What constitutes courage?
What makes one man a hero?
To be admired and emulated. To be praised.
And another, a dull figure in the background.
A shadow. Forgotten.


No story can ever be complete without mention of the supporting cast. In the case of the East Fife Technical College, Lower Methil Annexe, that cast would consist of one man - the Jannie.
Or Janitor, if you insist on using the formal title.
Archibald McCrae.
Origin - unknown. Age - unknown. Command of the English language - limited. Keeper of the keys, cleaner of the toilets and about as forthcoming as the coal he shovelled into the furnace that powered the Annexe's heating system. The heating was ineffectual at best, rarely worked on a cold wintry day, and was usually absent when you really needed it. Archie McCrae was the man for the job. He and the furnace were soulmates.

Archie was there before I started work at the Annexe, and I truly believe that he will be there when they knock the place down; sifting through the rubble, looking for any trinket that he could sell to some passer-by. If Archie had a weakness (let's face it - Archie had many, but we'll consider his main failing!), it was the drink. Drink costs money. Jannies aren't at the top level of salary scales. The need for drink meant a need for money. And Archie knew a thousand ways to extract a little extra cash. For the drink.

Archie was never an alcoholic. Oh no! In those days, some people just drank more than others. Substantially more. Archie would sell (or pawn) anything that he could get his hands on. He never stole anything. Just borrowed whatever was left unattended, and the drink made him forget about bringing it back. The occasional forceful reminder to return (borrowed) property, usually resulted in some other object vanishing. One item pawned to redeem another. The students called him 'Jesus' McCrae. The original redeemed souls. Archie redeemed pawn tickets. The only area where Archie was ahead, was wine. Archie could transform anything into wine!
Nobody really minded. Archie was a fact of life. If you left anything lying around, you suffered the consequences.

Everybody had an Archie story to tell. As I often worked on to cover the night-school classes, I encountered Archie more often than most. Archie was a 'background' kind of guy. During the day, you rarely saw him. Only a hacking cough from the boiler-room betrayed his presence.
The night belonged to Archie (and, of course, anything he found lying about!). If he wasn't down the Brae, in the Boat Tavern or along at the Tower Bar, he would wander the corridors of the Annexe. Out of the light but somehow, always near.

The day classes finished at four o'clock and the night-school ran from six to nine, with a ten minute break at twenty five past seven. It was hardly worth the effort to travel home at four and come back at six, so anyone who was doing night school would hang around the building. Getting prepared for the classes, brewing a cup of tea or simply reading a book. Teachers (and me) would relax in the staff room, whilst the students would lounge around in the common room. Reading, playing cards or dominoes, or trying to extract a free bottle from the soft drink machine.
During the classes, Archie would be trying to extract the money from the machine - a wasted effort as the students were very good at obtaining their soft drink at zero expense. After a few muttered comments, Archie would give up. Soft drinks? Archie? No way!

On one occasion, at the night school, I had lent one of my treasured book collection to one of the teachers, Jimmy Baxter. When he wasn't practicing his golf swing, Jimmy liked a good read. Especially mysteries and ghost stories. Anything spooky. And I had a classic. H. P. Lovecraft. 'At the Mountains of Madness'. A horror classic. Howard Phillips Lovecraft was a strange, strange person. And he wrote horror stories that were uncomfortably realistic. Great writing, but spooky. Jimmy was loving it.

Alas, the bell rang for the start of night-school, and reluctantly, Jimmy had to break off the narrative at one of the more exciting twists in the story. He carefully marked the page with a Sterling cigarette coupon, and laid it on the staff room table.
"Good stuff, this. I'm quite looking forward to the next bit, at the break."
I nodded my head. I'd already read the book, and Howard knew his stuff.
"I'll bet that you can't guess what happens next."
As it happened, even my guess was nowhere near the mark.

Off we trudged, up the stairs to the classrooms. Two gladiators entering the arena. Night-school students are usually there because they want to be, but after a long day, you're tired, and so are the lions. One careless slip, one unfortunate remark, and you can add another scar to experience. Nobody's fault. Just tiredness. Hot soldering irons and high voltages can be very educational.
All in all, though. Willing students are good students, and I enjoyed night-school.

Come the break, I was ready to brew up a cuppa to wash away the solder fumes from my throat, and Jimmy was mentally re-reading the book, ready to face the next exciting twist from Mr. Lovecraft. We rattled down the stairs - ten minute break, remember? - and into the staff room. Jimmy headed straight for the table. Stopped. Looked around. Looked at the table.
"The book! Where's the book?"
"On the table, Jimmy. Where you left it."
I was spooning tea into the pot as the kettle started to boil.
"It isn't, you know. It's gone."
"It has to be there!" I said. "Nobody's been in here but us."
"See for yourself." retorted Jimmy. "Just that ..."
Jimmy's speech just seemed to trail away.
"That ... On the table ..."
"What on the table?"
I headed across to stand beside Jimmy.
"Oh that!" I exclaimed. Then more cautiously "What's that ... ?"
The 'that' in question, was a cheese sandwich. A processed cheese sandwich with one bite out of it. Slightly distressed and very cheap cheese, dry and curled up at the edges. No book. No 'Mountains of Madness'. Just a small mound of cheese and stale bread.
"You were right" stated Jimmy. "I never would have guessed what would happen next."
Spooky. Definitely spooky.

