Back In The Day, Not So Long Ago…
Back In The Day, Not So Long Ago…
My husband and I went to visit the relatives the other day. The long-ago ones, that is, at their peaceful, eternal rest in this untended small cemetery surrounded by fields and silence.
Cemeteries have a way of making us stop and think about the passage of time, perhaps fondly recalling loved ones who have gone before, or remembering stories of ancestors we’ve never met but who have come to life in our minds simply from tales oft re-told. Much of my life has been steeped in the past. “What was it like when you were little,” I often asked my Mama, who was always happy to share her memories with me as I listened eagerly, sometimes holding an old photo album open on my lap. Having grown up an ocean away from most of my relatives, many of whom died long before I was born, meant I got to know my folk mostly through my mother’s stories.
Since most of my husband’s people are gone, I only have his recollections to know them by, too. I still like hearing tales from way-back-when, and Sem has loads of them. All we have to do is take a drive to the places where he grew up, not far from here, and the stories start to flow.
In the north of Scotland the past is only a blink away, visible everywhere in the crumbling ruins of centuries-old croft buildings and homes. Things that sound like they should be in the distant past are actually still within living memory, here. I know people in their 40s who remember staying with their grandparents in homes that had neither electricity nor running water. Their memories are fond, though perhaps moreso because they had warm, comfortable homes to return to!
Sem’s maternal grandfather lived in a house without any “mod cons.” Sem lived there too, during his first few years of life, and visited often thereafter. Heat came from the coal fire, and light was provided by Tilley lamps which cast a kinder glow than electric lights but were nearly as good, according to Sem. They contributed some warmth as well. A rain barrel at the corner of the house caught the water for washing (clothes, dishes, people), and water for drinking and cooking was collected once a day in an enamel bucket brought up to the house from the well. Sem was too small to carry the bucket for his grandfather but he knows first-hand what it’s like to take long, deep drinks of the coldest, freshest water imaginable. Meals were cooked on a gas ring which was fueled by bottled gas. There was no refrigerator’s hum, only the crackling of the fire and the hiss of Tilley lamps. It all sounds very Spartan but Sem says it never seemed to be a bother, and conveniences which they’d never had, were never missed. His grandfather died in that house, so peacefully that when he was discovered in his chair by the fire, the ash hadn’t even dropped off the end of the cigarette still held between his fingers.
Sem has always seemed timeless to me in a way, because his life appears to have straddled entirely different eras. There are seventeen years between us, but it’s more than that; generally, we don’t notice the difference in our years. It’s his family stories and personal recollections that make it seem like he is almost from another time. His father was raised by Victorian grandparents who instilled an old-fashionedness in him which in turn became part of Sem’s upbringing. His father’s first jobs were as a farm-hand in the time when horses still did the heavy field work rather than tractors. Things that people do at farm shows now as exhibitions – seeing who can make the straightest furrows with horse and plow, for example – are things that were part of Sem’s father’s daily life. He developed all the skills and tricks of farming, and though Sem left the farm for greener pastures, so to speak, he carries that knowledge to this day, too.
Sem grew up on his parents’ small farm (100 acres, 70 of which were arable land), after they left his grandfather’s house. They did have a tractor, a trusty old “Fergie,” but most of the farming was still hard, back-breaking work, with many tasks done by hand from hoeing weeds to “lifting tatties” (harvesting potatoes). Seed was still sown by hand, every fistful-pulled-from-a-sack spread steadily and evenly in a side-to-side arc while walking with measured steps along the furrows. Nowadays there’s farm machinery for almost every task, but Sem has dug many a fence-post and drainage ditch alongside his father, and he’s no stranger to “stooking” hay. He recalls sitting atop a cart loaded high with hay or sheaves of oats as a child, and remembers well the race against the elements to bring in a harvest at just the right time. He sometimes says, as we pass a lone farmer in a large field sitting in the climate-controlled cab of a giant machine that does everything at the touch of a button, “It sure isn’t like the old days, now, and thank goodness for that!” He remembers far too well the sight of his father out in the fields being pelted by rain and sleet, sitting unsheltered on their tough little tractor with only his Army greatcoat wrapped around him for warmth.
