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History repeats itself with the Thurso Boy

Better behaviour is built on education, aspiration and purpose, says Michael Russell

he Bay Cafe in Thurso has long gone. Yet it has a small place in history, and time as well as geography can be used to pinpoint that significant moment, for at 10.30pm on the night of Saturday, December 7, 1957, two police constables -Harper and Gunn - entered through its doors and were subjected to a torrent of abuse by a number of youths, one of whom was a 15-year-old loudmouth called John Waters.

John Waters would subsequently become mildly famous for a short while in Scotland, for he was the "Thurso Boy" and over six days in March 1959 his actions, and those of Constables Harper and Gunn, were subjected to judicial inquiry in the main courtroom in Inverness. Thirty-eight witnesses gave evidence under oath in order that the three-man panel, appointed under the Tribunals of Inquiry Act 1921, could attempt to get to the bottom of the events of that December night in Thurso and in particular could discover whether or not the police officers had acted improperly and if they should have been prosecuted.

The tribunal reported in April 1959 in a very well written and very readable publication. However, it was not a bestseller and the reason that I have recently been reading such an arcane document (one which is stamped "Basement" on the copy I have, because it has lain in deepest unread storage for most of the past 47 years) lies in the fact that the "Thurso Boy" inquiry is an example of how decisions on prosecution can legitimately be examined by judicial process. Such a process is being zealously avoided by the current Lord Advocate, who does not want his appalling failure to prosecute the so-called "experts" in the Shirley McKie case opened up to public scrutiny.

But the "Thurso Boy" inquiry is fascinating for other reasons, not least the glimpse it gives of youth disorder in another age. Most of us would have thought that the mid-1950s were a time of social cohesion, during which young people - probably cowed by the presence of authority - would have shown more than a little respect to the forces of law and order. We usually reserve our dismay about bad behaviour, low-level yobbishness and incipient criminality for the present time, in which the streets of many of our towns and cities resemble, on a Friday and Saturday night in particular, nothing so much as a particularly rowdy closing time in Sodom and Gomorra.

But the reality was somewhat different. It may only have been five years since Naomi Mitchison's novel Lobsters on the Agenda was published, a book which depicted the rural west coast as a place of Presbyterian persecution of the young and rigid parental control even of those in their 20s, yet in Thurso at that time there was already, to quote the report, "an increase in rowdiness and drunkenness in the town" which required additional police attendance in pubs and cafes.

Indeed in 1956 the local provost, when chairing the licensing court, had specifically called for such interventions in order to stamp out the rise in drink-related crime and youth disorder.

It was also not uncommon for the police, on their weekend rounds of these known trouble spots, to be met with "obscene - indeed very obscene - language" from teenagers. Much of the report is surprisingly modern in that regard, with a clear indication that the police were engaged in a war with gangs of youths, bent on enjoying themselves no matter how many other people were inconvenienced or intimidated. Youths, moreover, who were out of any control in terms of parental input or restraint.

That December night bad language, offensive gestures and a lack of respect were what Constables Harper and Gunn were met with in the Bay Cafe from Waters and his friends, a group whose ages ranged from 14 to 18. After they had attempted to calm Waters down, he chased after them with more bad language and - it would appear - with an attempt at assault because he believed they had torn his jacket.

What happened next is also curiously modern. Frustrated by his inability to subdue or silence Waters - to which end they had taken him off the street and down an alley - Constable Gunn suddenly lashed out, only to be instantly rebuked by Constable Harper. Both of them knew that such behaviour was not tolerated in the police force, so in confusion they quickly left the scene to an increasingly histrionic Waters who lost no time in securing witnesses and making a considerable noise about his plight. The word "spin" might have been invented for him.

This might still all have been a small town storm in a tea cup, had not Constable Harper endeavoured to offer a bribe to the Waters family to have the complaint withdrawn, and had the failure to prosecute Constable Gunn not been brought to the notice of the national newspapers. Yet reading the facts now, one cannot but accept that Waters, while he should not have been assaulted, was at least in part responsible for the chain of events.

But the strongest impression that the report leaves is how, even half a century ago, the seeds of current youth disorder were already not only sown, but growing fast. Drugs played no part in the Thurso Boy case, but drink did, as did having too much money and nowhere to spend it, and as did the re-enforcement of disorder by the establishment of a "gang" culture or mindset. The police, then and now, seem ill-equipped to deal with the situation, and confused as to what it all means. And no one seemed to realise that all this was much more about education, aspiration and finding purpose than it was about public order or young people. Then and now.

Michael Russell is a writer and commentator.

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