Chapters Old and New

13 November 2023
Chapters old and new

Mark Baillie writes about his grandad, the late Matthew ‘Bing’ Baillie – and how recording Bing’s memories as he neared his 94th birthday led to writing a book.

One morning in 2007, I woke with a great sense of urgency to write an oral history of my grandad, Matthew 'Bing' Baillie (pictured). The Baillies are a Traveller family from southern Scotland, and feature among the prominent names mentioned in 'History of the Gypsies' by Walter Simsom, published in 1866.

But back to 2007, when Bing was coming up for his 94th birthday. I'd just become a dad for the first time and not long celebrated my 30th birthday. Bing had outlived his peers by 20 years, and was the only 'old Traveller' left in his family. 

Perhaps the ebbing of time and milestone life events had me unsettled, but the urge to record his memories was sudden and strong.

It wasn't easy. He was stone deaf and his eyesight was going, too. The questions had to be written down in caps on large notepads. I'd then wait, pen at the ready, for him to gather up his memories, which were often patchy.

But we persevered. We had three sittings of about an hour each. These resulted in 5000 words, which isn't much for three hours of interview time.

I wanted to hear about his early years, going to Travellers' fairs and hawking with his dad, but he seemed more interested in talking about the Second World War - of course he did. It was the defining event of his life.

Still, he had some great stories. There was one about an argument with his cousins over splitting the profit from the sale of a piece of carpet. Another about a run in with an off-duty policeman while Bing was AWOL from the army and selling manure in Leith.

Barely a year after his words were recorded, Bing died. The sense of urgency that gripped me that morning was well timed.

Where did the 5000 words of hard-gotten transcript take me? A family tree traced back to 1815. The discovery of a rare library book with a chapter dedicated to the Baillies, including the exploits of one 'Captain' Baillie - killed in a sword fight in the mid 1700s.

Then, in 2020, someone asked me to do a podcast about oral histories for the Living Memory Association. I hadn't thought about my interviews with Bing for many years and it was great going over my notes again, recalling the challenges of committing his memories to the page. At the end of the podcast, my interviewer declared, 'Amazing. There's definitely a book in there somewhere.'

The words stuck, and three years later, there is indeed a book; a novel I wrote about three generations of a Traveller family in 1980s Scotland. The memory of Bing's voice and mannerisms helped me navigate the difficult early drafts, thrashing out characters and scenes. He's there now, in those pages, living a new life.

So don't put it off. Grab a pen and tape recorder, and jot down some questions. It's a great way to bond with an older relative and you never know where it might lead.

By Mark Baillie

(Photographs of Matthew 'Bing' Baillie courtesy of Mark Baillie)