Tarbat History

Tarbat Community Collage

From the Cradle ----

.... to the coble

An early account of life in Rockfield Village by Catherine Rae.


In the beginning - an introduction
The family
The village of my childhood
I remember

Catherine Rae 1918-2014

Tarbat History



Rockfield Village was built in the 1820s-1830s, on land owned by Mr John Mackay, Rockfield Farm, when there was an abundance of herring and white fish in the Moray Firth.

The following references are from his cashbook: "In May 1828 Mr Joseph Mitchell, the famous Highland Engineer, made a survey of the creek for the building of a fishing harbour, making a plan, specifications, and giving an estimate, and on the 19th April 1830 received £8.8/- (£8.40) in payment.

In January 1829, the church officers of Portmahomack and Fearn were paid 6d (approximately 2 1/2 p) for putting advertisements on the church doors for fishermen, fish curers, and masons.

Robert Macintosh, Alex Murray and Bros are paid £20 on June 11th 1830, another £20 on July 13th, and £12 later in the month for building fishermen's houses. It doesn't say how many they built for the £52.

One entry shows that "A gale on the 20th November 1830 blew off the roofs of 2 cottages", and reroofing had to be done, requiring 900 nails at a cost of 4/6 (25p approximately). Did they count the 900 nails? In June 1831 Robert McIntosh was paid £6 for thatching 6 houses with divots, including cutting and carting same. On the same day he received payment of 8/6 for "six days' labour, lime and nails, in repairing fishermen's houses".

In 1837, Mr Mackay advances £36 to Donald Mitchell (my Great Grandfather?) and crew to help build houses for themselves, to be repaid within 4 years. The rent and feu duty paid to Mr Mackay by each householder was 19/- per year. (Although the fishermen owned their houses, they didn't own the land on which the houses were built, it belonged to Mr Mackay and so of course they had to pay feu duty.)

Also in his cash account were these entries: "On 17th May 1834, to fines imposed on James Tolmie and Alec Macintosh for trespassing in plantation, 15/- each (75p)."

I wonder what they were doing in the plantation to justify such a fine? A bit of wood to mend the house, some fallen branches for firewood, or just a leisurely walk on a Sunday afternoon? Fifteen shillings was a great deal of money then.

"On June 1st 1838, from one feuer for 2 trees for oars 1/- (5p)." He didn't have a name? "On December 12th 1837 for fourteen Bibles sold to feuers at 1/10 each, £1.5.8." Bibles were very important.

Fishermen continued to be encouraged, and advertisements appeared in Morayshire and Banffshire papers, as well as locally. In 1838 there were three curing stations in the village, their owners having bigger and better houses than the ordinary fishermen.

I don't know anything about the years between 1838 and 1855, though I'm sure Findlay Munro, Rockfield, will still have those old cash accounts.

In 1855, four vessels loaded at Rockfield, exporting 1,736 barrels of cured herrings to Ireland. In 1862, 52 fishermen, 16 coopers, 5 vendors, 163 gutters and packers, 11 carters and labourers, 15 net makers and menders, 4 curers and 19 boats were in Rockfield. Salt and staves for the barrels were imported, as was coal.

During the herring season of 1861, 730 tons of salt - coarse salt, of course - were discharged at Portmahomack and 15,000 barrels of herring were shipped away.

Grain and potatoes were also shipped from Portmahomack, as they continued to be in my school days. By 1828, 27 feus were being paid. I wonder how many families lived in each house? I know that when my father and mother married in 1898 and bought their house (£100), four families had lived there, two upstairs and two down, though previous to that the house had been a public house - a pub.

Road construction had not kept pace with other developments and (again from Mr Mackay's records) "because of the poor condition of the road between Rockfield and Portmahomack some feuers withheld payment of their road assessment, and appeared at the Small Debt Court at Tain". In spite of their defence that "the road was in such a disgraceful state that they had to wear wellington boots to go to church in Portmahomack", the sheriff, sympathising with their predicament, had no option but to order them to pay the road tax. I think they were very brave to make a stand, but must have known they had no chance of winning the case.

The houses were built in blocks of two - except the curers - with a vennel (lane) between each two, giving access to garden and well - every garden had a well. There were no back doors. The walls were built of boulders from the beach and brae, the rooms partitioned with a mixture of clay and straw, supported by posts. Inside and outside walls were covered with a thick layer of lime. The floor was also of clay with, if the housewife had time and was industrious, home-made rag rugs to partly cover it. Lighting was provided by a crusie, a small shallow oblong or oval tin filled with seal oil, with a rush wick.


My father, Walter, born in 1866, son of Donald Mitchell and Jessie Duff, and my mother, Margaret, born in 1874, daughter of Andrew and Catherine Ross, were married in 1898 and lived in Rockfield Village.

They had 7 children: Andrew, Jessie (Nettie), Walter (Wattie), John, Margaret (Meg) and, after a gap of 10 years, me, born in December 1918, and Donald (Dan) born in December 1919.

Father was a salmon fisher, seasonal work which lasted from February until August. The work was hard and dangerous, especially in early spring, when the weather could be very, very stormy. Four men crewed the coble, a flat-bottomed rowing boat, no engine, and the fishing ground stretched from Balone Castle almost to Tarrel bothy, just below Tarrel Farm. In the spring they fished once a day if at all possible, sometimes in very rough weather. It could be frightening to watch them, as the coble rise up on a wave, dropped into the trough, and rose again. On such a day, as they neared the pier, they endeavoured to keep the boat stationary and wait for a certain wave to sweep them in.

In summer they'd fish twice a day, maybe three times in June and July, when the grilse came. The first shift was early morning, three, four o' clock, depending on the tide, again about midday, and in the afternoon. Salmon were plentiful then, one or two hundred a day in the summer months a normal catch. During the winter months father made salmon nets for Paterson, Hilton, who owned - or rented - the fishing grounds. I, too, could make nets and often did a bit for father if he was busy at something else. I've still got the needle, but sometime over the years the measure got lost.

He was also the village barber. The comb, scissors, large and small clippers and the cloth for covering the men's shoulders - probably an old apron of my mother's - were kept in a family size Macfarlane Lang biscuit box. As I write this I'm wondering where that biscuit box came from. I'm quite sure we couldn't afford to buy fancy biscuits. However, there it was. In summer, if the weather was dry, hair was cut outside, down by the shoreline, but if wet, or in winter, in the big shed.

Another of his spare time activities was boot and shoe repairing. Boots and shoes were made entirely of leather, and were soled and heeled again and again.

The leather for this was usually bought in D J Ross's shop in Portmahomack, but sometimes father went to Tain for it, as he was very particular about the quality.

It was soaked in cold water until pliable, cut to shape, and applied to the boot with special nails, or in some cases sewn to the upper with a waxed thread we called striven. Often steel toecaps and heels were put on, and studs on the sole, especially on children's boots, as this made them last longer. He then finished the job by heating a stick of resin at a lighted candle and rubbing this round the edge of the sole where it met the upper, making a very neat finish. I remember the strong smell of resin plus candle as if it were yesterday. For this repair work he used what we called a deel - would that be some form of Gaelic I wonder? - it seems an odd word - a wooden post held between his knees with inter- changeable iron feet, in small and large sizes. I think father's happiest hours were spent net making and boot repairing, as I remember his always singing quietly or whistling below his breath as he did this work. He was always busy, a very fit, strong man. He died of pneumonia in 1945.

