He turned for one last time to look at the farmhouse. This little beauty was nestled at the bottom of Corlic Hill: always welcoming and always the happiest place in the world for a boy to grow up.
Anyone who had made their way this far out into the country could find a cup of tea and something to eat in this little haven, before they made the last push to the top of the hill.
The Romans had built a little fort up there on Corlic; it wasn’t widely known that they had come so far north of Hardrian’s wall, but come they had, and stayed for years.
The boy turned to walk down the path to Greenock, and to stop the tears from falling, he whistled a tune his grandfather had taught him. A song they’d heard a little English girl sing at the Hippodrome in town.
There were other boys and men in uniform waiting on the Glasgow train, some were in groups and many, like him, he guessed, were standing alone, excited and afraid at the same time.
The boy had never made many friends, living so far from school, instead he sat on the hill looking at the mountains of Arrochar, and reading ever book he could. He loved reading – the stories, the adventures, and the tales of faraway lands. He had always wanted to travel and now he had the chance, but it was the British Government who were sending him to France to fight for King and Country.
His father had helped him pack, being an old soldier himself, and had told to take no more than one book.
“They’ll be others there, I promise you, with books. Take one good book and that’ll be enough for any man.”
He’d changed his mind several times, but in the end he had packed John Buchan’s ‘Thirty-Nine Steps’.
Although the train was full of soldiers, the boy managed to find a little corner to read. Before he’d reached the outskirts of Greenock he was caught up in his imagination with Richard Hannay, the hero of the book.
They were both on the run from the German spies and the Scottish police, finding a little cave to hide out at the mouth of Glencoe.
“Can you hear an aeroplane?” Asked Hannay.
The boy was about to stick his head out of the cave, when Hannay pulled him back in.
“Careful, they’ll see you.”
But it was too late, the spotter on the aeroplane had found them and the ‘plane started diving towards the cave.
The bullets hit the ground at the mouth, and churned up the dirt on the path.
Hannay pushed the boy behind him.
“When I say go, run with me.”
Richard shouted, then he and the boy ran down the glen in a snake-like shape, dogging the bullets. Then Hannay shouted:
“There’s nothing for it, we’re going to have to jump.”
And they both ended up in the river, the cold dark river. The boy could feel the bullets hitting the water to the side of him.
The soldier next to the boy was shaking him. “We’re at Glasgow.”
The boy hadn’t noticed the time passing, but then reading always found him that way.
He met up with the rest of the lads at a camp in the east-end of Glasgow. The following morning they were all heading south. The boy tried reading on the journey but the gang were all too excited to let one of their own sit in a corner and read. They sang and told jokes, probably to hide their fear, and each in turn told the others where they came from and who they were.
There was a couple of other Greenock lads in the group but he didn’t know either of them, although they seemed to know each other. It wasn’t until they reached the south coast of Kent, that he was able to join Richard Hannay again.
One of the lads in the billet kept screaming out in his sleep and although the rest of the room was sound asleep the boy found it difficult. So he took the book into the latrine and continued with his reading.
“Quick, the police are after us!” Shouted, Hannay as both he and the boy ran through the centre of Fort William. Hannay shoved the boy up an alley at the side of the Northern Bank.
“They won’t find us here,” Hannay said confidently. And he was right, the police ran straight past.
“That was too close, shan’t let them get that near again,” Hannay looked at the boy to agree with him. The boy nodded his head. For the first time in days, Hannay relaxed a little and sat down beside the boy.
It was then that they felt the guns pointed at each of their heads.
“You vill come with us,” said the man in the black leather coat.
The boy looked at Hannay for advice.
“Better do as he says.”
The following morning the boy from Greenock was being wakened by the corporal, who shook the end of his bed.
“Let’s be ‘aving you. Up and at ‘em, you ‘orrible lot.”
By the late afternoon of the following week they were being marched along the trenches in France.
The stench was unbearable and every few minutes, the enemy would fire rounds near the top of their trench.
The boy closed his eyes and imagined that Richard Hannay was in there with him.
On that fateful morning when they were getting ready to go over the top, the boy read a few more pages of the ‘Thirty-Nine Steps’.
Hannay had managed to free himself from the ropes the German Spies had tied around both their hands. Hannay cut the boy loose, then placed a hand over his mouth and told him to be quiet. It was just then that one of the German Spies entered the room to check on the prisoners, Hannay dived at the man’s legs and knocked him over. Both the boy and Hannay jumped on the man, and with one knock of his fist, the Spy was unconscious. Hannay took the gun from the man and both he and the boy ran from the room…
The officer blew the whistle alerting the troops that they were to go over the top. The boy stuck his book in his belt and followed his friends into the unknown.
By the time he got to the hole and slid in, many of those around him had been killed or injured. The boy from Greenock lay there feeling more alone than he’d ever done before.
He felt for his book and apart from some mud, it was still in good condition. There was enough light to let him read a little more.
“We have to head to Kent,” said Hannay to the boy, I believe it is on a beach there that we will find the thirty-nine steps.”
“Are you going to come with me?” Asked Hannay. The boy thought about it and knew there was no other place he would rather be. He nodded to Hannay.
“Good show,” said Hannay. “Then follow me.”
And he did.
The never found the boy from Greenock on the battlefield. Only his copy of the ‘Thirty-Nine Steps’ was recovered.
Some say, he wandered off into No-man’s land, some say he deserted and deserved everything he had coming to him.
But if they’d only opened up that copy of the book, they would have found that there was a new character in there, Richard Hannay now had a side-kick – The Greenock Boy.
bobby stevenson 2016
Notes on the farm at Corlic. Burnhead
Location: (NS 28715 72807).
Burnhead Farm sits at the head of a burn that skirts Corlic Hill (from which it get’s the name). The settlement first appears in Roy’s 1748 map, (although it is unnamed and probably much older).
In 1748 Burnhead was recorded just north of Glenbrae Farm
The settlement can be seen in later maps under the name Burnhead and seems to have been abandoned sometime in the early half of the 20th century. (The rusting remains of a vintage car with ‘Avon Tourist’ tyres, lie close to one of the walls)
Substantial ruins of Burnhead’s two farm buildings can still be seen, much of it constructed with rough field stone, held together with lime cement.
The rectangular foundations of another large structure, possibly the farm’s outbuilding, can be found nearby (NS 28683 72831)