Fearn Balintore and Hilton Community Collage

Chapter 14 - Home Life

From early morning until night-time the fisherman and his family were kept hard at it, but most of all the housewife. Her day might have an early and wet start launching her husband's boat, followed by bait-gathering and perhaps baiting a spare line before he got home, so she was often glad of a pause about 9.0 a.m. to see the children off to school. Baiting took about two hours plus the time needed to gather it, which in the case of lug worm from Nigg Bay, meant a further six hours. Thus eight hours a day could go before she began her domestic duties and they were arduous enough on their own.

Before the thatched roof gave way to felt and then slate, there were no rone pipes therefore no rainwater barrel for water. All water had to be carried in so that wash-day especially could be a very frustrating job if a good supply was not at hand. Children helped here and took it in turn to go to the well, using a gird to lighten the weight of the
pails. This was a light wooden frame reinforced at the corners, or it might be just a barrel hoop. The handles of the pails were set against the gird thus keeping the pails away from the legs. Fortunately there were many wells, usually behind the houses, and some were quite deep. The bucket was usually raised and lowered by means of a rope but in some cases a few stone steps led down to the well and one had just to plunge in the pail or scoop water into it with a skillet.  

Unfortunately, the proximity of pig-sties to wells was a danger to health and to combat this, Dr. Gillies, Tain, arranged between the First and Second World Wars for the main well in each village to be deepened and given a pump. This one in Balintore was situated where the Rovers' Crescent now stands, then moved to the green. Hilton had a good well which was moved closer to the houses and given a pump which was splendid except in wet weather when the pump was like an island in the sea. There was another pump at the corner of King Street, Hilton, but it froze very readily in cold weather.
Shandwick people got their water from Cormac's well near Old Shandwick Farm and from a well behind the village, which unfortunately tended to get very dirty with dead rats and other debris and had to be cleaned out with lime every now and then. Park Street,
Balintore, had a tap at the roadside which sometimes took an hour to fill a pail.

Depending on the weather the weekly wash was done in either the kitchen or the shed. The wooden tub was placed on a stand of some kind - a kitchen chair lying on its side was as good as anything - and when the pot of hot water was ready, the woman of the house scrubbed the clothes, using her scrubbing-brush and a wooden stool or a flat piece of wood as a scrubbing board. Whites were boiled with washing-soda in the iron pot and often it was the job of a daughter to stand over the pot with a 'spirtle' to push the clothes down when they tended to rise and overflow. Everything was beautifully clean before being spread on the whins to dry.

Blankets were washed during warm summer weather. In Balintore and Shandwick this was done at home but in Hilton they were lucky to have a burn and there they carried all that was needed for washday - blankets, washing pot, tub and firewood. A fire was lit
and the big iron pot, kept for washing only, was put on it and soon the water was hot enough to begin. The youngsters stamped the blankets with great gusto and then helped to wring them prior to spreading them on the whins, with a sharp lookout for hungry bovine eyes in search of a tasty bite of wool.

Usually every stitch was dry as a bone by evening and borne home in triumph, but wet weather meant a kitchen full of damp clothes drying as best they might. Washing lines near the house and water barrels at the corner were a development that greatly reduced the exhaustion of washday and were at the time comparable to the labour-saving of the modern washing-machine. The sight of washing drying and bleaching in the sunshine must have rejoiced the heart of the weary housewife many a time as she sat and baited the line and thanked her Maker that that job was over for another week. But what of the ironing? That was another day!

Ironing was an arduous job which frayed the temper badly.  Fishwives never failed to have an immaculate white apron and up to 1900 or so a beautifully goffered mutch which cannot have made ironing-day any easier. The goffering iron had a little poker in a pocket. The poker was heated in the fire, inserted in the socket, and the frill of the mutch was pressed over it till nicely crimped. Heaters set in the fire to be put inside a box-iron and flat irons heated before the fire on the 'toaster' tended to prevent the heat of the fire from spreading through the room and many a groan was heard when this chore was in operation. First came the fisherman's Sunday dickeys which were starched and ranged on the brass rail to finish off and woe betide the innocent who edged too near the fire. 'Keep away from the dickeys' was like a signature tune and keep away he did, at
the expense of cold fingers and toes.