My mother was a very kind and gentle person, though she could speak her mind in no uncertain terms if the need arose. Her day was filled with cooking, washing, mending - drudgery we'd call it nowadays. She was a very happy person and I remember she always sang as she went about her work, peaceful, pleasant songs, of spring and summer and trees and flowers. I still recall snippets of them. When Michael and Donald were young and Tommy's mother came to stay she'd often say to me, "You're like your mother, you're always singing". I didn't know I was singing - it was an involuntary thing - as I'm sure it was with my mother. But, unlike my mother, I had no singing voice!

Andrew, the oldest member of the family, suffered from asthma as a young man, and as a result was declared unfit for active service in the 1914-1918 war. During the 1939-45 war he was on Coastguard duty, cycling each day, with his gun on his back, to the Coastguard Station at Tarbatness Lighthouse. What was the purpose of the gun? I suppose it was a morale booster - it certainly wouldn't be much use if a thousand Germans parachuted from the skies.

After Dunkirk, there was a great fear of a German invasion, and watch was kept all round the coast - yes, even at the Rock, there was a hut on the Stacky and I remember doing my share of the watch one Saturday and Sunday. I have no recollection who the others were. Anyway, if the Germans had come we had very little in the country to repel them with, as all our guns and tanks and ammunition had been left in France when our soldiers were evacuated. It was a lonely and grievous time in Easter Ross; so many young men of the Seaforth Highlanders were killed, or captured at St Valery, prisoners for the next five years.

Andrew married Joey when in his fifties and died in 1974 of cancer.

Nettie died in 1940 of kidney failure - no dialysis or transplants then. She suffered great pain, but was brave and cheerful, an example to us all. She knew she was dying and was reconciled to that, but she longed to see John, who was in Australia on the Arandora Star at the time. She kept saying, "If only I could see John, I'd go in peace". But something wonderful happened. John changed ships in Australia and came home on the Port Jackson and was at home when Nettie died. So she did go in peace.

Wattie was grieve, or farm manager as it is now called, on Balmuchy Farm and, as this was a reserved occupation, he was not called up for military service. We had to grow as much food as we possibly could to save on imports, as our merchant ships were needed to carry war materials from America and the Colonies.

Wattie married Maggie Ross and they had three sons, Walter, David and Jack. He died of cancer in his eighties.

John was on cruise liners, sailing to Japan, Australia, New Zealand and the South Seas, until in 1939(?) his ship, the Arandora Star, was converted to an armed merchantman. It was later sunk in the Atlantic with much loss of life, including a neighbour, Andrew Ross. John was by this time on the Port Jackson, also a merchant ship. In 1941, in Buenos Aires harbour, a hawser (a steel rope) fell from an upper deck and crushed his right arm and hand, and left leg. He was very ill for a long time, but well looked after in the British Hospital in Buenos Aires, whose matron was from Dunblane. She wrote to my father and mother often to tell them about John and keep them informed of his progress (we learnt this later) until he was able to write with his left hand.

Very few letters arrived, however, from her or John, as so many ships were torpedoed in the Atlantic and there was of course no airmail and no telephone. When he finally left hospital the ship he sailed on was torpedoed off the African coast. The crew and passengers were adrift in lifeboats for many hours before being picked up and landed in Africa. He eventually arrived home safely, though he was sad that he'd lost everything. All the lovely food and presents he'd been taking home from the land of plenty. But to us at home it was of no consequence. He was safe and that was all that mattered. John married Cissie Mackenzie and they had one daughter, Celia. With the compensation from the Shipping Company they bought the old church hall and converted it into a comfortable home. John died of Parkinson's Disease, at home, a dreadful illness, devotedly nursed by Cissie.

Meg was a cook in various big houses in England and came to Strathgarry House in Perthshire in 1938. She married Donald Maclaren, who was chauffeur to the Stewarts of Strathgarry, in 1941. She died of cancer aged 75.

Dan volunteered for the Navy in 1940 and, after training in HMS Collingwood, a shore base, served in HMS Hollyhock, a flower class corvette. These were horrible little ships, mainly used in convoy duty. It was sunk in the Indian Ocean on 9th April 1942 after being attacked by Japanese bombers, and Dan was lost. He was only 22.

Dan Mitchell

It was a desolate time for my father and mother: Nettie's death, Dan's death, and John so ill and so far from home. At least he was safe but the dangerous crossing of the Atlantic had yet to come.

I worked in Post Offices in Portmahomack, Fearn and Evanton and married Tommy in 1953. He was in the Seaforth Highlanders, survived El Alamein, but was captured in Sicily in 1943, a prisoner till the end of hostilities. As a result of conditions in his last camp - he worked in a salt mine - he had ulcers and angina, and never fully regained his health. He worked with the Water Board. On 11th May 1974, sitting at the fire, he died of a heart attack. Our two sons, Michael and Donald, were only 17 and 16 years old at the time. Boys suddenly men, they were good and kind, a great blessing to me then, and still are.

Now both happily married - Michael to Elaine, with sons Michael and Martin, and Donald to Tina, with sons Christopher and Allan. I have been blest with my daughters-in-law and am a very fortunate woman.


This is the land of sweet content
I see it shining plain
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again

My recollections go back to the early twenties, when there were 27 houses and ruins of 5. Three of these houses were solid, well built and slate-roofed; the homes of managers and overseers during the herring boom, but the others were thatched cottages, as ours was. Thatch kept the house warm, but was a nuisance in stormy weather, as the wind could get underneath and lift it off. So, in winter, ropes, weighted down with heavy boulders, were stretched over the roofs from front to back to keep the thatch secure. The houses were sheltered at the back with cliffs, but exposed at the front to the strong winds and gales from north and east.

The houses were more or less of the same pattern. The doors opened on to a lobby, with a kitchen/ living room on the left and bedroom/best room on the right. A staircase at the kitchen end led to two upstairs bedrooms. We had a nice curved stair, opening on to a big landing and the usual two bedrooms. Another room at the back of the house (the closet) was entered from the kitchen, but owing to the angle of the stair it was quite small, just big enough for a double bed. I remember when we pulled down the stair to replace it with a new one, we had to remove an inside wall and underneath the plaster found the original of clay and straw, and what looked like branches of trees, the supporting frame I suppose. It looked quite solid but crumbled away when touched. There was only one difference between our house and the others: it had a double width door in the lobby opposite the front door. (Why did I need to put FRONT door, none of the houses had back doors.) This door was split across the middle so that the top half opened independently. It was a public house when the herring business was at its height, and the whisky must have been kept in the back room and served through the hatch. The houses had very thick walls and very small windows with very small panes of glass. These weren't always clear. There were two panes in our kitchen window so thick and buckled you couldn't see through them. Furniture was simple. The kitchen usually had a bed (large families, limited space), a dresser, which was a kind of sideboard, but high rather than long. It had two cupboards, two drawers and very often a back with shelves. The clock bought when father and mother married (it chimed the hours and half-hours) sat on the dresser, flanked by two china dogs. Vases and various ornaments were here too. There was a wall cupboard beside the fireplace, no idea what was kept in it. An open space under the window for two pails of water; a plain deal table, covered with oilcloth, in the middle of the floor; some wooden chairs and maybe a couple of stools completed the furnishing. The clay floor was covered with linoleum with a rag rug at the fireside. The tea caddy on the mantelpiece, the paraffin oil lamp keeping it company. Some pictures on the wall with the melodeon, fiddle, mandolin and concertina that my brothers played. Rug making was a popular pastime, but also a necessity. Folk couldn't afford to buy them. The backing for the rug was a natural fibre bag roughly 5 x 2 1/2 feet. There was plenty of them. I suppose they came from the farms and would have held oats, barley and cattle food. The material, usually jerseys, cardigans or other soft cloth, was washed - sometimes! - and then cut into strips approximately half to one inch by one foot. This was pulled through the bag with a hook, was flat on the underside and looped above. Many colourful patterns could be made and they were very hardwearing. We had no oven then, just the open rib-fronted fire, with space at the side for cooking pots and kettle. The chain and hook for holding these hung from an iron rod stretched across the chimney and could be adjusted according to the heat required.

