This is a story told by my mother, Nell Wilson, of Davy Reid, the Lasswade village carpenter and cabinet maker. This is not just a memory of a well loved family friend, but also of life, and death, in Lasswade, a village near Edinburgh in the first half of the 20th century.
Davy Reid was my Grandfather’s friend; they were very close, helping each other in many ways in the way of business. Davy was a tall man, spare of figure with a moustache that drooped, making him look a little sad until his face lit up with laughter and those deep blue eyes of his shone. His eyes always looked as if they were scanning far horizons. Indeed they might have done so for as a young man he had gone to Canada to find his fortune, He did just that; building up a prosperous joinery business and I understand from my Grandparents, he had planned to marry out there and settle down. He returned to Scotland to tell his parents of his plans with the firm intention of persuading them to return to Canada with him. They refused. The wringing of hands began; who was going to look after them in their old age? What about his sister Lisbeth who was in ‘delicate health’ and unmarried? Davy had made his one big mistake. In the end he was prevailed upon to give up his business in Canada and all his plans for a fine future there. He gave in, electing to stay in Scotland with his parents and sister.
By the time I was born in the house at Polton Road in the spring of 1915 Davy’s old parents had long since died and he was left to look after his sister Lisbeth who seemed to be a chronic invalid, I can’t ever remember seeing Lisbeth Reid; she was something of a recluse shutting herself away in their house (now gone) opposite Spring Bank. Davy continued to come about our house and shop opposite Strathesk Church at the foot of the Wee Bras and his friendship with my Grandfather Alick Lothian the Painter and Decorator became his one solace in life. They both enjoyed many happy hours of conviviality together until the dreadful night when my Grandfather died. He had been helping Davy with a ‘chesting’ and the effort of lifting a very heavy lady into her coffin was too much for him. He had collapsed across the coffin, dying of a heart attack and brain haemorrhage. When he brought my Grandfather’s body home Davy was distraught. We were all distraught and weeping. Davy stood with tears streaming down his cheeks. It was the first time I had seen a grown man weep. I joined him in his misery for I too had lost my best friend. I was just four years old.
Davy was fond of children and my cousins and I often toddled down to his workshop which was situated where the electricity sub-station now stands at the Junction of Polton Road and Elm Row. With our teddy bears and dolls, we sat amongst the wood shavings bedecking our dolls’ heads with the pinewood curls. Even now I have only to smell the scent of pinewood and I remember Davy. He always had time to put off with the bairns. In fact he would have made a fine family man, and that was the pity of it all.
In the 1920s when we had not the life saving modern drugs Death was a frequent visitor to the village. Older people passed away in the nature of things, but tuberculosis (TB) was the main scourge while diphtheria, whooping cough, measles, scarlet fever and pneumonia could be fatal to a child or a very young person. Consequently a large part of his business was in the making of coffins, most of them for people he knew well. No trouble was spared in the fashioning of each coffin; every detail and embellishment was exact and beautiful. Sometimes when he had completed his work on a coffin he would lift us up to let us see his finished creation. We looked down in wonder on the lovely white sateen-padded interior; the soft lace edged pillow and the lace edging all round the top of the coffin.
It was the last service he could render to those who had passed away, people he had known. He carried out his work with pride, and, I daresay with an unspoken prayer for the departed, He was a staunch Kirk man — a good and faithful servant to his God. The final decoration was the coffin plates. These were expertly lettered by hand by my Uncle Al or Uncle Bill on the scrubbed table in our kitchen. The wet painted lettering was sealed by a sprinkling of gold dust. Then my cousin Jane and I carried the coffin plate down to Davy’s workshop, instructed to hold it well away from our frocks and not to smudge the paint. Very elegant, we thought, were the brass coffin plates which were used for the solid oak coffins. In a funny sort of way we children got used to coffins and coffin plates from a very early age. We were not upset by any of it, looking on it as part of village life!
Then there were the funerals, carried out with meticulous formality; the big black hearse drawn by two fine black horses, and Davy seated beside the driver smartly turned out in his black top hat, frock coat and a black stock with a pearl tie pin Davy was a bit of a Don Quixote, occasionally ‘tilting at windmills’ One of his windmills was the Parish Kirk Minister who wanted Davy to arrange for the funerals to go up the steep School Brae instead of up the drive past the Gospel Wynd and the gate of the manse. The Lady of the Manse also was very insistent in regard to this arrangement. Davy objected to this in no uncertain terms and spoke his mind; he wouldn’t have his horses drag a heavy hearse up the steep School Brae when the drive which passed the Manse was so much easier, His angry riposte to the Minister was reported by one onlooker: “if ye try tae stop the funerals gaun up by the Manse, Ah’ll clure ye wi ma forehammer”. For a long time, as a mark of defiance Davy sat up beside the driver of the hearse with his forehammer laid across his knees. The matter was not referred to again.
