Childhood Memories from the 60s

childhood memories from the 60s

Hello, and welcome to my website. My name is PJ McDermott; I’m an author. I write authentic coming-of-age fiction as well as science fiction books for readers aged 15-85. This essay represents a departure from my usual writing style. It is a memoir – memories from my childhood growing up in Scotland during the 1960s. But first a disclaimer: I have been as accurate as possible in the presentation of factual information in this story. However, memory being what it is (i.e in the eye of the beholder) and the long timeframe involved, it’s possible my recollections may be slightly awry.

I spent my first twenty-seven years in Scotland in the town of Paisley. Hopefully this gives me a platform to write about my time there. 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.

If you’ve read my debut novel, Small Fish Big Fish, Coming of Age in Scotland, you will know I have mixed feelings about my youth. In this essay I want to expand on life in Scotland in the 1960s.

So, what was it like growing up in Scotland during the 1960s?

My childhood memories of the town of Paisley, particularly the suburb of Ferguslie Park, are ambivalent. I remember good times with good friends, but I was also bullied and abused, and my recollections are colored by those events. This passage from my novel provides a clue to how I perceived life back in those times.

“The evening sun cast long shadows over the brooding tenements, and his mood plummeted. He’d been in dreamland. What was the point of wishing and hoping when this was his reality? He felt the buildings press in on him; the grey verandas with their shabby shirts and tattered trousers hanging lifeless in the still air; the coal smoke oozing sullenly from soot-blackened chimney pots high above; and the wild grasses and weeds crawling from untended gardens, spreading their long green tendrils across the footpath.”

While the rest of the world was preoccupied with Flower Power, the Vietnam war, and the “Space Race”, those where I grew up worried more about where their next meal was coming from.

Celebrities and events from the Sixties. How many can you identify?

A Provincial Society

At that time, the west coast of Scotland was a very provincial society. Yes, there was the odd boy or girl from an Italian background, but I can recall only one colored family who lived in our neighborhood, and I never saw any Chinese or other Asian 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. Life as a teenager in many of the suburbs of Paisley wasn’t easy, even for those born in the place, but anyone from an ethnic background would have found it particularly challenging.

The great religious divide

In the 1960s, Irish Catholics, Protestant immigrants and those born and bred in Scotland made up the majority of the residents of the west of Scotland. Basically that was the schism, 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 extract 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)

Religion or Sport?

As a teenager in the 1960s, I knew little of this history, but the tension between the two groups, even at a young age, was clearly spelled out by parents and friends.

All the kids played soccer, or football as it is called in the U.K.. Yes, there was the opportunity to play golf or tennis or even cricket, but not where I grew up. It wasn’t until years afterwards that my cousins from Gallowhill introduced me to the ancient game of golf.

My childhood memories of the local culture are that if you followed a football team, the chances were it would be either Glasgow Celtic or Glasgow Rangers. The choice of which was driven by your religious persuasion. This is the unforgettable story of Scotland. I only ever knew one person who defied this custom (He was Catholic and supported Rangers, just to be annoying,) and he immigrated to Australia!

Personally, I found the whole thing claustrophobic, as well as frightening, and decided to follow the local team, St. Mirren.

Paisley during the Sixties

scottish story

Located south-west of Glasgow, the town of Paisley is a good choice for a psychological thriller. (I’ll get to Ferguslie Park in a minute!) During the nineteen sixties, it became notorious for the gangs that spread fear among many of its suburban population.

The rivalry between those hailing from Paisley, most notably the FERGS, and those from Glasgow (e.g. the Tongs and the Maryhill Fleet), and others from neighboring towns like the Bowery boys from Barrhead, was legendary.

I remember one occasion when I held my girlfriend close, pressed against a shop window at the bottom of St Mirren Brae as the rampaging FERGS, wielding knives and hatchets, chased the Bowery Boys out of town.

Don’t get me wrong, life in Scotland in the 1960s wasn’t all bad. Once you escaped from the thugs and depressing council housing estates, Scotland was and is a beautiful place. The country is rich in historical traditions. Paisley is famous for many things including its Abbey, the Paisley pattern, and its thread mills.