Fuel was always a problem. It was only about the 1840's that coal became generally available and until then, in an area that had no peat, people depended on whins, broom and driftwood. Even after coal began to be used, women from Shandwick and possibly from Balintore as well, used to go to Shandwick Hill about 5.0 a.m. on summer mornings to collect whins, which the gamekeepers had burnt, to use as kindling. The sticks were gathered into a bundle and tied with a 'chower,' a rope with an iron ring at one end. This was looped round the bundle which was hitched over the shoulder to be carried home. Fishwives sometimes gathered sticks in their creels, as in the photograph, and it is said that fish were sometimes tradecd for peat in areas like Edderton. Anyone with a cart took that to collect fuel in the various woods, such as Cadboll wood which was planted about
1825, and the Beltan near the Moss.

Cadger and wife return with firewood from the country.

Fishwife bringing home firewood and a pail of milk
The only time coal arrived free was in 1917 when a coal boat, 'Elm,' was wrecked thirty yards from Port Benn a cheum, and Hilton people found it a godsend for years, and went out with creels after every storm to collect what had been washed up.

Housework was not a chore as minimum furniture meant little work, but cooking, baking, knitting and sewing were all fitted somehow into the day's schedule. If a housewife was also a fishwife another job came her way, preparing fish for sale 'on the country.' It was indeed 'all hands on deck' and a large family was a distinct advantage for this respect at least. Leisure was an almost unknown luxury for the wolf was never far from the door at any time.

During the Sacraments there was no fishing and therefore supplies of fish for the family had to be smoked beforehand to last the week, but stormy weather could be a time of great hardship and hunger.

Before the welfare state, the sick, the handicapped and widows were hard pressed indeed. In early days they depended on the charity of the church which in the early 19th century distributed from 3/6 to 5/- to the needy once a year in January. By the middle of that century the maximum annual allowance had gone up to 10/- in the parish of Fearn, with the insane and blind receiving 5/-. Around 1900 a widow with three children received 10/- monthly from the Parish Council, which rose by the time of the First World War to 5/- to 6- a week for widows with young children - 'not enough to feed a cat,' as one so succinctly put it. Widows on this meagre allowance sometimes earned a few small fish from the lines at redding time by singing Gaelic psalms or the 'Linnet' poem to people baiting, moving on from one group to another, literally singing for their supper.

Poverty and hardship brought out the best in people and there were good neighbours, helping each other in sickness and bereavement and showing great kindness to elderly folk in sharing fish, coal and anything else they could afford.

In addition to everything else, the housewife might have illness in the home to cope with. Smallpox was the worst disease for young people in the 18th century, killing in Tarbat seventy-five children in 1757, forty-six in 1768 and thirty-eight in 1791.6b. Little wonder then that in 1806-7, Rev. John Munro, minister of Chapelhill Church, was urging vaccination [3]  though Nigg Parish Council were still having trouble with vaccination defaulters a hundred years later.  [21]

T .B. and King's Evil (scrofula) were common within the last hundred years and a kind of eczema which forced men to give up  fishing. There was an outbreak of smallpox about 1870, scarlet fever was raging in 1875, and in 1879 and 1883 there was severe cases of
whooping cough and measles. The school was closed for six weeks in 1884 because of sickness and deaths and in 1900 there was typhoid fever. Diptheria was common and with so many illnesses there were many deaths among young children.

In death and in childbirth everyone depended on the 'howdy' who was called upon at all hours and, tired as she might be, out she would go to give all the help she could. These women had an inborn medical skill and that there was very little spesis says much for their abilities.  The appointment of District Nurses in the 1920's was a great boon,
however, and families no longer depended on the howdy and home-made cures.

Outside jobs for womenfolk included those to do with the fishing like gathering bait and tourkens and cutting reeds for platachs, which are dealt with in the chapter on white fishing. But another outside job which involved all the family was the potato rig. Each household had a rig on nearby farms - Hilton, Old Shandwick, Easter Rarichie, Cadboll, Tullich, Balmuchy and so on - which they tended themselves after the farmer had ploughed the field. A rig was about 11 feet wide and ran the length of the field, maybe 100-120 yards. The figures for the rent of a rig vary widely from 7/- to £1. The family used a hawk to clean it of weeds and manured with seaware or guano bought from the farmers.

