Tumshie is a Scottish word for the humble turnip or swede as it’s known south of the border. It is what I made a Jack ‘O Lantern out of as a boy. Digging out the inside of a tumshie is a lot harder than scooping out a pumpkin. Around this time of year in Edinburgh as a boy in the 1970s I would go ‘tumshie pickin’ on one of the farms that were on the outskirts of the city near where I lived. The farmer allowed me to go into his field and get as many tumshies as I could carry. It would take most of the day as it was about an hour walk. I had no tools to dig them up. I’d kick at the root and then tease the tumshie back and forth until I prised one loose. I had a bit of bread and cheese and got water from a burn (stream). It took hours to get loose a half dozen which I wrapped in my jacket and carried on my back. With a wee one to practice on to have the biggest, scariest, Jack ‘O Lanterns to scare our neighbours on Halloween. Can I let you into a family secret? Come close and I’ll whisper it in your ear. Ready?
I come from a family of storytellers. Generations going back to before history was written.
The greatest of them living when I was a boy was my granny. I sat at the fireside in candlelight listening to the coals crackling and watching the licking flames dance around my granny and I about a week before Hallow’een with my tumshie, a spoon and a spread out newspaper gripped by the story of Tam O’ Shanter. A poem by Robert Burns which is almost 1500 words long and my granny could recite by heart.
If you would like to hear a recording of it with some great illustrations from the 1950s click the following link https://movingimage.nls.uk/film/0458
My granny smoked 30 Capstan Full Strength cigarettes (3.39mg/cigarette higher nicotine content than any other brand at the time) 1.and liked her tea stewed until it was thick like tar and she read that poem as a thank you for me coming to clean her grate each morning, make her a pot of tea and clean out the ashtrays before I went to school. Which I did because I knew it made her smile (so my mum told me) and like my mum’s smile that made me feel that everything was going to be OK. She told me I was weird but the kind of weird that was almost like magic. She told me she loved my weirdness and she loved me.
Even though my granny was reciting that poem for an audience of one it felt as if she was telling it to a stadium. Sometimes in a whisper and other times with a great gush of words tumbling out of her mouth so perfectly timed and cadenced it painted pictures in my mind of the night when drunk Tam came across witches and goblins and even the devil himself cavorting around an altar of twisted and debauched remains of little children whose entrails and blood dripped into the dark earth, worshipping their dark Lord . All the while scraping out my Jack O’ Lantern and making it as ghoulish and terrifying as I could. Then with string attached and candle lit she encouraged me to try it out on one of the neighbours. The one with the gloomiest doorway. If they screamed or jumped I would know I had a good one.
Having a good one was important because Hallow’een was the night to go Guising (Scottish for fancy dress especially at Hallow’een). Guising to me was less about the fancy dress and more about the pickings I got. Which wasn’t candy or anything sweet. It was cold hard cash, admittedly in pre decimal pennies, threepennies (pronounced thrupney) and sixpences. So having a good one meant you got the money and others didn’t.
OK yes I suppose it could be seen as begging but back then begging was frowned upon and considered shameful. Except for Hallow’een when begging went by the name of guisin’ and where guisin’ with a good Jack O’ Lantern brought enough cash in one night to feed us for two weeks. Well that’s what my mum told me. I did because it made both my mum and my granny smile.
I’m now wondering if by sharing this my ancestors are on tender hooks waiting to see what the family’s latest story teller is going to do.
Actually you might be the very people to help me figure that out.
I am writing a memoir about a young man in an Edinburgh slum in 1970 – 1990s who fights through poverty, violent abuse, the Mormon Church, the British Army, marriage and fatherhood all the time struggling to understand both his sexuality and his inner spirituality. Which delivers him to a place where he must make a decision that could shatter not only his life but the lives of those he loves most. Will his battle bring him triumph against all the odds or will the weight of all his trials drag him down to the depths of despair and anguish?
If that is something you would like to read about then drop me a note to [email protected] and type First Chapter in the subject and I will send you the (almost) fully edited first chapter of my memoir. I say almost because if you feel you have some constructive feedback that may help is zing even more then it would be welcomed. Don’t feel you have to though. It would be helpful to know if you liked it or loathed it. I’m hoping you’ll agree that’s not too much to ask for in exchange.
You can also go to my website at
http://www.tomgalewriter.com where you can find out more about me and what kind of writer I am or comment on my facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/tomgalewriter/ and if you tweet you can do that at
Have a marvellous Hallow’een and hopefully we’ll all survive and see each other on the other side.
Peace to you all.