The book was gone. Never to appear again to mortal man. We reckoned that Archie had 'borrowed' it to pay for the drink, but no-one was prepared to do a forensic comparison between the bite in the sandwich and Archie's false teeth. H.P. Lovecraft would have appreciated the reasoning. There are some mysteries best left unsolved. I did buy another copy eventually, and Jimmy did learn what lay beyond the 'Mountains of Madness'. Recommended, if you like a good horror story.
The cheese sandwich went into the bin.

Archie? Well Archie kept on doing what Archie did. He rarely bothered anyone - no money in that! Did his job in a passable manner (when he was actually present at the Annexe, and not occupying a bar stool or a pawn shop counter), secure in the knowledge that no-one would ever report him. This was Methil. We all knew someone ten times worse than Archie. He caused little fuss, rarely offended, and asked for very little.

He did ask a favour one night.
His bus hadn't turned up - the last of the evening - and he lived miles away. Jimmy and I often shared cars. We lived in the same direction, and it halved our travelling costs. Archie lived well off our route home, but we'd never see one of our own stuck. A bit seedy, a bit the worse for drink, but still one of ours. Jimmy was driving that night, and agreed.
I surrendered my usual front seat perch in Jimmy's little two door Hillman Imp. Archie would be getting out first, and it would save the hassle.
After the last night school class, we all clambered into Jimmy's car.

Archie lived in Mountfluerie, so we headed in the direction of Leven. It was quicker to take a shortcut over the Iron Brig, rather than take the main road over the Bawbee Brig into Leven. It was dark, and the Iron Brig route was a narrow, unlit winding road. We were in no rush, and Jimmy was a careful driver.
Good job, too! As we drove onto the actual Iron Brig itself, Jimmy just managed to see a dark figure pushing an overloaded - and unlit - bicycle. A quick tap on the brakes and a sharp swerve, and we were by. Some old age pensioner, with his bing bike and a bag of sea coal. The bike, like many of its kind, had no tyres, so it would be unfair to expect a red rear light. It's a long push with a bag of coal, all the miles from the Wellesley bing to Mountfluerie. It was better than charity in the minds of many a retired worker.
Archie was unprepared for the avoiding action, and the drink kept his reactions about two seconds behind the rest of the world. His head smacked off the windscreen, then Archie rebounded back into the seat. Seatbelts, if fitted at all, were pretty much optional in those days.
"Are you OK, Archie?" I asked to the back of his greasy, dark hair.
"Aye. Ah'm alright. Ah'm alright." came the reply after a two second delay.
"Ah'm alright."
"As long as you're sure, Archie ..."
"Aye. Ah'm fine. Just a wee knock. And here's mah hoose. Jist drap me aff here."
Well, two seconds past his 'hoose'.
Archie got out, clutching his wee bag o' bits and pieces, and wandered, slightly erratically, back the way we had come. I struggled out from the back seat, and dropped into the front passenger seat.
"Do you think he'll be allright? He looks a bit dazed." asked a concerned Jimmy.
I studied the retreating figure for a moment.
"He's OK. He normally walks like that."

As Jimmy headed off up the road, I returned my view to the front screen. Everything looked kind of blurry. Then I realised that there was a big, greasy mark on the windscreen. Where Archie's head had bounced. I pointed out the grease-spot to Jimmy.
"Must have been his Brylcreem." returned Jimmy. "It'll be murder getting it off!"
I made a closer - but not too close - examination of the offending mark.
"Not Brylcreem, Jimmy. I'd recognise the smell if it was. I reckon that it's Echo Margarine. You should be able to get it off with a couple of slices of pan bread."
Couldn't help it. We both burst out laughing. Methil humour, I suppose. Never big on obvious sympathy. Archie would never waste good money on grooming, when there was a drink to be had.

Archie McRae. A quiet little nobody. Passing through life in an alcoholic fog, leaving no mark and never amounting to much.
Or so we thought ...

There was nothing special in the way that day started. Just another Thursday. And Thursday meant night school. A long day.
The day-school went smoothly enough. Nobody got electrocuted in the Electrical Engineering class. Wee Wullie made it through School's Day Release with only the occasional outburst. Jimmy finished 3 under par in the Colour Television Room. The Police never came near the Motor Vehicle Department (not since last Thursday, anyway!) and the College Principal stayed in Kirkcaldy, and his car retained its wheels for another day.
The time between day-school and night-school was filled with a couple of bridies from Lightbody's Bakery and a cup of Eastern Rose tea from the Co-op, followed by a pleasant hour of Arthur C. Clarke's 'Childhood's End'. (If you only ever read one book in your life, that would be a fair choice)
By the time the bell rang for the start of night-school, I reckoned that we were over the Hump, a few hours of setting out projects for the next day. Then Friday ... and the weekend.