A fender was an essential part of the fireside. So far as I remember, it was about one foot high, stretched the length of the fireplace, and curved about a foot inwards at each end. It was blackleaded and buffed regularly, so that it shone.

The top was of steel in an openwork pattern and polished - I can't remember what we used - until it gleamed. It was a matter of pride to keep your fender clean and polished. We had snecks on the doors inside and out. It was only when we got new doors we acquired doorknobs and a lock on the outside door. When I was very young we had no lock on the door, we didn't need one. Whoever came in was a relative, a friend or a neighbour. It was a peaceful village.

As you came down the steep clay road (the Caw) into Rockfield, the salmon fishing bothies and the drying green for the nets were on the left. There were two adjoining bothies at the top of the green, one with tiers of wooden bunks along the sides. I don't remember any fishermen staying there, probably a relic of earlier days. The other one also had two bunks and a fireplace, and there, on stormy spring days, my father and the other men sat around the fire and waited for the weather to ease off - or not. I loved being in this bothy on such a day. The distinctive smell of old ropes and nets, of salty burning driftwood, strong boiled tea, and the black twist tobacco the men smoked, pervaded the atmosphere. The rain beating on the corrugated iron roof, the whistling wind and the roar of the waves as they lashed the shore - nature in the raw, but I was safe and secure here in the little bothy with my father. I never tired of hearing their stories of storms and mishaps at sea. Looking back, I can see I spent a lot of time with my father and the crew during the salmon fishing season.

The bothy at the pier head was a big one; the salmon nets were stored there for the winter, anchors nearby and the poles in their cradle.

William Mitchell's house (Stonebreaker) was on the far side of the green. He must have done this work at some time, but I remember him as a fisherman. Dole Munro's was the first house on the street, the annex at the back a pub, and as a child I regularly came along here for porter for father. I think it would have been stout - and I think I'm in the old days here! - is that word still in use? Like Guinness I'd describe it. Anyway, I remember it was a very dark colour and appeared to be quite thick. It was sold from the cask and you brought your own bottle or, in my case, a pitcher. A pitcher was a small pail with a handle, varying in capacity from one to maybe four pints, and mainly used for carrying milk.

My mother's brothers and sisters lived next door. Uncle Andrew never married. He was a fisherman, as was Johnny, and had a croft at the top of the brae. Johnny's wife had died of tuberculosis when they were only 6 months married and he'd returned to the family home. The man Katie would have married was killed in the 1914-18 war. She was one of the women, many from Balintore and Hilton, who followed the herring fleet from Shetland down to Great Yarmouth, gutting and packing fish. Dan and I looked forward to her coming home as she always brought us a present, usually something to wear, but one year she brought me a doll. It was a prized possession. Lucky me. Mary must have been the one who stayed at home to look after her brothers. I didn't know any of my grandparents. They must have died before I was born or when I was too young to remember them. I was very fond of my aunts and uncles and spent many happy hours in their home, often going there for Sunday dinners, though the food was the same as in our own home. Broth, thick with barley, peas, leeks, carrots, turnip and kale, and when dished up sprinkled with chopped parsley. The broth was usually made with mutton and that was our second course, with tatties and a veg, usually cabbage.

Cremola custard and tinned pears followed, and I got to eat the last of the custard out of the pan. "There you are," Aunt Mary would say, "you can scrape the pan." Uncle said Grace before and after all meals. Before: "May the Lord make us truly thankful for what we are about to receive," and after: "Thanks be to God for this repast." He also "Took the Books" every night, when he read a few verses from the Bible, a psalm was sung, and then we went down on our knees while he said a short prayer. We didn't say Grace or Take the Books at home and, though all the family went to church, my father and mother didn't. We were Church of Scotland but my aunts and uncles were Free Church and Uncle Andrew was precentor, that is, he led the singing, striking the note with the tuning fork, which I can only describe as something like a jew's harp. We had uncle's one at home, but when Maggie Ann (she didn't like being called Maggie Ann and in later life insisted we call her Meg, though in the Rock she was always known by the former) began to go blind she mislaid it and we never found it. It wasn't important, hers was the tragedy.

I specially remember being in the uncles on winter nights, with a big fire burning in the open grate, and the soft glow of the paraffin lamp on the dresser. They had a much nicer lamp than we had, a tall brass stand with a lovely sheen from much polishing. Instead of the usual little bulbous glass globe, it had a long narrow one, overlaid with another, round and pink and decorated in a lacy pattern. I thought it was beautiful. It was a warm and welcoming house and, though they were Free Church, not holy.

I felt very much loved, and remember them all with great affection.

An old widow, Kirstak, lived at No. 3. She sold bread, baked by Taylor's Bakery in Portmahomack and delivered by horse-drawn low-sided cart. You could have plain, which had a rounded top, or pan, which was square. You didn't have a choice of brown, wholemeal etc. It was white only and, of course, unwrapped. Wrapped bread, like many other things, was in the future. Kirstak kept the bread in a big basket under the kitchen table. I'm sure her large, fierce, stripy cat often found a nice soft bed there. Sometimes when I went for a loaf it looked as if she'd just shoved the cat out of the basket. We were immune. You brought your own bowl for the salt and your own bottle for the paraffin, kept in a big tank. Kirstak was a character.

Old Wildun Cameron and his wife Jessie lived further along the street, and this was a house Dan, Jimmy and I often visited on winter nights. It was a meeting place for some of the old men, and Tomack Fraser and Sandy Patience ("Sandy the Soldier") were regular visitors. Sandy fought in the Boer War - my goodness, I've just realised how old I am! - and had many tales to tell of his time in Africa. There were stories of long ago, when they were young, stories of ghosts, unexplained noises, of lights where no lights should be - second sight. While listening to all this, Jessie would give us tea, strong, black, with a spoonful of Nestle's condensed milk in it sometimes, plus a pancake or scone. According to the storytellers, people who met a violent or tragic death returned as ghosts, because their spirits were not at rest; it was a natural thing and no cause for alarm. I could never quite understand why you wouldn't be afraid if you saw a ghost. Those with second sight could foretell an unexpected death, as they'd see the phantom funeral before he or she died.

We never tired of going there, sitting quietly, listening to the old men, but when we came out into the dark night (no street lights) we ran home as quickly as we could, in case we saw a ghost, or a funeral - or something. We always returned for another sitting, though every time we came away we said we wouldn't go back, "it was too scary". Jessie, Wildun's wife, was supposed to be a witch, and looked just as you'd expect a witch to look. A tall, thin woman, with a long pale face, her black skirt trailing at her ankles, and a black shawl covering her shoulders, she ran everywhere instead of walking, but with a slow, gliding movement as if her feet didn't touch the ground.

The fishermen going to sea didn't like to meet her, and if necessary would go down on the shore to avoid her. Her mother, Liza Morrison, before my time, was an even better witch than Jessie; she had the "evil eye" and could turn herself into a hare! You were in deep trouble if you offended Liza. Jessie was a sister of Isie, Anna's mother, so a grand aunt of Betty and Stanley. I wonder if they knew about these things?

