David Gibson was a man stiff and parsonical; by all accounts the sort of man who got things done. You could say he was obsessed with ridding Glasgow of its slums, with turning them into something bright and high and unquestionably modern. That’s what he wanted, and he’d already made vast advances towards getting it when he became convener of Glasgow Corporation’s housing committee in 1964. We’re fond of hating his ideas nowadays, of seeing the horror of those damp flats and pointing up the stupidity of the planning. But Gibson and his allies were visionaries of a sort. They thought they could obliterate the past with new production, and they had reason to think a project like that might turn out to be for the good of everybody. It may be obvious now how wrong they were, but Gibson’s urge to remake, to deliver his own people out of the slums and into a pure, new, shock world, has plenty of wrong-headed nobility in it, and no shortage of high-mindedness.

Gibson was a workaholic. He was the most frighteningly determined house-builder of his age, and he made time for little else. When not forging political alliances, steam-rollering committees with his rhetoric – with his guile – and not out searching the city for gap-sites where he might build more blocks, Gibson would put in some hours at his wife’s sub post office in Springfield Road. He smoked furiously, and drank sugary tea like there was no tomorrow. He’d search the city in his car late at night, after office-hours, looking for possible construction sites. He hardly ever ate. He was agitated, burning on all cylinders, and he died in 1964. A colleague in Motherwell later described him as the man who killed himself trying to solve Glasgow’s housing problem.

He solved it well enough, but only for the shortest time. Those blocks couldn’t handle the Glasgow weather, and people couldn’t live on top of one another and still feel they were in a community. Dampness spread, violence brewed, lifts broke down, vandals got to work. I was hardly into my twenties, when many of Gibson’s blocks were being evacuated or blown down.

The elect of Edinburgh and London had been thinking about new towns, and they were of a mind to decant as many of Glasgow’s young families as would happily go. East Kilbride, Cumbernauld, Livingston, Glenrothes and Irvine. These were the Scottish New Towns, all designated by 1968. For many, they seem to have represented the New World.

The housing developments of Irvine New Town seemed, to our first eyes, like places with nothing missing, places with no past, with no secrets or dark configurations under their sunny tops. It was 1970, and we felt like the first men to walk on the moon. There was a children’s play-area in the middle of each square; little clusters of rock and bench and swing, surrounded by triangular patches of bush and mucky flowerbed. Man-made grass-slopes rose to the side of them, bordered by the kerb and a car-park marked out with paint. Those rocks and slopes, for many of us, were our first domain, and they’d prove themselves equal to representing the entire universe. The way to the other squares in the scheme was through what we called tunnels, but were actually spaces between houses which worked like underpasses, because in each case a bedroom of one house would run over the top of the gap. You could also move along a number of narrow paths made from gaps behind the gardens, and as a child, you always had the feeling you were in some sort of clever maze, some complicated underworld designed as much for amusement as for function. The prefabricated world of that housing scheme, Pennyburn, still sits in my head like something invented only this morning. You could blindfold me, and take me back, and I’d find my way from one end to the other without too much trouble. Except that I wouldn’t, of course, seeing as much of it has changed by now, just as you’d expect.

In what the scheme’s builders liked to call Phase One, there were 30 families in each square, four squares in each block, and four blocks in the whole grid. There were two roads into it – Cranberry Road and Muirside Road – and these came off a main artery that circled the scheme and ran down towards the old town of Kilwinning, and the rest of the world. My childhood was about seeing things emerge out of nowhere: seeing buildings go up every day, as we played among the cement-mixers, and seeing history come out of the blue, as we adventured, with increasing awareness, among the historical ruins in the towns and parks beyond our estate.

As time went on, we wandered, too, into ruins of another sort: the empty factories and halted industries which surrounded us suddenly became central to our sense of where we lived, and how we lived. And of how they’d lived before we were thought of. We started to read books, some of us, and got to know properly the ancient ground under our stomping feet. Just as my sense of the family’s history had been a wee bit dark and tied to thoughts of my missing relatives, so, too, was my sense of things emerging in our new town tied to the fact that people could disappear around us. As everything was coming, on all sides coming, so were things going, vanishing. The news of that, the feel of it, surrounded me then, or at least surrounded me in my own head. Sometimes it surrounds me still.

