Leerie-Lichts and Gorblies
Sheena Blackhall (Middleton)
The circumstances of my birth were somewhat peculiar. Although I was a postwar 'baby-boomer' born in Aberdeen's Cuperstone Nursing Home in 1947 I was actually raised in the nineteenth century. No, the reckoning isn't mistaken. The house where I lived for my first 25 years, and returned to when my marriage ended, was 15, Albert Terrace Aberdeen. The first map reference to the street was in 1849. Twenty years later the name was changed from Saint Mary's Road to Albert Terrace in honour of Queen Victoria's Prince Consort. As it was protected by rigidly enforced conservation laws, the street retains its cobbles, its gas lamps, its iron railings, slate and granite to this day.
The house was Dickensian, cold and rheumaticky. It stood on three levels, with three upstairs bedrooms and a large attic. My parents were middle-aged when I was born, arriving when the pram had been sold and my mother was 40. 'I could hae bin yer granny', she always said. This made for dreich Hogmanays. Usually, somebody had just died, and my father, who was tee-total would querulously raise his glass of lemonade to the chimes and say dolefully 'I winner if we'll aa be here neist year'. This, to a small child, was tremendously alarming, the thought that death was permanently camped out on the doorstep, waiting to pick us off.
Every year, my mother marched me down to a local book shop to buy my birthday presents. They never varied... I was allowed to choose anything by Dickens or Sir Walter Scott. Every night no matter how glorious the summer nights, I was sent to bed at 7pm to say my prayers and read. Around the age of 8, I discovered that masturbation whiled away the occasional moment, though I had no idea this was what it was called until I was much older. My mother told me never to sit too close to boys at school or I might get a baby (I assumed that babies brushed off on you, like dandruff). She zealously marched me to church every Sunday, Melvillie Kirk, presided over by the Rev. John Bell Deans, a hellfire preacher who once delivered a sermon on eternity so terrifying to a small child that I had nightmares for months afterwards, a recurrent nightmare of sitting astride a wooden painted carnival horse in a midnight carousel, whirling round the Milky Way forever. 'God is always near you, watching what you do,' was her favourite hymn. My own, invisible policeman. No escape then, from morality, as a child.
Her gift to me of Dickens was the best thing I ever had from her. I grew to love Dickens, to inhabit his world. One Spring morning, having been sent to bed early and wakened with the dawn chorus, I set off in my night dress up the cobbled street pretending to be Oliver Twist alone and lost in London. I got to the top of the road and was stopped by a mystified policeman. 'And where might ye be fae?' he asked, taking out his notebook. I could outrun any policeman at that time, and quickly shimmied over the dyke to safety. This was my first indication that mixing fact with fantasy might not be a good idea.
Until I was 16 years old I slept with my grandmother, Lizzie Booth, in her downstairs room at the front of the house. At ground level there was also a music room, parlour and kitchen. Behind the house was a small garden enclosed by high walls studded with broken glass to deter intruders. If mother was middle aged, granny was ancient. She sat by the fire cleaning the family brass and silver, or stitching tapestry. Once, when she was stitching a huge floral tablecloth, I observed her keenly.
'Foo are ye makkin that tablecloot granny?' I asked. 'Ye'll be deid afore it's aa dane.'
Granny looked at me over the top of her spectacles. 'I've a gey lot o flooers left in me yet, quinie.' she retorted. She recited mysterious rhymes, which hinted at fey creatures - 'Pit yer finger in the gorblie's hole the gorblie's nae at hame - he's roon the back o the hen hoose, pickin an auld deid hen.' I conjured up terrifying images of the gorblie, a half-hedgehog half-human beast with the teeth of an alligator, savaging poultry and little girls by turns.
Our immediate neighbours, of whom I saw little, were English. The head of the house was Sir Cyril Lucas, a distinguished scientist in the field of fishery research. I once received a smacked bottom for climbing up onto the partitioning wall between our houses and singing 'Scots wha hae wi Wallace Bled' whilst waving a wooden claymore at the astonished Lucases during a particularly virulent patriotic phase. My father had spent many hours lovingly creating a doll's house for me - my mother had bought a large china doll, with eyelashes like dead spiders. When I ignored both, father relented and made me boy toys. For some time I careered up and down our back lane snecking the heads off dandelions convinced I was Rob Roy reincarnated.
My parents were second cousins. My father's grandmother Sally Craib (1845-1914) was born on the farm of Strathmore, in the parish of Coull, which lies between Aboyne and Tarland, and my mother's grandmother Helen Craib (1862-1939) was her sister. Of those in that family of ten Craibs, three spent most of their adult lives in Ceylon, the others farmed in the North East. Isabella Craib married James Anderson, who managed the estate of Deeside, Maskeliya (Tamil name Taivakanda) in Ceylon... their daughter Catherine was born there in 1881. Her parents sent her home to study medicine at Aberdeen University, and my grandmother Lizzie, her cousin (1882-1964) was her housekeeper/companion at Whitehall Road during those student years. Dr James Craib MB CM MD (1855-1899) died in Ceylon. He was the district surgeon for Ambagamuwa and Kotmale, in the regions around Kandy. Alexander Craib (1850-1925) was a tea planter in Invery, Dikoya, (Tamil name Sinne Berrogolly) in Ceylon and is buried in Coull kirkyard. My first pay from the BBC was spent on purchasing my lair in Coull, ever mindful of my granny's saying, 'Yer a lang time deid.' The views of Lochnagar, Tomnaverie, Morven and the ruined Castle of Coull from this airt are truly magnificent. Unfortunately, the area is plagued by moles, and when my father's ashes were due to be interred there it was difficult to know what was grave and what was mole-hill. The gravedigger was a third cousin. 'Yer da winna be lang here his leen - his cousin ower the hill is due tae dee neist year - ay, she's in a bad wye, puir wummin, an she'll be beeriet twa lairs ben. I believe yer comin here yersel, in time?'
