It will not surprise you to learn that it is a dark and stormy night in the parish where those and such as those have their rural boltholes deep in the glens of South West Scotland.
Nature is Out to Get You
The rivers are running high after days of rain and what low lying ground there is has become drenched and sodden, fit only for gum boot or cloven hoof. The wind has whipped along the glens and swirled into the village where it is now lifting leaves, and rain-mates. Leaves, which have fallen only today from oak and ash, beech and birch, elder and sycamore, rise up almost to shoulder height. The needles of larch, though brown, cling defiantly to branches waiting for the moment when they can loosen their grip to malevolently block drains and find their mischievous way under slates, there to lodge and rot the beams of the cottagers.
At the church the poisonous yew from ancient times keeps silent watch and at garden gates the rowan promises protection although its bright berries suggest a hard winter, as they do each year. This traditional guardian against bad luck provides a cheery welcome, with leaves now red and gold, but be careful stranger for a moss covered path lies beyond – a green skating rink for the unwary.
Autumn, a Time of Preparation
Cottaging is very suitable for the dark nights of autumn or as the locals call it the “grey dark” which in many ways is more threatening than the pure dark of dead winter when you know where you stand and that is in the night “as black as the Earl of Hell’s waistcoat”.
For the cottagers the autumn days are a preparation for the night, the long night of winter. The early promise of provender for store cupboards has been collected and lies in barns and in neat farmyard stooks, now covered with tarpaulin and weighed down with stones which in a prolonged frost, can be detached, and used upon the icy loch as curling stones. Apples from garden trees have been cored, sliced and dried in rings in front of the fire or are stored in newspaper (although of course in the Wylie household not any editions containing photographs of the Royal Family as it would not do to scrunch up Prince Philip or Princess Margaret, even for Cox’s Orange Pippins).
Brambles are bottled or nestling in gin and tins are full of gingerbread. Those orchard and hedgerow fruits that remain now lie rotting on branch and twig or lying on the damp grass being slowly consumed by worms. It is Nature’s warning to “tak’ ma heid we’re doomed tae go, and don’t forget ah telt ye so.”
When the rain does stop and the cloud briefly parts, there is light from the moon, but there are no stars. On stove and range, pots of soup and warming stews bubble away and in cosy corners knitting needles fly and dominoes are turned. Those who have experienced a little of city life may well be playing cards, but this like guessing the weight of a cake is still widely regarded as the work of the D…l. As you see, his is the name that cannot be written by those in polite, or impolite, society.
Winter – Fun at the Start
Polite or not, it has to be said that in the rural firmament this beginning of winter is rather enjoyed by the inhabitants rather as lemmings enjoy the first part of their journey to the cliff. There is something deeply satisfying about putting the first match to the grate containing doughnuts of yesterday’s Daily Herald or Manchester Guardian and drawing the curtains and playing with the knob on the wireless trying to find out what is going on in Luxemburg or Hilversum.
The notion of tea and a sweet bite (at 3pm for cottagers and the middle classes, 4pm for the gentry) is an excitement almost beyond compare. The smell of pancakes sizzling in the pan is positively divine, the sound of the squeaking tea trolley (“Jasper I must have asked you a thousand times to oil my left caster”) is pure heaven and the taste of new jam utter bliss. Of course in a few weeks time this will cease to be a novelty as cleaning out the fire daily becomes a chore, short days make time go quicker, over warmed legs resemble the contents of a corned beef tin and waistlines thicken under the weight of local cake production. Scotland has not earned the description. “land o’ cakes” for nothing.
Thank Goodness for Winter Diversions
It is then that one is thankful for the “occupations and diversions” made necessary by rustic isolation – choir practice, country dancing, film nights, the Scottish Womens’ Rural, the indoor bowling, fly tying, the caged birds society, amateur dramatics and the Temperance Society, the latter being so small it meets in the telephone box bi-monthly as they have been banned by the manager of The Pentland Firth Arms who saw little profit in ginger beer. Some of the more radical elements of the village, that is those who refuse lifts on polling day from landlords, have started a Folk Club where they sing about the many dark days endured by what are known as “folk” in the past. These dark days have mostly been, it is said, caused by folk from the Home Counties who have never come to grips with a land that is swimming in soup and only has salad on prescription.
To counteract this, the Conservative Association has a new monthly Beetle Drive. Both have equally attractive refreshment opportunities which presumably explains why Mima Macpherson is secretary of one and treasurer of the other and votes Liberal. Indeed it has to be said most people are in everything, politics and class having less of an influence on membership than the size of the fruit scones and the quality of the “cup of tea”.
Jasper has thrown his lot in with the Historical Society which was founded in the 1880s and has amassed a large collection of antiquities which are housed in suitcases under guest beds in the homes of members pending the development of a museum. Star items include a canon ball, a good luck shoe found in a chimney undergoing renovation and a pair of gusset-less knickers left by Queen Victoria when she stayed at Pentland-Firth House. Jasper has been trying to make the society more attractive to younger members of the community, particularly those in their 60s and 70s who want a programme that does not entirely concentrate on stone axe heads and spindle whorls.
Jasper likes themes. His study day in the village hall – “Balls” – was a sensation and included everything from musket balls fired by those hunting down covenanters to marbles, ball bearings, golf balls and balls in ancient Greek society.
This evening we find him again at the forefront of local history as he is chairing the Hallowe’en meeting of the society, not in the village hall as it closed for repairs to the light (40 watt bulb included in hire 60 and 100 watt 3shillings and 5shillings extra) but in the Hall of The Woodlanders.
