Illustrating this post are pictures of what, for me, seems like the most ancient structure in my hometown of Peebles in the Scottish Borders – the Scout Hut, headquarters for as long as anyone can remember of the 1st Peeblesshire Scout Troop. And that really is for as long as anyone can remember, because I read somewhere lately that it was built more than a century ago.
The green corrugated-iron hut, containing a hall with two adjacent rows of rooms along its front end and rear wall – the Scoutmaster’s office, the Venture Scouts’ room, the toilets and several storerooms stuffed with tents, canoes, wooden benches and tables, paraffin stoves, lamps, tools and other outdoor and sports paraphernalia – already looked ramshackle when I first set foot in it as a novice boy scout in 1977. It blows my mind to think that for decades afterwards it continued to serve as a base for subsequent generations of scouts. Indeed, just a few years ago, I was astonished to learn that one of my little nieces was attending a playgroup held in the hut. By this time, it looked in a state of severe disrepair and its back half seemed ready to be swallowed by a jungle.
Still, despite its decrepitude, seeing the old place again always brought back fond memories. I’d recall games of indoor football played there before and after the scout meetings (which were held every Friday evening), conducted with the recklessness and abandon of a rollerball derby, with little scouts getting heeled off the ball by bigger scouts and frequently sent flying into walls, doors, doorframes, window-ledges and various other hard surfaces, corners and edges.
And I’d recall doing outdoor activities on the steep slopes of Venlaw Hill overlooking the hut. The best one I remember was when each scout patrol was told to rig together a makeshift stretcher and use it to carry one patrol-member from the top of the hill to the bottom, in a race to see who could get their man down first. This was great fun, except for the poor bastard on the stretcher, who must have found the experience akin to being on, but not strapped into, a hurtling and disintegrating bobsleigh steered by half-a-dozen mad idiots.
What else? I’d recall treasure-hunt sessions spent running around the streets of Peebles, and canoeing on the River Tweed next to Hay Lodge Park, and games of British Bulldog – the least health-and-safety conscious activity in the history of children’s recreation – back in the hut. (With so much thumping and crashing going on inside, no wonder the place was falling apart.)
Every July, just after the start of the summer holidays, the troop would go on its annual week-long camp, which for a couple of years was at a site a few miles south of the Borders town of Hawick. I remember those camps as being an odd mixture of the miserable – stepping in cowpats, being nibbled incessantly by midges, getting pushed into the latrine pit*, enduring the potato-peeling, stew-stirring, sandwich-making drudgery of the day when your patrol was the duty one – and the wonderful. One day, we went on a four-hour hike around the surrounding hills and for the first time I realized what truly wild and beautiful and inspiring landscapes the Borders region possessed. I became a keen hillwalker after that.
Also memorable were the campfires, around which we would gather after dark and try to freak each other out by telling the scariest ghost stories and most horrific horror stories our imaginations could summon. Needless to say, I was pretty good at that. I remember my patrol really freaking out a few hours after one such campfire session. We were asleep inside our tent when suddenly, in the pitch blackness, a mole surfaced and crawled over someone’s face.
© John Baker
On the last full day of the camp, we’d get to go into Hawick, which I remember then as a solid, prosperous country town. We’d trail around the shops and stuff ourselves with ice cream and cake in the cafes and then, in the evening, go to watch a movie in the little Hawick cinema – I remember seeing there 1977’s Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger, which elicited big cheers when Sinbad managed to spear the giant saber-toothed tiger at the end. I didn’t return to Hawick until 35 years later, when I went on a cycling trip around the Borders, and I was upset to see how much it’d changed since my scouting days. The high street was run-down and infested with derelict properties, which was no doubt due to the usual culprits – Morrison’s, Sainsbury’s, Lidl – opening their doors in the town and sucking all the retailing life out of it.
I find it ironic that the Boy Scouts of America have recently been embroiled in political controversy after a lad got thrown out of his local cub scout association for asking a Republican senator, who was meeting a group of them, some awkward questions about her attitudes towards gun control and African Americans. When I was in the Peebles troop, I knew at least two kids – all of 12 or 13 years old – who declared themselves proud communists. Imagine the awkward questions they’d have asked Margaret Thatcher if she’d come to talk to us. There was also muttering about why we had to salute the Union Jack when it got unfurled at the beginning of each scout meeting and a few souls were constantly threatening to sneakily and subversively replace the furled British flag with a furled Scottish Saltire beforehand. But they never did.
Looking back, I have to admit I was a pretty crap scout. I did just enough camping, hiking, cycling, canoeing and knot-tying to earn the basic Scout’s Standard badge, but that was it. I never bothered to get any of the available proficiency badges. Mind you, the Scoutmaster did once tell my parents that I was the best storyteller the troop had had for years, so if there’d been a proficiency badge for storytelling, I suppose I would have got that.
For the first year or two, I was blissfully happy being an ordinary scout. I also enjoyed it when I became an assistant patrol leader, serving under a patrol leader called John Ogilivie, who later went to Sandhurst and became an army officer – I imagine him doing well in that career. But I enjoyed it less when I became a patrol leader myself, because there were a couple of lads in the patrol whom I didn’t particularly see eye-to-eye with and to get my way I became bossy and ended up throwing my weight around too much. Many years later, when I started to supervise people as part of my work, I underwent enough management courses to know all about such important leadership techniques as going for a win-win solution in confrontational situations and dealing with people assertively, rather than passively or aggressively. If only I’d known back then what I know now…
Later still, I became a Venture Scout, which was okay, but by then I was experiencing the siren call of other things – girls, parties, rock ‘n’ roll, underage boozing, the social scene at the local rugby club. I’d hung up my scout neckerchief, lanyard and toggle by the time I was 16.
© Weidenfeld & Nicolson
Still, I always feel a surge of nostalgia and kinship when I’m in a foreign country and stumble across traces of indigenous scouting activity – for example, one afternoon when I was strolling along the seafront at Algiers and discovered the office and shop of the Boy Scouts of Algeria, or the day I went exploring the east coast of Mauritius and encountered a camp set up by a Mauritian scout troop. And I was pleased to find out that Keith Richards, one of the coolest – if gnarliest – organisms on the planet, was once in the 7th Dartford Scout Troop. According to his 2010 autobiography Life, he rose through its ranks and became leader of its Beaver Patrol. He was obviously a better scout than I was: “I had badges all over the place, unbelievable! I don’t know where my scout shirt is now, but it’s adorned, stripes and strings and badges all over the place. Looked like I was into bondage.” I’d like to think that from his experiences of running Beaver Patrol, old Keith got a handle on how to run the Rolling Stones later on; and particularly, he learned how to keep Mick Jagger in line.
Anyway, I was inspired to write this blog entry because, a few weeks ago, I was back in Peebles for a short visit; and when I wandered past the site of the old scout hut, I discovered it was gone! It seems that the Peebles scouts have finally managed to find the funds to replace it with a new building, a fragrant, varnished-timber, IKEA-looking effort. If it can withstand half as much punishment as its predecessor did – a century of wear and tear, plus countless hell-for-leather games of indoor football and British Bulldog – it’ll do well.
* I should point out that the camp latrine pit was a pit with stones lining its bottom that people peed into. There was a chemical toilet-tent if you wanted to release anything solid. So when you were pushed into the latrine pit, you dropped a couple of feet and landed on a bed of small stones. You weren’t soiled when you climbed out, but you might smell slightly of wee.