Scout Centenary, the Long Wait

Today at the 21st World Scout Jamboree; the Scouts are celebrating 100 years of scouting.

But a Jamboree is as much about the future as it is celebrating the past, it’s about making new friends, learning new skills looking to the future and having a ball.

The media often struggle to get past the traditional ‘camp fire’ view of Scouting; but Scouting has changed to reflect today’s kid interests and needs; its only the ‘set dressing’ that has changed, (the uniforms, activities, communications etc) the fundamentals principals remain the same.

Mr UHDD and I were both in the venture Scouts in our late teen, (at opposite ends of the country!) we had a great time and made good friends, who are still our friends to this day, in fact one of them is in the thick of it at the Jamboree right now, he is an employee of the Scout Association, and an event of this scale is a massive logistical challenge, have a look at this blog to get a feel for it.

Earlier this year I was having an on-line banter with ‘kevinmillhill’ about compasses and GPS navigation systems, our ‘conversation’ inspired the following ‘essay’ (his words not mine.) So settle yourself down for an affectionate and nostalgic look back at Scouting in the 60’s (A glass of dandelion and burdock or Vimto should help set the scene.)


I was a Scout in the days when we were called “Boy Scouts”; living in the north of Scotland in the 60s, it gave kids something interesting to do.

Albert Slorach was the Headmaster of Kinloss Primary School; and Mhairi, his wife, taught Geography and English at Forres Academy. She died, tragically young, of cancer, in the early 70s, but at the time of this tale, she was very much alive.

Childless themselves, and in their early fifties they had devoted a lifetime to teaching, and to the Scout and Guide movements. They were immaculate role models, fondly remembered by hundreds of their ex-pupils. When not at work, they were constant companions, and visibly affectionate. Albert did not re-marry after Mhairi’s death; she was his one and only love; however, he remained an active member of the Boy Scout movement pretty much until the day he died. Approaching 90, he would still always greet me when we met by extending his left hand for a handshake, instead of his right. (It’s a Boy Scout thing). Albert (“Mr Slorach” or “Sir” to us) – with his bush hat, corduroy shorts, Groucho Marx moustache, and alpenstock was our Scoutmaster. Beely – a butcher, McFlog – a farm labourer, and Baloo – an RAF NCO were the names we gave to our “Scouters” – assistants to the Scoutmaster who had been Boy Scouts themselves, but who had never grown out of it. They didn’t supervise, they led.

I don’t know what people would make of us nowadays; we’d probably all be locked up and/or taken into care, subjected to intense psychological scrutiny, and battered with counselling. We, fools that we were, merely thought that we were young teenagers having a good time under the guidance of competent, caring adults who thought that teaching kids self-discipline, self-reliance, and initiative was possibly not such a bad idea.

I was a member of the Swift Patrol; my recollection is that the other two patrols were the Badgers, and the Stags. There must have been about 30 of us in the troop, and we were highly active – meeting at least twice a week, camping, hiking, and threatening the elderly with good deeds. We always seemed to go camping in the most diabolical weather, though it never fazed us – we just assumed, as a matter of course, that it was going to pour down anyway. We were young and uncontaminated by thought; we were innocent, with clear consciences. I vividly recollect a morning in the Swift Patrol’s “Dining Tent” (a large canvas sheet slung over a rope stretched between two trees, and secured to the ground with pegs) where Goggar Smith and I watched in fascination as the gale blew in one end of the tent, and our bowlfuls of Rice Krispies blew out of the other. Our campsites were all on farms – usually above the 1000ft line so, even in midsummer, the weather tended to be a little brisk. There’s little to compare with having to break ice in order to wash your face on a bright summer’s morning. We were always welcome; we left nothing but footprints, and took nothing but pictures (Box-Brownie – real high tech, 8 blurry black-and-white photos on a “spool”).