This is a secret mutual society of men who work in the timber trades and have all sorts of funny rituals and spend hours discussing spruce, grain, comparing their saws and yelling “timber”. They even have their own museum of saws, cutting implements and devices to fend off poachers and those who try to steal Christmas trees. This is currently undergoing a redisplay and is closed to the public. We join Jasper as, despite flickering lights, he is speaking to the members in what has become known as the Mrs Blenheim Crawford Memorial Lecture. You may remember Mrs BC was Jasper’s secretary before her untimely disappearance.
“…. the Bovril flavoured tea will no longer be an issue as we have decided to purchase our own urn rather than rely on the good offices of the Pentland Firth Rovers. For those who like Bovril arrangements are being made to satisfy that particular need. Members will be sorry to learn that the catering packs of Garibaldi Biscuits purchased by Mrs Blenheim Crawford after the factory was damaged in an air raid in 1942 are almost at an end and I can safely say that by this time next year we may have to consider an alternative. Abernethy and fig roles are two suggestions which, as I fear they may be contentious, will be a matter for the AGM.
Might I take this opportunity to thank Lady Maud Maltraveress for her donation of several items including a surgical truss said to have been worn by King George IV when he visited Edinburgh in the 1820s. Also to Major General Parkinson-Pitbull, may I say a heartfelt thanks for his kind donation for the original sandwich from his relative the Earl of Sandwich, it is good news to see that it comes with its original crusts. Oh yes and I almost forgot last but not least to Mrs Effie McCaffy, who does such sterling work in our bakers where she is queen of the well fired roll, thank you for the early renaissance pendant and suite of jewels which once belonged to Mary of Guise. It is always nice to have something to interest the ladies, even of a reproduction nature. Well meant I am sure. Can I remind you that next month we will begin the celebration of Christmas, when our new minister will examine the fascinating subject “Calvin and why he took the fun out of the Scottish Christmas”. This will be followed by carols sung to original folk tunes by our very own Pentland-Firth Glee and Madrigal Club.
Introducing the Guest Speaker
Now, if someone might stop the doors from swinging open? Thank you. Mrs Travers. That brings me to the main business of the evening, oh yes and just one thing more – a supper of “dead men’s fingers and mash” will be served after the vote of thanks which once again brings me nicely to the memorial lecture, in honour of Mrs Blenheim Crawford.
As you will recall Mrs BC worked tirelessly to record the folk history of the parish, much of it from oral sources. She was particularly interested in the nature of superstition and the celebration of Hallowe’en which is why it is so appropriate that we meet tonight. She was above all an expert on micro-gender-politico stereotyping of Scottish gender specific scapegoats during the 16th century – a revisionist reversionary approach. Or to cut a long story short Witches.
Lady Pentland-Firth, using as few consonants as possible will now read a selection from the extensive notebooks of Mrs BC. Ladies and gentlemen, she needs no introduction for you all know Lady Patience Pentland-Firth, indeed for many of you cottagers she is your landlady and employer.”
Locals overdo the adulation – but then they need the work and the cottages
Tumultuous applause aided by gramophone of same with words “Gawd bless her”. The lights flicker and broken branches batter the windows of the Hall of the Woodlanders.
Patience Gets into Her Stride
“Thank you Jasper, how very kind. I know how much you all miss Mrs BC particularly for her abilities to work the roneo duplicating machine, but she has left a fine legacy of folk history and so my talk this evening is entitled “What the Folk?” For just as a question mark hangs over the fate of Mrs BC, so there are many questions regarding our superstitious traditions as they are largely unrecorded. I quote from notebook 666:
In our glen superstition was widespread. There were many homes, forests woods and bridges that were haunted. None but the brave liked to visit them after nightfall. There was widespread belief in fairies, witches and spirits. This was the reason why the cottagers made widespread use of charms and amulets. There were shoes for luck and it was common to bury a dead cat in the foundations of a chimney or fireplace.
At Hallowe’en, it was widely believed that witches rode on broomsticks to attend the Devil’s parties and that the souls of their boots were heeled with the bones of murdered men. Even one of my late husband’s ancestors Lord Ringan Pentland-Firth was widely rumoured to be a warlock.
On a daily basis we, in this parish, still put holes in the bottom of our boiled eggs to stop witches from using them as boats and decline to put new shoes on the table or walk under ladders and there are many who still refuse to leave their homes on Friday 13th. Of course some of these superstitions took on a more sinister light during the witch trials of the 17th century when many a poor woman was executed for keeping a cat or making a gingerbread that was not up to scratch.
In troubled times we look for scapegoats and what more easy target than the old single or widowed woman, barren and toothless, grey-haired and wrinkled of face.
Which reminds me I forgot to switch the oven on, Mrs Wylie if you would be so kind as to ask your vumin vat does zee heavy vork, she knows the drill….
To continue we do not understand fully the nature of these persecutions.……. yes Mrs Wylie.”
A Terrible Accident
“I am sorry to have to interrupt you Lady Pentland-Firth, but there has been a terrible accident. It’s Hilda, the German vumin what does zee heavy vork because Mrs Travers does not always do a lot.”
“What of it Muriel? Just tell her the sausages are already cooked; they just require heating up.”
“No Patience, Jasper everyone, I am terribly sorry. You see she is dead. She is in the Woodlanders’ Museum next door.””
“Has she had a stroke or heart attack, or something more teutonic?”
“No – she is in the mantrap.”
“Well I have often been there myself Muriel.”
“No Patience. She has been killed by stepping into the giant mantrap.”
There was all at once an outbreak of general hysteria with Lottie Macaulay completely beside herself. Mrs Travers who slapped her rather too hard announced “Get a grip, someone should put they links on or it will be a pure dead waste. And I think there is something going on here!”
…..to be continued
Hallowe’en October 1957