David McVey

Madagascar at Dusk by Gregory Antollino

Who Do You Think You Are?

James Soutar’s journey to South Africa began in Maryhill.

When he was a child he could have had little hope of ever escaping the huddled chaos of slums where his family lived. His father was a laborer in a factory down near Partick while his mother did odd cleaning jobs. They could have been comfortable, even relatively prosperous by the standards of Glasgow working folk but for the fact that James had three brothers and three sisters.

James was a big boy, strong and bright and, though he wouldn’t have recognized the word, ambitious. One day, aged thirteen, he came out of school, didn’t feel like going home, and followed the skirling of a pipe band down Maryhill Road. It was a military band, and they turned into Maryhill Barracks, and James’ mind fired into life at the visions of soldiering he pictured behind the gates.

He did not go home. He hung around the Barracks, sneaked in, pestered the Recruiting Sergeant, lied about his age, his parents, his schooling, everything. Finally, they relented. James was gone for a soldier. He never saw his home or his parents or his brothers or sisters again. Yet in his early army days, in the grim regimentation of Maryhill Barracks, he was within a stone’s throw of them.

A massive tower block soared above rows of flats. There were even some terraced and semi-detached houses with gardens. A hundred yards off, traffic rumbled steadily on Maryhill Road.

“You lookin’ for something, pal,”’ said a middle-aged woman pushing a pram, who had stopped near me. I suppose, standing there looking up and along and round about me, I did look odd.

I smiled and tried to look reassuring. “I’m from South Africa. Originally, anyway. I’m chasing up my family history.”

“Right, like Who Do You Think You Are? on telly.” Another woman, about the same age as the first, had appeared. It was she who now spoke. “Whit’s yer name?”

“Pienaar,” I said.

“No many of them roon Maryhill,” said the first woman.

“There’s every kind o name here noo,” said the second. “We’re right diverse, so we are.”

“It’s not a family member I’m after, just someone connected to my people. His name was Soutar. He lived near here and then joined the army, at Maryhill Barracks, in 1893.”

“Loads of Soutars here, still,” said the second woman.

“But the Barracks?” said the third woman. “They’re long gone.”

“But we still call this ‘The Barracks.’ The hooses that are built on it. See that wa?” She indicated a large stone wall that was much older than any of the nearby houses; I nodded, for I could indeed see the wall. “That was the Barracks wall. That’s all that’s left, that and the gatehouse.”

They left me soon afterwards. I went over to the wall and laid a hand on it; it was cold, damp and mossy. James Soutar had known this wall. Here, the story had begun.

James Soutar and soldiering were a good match; he had the right combination of physical strength and cleverness. More, his impoverished background had prepared him to endure discomfort and hunger, an important quality for anyone who served in a conflict.

For, yes, Soutar went to South Africa for the war against the Boers and served with courage, intelligence and distinction; many of his supposed social superiors in the army, of course, did not. It would not have been acceptable for a working-class Glasgow boy to rise too high, of course, but by the time the war was over, he was a sergeant. In the last year of hostilities, during the war’s guerrilla phase, he had worked in intelligence, trekking across the veld trying to find out about Boer activity from farmers and their families.

Soutar remained in the army after the South African War. He was still serving when the Great War began. By then he was a Lieutenant, an incredible achievement for an ordinary Glasgow boy. After some months in Flanders and France, he served in the East African campaign. By 1916 he had moved again, to the Union of South Africa, for an assignment that harked back to his Boer War days.

At the start of the war there had been concerns that a fresh Boer rebellion might be fomented by Germany. This came to nothing but the British were still suspicious about the loyalties of many Boers in the interior. And so Soutar was given a horse, an identity as a Scottish South African trader, and a pack of things to sell. He wandered through the veld, visiting suspected German sympathizers and trying to assess their loyalties. He would then approach one of a network of contacts who would radio back to the British in Pretoria.

I arrived in Pretoria by train from Tambo Airport. I’d flown in there just the day before, and I was tired as well as hot. I was used to England’s climate by now, though the chill Glasgow windy blasts in Scotland had been a shock. I checked into my hotel, showered, changed, and then set about hiring a car for the next day.

It was a long journey, and the car’s air conditioning was intermittent. But finally, I remember topping a low steady rise in the road, a telephone line keeping me company all the way like on some turnpike in the American far west; I even found myself humming “Wichita Lineman.” And then suddenly, out of nowhere, a turnoff appeared, a sun-baked dirt track running off to the left, signposted for ‘Duikerspruit.’

The insect symphony of chirruping and singing was at its daily height. The sun beat down on Soutar and his horse, and he knew that they needed rest and shade. He also knew that just beyond an obvious kopje, hazy in the sun, was Duikerspruit.

Dijk Pienaar had fought with the Boers in 1899-1902, but was now reconciled to British rule, or so he had said. He was a popular man, though, charismatic, influential. It was important to be sure of his loyalty. Sure enough, once Soutar had passed to the west of the kopje, there was Duikerspruit, a long, low complex of buildings; stables, animal sheds, grain and feed stores, garages. It must hold a fair population, but things seemed quiet today. Soutar noticed that there were no motor vehicles to be seen anywhere.