Andrew Ross and his wife Maggie Tosh - she must have been a Macintosh? - lived next door to us. Andrew was a boat builder and carpenter. He was a big, strong, domineering man and I often had the impression that Maggie was afraid of him. She was a very meek, withdrawn woman. I think they had a son who died quite young, but that's a vague memory. Their two daughters, Easie and Jemima, emigrated to America, and of course that was the last their parents ever saw of them.

Then there was Ispie Tolmie's; she was old and widowed. I suppose anybody over 40 is old when you're a child. Mother went to see Ispie every night. "I'll just go and see that Ispie is alright before she goes to bed." Ispie belonged to the Free Church, which held two services on Sunday morning, the first in Gaelic, followed immediately by one in English. As Ispie was a fluent Gaelic speaker she attended both services so, including the walk to and from Portmahomack, she was away for three or four hours. She always took a pocketful of pan drops to help her through the sermon, and Dan and I would often get a pan drop from her as she passed by. We didn't mind the taste and smell of mothballs. Ispie eventually went to live with her daughter in Edinburgh, but it wasn't a happy time for her. She missed the freedom of her old home, but she was spared from going into the "Poorhouse" in Tain, a dreadful place. She was a tiny, neat, little woman, and her first words on going into any house were "God bless all here".

In a house on the green, in front of Ispie's, Jeemack Patience, he was a relative of Sanders - an uncle? I can't remember ever being in his house. Johnny and Isie Mackintosh dwelt in the house next to Ispie's, and Bella Macintosh and her brother Alec (Bellacky and Alickin) in the last one on our street. My memory of this house is that it was always full of smoke. It wouldn't always be, but that's how I remember it. It was under the Stacky and on a windy day the downdraught blew the smoke back down the chimney. Finlay Morrison, a grand uncle(?) of Betty's, occupied the first house on the west street, after Auntie Bell's. Dan and Jimmy and I often went in there to listen to music on his gramophone. I don't remember any details of his house or the music or songs on the gramophone. I just have this picture of a table, the gramophone with the big horn on top of it, Finlay winding it up by the handle and us three standing there.

Two sister, Babback and, I think, Elsie Vass lived in the last house in the village, and Jimmy XXXX, our constant companion and the only other child in the area, lived in the one adjoining. Jimmy was an illegitimate boy - a bastard, as these children were so cruelly called. His mother worked in Invergordon, then a base for the Fleet. His father was a sailor, just having a good time and with no intention of marrying her. There was no help from the government then for single mothers and, of course, no money forthcoming from the father. So she came home to have the baby, went back to work, and Jimmy was brought up by his granny. It was a terrible disgrace then to have a baby born out of wedlock. People were so narrow-minded and sanctimonious. Jimmy was a very nice boy, and he had a good, kind granny. He joined the Navy, boys' service, in 1935, at 16 years of age, and survived the war. I haven't seen him for many years, as he lives in the south of England with his family and no longer comes up here on holiday. Some years after Jimmy's birth his mother married and had two children. Jimmy's stepfather was lost at sea during the 1939-45 war.

In front of every house, on the shoreline, there was a shed. Some folk had two, as we had. They were often made of old boats, cut in half and turned upside down. Uncle Andrew had one of these, as well as a stable where he kept his two horses. Our big shed was an upturned coble (result of father being a salmon fisher) sitting on a built-up wooden foundation, so there was plenty of headroom inside. Herring nets, the barrel of salt herring, winter carrots, ropes of onions, the jar of pickled eggs, gardening tools and so on were kept here. Behind this was the coal shed and dry lavatory. The clothes line and the henhouse were at the back of the house, in the no-man's land between our garden and the one next door.

Mother had a small strip of garden where she planted seeds of sweet peas, Virginia stock, night scented stock, mignonette. Some folk had a narrow border at the front, right against the wall, where wallflowers, marigolds, honesty, feverfew and fuchsia grew higgledy piggledy, and lovely it was.

Coal came by boat to Portmahomack and was delivered by the cartload. There was no coal store locally, so you had to be sure you bought enough to last you till the coal boat returned.

By the 1920s most of the wells in the village had been filled in, but two were still in use, and there were two pumps, one, thankfully, near us. Going to the pump for water took up a great part of the day - water for drinking, making tea, cooking, washing dishes, washing ourselves - and, when used, it had to be carried out and thrown on the beach. This was woman's work; even if the men were at home they didn't carry water in or out. I don't remember every seeing my father or older brothers going to the pump, and those pails of water were heavy.

Light was from a small paraffin lamp on the mantelpiece, not much brighter than a candle really, as the mantelpiece was high and the lamp lit up the ceiling and not the room. It had to be filled with paraffin every day, the wick trimmed, and the glass funnel, which was very fragile, cleaned with care - it got quite smoky.

In the 1930s(?) we were delighted when Aladdin lamps came on the market. These had a mantle similar to a gas mantle. Ours sat on the dresser (why did we have the old one on the mantelpiece?) and, though still a paraffin lamp, it was a vast improvement on the little tin one. Now I could see. Electricity and piped water didn't come to the village till the 1950s.

I remember my mother taking me to see two old folk, who were dying. The first one was an aunt of mother's, Kate. I can picture mother and myself standing at the bedside, but it was a very high bed and I could only make out the shape of the woman lying there. It seemed to be a very dark room, and the cover on the bed was of some dark material. I remember feeling frightened; it was gloomy and full of shadows. Mother and her aunt spoke for a few minutes and then we came away. Mother said I wouldn't see her again. The old man we visited was also in a high bed, but it was covered in a bluey patterned material, and the room was much brighter, no shadows. He had a white beard, and as we were leaving he bent down, put his hand on my head and said, "Goodbye, Catherine, God bless you."

When a person died we had to put our hand on his or her forehead, but not until the body had been washed and dressed in the shroud. The forehead was of course icy cold, but I don't remember having any fear of the corpse. I suppose it was a normal occurrence. There was no nurse then to attend to the dead. One of the older married women carried out this duty, and was paid for it, a few shillings, I suppose, but I have no idea really, and I don't remember, if I ever knew, who did it in Rockfield. When somebody passed away the male relatives of the deceased went to Portmahomack for the bearer, kept in the crypt of the Established Church. On the day of the funeral, this stretcher, set on two chairs just outside the door of the house, had the coffin placed on it. The men of the village gathered round while the Minister held the service. The women came too, but they stayed indoors. The coffin, on the bearer, was then carried on the men's shoulders to the Churchyard. The four nearest relatives of the dead person carried it for the first part of the journey, relieved along the way by other helpers. No women went to funerals.

Only essential work was done on Sunday. Two pails of water were taken in late on Saturday night, but by Sunday afternoon this was very warm and unpalatable, so Dan and I were sent to the Wellie with a pitcher for fresh drinking water. The Wellie was a spring of pure clear water on the brae, very cold even in hot summer weather. But where was the difference - pitcher, pail, spring, pump? We were still breaking the Sabbath. But it was better to conform than have the Elders knocking at your door. 

 I REMEMBER . . . .

