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3 July 2000

Listen to Jamesy MacMillan

New Statesman Scotland

By Alistair Moffat

He must be 40 years old now. That’s if he made it this far. At Edinburgh’s Waverley Station I boarded the early morning train for Dundee, stopping at Leuchars Junction, on my way back to St Andrews University. It was Easter Monday 1972 when I met Jamesy MacMillan.

It was the sort of corridors-and-compartments carriage sadly now long gone, and I’d found an empty one. But only for a minute or two. “Can I sit here, Mister?” A wee boy, far smaller than the 12 years he later owned up to, sat down opposite me by the window. Clutching a huge Easter egg and a plastic bag, his legs dangled above the floor. And he stank over- poweringly of stale piss. After the train moved into the Haymarket Tunnel, I heard some rustling and ripping and, by the time we shunted back into the light, the wee boy had torn the wrapping off the Easter egg. He caught me looking at him. “You want a bit, Mister?”

It was the milk train, calling at every halt, road-end and farm gate between Edinburgh and Dundee, and it took twice the normal journey time. Jamesy did most of the talking. “They call me MacMillan the Shillin’. My Ma says that I’m not the full shillin’. That’s how I’m in the Home. ‘Cept it’s not my home, it’s a Home. I’m from Niddrie. That’s where I come from. ‘Cept my Ma doesn’t have the room for me, just at the minute. She’s busy and that.” All of this and much, much more tumbled out of a chocolatey mouth as Jamesy stared at Scotland moving slowly past the window.

But it wasn’t for free. Jamesy wanted to trade his CV for mine. He seemed very anxious to establish that I had absolutely no connection with the police, but was perplexed rather than reassured to hear that I had also been raised on a council estate. “Plenty room was there?”

Niddrie is part of Craigmillar, a large concentration of council housing to the east of the centre of Edinburgh; when Jamesy MacMillan went home for his Easter egg in 1972, it probably looked a lot worse than it does now, and that seemed to be some sort of consolation. “The Home’s OK, really tidy, no mess allowed, really tidy,” he said. “What about your place? Is it tidy?”

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As we inched our way through the fields of Fife, the wee boy talked more and more about his pals at the Home and what it would be like when he got back there. Most of it seemed to be something he was inventing in his head, and the nearer we got to Dundee, the more he chattered. “They give you plenty money. Money’s no problem,” he said. “But you don’t really need it, because everything’s there, everything you want. Really. You got plenty money where you are?”

Having spent most of my grant on beer, I didn’t, but when I said I could let him have some cash for sweeties and comics, he wasn’t enthusiastic. “They just take it off you when you get there, and if you have a lot, they ask a lot of questions.” I suggested that maybe I could send him something through the post, some games or books. Jamesy seemed nonplussed. And he had no idea at all of the address of the Home, not the name of the street, or even roughly where it was in Dundee. Later, I realised that this was probably because no one had ever sent him anything. No birthday cards, no Christmas cards. But he did tell me the name of the Home and, when we finally rolled into Leuchars Junction, I told Jamesy that I’d be in touch. Out on the platform with my rugby kitbag, I looked back at the train to see his chocolatey face grinning out of the window, and a thumbs-up sign and then a wave.

Back in St Andrews, I looked up the phonebook for an address for the Home and called to check if it was OK to send something. It was not. I was not family, and it was not policy to allow children to accept gifts from strangers. I sent some comics anyway. I have no idea if Jamesy ever received them. I hope he did, if only for the pleasure of receiving a letter. He certainly enjoyed having somebody to talk to for nearly three hours.

I sometimes think about Jamesy MacMillan. Nearly 30 years on, I wonder what happened to him. We came from similar sorts of places and I never lost the notion that I had been lucky and he had not. As a result, he made me feel both guilty and powerless. Every lumbering mechanism of the state seemed too slow, too little, and such help as I could offer was inadequate, deemed suspect and, in a peculiarly Scottish way, none of my damned busybody business.

Part of the reason I campaigned for devolution for Scotland in the 1970s was a wish to bring solutions, however inadequate, closer to the problems. Now there is a Scottish Parliament three miles from Niddrie. The broadsheet newspapers will be full of weighty appraisals of its first year from pundits and assorted high heid yins. I want to ask Jamesy MacMillan what he thinks of the Scottish Parliament. He is the only one worth listening to.

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