One day, my mum took me into Irvine town centre in the afternoon, Kilwinning is a satellite of Irvine, the main town, as Pennyburn is a satellite of Kilwinning. We came from the station, and she brought me up to some high flats. My eyes were everywhere; the present wasn’t just opening up in the usual way, it was opening up against the past. There were things around us that were old. All of a sudden, not everything was new. We went up in the elevator, and went into the flat of a woman who I’m sure was doing hair. My mum sat on a stool, I seem to remember, and she had a purple cap on her head with holes in it. Bits of hair were coming through the holes. Yes, I’m sure it was a hairdressing day. I sat eating biscuits by the window. As you looked down at the river, you could see that they were demolishing an old bridge. There were diggers pulling and hauling, men in white helmets climbing over steel girders, right in the shadow of a great steeple. The church was fancy, the steeple very high. I thought only television masts went as high as that.

The four-arch bridge across the River Irvine was built by a certain Thomas Brown in 1750, for the price of £350. Ten years before, the Royal Burgh’s sunken wells, dank and rotten, had been replaced by the Council. Pump wells were installed, and fresh water was all the rage. The second half of the 18th century, in a small Scottish marketing town like Irvine, was the period of great change. From pretty isolated rural villages full of peasants and fanners, such towns – especially those, like Irvine, with a port – were growing into mercantile centres, full of trade in foreign goods, full of the sound of organised industry replacing the eident toil of the family cottage. Roads needed improving, old wooden houses were torn down and replaced with brick garrets. The local gentry, in the form of the Earl of Eglinton, invested the family money in ironworks and sunken coal-pits, and the face of the area was altered for good. The vagrancy and beggary that were to disappear early in the 20th-century, then reappear towards the end of it, were rife in the midst of this age. Irvine Council had to set aside money for a public kitchen – there was a notorious meal mob in 1777 – and this kitchen, though redundant at the onset of the Welfare State, was again instituted, this time by volunteers, in the Irvine of 1994.

The town’s harbour, in the earlier century as now, was forever silting up. But it was dredged, and before the first deepening of the Clyde, boats from America and the West Indies would dock at Irvine, and their cargo would be taken to Glasgow by cart. So, in a handful of years, this rather backward locality became full of bustle and trade; success showed itself in the building of town-houses, the design of elaborate churches, and the buying up of surrounding land for redevelopment. But it was also a time of religious zealotry, a time when the poor got poorer as the rich did well, a time of disease and public disorder. It was the age that ripened inequality, but also the one that made grand advancements in civic development. The schools at Irvine, especially the Royal Academy, were thought to be among the best in the country, and education – including that offered at a nautical school run by Robert Burns’s friend David Sillar – was counted high. There was suddenly a book shop, Templeton’s in the High Street, and newspapers from London, along with the hot political and literary journals of the day. In a flash, Irvine became a town that was part of the world, and a place connected to the ideas that were turning that world upside down.

This is the Irvine of the novelist John Galt, who was born at a house in the High Street in 1779. He was the son of a sea-captain, and he didn’t keep well, but as a child he scurried around this changing locality, chasing the world that was going, and greeting the new one coming in. His novels, written many years later but set in this fictional Irvine (called Irwin or Gudetown), map out, in miniature, with personal colouration, in Flemish detail, this little Scottish town in the grip of monumental change. If he has themes, they are to do with extinction and renewal, but mostly he has characters, kenspeckled local worthies who speak in their own way. Provosts and reverends, beadles and seamstresses, shopkeepers and magistrates and drunken town-drummers.

The books are full of places (and types) still very much there in the town, and – as if to stress the way such books can alter our sense of place – many of the closes and streets around the town now are named after Galt’s supposedly fictional characters. The tall, beady-eyed scribe left Irvine as a boy, lost a fortune in prospecting schemes in Canada and elsewhere, and returned to London, to a sad stint as editor of the Courier, to a spell in gaol, to a falling out with Blackwood, his bullying but far-sighted publisher, and to the admiration of Coleridge and Carlyle. He would finish up in Greenock, slowly dying in his sister’s small house.