In granny's room were books by Saki and Kipling amongst the Victorian nick-nacks. Much of my childhood was spent ill in this bedroom suffering from recurrent bouts of croup, the smell of Friar's Balsam filling the air, with an old smelly sock stuffed with salt draped over my neck, granny's folk-cure for 'hoasts an whizzles.' Usually, I enjoyed being ill, apart from the dreadful business of battling for breath. My father would come through in the evenings and sing to me - he had a splendid singing voice... Burns or some old favourite like Dream Angus - and I was allowed to take all granny's ornaments into bed with me, her brass monkeys and trumpeting ivory elephants, where I could pretend to be Mowgli and chat to them all. One horrid day, however, when my breathing was particularly bad, Dr Grieve the family physician was called. I could hear him discuss my condition out in the hall. 'Ye mean ye'll hae tae cut the lassie's throat?' gasped my mother. 'Not exactly, Mrs Middleton' came the reply. 'I MAY hae tae perform a tracheotomy, tae let air inno the windpipe if she disnae improve.' I gripped onto granny's three wise monkeys very tightly and stayed so still I could have been the old grandfather clock on the stairs that kept a constant whirring and chiming all day. By evening, I had recovered, so no throat cutting was needed.
Inbreeding was common in rural North East of Scotland. My great-grandmother Helen Craib was also the great grandmother of the Doric novelist David Ogston. According to my mother, this made him my second cousin. My mother, who had always wanted to be a writer, was extremely religious, and David's other occupation was that of the ministry. On both counts she saw him as being a highly desirable 'catch'. The fact that as students we were friends who never desired to progress beyond that, was a disappointment to her.
'There's nae shame in merryin yer kin,' she informed me dourly. 'Aabody dis it.'
Perhaps because my mother was so religious, I did develop an interest in matters spiritual, but not in the way she wanted. Our kirk was a dreich, grim, dreadful place of horsehair pew cushions and taloned mahogany eagle throttling plinths. I began to read about different religions in my early teens, and took to hiding in corners lighting candles and crossing myself, inventing Catholic rites. David Ogston's Aunt Daffy, a close family friend, found me at this pursuit and 'clyped' to my mother. They were extremely worried about my immortal soul, as everyone knows only Protestants go to heaven. Catholics, Hindus, Moslems, Buddhists, the whole shebang are damned.
'Yer tae stop this cairry on richt noo,' Daffy told me. 'Yer makkin yer mither nae weel wi this papacy.'
Like an Asda shopper seeking the best bargain I continued my spiritual window gazing. Finally, I discovered Buddhism, and it struck an instant chord of inner harmony. To this day, Buddhism has been my steadying influence and my refuge:
The dew is on the lotus, rise great sun
And lift my leaf and mix me with the wave
Om mani padme hum, the sunrise comes
The dewdrop slips into the shining sea.
I regularly go on retreat to Dhanakosa in Balquhidder, a meditation centre run by the Friends of the Western Buddhist order, and know of no greater joy on this earth than sitting amongst the hills above Loch Voile, breathing in a mixture of incense and wild flowers, contemplating the serenity of the enlightened Buddha.
My principal 'care-giver' as a child was my grandmother Lizzie. She was born on the Home Farm of Hopewell, by Corachree in Tarland, my maternal grandmother. As a child she attended Migvie School, and used to quote the Latin she learned there:
Amo amas I luved a lass an she wis tall an slender
Amas amat she caad me flat an dang me ower the fender
She was christened Lizzie Philip, daughter of George Philip (1857-1937) and Helen Craib (1862-1939), and was fond of saying she was the 'first ane born in wedlock'. The Craibs were a wealthy farming family, and the Records of Aboyne (1230-1681:309) explain how this Fleming family came to be connected with Deeside, specifically the area of Cromar. Johan Crab was originally a pirate, who so incensed the Count of Flanders that on November 1319 that nobleman threatened to break him on the wheel if he could have him apprehended. Crab was also a military engineer, who apparently designed a war machine which devastated the English troops during the siege of Berwick. The last reference to Crab, places him in Aberdeen, where he is disputing rights to land in Cults, Cromar. Over the centuries, the name Crab became Craib. Craibs were farming on Strathmore, Cromar, from the 1700s.
From her cousin Catherine, and her uncles Alexander and James, granny (who had never travelled furth of the North East) had acquired those wonderful oriental brass and ivory ornaments which made my childhood croup less troublesome. At night, after she had said her prayers, taken a small swig from a miniature bottle of whisky ('a wee drappie tae help me sleep, quinie'), she would poke the small fire to take the jeel off the room and retire for the night. The shadowy firelight played on brass bullocks and monkeys, on trumpeting elephants and a coal scuttle of palm trees and jungle creepers. I was always deliciously terrified by this, and seldom used 'the gizunder' to empty my bladder for fear that a crocodile might grab my leg.
