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The Broons & Oor Wullie – Introduction to Item 57
My grandparents’ house was full of annuals, mostly things like Lion, Victor or Roy of the Rovers. My mum was the only girl out of the four kids in the house, so the books that were left when they all moved out were generally related to what the boys were interested in.
However, there was also a stack of Broons and Oor Wullie annuals, which I enjoyed despite (or perhaps because of) their old-fashioned, unfamiliar worlds. My Granda got a new Broons or Oor Wullie book every Christmas (at that time, they were published on alternate years), and for at least 20 years, I have too.
The Plot of The Broons & Oor Wullie
There’s no plot as such for either book, just a series of stories told in comic-strip form. The Broons and Oor Wullie are still published every Sunday in Scotland’s Sunday Post newspaper, and the annuals are a compilation of those short cartoons. Publisher DC Thomson are based in Dundee, which is probably why Ma Broon makes the best Dundee cakes.
Oor Wullie is a boy of about 10 or 11, who lives with his Maw and Paw and a pet mouse, Jeemy. In later years he also acquired a dog called Harry. He wears black dungarees and boots, sits on an upturned bucket and gets into mischief with his gang – Fat Boab (Bob), Soapy Souter and Wee Eck (Alec/Alexander). He’s often in trouble with his teacher, his mother or the local bobby, PC Murdoch.
The Broons are a bit different – Maw and Paw Broon live in a tenement with their eight children. There are four adult children – lanky Hen, strongman Joe, chubby Daphne and beautiful Maggie. Although all four go out to work and have social lives, they still choose to live at home. They go on occasional dates, but only Maggie has had a long-term relationship.
The four younger children are swotty Horace, naughty twin boys (The Twins), and the pet of the family, who also doesn’t have a name and is simply ‘The Bairn.’ The adults get into as many scrapes as the children, and it’s usually down to Maw to sort things out or dole out punishment.
Paw’s old father, Granpaw, lives in his own house but visits 10 Glebe Street often. He and the Bairn are great pals, and he often takes her side when her siblings leave her out of things. He also has plenty of misadventures too, which leave Maw ‘black affronted.’
The But n Ben
It seemed strange to me that the Broons were all crammed into a tiny flat but had a holiday home, but the but n ben, where the family can be found when they’re not at work, the pub or the bools (bowls) club, is far less glamourous than it sounds.
The term is from the Scots for ‘two-roomed cottage’, with the inner room ‘the ben’ and the outer, usually the kitchen, the ‘but’. The Broons’ cottage must have had some work done, because they have at least three bedrooms (girls, boys, parents) and presumably a bathroom, although we don’t see them use it.
While at the but n ben the family enjoys more innocent, although rarely relaxing, pursuits. Country walks usually
involve one hapless family member being bitten by ants or stung by wasps, a fishing trip ends with Paw Broon falling into the river and having to go home wearing ‘a lassie’s frock’, and Granpaw gets lost. They quite often get all the way up to the but n ben (wherever it is) to discover they’re locked out and have missed the last bus home.
A but n ben is similar to a bothy, although the Mountain Bothies Association is keen to point out that they are very definitely not holiday homes, and not to expect any amenities at all. Bothies can be found across Scotland, on remote hillsides and in valleys, and are never locked.
Anyone can stay in a bothy, and it’s not impossible that you’d arrive at one and find it already occupied. They operate on a trust basis, although as they have absolutely nothing in them, you’d be hard-pushed to find something worth stealing. Some have stone platforms to use as beds, and occasionally a fireplace, but you have to supply your own fuel.
Likewise, there is no running water and sometimes no source nearby, so it’s important to carry your own. The Association reminds visitors that Britain is usually cold at night (yes, quite often summer too) so they need to wrap up warm. And be prepared to dig their own toilet. I think I’d rather take my chances with the sheep.
Wullie and his friends are often seen zooming around the streets of Auchenshoogle, or in the surrounding hills, in their homemade carties, racing each other and usually crashing into the longsuffering PC Murdoch or Wullie’s Maw’s clean washing line. Wheels frequently drop off, or Eck, as the smallest, falls out halfway down a slope.
Wullie’s carty is pretty basic – a wooden, open-topped box with four wheels and a string handle to steer round corners. It’s not surprising that it breaks. It’s been lovingly handmade, usually as a joint project between Wullie and his Paw, who has a secret love of the sort of scrapes his son gets into. Occasionally Wullie has taken nails or wood from the garden fence to make repairs, which doesn’t go down so well with his dad.
In America, these toy carts are referred to as ‘wagons’, and date back to the late 19th century, where they’ve been built to the same specifications ever since. Traditionally made of wood, they are now sometimes made of steel or aluminium, with wheels of hard plastic or rubber. They are usually painted red.
The type Wullie’s gang use are more like a go-kart or soapbox car (made from soap crates). The soapbox car, while simple, inspired a derby race that’s been running annually in America since 1934. Photographer Myron Scott was on assignment in Dayton, Ohio when his eye was caught by boys racing their homemade cars. He went looking for sponsorship, and Chevrolet took him up on his idea, launching the first derby a year after Scott came up with his plan.