Adapted from A. J. Cronin's novel, an orphan is raised by his grandparents and great grandparents in Scotland and struggles to get an education.
After his parents died, the boy Robert Shannon (Dean Stockwell) goes from Dublin to Scotland in 1900 and is taken in by his grandmother Mama Leckie (Selena Royle) and the penurious Papa Leckie (Hume Cronyn). Grandma Leckie (Gladys Cooper) makes him a green suit to attend the academy, and the other boys make fun of him. His great grandfather, Dandy Gow (Charles Coburn) tells him to fight the leader and tries to teach him boxing with his drinking friends. At school Robert fights Gavin Blair and gets a black eye but does not quit.
At high school graduation Robert Shannon (Tom Drake) wins the science prize, Gavin Blair history, and Alison Keith (Beverly Tyler) music. When Robert finds an egg for Gavin's collection, he gives Robert a microscope. Gavin is going to the university, but Robert has to work. Robert needs a new suit for his first communion in the Catholic church. He asks Papa Leckie for fifteen shillings, but he says no. However, Dandy sells Leckie's Encyclopedia of Sanitation to make up for the tricycle of Robert's that Leckie had sold.
The schoolmaster tells Robert that he can win a scholarship to the university by taking a test, but Papa Leckie refuses to sign the approval form. Dandy tells the schoolmaster that he will sign as guardian, and they both help Robert study for two weeks while Papa and Mama Leckie go to London to visit their selfish son Adam (Norman Lloyd). Robert studies hard and does well on the first days of the exam, but he suffers pneumonia and is unable to complete the test. Gavin comes back to see Robert, but he is killed by a train. Alison sings beautifully and has a chance to study music, but she is in love with Robert and does not want to go away. However, he refuses to marry her while he is still in the boiler works. Robert tries to get a job working in a medical lab, but there is no such opportunity. Robert prays, but Mama Leckie dies. The canon Roche (Henry O'Neill) suggests that Robert become a priest, but Robert doubts God. The family is afraid that Dandy has jumped in the river, but a policeman brings him home from jail. Dandy's friends sneak a bottle to him by the window. Dandy sneaks out to go to the fair and has a heart attack at the flower show. The family listens to the reading of his will, and they learn that Dandy made a codicil and left all his insurance money to Robert, enabling him to go to the university.
This drama reflects Scotch characteristics from the
thrifty Papa Leckie to the drinking Dandy. Religious differences
are tolerated, and education is valued as the key to a better