Granny's trump card was the fact that she firmly believed (as did all the family) that her father, George Philip of Crathie (1857-1937), was of the blood royal, one of Edward VII's (1841-1910) many bastards. Crathie at that time was a core Gaelic-speaking area, indeed, shepherds around Crathie still spoke Gaelic till the 1920s. The last time that Gaelic was used in Crathie church was said by a local man to be in 1922 'bit only a few auld shepherds doon frae the hills could spikk it.' Watson and Allan noted:
...many names remained Gaelic but with Scotticised or Anglicised pronunciation; only a few old people still pronounce them according to the Deeside dialect of Gaelic. Others became translated or otherwise changed into Lowland Scots or English. Many Lowland Scots names have also altered to English ones. All three processes still continue as one can see by comparing how old and young people pronounce the same names. (Watson and Allan1984:180)
If George retained Gaelic he never spoke it. Presumably there was no Gaelic spoken in the Coull/ Tarland region where George eventually came to work, though Diack, collecting material on Deeside in the 1930s, found this local saying:
Theagamh gu faic mis' thu fhathasd an Turlann, is muc dhubh air do chroit:
I may see you yet in Tarland, with a black pig on your back (Diack 1944)
If his linguistic credentials are uncertain, his breeding was of the highest. Photographs of my great-grandfather bear an uncanny resemblance to the wayward Edward. The illegitimate boy from Crathie came to work as a young shepherd at Strathmore, where he quickly impressed Helen Craib, who bore their first child when she was fifteen years old. The Craib family held out against the marriage until the third child was on its way, as George had no money or prospects. Surprisingly, when he married Helen in 1878 he was given the tenancy of Hopewell and the stock to go with it. The owner of the Hopewell estate at that time was factor to Queen Victoria at Balmoral, fuelling suspicion that the money had come from that source.
George Philip farmed at Hopewell for 10 years and for 33 years at West Mains, Nethermuir, New Deer. On one occasion when the Middleton cousins crossed the moor at Coull to visit the Philips, chicken was served. 'Wull I carve this chucken the new-fanglit wye or the auld?' he asked. Choosing the old, he tore the meat into pieces with his hands.
Throughout his life he referred to his wife as his 'ither oxter', because she fitted neatly into his arm pit. She, in turn, likened herself to a 'brood soo', and said that her husband never tired of gingerbread and herself - a fair assessment as they had between them 10 children. Of these, young George emigrated to Medicine Hat in Canada, homesteading in Tilston, Manitoba in 1898. Patricia married a New Deer man and sailed for America on the White Line's 'Caledonia' to settle in Chicago. Her father stood at the quayside and waved till the ship was out of sight. Their brother William also emigrated to Chicago.
I have always been rather suspicious of America. Granny's brother William was shot and killed in a taxi there, an innocent victim of crossfire during Chicago's notorious gang wars. It was no surprise to me whilst I was performing on the Mall in 2003 with Stanley Robertson as guests of the Smithsonian Institute, when a paper cup that Stanley was drinking water from exploded in his hand, by a random bullet fired from the crowd. 'I dinna think they like traivellers,' was Stanley 's sanguine response. My American relatives offered to pay my plane fare to Chicago, to meet up with them during that trip. I declined. The next bullet might have had my name on it.
The American emigrants frequently return to Scotland three generations on, and host their own 'Highland Games' in Manitoba. Patricia's grandchild, Hallie Lemon, lectures in Journal Writing at the University of Western Illinois. Her mother Glenna wrote to give me the second part of a song my grandmother had taught me. The other half sailed to America with Patricia.
Takk the ribbons fae yer hair bonnie lassie-oh
Takk the ribbons fae yer hair bonnie lassie-oh
Takk the ribbons fae yer hair, life is nocht bit grief an care
Takk the ribbons fae yer hair bonnie lassie-oh
Philip, of course, was the surname of George's mother, and it is a longstanding belief that the original North East 'Philip' was one Juan Philippe, who swam ashore when the Spanish galleon the Santa Catarina sank in the bay of Saint Catherine's Dub off Collieston in 1588. A neighbour in Albert Terrace was convinced we were a family of Spaniards with our black hair and dark eyes. It may be no co-incidence that my brother Ian chose to emigrate to the Latin American country of Brazil.
The business of 'race' is a strange one. When I was Scots Writing Fellow at Aberdeen University's Elphinstone Institute a visiting Dutch PhD student was quite adamant that I was a Sephardic Jew, and flatly refused to believe otherwise! I had to tell her that the nearest I ever got to Jewry was a teenage crush I developed on Benjamin Disraeli. When other girls of my age adulated the Beatles, I adored Disraeli. I liked his style. He wasn't a team player, you see. I respect that. When Britain needed part ownership of Suez, he went out and got it. 'It is done, you have it Ma'am' he triumphantly told Queen Victoria. True, he dyed his hair, wore corsets and wrote abominable novels, but he was never boring. In his youth he resembled a male version of Shirley Temple. I assumed his mother made him curl his hair into ringlets like mine did. I think I could have married Disraeli, if time and circumstances had been changed.