SPRING - and loitering on the way to school, looking for birds' nests in the dykes and whins at the roadside. We didn't touch the eggs, as we loved to see the baby birds when the eggs hatched. At the burn below the churchyard we searched every year for the waterhens' nests, but never found them, though the adult birds were swimming in the water, and we knew the nests must by nearby. Away from school, we walked to the Curral, near Tarrel Bothy, to gather seagulls' eggs; they made especially good pancakes - they must surely have tasted fishy? Can't recall. Hundreds of gulls nested here, on the high cliffs and the stony beach, and though we didn't take eggs from the wee birds' nests, we had no qualms about raiding the gulls. These birds nested at Rockfield as well, high up on the Stacky, but it is a sandy cliff and dangerous to climb. We gathered wild primroses at the Wellie. They grew in small clumps everywhere, but here they stretched in a great sweep from the top to the bottom of the brae, their perfume filling the air, heavenly to see and smell after the long cold winter. Violets grew here, too, in small clusters, delicate, tender blossoms.

A favourite walk in springtime was along the old back road to Rockfield Farm, where we stopped at the Woodie. This was a tiny belt of trees, enclosed by a dyke. The Woodie had a strange effect on me, it felt very old. I seemed to step into another time when I went there; there was nothing sinister about it, I just felt it belonged to the very distant past, and that something about the past was still here. Two fields away there was an old ruined shepherd's cottage, where among the brambles and nettles a lilac tree bloomed. No feelings of the past here!

High tides were a feature of spring, spectacular and frightening. I remember one night in particular, when I was about 5 or 6 years old. I think I remember it so well because I knew father was worried.

The wind blew at gale force, howling in the chimney, a wild and stormy night, the full moon appearing and disappearing between the scudding clouds. Father and I stood at the door (maybe the others were there as well) but my memory is of my father and myself. We watched the waves surging up the beach, past the sheds, over the road. How far up would it come? We could only wait and trust it didn't reach the house. Eventually it receded, leaving the whole area from above the road to the shoreline covered in shimmering white foam. The wind dropped, the sky cleared, the moon shone peacefully down on the scene. I took my father's hand and we went out and stood in the foam. It was so beautiful, so mysterious, I was filled with wonder. I can still picture the scene, and though I saw many more very high tides over the years, none of them impressed me. They were just spring high tides.

I REMEMBER . . . .

SUMMER - and the long untarred road to school, the sand martins flying around their nests at the top of the brae, the gold of the whins growing there, and their heady perfume. The many different wild flowers, growing at the roadside, and the songs of the larks, high in the sky. The hot, spicy scent of the blue and pink lupins in Fairfield garden, and Steven's geese, always seeming to wait for us, chasing us, screeching, necks outstretched. Collecting the milk from Highfield Farm, for the Church of Scotland Manse, just across the road from the school. The heat in the classroom, and the dust hanging in the air from the chalk used on the blackboard. The stale smell of the inkwells on our desks, and the scratching of pens as we wrote in our exercise books. Pen nibs didn't last long and we were forever going to the teacher for "a new pen nib, please, Miss". When I first went to school we had slates, a piece of slate (about 9 x 7 ins?) with a wooden surround. We did our first letters and numbers on this with a slate pencil. The pencil wasn't enclosed in wood, and I think, looking back, it must have been quite difficult for little fingers to grip, but I have no recollection of this being the case.

I do remember the horrible squeaky noise as slate met slate; it made me grind my teeth. The slate was cleaned with a smelly bit of rag you kept in your desk, or some of the boys just used their sleeve. Every Friday the slate was taken home for a good clean, and the wooden frame scrubbed. And you got a nice clean piece of rag to put in your little tin box. School finished at 4 o'clock, but we had some chores to do before going home. To the Manse for the milk pail, and down to the Post Office/Newsagent's for a bundle of daily newspapers. Milk pail and paper to Highfield, then on to Tom Oliver's croft with his Bulletin.

Tom Oliver was an old man who lived alone in an old house, which always seemed cold and dark and lonely. A dyke surrounded his weed filled garden, but you couldn't really see the dyke, as it was covered in honeysuckle and tiny sweet-smelling yellow roses, a lovely scented spot in summer, a contrast to the lonely old man in the lonely old house. From there we crossed the fields and the ditch to Bankhead Farm - in winter of course we had to walk back up the farm track to the road. The Munros lived in Bankhead, a nice bright house, and a long lobby leading to the kitchen. My memory of Bankhead is the smell of baking as you opened the outside door. We sometimes were given a queen cake or a scone. After delivering papers to the old folk in the village we finally arrived home - hungry. We didn't expect or get any payment for this paper and milk delivery - it was all part of the school day. I suppose those people got their own milk and papers during school holidays as I can't recall us doing it. In winter, frosty, snowy, wet, cold weather, I'm sure this must have been a wearisome task, darkness falling before we reached home. Did we complain about it? I don't suppose we did, as it wouldn't have made any difference.

School closing day in June was important - prize giving day. First, second and third in each class and special prizes for some subjects. Most girls got a new dress and sandals for this occasion - I did - and most boys new jerseys. Why did boys wear jerseys in summer? And they wore short trousers and knee length socks - even in winter - until they left school. I always got first prize in my class and would have liked to continue my education, but my parents couldn't afford it. Mr Maclennan, the schoolmaster, an old bachelor, offered to pay my fees to academy and university, but that was unacceptable to my father and mother.

I REMEMBER . . . .

Summer Holidays, free from school for 6 weeks. Long, hot days to sit on the pier fishing for sellacks, the fishing line a bit of wood from the shore, a length of twine, a hook, limpets for bait. I don't know what the real name is for sellacks, very small fish; anyway, we didn't eat them, just threw them back into the sea. We went barefoot all summer; the soles of our feet must have been like leather. Maybe this is why I've never had corns, bunions, or other footy troubles? Getting up in the early morning, three maybe four o'clock, to fish the salmon nets with father. Four men and a boy and girl, walking to the pier, through the sleeping village, quiet, still, the only sounds the lap of water on the shore, and the low voices of the men as they discussed the day's work. The early morning sky, the newly born day, there was something magical about it, something I couldn't understand and couldn't explain.

I REMEMBER . . . .

. . . lying in the long grass beneath the brae, reading, the sun on my back, the clamour of the gulls on the Stacky, the humming of the bees, winging their way among the wild roses, the "jeely flowers" - were they cranesbills? And the whins, all growing in profusion on the cliffs. There were many different coloured butterflies, fragile, with gauzy wings. Of course we must have had flies, and wasps and dirty beasties, but I must have blotted out the memory of these. What did I read? We certainly didn't buy books; there was no money for such luxuries. We bought a daily paper, I think it was the Record, plus the People's Journal on Fridays.

In a corner of the upstairs landing we had some very old books, big, bulky, with dark brown, blackish leather covers (with hindsight needing a good cleaning?). I have no recollection of the contents, only the colour, the texture, and the foosty old smell. Goodness knows where they came from or what happened to them. The Carnegie Library in Portmahomack had some books; I don't think they were ever changed, and were mainly Charles Dickens, Walter Scott, Jack London, and so on. I enjoyed these and also some very mushy love stories. Ethel M. Dell wrote the most predictable of these. The storyline was always the same - pretty, innocent, gentle young girl meets older, confident, dark, handsome/ugly man, usually with some murky secret in his past, and after many turns and twists in the plot they marry and live happily ever after.

