Honorary Member of ‘Let it Blaw’
Born 8th October 1929 at Currievale Farm
Died 1st January 2015 in Edinburgh, aged 85
Proposer of the Toast “The Lasses” 1974, 1977
Proposer of the Toast “Let it Blaw – the Balerno Burns Club” 1975, 2003
Proposer of the Toast “The Immortal Memory of Robert Burns” 1976
Recited “Tam o’ Shanter” 1981, 1982, 1983, 1984, 1998, 2009
Proposer of the Toast “Our Hosts” or “The Landlord – Landlady” 1982, 2007
Reply to the Toast “The Lasses” 1985
Recited the Address “To a Haggis” 1989
Reply to the Toast “The Artistes” 1990
Proposer of the Toast “Chairman & Croupiers” 1994
One of Let it Blaw’s “Jolly Beggars” 1999, 2003
Jack was born at Currievale Farm on the 8th Oct 1929, second son of John and Margaret McCaig whose families had been resident for some time in the Leith/Portobello area. Jack’s uncle, Andrew McCaig, also moved from Portobello to Balerno about this time It’s believed Jack and his parents stayed in Balerno for a short time before being forced out their home due to flooding. That took them down to Currievale where John had found work on the farm that came with a tied cottage. Next door to them at the farm, was Willie Shanks (and family) who was also employed there. 60+ years later, Willie told Jack that he could remember bouncing him on his knee when he was an infant to which Jack fired back that it obviously explained why Willie had walked with a xxxxxx limp all his life. How many of us found ourselves at the sharp end of Jack’s instant and cutting wit ?
Jack had an older brother, Tom McCaig who was also a member of ‘Let it Blaw,’ a sister Helen and a younger brother called Richard (Dick) who, having sadly died at the age of 2, is buried in an unmarked grave at Currie churchyard.
Jack’s father was exposed to gas on the Somme during World War I which caused health problems for the rest of his life. Those health problems eventually made the manual work at Currievale difficult so, in 1939, just before war broke out, he took work at Balerno paper mill which came with a tied cottage at Black Linn Bridge. This cottage, at 32 Harlaw Road, down beside the Bavelaw Burn, was very damp and there were rats everywhere, so they eventually moved up to 69 Harlaw Road opposite the entrance to the Bung Mill Rd (or Red Ash Road as it’s now often referred to). This was where Jack met his life-long pals Loppy Ramsay, Jock Donaldson and his brother Bill Donaldson. At that time Jack attended Balerno School.
During the Second Word War, Jack’s father was again called up, this time to help train new recruits due to a shortage of trained soldiers and, according to Jack, his father rose to the rank of Drill Sergeant. As a result of his disciplined work life, on returning home he treated his sons as if they were recruits which didn’t go down well with Jack.
During the war, Jack’s brother Tommy served in the Royal Navy on board the HMS Ark Royal. It’s unknown what his sister was doing at this time but Jack, being the only one at home, became the man of the house. On occasions when his father returned and started ordering him about again, Jack took umbrage and, at the age of 14 years, took the decision to leave home.
Jack found work as a farm labourer down by Newbridge. He lived in an old railway wagon with another farm labourer and they would go to the ‘big house’ for their meals. He worked and lived on various farms including one in Ayrshire before moving to Balerno where he found work at Cockburn Farm. His time spent working around those farms gave Jack his love of Bothy Ballads as singing, barn dances etc were how the farm workers entertained themselves.
Jack found employment with Jock Green, a coal merchant, whose yard was in the rail yards of Station Road, Corstorphine, where the housing estate Paddockholm is now located. His job every morning was to shovel coal from a railway wagon into hundredweight bags; when the wagon was empty he delivered the sacks by lorry carrying them to the coal cellars some of which were upstairs.
While working on the farms, Jack was exempt from National Service but, once working for the Coal Merchant, he was called up. He joined the RAF and was stationed at Church Fenton in Yorkshire where he was put to work driving a petrol tanker. As he was the only one in his squad too far from home to return at weekends, he would volunteer for other driving jobs like chauffeuring officers or delivering vehicles/papers around the country. This was where he met Sarah Collins who was originally from Cork. At the end of his National Service, Jack and Sally (as she was known) married and moved back to Balerno staying with Jack’s parents (his father having mellowed a bit). It was there that their son, Jack McCaig Jnr. (also a member of ‘Let it Blaw’) was born.
Jack found employment at Deanpark Farm working for Paddy Phillips as a milkman and farm labourer. There, he worked the fields (later to become the Bells housing estate) with a horse and plough in addition to bottling and delivering the milk in an old Jaguar car. At this time, the family stayed at Deanpark Cottages (where the top car park is now) which were tied homes for farm workers.