There appeared to be no one about even when he reached the main farmhouse. Soutar tethered his horse and went up the steps to the veranda of the house. A nervous, sun-ripened white woman appeared at the door. She opened it and came out.

Mrs Pienaar was in her early twenties, an Englishwoman by birth who had married just the year before. She was struggling to cope with this lonely life in the great dry ocean of the veldt. All this she explained as she poured a beer for the mysterious Scotsman who had arrived out of the sun.

“Dijk and his men are driving cattle just now,” she explained, “and they will not be back for some days. Some of our fencing has been damaged.

It seemed a reasonable explanation.

“It is too late for you to move on tonight,” the woman continued. “There are clean beds in the bunkroom where the men sleep.

“The black men?” said Soutar.

“Yes. Where the black men sleep. I will take your horse for stabling and when I come back we will go there,” she said. He wasn’t sure; was there a coy smile? Had she seen through his trader’s disguise? As soon as he heard the woman leave the house, he hurried out into the hallway and tried three rooms before he was sure he was in the couple’s bedroom. There were various pieces of furniture besides the bed, but his eye was drawn to a heavy brown escritoire in one corner.

One of the drawers was stuffed with letters. Hard-bitten farmers like Pienaar didn’t commit much to paper, so these would be important. He started leafing through them, wondering if it might be as well just to take them with him. Once back on the veldt he could examine them at leisure.

There was a sound at the door. He spun round. He’d been looking too long. There was Pienaar’s wife standing in the doorway.

“It’s all right. I won’t tell him anything.” She gave a strange half-smile.

The track was hard-packed earth, but, with no potholes or bumps, it was an easy drive. Prosperous post-and-rail fences ran alongside it, and there were cattle grazing amongst the scrub. The track wound past a kopje surmounted by a mobile phone mast, and, once past this, the farm came into view.

“He had a son born near the end of the war. People say he abandoned him, had him sent away, somewhere, but I don’t know anything beyond the rumors.”

I stopped the car for a moment. It was a big farmhouse, modern and bright with balconies and a small garden in front. Behind it was a city of barns and sheds, their roofs gleaming in the southern sun. There were what looked like orchards surrounding the buildings and more grazing beyond that, as far as the eye could see. Tractors buzzed here and there, and other machinery toiled in some field where crops looked to be near harvesting. It was disappointing. There seemed to be little left that could date back to 1916. Perhaps no memories remained either.

The Farmer, James Kinbu, greeted me, a big, smiling-faced man, dark-skinned and tall and strong. He showed me into the house and poured iced drinks for us.

“Yes, the farm buildings have been renewed several times,” he answered me. “There will be no trace of what was here at the time you seek.”

“Do you know much about the history of the farm? The people, I mean?”

He smiled and shrugged. “I only took over in 2003. I’m not sure the owners prior to the 90s would have wanted much to do with me. The man you speak of, though, Pienaar, he is still spoken of. He left some time after the war, the first war. There had been talk that during the war he had favored the Germans. He had a son born near the end of the war. People say he abandoned him, had him sent away, somewhere, but I don’t know anything beyond the rumors.”

He showed me round the farm. It was modern and efficient, yet there was still an epic scale to it. You could sense what a pioneering operation it might have seemed early last century, vast and remote at the same time.

I had an enjoyable meal with the Kinbus, their extended family, and senior employees in a vast dining room. Mrs Kinbu asked, “But your surname, Pienaar. Are you a descendent of the man who farmed here?”

“No,” I smiled. “I’m just researching him. I’ll let you know what I find out.”

It was a different cover story from the one I’d given the ladies in Glasgow, but it was still essentially true. As I drove back to my hotel through the growing gloom of the wild evening, I was already planning the following day, a visit to Pretoria’s libraries and archives.

Soutar was demobbed in 1919 having had a good war. His years of special service and time as an officer meant that he ended his army career a comfortably-off man. Not rich, no, by no means rich, but he would be able to live the life of a moderately well-off gentleman. He had no desire to return to Glasgow; he had never been in touch with his family, and, in any case, his accent had faded. His years in South Africa had given him a taste for country living. He had even considered settling on the veldt, but there were obvious risks with that. Better to head back home or, at least, to England.

He had bought a country property unseen, just a cottage set among farms near Aldershot, a place he knew well. In January 1920 he alighted at a country station, a single platform, and a couple of sidings with coal dust rising in a windborne cloud. The train ambled off, itself formed of a single coach and an elderly locomotive.

“Mr Soutar?” came a voice. It was the driver of the car he had booked. The man helped him with his trunk. It was his world, his life, that trunk. Out of it he had to create a new existence after twenty-six years in the army. Many found it a frightening world out there, he knew, more so than soldiering in wartime.

The house was just five minutes’ drive from the station, a former estate cottage with four rooms and water from a well round the back. But it was his. For months he worked to improve it, make it habitable and bright for the bride that he hoped would soon join him there. The dilapidated outbuildings he replaced with a neat new workshop so that he could practice joinery, a trade he’d learned in his early army years. Perhaps it would help him make some extra money.

