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Tobacco Baron


In my younger years, before the day of enlightenment as to the evils of tobacco, it was fashionable and really quite the in and the done thing for men to smoke. Not so for women but movie stars and ladies of distinction could be seen posing with long cigarette holders. Both my dad and my grampa smoked a pipe. Indeed I think every man in Earlsferry, smoked a pipe. When radio was in its infancy and TV had never been heard of it was the custom for Earlsferry men to meet in the evenings with their cronies at The Gyle, that's another name for what was the Earlsferry corner of bygone days, to discuss the events of the day and whatever. The Gyle was their meeting place; the place where they stood with their back's against the gable of the corner house, lit up their pipes and puffed away as they conversed with each other while they walked back and forth from one side of the street to the other. In the winter time this would often be long after dark.


The Gyle


One day in the springtime when I was about twelve years old I was shopping at the Woolworth store in Leven where I spotted packets of Virginia tobacco seeds along with instructions as to how to make your own pipe tobacco. After a moment of wondering if tobacco plants could grow in Earlsferry, about 700 miles from the Arctic Circle, I decided to have a go. As events unfolded the Earlsferry climate in our sheltered walled garden turned out to be very much to the seeds liking and by autumn I harvested several pounds of good size tobacco leaves. I cut the leaves from the plants and hung them up to dry by hanging them over a long rope in our garden shed, our Howff. After the leaves were dry the next step was to give the leaves a quick dip in a tub of water to which was added black treacle and a small amount of saltpetre which I got from Wood's the chemist's shop in Elie. The leaves were hung up again and allowed to dry until they were just slightly moist. At this point I packed the leaves into small wooden boxes that had heavy wooden lids. Next was to place each box in a vise to give the tobacco shape as I pressed out the excess moisture. When removed from the boxes my plugs of tobacco were about one inch square and six inches long. These I carefully placed on a shelf to give the plugs time to dry and cure.


As I was admiring my accomplishment who shows up at The Howff but my elderly friend Monty. After I explained to him what I was doing he said, “While you’re waiting for your tobacco to dry and cure I have several plugs of tobacco that were just given to me by my friend Commander Heathcote. You’re welcome to have one. I’ll go home and bring one back.” In short order Monty returned. His tobacco plug for me turned out to be tobacco that the navy issues to sailors aboard ship. Navy plug is tobacco that’s wrapped in sailcloth then is wound from end to end of the plug with tarry hemp cord like an Egyptian mummy. Through time the flavor of tar seeps through the cloth to permeate the tobacco. As Monty left he said, “Let me know how you like it.”  How Jack Tar sailors can smoke this stuff is beyond me. Talk about blowing your head off. Before I got my first pipe-full smoked I became so sick I thought I’d die. I really had no idea as to which end was up. Later when I met Monty again, with a twinkle in his eye, he asked me, "how did you like the navy plug?", but before he finished his question he could contain his mirth no longer and burst out laughing. He knew he’d given me the cure. I was so put off with that navy plug that I didn't even offer my plugs of tobacco to my dad or my grandpa.  I dug a hole in the garden and my beautiful plugs of tobacco ended up from whence they came. Amen to that experiment. Ha, ha, ha. I chalked that one up to-- all part of life's learning experience. 


Monty did have my best interests at heart but he did put a stop to any aspirations that I might have had as to me becoming a Scottish tobacco baron.