Sunday, in the 1950s, was a day of rest. Our house stood at the top end of the High Street in Bonnyrigg, a town near Edinburgh and on Sunday the smell of Jute from the carpet factory, ever present during the week, would fade and the sound of passing traffic would be virtually absent. Peace would descend.
We would be scrubbed, hair brushed and dressed in our ‘Sunday Best’ and walk down the Wee Brae to the Parish Church in the village of Lasswade, sat in the valley below the town. In those days the church was the hub of our lives and the community. After the War, my mum and dad had been married there. Dad was a church elder and the treasurer, mum involved in the Brownies, a Tawny Owl or Brown Owl or some such thing. Willie, my older brother and me were Cubs and Scouts. Dances and concerts, held in the hall by the river, were frequent events; people trying to waltz gracefully over the knotty floor boards, liberally covered with chalk powder or pounding them with exuberantly performed Highland Reels.
We children were present for the first half hour of the Sunday service, sing a psalm or a hymn and pray. My family sat on a pew to the right hand side of the church, bathed, sometimes, in the sun projected colours of the tall stain glass windows. In the pew in front sat Harry Fisher, a profoundly deaf parishioner. As the congregation ended a hymn and sat back down in their unwelcoming hard pews Harry would still be sonorously singing the last line. His fellow parishioners and the the minister would patiently wait while his loud voice echoed and vibrated around the church interior as he took his seat. The Minister would wait with Christian patience, my mother with less patience, would stare up at the ceiling and we children would, sometimes without success, stifle a snigger. After the Minister delivered a brief, child orientated homily, often missing the mark, we were led from the church and taken up to the church hall to Sunday School. There, we would learn the books of the Bible and how to be good. We would listen, contemplate on how we had failed to be good during the previous week, and think how we would much rather be somewhere else. After Sunday School we would be led back down the brae to the church entrance where we would rejoin the adults, be a nuisance as we scampered amongst their legs, feral after being cooped up.
After church, once we were brought under control and If the weather was reasonable, we would set out on a walk that circumnavigated Lasswade and terminated at our home at Hillhead in Bonnyrigg. From the church we would cross Polton Road and descend the steps set between my Grandfather’s long disused decorator’s business workshop and the Post Office. We then crossed the road leading down to the Paper Mill and walked over the bridge that spanned the River Esk, heavily polluted, the water murky and the stones covered in a white crust, stinking of industrial chemicals. Leaving the bridge we would follow the road that passed Bank House, the birthplace of my grandmother, jumping between the upright stones that delineated the road from the green, then climbed up the School Brae to where the Primary School stood overlooking the village, the school where at least three generations of my family had been educated. Opposite the school, on the other side of the Brae, we followed a steep path that rose by the side of the graveyard, where the dead of my family were buried and later, as a cub, I would be part of a guard of honour at the funeral of my classmate Michael Bannerman.
The path eventually levelled off and there was a stretch of the path, buttressed by a brick wall built to prevent the path collapsing, sliding down the slope into the Clark’s smallholding below. From here we had a panoramic view of the village, of the paper mill and the tall chimney on the left, then on the right the rarely used railway viaduct. My dad would point out particular buildings, the curling pond, things of interest, explain why things were there, how they were built. Then, to the consternation of my mother, I would walk, a tightrope walker, arms stretched out, along the flat top of the buttress wall, low on the path side but with a sheer drop on the other. Dad would walk alongside, close, to catch me if I started to fall, “Och, don’t fuss, Nell, he’ll not fall.” My mother was unconvinced.
We would meander along the Brae Head paths, passing large houses standing serenely in bushy gardens bordered by high stone walls. We walked shaded by tall leafy trees and surrounded by the scent of the garlic plants. My Auntie Jen had once told me that these plants had been brought by the Romans who had build a fort, not far away, near Dalkeith.
At one intersection there was a tree occupied by a bee colony. It had been there forever, according to my mother; we believed her, she had spent her childhood in Lasswade. Sometimes, we would follow a route that would pass Sir Walter Scott’s house, a partially thatched property, and the cottage reputed to have been used by Burke and Hare, the grave robbers. Or we would follow the path that dropped slowly down into the valley, and if we walked far enough, we would arrive at the ghostly ruins of a mill destroyed by a fire, now overwhelmed by the vegetation. At this point we would start back home along the railway line, my brother Willie and I competing to see how far we could walk along the rusty steel rails before losing our balance or jumping from sleeper to sleeper.
Eventually, we crossed the viaduct that carried the railway over the river. In winter we would sometimes watch curling on the mill pond far below. And one hot summer day, we were spectators as a circle of men, gambling, then illegal, suddenly disperses in a panic as a policeman was spotted striding purposely down the grassy fields towards them.
We would leave the railway at the entrance to the tunnel. We would not tell my mother that we often used the long dark tunnel as a short cut from the town to the village. This was not without risk: infrequently a train would travel along the line and through the tunnel, could surprise you half way through. Nor did we tell her that, a previous hot summer, we had accidentally burned down Broomieknowe Station which stood at the far end of the tunnel. From this point we climbed up the mill road to Polton Road where a steep vennel took us to Broomieknowe, a leafy street, lined with the residences of the professional class of the town. Business owners and barristers and solicitors , some who would commute to nearby Edinburgh.
We would arrive home, eager to shed our ‘Sunday Best’ clothes. Then, as Sunday dinner was prepared I would be sent round to the small shop, a shed that stood in Eldindean Road, to buy a block of ice cream and a tin of Creamola Foam, a powder when mixed with water made a wonderful, refreshing drink. The lady shop owner knew me, my brother aged ten was a regular customer, a buyer of single cigarettes: Woodbine, Capstan and Gold Flake. The Neapolitan ice cream, in a cardboard box was carefully wrapped in layers of newspaper to insulate it and stop it melting in the summer heat as I ran home.
We would eat our dinner, in the corner of the kitchen, listening to ‘Round the Horn’ on the wireless, sat on church pews from the old church, recently demolished, that had stood behind the school. With dinner finished the dishes had to be washed using the new detergent, Squeezy, then we would play, weather permitting, in the garden: toy soldiers, dinky cars and military vehicles, bought from Lawries Hardware shop, and the more realistic corgi cars with the new, Perspex windows.
I am not particularly religious, but I can’t help feeling sad that the observation of Sunday as a day of rest has ended. There something good for the soul about having a day of rest, a day with family or friends, or a day just to contemplate. The decline of the church, as an institution, is sad too, it provided a focal point for communities, brought people together for the common good.