The book went into my overall pocket ( I was learning! ) and I settled down comfortably in the Lab Technician's Room. I pushed the door to, not anticipating any interruption from the two upstairs classrooms, and focussed on the projects for the next day. By quarter past seven, the job was done. I checked my watch, and considered nipping down early to the staff-room to organise the tea. Any further thought was shattered by the appalling screech and wail that erupted outside the door.
"What the ...!"
You can guess the rest, but the words would have been drowned out by sheer volume of noise out there in the hallway. My battered brain and assaulted ears finally struggled towards recognition and amazement.
"Bagpipes! That's all it can be. They're bagpipes!"
Don't get me wrong. I have a fondness for the pipes. I grew up with regular parades of pipe bands and highland games, colliery bands and Miner's Galas. I'm Scottish. I know I am, because the sound makes the hairs on my neck rise, and the blood rises to thoughts of valour and great deeds. I had never before heard them played in a small corridor with stone walls. Never mind the Lone Piper on the battlements. Try them at full volume inside a stone vault!
Bloodcurdling! And that was with the door closed!

I had to know. Who on earth was playing the pipes in the corridors of the Annexe? At the risk of possible permanent loss of hearing, I pushed the door open ...

There he was. In the full regalia of a Pipe-Major. Face set and blowing like a champion. Kilt swinging as he marched up the corridor, and at just the right time for the music, smartly about-turning and heading back.
Archibald McCrae. Giving everything to 'The Black Bear', and I'll swear that the walls were playing the drums right back at him.
When I finally managed to divert some of my attention from Pipe Major McCrae (I never, ever thought of him as the Jannie, after that), I noticed all the other awestruck faces, gaping out from the part-open classroom doors. Every face had the jaw sagging open. Like mine. No one knew what to think, or what to do. Except Archie.

'The Black Bear' swung handily into 'Blue Bonnets o'er the Border'. Feet everywhere started tapping, and hands began to complement the rhythm. He was amazing. Not a single person thought to stop him. Archie was playing, and we were carried along with it. And loving it.
The jaunty 'I love a Lassie' was followed by 'Lovely Stornaway'. 'Scotland the Brave' brought in the cheering, and 'The Barren Rocks of Aden' raised a unity and pride, as nothing before had in the Lower Methil Annexe.
At last, a pause. A building of breath for something more. The cheering faded, the feet were stilled. We waited, all fired up and tensed with excitement. The silence stretched out further ...
The strain was unbearable ...
Let slip the leash ...

Then Archie started playing. His final tune. Beginning low, and quiet. We strained to hear ...
'Lochaber No More'. A lament. Soft, and yet with power beyond reasoning. And with its quiet draw, the martial audience was swept into sorrow and remembering. The battle over. The blood stilled. And now the price. Few will admit it now, but there were tears in many an eye.
There might have been in mine ...

The music done, the pipes silent, the Lone Piper made a perfect about turn. The shoulders straight, the head proud, Pipe Major MaCrae marched away, down the corridor. Left-wheeled, and was gone.

I have no idea how long we all stood there, before someone moved and broke the spell. No one spoke. There were no words possible. Perhaps later, we might wonder, but not now. My mind sought sanctuary in the simple things.
A cup of tea ... Yes! A cup of tea ...

The rest of the evening passed. Leaving no mark, and never amounting to much. Friday too. And then the weekend.
By Monday, we had all talked and talked. Wondering why and what? No-one had the courage to ask Archie. We had witnessed something amazing, and I certainly never wanted to bring the ordinary and mundane in, to ruin the moment. Archie was back to being Archie, and the Piper never played again.

In Scotland, Pipers are heroic and legendary figures. Piper George Findlater VC, playing the pipes, proud and to the fore, as the Gordon Highlanders stormed the Heights of Dargai, or Pipe Major Donald MacLeod, with the Seaforth Highlanders in their last stand at St, Valery-en-Caux. Great pipers doing great deeds in battle.
So what do you do if you are a great piper, and the battle never comes? How can you stand there, leading the regiment forward and putting the Fear of God into the enemy, when the call never comes? And how can you salute the fallen comrades, that peace preserved, who never fell?
Life gave Archibald MacRae a great talent, but never called him to service. If there had been great battles and heroic deeds, then Archie might have stood there with the other great pipers. Instead, he became a Jannie. Someone to laugh at when the drink was holding him down. Someone to ignore when he worked unseen. Never amounting to much ...

... until that Thursday, when he stormed the heights. And made us take our spirits on to glory. The Lower Methil Annexe of East Fife Technical College will never be an Honour on a Regimental Banner.

But it should be!

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