We always inflicted a good deed on the farmer. This was organised, supervised, and orchestrated by Albert; he was a wise man, and its real purpose was to encourage citizenship and good feelings in us rather than actually to offer our hosts any practical assistance. On the other hand, it left the farmer desperately scratching around to find something suitable for us to do. It is difficult to think of a task suited to 30 pairs of young, enthusiastic, totally unskilled hands. We really did sit around a blazing fire every night (each patrol in turn acting as host), singing “Ging gang gooly, gooly, gooly, wotcha”, and “Life is but a melancholy flower” we thought that it all made perfect sense. (The “Life” song certainly does; you must sing it to “London’s Burning” and let the words fill themselves in as the rhythm intends; you’ll then hear the joke.). Each patrol also had to provide novel entertainment in the form of “skits”, stand up, etc. After five days of camp we were ready to go home, if only to get away from the increasingly dire jokes.

My brother-in-law was ten years older than I (Come to think of, he still is!). He had swallowed the anchor and come ashore with Shell a few years after marrying my sister. He ingratiated himself with me for life by presenting me with a sheath knife for my 14th birthday. I already had one, we all did, but this one was a quantum leap. About 14 inches long, and with a blade about ½ cm thick, it was razor-edged on one side, and sharp toothed in the form of a saw on the back; it was a truly exotic object, and would earn Bob about 5 years nowadays for giving it to a 14-year old. We, on the other hand, simply thought that sheath knives – along with felling axes, bushmen’s saws, and lengths of rope were tools, and just part of being a Boy Scout. Your Patrol Leader was liable to pounce on you and demand to inspect your sheath knife to make sure it was clean, since its main use was cooking. With a sheath knife in your possession, the only other cooking implement you needed was a taty-masher. We also all tended to have war surplus “dinghy” knives – folding things like big penknives, they had a single galvanised steel blade, and a marlinspike. This latter was used for splicing ropes. Oh yes, you’d be amazed at what we knew how to do! Boiling a pint of water in a paper bag was a good trick – though pointless – and unbelievable until you actually seen it done. I was delighted with the knife, though I no longer have it, and I’m sitting here wondering what became of it; I suspect that one of my siblings may have “claimed” it after I left home to join the RAF.

There was, however, something I desired even more than a sheath knife.

If you watch carefully the opening sequence of “Lawrence of Arabia” – where Peter O’Toole is remonstrating with Omar Sharif over Sharif’s character’s murder of O’Toole’s Arab companion, you will see that O’Toole has – around his neck, on a lanyard, a brass-cased prismatic compass. Though purely functional, the elegant simplicity of these devices makes them objects of real beauty. Although their design was steadily upgraded as time went by, the basic form remained the same from about 1870 until the early 1980s.

M M was not a “rich kid” as such, nor was he an “only”; he had a younger sister (W – a Girl Guide, of course). His dad was a Master Mariner – a ship’s captain. His mum was a solicitor or something equally stratospheric. A two-income household was a moderately unusual thing in the 60s; M’s family was, therefore – by the standards of the times, not short of a bob or two. They lived in a large, comfortable bungalow on the seafront at Findhorn. Well, Captain Munro lived there for about 2 months of the year; the rest of the time he was at sea – on tankers running to and from the Persian Gulf, I believe.

Millets existed at the time in their original form; that far back, they really were dealers largely just in WD surplus, and would happily sell you a tent, sleeping bag, combat jacket, mine detector – or a prismatic compass. The compasses – I still remember vividly – were £5.00 – cheap enough even then, but hopelessly beyond the reach of a 14-year old on half-a-crown a week pocket money. But M had one; he was generous, allowing me access to it, and teaching me how to use it properly. His father, of course – being one of those astonishing wizards who could fix a vessel’s position to within a handful of yards on the face of the waters armed only with a sextant, watch, and pencil and paper – had instructed him carefully on its use. Between us, M and I slowly mastered back bearings, landscape reconnaissance, and triangulation; we learned how to transfer compass data to map using protractor and ruler, and we discovered for ourselves how to fix position. We also assiduously practised “marching on a bearing”. Map and compass have been second nature to me ever since, except when I’ve been reduced to using one of those ghastly little Silva things.

We approached Albert to tell him that we intended doing our hikers badge – which, I have to tell you, was a challenge to anybody. It involved the accumulation of hikes of various lengths (all of which had to be assiduously written up and described), but had eventually to include a walk of, I think, at least 15 miles over open country and including two nights under canvas. I have to remind you that this was aimed at kids aged less than 16. These were genuinely different times.

