Rab the Groundsman

By Jock Kirkcaldy

The Author recently said; “Rab is based upon a groundsman at Silverknowes who was there for years and Big Willie worked the course at Murrayfield until he retired about 15 years ago. There was a decent old guy I knew at Murrayfield (but I can’t remember his name) who is the Gregor character, I think he was Ian somebody. The rest is just my fevered imagination though I never had any trouble in the Doo’cot as there was a landlord put in by the brewers who ruled with a rod of iron and barred any trouble makers. They had presumably already been barred from the Gunners/ Penny Farthing in Muirhouse and ended up drinking in Davidson’s Mains at either the Mutton-Hole or the Norhet where there was a murder. I don’t think they were allowed in Ye Olde Inn.  Further along Ferry Road in the other direction was the Ferry Boat which was closed for a long time after ‘RB’ (a local hard man) led a young team who got done for murder.

First Meeting

I first saw Rab back in the 80’s when I started hanging about Silverfield Golf Club.   He was a striking looking man with black slicked back hair, a weather beaten face and a Roman nose.   He never said very much and respectfully kept his tractor at a distance as me and my mates tried to reach a short par 4 with our tenth shots.

One day when I was out playing on my own, Rab was giving the fearsome rough a light trim.    I was walking towards him when suddenly he turned his machine around no doubt to keep out of my way.     However I was hit on the head by a mutilated golf ball Rab’s machine had located in the long grass.    The ball spun high in the air and landed on my head, knocking me to the ground.    Rab must have seen what happened as he stopped the tractor and ran to my aid.    Fortunately I just had a bump on my head, was a bit shocked and dazed at the sudden and unexpected nature of the blow.   He walked me back to the clubhouse and left me with Miss Johnstone, who worked for the Secretary.     She had a wee first aid kit to hand and phoned my house.    Dad came and took me home but I was alright and kept the Penfold Club golf ball with a massive gash in it as a trophy, which is still somewhere in my study.

Just in the passing

I always gave Rab a wave after that, and sometimes had a wee chat with him in the passing but he was a quiet man and while known by all the members by sight, only a few waved to him, and far fewer spoke to him, not that he seemed to bother.    Even I took Rab for granted, he was always there, his hair remained black and he seemed timeless.    It was only recently when we got a notice from the Secretary that Rab was retiring after 51 years that I realised he must only have been about 30 when I first met him.    Helpfully the notice on the wall in the Club contained a photo of Rab, otherwise most members would have had no idea to whom the notice referred; only a few of us knew him by name.     The notice indicated there would be a small reception for Rab at 5 pm on his last day at work, Friday 12th April.

Retirement Bash

I made sure I was there in good time but found the gathering was disappointingly small.

The Girard-Perregaux GP – the economy model in their range, but still pretty expensive.

There had however been a decent whip-round and Rab was presented with a Girard Perregaux gold watch – slightly incongruous I thought for such an undemonstrative man, but it was a slim and discrete timepiece.   The Secretary made a speech of thanks and while he tried to say all the right things it was clear he didn’t really know Rab much at all and frequently had to consult his notes.    Rab stood there looking awkward.  There was something odd about him and I realised he was wearing a jacket and a black tie. I’d never seen Rab in a tie and the only one he had was probably his funeral one.   Similarly at work he always wore a donkey jacket – rarely a hat and in the summer wore a simple shirt under the now ubiquitous dirty Day-Glo vest.    In the last few years even Health and Safety caught up with Rab and he had to wear a helmet in the tractor, albeit at a jaunty angle which would have afforded little protection had the machine rolled over on one of Silverfield’s side slopes.

Our gathering grew more uncomfortable as the seconds passed but finally the Secretary stopped and we toasted Rab’s health.    Fortunately old Gregor Brunton saved the show.    He had been an engineer, working on big projects like dams and power stations and joined the Council of Silverfield when he retired.    He had become Convenor of the Greens Committee and spoke highly and in a detailed way about how knowledgeable Rab was and how it paid to listen to his ground-up advice gained from years of experience on these links. I felt I should add my tuppence worth and added a short contribution about Rab’s efforts over the 30 years I had known him.    I ended by fishing out the damaged golf ball I had collected on our first meeting.    Soon afterwards the reception broke up and I found myself suddenly left with Rab, as Gregor had to scurry off to the Gents and the others made the usual Friday night excuses.    

