The Boy In The Train

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The Boy In The Train
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Written over 100 years ago, the poem 'The Boy In The Train' contains arguably the most famous of all literary references to Kirkcaldy.

The poem immortalises one of KIrkcaldy's foundation industries and is displayed at the town's southbound railway station platform.

To follow the whole story of the poet, her family and her poem, we have to embark on an excursion with many more 'next stops' than just Kirkcaldy.

In depth written study

                     The Boy on the Train.

         Just who was Mary Campbell Smith?

 

                “And fine I ken by the queer like smell 

                          the next stop is Kirkcaldy”

These fourteen words are the last of the two hundred and twenty two, which form this evocative poem. It is doubtful if any other pronouncement, written or verbal, has helped connect Kirkcaldy and linoleum so well and so firmly. Its style and pace induce the reader to believe that they are in the carriage, listening and watching the young lad’s antics, as he heads to the “Lang Toun” to visit his grandmother.

For as well known as the poem is both at home and abroad – what is known of the author and what prompted its writing in the first place? The answer is very little.

The poem was the work of Mary Campbell Smith (nee Edgar) and  was first published in 1913. Mary was a daughter of the manse, as was her Mother – Mary Cowan. Her father, Andrew Edgar, was a minister in an adjoining parish in the Stewartry of Kirkcudbright. Her Father was 15 years older than her Mother and Mary was the second child born in Tongland  in 1869. Mary had eight siblings and married George Smith from Ayr in September 1895.

A brilliant academic, who secured degrees at both Edinburgh and Oxford Universities, George went on to have a glittering career in the field of education. 

 

His first appointment saw George teach at Rugby School, before securing the post of headmaster at Merchiston Castle School (Edinburgh) and then Dulwich College (London) before in 1928, returning to Oxford University as Director of Education..

The genesis of the poem lies in the Smith’s time at Merchiston Castle, when their favourite holiday destination was Elie on the Fife coast.  The train was the transport of choice to reach their destination.. There can be no doubt that it was on the way to Elie, that Mary encountered the “boy” and he clearly made an impression on her with his lively behaviour and never ending chatter.

Some Merchiston schoolboys had the idea of producing their own school magazine and asked Mary for a contribution. This she did in the shape of her famous poem. This is where luck played its part. The Magazine only had a life of one issue but the editor of the official school bulletin – “The Merchistonian”, spotted the poem and published it in the Bulletin in 1913. With its wide readership of scholars, parents and former pupils, the poem came to the attention of a publishing house and has been in print ever since. Such is the hand of fate.

Mary lived her life as a support to her husband and was very much a background figure. Only one other poem is attributed to Mary and that is “Miss Mirren McKie”, a comedy poem written in broad Scots.

George and Mary had four children, each securing a dazzling array of academic qualifications, before going onto successful careers .

George died in 1957 with Mary passing away on the 6th March 1960 in Oxford, where they had lived since 1928.

In a life spent in education from their marriage in 1895 until retiral in1937, many young men who fought and died in two world wars must have passed through their hands. Sadly they also felt the pain of such a loss, when their oldest son, George, who “signed up” rather than take up a place at Oxford fell in 1917. In his short military career – the young man was promoted twice, before falling, leading his men into battle.

Having traced and spoken to direct descendants of the Smiths – it is believed Mary never set foot in the town she made famous – only stopping at the station to let the “boy” alight.

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Kirkcaldy Civic Society Est. 1974