Distances in England seemed minimal after the great open spaces of South Africa. I arrived back home and spent a rare night in my home. Then I took a train to Aldershot and picked up the car I’d hired. Once out of the town, it only took a few minutes to reach a new estate of five- and six-apartment houses. It wasn’t quite a gated settlement, but when you turned into it from the spine road, you passed between concrete gateposts with lion heads in relief. This estate, I understood, now occupied the footprint of Welberly Station, the station at which Soutar had alighted. It was another short drive to a trading estate with Home Bargains, Pets at Home, and all the usual places. Somewhere in the middle of the car park, according to my research, Soutar’s cottage had stood. It was demolished only during the second war, but by then it had lain unoccupied since 1921.

Pienaar’s return to Duikerspruit was like something out of one of those D. W. Griffith films they showed in Pretoria. At first there was just a distant mushroom cloud of dust, like the warning of a storm. Then distant, stick-like figures emerged. Finally, Pienaar and his men, their horses, cattle, and even a couple of lorries, became discernible. The farm itself became alive as those left behind scuttled about preparing to greet the master and his men.

Pienaar sensed something different about his wife, some mood, some attitude, but he was too hearty a personality to take much notice of it at first. And then she became pregnant. This was no surprise but when the child, a boy, appeared just eight months after his return, things became clear even to him. She claimed the child was premature, but he was too big and strong and healthy for that.

He was not by nature a cruel man, but he could not resist tormenting his wife with questions about the strange man who had appeared at the farm and disappeared after making free with his marital property. Gradually, he learned enough about the man. He had connections with the British, with their army and their civil administration. He’d find this man.

Meanwhile, there was the child. He bore with it until it was just short of two years old. It no longer needed its mother, and he had never needed it. Arrangements were made, and the boy was placed with adoptive parents who couldn’t have children, an English couple who lived a long, long way away, in the Cape.

Now there just remained the task of identifying the Scotsman, and finding him …

I parked near the entrance to the Redan Road Cemetery in Aldershot. My instructions for finding the grave were a bit like crossword clues. Along for five, left for sixteen and then …

Ivy was rather claiming the line of early twentieth century stones, but the one I was looking for was at least legible. Some of the others were not.

Lieutenant James McNeill Soutar

Born Glasgow 17th January 1878

Killed Welberly Estate Cottage 5th February 1920

Raised by his friends in the community

The stone may have been raised by the local people he knew, but Soutar, a prosperous man, had effectively paid for it himself. No pauper’s grave for him. It was telling that he was described as having been ‘killed’ rather than having just ‘died.’

Soutar ate in the pub on Monday evenings. It was quiet then, but was still a cheerful and friendly experience that gave him a break from cooking. He would read the day’s paper and seek out Partick Thistle’s result from the Saturday, his last link with Glasgow. He left the pub at nine. It had been a long day, for he was working on some dog kennels for a nearby estate. It was just a short walk to the cottage.

No one knew when Pienaar had reached the cottage. He’d gone by railway yet no passenger on any train remembered seeing him. He had waited outside the cottage in chill February rain, a bitter man who liked to control everything in his life but who had finally lost control of something.

When Soutar arrived he had no chance. A big strong South African pounced on him and smashed in his skull with a heavy piece of wood, picked up from Soutar’s workshop. After he had killed the man who had lain with his wife, all power and will seemed to ebb from Pienaar. He was still sitting on the front step, soaked, when the postman found him, and Soutar’s body, next day.

Human nature never changed, nor did its capacity to inflict hurt and disrupt lives. Everything else changed, though. I was standing on a footbridge that crossed a fast, two-lane road. In the distance, off the right-hand carriageway, on which vehicles hurtled towards us, was a large petrol station with a café and a shop.

“The prison was hit by a bomb during the war,” said the man with me, a local historian I had exchanged emails with. “There was no saving it, and it was fully demolished after the war. They built a small factory on the site, but when this road was being constructed it went – it was empty by then. I’m sure they found the remains of some of the hanged prisoners, including this Pienaar, but kept quiet about it. Who’s going to make a fuss about some murderers?”

I nodded. It was a sad end, a sad place to end.

“And he was your, what, grandfather?”

“No, the man he murdered was my great-grandfather. But my great-grandmother was Pienaar’s wife. That was the problem. My grandfather was brought up by adoptive parents in the Cape. He stayed in England after the war and stumbled on this story, I suppose, when he took back the name Pienaar.”

The cars whizzed beneath us, relentlessly.

“He eventually moved back to South Africa. His own son detested Apartheid and fled to England with his wife, my mother, and his two sons. From scratch I did the same research as my grandfather.” I no longer knew if what I’d learned had made me feel better or worse.

The man nodded towards the petrol station. “Everything gets forgotten, doesn’t it? Even memories get built over.”

I smiled. He was right.

David McVey lectures in Communication at New College Lanarkshire. He has published over 120 short stories and a great deal of nonfiction that focuses on history and the outdoors. He enjoys hillwalking, visiting historic sites, reading, watching telly, and supporting his hometown football team, Kirkintilloch Rob Roy FC.

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