Davy never got over the death of my Grandfather. He came regularly to our house, just wandering in through the shop into the kitchen in the middle of the working day, Then he would settle down to a wee crack with my Granny about the on-goings in the village. His sister was always something of a trial to him. Occasionally he would appear in our kitchen to announce: “Lisbeth has got the glooms!” After a chat and a gossip he would wander over to The Foresters’ Arms to drown his sorrows. Later he could be seen wending his erratic and unsteady way homewards up the Polton Road. Granny would take my cousins, Jane and Alick and me to the front door to witness at first hand “What strong drink does to a man”. Small wonder that a few years later we joined the Band of Hope meeting in the Wee Brae Hall and signed the pledge!
Two of his visits to our house I remember vividly. Once after a visit to the Foresters’ Arms, he arrived in our kitchen very unsteady on his feet and announced to the world at large: “I fear no foe in shining armour!” and before our astonished gaze lurched backwards from the kitchen into the scullery, ending up by sitting down in a tub of bed-linen soaking in cold water ready for the Monday wash, That sobered him up! Then we had to dry him out before he could go home to Lisbeth. On another memorable occasion he arrived in our kitchen declaiming: “I have no fear of any mortal man” and sat down on top of our American range which had been stoked up to heat the flat irons for the ironing. Again Granny came to the rescue, stitching a patch on the seat of his trousers with her sewing machine before he could go home in a decent condition,
And another tale of Davy told to me by my family. Once, when my Grandfather was still alive, Davy had gone to the Musselburgh Races with rather a large sum of money from a customer in his pocket and his love of horses got the better of him. He became gloriously tipsy and bought a race-horse! Getting him out of that fix took a good deal of effort on the part of my Grandfather and Davy’s lawyer. Later, when he had sobered up be was quite abashed at what he had done. I have a feeling that during his days in Canada he must have learned to ride and the sight of all these beautiful animals at the racecourse had been just too much.
By the time I had reached my late teenage years Lasswade was changing. One by one the families were moved out from their little houses and cottages and re-housed in the new Swedish timber houses or in the new Council houses at Dobbies Road. Davy had retired, giving up his business to look after Lisbeth; where his workshop had been The Lothian’s Electric Power Company had built the sub—station which is still there today. All Davy’s old friends were gone; even my Grandmother had been laid low with a slight stroke. Eventually too Lisbeth died and Davy became something of a recluse, From time to time he would be seen wandering down Polton Road to do his bit of shopping at Andrew Scott’s grocery shop; always on the way back to his house with his bag of groceries there was the tell-tale bottle stuck in his coat pocket. Poor Davy, living a solitary existence, shut away from the world with only his bottle and his memories for company.
Then one bitterly cold winter’s night our front door bell rang. There on the doorstep stood Davy, flanked on either side by Dr Young and Mr Jimmy Stone JP with Mr Curle from the Parochial Board Office bringing up the rear. Davy took a few faltering steps into the kitchen and announced that he had come to seek advice from his friend Alick (my Grandfather).
He stood there with a Canadian fur-trappers hat on his head, the frosty rime which had been clinging to his beard melting and dripping down the front of his coat. Still the gentleman he removed his hat, his gaze searching for his friend Alick. Suddenly the lost look left the faded blue eyes; sitting in Grandpa’s chair was my Uncle Harry who had inherited his father’s build and looks. Here, thought Davy happily was his old friend Alick whose advice he sought. “They’ve come to take me to Rosslynlee, Alick, to be looked after. What do you think? Should I go with them?” My Uncle Harry played his part, took Davy’s hands in his and said it was the best thing Davy could do. He had lived on his own long enough. And that was the last I saw of him; helped by his friends Jimmy Stone and Mr Curle he got into Dr Young’s car. When it had disappeared up Polton Road I must confess there was a big lump in my throat.
He was well looked after at Rosslynlee during the remaining weeks of his life and died peacefully in his sleep. I feel certain that that other beloved Carpenter, the Man from Nazareth, would be there to welcome Davy with open arms when he arrived on the Heavenly Shore.
When the contents of Davy’s house were sold off I attended the sale and for half-a-crown (12p) I bought a reasonably sound washing basket containing picture frames and glass and also one oil painting of a Knight in Shining Armour. I am firmly convinced that my Grandfather painted that picture and that Davy sat as the model for it, When I married and had a young family of my own the picture occupied a special place in our living room. The boys christened our two-and-sixpenny knight ‘Uncle Fernando’ and so he has remained down through the years. He is still with us gazing down on everyone benign and happy, his eyes always looking at you no matter where in the room you may be. A fitting reminder of my dear friend, Davy Reid the Lasswade carpenter.
Nell Wilson (Walter) 1991