We walked a lot, along to Tarrel Bothy, past the Cove, where tramps and tinkers sometimes stayed, and on to Geanies. Here we climbed the steep path to the top of the cliff and wandered into the gardens of Geanies House, ignoring the "Trespassers will be prosecuted" sign. Lovely trees here and beautiful herbaceous borders. In early summer, before the school closes, we come here to see the rhododendron bushes in bloom, but whenever we come, we don't wait long - just in case. To Balone Castle was a favourite Sunday walk and on the way we paused to look at the Sailor's Grave. This was just above the high water mark on the shore, to the west of the castle, and was a stone slab, about five feet long by two and a half feet wide, a rough estimate from memory. It had an anchor, a windlass, and a skull and crossbones engraved on it, and the date, 22 March 1682. There were initials carved on the sides, probably in Latin, but I don't remember. I only remember feeling sad as I stood by the grave and wondered who it was, and who had waited in vain for him to come home. The roofless walls of the castle were mainly intact; most of the stairways had steps missing. One stairway led right to the top, and we loved to climb this, holding on to the wall where steps were missing. The fact that it was dangerous made it exciting, but we were very surefooted, bare feet having a good grip. Below the castle a clear spring flowed from the cliff into a little well, with watercress growing round it. So we always had water to drink and watercress to eat.

We also ate dulse (raw, of course), a flat, thin, rubbery seaweed, growing far out on the rocks. A short distance from the castle was Ann Ross's, where the water from the field ditches ran down to the sea. Here masses of yellow irises grew. Many, many years ago an old woman, Ann Ross, lived here, but nobody in the village remembered her, or the reason for living there. No trace of her cottage remained, only her name came down through the generations. Dan and Jimmy often walked further along this shore, but I always turned for home here, and though they'd taunt me and call me a coward and a fearty, it made no difference. This was as far as I would go.

I REMEMBER . . . .

Thunderstorms, when everybody covered their mirrors, or looking glasses as they were called, so that the lightning wouldn't be reflected, and outer doors were kept open so that if the lightning came in it could get out again! The smell of sulphur when the storm had passed, and the pools of water on the clay road, from the heavy rain. We seemed to have longer, hotter summers then, and thunderstorms were frequent and severe. August, and we're back at school, high summer is past, a touch of coming autumn in the air. The sky has lost its intense blue colour, now a much paler shade. We climb the Caw and the flat land stretches away, to front, to east and west, abundant with harvest. Here is winter's sustenance, green fields of turnip and tatties, cornfields golden, patterned with wild flowers, red poppies for a border. The fields are small; in years to come fences will be taken down and two or three fields made into one.

I REMEMBER . . . .

Autumn, and the nights drawing in. Time now to gather our maincrop potatoes from Uncle Andrew's croft. The cobles (Tarrel one comes to Rockfield) are up on the green for the winter; all nets stowed away in the big shed. Anchors and poles have been taken ashore, the anchors just above high water mark, and the poles in their cradle on the green.

We three have a marvellous time, burning the whins on the brae, running from bush to bush with lighted sticks. I don't remember ever getting burned, though flames and sparks were all around us, but oh! I do remember the smell of our clothes and hair; it went home before us!

This was the time of year when the Home Fleet came to Invergordon on training exercises. They held gunnery practice in the Firth, just opposite Rockfield. Destroyers towed big, square targets, which the battleships fired on. When this happened at night it was a spectacular sight, majestic ships lit from stem to stern. The Very lights (we called them star shells) hanging in the sky, illuminating the target, the roar and flash of the guns. Before a practice the local Customs and Excise Officer came to every house, reminding us to open all windows, otherwise the blast from the big guns would shatter the glass. We knew the names of all the battleships, battle cruisers and aircraft carriers, recognising them by their superstructure, but I've forgotten most of them now. There was HMS Hood; we were very attached to the Hood for some reason; Rodney, Nelson, Ramillies, Renown, and the aircraft carrier Courageous. Most of these ships were sunk during the war with great loss of life, a tragic waste of young lives. Apart from our love of the big ships, there was the anticipation of what we might find on the shoreline. All kinds of flotsam and jetsam were thrown overboard, and Dan, Jimmy and I walked the high water mark for miles, looking for treasure. All we ever found was empty bottles, light bulbs, strings of bunting, torn flags. But the joy was in the seeking.

Coal came by boat to Portmahomack in autumn, and at school dinnertime we went down to the harbour to watch the unloading. It was a very busy scene. Carts came from all the surrounding farms and crofts and lined the street, awaiting their turn on the pier while others came away with their load of coal. Grain and potatoes were shipped out on the boat's return journey. Now Dan and I got new boots for winter. I always had boots, but I can't recall if this was common practice for girls. They came up over the ankle, laced, very neat and well fitting and, naturally, all leather. Father kept them in good repair as they had to last till late springtime.

I REMEMBER . . . .

Winter - no flowers, no birds singing, only the cold wind blowing off the sea. We hurried to school - it went in at 9 o'clock - leaving before it was really daylight and coming home in the darkening. School came out at 4 o'clock. The schoolrooms couldn't have been very warm as they were high ceilinged, with big windows, and only a coal fire, with a guard round it, to heat them. In winter a woman from Portmahomack came to light the fires every morning, and she was also responsible for emptying the outside toilets every day of the school year. There was no running water, and the smell, especially in warm weather, was overpowering. I don't have to shut my eyes to remember it! No pictures or paintings adorned the schoolroom walls, but in every room a large map of the world (most of it seemed to be red in colour - the British Empire). We were a mighty power then. We came to school to learn, and learn we did, with the aid of the strap if necessary. It was kept in the teacher's desk, and not paying attention, talking to your classmates, or generally misbehaving, were all reasons for being called to the front of the class, hand held out and strap laid on. I remember getting the pointer over the knuckles from Miss Hepburn. We were reading about Nelson and the Battle of Trafalgar, and I recall it so clearly. According to the book we had, when asked if he was afraid he replied, "What is fear? I do not know what it is." I put up my hand and said, "Please, Miss (you always had to say, `Please, Miss' when addressing the teacher), if he wasn't afraid, how could he be brave?" I don't recall her answer, but I do recall my sore hand.

We worked hard in school; the desks were in rows and two sat at each, the slowest and most disruptive in the front row so that the teacher could keep an eye on them, the average in the middle row, the clever ones at the back. You didn't move from your seat unless you needed the toilet - leave for this sometimes very grudgingly given. "You should have gone at the 11 o'clock interval" or "Can't you wait until dinner time?" or whatever. But of course she had to let us out and, especially on a lovely summer day, it was a good excuse to get out of the classroom for a few minutes. In winter those who lived too far away to go home for dinner were given a cup of cocoa, made with water, not milk, very strong and sweet. I thought it was horrible, but it was hot and I suppose I needed it.

Lunch was dinner, and dinner at night was supper. We brought our own "piece", in my case usually a scone and cheese in a brown paper bag. The older girls learned sewing at school; we made aprons of some strong cream material, I think it was calico, it was hard to get the needle through it. They had a big pocket at the front and broad bands to tie at the back. Absolutely useless. On Friday afternoons we had cookery lessons, but I have absolutely no memory of the things we cooked, though I can still picture us in the "science room", as it was called. The boys in the headmaster's room did gardening on Friday afternoons, except in winter. These were lads who hadn't passed the qualifying exam and so couldn't go to Tain Academy, or perhaps they had passed but their parents couldn't afford to send them there. Anyway, they'd be leaving school at 14. The garden was in a field belonging to Munro, Fairfield, on the road to Rockfield. It was surrounded by a high fence, had a shed for the gardening tools and the gate was kept locked. Here the boys dug, and planted, and weeded, and kept the place tidy. They did all the work and Mr Maclennan reaped the benefit, as all the fruit and vegetables went to the schoolhouse. It must have been part of the school curriculum in those days.