Because money was scarce, they couldn’t afford the latest machinery or improved farm implements, so they worked with what they could get and repaired things often, and with care. In later years Sem and his father were at a local museum – a roughly 200 year old croft house and byre, containing all the things once found within them (http://laidhay.co.uk/ in case anyone is interested). His father looked around the byre, then said with some amusement, “Hell, some of that’s better than what we ever had!”
In order to get anything even remotely new, his father (and many other farmers) had to get a second job to bring in a steady wage. When that happened, Sem’s mother took over much of the farm work, from tending fields to caring for the chickens and the family cow, plus keeping goats and a few horses. They had sheep and cattle, too. In spite of doing all that farm work and animal husbandry, his mother always had meals ready on time, cooked from scratch (no microwave!). This became somewhat easier when they finally got electricity, but in Sem’s early years on their farm, there was no electricity, just indoor plumbing. They had gas lighting (used with bottled gas) and their cooking was done on a gas ring and on the Rayburn which also provided heat, as did fireplaces in some of the rooms. Food was simple: vegetables brought in from their garden and the farm, eggs from the chickens, and milk, butter and crowdie from the cow, plus home baking done weekly. There was always a small barrel of salt-herring in the kitchen and a big ham joint hanging from the ceiling from which chunks were cut as needed. By the way, Sem’s mother never had a washing machine or a dryer – even after they got electricity. In her “spare time” she made jam and mended clothing for two active children, a hard-working husband, and herself.
It all sounds so ‘Little House on the Prairie’ to me, but Sem lived these things, and more. Heck, he had his own ration card for a while in post-war Britain, and remembers what it was like when sweets were scarce even though the war was long over by the time he was a boy. So you see, it sometimes scrambles my brain when I think that this same Sem was also on the front line of the computer age. His skills span from lambing to farming to rebuilding PCs and everything in between, so it often seems like he should be a hundred years old, when he’s nowhere near it. I think it’s why he fits in so well up here now that he’s back in the far north again. Time seems different, here; the past runs very close to the present and that sums up Sem nicely, too.
This article didn’t start out in my mind as “Sem’s Life and Times” but here I am. The point is, his experiences won’t be all that different from some of the other farming folk in northern Scotland. We have friends who still work on the crofts that belonged to their grandparents, and those same old farm implements can still be found going to rust at the edges of fields or stored in sagging byres. Even now, though things are changing, there are still people whose sole source of heat for both the home and for hot water is their fireplace, fueled by lumps of coal and any wood they can get. Some still buy the occasional bag of peats for nostalgia’s sake; if there’s a whiff of peat-smoke in the air, Sem will turn towards the breeze and breathe in deeply, a wistful expression on his face.
The “old days” are not so very old, here in the Highlands. It’s possible that there are other parts of the country, and places in Europe, where this is also true. Not so where I grew up. I may have had to (gasp!) get up and walk over to the TV to change channels, and only got to go to McDonald’s as an after-shopping treat (once a week, if we were well-behaved!), but I’ve never known life without electricity and running water. Am I better off because of it? Who can tell?
Time continues to pass, and living memory only stretches so far. Sometimes I feel we are losing a great deal of our humanity, with as fast as the world moves forward. But that’s what we all start to say once we reach a certain age, isn’t it? In some types of light my hair is more silver than chestnut now, and my bones creak a bit more than they used to. Maybe that’s why I so enjoy the tales of long-ago, even more than before. These days I perhaps wouldn’t mind the softer glow of a Tilley lamp to blur the lines of the passing years showing ever more clearly on my face…
In our memories and in the stories of those who have gone before, we can recapture the wonder of things which once were new even if they are now nearly forgotten. Here in the far north of Scotland, that shimmering past is often almost palpable. The ruins and the old stone walls, the shape of the land changed by previous generations, and the fields both fertile and fallow seem to show what once was, and what now is, all in the same moment. And in villages and towns not much outwardly changed in more than two centuries, the occasional sight of a tweed-clad gent in a flat cap brings the past right back into the present, all in the still space of a heartbeat.