‘The coast’s a jungle of Moors, Turks, Jews, renegades from all over Europe, sitting in palaces built from the sale of Christian slaves. There are twenty thousand men, women and children in the bagnios of Algiers alone. I am not going to make it twenty thousand and one because your mother didn’t allow you to keep rabbits, or whatever is at the root of your unshakable fixation.’

‘I had weasels, instead,’ said Philippa shortly.

— Pawn in Frankincense

Great Grannies

An only child of a loving marriage never gets to hear gossip. Personally. I led a happy, peaceful existence from birth till middle age before I realised what was missing, and I have tried to make up for it ever since. Viewed from the end of the country, the events of an Edinburgh childhood spanning the years between the War to End All Wars and the next one seem both innocent and deceptive.

Take, for example, the difference between my Scottish and English grandparents. My mother’s parents, born in the 1870s, were a rakish pair in Scots eyes. My grandfather Millard, pipe in mouth, nonchalantly solved the problem of travelling from Birmingham to Edinburgh by purchasing an Austin Seven motor car the size of a carton, and setting off at the wheel. He was able to steer but not to reverse; when he took a wrong turning, he and my grandmother merely got out of the car, took an end each and revolved it in the opposite direction. Or so they said.

My mother’s mother (who never admitted to the ageing title of Gran) wore short skirts and lipstick, and smoked. Wonderfully, her bobbed hair never turned grey, although its chestnut colour varied occasionally. On the rare occasions we met, I found her giggly and amiable. Only later did I discover her animosity for the frozen north full of Scotsmen, on of whom had stolen her clever daughter’s affections. But then, she had never been there: her roots were in Warwickshire, and my mother was a grown woman before she ever caught sight of the sea.

My Halliday grandmother wore long skirts, black button boots, and stiff-crowned hats with wide brims. The distance from Edinburgh to Fife being troublesome, we did not see much of her family either, but ceremonial visits were paid to their little house. She had been a professional cook, but I was never allowed (or wished) to do more in the kitchen than stand whipping cream with a fork. She was also a natural gardener, her Amon-Ras standing taller than me, big as dish plates; her strawberries larger and darker and sweeter than anyone else’s. When the village girls married, she made up the flowers for their bouquets.

Having no transport but my grandfather’s bicycle, she delighted in drives in my father’s cherished company Rover, and always packed food for a picnic, solemnly celebrated on the grass at the road edge, tablecloth six inches away from the occasional wheels of passing traffic. To these occasions, she always brought a solid green football. This, tumbling from the sodden baskets, bursting from shivering arm-holds was a great inconvenience, only exceeded by its cold, wet, snapping unpleasantness when cut up and eaten, which was its function.

In a tranquil, orderly life, obedient to the absolute authority of grownups, one accepted such oddities without question. It was not until I was grown that I learned more about my small, plump, warm-hearted grandma in the black-buttoned boots, who did not belong to Fife, but was the daughter of an East Lothian pit sinker. I discovered that she had fallen in love with a soldier, as my mother had, but had followed her sweetheart on a far greater journey to be married. Her wedding was held on the Rock of Gibraltar, and the first of her six children had been born on the island of Malta.

More than 60 years after that, creating the fictitious adventures of Francis Crawford of Lymond, I took my mother to the church in Valetta where my father’s baptism is recorded, and then on to a picnic where, in that arid, dust-laden heat, the melting, generous sweetness of the Maltese watermelon taught us, after her death, the pleasure my grandmother always believed she was giving us.

My red-headed grandfather, son of an engineman in the Motherwell blast furnaces and another child of the Scottish industrial revolution was, naturally, a Cameron Highlander. By the time I knew him, his moustache and his crown of carefully brushed double loops of tick hair were both white, and he was the towering figure on whose knee one sat to share a poke of boiled sweeties until they were finished. (Possessed of large, square, powerful teeth, all of them were sweet, the Halliday family provide diffident evidence to the fact that it is dentally possible to devour fudge, toffee and chocolate from childhood to dotage with impunity.)

Again, all was not as it seemed. Born in 1866, my Scottish grandfather left school at twelve and twice as a boy tried to run away to enrol in the army. The second time, because he was tall and well-grown, they turned a blind eye and admitted him. The name Halliday has its origins in Lowland Scotland, but it was a Highland regiment my grandfather joined, and my wedding bouquet was tied with his tartan. Where his army career took him — with his little wife and six children — I still do not fully know, although he seemed to find his experiences as a recruiting sergeant among the black houses of the Western Isles no less curious than his travels abroad. Athlete, drummer and (undoubtedly) man of decision, he ended his career as Regiment Sergeant Major, and to the end, Cameron of Lochiel was his hero.

He might have been mine (I have met a few of Lochiel’s handsome descendants), but Robin Hood got in first. I won’t say I didn’t feel a fool, trotting out with my mother in my birthday present of hunting horn and peaked cap with a feather, but everyone seemed to know who I was. It should have taught me always to create a central character with an easily recognized logo, such as the pipe of Dixon Hawke, my next idol, a beaky detective wit patent leather hair whose adventures emerged in weekly paperback pocket-books, price 6d each. Then fantasy was replaced by the inimitable experience of an Edinburgh primary and secondary school education, and hero worship (and gossip) were swept aside for twelve industrious years…

From Dorothy Dunnett’s chapter in A Scottish Childhood, Volume II: More Famous Scots Reminisce, compiled by Nancy E. M. Bailey, published by HarperCollins, copyright The Scottish Council of Save the Children, 1998.