House of ghosts

In 1955 I moved with my family from Corstorphine to Bonnyrigg. Moved from a pleasant suburb of Edinburgh to a small industrial town, that had a constant aroma of jute from the carpet factory just down the High Street. My new school was in the village of Lasswade that nestled in a valley below Bonnyrigg, that had a constant chemical stench, a byproduct of the paper mill, that pumped technicolor effluence into the River Esk. But, for me it was the start of a magical childhood; I had come back to my spiritual home.

The Lothian family circa 1900

My mother’s family had lived in Lasswade for generations. I went to the same school that my mother and my grandmother had attended, and where, before the First World War my maternal great-grandfather had run a successful, upmarket, painting and decorating business from the family home. Long before the 1950s, the business had folded, a victim of the economic turmoil and social upheaval, that followed in wake of the First World War. But the family house, 10 Polton Road, remained, like a ship, washed up on a reef, the surviving bemused crew stranded on board.

The house, unchanged in almost thirty years, faced Lasswade Parish Church at bottom of the Wee Brae. As it was on my way home from school, before the steep climb up the Wee Brae, I would often call in, to scrounge pocket money or simply to hang out with the remnants of my mother’s family; my granny, her sister Jen and brother Harry. Uncle Harry was the Office Manager and Company Secretary at St Leonard’s Paper Mill, granny had her widow’s pension and Aunty Jen didn’t seem to work.

A mausoleum of sorts, the front elevation of the house had a large window, which in the heyday of my great-grandfather’s business, would have had arrangements of wallpaper and fabrics displayed to entice passing potential customers, but now was an empty void. To the right hand side of this window there was the door into the shop. A matching door on the left led into the house. I would walk through this door, a portal into a lost world, cross the small square hallway and jump down the two steps to the dining room. If granny or aunty Jen weren’t there I would walk through to the kitchen, a long stone paved room, with, bizarrely, a bath down one wall, and, still used ancient ringers and wash tubs. Then continuing my search, would open the door in the far left hand corner and look in the garden at the side of the house where a path led to the outside lavatory. If, when I eventually located the two sisters, and they were busy, hanging washing out or gardening, I would explore the rest of the house.


Alexander Lothian & Ellen Lothian sketched by her son Al

Two doors from the dining room led into the disused decorator’s shop and show room. One opened into the public area, the other into the space behind the counter. I wander around the shop, look into drawers, try on uncle Harry’s Air Raid Warden helmet, play with the rifles (Harry had thrown the firing mechanism into the river), look at the Special Constable’s uniform that I would, later, wear at a fancy dress football match in the park. While I explore, the ghost of my great-grandfather, Alex, is standing behind the highly polished mahogany counter. He is watching the apparition of his wife, Ellen. She has entered the showroom, with tea and biscuits, to discuss wallpaper selection with a customer from one of the large houses, in the Braeheads or Broomieknowe. Marvelling at her cultured Kent accent, he is recalling how he had met her, then a Nanny, when visiting a house in Bexley, the assistant to a Senior Designer who was advising the owner on the decoration of some of the rooms.


Laura Walter (nee Lothian) and Clem Walter

After exploring the shop I wander through to the entrance hall and climb the stairs to the first floor, walk past uncle Harry’s bedroom and open the door to the drawing room.

Like the shop it had remained untouched since the end of the First World War. Unseen by me there are more ghosts. My granny, who’s soul had died with her husband at Arras, is sat with my grandfather Clem on the settee in front of the elegant fire place. They are betrothed and her brother Al is sitting on a chair opposite, acting, unnecessarily as a chaperone. Al and Clem are best friends, Al the artist and Clem the writer. They are talking excitedly about Clem’s plan to join his brother Richard in Los Angeles to establish a publishing house. As the ghosts of my family talk, I walk, in the sunlight, around the richly decorated room, examine the ornaments, the bright brass Russian samovars, oriental ceramics and look at the watercolour and oil paintings set in tasteful gold frames. My great-grandfather had assembled a treasure trove of art and artefacts.

Then, in this life, granny calls me, and I leave my ancestors and head downstairs. In the dining room I sit, drink a glass of milk and devour an unhealthy plate of Scottish cakes. Aunty Jen might tell me stories, fictional or historical tales of the village, or I might quietly read the cartoons from the Sunday Post: The Broons, Oor Wullie and Nero and Zero.