M might actually have been 15, but I was definitely still only 14, when M’s dad dropped us at the junction of the A939 and A940, just below the Knock of Braemoray. We had sleeping bags, food, a tent, matches, mugs and Dixie tins; and we confidently set out across miles of featureless moorland, with obstructed lines of sight. Nevertheless, exactly as predicted, we pitched up at Craigallachie 2 days later, never having once been unsure of our position or our direction. Yes, OK, 2 days is a long time to cover what I have just measured as about 30km, but it is very rough ground, and look at what we had done – without the security of mobile phones or anything of the like. And consider our ages. We just had total confidence in our own young abilities, shared by parents to whom it wouldn’t even have occurred to worry about what we were doing. Life is risky, but walking across a moor doesn’t rate highly on any realistic scale. By comparison with me, today’s children are “deprived” because they are not allowed the freedom to take risks. Amazing, isn’t it? We didn’t realise how abused we were! We just had fun.

Putting our two pennies in the phone, and pressing Button A, we called Albert to tell him that we were in Craigellachie, sitting on Telford’s Bridge. He and Mhairi hopped into their Morris Minor (Convertible) and came straight there. We thought that we would just be whisked home, but there was none of it; we were taken for tea, scones, and sandwiches in a hotel – something I’d never had before. They took great pleasure in our little achievement, and congratulated us to an extent that was downright embarrassing.

And now the point of the essay.

We had used M’s compass right across the moor, and how I coveted that thing. Training at the RAF College a few years later, my navigation was always better than adequate during exercises; we had all the classroom stuff off by heart, but the moment we started out on the ground, you could immediately spot the Boy Scouts. Map reading and navigation were considered fundamental life skills by the movement throughout the 60s and 70s, and it showed within the RAF. At the beginning of each exercise we were all issued with compasses; we had to sign for them. At the end, we had to return them. It was only slightly tempting to “lose” one; you would have been made to pay for it – which wouldn’t been a problem – but its disappearance would have been investigated by the RAF Police. When – as they inevitably would – they got you to confess that you had stolen it, it could have spelled the end of your career. Integrity and honesty were expected of Officer Cadets; having been a Boy Scout, honesty was something you didn’t even have to think about

A couple of days ago, you were telling me that Mr UHDD had his Garmin Navigator welded to his wrist; writing on the subject, I remarked how much I wished that I owned an ex-WD Prismatic Compass, That one remark instantly picked me up and hurled me back 40-odd years; I could feel sharply, accurately, and as acutely as though it were yesterday, my 1963 covetousness and envy. That’s why I’ve told you the story.

The difference, though, is that, nowadays, I can afford the odd gesture. When I looked, there was an immaculate 1940 MkIII compass on e-Bay. The starting bid was £56.10; I put an immediate holding bid of £205.00 on it; I got it for £63.00 + £7.00 p&p, though I’d happily have gone to £500.00.

And now, finally, after 44 years, I’m not jealous of M M any more!

8 thoughts on “Scout Centenary, the Long Wait

  1. joan

    Our son Mark now 23, went on the 19th World scout jamboree in Chile then home hospitality in Sao Paulo We had 18 months of hard fundraising 2 get him and 2 other scouts over there! It was worth every minute they had a great time! spent Xmas Eve in Time square before flying off 2 Chile on xmas day!! Its a time he said he will never 4get

  2. What a fantastic experience that must have been, I am sure that for many of the young people attending, just the journey must be the adventure of a lifetime, let alone the Jamboree it’s self

  3. Pingback: Blue Sky Thinking, Scout Jamboree Update « Uphilldowndale

  4. Martin Martin- Shaw

    Hi Anyone

    I was at Kinloss Primary School 1962-65, Cubs and had to ring Mr Slorach from the phone box on the base in order to achieve something as a Cub.
    Is there anyone out there from back then?


  5. Dessi

    I went to Kinloss school in the late fifties and remember Mr. Slorach well. He was a bit of a tyrant and we were terrified of him! I’d forgotten about his scouting and his Morris Minor! I do remember him singing scouting type songs in assembly.
    That part of Scotland is so beautiful and though I now live in London I have been back there many times. Some of the happiest memories of my childhood. We always seemed to be outdoors, camping, lighting fires and cycling. Thanks for the memories.
    We lived at 7, Dowding Terrace in the married quarters. I remember the Monroses and their papershop.

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