The journey home

I had my car with me, the trusty MGB GT and had restricted myself to a pint of shandy so offered Rab a lift home.    He readily accepted saying that he normally had to catch 2 buses.    We headed in the direction of Lower Granton (which had been spruced up a bit since Trainspotting Days).    Rab said he lived in a wee bungalow nearby, part of the Salveson houses as his Dad had worked for them back in the day and he inherited the lease when his Mum died 2 1/2 years previously.    I think we were both mulling over in silence what an anti-climax the reception had been.    Eventually I had to say something – “I’m sorry there was not a bigger turnout for your send off!”    “Och dinnae worry; I probably made a few enemies at the Club over the years with my grass-cutting.   Mind you there wasnae much bevvy!    Do you fancy a drink, Jock; you’re one of the few of the Members I’d say that to.    

The legendary Doo’cot (Dovecot) bar on Ferry Road. Was once pretty rough, but has been tidied up in recent years

Gregor was a tower of strength, but he’s getting on a bit.    Actually this is my local here” he said pointing towards the legendary Doo’cot pub on the corner of Ferry Road and Groathill Road North.    “Is it no’ a bit rough, Rab?” I queried. “No, no Jock I’ve been going there for years and had not trouble.   Back in the day the manager had an iron bar under the counter and had nae trouble in the premises.    Folk had to go outside to have square goes!”

The Doo’cot: Round one

With that recommendation I parked the car and we went into to the vast bar. Rab was drinking 80 shilling ale and I decided to have the same.   God knows what the locals would have said if I’d ordered another shandy.    I may say I had also taken the precaution of slipping off my tie between the car and bar as I didn’t fancy being seized by it prior to getting a West Pilton kiss (Glasgow equivalent of a head-butt usually followed by robbery).

McEwan’s 80 shilling Ale. The perfect base for a long bevvy

Rab found a couple of quiet seats and opened up.     “That was kind ye to say a few words Jock.    I really appreciated it and when you pulled out that golf ball it took me back to sunny days years ago.     Mind I was worried for you but Miss Johnstone saw ye alright.     She was a nice lady.     I was devastated when she died of cancer a few years later.    You know until today I’d never been in the Club House lounge!    No need really.    Me and the other staff just used the bothy up near the practice area to store the gear and have wir piece together at break-time.     On Fridays we would run the Tractor down near the 18th green and Miss Johnstone would come out with our wage packets, so there was no need to come into the place unless you were getting a row for something.     You knew the clubhouse was off limits.    I think the bosses liked it when we got our wages paid into the Post Office, less personal”.    I realised Rab’s pint was empty so I offered to get him another and gulped my one down at the same time realising I would have to get a bus or taxi home.

Round two

“So ye were saying,” I said as I sat down with two more of McEwan’s finest.

“Queen Victoria only had 10 Prime Ministers to deal with in her long reign,     The Queen’s had had more than a dozen in 60-odd years but in my time back to when I started as a 15 year old there’s been a new captain about every year and a Greens’ Convenor every couple of years.    In a way I have served about 25 of them and most have been pretty useless except Gregor and thon boy, whose name I forget, that bought all the trees to plant back in the 80’s. They transformed the course; made it a less windswept links and we were able to clear away a lot of the whins.    However I loved burning them back once a year just to annoy the posh folk with fancy houses nearby.    As far as I could see they bought them for the view and complained when they got the odd stray ball in their gardens and a bit of smoke now and again.”

“Don’t get me wrong Jock it’s a braw course if you like that sort of thing.     I played golf with a few old hickories down at Silverknowes when I was a youngster and that was what interested me in the job in the first place, but once I got started here I lost interest in playing the game.    It’s like if you work in a chipper you’re no’ going to have a fish supper for your tea, you’re mair likely to deep fry some salad!” said Rab laughing at his own joke.

“What would you have done, Rab?” I said quietly hoping it would set the now loquacious Rab off on another riff.    It was a nice open question to which I added a knowing wink of the eyebrows over my pint glass.

