I saw a remarkable programme on cable television last week. It was a short film made in the nineteen-forties about the leather industry in Scotland. Did it bring back memories! Me, aged eighteen, prone across Mr MacTaggart’s kitchen table, my trousers and pants at my knees. He leathering my naked buttocks with a three-tailed strap.
Where do I begin this story?
In Scotland the preferred method of scholastic punishment was the leather strap, known locally as a tawse. It was often about eighteen inches long and cut at one end into two or three tails. The tawses made in the small town of Lochgelly were world famous. I was no stranger to corporal punishment. I had attended a very traditional independent grammar school called St Francis at the time when Dr Henderson-Smith, a notorious flogger, was headmaster. Many years after I had left he was forced into retirement after a scandal involving a public thrashing.
We learned from a very early age to obey the rules and not to make waves. We turned up to lessons on time, spoke only when the schoolmaster instructed, worked hard and handed in our homework on time. We knew the consequences if we didn’t conform. It’s a pity schools aren’t like that today. A whippy rattan cane was kept handy to encourage the slackers. Do-gooders can say what they like but it got me through my examinations and secured me a place at a prestigious university in Scotland that proved to be even more traditional than St. Francis.
The problems started almost immediately I arrived. University was not like school. We were expected to study a lot without supervision. We might be sent off to the library with an essay title and told to turn in six pages the following week. I soon discovered I had no self-discipline. I was eighteen years old and away from parental supervision for the first time and I took full advantage. In those days you didn’t legally become an adult until you were twenty-one. The professors at university were our guardians. It would be going too far to say they were surrogate fathers, but some did perhaps see themselves as stern uncles.
I was a flop. I failed my end-of-year examinations and quite rightly should have been “sent down”, expelled back to Brocklehurst. But someone (I never found out who) saw some promise in me. If I agreed to reside with Mr and Mrs MacTaggart I would get a second chance. It was made abundantly clear to me there would be no third.
The MacTaggart’s had a small rooming house and at any one time there might be six boys from the university staying. We were all slackers of one sort or another, sent by the university to be knocked into shape. We jokingly called ourselves inmates at the MacTaggart Home for Naughty Boys. I think Mr and Mrs MacTaggart had military backgrounds; they certainly believed in rules, discipline and punishment.
I arrived on a Monday morning to be greeted at the door by Mrs MacTaggart. “You are to go right away to see Mr MacTaggart.” She nodded her head across the gloomy hallway to a dark brown door. “Leave your bag here.” She strode off to the kitchen, leaving me dumbfounded. Not much of a friendly welcome, I thought. It would not get better. I stood outside the door, it was made of heavy wood and had clearly seen better days; how on earth had it become so scratched?
I had an out-of-body experience. It was as if I were hovering at the ceiling looking down on myself, except I am no longer in Scotland. I am standing outside the headmaster’s study at St Francis and that could mean only one thing. Tentatively, I knocked on the door. “Enter!” Mr MacTaggart’s voice boomed from within. In my months at the house I never heard him speak below foghorn volume. I pushed the door and entered.
Mr MacTaggart was a tall, thick set man. Although he was in his fifties and broadening at the waist he still had the remains of strong hard muscles. His slicked back greying hair emphasised his stern gaze. His dark eyes were a little too close together and his mouth was stuck in a permanent frown. “So, you’re Hamilton,” he growled, his stare burning into my soul. I shuddered, “Yes, Sir,” in reply. I had only just met the man and already I was terrified of him.
He stood from a leather chair that was as scratched as the door. If I had expected a friendly welcoming handshake I was to be sorely disappointed. “You know why you have been sent here.” It sounded like a statement, not a question, so I remained silent. “Pah!” he exploded. “I’ll have no dumb insolence in my house, laddie.”
I probably blushed to my roots, unable (too scared) to form a coherent sentence. “Pah!” he said again, expelling air through nearly closed teeth. He then listed all my faults at university. They were many. “It stops now,” he glowered. “There are rules. You will find a copy in your room. Learn them. Don’t break them. Or else.” The threat in his voice was not implied; it was real.
