Some people are natural story-tellers. They launch into a yarn at the drop of a hat; sometimes these stories are prompted; other times they spring forth apropos of nothing.
We met one such story-teller whilst out on a walk this morning. We passed him on a footpath leading up to the Fife Coastal Path, directly under the Forth Bridge (rail, not road). We exchanged greetings; I said hello to his spaniels. Then, he began telling us about the barrage balloons which flew above the bridge during World War II. The gentleman was qualified to do so, being, as he pointed out, 83 years old. He told us that we could find evidence of the balloons’ existence up on the path, as some had been tethered there. He also explained that remnants of a metal gate were to be found (we did find this, but not the metal rings from which the balloons flew) and that the gate was put in place by the Ministry of Defense to allow access to the cliffs. Apparently, this was a legal provision; the MoD were required to permit the public to walk through the land once a year, having taking it over for the duration of the war.
Our new friend then told us about the tradition of train passengers throwing pennies out of the windows as they crossed the bridge. This is a story with which I’m familiar. My other half’s grandfather was a pilot on the Forth, and in his early career was stationed in a cabin directly under the rail bridge; as his grandchildren grew up, he would regale them with tales of pennies falling from the sky. I think he also told them that morning rolls (a Scottish delicacy, which is basically a milk roll, dusted with flour) were thrown from trains as they were being delivered from Fife bakeries across the bridge.
The story-teller then went on to explain that American troop trains were the ones to watch out for: it wasn’t pennies, but crowns and sovereigns which rained down on North Queensferry residents when the boys from ‘over there’ crossed the bridge. Try telling a story of that kind in these days of hermetically sealed train carriages. (I can’t be the only one who has looked at the little red hammer with which desperate passengers are supposed to effect escape from a burning carriage and thought, that’s never going to smash through glass that thick).
The man might only have been nine or ten when those barrage balloons were first launched, but the glint in his eye showed that he could see it all as if it were yesterday. In telling the story, he produced a similar effect on me. He gave me a perspective on my new home which is both surprising and exciting. Suddenly I see characters in my village living very different lives: army officers shouting orders as balloons are raised; girls rushing out of kitchens to catch coins thrown by American troops; boys dreaming of spitfires and bombing raids.
Our encounter spurred me to do a little research about the Firth of Forth and barrage balloons and I came up with this gem of a video from 1940 about 992 Squadron. It’s 20 or so minutes, but worth the time.
The characters depicted are a tad clichéd: “Aye, this is the wash hoose,” says a local. To which the officers man, seeing the total linguistic confusion on his superiors face, says, “He means the laundry, sir.”
And there’s the canny Scottish housewife who, when told that her garden is to be used as a barrage balloon station, says with a wry smile, “I suppose we’ll get a wee bit of compensation for this.”
I suppose these caricatures of locals are excused by the period in which the film was made. To the majority of the UK, Scotland was as exotic as the Far East is today. The film merely reinforces that exoticism, whilst also affirming that we were all truly in it together.
Then I found this Pathe news reel on the same subject. There’s no sound, and for some reason it repeats, but watch out for the couple on their doorstep gazing up in awe.
I had no idea that there was a squadron specifically for the care, maintenance and provision of barrage balloons. I certainly didn’t know they flew from and around the bridge I look at every time I open my front door.
Further research led to me learn that barrage balloons were not a new feature in 1939. They were used over the Forth Bridge in the First World War too, as evidenced by these pictures, which form part of the Imperial War Museum collection.
Thank you sir, for taking the trouble to tell your story today. I’m glad that I took the trouble to listen. Who knows when it might inspire a story of my own? It might be today; it could be tomorrow; perhaps it won’t be until I’m 83. It doesn’t matter. The point is that story-tellers are also story-listeners. I’m very glad that this morning I was a listener; a listener with new material with which to tell a story.