine the scene. She would be sitting in her favourite armchair, reading a book, or bent over her embroidery, logs crackling in the hearth. Alice, our faithful maid, would be preparing supper in the kitchen. How I longed to be there, cosy and warm, and out of this infernal storm.

But now I would be late and there was no way to inform Flora. She would surely realise I had missed the train. She knows how quickly time passes in pleasant company, especially the company of someone not seen for years.

The stationmaster came and shovelled more coal onto the fire, which erupted in a shower of

sparks. After that it burned more brightly. The warmth and the whisky made me drowsy so I must have dozed. It was much later when I was awakened by a commotion outside. The stationmaster, his face white as a ghost, was running along the platform, shouting to the porter. I caught only disjointed sentences, odd words: message, telegraph, disaster, bridge...

Hours passed before I knew the full horror of what had happened and how lucky I was to be alive. How the high girders and piers had collapsed under the onslaught of the wind, and how the train had plunged from the splintered bridge dragging its carriages and passengers to a watery grave in the icy, storm-whipped waters of the Tay. In my dreams I relive the horror from which I was spared, the screech of metal, the sparks, the screams...

Flora was distraught, assuming I was on that train.

And the old man? I have often wondered... a figment of my imagination, perhaps? He seemed too substantial for any spectral being. Or perhaps he was my guardian angel after all, as Flora believes. I will never know the truth. But one thing I know for certain: I will never again begrudge a stranger my help.


Bernard Bale: “It is such a shared experience and, of course based on a true story of the past but personalised. Probably the majority of us can relate to the 'near misses' of life, times when a chain of events could have caused us harm or distress but one link in the chain changed and we were saved. This kind of experience manifests itself very well and with great description. As the tale unfolds the reader is compelled to stay with it right to the end. Well done!”


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