In 1956, they moved to a cottage at Cockburn Farm where Jack had again found work as a milkman. Unfortunately, it was short lived as Jack had a disagreement with the owner, Alec Buchanan-Smith, and those of us who knew Jack will not be the least bit surprised to hear that the worthy gaffer was unceremoniously told what he could do with his job.
Jack & family then moved to a cottage at Gladhouse Reservoir where he’d found work as a Tractor-man and Assistant Waterkeeper. During that period, in December 1957, Jack’s mother died. Jack moved the family back to his parents’ house at 69 Harlaw Road where space was tight with Jack, Sarah and four children, together with Jack’s father all living in a two-bedroom flat.
Jack took employment driving a lorry for Jock Bryce whose yard in Juniper Green was where the ‘Iceland’ supermarket was later built, and the family moved into a council house at 15 Deanpark Avenue where they stayed for many years. It was during this period that Jack and Loppy tried to join “Let it Blaw.” Dairgie Orr asked Jack if they could sing “The Lass of Ballochmyle” as that was the only thing ‘Let it Blaw’ needed. When they said no, they was told there were no vacancies.
This niggled them quite a bit and, on their Sunday walk in the Pentlands, the matter was debated. It was still raging on when they walked into the bar of the Marchbank Hotel which, at that time, was owned and run by Archie Dixon. Archie told them he had received an invitation to the upcoming “Let it Blaw” supper which didn’t go down well at all. Archie said, “Why don’t you form your own Burns Club, you can hold it here, and we’ll do the catering.” This, they decided, was the way ahead; they would invite people who knew a bit of Burns, Archie would see to the meal, and the Marchbank Burns Club was thereby formed in 1959; the rest, as they say, is history.
Jack moved on to take employment driving a lorry for Harvey’s Caravans, the only caravan dealer in Scotland at the time. Their yard was where the Sainsbury Shop and Filling Station (long known as the “Jet Garage”) is now located in Currie. The buildings in the yard burned down leaving Jack, once again, out of work. He found a job driving a caravan transporter for Sandy Henderson delivering and locating caravans on sites throughout the UK. After that, he drove a grain lorry for the ‘Alexander Inglis’ grain mill in Juniper Green before working with ‘John Bryce Hauliers’ of Juniper Green where he served as Transport Manager. He eventually realised the business was running down so he took the decision to start his own haulage business using contacts he’d built up over the years.
In 1966, Jack finally became a Member of ‘Let it Blaw.’ He was the first to admit that at that time, his knowledge of the life and work of Burns was at best sketchy.
In the early 70s he married Bett Sim, a teacher at Dalry Primary School in Edinburgh, who he met through their shared love of song. They bought a home in Malleny Avenue and became regular fixtures at events in the village involving traditional music and song. The Saturday evening sessions in Brows with Harry & Robin Rankin were always popular.
Jack did his homework and, by the 1974 Supper, he had built up the confidence to propose the Toast to the Lasses at ‘Let it Blaw.’ The next year, he proposed the Toast to ‘Let it Blaw’ and, at the 1996 Supper, he was invited to propose the Toast to the Immortal Memory of Burns. Jack had well and truly arrived at ‘Let it Blaw.’ His membership, however, was by no means lacking in controversy and, amid much hilarity, banter and uproarious moments over the years, some older club members will recall flashes of temper and resignations associated with Jack and his strong views.
Jack’s business, which had been successful for many years, failed due to other companies’ financial problems causing them to crash while owing him large sums. For some time, he drove throughout the UK for his friend Bob Harrower until he decided that he’d had enough of sleeping in cabs. He ended up working for Kenny Donaldson doing odd jobs in Kenny’s yard eventually retiring in his mid-70s.
Together with Bett, Jack was one of the Founder Members of the Balerno Folk Club where many of the bothy ballads and folk songs picked up during his life on the road were heard over the years not only at the Balerno club, but at other clubs and folk festivals the length and breadth of the Country.
Jack became extremely well known throughout the UK in folk clubs and anywhere traditional music and song was to be heard. He frequented the Grove Tavern in Wimbledon which was close to where the lorries parked up for the night after making deliveries. It had a number of Irish regulars and Jack befriended the landlord. On one of his visits, it was decided to hold a Burns Supper in the pub. So, on Jack’s next visit, he took tartan, haggis, Burns books, speeches and, of course songs down to London in his lorry. It was something of a one-man supper ably backed by none other than than Alan & Carol Prior who, in those days, stayed down in the London area. It was the first of many such Suppers in the Grove Tavern. Jack also organised Burns Suppers every year at the Tilt Hotel in Blair Atholl. His work took him the length and breadth of Scotland and England. How many more such events did he have a hand in during his time on the road ?