So that's the myth of the set-in-stone North East family blown out of the water. Dr Robert Millar put it quite well when I interviewed him in the course of research into the linguistic and social changes in the North East:
...I think too much is made of the North East of Scotland bein a static society, because it's never been static. The farming tradition seems bred intae the land, but maist o the North East o Scotland 's maybe 250 year auld. (R.M./S.M.7:12:99)
Before I leave my maternal roots, I should mention the Booth family. Patrick Morgan in the North East annals of Woodside and Newhills (1886) describes 'a worthy and well-known family of the name of Booth, farmers in the estate of Auchmill for nearly 200 years'. Here is an extract from my great-grandfather Matthew Booth's (1847-1922) obituary:
Mr Matthew Booth, dairyman, 5 Desswood Place, was well known to the agricultural community over a wide district. He succeeded his father in the farm of Mastrick, and besides, Woodside, Stocket, he held the farm of Darrahill, Udny. ...At various times he held public offices, being connected with Newhills Parish Council, the Udny Parish Council (of which he was chairman) & the school board of Udny. In 1886 he commenced the dairying business in Aberdeen. In this he was enterprising and progressive and the business increased until he had 6 shops and numerous carts retailing milk throughout the city. He was esteemed and respected in the dairying world and until recently was president of the Aberdeen Dairyman's Association. For many years he had been a Director at the Central Mart, Aberdeen ...He was a devoted member and officer of the United Free Church.
Old Matthew is buried in the corner of St Machar Cathedral kirkyard. He had fathered 15 children and served as a JP. One of his sons, Douglas Booth (1874-1972) managed a rubber plantation in Kuala Lumpur in Malay. One of his daughters, Margaret, settled in Africa. Two of her gifts sat in the umbrella stand at Albert Terrace. There was a Zulu knob kiri, heavily stained. I was told the stains were from Zulu brains dashed out during a tribal conflict. There was also a Zulu war shield of zebra skin, which I liked slightly better, but neither object fired me with much desire to visit a place where skulls were cracked like walnuts at Christmas.
His son Matthew (1871-1923), my maternal grandfather, died the year after him. Of this grandfather I know little, other than the fact that he originally qualified as a ship's engineer, subsequently reverted to farming, married my grandmother and settled at Hillhead of Carnie, Skene. I know that he was a precentor at Kingswells United Free kirk, that he thrashed my uncle George for laughing while he was reading from the Family Bible, and that he would stay up all night in all weathers when his mares were foaling - a cross between 'A Man Called Horse' and Calvin.
When grandfather died, my uncle George's ambitions died with him. George Booth was a dux bronze medallist in English and French, in the same year as John R. Allan at Robert Gordon's College. But my grandmother Lizzie needed him at home to help run the farm. When my uncle married his second cousin Isobel Craib of Tullyoch in Echt, my grandmother left Hillhead and moved to Aberdeen to live with my parents. Most Sundays we visited the farm, and I was turned out to roam the parks and woodlands and byres all afternoon.
Later, when I married a farmer's son from Tarland, we were cottared at the farm. My uncle, who was childless, offered to pass on the tenancy to myself and my husband, but my husband's family were beef and barley farmers, not dairymen, so he declined the offer. Now, with the town threatening to overwhelm it, I am glad of that. My father's family are easier to track, as both his parents were Middletons. They are descended from Norman Scots, De Midletons. Humphrey De Midleton originally settled in Kincardineshire, but by 1623 the family had settled in Cromar in the parish of Coull by Tarland, on the farm of North Gellan. According to the records of the family genealogist & historian William Stewart (1872-1900), whose parents owned the Osbourne Hotel, Queen's Gardens Aberdeen, we are linked to John, first Earl of Middleton (1604-1674), the Covenanting General who later turned Royalist and led a revolt in the Highlands on behalf of Charles II in 1653. For a brief and ignoble time, he was Viceroy of Scotland on the restoration of the monarchy. A portrait of him hangs in the Courtauld Institute of Fine Arts, London, by the painter Jacob Huysmans. His brother was principal of King's College Aberdeen, which supposedly holds his portrait; but I have never succeeded in locating it.
Samuel Pepys described Middleton as 'a shrewd man but a drinking man as the world said, a man that had seen much of the world, and a Scot'. Sir Walter Scott features him in Wandering Willie's Tale as 'Bloody Middleton', the Deil's right hand man. William Stewart's family tree states that Patrick Middleton (in Coull, 1622) was a brother of Robert Middleton of Caldhame, father of John, first Earl of Middleton (1608-1674) though no mention of this appears in 'The Earls of Middleton, Lords of Clermont and Fettercairn & the Middleton family'. I like to think the connection existed. Today, I live on Montrose Drive, named after Montrose himself, overlooking the Auld Brig o' Dee, where the Covenanters and Royalists once pounded each other with cannon.
After 1623, the kirkyard at Coull tells its own story, for all the Middletons who farmed North Gellan lie there. In 1696 the list of pollable persons within the shire of Aberdeen mentions in Meikle Gellan, Patrick Midletoune tenant there, and Alexander Midletoune, tenant there. Stewart's tree is detailed and complex. My great grandfather, John Middleton of North Gellan (1840-1919) married Sally Craib of Strathmore, the farm across the moor. My grandfather, Alexander Middleton (1877-1935) left North Gellan to farm at the Mains, a large farm in the grounds of Aboyne Castle. There, my father Charles was born (1907-1988). Granny Middleton was suckling her new-born son by the fire when a streak of lightning descended the lum and left through the door. In a deeply superstitious family, wondrous things were expected of father after this, a hard act to follow.
