Back in the Day, Not So Long Ago

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.

My maternal grandparents on their wedding day.

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.

Wee Sem!

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's house – note the water barrel at the corner.

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's maternal grandfather.

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.

Sem's father and neighboring farmers, working a rented mobile threshing mill.

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 ( 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.

Sem's mother, dressed for farm work, taking a break.

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...

It's partly a trick of light, but I firmly believe a glittery layer of tinsel improves everything!

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.

Deb Segelitz
Deb Segelitz was born and raised in Pennsylvania, and is astounded to find herself living in the Scottish Highlands. Equally surprising to her is that she now has a small business restoring and selling old fountain pens. These two facts have convinced Deb that life is either beautifully random, or filled with destiny created by someone with a sense of humor. She hopes the fine north state residents will accept her as an honorary member, since she has some cousins in California who she visited once, but even more importantly because the north state folks she actually knows are fabulous people, who are also the reason for her presence here on An enthusiastic amateur photographer, Deb is grateful that she lives in a place that's about as point-and-shoot as it gets. Her tortoiseshell cat, Smartie, rates her as an average minion, too slow with the door-opening but not too bad on the food-dish-refilling, and her husband hasn't had her deported back to the States yet, so things must be going all right there, as well.
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43 Responses

  1. Matthew Grigsby says:

    This post isn’t just beautifully written, it’s beautifully woven. Sem’s life straddles two very different worlds, and I wonder what traces of that old world will still be known in a hundred years.

    This is magic Deb.

    • Deb says:

      Thank you, Matt! I’m glad you enjoyed it. Sem has just informed me that one does not stook hay, one stooks corn – and then he demonstrated how that is done. Oops! (I’ve seen air-guitar before, but never air-stooking.) All errors are those of the author!

  2. cheyenne says:

    When I first retired I moved to a small town in rural Nebraska. I worked at Epworth Village, a home for troubled youth, part time. Most of my co-workers were women who worked “in town” for the health benefits while their husbands worked their small farms. I do miss all the fresh produce that showed up at work, free to all. Thanks for a beautiful article.

    • Deb says:

      Fresh produce is the greatest, especially still warm from the sun 🙂 Glad you enjoyed the article – thank you for telling me!

  3. Karen Calanchini says:

    Wonderful memories, written so beautifully. The photo of the rolled hay (stooked or not) is stunnning, and the fall colors are magical.

    • Deb says:

      Thank you, Karen! I’m glad you enjoyed it. I love those round bales, you hardly ever see the rectangular ones here these days. Often they are wrapped in black plastic rather than left open to the elements like the ones in the photo above. A few years ago they started offering pink plastic – if farmers bought the pink plastic wrapping material, a portion of the proceeds went towards breast cancer research. So now, you often see fields that look like they have giant pink marshmallows in them 🙂 Great idea for fundraising, it brightens my day whenever I see them.

  4. Eleanor says:

    So happy to see you this morning, Deb! At my grandparents’ house on the Ayrshire Coast, in the 50s, we used to love to sleep in the big beds built into the kitchen for warmth, with curtains separating we visiting children from the adults still talking by the fire. And the wash house – still in use with big sinks and washboards – shared with the house next door. (“mod cons.” – I remember that) Another of your beautifully written (‘woven’ is right) descriptions. And evocative, too. Thank you.

    • Deb says:

      Thank you for sharing your memories with me, Eleanor! It sounds like you had lovely times at your grandparents’ house, what nice times to look back on. I’m glad you enjoyed my (Sem’s!) stories. Thank you for telling me.

  5. Beverly Stafford says:

    I needed this! Last evening’s news was filled with stories of the latest iPhone – $1,000! – and all the magic its gadgetry could produce. I don’t want to give up modern conveniences – power outages prove that – and that slower life of the past seems idyllic, but it was so hard and physically demanding that people stayed trim and fit just from getting by. And they probably were tucked in to those cemeteries Deb visited at fairly early ages due to that sunup-to-sundown labor.

    As always, Deb, your stories and photos are so welcome. I hope Sem is doing well.

    • Deb says:

      For me to buy an iPhone for $1,000 it would have to be covered in diamonds or something. And even then I’d rather just have the diamonds. Or the $1,000! You’re right, I wouldn’t want to give up modern conveniences either. Those earlier times were definitely tough, and I think people aged much faster then, as a result of such hard work. My husband’s parents reached a fair old age, it has to be said, but their bodies were worn out after such hard lives. Still, farming was in their blood so to speak, and they enjoyed their lives in spite of the toil.

      I’m glad you enjoyed the story and photos – thank you for telling me!