The Irvine of Galt’s youth was a place full of religious piety and argument. He gives many clues to the origins of such pressures, and aided my attempts to look at those in the Ayrshire of my own time. The Church of Scotland ruled – the Kirk was fitted to take 1800 people, and it did so every Sunday – but splinter groups and secessionists abounded. As a boy, Galt was often to be seen among the tombstones in the graveyard by the Kirk. He loved churches, and found in them little ‘clues of experience, and shapings of matter’. The Trinity Church, a Venetian Gothic affair planted less than two minutes from the old Kirk, is the one with the tall steeple I remember seeing from the flats on the hairdressing day, throwing its long shadow on the workers preparing for the new shopping mall across the river in 1974. On the river’s opposite bank, the Fullarton Church sat quiet, about to be shrouded by the Mall’s giant plastic skin. For hundreds of years there was a rumour, now more than a rumour, that a Carmelite convent was buried underneath, and that stones peeping out of the river – still called the Friar’s Caulfield – were the remnants of an older order. Galt’s first memory was to do with the religious sect of Mrs Buchan, a local cult of spiritualists who broke from the Kirk and proclaimed knowledge of the New Jerusalem. They were hounded from the town, and a great procession followed them, howling and merrymaking, and jostling the Buchanites on their way.

John Knox described Ayrshire as ‘a Receptacle of God’s Saints’. The Roman Catholics failed to survive the Reformation in this area, and have returned only since the 19th century. There was, in Galt’s Irvine, a preserved sense that a Catholic individual was a sort of witch. Plenty of witches were burned at the market cross in previous generations. One, Margaret Barclay, was strangled and burnt at the stake for cursing a local ship, the Gift of God, which later foundered off the coast of Cornwall. And the skeleton of the heretic Jean Swan, who murdered her baby in 1760, stood in the laboratory of Irvine Royal Academy for over a hundred years. When the town ran out of witches and child-murderers to fear and hate, there was always – lingering in the back of the mind – the thought of Catholics. Galt’s Rev. Balwhidder sums up the local antagonism: ‘Fortunately, for my peace of mind, there proved to be but five Roman Catholics ... and Father O’Grady, not being able to make a living there, packed up his Virgin Marys, saints, and painted Agnuses in a portmanteau, and went off in the Ayr flier one morning for Glasgow, where I hear he has since met with all the encouragement that might be expected from the ignorant and idolatrous inhabitants of that great city.’

My first day at St Winnin’s RC comes back to me in slow motion, coloured yellow and brown. It was, and is, more frightening than romantic, and I cried all the way to the school gate. Things had begun to take off with my visit to the high flats at Irvine. I suddenly knew more about the world, and saw our black and white housing estate as a sort of adventure park that opened onto lots of differently coloured and gradually aged surroundings. To get to the school, you had to walk about a mile, through open fields full of cement-mixers and dumpers. Squads of men were laying foundations, putting up walls and prefab units, building Pennyburn’s Phase Two. Starting school was a fantastic ritual: the gear was put on you, your hair was wetted and slicked, and you were stood in the square while neighbours gathered around to point and pinch and stuff coins into the pockets of your new blazer. The blazer, I remember, felt heavy. It had a green and gold badge stitched onto the top pocket, the tie was already knotted, put over your head in one go, and held in place with an elastic loop. The trousers were charcoal and long, and the shoes squeaky. You knew it was the start of something big.

