Published: 13/03/2013 14:30 - Updated: 15/11/2013 13:00

From lifting neeps to dodging bullets

Little Robert and pet Keddar at Portland Place before he left Inverness for Canada.
Little Robert and pet Keddar at Portland Place before he left Inverness for Canada.

 

AFTER a career in journalism and public relations that has taken him from the riot-torn streets of Detroit to the highest echelons of Canadian politics, Inverness-born Robert MacBain has turned to fiction.

Though MacBain left the Highlands to live in Canada shortly after World War II, his Scottish background plays an important part in his debut novel "Two Lives Crossing".

The book follows the separate lives of the twin sons of a Scottish immigrant and a Blackfoot Indian cook, who are separated after their mother dies giving birth in 1939.

While one brother is raised on an Indian reserve and brought up in a world of sweat lodges, sun dances, rodeos and pow wows, the other is raised in a middle-class neighbourhood of Toronto and regaled with stories about King Robert the Bruce and Bonnie Prince Charlie, and taken to the Highland games and other places where Scottish-Canadians celebrate their shared heritage.

As they grow up in a changing Canada, the two brothers are unaware of their relationship until a spat on live television leads to the truth about their connection.

Though MacBain was only nine when he and his mother left for Canada in 1947, he still has very clear memories of his Inverness boyhood.

"I used to enjoy sitting in the gunner's seat on the black field guns outside the castle," he recalled.

"I also liked going down to the harbour where we would build forts with the smelly fish boxes. When the tide was out, we'd climb into a motorboat underneath the Grant Street Bridge and pretend that we were out on the North Sea."

MacBain's father was the ballroom manager of the Caledonian Hotel, then Inverness's largest hotel, but abandoned little Robert and his mother to go and live with his pregnant girlfriend in London.

Robert MacBain today.
Robert MacBain today.

This forced MacBain and his mother to move out of their basement home on Portland Place and move in with his maternal grandparents on Muirtown Street.

"The flat was on the main floor of a big house directly across from the common where the tinkers used to camp with their horses and carts," MacBain said.

"We often went for picnics on the banks of Loch Ness. I can still remember the fresh bread and the taste of the mustard on the roast beef sandwiches. Then there was picking blueberries up on Craig Dunain and taking the ferry over to the Black Isle."

Making the move to Canada after his father abandoned his family was a very traumatic time in MacBain's young life, adding to the stress of a trans-continental journey in the days before most aircraft had the range to make the trip in a single flight.

"Our plane had to stop twice to refuel – once in Iceland and once in Newfoundland," he said.

"When we got to Toronto that summer, it was hot as hell. They used ice boxes in those days and we used to grab slivers of ice from the back of the delivery truck to try and cool down."

However, MacBain and his mother did return to Inverness in 1951 when she had to come to Scotland to finalise the divorce, a period which saw the 14-year old working as a farmhand at Lairgandour Farm at Daviot.

"How I got to Jock MacPherson's Lairgandour Farm is a story in itself," he said.

"I was working as a delivery boy for a butcher on Young Street. As I was on my way to deliver meat to homes up near the public school on Ardconnell Street, I came across MacPherson in deep distress.

"He was herding some sheep he'd just bought to his farm and they had got into a plumbing supplies yard on Baron Taylor's Lane. Some of them were in the bathtubs. I immediately parked my bike and went to his assistance. However, I carried it a bit too far – all the way to Daviot.

"When the butcher fired me the next morning, he was in tears. The embarrassment of all those rich folk up on the hill with no fresh meat for supper the night before was far too much for anyone to bear.

"Since it was because of Jock MacPherson that I got fired in the first place, I got on my Raleigh roadster and rode out to his farm and stayed there for about a year. An orphan boy and I slept in an unheated loft above the stable. We were fed brose in the morning and porridge at night. In the late autumn as we went up and down row after row of turnips, clipping them and tossing them into the two-wheeled cart, I would look across at the school on the hill on the other side of the valley and wish that I was there with the other youngsters.

"But, overall, I really enjoyed life on MacPherson's farm. There's a lot of Lairgandour and a couple of ranches I worked on out in Alberta in my novel."

Though he loves the outdoors, it was in journalism that MacBain was to make his career and of all the assignments he covered, the one that stood out was when he crossed the US border to cover the 1967 riots that devastated Detroit, Michigan.

"Most reporters stayed in the newsrooms and huddled around the police monitors and filed their stories from there. That didn't cut it for us. We wanted to be out in the middle of the action," he said.

"We'd look for police and follow them into the riot area – fire-bombed stores, flames shooting out from broken gas pipes, street lights shot out by the police to make it harder for the snipers to see them.

"We followed two cruisers into a dark street and stopped suddenly because snipers were firing at them. The photographer got out and took pictures until the cops yelled at him to move our car so they could back out to safety.

"I was pinned down under sniper fire for about half an hour one night along with a couple of other reporters and a TV crew. At one point, we were huddled in a store doorway and we could see the snipers' bullets ricochet off the pavement in front of us. Then we saw an armoured personnel carrier heading our way with soldiers from the Michigan National Guard firing above our heads. That's when we realized that the snipers were in the apartment directly above us."

The journalists decided to make a run for it, waving their white handkerchiefs and shouting "Press! Press!" at the top of their lungs and managed to get to their cars without injury.

"That kind of action kept me on the front page of the Telegram for several days," MacBain added. "It was my first week at the paper."

Two Lives Crossing, Robert MacBainIt was in the late 1960s that MacBain had his first attempt at writing a novel. He actually wrote an early draft of "Two Lives Crossing" in 1979, but set it aside when it was rejected by a major New York agency.

He only returned to the novel a little over two years ago.

"When I started out, I had no idea that 'Two Lives Crossing' would cover as much territory as it does – in the first draft, everything happened in less than a week," MacBain revealed.

"Now, the reader is taken from a farm near Inverness in 1933 to a ranch in Alberta, through the Second World War and on into the early 1970s."

The novel's theme about the place of its Indian population in modern Canada – MacBain dislikes the favoured Canadian term "First Nations" – is something MacBain is pursuing in a two-volume non-fiction series about Canada and the Indians, based on more than 70 hours of taped interview.

The first volume will be available as an ebook in March with a paperback edition to follow and the second volume earmarked for a September release.

"If, by that time, 'Two Lives Crossing' has found a wide and appreciative audience, I will start work on a sequel," MacBain added.

"As for a visit to Inverness, I must say responding to your questions has stirred a lot of good memories and whetted my appetite for a visit to Scotland. When that might be, I can't say. But I expect it will be well before this time next year."

• "Two Lives Crossing" by Robert MacBain is available as an eBook on www.kobo.ca and via W.H. Smith in the UK. A paperback release is also planned.

* Reviews and order information for Robert MacBain's "Two Lives Crossing" are available at www.robertmacbainbooks.ca

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