“Well ye see, Silverfield starts with a disadvantage as well as an advantage. Maist o’ it lies up near Corstorphine Hill so a lot of the course is about 400 feet up and even with the trees it’s pretty exposed.   The gress dis’nae grow from aboot October tae March ‘cos the temperature never gets high enough.    You’ve always got braw views of the city and the Forth even if your golf is shite.    Up near the top of the course the soil is thin and lower down the fairways get soaked with all the water coming off the hill. Ye’ll have seen how many times we’ve had to re-lay the drains on the fourth as they keep silting up and close the back nine in the winter.     I’m no’ a climate expert but ye do feel back in the day it was hot and sunny in the summer like 1976 and snowy in the winter.    Now it’s wet in the winter, like if you go a late season holiday to Spain and very little snow until about March, just frost and it rains in the summer tae.    What are ye meant to dae with the course to keep the members happy? They only think ye’ve done a good job if their putts keep falling in and their bad shots go unpunished.    A mean, Silverfield’s been going a long time but a boy fae the R & A who was playing a bounce game here one day telt me the grass should be a different variety, harder wearing to cope with these old boys out with their buggies most days of the week.    We’ve no’ really had a grass agronomist properly look at the course as far as I can see and we just buy the cheapest seed we can get.    See that ganger mower I towed wi’ the tractor-the one wi’ the spiked metal wheels, it was there when I started.   Mind you it’s bullet proof and is made of braw steel.    Ma old boss said it was made of metal recovered from the First World War German Fleet scuttled at Scapa Flow in 1919.    Ye just needed to give it an oil and a sharpen at the start of each year and ye’ were go to go as long as you didnae rush it.”

“Did the bosses at the Club never ask you views?” I intervened, as Rab quaffed more of his pint.       “Apart from Gregor no’ really, no ye see back in the day when I started, I got 5 or 6 years under Broddy  Campbell who was the last proper greenkeeper.    After the war money was tight and most of the smaller clubs like our one employed someone who could give lessons and mow the grass.    He was a great big man who’d been a commando in the war and had a lot of respect, more importantly he was chatting to members all the time and getting their feedback.    Some of the complaints he got that were just pish that he ignored but he got a lot of sound stuff over the years from people who knew the course as players and had ideas for the place that weren’t just designed to make their game easier.    Do ye no’ realise Jock that after Broddy retired at the start of the 1972 season, your Dad never won the Club Championship again?” “Well he was getting on a bit and all these strong young boys came along,” I countered.      “Not just that Jock” retorted Rab.   “That was when they started to get us to cut the whins back and before the new trees began to make their mark. That’s how the young boys with their wild swings could make their length tell.”    He continued after draining his glass, “Look the Club decided to split things between the game and the gress (not a typo this is Embra speak) and brought in some fading tournament guy as the professional.    He wanted to push the young guys and give the Club a sexier profile as the average age of the Membership seemed to be pushing 70.   Also they recruited that arsehole Malky Breen from Glasgow to be head groundsman.    I was too young and shy to be considered but what does a guy from Glasgow ken about golf?    He came fae Littlehill for fucks sake, where it’s always a quagmire.     I’ve been telt and he thought the back nine here was fine!    It wasnae until he retired and Gregor turned up to speak to me and Big Willie, the other groundsman, that we agreed in 5 minutes we needed a culvert dug at the 15th to drain away the underground stream that led to the turf becoming detached fae the rocks underneath it wet weather.”    “Yes that was a great move although I made use of my local knowledge of the soggy ground there a few times before it was fixed,” I interrupted.

Rounds three and four

“Let’s have another pint Rab and how about a dram this time!”    Soon we were settled down with an 80 shilling each and a Highland Park.    

Orkney’s finest. Sometimes referred to (by the Editor) as ‘HP Sauce’

I had decided to start with an Orkney malt and see how far down the country we would reach before the evening’s natural close.

“Fortunately Broddy left us some instructions for keeping the course going as best he knew over 40 years back before the 2nd World War and when Malky started having benders in the shed Willie and I got on doing what was right.”     “Willie was that fat guy wi’ the big red face was he?” I asked.    “Aye he was a great colleague.     His system produced too many red blood corpuscles so he ended up wi’ a coupon like a right old boozer but actually he didn’t drink much and had to retire a couple of years ago”.     “I was out playing with Casey, a doctor friend of mine once and he was amazed to see Willie’s complexion.    I think he wanted to take him off as a lab exhibit – one of the most developed cases of Polycythemia rubra vera he had ever seen!”    “Aye well Willie was a great guy and when he retired they just gave me a newer tractor and said I could get on with it all myself.”

A while later I returned with 2 more pints and a couple of Taliskers, a smoky Skye tipple. 