I stood in line at the doors opening onto the playground, turning round every other second, crying, and watching the faces of the mothers biting their nails and waving through the bars of the gate. We were led inside. I’d never smelt a room like it before. The classroom was high-windowed and cold, and it had the roving odour of pee and plasticine. The teacher seemed old, though she was probably only fortysomething, and she smelt like a maternity nurse. In other words, she smelt of sick. She warned those of us still sniffling that we’d better stop it right away, and she gave each child a paper doily and felt-tips and told us to colour it in. That was that, and the rest of those first days in Primary One were taken up with colouring-in duty, or standing at a plastic sandpit, or sploshing paint onto slabs of grey card. It became fun, and the room grew familiar. Mrs Nugent’s face was all rubbery, and I can very clearly remember it mouthing the word ‘apple’ over and over. ‘Apple.’ There were lines around her mouth, they’d stretch and then her lips would bash together every time. ‘Ap-ple.’ We all said it, and the noise in the room sounded big and crunchy. After saying it for ages, Mrs Nugent shushed us, and pinned a large ‘A’ above the blackboard. We were learning to read.

Before long, there was a line of letters, the alphabet, right across the blackboard wall, and she handed out books. The one she gave me felt slimey and was hard to understand. It only had a few words on each page, and a very big picture. Mrs Nugent showed all her teeth, and read out the title: Dick, Dora, Nip and Fluff. The sandpit and the paints were never to be so interesting again. Like the afternoon cartoons and the hairdressing journey with my mum that were now part of something called the past, these books would suggest a world fuller than suspected. I really admired Dick and Dora, and the way they went to the park and brushed their teeth and lived in a square house out on its own. They gave an idea of a universal community of children, all the same, all here to stay, and to stay for ever the same. There was no darkness or doubt in the world of Dick and Dora, no effort involved in keeping clean, no hurt, no worry or bad weather. The rain was a problem to be solved, usually with an umbrella, and it was generally an excuse for cheerfulness and good character. Dick and Dora knew much more about how to be simple and good in the world than anyone I’d met; they knew everything, and I supposed that was why they were in a book. I already knew, just in the way that you do, that the world – or the world of Pennyburn, at least – wasn’t entirely like that.

With these little paperbacks, a private world was opening up too, and for years it would play on its own, increasingly removed from the world outside. The noble acts and pure hearts of people in books would be lapped up and loved, but never lived up to. In time we’d read of them, sigh, and go outside, to a place where other influences, other instincts – other knowledge – drove us into fits of childish cruelty and badness never noted in our beloved tomes. In 1976, in the midst of our secret knowledge of all that we were capable of, a child went missing in our area. It was a double-edged worry: it was, we knew, the sort of thing that children could conceivably cause to happen to other children; it was also, I imagined, the sort of thing that could happen to children who knew more than they ought to about such things. My grandfather had disappeared, but that was war. Sandy Davidson was only three.

They thought he might have been buried under one of the new houses, or accidentally covered over with sand, or else abducted. We knew what it was like on the building sites, we played in them all the time. We would join in the searches for Sandy, combing fields and sites around our bit. I wondered about him all the time. Sandy. What could’ve happened to him? I thought I knew something that parents and no one was talking about. I knew something about children’s fearsome cruelty, and their passion for misadventure, and I found it not unthinkable that he might have been covered by children little older than himself, at play in a makeshift sandpit. I kept having nightmares about numbers – numbers clicking up and up and out of control. I’d wake up hot and shaking in the dark, and would count back in tens or hundreds until I got to zero, then everything was OK. I’d count in my head, until the number was nothing. I’d sit up in my bunk, and calm down and try to think clearly. But what, I’d think ... what if someone has taken Sandy away in a van?

Christmas, 1994. I wanted to get the train across the New Town – only one stop, Kilwinning to Irvine – and I left my mother’s house in plenty of time. I followed a pattern of very familiar paths, cutting through the estate and leading to the station. It occurred to me that the paths were made in a funny way. The tiny and glittery white stones that clothed the houses were sprinkled in with the path’s tarmac as well. It was a bit frosty this day, and the bits in the path glittered even more than usual. I could remember, years ago, trying to dig those stones out with a metal spoon. I liked the thought, and I fancied I could see – though I couldn’t – little spaces in the ground where kids had been digging through the tar more recently. On my way to the railway station, I also passed a bit of waste ground that caused me to smirk. It was the site of a famous local hotel called the Winton Arms. It had been bought out a few years ago, painted with gloss, and renamed the Railway Inn, but to everybody around here it was still the Winton. It was just an empty space now, but it had once been one of the most notorious and most curious places in the town.

