Like most children, I believed my grandfather had been put on this earth solely for my pleasure and had arrived in the world possessing white hair, false teeth, horn-rimmed spectacles and a thickening waist. The idea that he was once a boy or a young man was impossible to countenance. Even the fact that he was my mother’s father was a struggle to imagine, although in my mind I managed this great leap by picturing him as looking and acting the same, only behaving much more strictly. I knew that he had not indulged my mother as much as he did her children because I was always being told how lucky I was that I could get up to much more nonsense yet not be scolded. However, my mother also said that in relation to my grandmother her father had always been more easy going as a parent, and so it was not so difficult for him to segue into the archetypal grandfather role.
My Grandparents with my mother, holidaying in Dunoon, c1946
Yet now I can see from the photographs of my grandfather as my mother’s father that his physical change over the decades was actually more of a gradual one. In the above image, he is clearly at the half-way stage between the young man of his courting days and the elderly one who crawled around on all fours, imitating a bear and allowing me to ride on his back (until my mother put an end to the game for fear of Grandad ‘doing himself a mischief’).
Although my grandfather was often in a playful mood when he assumed the role of Grandad, I was aware from an early age that he liked order too, keeping busy in the house and garden in an attempt to maintain this. Once when I was about seven I designed a series of illustrations focusing on different facets of my grandfather’s life which I stuck to the door of the living room press (a Scottish recessed cupboard) like a prototype of a poster presentation. Only one of these pictures survived the post-childhood cull of our drawings, and was recently found among the family photographs, and an embarrassing reminder of how rudimentary my writing skills once were.
My ‘poster presentation’ on Alex McKay cleaning shoes (no. 5)
Cleaning everyone’s shoes was a job that Grandad took seriously and there was a low wooden stool in the kitchenette used for this task (which I’ve obviously illustrated in the above drawing). This little green chair was like a link to another imagined world inhabited by tiny people and was a complete contrast to the new, mid-century modern furniture in my parents’ house. Along with Grandma’s mincer and a small, blue tray, it was one of my grandparents’ household items I loved the most and sought out soon after our arrival on each holiday at their house. I wonder now if Grandad enjoyed this weekly shoe cleaning task because it was a link to his own Glasgow boyhood when his father used to line up the children on the coalbunker and polish their boots while they were wearing them.
Alexander McKay in the Boys Brigade, 1915
The McKays were a tightknit, relatively religious family and all were involved actively with the Presbyterian Church of Scotland. My father and his younger brother (who eventually became an ordained minister) were also keen members of the popular Boys Brigade, a Christian organisation based on semi-military lines whose use of dummy rifles seems rather incongruous today. However, it is telling to note that, as my Grandfather was born in May 1901, the above photograph – styled like the images of new recruits before they went to the front – must have been taken in March 1915, only a few months into the First World War.
The McKays were also part of the Scottish Temperance Movement and for that reason they rarely drank. As I child I remember being surprised that my grandfather only allowed himself a small glass of sweet sherry or an Advocaat on holidays and high days. I found this habit rather unmanly as I associated such ‘disgusting’ drinks with my elderly female relatives and considered beer and whisky to be the choice alcoholic drink for men. This was probably because my father drank both of these in moderation and scoffed at the sickly drinks my grandparents kept in their sideboard. The religious side to my grandfather also explained why swearing was not allowed in the house and why (in the manner of the UK parliament) even the word ‘liar’ was banned, as I once discovered to my chagrin.
Alexander McKay’s School Leaving Certificate, 1915
My grandfather left Oatlands Secondary School at 14, shortly after the Boys Brigade photograph was taken, and took up a five-year apprenticeship to become an electrician. This was a job which suited his pedantic nature, even though it was not one he chose for himself, but was a position his mother saw advertised in the local newspaper which she applied for on behalf of her son. Grandad’s school leaving certificate is very vague about his academic achievements, putting more emphasis on his attendance than the subjects he studied, and has the ominous line Alec McKay has attended this school for one year and was studying in the supplementary class when he left. However, I feel sure this is more of a reflection on the public education system for working class boys than any indictment on my grandfather’s prowess. Years later he told my mother that he had not particularly excelled at school but had loved to tell and write stories and had been especially interested in history for that reason.
From what I gather, Grandad never questioned his mother’s choice of apprenticeship and just knuckled down to doing what was expected of him for the next five years. When he finally became a journeyman in early 1921, I was heartened to note that his Apprentice Discharge Certificate (below) from Anderson and Munro described him as Thoroughly satisfactory and reliable. I would not have expected anything less!
Alex McKay’s Apprentice’s Discharge Certificate
Grandad presumably would have felt lucky to have been kept on by such a prestigious company, which by the 1920s was the oldest firm of electrical engineers and contractors in the United Kingdom. The 1921 census shows that he was still living at home and working for Anderson and Munro at a time of high unemployment. A glance through the census records shows many men out of work, including electrical engineers (electricians), although by 1922 the economy had begun to pick up, ushering in the ‘roaring twenties‘. It was around about that time that my grandfather moved to Edinburgh for work, lodging with his maternal aunt, Mary Ann Garvie in Cumberland Street, where he was to remain until he married my grandmother in 1931.
Alexander McKay c1921
The Garvies were used to having a full house: the 1921 census shows them living with four of their children, ranging from 20-30, as well as two paying boarders (apprentice horticulturalists from the nearby Royal Botanic Gardens). So the arrangement was possibly a very practical one, with both parties benefiting. This was also during the period when my grandfather’s uncle had a breakdown and had to spend time in an asylum, so having another family member in the house may have been some support during this period. My mother tells me that this sad state of affairs came about when Alexander Garvie was no longer able to carry his work out as a bookbinder satisfactorily due to an increased tremor in his hand that prevented him from applying the gold leaf accurately.
My Grandparents’ Wedding in 1931
In 1931, at the age of thirty, my grandfather married my twenty-five year old grandmother, Catherine Neilson, after eight years of ‘courting’. He was finally able to move out of his aunt’s house – much depleted of family by then – and into a nearby rented flat with his new bride. However, he would never return to live in Glasgow again, despite having dreams of retiring to his home city.
As a child, my grandfather never let me forget that he was proud to be both Scottish and a Glaswegian, and when my grandparents visited us in Ayr, trips to the Gaiety Theatre to see the Alexander Brothers were a staple of my 1970s childhood. Yet, as much as he was happy and settled in his adopted city of Edinburgh, like me, my grandfather always harboured the belief that west is best.
Wishing everyone a very Happy New Year!
The Incidental Genealogist, January 2023