A Scottish story to be proud of

Paisley Abbey

scottish story

The original site of Paisley Abbey was once an old Celtic temple.

A Catholic church replaced this in the twelfth century, and, In the 13th century, was upgraded to abbey status.

At this time, Paisley Abbey was dedicated to four saints. These included St Mirin (or MIrren) who had brought Christianity to the area in the sixth century.

The abbey soon became a center of learning, and it is thought a young William Wallace was educated there.

It was burned down by the rampaging army of Edward I (known as the Hammer of the Scots) in 1307. However, it didn’t take long for the Scots to rebuild it.

In 1316, Marjorie Bruce, daughter of the famous hero King, Robert de Bruce, was out riding near the abbey.

The story goes that during the ride, Marjorie fell from her horse. As she was heavily pregnant at the time, her courtiers took her to Paisley Abbey for medical care. There, King Robert II was born by cesarean section, in a time when anesthesia would not have been available. The princess was later buried at the abbey.

Following the Reformation in the 16th century, the abbey became a Church of Scotland parish kirk. This would have been the reason I didn’t venture there until many years later when I returned to Paisley as a tourist.

The Paisley pattern

On occasion, when I skipped school, I’d end up at the library. It was warm and cozy inside, and provided a haven for someone who only wanted to read adventure books all day long.

scottish story
The Paisley Pattern

Every now and then, I’d visit the museum next door. It was crammed with stuffed animals, old coins, ancient artifacts, model boats, and ships of every description. The top floor was dedicated to an art gallery with even more ancient paintings. A separate room showcased the history of weaving in the town. A few musty old looms were exhibited producing shawls and fabrics with faded Paisley Patterns.

I discovered on one of my visits that contrary to popular belief, the design known worldwide as the Paisley pattern was not created in Paisley. Instead, it was imported from India during the 18th and 19th centuries.

When the British East India Company introduced Kashmir shawls to the UK, they quickly became fashionable and were soon copied. Later, in the nineteen-sixties, the pattern became popular among the hippie culture.

Europe’s top Producer

The first place in the western world to imitate the design was Paisley, at that time Europe’s top textiles producer.

Technological innovation in textile manufacturing enabled Scottish imitations of Kashmir shawls to become competitive with the original products. This allowed the Scottish copies to be exported all over the world.

It was still a popular design in the sixties, especially for ties and scarfs. When I was seventeen, I remember being blown away by a friend’s Paisley pattern bell-bottom trousers.

For more on the Paisley Pattern, visit Paisley Power.

The Thread Mills

Courtesy: Robert Sweeney / Ferguslie Thread Mills, Paisley, Scotland

Paisley’s textile industry dates back to medieval times. By the 19th and 20th century, over 90% of the world’s cotton thread came out of the Anchor and Ferguslie mills. This is a statistic that still blows my mind.

In 1949 there were 10,500 millworkers in Paisley. Most were young adults, aged between fifteen and twenty-five, and many of them lived in the suburb of Ferguslie Park.

By 1991, after four roller-coaster decades of expansion, diversification, merger, closures and three-day-weeks, the Paisley mills employed just 340.

On Friday April 2 1993, the last mill-girl clocked off for the last time.

With that, an era passed.

For a complete history of the thread industry in Paisley, visit Paisley Thread Mill Museum.

Ferguslie Park during the sixties

childhood memories from the 60s
Dancing in the streets

Small Fish Big Fish is an authentic Scottish story, set in the working-class suburb of Ferguslie Park in Paisley. I lived there from infancy until I turned seventeen.

The suburb was originally built in the nineteen-thirties and forties to cater for people being cleared from Paisley’s slums.

In its heyday (during the 1960’s) there were around 13,500 people living in 3,500 units of housing. Row after row of three and four story housing tenements were crammed together to accommodate as many families as possible.

Many of the families who lived there over the decades were unskilled, low paid manual workers in irregular employment. Some people lived in extreme poverty, and the authorities commonly treated them as hopeless cases, dangerous, and requiring supervision and control.

