Just a wee interlude while I incubate something else….
There I was there other day listening to the Beatles White Album (listening to my youth if I’m honest) when up comes grandson, age 10 and a keen thesbian. “Granny, you know what? Those songs are just like the ones we sing for panto”. Well, thanks for putting me right Sunny Bear, here was me thinking it was nothing less than some of the finest music of the 20th century!
And I mean that quite literally! At some point after Peter T took over from his father Archie, he was able to buy the property, and to continue with the improvements that we noted in my last post. As you can see from the postcard below, a whole new floor was added to the house and a porch between the windows of the shop, so that it assumed the final configuration we would recognise today.
I feel sure that it would have been Archie’s plan to continue to develop the business and the dwelling in this way, in fact perhaps it might originally have been his father Peter’s dream – he was a carpenter and contractor by trade after all – so Archie could have grown up with this vision implanted in his brain, all ready to put into action when the time was right. It’s just unfortunate that he passed away in 1908 before he could see the completion of the master plan.
Archie’s son Peter Thomas (I’m calling him Peter T to distinguish him from all the other Peters) would only have been 21 when he took over, along with his sister Mary Theresa, 10 years older. Mary Theresa never married and lived on at the shop for most of her days until her death in 1961. We can get a glimpse of what the shop was like in those early days of the 20th century in this extract from a piece entitled “Down Memory Lane” written by Peter’s grandson David for local Braes Magazine. (Further extracts are mostly from the same article)
In those days businesses such as ours sold all household supplies, clothing and agricultural commodities such as hay, corn, seeds and, believe it or not, shrouds. The latter were always sold after hours, in the dark, from the back of the shop. There was also a paraffin store with all fuels and barrels of salt herring and a garage for the travelling shop.
Peter T married Margaret Mary MacDonald (Daisy) in 1916. They had six of a family, the youngest of whom, Margaret, is a widow, still living in South Africa. She’s the tot in this photograph, taken round the side of the house in, I reckon, about 1933 or 34.
These are the cousins who were contemporaries of my Dad, of whom he had such fond memories. He wrote to his mother after Christmas 1931: … in the afternoon we went to Speanbridge and we had a very happy time indeed, Archie and I were bursting the balloons, but it was only in fun.
Here’s another snippet from “Down Memory Lane”
Grandfather sent all the children to boarding school – the boys to St Aloysius in Glasgow and then Fort Augustus and the girls to Notre Dame in Dumbarton. Trade during the war years was difficult and as all the children had been educated privately, he was not well off.
The two boys served in the armed forces during World War II, Archie joining the RAF in 1940, and Donald the Scots Guards, though being younger this was later. When Donald came back after the war he joined his father Peter T and brother Archie in the family business. His job was the travelling shop which operated six days a week with a different route each day. The shop went as far as Letterfinlay, Kilmonivaig, Bohuntin, Fersit and Tulloch. As boys we all shared some of these trips during holidays getting to know the people and places.
Donald retired from the shop in 1974 and then ran a successful bed and breakfast business in Spean Bridge for many years along with his wife Lies. He died only last year, leaving behind Lies, five children, 14 grandchildren and 3 great grandchildren. Donald will be fondly remembered for his good nature, wit and his service to the Lochaber community over many years. He was my hero as a youngster.
As you can see from the above pictures, it was Archie’s name which eventually appeared above the shop door. Here’s more from his son David about how it all started:
My father, Archie, joined the RAF in 1940 and was immediately sent to flight training school in the prairies at Medicine Hat in Canada; when he got his wings, he was going to return to UK for posting to a night fighter squadron but instead, was retained there as an instructor. He met my mother, Elsa, and married in Prince Edward Island in January 1945 and was demobbed in 1945. Before demob, my father remained at one of the RAF bases in the south and my mother travelled by train to Spean to meet her in-laws. Imagine the impression that post-war Britain made on a young Canadian girl who had experienced none of the shortages and dangers of the war; my grandfather lived in the Shop House with my grandmother and Mary Theresa, an unmarried aunt with whom my mother had to share a bedroom before her husband returned. She couldn’t believe that chamber pots were still in use!