Talisker – until recently, the only Skye whisky

“Here Rab I said, I’m bursting for a slash.    Is it safe to go into the lavvy without getting chibbed?”   “No problems, Jock aw the bad guys can see your with me.    Occasionally some of the radge ones fae Silverknowes ask me to get them on to the course so they can have a practice round before entering the Silverfield Open and Gregor has been very helpful over the years, though some of the boys made his hair stand on end until he could see they were tidy golfers and spoke the same language, give or take a few f’s and c’s, ken”.

By the time I got back to my seat Rab was well into the pint and had downed the whisky. “God that was rough,” he said.   

Round five

Let me get you something else and quickly produced another couple of pints and two Glenfiddich 12 year old malts from Speyside, which I knew would go down well.

“Tell me Rab how is the March medal so crap?    I mean we’re all wanting the season to start and you forget how bad it was last season until you pitch up and find out all the greens have just been top-dressed?”

Glenfiddich ‘Pure’ malt whisky. This is not the same as single malt

“Tell me about it Jock,” he replied.    “It’s about the only time the Members speak to me and say what a shite round they had, how they had to lift and clean before each putt, how brilliant putts would bounce off course at the last minute thanks to a grain of sand while their duffer partner would hole a long one that had started miles off line but a few ricochets off clumps of sand and hey presto a tram- liner!    They would moan how their clubs would get marked and balls only lasted a few holes ‘cos they got scuffed.    Don’t blame me; blame fucking Professor Grimshaw-Whyte who visited the course in the 1970’s, like some sort of half-arsed James Braid.    I seen him walking a few holes, never swung a club, had lunch in the Club then sent a schedule for the year for the green staff.     It was awful!    However each year the bosses would pull it out and we had to follow the first one to the letter didn’t we?    It took no account of bad weather which we often get late March these days.”    “Yeh, I gave it up as a bad joke when my new putter got marked off the grit you put down.” I said.     “If you didn’t play golf, how did you put up with us all?”

“Here that was a nice dram, Jock” began Rab.    “You see I really like watching golf, it’s like watching horses on the TV.    Often you can see a winner a long way off, its ears are pricked you can see it’s keen and the jockey looks like he has fuck all to do, except not fall off.”    He paused to savour the end the dram and continued.    “You see half the time when the course is busy you have to pull your mower in and wait sometimes for ages as a few golfers troop past.    I try to keep out of the way but I must have been hit about 10 times.    On the other hand whether players are young or old you can see a bit of class from a distance.    The way they walk, their practice swing and most times I’m not disappointed as a good shot follows. Presumably you’ve looked back as you’ve walked off a green and seen how easy it is.”

Round six

“Time for another?” I interjected realising it was releasing all sorts of memories and bon mots, from the great man.   I returned shortly afterwards with more pints and two 16 year old Lagavulins.   

Lagavulin. Islay’s finest, and just about the peatiest of all whiskies

 “Here that’s a braw one!” said Rab after a sip.   “Best one in the house,” said I. “Tell me Rab, how did you keep your patience and stick it out at Silverfield all these years?” I said risking a killer question.      “Like I said I love fresh air, even when it’s cold and wet and I like watching golf and sometimes smirking at folks’ efforts.    Once I got called for jury service but I hated being cooped up in a wee box wi’ 14 other bams in a hot room and soon fell asleep.    I got discharged and the sheriff telt me I was lucky not to be done for contempt!   I’ve got golf on Sky at home and later I’ll be watching the second round of the LA Open on the telly.   It is a bit plastic American golf but I like to see how they set up the courses and the tricks they use like dyeing the water in the ponds and bleaching the sand.    The commentators all talk about Stimpmeter readings.    