Then the story of Jack sharing a room with Bill Grieve and Ken Falconer at the Carrbridge Ceilidh Week. His room-mates were fed up with Jack crashing in at all hours, wakening them up, then falling asleep instantly snoring for all to hear. One night, they decided to teach him a lesson and took the bulb out the light in the room. Jack returned in the early hours, found the light didn’t work, so reached up to replace the bulb. His fingers touched the bulb socket, he got a shock, and only those of us who knew him could begin to comprehend the resultant uproar.
Jack’s ruckus renditions of many Burns songs and poems including “Tam o’ Shanter” (occasionally recited together with Bett) and the “Address to the Unco Guid” became legendary and what they lacked in accuracy was more than made up for in hilarity. He was part of the chaotic and frequently performed Willie Brew’d a Peck o’ Maut with Jimmy Johnstone and initially Loppy Ramsay who, in his later years, was later replaced by Alex Hood. The photos below are one such occasion with Loppy taking the part of the barman serving drams between each verse.
As ever with such things, damage could have been worse,
Jimmy rolling about in pain, yet he’d only one rib burst,
“Loppy” poured medicinal drams to serve where Jimmy fell,
McCaig tripped o’er me on the floor and dinged the drams tae hell.
Jack’s heckling, sharp wit and banter at the Suppers were legendary and without equal. Those brave enough to take him on by throwing comments back, were mercilessly shot down with Jack’s next and immediate retort.
In 1983, Jack and Bett went their own ways with Jack buying a small house in the village of Glenbrook. It was a tiny house that many of us thought barely big enough for one; we later learned that it was the same house in which Willie Shanks, wife and five children stayed during World War II.
Tales of Jack’s adventures as he made his way home to Glenbrook after a few glasses in Brows, or at the Folk Club or maybe ‘Let it Blaw,’ laced with a liberal helping of McCaig’s own poetic licence, could keep a company in hysterics over manys a dram or two. How many remember the story about Jack going into the new Chinese take-away at the top of the village and asking if they delivered to Glenbrook. When told they would, he ordered a beef curry & boiled rice for delivery and told the bewildered Chinese man to take him with it !
Or the occasion in November 1998, in the pitch dark of a Glenbrook winter, Let it Blaw’s Jolly Beggars gathered in McCaig’s home for their first rehearsal. Everyone was presented with what could best be described as McCaig-size drams, the words of the various parts were picked up, and half-way through the first song, the power went off as most of the Balerno area was plunged into darkness. Jack’s solution to such an unexpected problem was to light some candles, throw another log in the stove and top up everyone’s glass whether they wanted it or not. The power eventually came back on but it’s doubtful anyone could remember anything by the time they left. However, by the day of the 1999 Supper, the performance was ready to go, and Jack was to the fore. He again played his part when The Jolly Beggars were resurrected in 2003.
Jack was very active in both Burns Clubs. He was President of the Marchbank Burns Club in 1984 and President of ‘Let it Blaw’ in 1995. He had little or no time for committees; he said on countless occasions that “if you want anything done, get a committee of one.”
In 2012, Jack was elected Honorary President of ‘Let it Blaw’, a position he held for the three years prior to his death.
On New Year’s Day 2015, word came through that Jack had died in Edinburgh Royal Infirmary. Next day, at the annual 2nd January Gathering in Brows, a tribute to Jack began “McCaig always liked to do something special on New Year’s Day.” There was great hilarity; if anyone else had died, it might have been thought insensitive, but there’s no doubt the old rascal would have been joining in with the laughter ……… wherever he had gone.
His passing was marked at ‘Let it Blaw,’ the Balerno Folk Club, the Balerno SNP Burns Supper and, of course, at the Marchbank Burns Club who had lost their Founder. Jim Weatherston, the Bard of the Marchbank Burns Club presented an oration in remembrance of Jack at their annual supper hastily written after Jack’s death. Click on the following link to access the text of “The Empty Chair.”
The folk singer/songwriter Alan Bell had previously penned a song in Jack’s honour called the “Wagon Driving Man.” It was sung by Charlie Husband at the 2015 ‘Let it Blaw’ Supper. You can see the lyrics of Alan’s tribute to Jack at “Wagon Driving Man.”
Balerno is a quieter place with the passing of Jack McCaig. The disagreements, the hilarity, the drams, recitations and song, the discord, the banter, uproarious craic and the friendship that went everywhere with him in like proportion, have similarly passed leaving something of a void for someone to fill. Finding an appropriate candidate might be a bit of a challenge.