Big John looked a lot like the American lumberjack Paul Bunyan or perhaps Desperate Dan from the Beano comic. He was a big man with a grand Scottish voice and the strength of an ox. After long weeks on the offshore rigs out in the North Sea, he would be helicoptered ashore at Aberdeen from where he would motor down to his home in Fife. Most of his onshore days were spent walking or getting a work-out on the steep hill-side above our house. He used to bring young Callum Mcgregor with him.
I've forgotten how many steps there are on the trail up the hill, but it's a lot. The wooden risers kept rotting out and, after heavy rain, there could be extensive gullying too. Benarty itself is an old lava flow, made of basalt that is as hard as marble, but the slopes, including Vane Hill, as coated in glacial sands and gravels. Even so, there are no easy places to dig on the hill. Every post or step that went in was hard won and every tree planted was a victory for nature conservation; except that they took forever to grow because of the lack of soil and exposure to the wind. The slope faces north, so it doesn't get a lot of sunlight.
Like his biblical namesake, John recruited disciples for us.
Young Stuart Hamilton was a long-legged beanpole of a youth who would tramp up to us from his home in the south east corner of the loch at Levenmouth. He always wore a deerstalker hat, which he called a bonnet, and he always called me Ken. Eventually the RSPB caught on and I was replaced by a man whose name actually was Ken. Ken Shaw was Glaswegian and didn't need a translator.
"The forecast today is snow, so we need to wrap up." I'd say.
"Aye, Ken" Stuart would respond, "It's feeder snow. We'll be knee deep by the morn."
If you have ever seen Dad's Army, you could imagine Stewart saying those immortal words "We're all doomed."
Apart from his physical labour, Stuart brought us other gifts, usually a trout or some vegetables. Hanna and I sort-of adopted him and his family adopted us too. He caught the trout from the loch or the river, not always on a fly, and the vegetables were pulled from a neighbours field as he made his way up to us. This klepto-vegetarian habit was the inspiration for the volunteers' soup club.
On volunteer work-days, a pile of root vegetables, and sometimes a bit of meat, would appear on our kitchen step. The idea was that Hanna would make a soup or stew for lunchtime, which she did willingly until she got a full time job as a ranger, over the hill in Lochore.
Mysteriously, the number of young male volunteers started to grow. Stuart recruited Grant Thompson and, when Gordon Wardrope came from Dunfermline, Big John treated him like his little brother. Gordon first contacted me at an RSPB film-show saying that he knew where there was a peregrines nest and would I like him to show me where? Of course I would.
The lads started to stay overnight at weekends, so together we converted a part of the steadings into a bunk-room, and so the legendary "bunkroom boys" were formed.
.Jon Wilson, who would later marry Stuart's sister Alyson, was joined by two unlikely lads who sold our out-of-date crisps outside the school in Kinross. Girls used to phone me asking for Tony and Romano, the two Italian exchange students. They were in fact Anthony Paterson and Norman McLeod. Then there was Dougie, Steve and Andy Carroll, who now works for RSPB.
Another lad came from the East Neuk. He "telt me a wee poyem that was writ by his dad hae was a fisher who stayed at Anstruther" or thereabouts. (Anstruther is pronounced "Aynsta" or course.)
“On yonder hill there stood a coo; it’s no there noo, it must hae shiftet.” (It makes you want to weep doesn't it?)
The bunkroom had a stable door and no windows. We built the bunks from fence posts and salvaged timber and found an old wood-burning stove to go in the corner. Soon the evening ritual started with banging and cracking as the lads would chop firewood for the night. Then the courtyard would fill with thick grey smoke accompanied by coughing.
We heard "Chop, chop, chop. OWWWW!" as Norman put the axe into his own leg. A rush to the surgery in Kinross brought me a quizzical look from the doctor, which I read as saying. "You realise now that you are responsible for the safety of these youngsters ?" If I didn't before, I did now.
In return for our care and accommodation the bunkroom boys rewarded us with a lot of fun, including some pretty convoluted pranks.
Hanna used to have a pink bathrobe that had earned her the name "Pinky." Of course, I only ever called her that when I thought no-one could hear, but some of the bunkroom boys had big ears, and anyway Stuart spent so much time draped across our living room furniture that we often forgot he was there as we stepped over his trailing legs. The boys called us "Pinky and Perky." We might find find ourselves shopping at Sand's Supermarket in Kinross, only to hear a distant soprano voice whisper "Piiiinkieee".....then another would reply...."Perrrrkieee". It all escalated from there.
Every year we would take a trip away to see Hanna's sister Katy in Holland, or her folks in Chicago. The Reserve was left in the capable hands of the summer warden, aided and abetted (if that's the right way to put it) by the bunkroom boys.
We returned from one trip to be collected from the airport by the seasonal warden, Gareth Morgan. We asked him how things had gone and he told us that things were fine, except that the staff were wound up about a rumour that RSPB was about to sell off one of its Scottish reserves. It was thought that having two education centres in the central belt was one too many. The reserves in question were Vane Farm and Loch Winnoch. We agreed that Loch Winnoch was most likely to be in the firing range because, in our view, the Vane was thriving.
As we approached our home we saw a huge "Property for Sale" sign at the side of the road.
"FARM FOR SALE IN TWO LOTS. APPLY SAVILLS PERTH OFFICE"
When Gareth pulled the old Escort into the yard and turned off the engine we could hear the bunkroom boys laughing helplessly in the distance.