    • Steve Towers Steve Towers says:

      Sem’s mom certainly looks like she’s fit enough to talk to me by hand (as my grandpa used to put it)—all of that hard work was probably healthful. That photo, though, reveals something that took the heath of many of my relatives of that era: If you look carefully at the hand resting on her knee, she appears to be taking a cigarette break.

      Smoking, combined with the coal and peat fires in old Brit cottages, took its toll on many a lung. (I followed Deb’s link to the farmhouse museum. There’s a picture of a chair, typical of the area, built low to the ground so as to sit beneath the layer of smoke that rose to the upper air strata of the house.)

      • Deb says:

        She smoked until the end of her many years. It was pneumonia that took her in the end, but that is often the way, and she lived to a fairly high old age. Sem started smoking at a very young age, as was the way of the country kids (and maybe even the ‘townies’, I don’t know) – unfortunately for him it made his childhood asthma that much worse, and he suffers from various forms of lung disease to this day. He did finally quit smoking some years back, but the damage was done. From what I understand, Scotland has a high incidence of lung diseases of all kinds. The good news is that it does seem like less and less people are taking up smoking these days, and ‘kids’ who started in their teens often give it up in their 20s. There’s hope for the lungs of Scotland, yet!

  6. Steve Towers Steve Towers says:

    Wonderfully told.

    My high school biology teacher in the late 70s grew up in rural Utah. He told me that he had been born and raised in a place where, as a child, horse-drawn trailers were still the norm on farms and as local transportation. As an adult, he’d seen men on the moon and the advent of the computer age. He was confident that he’d lived in an era that would prove to be the largest saltatory leap in “progress” of any in human history. He wondered if he’d live long enough to see clear evidence of what he saw as inevitable decline. I can only guess what he’d think of the current state of the world.

    • Deb says:

      Like you, I can only guess what your teacher would have thought of the world today, but it sounds like he had a lovely place to grow up in, and got to see some of the biggest improvements in technology, too. Thank you for sharing his story with me.

  7. Hal Johnson Hal Johnson says:

    I really enjoyed this, Deb. Thank you.

  8. Charlotte says:

    I love collecting stories from different people, different times. You make your stories come to life for me. A million thanks, and more.

  9. Joanne Gifford says:

    Enjoyed this wonderful story !!!!

  10. kay ekwall says:

    oh thank you so much, you did weave a picture in my mind so clearly and so dearly. I needed that today and of course it brought up memories of my own of people and times gone by. My great aunt and great uncle were favorite ones that we visited, they were quite old when I was young. They owned a huge mass of land north side of Mt. Shasta, in Weed, Ca….and by the time I remember, their old ‘big’ house had burned down and they lived in a small cottage that I think had been the quarters for hands on the ranch. They raised their huge garden and had cattle, big chest freezers, canned food for the winter months and it was such a treat for me to be there. They had my grandmother’s furniture which I guess she had to abandon after grandfather died. How I wish now I had the curiosity to ply them with stories about our family that I never knew, too late now, our stories are gone with all of them. By the time I had some teen sense and real memories, we did have TV, though primitive, and phones and of course always electricity and plumbing. I can remember the old wringer washer mom used, and the oil furnace in the living room. Mom sewed all our clothes as her mother had too, and being quite creative, our clothes were always unique which later on I realized. My future husbands family had a small farming plot and no indoor working bathroom, that was very strange to have to go to the outhouse in that time, 1965. Anyway, not to go on, your story made me start musing myself as I seem to do at this age more and more.

    I have Scottish ancestry in my blood, as well as Irish, Welsh and English found through my genealogy studies. Your story makes me want once more to visit those lands and walk where my ancestors walked as they are all a part of me.
    My Memory Album

    Perched upon the edges of time,
    billowing clouds of nostalgia
    overcome me.
    Poignant memories of peaceful days,
    of innocence, of blindness…perhaps,
    slide stealthily into my mind.
    Memories of children laughing, playing,
    bright Christmas mornings,
    eggnog and pumpkin bread.
    Tables laden with extravagent
    and delectable morsels
    tantalizing my taste buds
    …..even now.
    Faces so dear and long since gone
    come out of the mist to me
    and say……
    Precious, tender moments spent,
    in loving you…..loving me.
    Lovingly, I close my album of memories,
    sadly perhaps, but glad to have had them,
    open to creations of a new future
    not yet dreamed of……..and I smile.