Harry and Jen Lothian holding my brother, Willie

Aunty Jen was the life and soul of the trio. In my sixteenth year she died and my brother and I were handed cards with the shape of a coffin edged with numbers. We had been allocated ropes. She was buried in the graveyard that lay across the road from the Primary School. To the harsh grating call of the carrion crows in the woods, we strained on the ropes. As the coffin disappeared Willie’s feet scrabbled for purchase in the loose soil as he nearly joined Jen. She had been a muckle woman in body and in personality.

Then there were two. My eternally mournful granny and my disaffected uncle. They were both war casualties, my granny robbed of her beloved husband Clem, and Harry, like many surviving soldiers, war damaged. One day, when I was about ten years old, Harry found me in the old shop where, to my joy, I had discovered bound volumes of a magazine, with superb illustrations, published throughout the First World War. He sat down next to me and started to talk about his war experiences. I was taken aback at this, as he hardly ever said a word to me. A machine gunner in the trenches, he described how he had to ensure the trajectory of the bullets hit the chests of the advancing Germans. How too low was no good, as hitting their legs didn’t kill them. He was like a farmer instructing an apprentice in the art of scything corn. A killing machine at eighteen, it was no wonder that uncle Harry was slightly unhinged.

With the death of aunty Jen, granny and Harry decided to sell the house and move into a residential caravan on the new Kevockvale Caravan Park. The contents of the house, my grand-grandfather’s treasure, was sold to a sharp antiques dealer from the city. Anything that the dealer didn’t buy or that wouldn’t fit into the residential caravan, Harry burned in the back garden.

In my final walk through this empty house, through this time capsule, I wondered at the kitchen with the bath against the wall, at the rooms empty of the furniture of life, the sad squares and rectangles on the drawing room walls, evidence of missing pictures. Then, for the first time I go into the workshop that stands to the side of the main house. The door stiffly creaks open and sunlight floods in to illuminate worktops covered with paint pots, brushes and other tools of the decorating trade, as if the workmen had just finished for the day; a landlocked Marie Celeste.


Polton Road and the decorators 1911

With the sale and modernising of the house it became, along with the school, the paper mill, the post office, a faded memory of the village as it metamorphosed from a vibrant close knit working community into a commuter hub of Edinburgh.

Games we played


A dull thump, a thwack on my back. A direct hit by a snowball. Dodging more incoming missiles we retaliate. The kids from Nazareth House on one side of the road and us on the other are like passing ships exchanging broadsides. Snow balls arc across passing cars, then the firing peters out as we move out of range of each other; the orphanage kids heading towards the Catholic Primary school in the town while we disappear down the steep Wee Brae, treacherous after a snow fall, and descend to the village in the Esk Valley. Our periodic spats had nothing to do with religious intolerance, we were just two different groups of school children in different uniforms. It was only later in my life, much later that I heard stories, rumours of the abuse of the children by the nuns, women who had given their lives to Christ, sacrificing a life of motherhood to care for the children of others. No surprise, I suppose, that it all went wrong.

It was the late 1950s, a time of innocence and simplicity. The games we played at school and at home, required few props and an abundance of imagination. My early school life was spent at the Primary School that stood overlooking the small village of Lasswade, just south of Edinburgh.

imageThe school stood at the top of the School Brae. A grey austere building with tall windows, it overlooked the village and floated high above the chemical stench of the river, caused by of the colourful fluid that spewed out of Leonard’s Paper Mill. It must have been there a long time; my mother and her mother before her had been pupils. At the top of the Brae I would turn right into the upper playground, a flat tarmac area that ran along the side and across the front of the building. Steps at each end of the front portion of the playground led down to two shelters, or sheds as we called them, which were open to the front. Sandwiched between the sheds were the primitive toilets. The slopes to the sides of the stepped pathways leading to the sheds were covered in threadbare grass.

In the winter months, snow, when it fell, was the main ingredient of fun. Snow ball fights on the way to school, at play time and on the way home. On the School Brae slides formed like glaciers and, to the cheers and laughter of children, even the occasional teacher was known to sample a slide, precariously balanced with arms outstretched, a briefcase in one hand. Playing ended when the bell clanged and we would form lines, under clouds of foggy breath, at the entrance doors. As we sat down to our lessons the radiators under the windows were covered with steaming coats, and mother- knitted scarves, gloves and hats. Beneath this embankment of clothes, shoes and boots were propped against the wall in puddles of melting snow. The teacher would struggle to hold our attention as snowflakes would gently cascade past the high windows. All we were interested in was the next playtime.