Grandfather, by all accounts, was something of a character. He moved to East Mains where he managed a croft, a haulage business and the Aboyne dairy. Lord and Lady Glentanar involved him in their Gilbert and Sullivan operettas. He fathered 12 children in wedlock, others out it. My father claimed to have been reared on a diet of 'tatties and pynt'. For years, I took this to mean the family sat round the table daily and got 'roarin fu' on potatoes and beer. Eventually it was explained to me that 'pynt' meant 'point', not 'pint'. Grandfather Middleton killed a pig once a year, salted it and hung it in the kitchen. For most of the year it hung there and was only pointed at, not eaten. The staple diet of the family was potatoes and poached salmon, deer, or trout, for my father like his brothers was a fine shot and fisherman with the Dee and the woods of Birse close by.
My grandfather was a grand master of the Aboyne Masonic Lodge, and was accorded a Masonic Funeral. Very handsome in youth, he followed the Middleton tendency to 'run to fat', was an asthmatic, alcoholic, village poet and writer and performer of cornkisters. Local lairds would invite him to sing at their soirees. When two of his nephews, David and John Middleton, were orphaned as a result of the Ballater flu epidemic of 1918, my grandfather fostered them until they were old enough to follow his Craib uncles out to Ceylon, to the Epalawae Estate in Kagale. I fondly imagined this was very charitable of him. 'Ay,' the boys' niece informed me dryly. 'Affa charitable. They'd tae wirk damned hard fur their keep!'
Every year, at the Aboyne Games the local travelling people would pitch their camp on grandfather's fields by Aboyne. If they refused to pay (or couldn't pay), one of their animals was confiscated to cover costs. Thus, grandfather acquired a white mule from Pinto's circus, a dour brute which refused to move. 'We lichtit a wee fire aneth it,' my father told me. 'It moved, syne.'
On market days, grandfather would vanish, sometimes for a week or more, touring his favourite hostelries and writing yet more songs - 'Bowties' at the foot of Morven, the Inver near Braemar, Coilacreich by Ballater and a small licensed grocer at the head of the Slack at the entry to the Howe o' Cromar. He would stand at the market stance in Tarland, Cyard's Raw, and offer to thrash all comers. (Tarland down the centuries is noted for its 'hard man' image). He also had a fey sense of humour. During the Tarland Show when travellers camped yearly for the horse sales around the village, he crept up on a traveller sleeping off a drinking bout in a barn, and stuffed two brass balls down his trousers. When the man awoke, and reached down to relieve himself at the call of nature, he was horrified to feel two disembodied not to mention very heavy objects beside his manhood, and rushed off screaming 'ma baas his drapped aff.'
This was a very Tarland thing to do. My ex-husband, himself a Tarland man, was once chastised by his father, Rob, for sleeping in of a morning. He duly set off with some friends after a few drams, to climb the ruined church steeple to dislodge the kirk bell, bearing it back in triumph to his father's house. 'I winna sleep in noo,' he remarked.
One Hogmanay my husband Kenneth detached a dead sheep's head from its carcass, carrying it round the village and working its jaws like a ventriloquist's dummy, delivering a hellfire sermon as a first foot trick. Life in Cromar is always eventful. Every year at the summer solstice, the local farmers climb to the summit of Lochnagar to see in the dawn, as they have done since ancient times.
I had decided early on I would only marry a Deeside man and did so in 1972 at St Ninian's Church Aberdeen. My husband, Kenneth Blackhall, wore his corporal's uniform, as he was then serving with the RAF Regiment in Catterick. The Blackhall family had moved from Glenkindie to Tarland where Alexander Blackhall had married Catherine Coutts (1874-1967). My husband's uncle Alec was World Barley Champion seven times, travelling regularly to Canada to receive his prize. He was a county councillor and a playwright as well as a farmer. The Blackhall family farmed Melgum, Millhead and Barehillock in Cromar. Barehillock overlooked the fields and woods of Hopewell that my grandmother had loved so much as child. Once, when hairsting there, driving the tractor up and down the park gathering the bales, I could have sworn I saw her, a little girl dressed in a white lace smock and button boots smiling at me from the trees.
When Alec was off in Canada one year our elderly car expired. I wrote a poem which was published in the local Press and Journal bemoaning this. Alec was furious when he heard about it on his return. We were summoned to his house, where after an awkward exchange, he asked me to step out to an outhouse. He opened the doors to expose a Triumph car in immaculate condition aside from one or two hens' droppings on the bonnet. Without another word, he handed me the keys.
'There noo. We'll hae nae mair bitties in the paper', he muttered. I know of no other Doric poet who was given a car because they'd written a poem.