  11. sue k says:

    Your writing feeds all the senses. It is yummy, yummy, yummy!!!!
    If you write a book, let me be the first to know when it available!
    Absolutely delightful!
    Thank you

    • Deb says:

      Ah, Sue, what a lovely comment, I thank you! If I ever get it together enough to write a book, I’m sure my ANC family will be among the first to know 🙂

  12. Mary Hoehn says:

    Thank you Deb, You spin such wonderful stories.

  13. name says:

    Great story – another time when people’s lives consisted of mainly working every day on various items in order to just live. Not a lot of free time for leisure. Thank you for sharing this!

    I was in rural Romania around 6 years ago, and while they have a lot of tractors and such, I still was able to get some great photos of the women cutting hay with a scythe and piling it high on a horse-drawn wagon. This was not part of a harvest show or anything like that, just everyday life – a lot of work still done by hand the hard way.

    • Deb says:

      I’ve seen photos of modern-day Romanians still farming just as you described. I suppose it’s down to what people can afford, or not! I’m glad you enjoyed my article, thank you for sharing your experience, too.

  14. Grammy says:

    Have a letter that my great great great uncle wrote my grand-father when he was a young man about how the town ship of Gainesville was formed when my relatives were pioneers. In great detail he wrote about the boards being made. Great huge forest cut and burned so that homes could be built as quickly as possible on the raw land. The pegs being whittled in the winter months to hold the logs in place.
    Nine year old grand-daughter is the only one who cares to hear the stories and had me write a paper for her class. Eleven pages later (I truly tried to shorten it)…she read it to the class. Every year since then the teacher has had her read the letter that was written and the paper I wrote.
    No one writes letters any more. When was the last time you wrote your kids?

    • Deb says:

      What a family treasure that letter must be! Those everyday details are so easily lost, and I think it’s wonderful when letters resurface and are preserved. It’s so lovely that your grand-daughter is interested, and I love that your paper continues to be read, along with the letter, in her school. That’s wonderful!

      I do not have children, so there are no letters for me to write.

  15. Ginny says:

    How wonderful you told Sem’s history. Sometimes, even though I use the net and things of today, life was so much nicer in many ways in the 1930s, even if a woman married into the family said, “Oh, you were poor!” I said not true, I had so much……

    Blessings to you and Sem.

  16. Ace Lightning says:

    Even here in the US, I was aware of a lot of things that had been part of my New England grandparents’ generation – outhouses, wood- or coal-burning stoves (for both cooking and heating), going to a farm (not a store) to buy milk or eggs or produce. Like Sem, I have skills that range from how to cook on a wood stove to how to fix a computer. I enjoy knowing about things from the past, through the present, into the future. And your stories (and Sem’s) show me a different past – which is how my great-grandfather’s world must have been before his parents came to America.

    • Deb says:

      I was somewhat of a country kid, so we did the dairy farms and farm stands sometimes too – parents who were definitely frugal made the most of an open fire and later a woodburning stove. Fortunately we had all the conveniences too!

  17. Shannon Grigsby Spencer says:

    I love your pieces and read them whenever my brother lets us all know you have another post. I especially loved this one as I felt right in the past as you spoke of Sem and his family. I long to know a bit of that in my modern life. Thanks, as always, for sharing such beautifully woven pieces from your life. I love reading each snippet. 🙂

    • Deb says:

      Thank you, Shannon! I’m really glad you enjoy my pieces, thank you for telling me 🙂 While it’s nice to be tucked up snugly on cold Highland nights in a well-heated apartment, imagining curling up by a fire while the wind howls outside is nice, too.

  18. Anne Gibbons, a Glesca Lass says:

    Again, thanks for this lyrical piece. Your use of all the senses to illustrate your story is incredibly evocative. I had the memory of being warmed by the fire when I was a child, even tho’ there was the “moon effect”, as we called it: warm and cozy facing the fire and (almost literally) freezing your butt off on the other side!
    Looking forward to reading more.

  19. Ron C. says:

    I love old stories like this. thanks for sharing Deb!

  20. vix says:

    Ah, you truly do have a gift with words, Deb, and a mastery of weaving a tale. I loved reading this. What a wonderful visual of life before so many modern conveniences. I recently came across my grandfather’s diary in which he documents his travels (I think his family was one of the first in their area with a car), and this reminds me that I need to scan in those pages and document the diary for the benefit of my family so they can learn more about what his life was like back then. He details the various neighbors he gave rides to, and it’s small wonder that he owned a car dealership later in life and was a taxi driver in his small town near the end of his life. He was decidedly set against farming, though my grandmother grew up on a nearby farm and I found some of her photos of that life recently. Thanks for sharing Sem’s stories; they truly are a treasure.

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