We went to Sunday School in the Church of Scotland, Portmahomack, and had a Christmas Party in the Church Hall every year, though it wasn't called a party but "The Christmas Treat". I'm sure I attended quite a few of these, but remember only one, when I was 9 or 10 years old. It must have been late afternoon, I know, because the brass paraffin lamps with their solid white shades, hanging from the ceiling, were lit. Tea, with real tealeaves, was made in the big urn, given a good boil, milk and sugar added, and handed round in chunky white cups. No dilly dallying with cream jug and sugar bowl, it came out of the urn ready to serve. Each child was given a "baggie", a paper bag containing a biscuit, a London bun, which was like a rock cake with lots of sugar on top, and a small cake.

After this repast - it didn't take long to eat; some of us had walked quite a distance and were hungry - we sang carols, only Bible ones naturally. A few, who were good singers, gave a solo performance, and Dan sang "Away in a Manger". Every time I hear this carol I see him standing in front of us singing it. Maybe that's why I remember this Treat. The high spot of the afternoon was the handing out of presents. I remember Dan and I got woollen gloves, so I expect all the children did. There was no Christmas tree, and the presents were wrapped in brown paper and tied with string. Sellotape, fancy paper, tea bags, plastic bags, paper cups, paper hankies, and many other things we take for granted were far in the future. Tea, sugar, flour, butter, came in bulk to the grocer, weighed out as required, the butter wrapped in greaseproof paper, the tea and sugar in special paper bags, and the lot popped into your shopper. Men, especially older men, smoked black twist, some of them chewed it and spat into the fire: disgust. In Ross's shop there was a yard measure inlaid in the counter, used if you were buying
material, and also if you were buying twist, as it was sold by length and not by weight. As we left the hall we were each given an orange, eaten on the way home.

Children today would find this kind of party unacceptable - no games, no music, no parents - but we were delighted; even the long walk home in the dark didn't detract from our pleasure.

Christmas Day wasn't a public holiday, men went to work, the postman came, shops were open, it was an ordinary day. Dan and I received a Christmas parcel from our cousin James every year. James owned a butcher's shop in Portmahomack, but like so many others at that time, decided to seek his fortune abroad, and went to Toronto, where he opened a butcher''s shop. Toronto was a favourite destination for Ross-shire folk. There was a little colony of highlanders there. With its foreign stamps, customs label declaring the contents, and so securely wrapped, we were very excited when this parcel arrived. There was always something to wear for each of us - jerseys, scarves and gloves, very colourful, compared to our rather drab winter clothes. One year we got sealskin boots, but did they fit and did we wear them? I don't remember, but I do remember what they looked like - thin, almost transparent, with a band of seal fur round the top. Board games, puzzles, every year a string of beads for me, little bits and pieces tucked into the corners, it was a lovely box, eagerly awaited.

James and I corresponded regularly for some years. I think he must have been very homesick for quite a while, as every letter had a separate sheet of paper with a list of questions to be answered. Maybe the letters he got from his family were a bit scrappy. Anyway, I enjoyed writing and sent him long letters in reply. He never came home, and died of tuberculosis.

Hogmanay was a very busy day. The house had a thorough going over, as everything had to be as clean as possible for the first day of the New Year. Mother made mutton broth, and a clootie dumpling. Oatcakes and cheese were also essential. New Year's Day and the following days were visiting times, the women called on each other, friends came from Portmahomack, you had to have food in the house. As it approached twelve midnight on Hogmanay, the glasses and bottle of whisky were set out on the dresser. Whisky glasses were very small the whisky drunk neat, you didn't spoil the precious spirit with water or lemonade.

At midnight we wished each other a "Happy New Year" and then my brothers left to meet their friends, and go from house to house, each with a bottle of whisky to toast the inmates' good health. I can remember sitting on the fender, and the house seemed to be full of men singing Scottish songs, "Coming through the Rye", "The Bonnie Wells o' Wearie" and "The Star o' Rabbie Burns". All these unimportant things are clear in my memory. It was a happy time; of course some of the men had too much to drink, but there was no bad language, no rowdy behaviour, no quarrelling. Dan and I stayed up until we were tired. Jimmy was usually with us and stayed overnight. The women of the village didn't drink whisky, at least as far as I knew. Port wine was their dram and most people bought a half or whole bottle at this time. We children weren't forgotten, we were given raspberry cordial. This was a very sweet concoction, drunk undiluted, probably just water and colouring and sugar, and was a great favourite with us. We only had it at New Year.

Santa Claus came on Hogmanay, not Christmas, and Dan and I hung our stockings on the mantelpiece before going to bed, but children today wouldn't think much of the contents we found in them on New Year's morning. An apple, an orange, a pink sugar pig with a bit of string for a tail, a penny bar of chocolate, and a penny in the toe were included every year. In addition we'd get an inexpensive toy, or a game, snakes and ladders and ludo are the two I remember. We were delighted. Santa had been - that was the important thing.

New Year's Day was a public holiday, only the Castle Hotel and Caledonian Hotel open for business. There was a concert in the Carnegie Hall every New Year's Day, very much a social occasion. It didn't start until the pubs closed - 4 o' clock? I remember the first one I went to, I must have been 9 or 10 years old. Darkness was falling as we gathered in the packed hall, children sitting on the windowsills, men who couldn't get a seat standing around. The smoke from men's pipes and cigarettes hung in a blue haze from the ceiling, partly obscuring the hanging lamps, but this somehow added to the warm and welcoming atmosphere, and the "Happy New Year", "Happy New Year", as friends greeted each other. I felt drawn in and belonging. At last everyone settled down and the concert began. Men and women got up on the stage and sang. A girl in a kilt did some Scottish dancing. There was a sketch, which I gathered was about some local worthies, and caused much laughter in the audience, but went over my head, as I didn't know what they were talking about. The local band played, fiddles, melodeons, and a concertina, accompanied by the pianist, who stayed on the platform all the time. I suppose it went on for about two hours and finished with "Auld Lang Syne". The New Year's Day concert was very popular and all that could attended.

After the concert the hall was cleared of seats and made ready for the dance which always followed. When I grew up, when I was 17 (father wouldn't allow me to go any earlier), I started going to the New Year dances. Dances in those days didn't begin till 9 o' clock and finished at 3 o' clock in the morning. The girls wore long dresses and we danced the foxtrot, waltz, Valetta waltz, Scottish reels, eightsome reel, strip the willow, Dashing White Sergeant, etc. The New Year Dance was always a special one, a lovely night, we all knew each other and enjoyed each other's company. But, come 1939, the Territorials were called to arms, young men of military age were conscripted, or volunteered for the Navy, Army or Air Force. Sadly, some of these young men were lost at sea, killed in battle, or taken prisoner of war. Things were never to be the same again.


Though money was scarce, there was no shortage of food in the village. The sea in front, teeming with fish, gardens full of vegetables. Turnips, potatoes, corn for meal in the fields above, the braes overrun with rabbits. There was no oil pollution in the sea, and no pesticides on the land, but there was one horrific thing - tuberculosis in cattle. This was very common and the disease was passed on to humans through the cows' milk. We stopped taking milk from Bankhead for a time, as their cows were infected, and had to walk to Rockfield Farm for our daily supply. We ate a great deal of fish, and, needless to say, salmon was very often on the menu, especially in summer, when large quantities were taken ashore. We fried it, boiled it, ate it cold, and father even drank the "bree", the water it was boiled in, maintaining it was full of goodness. With hindsight I believe he was right.