“And, now,” he clasped his hands together as if we were about to start praying, “We must start as we mean to go on.” I stood rooted as he made his way across the room. It was sizeable and crammed with old furniture in dark woods. Heavy curtains covered the windows and the whole effect was of gloom. He paused when he reached the far wall. I gasped and swallowed hard. Only now had I noticed the long heavy brown leather tawse hanging from a nail. Mr MacTaggart reached up and in one athletic movement fetched it down and spread it between his two hands. He showed it to me as if he were making a religious offering. It was cut into two ten-inch tails and had a handle of about six inches at the other.
“You must atone for your misbehaviour last year. Then we start with a clean slate,” he barked. I did not know at the time that in Scottish schools the taws was traditionally administered across the palms of the hands. “Put up your left hand,” Mr MacTaggart ordered. My puzzled expression angered him. “Pah!” he set the tawse down on a chair and raised his own hands as a demonstration. I was to hold my hands out in front of my body laying one (palm upward) on top of the other. In this way the lower hand supported the upper and kept it in place once the strap impacted into the flesh. I was to discover soon that this did not work in practice.
At school we were always caned on the backside. Being punished this way has distinct advantages. A chap is bent across a chair or a desk, or is perhaps touching toes of gripping ankles. In any case he has something to hold on to absorb the force of the stroke. There is the added advantage of not being able to see the master as he prepares the punishment. A chap just closes his eyes and waits for the pain to begin.
Not so with the hands. I raised my hands as instructed and watched half-fascinated, half-terrified, as Mr MacTaggart rested the tails of the tawse across my palm. My heart missed a beat when I felt the weight of the leather. Mr MacTaggart adjusted his position by shuffling backwards an inch or two. He raised the strap over his own shoulder so that it rested against the small of his back. His eyes blazed. Then whoosh! The strap arced forward at tremendous speed and crashed down into the palm of my hand. The crack of leather on flesh echoed around the room. At first I didn’t feel a thing and then, POW! I yelped. The blow was awesome; the pain shot through my hand and the force of the blow made me drop both hands to my side, blow on them, rub them together and wiggle them about as if I were dementedly waving to a crowd.
Mr MacTaggart was unimpressed. “Pah. Up laddie – get those hands up,” he growled. I come from a long line of schoolboys steeped in tradition. We took our punishment like men. I was a little flustered that I had not been able to take just one stroke of the strap. With determination I resumed the position; hands held up. I closed my eyes tight, took a deep breath and steeled myself. Another two blows came swiftly – on each one I repeated the hand waving and palm blowing, this time accompanied by a little dance from one foot to the other. I was not taking this well.
Mr MacTaggart did not hide his impatience. He ordered me to swap hands. Slowly and painfully I did so, noticing my right palm was crimson from the belting so far and my hand was numb.
Mr MacTaggart gave me three strokes on the left hand in rapid succession. It was excruciatingly painful, and my body was shivering as I doubled up with my hands under my armpits. This was my first tawsing on the hand. I was soon to discover that with a strapping the immediate effect was one of numbness; it would take a few minutes yet for the pain to fully kick in. Later in my room, I poured cold water into a basin and soaked my hands. It didn’t help. The palms of both hands were blistered and I had considerable difficulty holding anything in them for the rest of the day. MacDonald, another inmate at the house for naughty boys, and himself a Scot, told me that at school a master would ask a boy which hand he used to write with and then strap him on the other one, making sure he could continue writing.
The rules of the house were not exceptional. There were mealtimes that could not be missed, a curfew at night, no smoking or alcohol. It was, I imagine, not so different from being at a boarding school. I knuckled down and got on with studying. I knew I had screwed up the previous year and was determined not to do so again. I was quite a pious young man and felt that I had let people down.
I kept my nose clean until one night I missed curfew. It was a girl of course. I thought we were getting on very well and I might get a kiss before the night was over. We were very innocent in those days. I succeeded and walked on air all the way back to the house. The last bus had gone so I was about an hour late. I was not surprised to find Mr MacTaggart fuming. I knew what was coming. There were rules, I had broken them, the consequence was clear. I would have to be punished.