The chamber pots didn’t seem to have put Elsa off and she and Archie went on to have three sons and a daughter – here they are in a photo from the mid 1950’s. These children, now in their sixties and seventies, are my own contemporaries, though I didn’t know anything about them until recently. The little chap looking dapper in his bow tie is Cousin Robert, who I am indebted to for most of the Spean Bridge material that has appeared in recent posts. As well as the primitive plumbing, Robert can remember a time before the electricity supply was connected and the house was lit by Tilley (paraffin) lamps.
It was David, the oldest son who would eventually take over from Archie, but not before spending 10 action packed years in the Royal Navy, a period he describes as one of the most enjoyable in his life. After his discharge in Feb 1971, he writes that he left Portsmouth with all my possessions in two suitcases. It wasn’t long before he and Archie had built the “new shop”, opened in 1975 – perhaps not so new now! These days, David is retired and lives with his wife Liz in the house that Archie built for his retirement, while David’s son Iain presides over the family business and lives in the original house, the sixth generation to do so.
As I bring this account to a close, I wonder whether, if I were ever up in Spean Bridge, would I have the temerity to knock on the door and introduce myself to Iain, my third cousin once removed? I rather think I would! Who could resist? I’d love to go in and try and work out where it was that my father played the piano and burst Christmas balloons with his cousin Archie – perhaps it might have been in the same room where his own grandfather was born nearly a century before. And perhaps I might catch a glimpse of the ghost of the original Peter, nodding in satisfaction to see how the business he started in the middle of the 19th century has grown and prospered right through the 20th and well into the 21st.
I’ve read that cousins are often your first friends outside the immediate family. That was certainly true for my own children in the 1980’s and the friendships have lasted to this day, despite their parents insisting on lining them up for a photo every time the two families got together! Nowadays we’d have to include various assorted partners and 10 offspring as well, if I’ve got my sums right.
Of course part of the reason why cousin gatherings are so much fun is that it’s usually some sort of family celebration that brings us together. Even just a visit becomes a special event because it’s a chance to whoop it up with additional members of the tribe.
Happy children silhouettes on summer meadow running and jumping
My own experience as a child was somewhat unlike my children’s – I suppose for us it was a different, less mobile era, so we didn’t really have much to do with our cousins as we were growing up in the fifties and sixties. These pictures are from the one trip we made to Ireland as a family in 1969 (see my post from last August, The End of an Era). And then it wasn’t until years later, after my Dad died, that I would occasionally encounter these cousins if I happened to be in Glasgow when, all grown up, they came over to visit my Mum.
Contact with cousins on my Dad’s side of the family was equally rare. The following photo is the only one I have of us mingling with those cousins on a visit to my Uncle Donald’s house in, I believe, 1962 (going by the absence of the youngest members of our respective families). And I rather think the occasion was probably to do with the funeral of my grandfather George, that being the year he died. Auntie Mary would have been calling in at Glasgow on her way up to Fort William from her home in London. Or possibly she and her brothers, John and Donald, were making a visit to him on his deathbed. This may have been something of a reconciliation with his three oldest children, but I’ll write about that another time.
The only thing I can remember about visiting Uncle Donald’s house – and it may or may not have been this occasion – is of not being 100% sure that he was only joking when he produced a large pair of scissors and threatened to perform surgery on my cousin Frankie’s bleeding finger. Of course the scissors were just to cut a plaster, but just for a split second, I actually entertained the thought that he really would cut the finger off!
Over the years, weddings, christenings, and especially funerals have provided random opportunities to come across these rather elusive relatives. And the encounters would always leave me wishing that they were in my life to a greater extent rather than just someone you knew had a place in your family tree. Because, no matter how little contact you have, your cousins are never strangers. As cousin Catriona once said “we know where the bodies are buried”. There’s an instant understanding, a sharing of common history, a fellow feeling that needs no further explanation.
All of this has been very much brought home to me since my Mum passed away a couple of years ago and I started rambling on about my family in this blog as well as renewing old acquaintances, or uncovering new ones. I’ve already mentioned Steve Bentley in this context, and I’ve also had contact with John Hynes (the sole boy in the haystack picture above), who now lives in England and was absent when I caught up with my Irish cousins (all the others on the haystack!) and some of their children and grandchildren when I visited County Mayo last spring.
