Smiling from Soweto to Leith

From disruption to construction: the colourful story of Leith’s finest plasterer-philosopher

This is the story of Craig Rankin, as recounted to Catherine Campbell in August 2020. Craig was one of the earliest young people to benefit from the WorkingRite model of work-based mentoring. He was a trainee in 2005 with the Leith ‘TOIL Project’ – the pilot started by Sandy Campbell that was the forerunner of WorkingRite. Craig is now 31 and running a successful plastering business in Leith.

It’s practically impossible not to smile right back at Craig Rankin when you get caught in the full beam of his infectious grin. His is the sort of presence that fills a room and lifts the mood of all those in the vicinity…

These are possibly not the sort of observations you would expect to make about the chap who’s come round to do the plastering in the spare room, but Craig’s visit is dual purpose: he’s telling the story of how he arrived at this point, from potent memories of distant South African beginnings to managing his emerging business here in Leith. A journey across both time and continents and one he relates with animation, honesty and a level of reflection bordering on the philosophical.

His discourse betrays a rich diversity of cultural influences and experience, his mind a wealth of knowledge and interests. It’s curious to learn then, that this was the lad who disrupted class, resented others making progress when he felt he couldn’t, and achieved notoriety by setting off the fire alarm on his last day. But contrast rather than contradiction characterises much of what he says. The boy fae Leith is gloriously apparent in his every utterance but he remains devoted to the Xhosa tribe on his mother’s side and talks about South Africa as “home” where family is extensive.

Memories of his early life are surprisingly detailed: born in Soweto to a mixed-race couple, he speaks of the clandestine nature of his parents’ relationship under apartheid and ponders the unanswered question as to why his mother Lilian chose a white man from Leith. “Maybe she wanted something different”, is what Craig speculates; something she thought would provide a better life for her descendants.

Despite the obvious challenges of the situation – he remembers both of his parents carrying guns… he describes his life then as good. There were trips to Zimbabwe, Swaziland and Mozambique and an initial foray into education courtesy of a boys’ school in Johannesburg. Eventually however, they chose to flee, hoping to leave behind the overt oppression and restrictions rife in South Africa where, at the time, their mixed-race family was illegal. Would freedom and happiness be theirs in Scotland? Or would their new life be beset with different challenges?

Fundamental human issues of identity and belonging were quick to materialise: Craig’s mum felt the brutal impact of estrangement from her close-knit family in South Africa. She found herself alone, without friends, and started on a self-destructive, alcohol-fuelled path of consolation and escapism.

Craig, meanwhile, was quick to realise how much he stood out – black people were still uncommon during that era. He gravitated towards Leith’s Sikh lads for company and connection but still felt unsettled in his new environment. These troubles were further amplified by the marital split that occurred between his parents shortly after their arrival in Scotland and the fight for custody of Craig that ensued.

Craig himself emerges with dignity and maturity as he reflects on all of this. He speaks of both of his parents with respect and love, acknowledging how they formed his development and what they taught him. “I got my manners from my dad,” he pronounces cheerfully. It’s hard though, not to feel for the boy who frequently had to get himself up and out of the door in the morning: the lad who was clearly suffering as he kicked off in frustration at school and found solace in the wrong company – gang fighting at weekends led to significant trouble with the police – he was becoming a familiar name to them.

Serious change was needed, and Craig clearly had the strength of character and additional support from others to effect those changes. He is confident now in the life lessons he has learned, “The path is yours. You have to take control”. It is apparent that he understood this from an early age – he never sought pain relief from the predictable adolescent choices of drink or drugs. He wanted, very evidently, to give himself a chance of forging a positive life.

The move to secondary school heralded a new era, “a new adventure” as he says. Certainly, there was a flurry of fresh friendships and the continuation of his devotion to all things football. Lochend Boys’ football club gave him a focus, a thing to do that he excelled at, and a place to make more connections. (The manager Ricky Millar and his wife Lizzie were to play a rather crucial role too when more tragedy struck).

But life in the classroom was still fraught with frustration and Craig was fine-tuning his now legendary ability to disrupt, finding himself referred more and more frequently to a place he calls, “a centre for kids who can’t cope in class”. A troubled time of transition, and one which was about to get worse…

Craig lost his Dad very suddenly when he was just twelve. Ewan Harold Rankin was felled on the spot by a massive heart attack. Dead before he hit the floor. Wiped out so swiftly, the steady paternal hand who had taught Craig so much, furnished him with knowledge and told him “how to do stuff”. Leaving him alone with his visibly troubled mum during those turbulent formative years.