At the weekend sledges would be retrieved from sheds and cupboards and dragged to the hill in the local park or the Broomieknowe golf course where the pins flags could be used to form slalom courses. One winter, to the annoyance of my mother the Kirkwood boys from across the road, rolled a massive snowball into our vestibule.


imageIts’s Spring. My mother has caught me leaving the house to go to school with my hair uncombed and my clothing in disarray. In the vestibule, I stand still as a statue, while my mother combs my hair, straightens my blazer, pulls my socks up and wipes any residue of snot from under my nose. She then stands back for a moment appraising me with narrowed eyes, a sculptor admiring a work of art. Once out on the street and before I crossed the end of Golf Course Road I have mussed my hair, unbuttoned my blazer and pushed my socks down to my ankles, to look like William, the child antihero of the Just William novels by Richmal Crompton. Novels, which I avidly read and which influenced generations of horrid children. After I disarranging my clothing and hair to my satisfaction, I wave to Mr Scott, standing outside his grocers shop, peering at me through his round wire spectacles, slightly baffled. Then a car approaches and I run and use Miss Meldrum’s garden gate to lever myself off the ground as it passes. This is a version of High Tig, one that you can play on your own, without a friend. The game has one simple rule: every time a vehicle passes you have to be off the pavement. A wall or a step would do, or Miss Meldrum’s gate. She raps on her window in irritation. She is actually a nice lady. She once invited mum, dad and my brother and me for a meal. The main course was hamburgers. We were agog when she told us that she had lived in America and had been a personal assistant to some business mogul in New York. A dark horse, Miss Meldrum. At the time we had never heard of hamburgers, fast food was still some time into the future.

On fine days, usually in the upper tarmac playground, we would play tig in small groups and, sometimes, the enmity between the girls and boys would be suspended and a game of Chain Tig would develop. Chain Tig was a communal game where one child was nominated as ‘het’ ( or ‘it’) and would manically run around trying to catch someone. When they caught a fellow pupil both would hold hands and try and catch someone else. Eventually there would be an extended ‘chain’ of children trying to corner the the remaining boy or girl. A game would be popular for a time then, for no apparent reason would fall out of favour and be replaced by another. A ball might be brought to school by a pupil and, with rules agreed, dodgeball would be trending. If teams were necessary for a game, two children, on the grounds of peer popularity or basic natural selection, were chosen as leaders. One leader would step, heel to toe towards the other. The one whose foot overlapped the other had first pick. The last to be picked, the least wanted kid, may have felt a bit humiliated, but would soon forget as the game, whatever it was, started.

In wet weather everyone crowded into the sheds at the bottom of the grassy slopes. In the boys shed, British Bulldog or Corner Tig would pass the time. British Bulldog involved hopping towards an opponent with your arms folded in front, the winner was the last boy standing; usually the one with a streak of violence in their make up. The rules of Corner Tig were that you had to run between the corners of the shed without being caught by the person that was ‘het’.


imageSummer. In memory, imaginary days of continuous sunshine and blue skies. There is sporadic outbreaks of warfare with the Nazareth House kids. The projectiles are now stones, not snowballs, and a lorry driver, window open, is hit in the face by a stone. There is a severe clampdown by the police, the school and the orphanage and an armistice is declared. At the school the slope of the lower playground has dried out and out come the racing cars: Dinky and Corgi miniatures of Cooper-Climax, Maserati, Alfa Romeo and Ferrari. At playtime we set our cars hurtling down the slope, the winner is the car that travels the furtherest. At home we strip tyres from military vehicles and trucks and fit them to our cars trying different combinations of tyres to improve performance, gain an advantage, make them go further. We imagine we are Stirling Moss, Jack Brabham or Manuel Fangio. In the classroom a child Fangio stands his car on his desk in order to admire its flowing lines or tyre combinations. But his inattention is spotted by the alert teacher who pockets the model like a magician, as he stealthily passes down the aisle.

At some point in the season the interest in racing cars fades and marbles, pea shooters or water pistols became the new fad. ‘Gerries and British’ war game enactments are a popular boys game, fuelled by the relentless diet of Second World War films or stories in the comics that I would read in Mr McKenzie’s barbers shop. While we boys played with our toys the girls played games that seemed to required far more skill. I remember standing in a corner of the upper playground watching, mesmerised by the girls skipping, sometimes with two ropes at once or two girls hopping up and down through the arcing ropes. Hopscotch, too, seemed to require a high degree of dexterity well beyond any boy’s ability.