Council Policy

This was of course an oversimplification. Many of those living in the scheme, though poor, were great neighbors. Council policy at the time dictated that victims of increasing poverty and unemployment throughout the Paisley area should be relocated to Ferguslie Park.

This resulted in a disproportionate number of drunks, wife-beaters, thieves, murderers and other ne’er-do-wells in the area. Police were rarely seen. Gangs of youths ranging in age from fifteen to twenty-five roamed the streets unimpeded.

Prior to moving there, my family lived in a bed-sit above the picture theater in the center of town. My childhood memories of the flat are that it was tiny and the building was infested with rats. When my sister arrived on the scene, my parents felt they had no alternative. They took up the council’s “offer” of a two bedroom house in Ferguslie.

Multiple Deprivation

childhood memories from the 60s
Pre-fab homes in Ferguslie Park Avenue

The Scottish Government coined the term multiple deprivation. It is a composite measure of employment, income, health, education, access to services, crime, and housing.

Ferguslie Park was twice named number one on the list of most deprived areas in Scotland.


By 1990, around half of Ferguslie Park was either unoccupied or demolished with the population reduced to 5600.

Major corporations developed plans to rebuild, with the demolition and rebuilding of most of the streets beginning in 1988.

growing up in scotland
Lone building boarded up

They rebuilt the houses and new retail and social centers, but the problems remained. In 2006, Ferguslie Park was again found to be the most deprived area in Scotland. Much of the new-build housing has fallen into a state of disrepair like before.

For more information on the demise of Ferguslie Park, visit UK Wiki.

For more great images of old Ferguslie Park, see

From a Scottish story to an Australian writing career!

So, why choose a Chinese character for my book?

After I emigrated from Scotland to Australia in 1976, I found myself in a different environment. Australia is rightly proud of its multicultural society. We accept emigrants from all over the world, and I met many people with diverse foreign backgrounds over the years.

Chong-Charn-Tay (a.k.a. Charnie) was the meanest table tennis player I’ve ever played against (I learned the Chinese paddle 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 professional young women I worked with for a few years and am pleased to call friends. I was also 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 Chi, an important character in my book.

The juxtaposition of a foreign refugee and a deprived society enabled me to show the best and the worst of my characters. Tianyi, and anyone who showed her friendship, would have had a hard time in the 1960s, especially in Ferguslie Park. (If you want to read more about the novel, click here.)

Tianyi’s Story

Small Fish Big Fish is a full length novel. Prior to writing this book, I was searching for short story ideas intended for middle school students. I wrote the tale of a family desperate to escape from mainland China before Mao’s cultural revolution prevented them.

Tianyi’s story now plays a central role in the overall plot of the novel.

short dramatic story
(Image: Anglia Press)

Fifteen-year-old Tianyi Chi, hails from a small farming village in Jilin Province, China. The fishing vessel carrying she and her family to freedom is caught in a typhoon in the South China Sea.

Tianyi finds herself alone. She 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 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 to read part 1 of her story.

Look out for part two of Tianyi’s story on the website in a few weeks. If you want to see how it all works out before then (plus lots more) download a copy of my young adult thriller, Small Fish Big Fish.

The Plot of Small Fish Big Fish:

When a ten-pound note falls at Jamie McCarthy’s feet, the teenager thinks his luck is in. He heads off 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 a victim of fate all his miserable life. He’s watched his younger neighbor, Jamie, have everything handed to him on a plate; caring parents, close friends, and a rosy future. Envy eats at Archie. Now, it’s time for payback.

Small Fish Big Fish is a gripping coming-of-age story about life in Scotland in the 1960s.  It explores the relationship between a diverse group of teenagers struggling towards maturity.

It is a true-to-life drama, 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 the best contemporary young adult thriller set in Scotland you’ve ever read!

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

life in Scotland in the 1960s
Small Fish Big Fish

Other Interesting Links

If you’d like to know more about the characters and plot of Small Fish Big Fish, click here.

Want to know more about Jilin Province, Tianyi Chi’s ancestral home? The Encyclopedia Britannica has some interesting information.

You can read about the story of Tianyi Chi. Click here for part 1 .

Click here to view More Books by PJ McDermott

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