More recently there has been communication with two MacFarlane relatives who both live in South Africa, but have maintained contact with their Highland roots over the decades and who illustrate perfectly what I’ve come to think of as the cousin effect.
Cousin Liz (or second cousin Elizabeth van der Mey if you want her Sunday title) is South African born and bred and and she first contacted me though the blog, writing:
Where do I fit in? My mother Theresa wrote the wee note to your Grandmother Beatrice that appears in May or June last year.
(From “Clutter or Treasure”, April 2017).
I am ‘Aunt Winnie’ Chisholm (MacFarlane)’ s granddaughter (ran into trouble with punctuation there!) I feel like I’ve known you all my life which may seem weird to you but my mother pined so for ‘home’ after coming to South Africa in 1948 and constantly regaled us with family lore…
While you were writing your blog, here on the other side of the globe I was scanning my mother’s letters. She died in 1996, the kist full of letters was only discovered some years later when my father moved out of the house. For almost 20 years I kept them in black rubbish bags but about a year ago the time was right and I started to sort and scan them. Not finished yet but a few more months should do it. What a journey it has been!
… I’d love to share what I can remember of my mother’s reminiscences with you – just a memory here a memory there that helps to flesh out those long ago days. I am a 1952 vintage and a Granny of 6, married to a Dutchman and have spent most of my life in SA but my Scottish roots are dear to me. My mother and Mary Hanley were dearest friends.
I’m sure you can imagine how excited I felt at receiving this warm, generous message totally out of the blue. It hasn’t taken long for the two of us to become Facebook friends, and I am very much looking forward to delving into Liz’s material and, as she says, using it to flesh out those long ago days.
Next, I’d like to introduce you to Robert MacFarlane, or rather to his shattered shoulder blade, the result of a skydiving accident. I have skydived for the last 21 years and this was a bad landing. I know how and why, will not bore you with the details. This doughty gentleman is of a similar vintage to Liz and myself so I have to admit that this news was the last thing I was expecting! Recovery is now well under way thank goodness, but even when he was temporarily reduced to typing with one finger, Robert has already sent me a wealth of pictures and information from his extensive archive. I have been a very active family historian for the last 42 years as well as Lochaber historian, a passion rather than a passing interest.
It is ever so slightly daunting as a mere beginner, to meet someone with this kind of research pedigree! Over the past 42 years, Robert has traced the MacFarlane family history, and can show our family tree going back through the MacDonald line all the way to Robert the Bruce (1274-1329) the second King of Scotland.
Fortunately for me, Robert seems just as interested in the minutiae of domestic relationships – or as we call it, gossip – as in the broad sweep of history. I look forward to sharing some of these tasty titbits in this blog.
A final cousinly thought. I know that my dad, John, had been close to his Spean Bridge cousins. I heard that he would take the bus from Fort William to Spean Bridge, let himself in to the house and the first anyone knew he was there would be when they heard music coming from the piano in the front room. And now I discover that there’s still a link with those far-off days. Robert has told me that his Aunt Margaret – now 88 and also living in South Africa – well remembers when she was a little girl hearing John playing the piano in their house. This would be in the 1930’s, in the years after his mother Beatrice had died (1932) and his father George had married his second wife Jessie (1935). I rather think that my dad found solace in going to play the piano in Spean Bridge, I certainly hope so.
…then we’ll begin. Thus began Listen with Mother, one of the many radio programmes that accompanied my childhood in the 1950’s and 60’s. And I think my own children probably listened to it too, or to its later incarnation Listening Corner. Here’s how the show used to begin, together with another favourite, Children’s Choice.
I should probably have issued a warning before you clicked on that link, likely as it is to transport you to a forgotten age of nostalgia where before you know it you’ll have spent a happy hour or two clicking on all the links for BBC Classic Themes or even whole episodes! By the way, I’ve chosen the shortest clips I could find but if you find them going on a bit too long, you won’t lose anything if you just press the pause button when you’ve had enough and move on to the next one. I do have to also include the the Listen with Mother closing theme, the piano duet from Fauve’s Dolly Suite, and, I seem to remember, the signal for younger sisters to go to bed.