My father, born in Aboyne, had none of his Tarland forebears wildness in him. He was a serious little boy, as anybody would be whose mother hit them over the head with a poker for allowing a small sibling to play in the coal scuttle. What he loved to do was sing, any and all of Burns and most of the 'weel kent' Scots and Irish ballads. There was always music in our house. His favourites were Jock o' Hazledean and Dark Lochnagar, and when he sang he did so with a depth of feeling that could move the most hardened to tears. When my father was 8 years old he recalled sitting on a dyke at Aboyne where the Tarland Road meets the village, and watching his two young cousins William and John Middleton from Tarland march off with the Gordon Highlanders to fight in the First World War. Willie took off his watch, a gold hunter, and flung it over the dyke into the leaves, shouting out 'it's ower guid tae bladd, it'll bide here till I win back!'
The watch was never found. Willie never came back. John's name is on Le Touret Memorial in France, panel 39-41. Willie lies in the Highlander cemetery, Rollincourt, Plot 1 row A grave 15.
For the first 16 years of my life, my father worked at Ballater, leaving Albert Terrace early in the morning and not returning till late each evening. He was manager of the Deeside Omnibus service, owned by his widowed sister Mrs Helen Strachan, known locally as the 'Reid bussies'. Strachan's originally took over from the Royal mail horse bus which ran from the Bon Accord Hotel in Market Street to Blairs, the fleet growing to 14 buses at its peak. Strachan's ran its first bus from Blake's Station Garage, Rennie Wynd in 1925. The owner died young, killed at the wheel of his car in a smash that claimed the life of his brother-in-law Archie Middleton. Another brother-in-law, Ian Middleton, crawled two miles to raise the alarm despite serious internal injuries, for which he was presented with an award for bravery at the Victoria Hall, Aboyne.
'My faither didna ken foo tae help Ian fin he lay in the hospital,' my father told me, 'Sae he jist sang tae him.'
The company ran two services, one travelling the South Deeside Road from Aberdeen to Banchory, then via Ballater to Braemar on the North Road, while the second route went via Ballogie from Banchory up to Ballater. It ferried coffins, livestock, climbers, hikers, tourists. Under parcel regulations it stated that 'fragile parcels inadequately packed will be sent entirely at the sender's risk'. This may even have applied to a party of Canadian lumberjacks wanting to go to a local dance one wartime winter. With no room left on board, in blizzard conditions, they were invited (at their own risk) to step into the roomy boot. All arrived safely. There was an office in Langstane Place and a stance at Bon Accord Street in Aberdeen. This occasionally duplicated as a slaughterhouse when a deer was felled by a bus and smuggled in to be butchered and shared out amongst the drivers and conductresses. The main office, however, was Ballater and it was here that we stayed all summer, every summer, closing up the town house in Albert Terrace and occupying a property known as 'The Shack', a child's paradise, with Craigendarroch facing us from the front window and Craigcoilich looking in at the back window, with the Gairn, the Muick and the Dee, running between the hills and the tiny village.
When the business finally ran out of road, Pipe Major Norman Meldrum of Invercauld led a procession of 40 cars and 200 people as the last of the red buses drove slowly out of Braemar. John Stammers of Birchwood said 'the old chaps who used to work for the firm were in tears. It really was something to remember.' Bob Webster, a member of Aberdeen's Transport Society, spoke for many when he said 'Strachan's ran such a unique service that inevitably the story of transport in the Dee Valley is the story of Strachan's. Tom Patey in 'One Man's Mountain, A Grampian Hairst' noted that 'The 3.15 from Bon Accord Square was a special bus tactfully set aside for climbers by Messrs Strachan'. This followed an incident in which old ladies had been isolated at the back of the bus by a mountain of rucksacks, only effecting an escape, several miles beyond their destinations, by a desperate hand traverse.
For 16 years, as the manager's daughter and the owner's niece, I had the freedom of the roads from the city to the Braes o' Mar. I could step on a bus anywhere on Deeside and jump off again, without paying a penny. I could change from the thin Scots speech of Aberdeen to the braid Doric of Ballater in the space of an hour. I could stay weekends with my cousins, the McConnachs, who farmed at Drumneachie and Deerhillock in Birse. Dod McConnach had married my father's sister Mary, of whom I was greatly fond, and it was at Drumneachie that my cousins taught me to fish for eels, to hand milk a cow, to hand churn butter and to bigg the stooks at hairst time, though very little biggin o stooks was done with the Birse burn so close and the weather warm. Like Byron, who also holidayed on Upper Deeside, I more or less ran wild, exploring hills, cliffs, glens, usually on my own, with a sketch pad.
I had wanted to be an artist from the time I first held a pencil in my hand. My father encouraged me, giving me cheap colouring pencils which transported me into realms of infinite delight. His cousin, Maudie Middleton, had studied Art at the Institute of Notre-Dame Aux Epines, Eecloo, near Brugge ( Bruges ) in Belgium. Maudie died of Hodgkin's disease aged 22 cutting short what should have been a distinguished art career.
When I had a sketch pad in my hand, I never needed friends, my imagination was friend enough. I always assumed that Glen Muick and Glen Gairn were pleased to see me when I visited, I thought of them as part of the family. I felt particularly close to Glen Muick. When I was 50 I discovered that I had an illegitimate brother in Oshawa, Ontario, Canada, Charles Middleton Ritchie, born in 1929, who had been partly raised in Glen Muick by an aunt at the Mill o' Sterin. I grew up knowing nothing of his existence, not knowing that I had a brother in the Gordon Highlanders, who was serving variously in Germany, Korea, Hong Kong and Malaya. He emigrated to Canada from Ballater in 1954 when I was seven. Ironically we were staying in the village when the piper played him off at Ballater Square. He died in the year 2000, but not before he had flown to Scotland to meet me, and I had crossed the Atlantic to meet his family. He was a great, warm bear of a Highlander, it was a great sadness to me that we discovered each other so late in life.