A Stimpmeter (Spanish version) – just to show they are used elsewhere than Silverfield

Actually we got one early on in the Club about 1980 via a Council member who had been to the Masters at Augusta, Georgia.   Fortunately I had heard of it before and on the day we agreed to test it I got up to the course early on my bike at 5 am and watered the first green.    The ball rolled down the track and produced a score of 4 feet which was very slow.   The Captain was there and he said we should be nearer 10 feet. As it happened we had a nice spell of weather in early June, Malky was on a bender so Willie and I cut all the greens – we “Bikini-waxed” them.    Not that we kent that phrase then that came later courtesy of Gary McCord, the US golf commentator.    We cranked the mower down to the lowest ratchet-something we had never done and on the third green at the top of the hill we mowed the stripes up and down the green rather than at an oblique angle.    On the cuts with the grass sloping downhill we got a 13 that is from the few balls that stayed on the green. After that Willie and I fucked off and went up the hill to the path beside the Zoo where we hid in the bushes, had a couple of cans and watched the fun.   It was brutal!   Some of the top guys hit their usual high 6 or 7 irons on to the green and if they landed on a downhill strip of grass with a bit of backspin the ball would almost roll back to their feet! Did I say we left no collar of grass on the fringe of the greens so once the ball picked up speed it kept on going.    On the other hand a few duffers who produced no backspin on their ball which landed on a lighter “up stripe” managed to hole out OK and wondered what the fuss was all about.   There were a lot of complaints and Malky wasn’t able to help much-he nearly lost his job.    He was an awful boss but we knew we would only get an ever bigger tube if he got his books so Willie and I explained how we had been given orders to speed up the greens to make the course more “linksy”.   Nobody really mentioned the Stimpmeter for a while after that, in any event Willie had accidentally sat on it in the shed and bent it.    Malky just let us get on with the job as he couldn’t even keep the tractor straight when cutting the fairways ‘cos of the bevvy!”     “What a brilliant story, I caddied for my Dad that day and he played quite well with his old light blade putter whereas I remember his partners putting right off the green. What really annoyed the members was that old Hughie Jackson who had the yips with Parkinson’s and could barely putt most of the time played a blinder off 27 and won the handicap prize by a street with a net 62!”

Rounds seven and eight

It was time for more pints and this time I thought homeward bound with two local Edinburgh malts from Glenkinchie distilled in Pencaitland.  

Glenkinchie. Distilled in East Lothian. One of six Lowland malts

“Aye, I like this malt” said Rab and we had to have another, as last orders were being called.     I had another slash and we staggered out the door of the pub at the end of the session.    “I’ll walk with you along Ferry Road to the Police Station and call a taxi,” I said.    Just then I saw my lovely British Racing Green MG perched precariously on a Jenga jumble of bricks, minus its Minilite alloy wheels! “For fuck’s sake! I shouted” – “are ye no’ insured?” quipped Rab.    

A British Racing Green MGB GT with silver minilite wheels in good condition

“That’s not really the point but, hey it’s been a great night.”      Fortunately I was able to call a cab quickly and dropped Rab off on my way home.

Nursing her wrath…

I crept into the house about 12 30 am taking care not to disturb Jenny or the twins.   I shut the lounge door and thought I’d follow Rab’s lead and watch the 2nd round of the LA Open: Jenny roused me from the chair at 7 30 am.   “Where the hell have you been?    I thought Rab’s presentation was going to be short and sweet.”   “Aye well I gave him a lift home as it was a pretty flat do and offered to stop at a pub on the way home where we had a few.”   “I can see that.    

Jenny Hinton as she was when Jock first met her. Now Mrs Kirkcaldy!

Meantime you never answered your phone and the girls wanted to ask you about their school trip, and by the way your tea was put in the bin before I retired upstairs about 11 30″.     “I’m sorry it won’t happen again, I said.    I’m right out of shape for that sort of thing.” I replied meekly.    “At least you didn’t try to drive home or anything daft like that last night.   I reckon you won’t be safe to drive until well into the afternoon today,” said Jenny firmly.      “Well there is a wee problem with the wheels of the car and I’ll need to get the car recovered,” I said as deftly as I could.     Eventually Jenny got the whole story out.    I tried to say I had the same car wheels for years and they had all been kerbed and were a bit scruffy.    “Well I doubt if you’ll get much off the insurance.   It was an expensive night what with all the drink and your car trashed.    As for the Doo’cot, Jock, have you gone feral or something?”      “It’s not a bad shop, Rab’s a valued customer, we had no trouble and they had a good selection of drinks.”     “I can see that!” retorted Jenny.     “I know, I said, but we had such a brilliant chat.     Rab hasn’t played golf for over 50 years but he knows so much about the game.   It’s not just about clubs, grips and swings it’s about the grass too; a greenkeeper can make or break your game.”

“Humph,” Jenny replied “I think Rab’s broken any game you would be likely to have today” and stormed off.

@ Frank Crowe 2020

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