Gathering seaware was a big job and according to an article in the Highland Monthly 1889-90 it began on 'war day', usually the first of April. It was collected on the shore, dried and carried up to the rig in creels. It is said that some families had their own strip on the shore where they gathered their supplies, but in 1841 the villagers in Shandwick were not allowed to take drifted ware from the shore.  This was the exclusive right of the Estate's farm tenants and it was only if small quantities came in that the villagers were allowed to collect it into heaps not less than 100 yards above high water and use it or sell it if they wished. [22]  Many people cut sea ware from the rocks and used it so liberally that the farmers had splendid crops in those fields the next year! In some cases the fisherfolk apparently had the same ground continuously as the 1813 map shows 'Fishers' land' above Hilton where presumably potatoes were grown year after year. In autumn the potatoes were lifted and carried home in creels, everyone helping, and put into pits which were covered with bracken.  Older children earned some money lifting potatoes on the farms - the rate for a twelve hour day sixty years ago was 1/-.

But by Saturday night all the chores for the week were finished. A double supply of fresh water was carried in, because carrying of water on the Sabbath was an offence rigorously punished by the church for many years. Boots and shoes were cleaned, shaving and beard-trimming done, and each child had head and body washed in the big zinc bath before the fire, with fresh clean clothes ready set out for Sunday morning. Sufficient food and fuel had to be available to last until Monday. A horse-drawn bread-van went round the villages on Saturday evening and all made sure of their supply even if it meant waiting until 10.0 p.m. for the van to arrive. With a home-baking of girdle scones and pancakes there was no fear of going short. Vegetables were cut and prepared for the next day. A pot of Scotch broth followed by meat and potatoes was a typical Sunday dinner with the left-overs, if any, used on Monday.

On Sunday, the parents and children of school age walked to  church in Sunday best. Children did not play outside that day. After dinner the parents rested although those belonging to the Free Church might go to the 'lundaith' (reading) when the elder read at the meeting house. The children attended an non-denominational Sunday school at 4.00 p.m. run by Mr. Watt and later by Mr. Walter Balfour and some of the elders. At 6.00 p.m. all but the oldest, the youngest and the sick attended the evening services at the meeting house in Park or at Hilton School, where until recent times the Church of Scotland, United Free Church and Free Church held services each Sunday on a rota system. Occasionally in summer there were outdoor services in the field behind Hilton and later in front of Hilton School.

Before bedtime one important duty remained. This was family worship, 'taking the Books'. Every household followed this custom and the solemn strains of psalm tunes - for example, Covenanters, Coleshill or Balerma - rising and falling on the Sabbath calm were like a benison on the villages, and very moving. God had provided them with their daily bread, had keep them from the perils of the sea, and they did not forget to give thanks and seek his care for another week. In some homes the Books were taken each night in that way but not in all. Weeknight prayer meetings were held in various houses, with an elder 'keeping the meeting' and those attending bringing their own stools. Grace was always said before meals with the eldest man present given the right to say it.

The rest provided by Sunday was very welcome even if it did mean catching up on Monday morning with the Sunday dishes which were always left unwashed in the dresser until then.  Commander Wolfe-Murray was a familiar figure. He was a keen evangelist who rode out regularly from Tain on a very high bicycle. He gathered a crowd by singing a chorus in his fine, powerful voice, then preached a short sermon and afterwards sat with the children teaching them choruses.

There were various revival movements when missionaries visited the villages, preaching to big crowds and making them converts. The last of these was when Young and MacKee came out about 1920.

Every Thursday evening, except in the summer, Rev. George Mackay held a Bible Class for post-Sunday School children in the Free Church meeting house. He took this opportunity to coach them, in collaboration with Mr. Watt at school, for the Shorter Catechism section of the welfare of Youth examinations.

Continue in Chapter 15
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