I have not, as yet, mentioned my other brother, Ian. Born in Aberdeen in 1940, he died in Buenos Aires aged 58, in 1999. He was seven years my senior. His one ambition was to be a concert pianist, but was advised to concentrate on becoming a chartered accountant which he did, eventually finding a post as manager of a merchant bank in Sao Paulo. He ferried a clavichord overseas, and frequently gave recitals in Sao Paulo of Jacobean and Elizabethan music. When I was small I could tell Ian's mood by the music he played. In a good mood, he played Bartok and Chopin. In a bad mood it was Beethoven, not played but pounded. I remember little of him other than his music, as we were never particularly close. When my father died, he sent a copy of Dante's Inferno in Portuguese to the family solicitor, who was as mystified as the rest of us. This brother was highly intelligent, with a biting wit, and a succession of Latin mistresses which my mother was always at a loss (on the few occasions he came home) as to how to introduce. 'Meet - Ian's intended,' she would say, not actually specifying what he intended. Before he emigrated to Brazil, he would supplement his income by giving organ recitals in Aberdeen. I remember once being dragged to St Machar's Cathedral to hear him perform by my mother. The recital seemed to last for an interminable time, but my mother was wearing her best hat, like a pigeon about to take flight, and was incandescent with pride throughout it all.
These, then, are the roots I draw poetic sustenance from, the nature, if you will. The 'nurture' aspect covers the educational system as it has coloured my writing, that and life events as they unfold. My first school was Mile End, a west end primary I was sent to as a result of failing my IQ test aged five. The entire test centred on identification of farm animals. The farms I had visited in my short life had REAL animals, DORIC animals. I had absolutely no idea what a 'hawss' was, as I had only ever heard such a creature called a shelt or a cuddy. 'A moron,' the tester at Aberdeen Girls High School attested. 'Not the sort we want here.'
Mother, was furious. When the eleven plus loomed, she crammed me and coached me every day for months. I scored the highest IQ in my class, thereby securing my place at the High School for Girls where I had failed to identify the 'hawss' six years before.
'I winna hae fowk sayin my bairns are feel,' my mother raged. 'They're maybe nae gweed, bit they're nae feel.'
Two of my English teachers at the High School encouraged me to study poetry. Miss Dorothy Gordon was the sister of the Doric poet Donald Gordon, former ambassador to Vienna. In her class we learned the old Scots ballads and the usual set Scots poems for children 'The Puddock' etc. Miss Agnes Carnegie, my other English teacher, was herself a poet, writer of 'The Timeless Flow'. Her favourite poets were Shelley and Keats, though of course Burns was studied too. My class report from her reads as follows: 'Sheena's work though interesting and showing signs of enterprising reading, is spoilt by irrelevance and inaccurate, often absurdly wrong, use of words.'
For reasons which I will not elaborate on, I did not greatly care for either teacher. The history class, however, was always inspired and inspiring. One day we would be taken to the city's Tolbooth to stand in the condemned cell. On another occasion we would be listening to Churchill's speech on record, feeling the shivers run down our spines as he intoned 'we will never surrender.' I had decided to leave school in fifth year. I had sufficient Highers to be admitted as an Art student at Gray's School of Art. I loathed school and wanted quit of it. I was to leave sooner than I had anticipated, however.
It was the beginning of Strachan's tourist season, the warm summer of 1964 and the city was in the grip of a typhoid epidemic. My mother shopped at William Low's, the supermarket which had imported the contaminated corned beef from the Argentine. I was off school with a splitting headache, which rapidly deteriorated into delirium. My mother immediately sent for the family GP, Dr Alistair Forbes. As a young Flight lieutenant he had been captured by the Japanese at the fall of Singapore and held prisoner on the island of Hiroco between Java and New Guinea. He had stayed behind voluntarily to tend the sick and dying at the end of the war, when the death rate for dysentery was ten a day. He had seen typhoid first hand, had mixed his medicines in coconut shells till the fever abated. Now he was re-using those diagnostic skills. He sent me straight away by ambulance to the City Hospital, the town's official fever hospital, where I was locked into the male diabetic ward, quarantined with all other typhoid sufferers for the duration of the summer. As word spread that Strachan's manager's daughter had contracted the disease, tours were cancelled, profits plummeted. Next year, in February 1965, Strachan's ceased trading, and the long idyllic ties with Ballater were severed.
I never returned to the High School for Girls, I embarked on my career as an artist at Gray's, which at that time was situated in Schoolhill, next to the Art Gallery. I started to write poetry. But two years of jaundice and typhoid had taken their toll. I was too tired to attend classes regularly, was still on massive doses of antibiotics. I failed my first year at Grays. With three years left of a grant, I reluctantly went to Aberdeen College of Education to train as a primary teacher.
