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Reader’s Bookshop Blog – growing up in Scotland

Growing up in Scotland

my clan

Hello, and welcome to my blog. My name is PJ McDermott and I write science fiction and coming of age books for teens, middle school and high school students. I was born in Scotland which hopefully gives me some credentials for writing about life there, especially during the sixties and seventies. That’s my family in the picture. My mum is standing on the far right, and I’m the cute one in the raincoat and cap.

I’d like to tell you a little about my first published novel, Small Fish Big Fish. This is a coming of age fiction about growing up in Scotland during the nineteen-sixties. I have mixed feelings about my youth and these come out clearly in the novel. But, in fact, I want to introduce you to one of the fictional characters in the book, a 15-year old Chinese refugee, Tianyi Chi.

So, what was it like facing the pressures of coming of age in Scotland during the mid-sixties?

Tiany Chi's story
Tianyi might have some difficulty fitting in here.

I was born in the town of Paisley, in the suburb of Ferguslie Park, just south of Glasgow.

I can remember one Black family who lived in our neighborhood, but I never saw any Chinese kids playing in the streets or at our school.

Still, there were two or three restaurants and takeaways where we used to buy our chicken fried rice, so surely they must have been around?

Maybe they kept to themselves. Growing up as a teenager in many of the suburbs of Paisley wasn’t easy, even for those born to the place, but anyone from an ethnic background would have found it particularly challenging.

The population of the west of Scotland in the 1960’s was either of Irish Catholic background, or Protestant Irish immigrant and Scottish born and bred. Basically that was the divide, Catholic or Protestant. Most Irish immigrants came to Scotland in search of a better life because of the hardship suffered in their own country. Before they immigrated (many to the USA and Canada as well as Britain,) Irish people tended to suffer from two things, famine and the English. They were desperate when they reached Scottish shores, as the following highlights.

The lowly occupational status of the Irish Catholics and their willingness to work for less than minimum wage did not bode well for the Scottish working class. In addition, Catholicism became a factor which brought about discrimination from all sections of Scottish society and assaults and harassment of the Irish became a regular feature in newspapers, and were witnessed in pulpits and on the streets. The Irish were regarded as drunks, lazy, uncivilised and damaging to the moral character of Scottish society. They were also perceived as carriers of diseases such as typhus, which was known as “Irish fever”. This was particularly due to unsanitary housing and the fact that many of the immigrants who fled the famine were weak and had low resistance to diseases.‘ (Excerpt from the John Gray Centre Library Museum Archive – a brief history of emigration & immigration in Scotland)

I didn’t know about any of this history, of course, but the tension between the two groups, even in 1964, was palpable. Kids played soccer, or football as it’s called over there. Yes, there was the opportunity to play golf or tennis, but not where I grew up. The culture dictated that if you followed a football team, the chances were it would be either Celtic or Rangers. This entirely depended on your religious persuasion. I only ever knew one person who defied this custom, and he immigrated to Australia! Personally, I found the whole thing claustrophobic, as well as frightening, and decided to follow St. Mirren.

So, why did I choose a Chinese character for my book? Well, that’s down to my adopted country! I emigrated to Australia in 1976 and found myself in an entirely different environment. Australia is rightly proud of its multicultural society. We accept emigrants from all over the world, and I got to know a lot of people with foreign backgrounds pretty well over the years – Greek, Italian, German, and a number of Chinese ex-pats.

Chong-Charn-Tay (a.k.a. Charnie) was the meanest table tennis player I’ve ever played against (I learned the Chinese grip from him.) We had great times together. He took me to Melbourne’s Chinatown, and introduced me to authentic yum cha (oh, those chicken feet!)

Helina and Lily were two professional young women I worked with for a few years, and am pleased to call friends. I was fortunate to work with many people from Hong Kong and the Chinese mainland. They gave me great insights into the Chinese character, integrity, work ethic, friendship, and loyalty. I’m not ashamed to say I channeled parts of their personalities into Tianyi.

Tianyi, and any who showed her friendship, would have been given a hard time in the 1960’s especially in the suburb of Ferguslie Park, where Small Fish Big Fish is set. (If you want to read about that, click here.)

growing up in Scotland
Marching in support of Scotland’s independence

The attitudes of society everywhere have changed in line with increased mobility and international communications. Scots, though, would still prefer to keep Scotland to themselves, guarding their culture and history fiercely.

As I’ve said, Small Fish Big Fish is a coming-of-age novel about growing up in Scotland during the 1960’s. Prior to writing this book, I’d drafted a story tentatively titled Guilt of the Innocents as one of several coming of age stories intended for middle school students.

This short story now plays a central role in the overall plot of the novel. Fifteen-year-old Tianyi Chi, hails from a small farming village in Jilin Province, China. She is orphaned when the fishing vessel carrying she and her family is caught in a typhoon in the South China Sea. Eventually, Tianyi finds herself alone, knowing no-one (except for one uncle) living in Ferguslie Park, a suburb of Paisley. Some things would have been familiar to her – the poverty, the cleaving to tradition, the sense of history in the country, the love of music, and the storytelling. But I feel sure this young girl would have had some difficulty finding her feet in this new world. Click here for part 1 of her story.

short dramatic story
(Image: Anglia Press)

I will follow this up in a few weeks with part two, but if you want to see how it all works out before then (plus lots more) you’ll need to download a copy of my young adult thriller for teens, Small Fish Big Fish.

Here’s the blurb:

When a ten-pound note falls at Jamie McCarthy’s feet, the teenager thinks his luck is in and heads to the fairground for a bit of fun. This is the beginning of a change in Jamie’s fortunes, but not in the way he hopes. Before long he finds himself on a dark path, trapped by fear, jealousy, and the scheming of bully, Archie Stewart.

Archie has been the victim of fate all his miserable life. He’s watched his younger neighbor, Jamie, seemingly enjoy everything Archie longed for handed to him on a plate: caring parents, close friends, and a rosy future. Envy eats at Archie Now, it’s time for payback.

A gripping historical fiction set in Scotland, Small Fish Big Fish, tells of the relationship between a group of teenagers struggling towards maturity in a seedy suburb of Scotland during the nineteen sixties.

It is a true-to-life drama about growing up in Scotland, written through the eyes of unique individuals. If you enjoy stories with a compelling cast of characters, suspenseful mystery and a touch of young romance, then you’ll love PJ McDermott’s twist on the traditional coming of age story. Judge for yourself whether this is not the best contemporary young adult thriller set in Scotland you’ve ever read!

What Readers Say

  • A wonderful story that all young people can relate to. It takes an age-old battle and puts it splendidly into words that many will appreciate. I could not believe the climax.
  • Every young person wants to know they’re not alone. We are all “Jamie” at some stage in our lives, lost, confused, trying to fit in, struggling to come to grips with our lives and who we are. This book does this flawlessly.
  • Reminds me of Frank McCourt’s biography of his life growing up in Ireland.
  • A fantastic story and a great read.
  • I found myself unable to put it down after the first twenty pages.

To purchase Small Fish Big Fish, click on the book image below.

historical fiction set in scotland

If you’d like to know more about Paisley and Ferguslie Park’s social reality and the facts behind this historical fiction set in Scotland, click here.

If you’d like to know more about Jilin Province, Tianyi Chi’s ancestral home, the Encyclopedia Britannica has some interesting information.

If you want to read about Tianyi Chi. Click here for part 1 of her story.


I’d be delighted if you would like to comment on this blog.

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