Outside support became necessary when his mum went into rehab – this happened more than once. Assuming the mantle of pastoral care was Ricky from Lochend; succinctly described as “a very good guy” by Craig. Ricky and his wife, Lizzie, embraced the position of “second mum and dad” and clearly still occupy an important place in his life and his affections. They were the first in a sterling cast of humble heroes: guardians and mentors emerging from the nooks and crannies of Craig’s existence and demonstrating that warmth and empathy can flow from sources other than those whose job it is to care…

Craig left school under a bit of a cloud and with no great sense of direction; he says he didn’t have a “digeridoo” what he wanted to do; he just knew he needed to work. Lucky for him that the hard wiring nurtured within him by his parents meant he was driven by a powerful work ethic and determination to find his own way. “People can guide you”, he says, adding with typical wisdom, “but the decisions are yours to make.”

Opportunities are nonetheless crucial, and one was presented to him in the form of an interview with the TOIL Project – the pilot predecessor of WorkingRite. A competitive proposition as many boys were vying for only six places. Off he went to his interview, careful to “dress appropriate” where he met Allan Nicol, the project co-ordinator at the time.

A frank and lengthy discussion ensued, where Craig was totally upfront about his challenges with dyslexia and the troubled way in which he’d left school whilst managing to demonstrate his keenness to work, his confidence and his sense of purpose. He was offered a place. They spent some considerable time pondering the issue of a suitable trade for Craig: “Do you want to be a plasterer?” said Allan eventually. “What’s that?”, responded Craig. Not a question he’d have any trouble with nowadays…

Craig has an acute awareness of his fortunate landing here. At the time he was quick to understand his responsibility in making the most of the options on offer and to appreciate the leg up he was getting: “the ball’s in your court. He’s (Allan) basically setting you up for your life… helping you get to where you want to be.”

Next up then, the plasterers of choice who were to do much more than support Craig in his work placement. Keith and Davy, the two foundation stones of Leith Plastering: a shining example of the sort of small-scale business ideal for taking on trainees and investing the proper time and energy into their progress. He remembers his first day: up “early doors”, mustard-keen and nervous, hopping from one nervous foot to the other as he waited at the designated pick-up point. No worries about connecting with his new mentors – the inevitable glue that bonds Scottish males the nation over soon emerged: “What team do you support?” was the first question he recalls being asked.

Communication was the key element in this relationship: Craig speaks of the importance of the encouragement he received – to ask questions, to express his thoughts and to ask for help. He developed his skills; grew in confidence and responded to their faith in him with hard graft, and impeccable timekeeping and attendance. Things were really looking up: he impressed his mentors so consistently that he was taken on as an apprentice and was even studying, willingly, towards his skills’ test. Huge steps in the direction of a positive working future.

It was fortunate that this aspect of his life was flourishing and that the associated network of support was available when further foundation-crumbling events in his family life arose. His mum wasn’t coping at all well: the death of Craig’s father seemed to precipitate an even more steep decline into alcoholic oblivion. There were stints in rehab, a positive move surely but ultimately not sufficient to reverse the damage already done. She died when her son was seventeen – from cancer, meningitis and kidney failure. He had known that she was ill, but not that she was dying – even at the end she wanted to reassure him, “It was like she knew I was going to be alright.”

When Craig’s mum died, Keith took him to work the next day to clear his head and keep him occupied. When he was served with an eviction notice on his mum’s flat by the Council, it was Keith and Davy, along with their wives, who went the extra mile: storing stuff for him and helping him to find his own flat.

The impact of this experience and these opportunities has been far-reaching and significant; in Craig’s own words, “I think the TOIL Project has changed my whole entire life”. Indeed, he is eloquent in his praise of all of the adults who have been instrumental in his formation and there for him when his parents no longer could be. His summary here speaks volumes: “There’s some good people out there”.

What does the future hold in store for this thoughtful, engaging and inquisitive young man? He speaks of the “biggest test” of his life being one that is yet to come – that of having a family of his own. He speaks too of exploring his heritage more and learning about the culture that witnessed and formed his earliest years which continues to influence and fascinate him.

Whatever is next for Craig, he will undoubtedly pursue it with cheerful enthusiasm, total commitment and a healthy grasp of his place in the world. In the meantime, if you have any plastering needs… you know who to call.