Flounders, cod, haddock, herring, moorken (I think that must be Gaelic so I can't spell it) was an odd-shaped, thick, ugly fish, good for eating only in spring, and then just a certain part of the male. Skate had a very strong taste and was the one fish I disliked. Mackerel was taboo, and conger eel wasn't very popular. Small fish bones sticking in your throat were never a problem; we chewed a bit of dry bread, the bones embedded themselves in this, and the lot swallowed. Lobsters and crabs were plentiful, caught in creels offshore. We could also get them at low tide in the rocks at the water's edge, pulling them out with a cleep, a long pole with a big hook on the end. Of course you had to be sure they were alive, and you had to be sure they were alive when you plunged them into the pan of boiling water to cook. We didn't eat mussels, but cockles were considered a great delicacy, the men went to Inver sands for them. They were soaked in cold water to remove said sand and then thrown live into boiling water. Dan, Jimmy and I loved winkles, wilks we called them, and often ate them where we gathered them, maybe a mile from home. It's a sunny summer day, and we three set off with an old pitcher, a piece of clear glass, easily picked up on the shore, and some ordinary pins. The wilks are gathered in the pitcher, and covered with seawater. The fire is made by surrounding grass and bits of dried whin with big stones. We hold the glass against the whins and grass, so that the sun shines directly on it, and we soon have a fire, building it up with driftwood from the shore. We sit the pitcher on top and boil the wilks until we think they're ready. This is guesswork, of course, as nobody has a watch. When they are cold we slip their little lids off with the pins and eat the meat. We have a feast. Happiness.

Rabbits were caught in snares and gin traps, and must have suffered greatly before they died. Kittens were drowned in a pail of water. Unwanted puppies and dogs were put in a bag with a heavy stone, taken out to sea and thrown overboard. Hens were killed by twisting their necks, and in inexperienced hands this could take quite a while. It sickens and horrifies me to think of these things today, but in my childhood it was part of everyday living. Yet we always had cats and dogs at home, very much part of the family, and loved by us all.

Rabbit was one of our main sources of food. We had them stewed with onions and carrots, sometimes a bit of turnip added, or stuffed with oatmeal and onions and roasted in the bit soup pot. The rabbit skins were hung in the shed to dry, and were bought by the tinkers when they came to the village, paying 3d or 6d according to their condition, i.e. was the skin complete, or had it been pulled off roughly and become torn? I wonder what they did with them? Sold to fur coat manufacturers? We kept hens, so always had more eggs than we could use in summer, but we pickled the surplus in waterglass, in big stone jars, for winter use, as hens laid very few eggs in cold weather. The pickled ones were used mainly for baking. On very rare occasions, if the hens had gone completely off the lay, we might fry them, but we never had them boiled. The hens roamed freely on the brae, up in the fields, and on the shore.

In early summer, when they got broody, we'd sit maybe two on eggs and in due course the little chicks appeared, so we always had fresh stock. What did we do with the old fowls? They made a lovely pot of broth, giving us first and second courses from the one pan. When I was very young we kept a pig on Uncle Andrew's croft. It had a little stone sty with a thatched roof and a section of the field to run in. I don't know if this was the last of the pigs we kept, or if it was the only one. I'm sure it was killed and eaten, but thankfully I have no recollection of that happening.

On the open fire my mother baked, on the girdle, scones, potato scones, pancakes and oatcakes. The oatcakes were cut in triangles, baked on one side only, the other side toasted at the glowing fire on the trivet, a steel plate hooked on to the fire ribs. We used buttermilk for baking brought from Bankhead or Rockfield farms, butter and crowdie also came from there. Mother made mealie puddings, oatmeal, suet, onions, salt and pepper, steamed in a bowl, eaten with Champion tattles and lovely thick slices of ham. I remember that ham, no comparison to the kind you buy in the supermarket today, and as I write this I wonder - was it the piggy? I wouldn't have thought that at the time, or I wouldn't have eaten it.

Breakfast in our house was porridge, except on Sundays when we had bacon and eggs and - if there was any mashed tatties left over from the night before - slice-acks. This was the cold potato patted into a solid shape, cut in slices and fried in the bacon fat. Delicious. I didn't like porridge so mother made me brose. Oatmeal (yes, we used a lot of oatmeal, it came fresh from the mill, bought in bulk and kept in a barrel, but still in the bag!), about two tablespoonfuls was put in a small bowl with a bit of butter, salt and pepper, boiling water poured over, and mixed thoroughly. You had to stir it well or you had lumps instead of a nice smooth mixture. A little sugar was sprinkled on top, covered with a saucer, the bowl set in the kettle of boiling water, put on the fire and steamed for maybe 20 minutes. I enjoyed brose, but intensely disliked porridge. Milk for breakfast was set in individual bowls the previous night and had nice thick cream on top.

Everybody had a garden at the back of the house; ours stretched to the foot of the brae, as some others did. Here we grew early tatties, ready in June or July, lettuce, peas, radishes, kale, cauliflower, beetroot, leeks, onions, early and late carrots, brussel sprouts and parsley. We also had red and black currants, gooseberries and strawberries, but not raspberries. We didn't grow turnip, got them from Uncle's croft or helped ourselves from the farmer's field. Three apple trees gave us lovely big green cooking apples in autumn. Father had grown these from seed and grafted them, but I remember them as fully grown. Although we grew salad vegetables we didn't have salads at home. The lettuce, peas, radishes and fruit were eaten as they ripened, except the apples, which were stewed and eaten with creamola custard, or semolina - ugh! Mother always managed to gather some blackcurrants to make blackcurrant jam. This was kept for winter, a tablespoon of this jam in hot water, a favourite drink if you had a cold, not that we had colds very often, so far as I remember. The only illness I recall having was whooping cough - it was a dreadful cough - and I have a clear picture of myself running to mother or father to hold my hands when it came on.

Beetroot wasn't pickled in vinegar, but boiled and eaten as a vegetable. The late carrots were layered in sand in fish boxes and kept for winter use. The other vegetables were used for making broth and soup, except cabbage, a regular accompaniment to meat. We bought only dried peas, barley and lentils.

Main crop potatoes were gathered in September or October and pitted. The pit was made by clearing a bit of ground, heaping the tatties on it, about a ton I suppose, a cartload. The mound was then covered with a thick layer of "runach", big, coarse fern which grew in abundance on the west brae, and finally with a layer of overlapping divots. No rain or frost could penetrate this covering, and only a small opening at the bottom was made at intervals during the winter, to take out maybe a bagful of tatties, and quickly sealed up again. This pit of tattles lasted until our earlies were ready in June. Golden Wonders were the last to be eaten, and I think we kept them in a fishing basket in the shed, covered with nets. I don't think we called them Golden Wonders - was it leather coats?

Seaweed was used for manuring the garden, the long, ropey kind we called tangle, and it must have been a very good addition to the soil, as we had such a plentiful supply of fruit and vegetables year after year. November was the month for preserving herring. The men went out in their little boats, all with oars of course, with the herring nets, and brought them in next day brimming with fish. They were gutted, packed tightly head to tail in the big barrel, with a layer of coarse salt between each layer of herring. I wonder if you can still get coarse salt, I think that's what they put on the roads in frosty weather nowadays. The barrel was filled to the very top and left for some time to pickle. I forget how long, but it seemed to be in the cold spring nights that we had them for supper, boiled, with tatties. A thirsty supper, but there was always Dole's pub, and me with my pitcher for the porter. Nor for Dan and me, though, we had to be content with water. I wonder if we ever had a quick drink of the porter?

Catherine Rae
October 2003

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