There are many, many more examples of these old radio tunes – Music While you Work, Housewives Choice, 2-Way Family Favourites, Dick Barton Special Agent, Friday Night is Music Night – I could go on and on! In fact I’m listening to BBC 50’s Radio Themes as I write this, which is slowing me down somewhat as I keep having to stop and listen to yet another old favourite. Perhaps it would be best if I just left you to explore on your own so you can re-discover, or indeed discover for the first time, some of these iconic themes which used to be so much part of the background of daily life, especially in the couple of decades after WW2 when the BBC Home and Light Programmes held sway. I suppose many families had got used to listening to the radio together during the war and the habit just carried on afterwards. If you feel like it, it would be great if you added a comment about your own particular memories.
I remember our old wireless at home as looking something like this. It was an old valve set and was the subject of much tinkering by my Dad (who, remember, had been a radio operator in the War and the Merchant Navy, and the sort of little boy who would send away for and construct crystal radio sets at home). We would watch Dad as he occasionally replaced a broken valve, with many warnings about it being hot and not to be touched. I’m pretty sure HE sometimes inadvertently burnt or shocked himself because I can picture him snapping his hand away with silent curses and sticking it under his armpit. Do as I say, not as I do!
Actually, while I am thinking about my Dad, I must just digress for a moment to share a memory from my sister Ann, who reminded me of another example of his sense of fun. He would pull a wooden board from beside the cooker and do a wee tap dance on it. “I think we latterly rolled our eyes at him but still.. it was so Dad.”
We girls also did our fair share of fiddling with the knobs as we tried to tune in to the exotic sounding stations printed on the front – Luxembourg, Hilversum, Paris. It seemed quite an achievement when you actually managed to tune in through the crackles to a programme from somewhere far away with an announcer speaking in a language you couldn’t understand. Dad would explain all about short wave and long wave and how the radio signals bounced around the globe, which somehow made it seem more like science to me and therefore more impressive. My sister Mary recalls the exciting feeling that you were contacting the world directly. Remember this was in the days when the radio used to actually close down at night; 24-hour news and the internet would have seemed unimaginable to us then.
I’d like to share an anecdote with you, which my then (now ex) husband Peter used to tell. When he was a wee boy in the early sixties (picture a little chap with short trousers and, if it was raining, wellies which would leave red rims round his bare legs), he’d arrive home from school, usually desperate for the loo, and would hear Mrs Dale’s Diary come on the radio from inside the house. Of course his mother would be at the back of the house listening so would often not hear the bell. Of course, the Mrs Dale theme featured a rippling harp, a bit like a waterfall, and sure enough as soon as he heard the first strains, the inevitable would happen and poor Peter would have an accident. Needless to say once the wellies dried out they would smell terrible! Thank you Peter for allowing me to share your shame!
If you browse the You-Tube clips, you’ll see that there are many comments and memories attached and it’s immediately clear just how many people share feelings of familiarity and nostalgia for these old tunes, reminding them of their childhoods, which it does me too, of course. Browsing through the comments, one of my favourites, about The Archers theme, came from a chap called Joseph Murphy who was remembering his nan. You should play this while you read the story!
My nan always said that she wanted this played at her funeral before we leave. Back in January when she passed away, everyone was in tears but before we left the funeral part, this tune came on. Everyone in that room was either laughing or smiling, even the vicar.
As an Archers addict myself, I am entirely in sympathy with this tale, though I don’t know that I would go as far as having the theme tune played at my funeral! Having said that I WAS actually toying with the idea of calling this post “Confessions of an Archers Addict” as I seem to have been listening to this “everyday story of country folk” for most of my life!
In fact because my radio listening has continued seamlessly into my adult life right up to the present day I am often confused as to exactly WHEN I first starting listening to shows like Woman’s Hour, Desert Island Discs and other long running series, some of which started before I was even born. All I know is that when certain themes come on, they can evoke such strong feelings of longing and nostalgia it can almost make me cry. A case in point is the Dolly Suite duet, and this one, the Paul Temple Theme,
However I’m rather careful about imagining that this was a better and more innocent era. Perhaps it’s just us who were more innocent – who doesn’t think that things were better when they were a child? But that’s not to say that I’m not perfectly happy to wallow in all this nostalgia occasionally – there IS something about these jaunty upbeat tunes that gives you comfort and reminds you of a simpler time. I wonder if “Dolly” would be a suitable choice for my funeral…?