The hotel, run by a woman called Lily with a withered hand, had been famous for not letting Catholics in. Lily was bitter, and was steeped in the area’s great enmities. But none was greater to her, as a threat, as something of an outrage too, than the continued presence of Catholics in Kilwinning. I used to go out with a girl who worked for her, not in the hotel but in her outside-catering business. She would tell me about Lily’s hilarious doctoring of the Papish victuals – the wedding and funeral baked meats – on the very rare occasions when they catered for a Catholic social event. Into the pot Lily’s nerveless paw would go, pink as a pig’s trotter, stirring the Irish stew for all her venom and spit was worth. She’d mumble Orange anthems under her breath as she passed round the plates of buttered bread, our Lily, and she was well known for it. I was still laughing to myself about this as I got on the train.

I made my way to the police station which sits round the back of the tollbooth. Before turning into the car-park, I shuffled through some notes in my haversack, and thought about what I was doing. Sandy Jardine Davidson, the little blonde boy who vanished in 1976, had caused me to be here. He’d caused me to be many places this last while, and I felt like I was trailing him. I was determined to know more about what had happened on that day, 23 April 1976, and I thought there might be other clues, other possibilities, that could explain it all. Looking for Sandy, I had always found more of ourselves, more of our community, but he was still missing, and the facts of his disappearance were slim and unchanging.

It had been a nice morning that day. Sandy and his younger sister Donna were being looked after by their granny, Mary Bunce, who lived on the Bourtreehill estate. Like many other parts of the town, Bourtreehill was only half-built in that year. Many of the houses were having the final work done to them; and many were still at the foundations stage. But quite a few had families already living in them. Margaret Davidson was 22, her husband Philip was 25, and they’d moved to the new estate just six weeks before. They lived just up the road from Margaret’s mother. They’d gone off to work that morning as usual, leaving the children and the dog, Kissie, in the company of Mrs Bunce.

Sandy was three, and was able to play in the garden and in the area just beyond it, which at that time was just open waste. He was wearing a three-button pullover. It was purple, with a tiny motif on the side saying ‘Small Men’. He’d on long mauve-coloured check trousers, and wore blue and white sandshoes with the initials GB printed on them. At 10.25 Sandy came into the house to tell his granny that Kiss had run off. ‘Don’t chase it,’ she said. Sandy went back out. A few minutes later Donna came into the room and told her that Sandy had gone to the water. Mr and Mrs Bunce went outside, and started scouring the stretch of ground between the house and the River Annick, which bordered the bottom of the estate. They couldn’t find him, and in a rising panic, they rushed here and there, expecting to find him any second. Kissie was sitting on the doorstep. By 11 o’clock, they were frantic, and phoned Irvine police station. The report was taken by Inspector Reid and Sergeant Ross. They took a description, and initiated a search of the area.

There was heavy earth-moving equipment in Bourtreehill that morning. There were workmen all over the place; culverts were being dug; pipes laid. This worried the police, and when the search for Sandy had got nowhere by the late afternoon, they set up a caravan on the site and called in more personnel. They brought in sniffer dogs and divers too. The Annick was sectioned off, and combed by frogmen repeatedly. Massive ground searches were organised, which soon involved dozens of people in the area. They sifted through the piles of sand and debris which had been moved that morning, but found nothing. Superintendent Frank James led the operation, and it was one that grew bigger by the hour. One of the empty houses in the street, just 200 yards from Sandy’s home, was set up as the police headquarters, and volunteers supplied tea and things from there to the police and the civilians involved in the searches. By late in the evening, with everything dark, the operation had to be postponed till the following day.

Mrs Bunce had collapsed in the afternoon and was being attended by a doctor. Margaret Davidson was experiencing a sort of panic and fear which can’t be described. Mr Davidson was out with the search, and couldn’t believe the worst. They thought he might have been taken away in a van. ‘A year ago Sandy climbed into a van and he was discovered in Lanarkshire,’ said Philip Davidson. ‘Instinct tells the whole family that Sandy is alive. He has been taken by someone in a car. We can only hope and pray for Sandy, but one thing is sure, the whole family will throw a huge party when he returns home.’

