Round 2: The pits

In the village, there’s a burning bing close to the houses. So close, in fact, that the sheer weight has lifted the nearest houses off their foundations and they need huge wooden supports to stay standing. There’s a terrible smell too: sulphur, I think. But we’re lucky. Our new house is bigger, on higher ground, so there’s no pit in sight and the air is clean. But my heart sinks in the cage. You drop like a stone into the stinking, dripping, darkness of the mine, and are soaked to the skin by the time you reach the bottom. It’s eight hours in four-and-a-half foot workings – crawling along the crowded pit face with the roof rumbling like it might fall in – till you see daylight again.

Scottish coal pit 1930s

Scottish coal pit 1930s

One day, the roof does ‘sit down’, and Dad and I are trapped for a couple of hours. But even when all three seams are worked and the mine is as big as a ballroom, voices echo spookily way back into the workings and you shiver to be on your own. The work is hard. The men are hard too, but big-hearted, showing a great deal of care for the new recruit. Many, including my father, are over six feet tall and tower over me in the cage. But, down in the depths, my lack of height is probably a big bonus. Sure, the village’s sulphurous smell hits you like a blow on the chin, but life isn’t all grim.

The Jolly Beggars Social Club – who have no premises but the street corner – is involved in all village life: from politics to pigeons. Not forgetting Dances, shirt-soaking marathons in which every villager revels from 10 at night till 5.30 next morning. The pipe band is taken seriously too. So seriously, in fact, that they have their own big practice hut which is used for meetings, concerts and plays. And then there is boxing, my favourite sport. The village boasts a boxing club under the instruction of gifted amateur and real gent, Willie Laing. So it’s out with the sandshoes for me as I join the ranks of would-be fighting men. The first thing Willie teaches me is the importance of a good left hand, which I put to good use in an amateur competition.

After three hard-fought bouts, I win the big prize. And I mean the big prize. It’s a size 16 shirt – too big even for my Dad – and I vow then and there that only a mug fights for anything but money. And I mean to be no mug.

Of course, in the back of my mind, boxing strikes me as a way out of the pits. So, I begin to box professionally – or at least for money – on the winter circuit, to the point where I enjoy a win over a vastly experienced lad from Dundee, Mickey Malone. He’s a real whirlwind with amazing stamina who fronts for Stewart’s Boxing Booth. But, by now, I’ve worked out that a fast puncher is often a light puncher – withdrawing the fist before it really lands – and I catch him bonny with my good left hook.

Round 3: Prize fighting