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Neil Munro

A submission for The George Hotel blog from Duncan Beaton, Argyll Archives.

Duncan is a son of Inveraray who resides in Furnace.

“We’ll no’ be beat”, said Dougie, and you might be thinking this is a saying from Neil Munro’s famous Para Handy short stories. In fact, it wasn’t the mate of “the smertest boat in the tred” speaking, but a school friend of mine who came out of retirement to paint our newly acquired cottage in Furnace in 2017. Despite the fact Dougie the Mate was speaking just slightly more than 100 years ago so much remains the same. Para Handy’s “smertest boat” was the puffer “Vital Spark”, and we still have a “Vital Spark” tied up at the pier today.

Neil Munro (1863-1930) was an author and journalist who never lost touch with his roots and friends in Inveraray, a tradition we are also proud and lucky enough to retain today. He was born round the corner from the famous Inveraray Jail (his stepfather was the governor) and every summer he came “home” to holiday at “the house of the brass man’s hand”, the house built on Main Street by Provost Lachlan Campbell, right next door to the George Hotel. He enjoyed a dram and the craic, no doubt often with his old friends over the bar at the George, another tradition we maintain today. In happy circumstances like this he picked up jokes and stories which later formed the humorous tales we still know and love. In that vein, a more recent joke has been converted into the Para Handy Tale below, in a tribute to the George where it was heard, the late author, and the area of Upper Loch Fyne.

Para Handy’s Strange Pudding

I was perturbed by the agitated state of my old friend the mariner when I met him recently on the pier at Inveraray. “What on earth is ailing you, captain?” I said in a jaunty manner aimed at raising his spirits.

“Och, it is yourself”, he replied, and I saw that it was going to take more than the breezy tone of my question to restore Para Handy to the man we all know and love. He was fingering his tongue, as if a piece of tobacco had stuck to it, and at the same time rubbing his stomach in a pitiful manner. A few minutes later we were at the bar in the George with a couple of glasses of good whisky in our hands as I waited for the story to unfold.

“I’m just back from Furnace”, he began, the whisky slowly bringing back some colour to his cheeks, which had been ashen-grey. “where we wass unloading a cargo of coals for the culree with the Vital Spark”. He took another long, long sip from his glass. “I was speaking to a cussin of yours, Peter McInnes, who lives there. Will you be having another dram?”

I knew Peter McInnes, who was related in that way Argyll folk call “forty-second cousin”. I paid for another glass for the captain, but as yet had hardly touched my own. He took another sip, and I could see he was already feeling much better. The queasiness had gone from his stomach, and he no longer felt the urge to rub it.

“Peter wass telling me how these Furnace boys are being hit by the war”, he continued. It was, after all, 1915, and every community was affected. “But quarrymen iss everywhere, and you know the old saying, ‘Furnace born, Furnace bred, strong in the arm and thick in the head’. They work in the quarry, and when they go to America, they work in quarries there too”.

I wasn’t sure where this baur was going, but another replenishment of the glass soon got him on track again. “The last time we called at Furnace, for a load of granite setts, Peter had brought down a tin to show Sunny Jim. ‘Jim’, he says, ‘we keep getting food parcels, and clothes, from our relatives in Kalamazoo, but I’m hanged if I know what’s in this tin’. When they opened it they saw it was a greyish powder”.

“’ I know fine what it is, its one o’ thae rice puddin’s’ said Sunny Jim, confidently. ‘Jist mix it wi’ hot watter, it’ll taste lovely. Wish a’ wis stayin’ long enough tae taste it’”.

“But your cussin Peter was a bit doubtful. ‘Its funny there was no letter with this parcel; there’s usually always a letter from Uncle Bill’. He went away to try out Sunny Jim’s recipe, delivered with such confidence. Man, I was proud of our cook at the time. The Vital Spark is one o’ the smartest in the tred, and now she had a cook to match her status”.

Para Handy was much, much recovered: the effect of good British spirits on the human spirit should not be under-estimated. He chuckled, and slammed his empty glass on the counter. Once it was filled again, he continued with his tale. “So today, when we were delivering or cargo to the Furnace culree, who should we meet but Mrs McInnes, Peter’s wife”.

“’Good day mustress’, I said, ‘and how’s your man keepin’?’. ‘He’s seik’, she replied. ‘The other day he got a tin from America, they’re always sending stuff to keep us goin’. Only this time there was no label, and he asked some fool for advice. So he cooked it like rice pudding, but it tasted awful, so he threw the whole lot in the loch. Then, three days later a letter arrives, from Aunt Bessie in America. She says that Uncle Bill had died, and been cremated, and a tin containing his ashes had been sent, as he had always wanted them scattered in Loch Fyne. She hoped the letter would arrive before the tin, which had no label on it. When Peter heard this, he took to his bed, and is still there’”.

Now it was my turn to drain my glass and try to get some colour back to my cheeks. But my old friend the mariner had a twinkle in his eye. “At least she didn’t know that Sunny Jim wass involved”, he said, “and I suppose Uncle Bill’s last wish wass fulfilled”.


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