I let Mr MacTaggart berate me for my lateness. I told him I had missed the bus. That was true, but I didn’t want him to know the reason why. “Pah! Laddie, you know what must happen.” I did, my palms would be blistered. “Damn!” I thought, an essay was due in the next day and I had not finished it. There was no way it would get written if I couldn’t hold a pen.
“Please, Mr. MacTaggart, I know I have done wrong and I deserve punishment,” I can hardly believe I spoke like that. I explained my predicament with the essay. “Please could you beat me on my backside.” Crazy. What eighteen-year-old today would say that? “Pah!” Mr MacTaggart snarled. “Come into the kitchen.” He led the way across the passageway and we entered a small room. Without speaking he opened a drawer to a dresser and delved inside. Seconds later he withdrew a leather strap. It was longer and heavier than the one he had used on me before. This one had three tails. As a novice I thought this thing could cause extreme damage.
Mr MacTaggart glared at me, he did not try to hide his distain. He looked around the room as if trying to decide his next move. His eyes settled on a small table. “There, that’ll do.” I immediately understood his intention. He would expect me to bend across the table to receive the strap across my backside. It was a relief. I was on familiar territory. A whacking from that strap would hurt like billy-o but I knew I could survive it.
Perhaps he sensed my indifference. “Pah!” He snarled. “Take down your trousers. Underwear too.” Any nonchalance I might have had evaporated. Pants down. On the bare. Even the despicable Henderson-Smith at school never caned me like this. “And bend over the table,” Mr MacTaggart completed his instruction.
This was uncharted territory. That three-tailed strap would take the skin off my backside, I had no doubt about that. “Pah! Hurry along laddie. It’s late we both need our beds.” I sucked on my bottom lip gearing myself for the ordeal ahead. I don’t think I was especially concerned about taking my trousers and pants down in front of the old man. My generation was used to undressing in public. I shared a bedroom with my older brother for years. At school the boys often ran around naked in the showers and no one even noticed.
“Pah!” Mr MacTaggart’s impatience was showing again. I resolved to get on with it. With steady hands I unbuckled my belt and opened the front of my trousers. The weight of the belt made them slip over my thighs and sag at the knees. I left them there and quickly pushed my underpants in the same direction. I shuffled closer to the table, took a deep breath, and lent forward. At school we were expected to lay flat on the desk top with our bottoms raised over the edge, so I took up that position. The kitchen table was considerably smaller than my housemaster’s desk and my arms dangled over the far side.
From the corner of my eye I saw Mr MacTaggart approach the desk, he leaned in so close I could smell the stink of his breath. He took hold of my shirt and tugged the tail so that it rode up my back. I was now naked from my shoulders to my knees. I folded my arms and buried my face in them. I was as ready as I ever would be. I felt the heavy weight of the tawse resting against my bare flesh. Mr MacTaggart took aim, raised the leather and walloped it with terrific force into my left buttock. It hurt. A lot. My bum, although not fat, was very meaty and the leather sank into my mound and I felt a burning sensation. He flogged another three cuts into my bum so both buttocks were scorched.
The shock made me raise my head from my arms. I didn’t yell out, I think my movement was probably just a reflex action. I had never been strapped on the bottom before (bared or otherwise) but I had taken my share of canings. If I had to make a judgement I would say the cane is much worst. A thin whippy rattan rod if swiped into the backside will cut into the flesh and leave a welt that potentially can throb for several hours. The strap (even delivered across naked flesh) does not cut, rather it slaps or slashes. The leather tails cover a greater surface than the cane but the pain is altogether less sharp. It is akin to a dull ache.
Mr MacTaggart gave me twelve stokes. Upon his command I rose from the table and although I was in pain I felt far from battered. I rubbed my buttocks contritely (I thought Mr MacTaggart would expect some such show) before replacing my pants and trousers in their proper places. Later in bed I recalled that kiss. The spanking I got was well worth it. It didn’t deter me seeing the girl again and in the fullness of time we married; however I must confess each time we met I made certain we finished our courting before the last bus left.
Picture Credit: C of Sweden
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More stories from Charles Hamilton II are on the MMSA website
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