My Art master there was William Burns RSA (1921-1972) and my English lecturer was the poet Bill McCorkindale, who introduced me to modern Scottish poetry. My tutor was Ian S. Munro, the biographer of Lewis Grassic Gibbon (Robin Munro the poet, is his son). Munro encouraged me to write poetry. William Burns the Art master was a colourist, an abstract artist, whereas I was a detailed draughtsman, heavily influenced by Magritte, Dali and the Surrealists. One day when I had worked all through dinner at my easel, Ian Munro came into the art room to speak to Burns, carrying some of my poems. They stood behind the easel and discussed me as if I wasn't there.
'I wish she'd concentrate on her poetry, and spend less time on Art,' Munro whispered. 'So do I, oh so do I,' Burns groaned.
No-one was more surprised than me when I qualified. For a time I taught in Easterhouse in Glasgow at Bishoploch Primary School, staying in a flat owned by the Glasgow singers Joe Gordon and Sally Logan. Then, I moved to Fraserburgh's Central School experiencing the Brethren at first hand, before returning to teach in the city's Inchgarth Primary. At this time, I married, and for a while settled in Middleton St George, near Darlington, teaching near to the RAF Regiment's married quarters. I was dreadfully homesick for the North East. On my husband's demob we returned to Aberdeenshire, and my uncle gave us his cotter house at Skene. It was within easy commuting distance of the city, and I taught at Beechwood Special school. Until then, we were childless. It was established that the fault was mine, and I was treated by Professor Arnold Klopper who pioneered infertility treatment in the North East. From no children, within five years I had four.
When my uncle rouped out from the farm we flitted to the Lyne of Skene, and from there to the Kirkton of Skene, where I stayed for ten years. Jessie Kesson was raised half a mile from our house, at Proctor's orphanage. The village was close to the Loch of Skene, and over the dyke in the old kirkyard we had an infamous warlock, the Wizard Laird of Skene, as a neighbour. All the while, I was writing, for the BBC, for the Press and Journal, for sheer survival.
My two closest friends were the critic and historian, Cuthbert Graham, and Dr J. D. Gomersall. Due to Jim Gomersall's encouragement, I embarked on my psychology degree with the Open University, passing with Honours in 1995.
In 1987 for reasons which are not uncommon in Scots marriages I suffered a complete nervous breakdown. As my personal life descended into chaos, I became increasingly creative. For a period of about twelve weeks I rarely slept, sat up most of the night writing poetry, drew or painted Surrealist pictures and by day wrote stories. I had vowed that after the typhoid no-one would ever turn a key on me again. Under emergency section I was hospitalised, this time as an in-patient, for ten days assessment in a locked ward. I never returned to Skene. My husband was fighting his own demons.
The following year, I moved to Garthdee, where the painter, Mike Knowles, came to paint my portrait. The poet, Alastair Mackie, sent me a postcard, Der Blaue Reiter by Wassily Kandinsky. 'I trust you'll see its gay colours an earnest for the future,' he wrote.
I had been lucky professionally in having the friendship of Cuthbert Graham, and through him that of Charles King, Advisor for English to the Region. For a time, Keith Murray published my work and for a long period after that I found that very artistic thing, a patron, my third cousin, Dr Gordon Booth, former Head Educational Psychologist for Grampian Region.
From 1984-2004, I published 37 collections of poetry, two Scots novellas and 10 short story collections, mainly in Scots. I exist in the world through the vehicle of words. I have known very few people in my life, despite being acquainted with many. The two poets I've felt closest to were Angus Calder and Alastair Mackie. The longest correspondence I've had, has been with Cuthbert Graham, James Gomersall and Gordon Booth. Dr Gomersall and I had an arrangement. He could use my dreams, drawings, and poems with his students, and in return he would suggest books for me to read or articles to study which would benefit me personally.
'A relationship's like a dance,' he wrote. 'If you're not enjoying it, you are allowed to stop, you know.'
When I read that I felt as if a huge stone had been lifted from me, permission to move on, to walk away, to leave my marriage behind.
I had always had a difficult relationship with my mother. I made her flesh creep, she would wince if I touched her. When she died, I worried that I might seem uncaring.
'You can mourn for what never was,' he wrote.
One of the hardest things for me during my time as Creative Writing Fellow in Scots at Aberdeen University 's Elphinstone Institute was having to socialise with people, a skill I never learned or came to terms with. Social phobia is crippling and misunderstood. Once, during a weekend of ballad workshops at the farm of Cullerlie organised by the Institute, I could feel my anxiety levels about to go through the roof and begged the farmer Tam Reid to let me stay in the pig shed for an hour or so. 'Michty ay,' came the amiable reply, 'bit dinna tell fowk or they'll aa wint tae bide wi my soos!'
When people ask which writers have influenced me, they expect me to say Charles Murray, Flora Garry, J. C. Milne. Not so. Dickens, Saki, Kipling, Bronte, Simenon, Calvino, Moravia, Maugham, Hughes and Heaney. Scottish artists, though, have affected me greatly, and Scots balladry, that fey and other-wordly zone of the weird and the supernatural.
Carl Rogers in his book A Way of Being wrote: 'Writing is my way of communicating with a world to which, in a very real sense, I do not quite belong... writing is the message I seal in the bottle and cast into the sea.' As a twentieth century child brought up speaking nineteenth century Scots, surrounded by ghosts from the past, I know exactly how he feels.