Derelict brickworks just over the road in the town of Dreghorn were being combed by experts, led by Alistair Findlay, a 29-year-old potholer from Glasgow. He spoke of dozens of tunnels and kilns with passageways leading underground. ‘In many of them,’ he said, ‘we had to crawl among the rubble on our hands and knees in the dark.’ In an effort to establish what had happened to Sandy, every nook and cranny of the area was being gone through, every open space, every stretch of water, every house, had to be eliminated. Posters were put up on bus-shelters and in shop windows, and printed in the local papers. They had a picture of Sandy looking blonde and round-faced; it was grainy, and underneath it said, ‘Has Anybody Seen Sandy?’

Detective Constable William McArthur shook my hand firmly, and took me along corridors smelling sometimes of floor-cleaner and sometimes of coffee, to a small interview room at the back of Irvine station. I realised, as I sat across from him in this very formal manner, that we were speaking to each other not in a way that was officious, or put on, but in a way that was quite careful. We wanted to acknowledge the gravity of our discussion, and this meant not sounding like you were in the King’s Arms across the road.

Mr McArthur was among the police officers brought into the Sandy Davidson enquiry from other towns in the area. He was involved in the endless door-to-door enquiries, and the collation of information on a card index. The computer method used nowadays called Homes (Home Office Major Enquiries System) didn’t exist then, and everything had to be taken down and cross-referenced manually. ‘Nowadays,’ said Mr McArthur, ‘you just need to put part of a name into the computer terminal, say, DAV, and the Davidsons, all the Davidsons, every Davidson, comes up.’ Much has changed, he indicates, but much has stayed the same. The search for Sandy involved a lot of people searching the area for traces, for anything at all that might give a clue, but they were unable to continue searching indefinitely. They had to give up some time. ‘When,’ I asked, ‘when would you decide that an inquiry had come to its end?’

‘Well, you explore every sort of avenue and exhaust every possible line of enquiry,’ he said. ‘The Sandy Davidson enquiry went on not just for months it went on for years. After the main incident room was shut down, things still came in ... spiritualists and mediums would come, and you’d have to weigh these things up.’ He looked down at the notes: ‘but you always get these things.’

The Sandy Davidson enquiry was one in which there were very few clues; there was little to work on. Someone thought they’d heard a child’s scream at the brickworks; someone thought they saw a man with a sky-blue car – a man about forty or so years old, about 5'8" with fair hair – driving off with a little boy at 10.55 on the Friday morning Sandy disappeared. Police helicopters flew over the housing scheme, but found nothing. As the weeks passed, those involved had different theories. Some felt he had fallen asleep and been covered; some felt he had gone into the water and had likely been carried away; others believed he’d been abducted, probably by someone with a car, possibly by someone living nearby; and still others felt he might have gone into the foundations of a house, and suffered some sort of accident there.

It became one of the most seriously troubling episodes of that decade, at least that’s how it felt to many living in the New Town. They couldn’t get over it. Mr and Mrs Davidson left the scheme soon afterwards, and went to live in Saltcoats. Two years later, Margaret Davidson was still pleading for news of her son. ‘It’s been two years of agony for my husband Philip and myself,’ she said. ‘I still believe he is alive because if he was dead the police would have found something.’

Mr McArthur stared into his coffee. I told him I’d been thinking the worst. ‘If someone had a mind to do it,’ I said, ‘how easy would it be to dispose of a body in an area like this?’

‘There’s a lot of missing persons throughout the country,’ he said, ‘I mean, that Frederick West enquiry, in Gloucester, is an example of how bodies can be disposed of. Daughter murdered, first wife murdered; and not on police files as missing persons. These things happen.’

I catch a blue bus outside, and sit on the top deck, watching the new town spool past. The woman who comes up for my fare is one of those who’s been taking fares on the Al buses, on this route, since I was a child. I’m sure she almost pulled my ear off once, when she found me and my pals crouching behind scats up the back, trying to dodge the fare. She smiles down at me; she’s all lacquered and lipsticked, just as I remember her.

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