To the relief of the teachers and pupils the holidays came round. We looked forward to days of building gang huts in Melville Woods, the Old Sandpit or up the Braeheads. Sometimes we would sneak through the council yard fence, like commandos, to steal pram wheels to build bogeys. If we had some pocket money saved we would take the train to Portobello to swim in the salt water baths and mess around in the arcades. All to soon it would end and we would again make the long walk to school.


2013-04-19_5Summer has turned to Autumn and my pockets bulge with conkers. At home, I sit at the kitchen table and bore holes through the conkers with a bradawl from my dad’s tool kit. I thread strings through the holes and tie knots. In the morning I head for school to try and smash an opponent’s conker off it’s string. A win will add to my conkers tally, an opponents miss will result in very sore knuckles. There are rumours in the playground of fifteeners or twentyers, and of unscrupulous kids who marinate their conkers in vinegar or some other sinister substance to harden them. One day I suffer the combination of knuckle injury by conker and a stinging palm, the result of getting the belt. For at least a week, a group of us has been ringing the bell of Mr Towers’s flat and doing a runner. Mr Towers is our teacher and lives in the top floor of the red sandstone apartments at the end of Golf Course Road, just round the corner from my home. He could have simply walked round the corner and complained to me father about his son’s extra curricular activities, but then, in the late 1950s there was no limit to a teacher’s jurisdiction. One morning, just after Billy Watt has nearly broken one of my knuckles, Mr Towers calls the bell ringers to the front of the class and gives us all a thrashing with the tawes, or the belt. My father never found out, either from Mr Towers and, certainly not, from me.

As the dark nights set in we would, as a family, play simple board games like Ludo and Snakes and Ladders, and various card games. On the way home from school and at weekends stealing apples from gardens and Mrs Clarks small holding was a popular pastime. Then, as Guy Fawkes Night approached, our pocket money financed small arsenals of penny bangers and jumping jacks which we would use to terrorise the local citizens as they stood at bus stops or walked about the town.

After hallowe’en and bonfire night the residents of Bonnyrigg and Lasswade breathed a collective sigh of relief and Sergeant Turner and his constables would relax and put their feet up for a few weeks to await the first snowfall.

Small furry animals

Owning a small furry animal is a rite of passage for every small child. As a parent, in a moment of grand delusion, you buy your offspring a hamster or gerbil. You think, wrongly, that they will learn from the experience, learn the joy of caring for another being.



Me, aged about 9 years with my guinea pig.

I knew all this. I had, in my childhood owned a hamster called Tag and a guinea pig. I recalled that my mother ended up doing most of the cage and hutch cleaning. My first experience of the parent role in small pets was when  my daughter Laura’s older sister Kate acquired a hamster. It had lived a short life, died and had an emotional burial ceremony in our back garden. A few days after the funeral I sat gazing out of the patio door mulling over whether to cut the grass or not. As you do. Suddenly, the remains of Kate’s hamster cartwheeled though the air in a cloud of loose soil to land spread eagled on the patio. The hamster’s slightly mauled body was followed by our frantic dog who had obviously disinterred it. I confiscated the corpse from the disappointed dog and secretly and unceremoniously reburied it in the wheelie bin.
Years later it was my daughters turn. She pleaded with me, persistently begged me to buy her a hamster. She just had to have one. Her sister had had one, a friend had one. I capitulated, accepted that, despite her promises, there would be the usual division of labour: I would end up mucking out the cage and she would cuddle and play with her new pet. Laura’s hamster on one of its evening outings in the lounge created a neat circular hole in the new carpet. It emerged from under the TV cabinet looking very furtive with its pouches packed with a mixture of carpet pile and jute. To add insult to injury, the hamster, having been summarily returned to his cage disgorged the contents of his pouches and proceeded to use the debris from my carpet to line his nest.
This hamster must have passed away as I have a vague recollection of the hamster being superseded by a mouse, but I am not certain, as there is only one image in my mind. It is this: Laura and I are standing at the counter of the local video shop and I am surprised to see out of the corner of my eye a mouse emerging out of the breast pocket of her blouse. But not as surprised as the girl serving us, if this recollection is true.
Snowball the rabbit I have clearer memories of. It was white. The name sounds suspiciously obvious, so that may be wrong, but for the sake of the telling I’ll stick with it. I agreed to buy Snowball on the usual clear guarantees that Laura would not only hug the large and cuddly Lagomorphs (that’s what rabbits are; not rodents as I thought, and many people think) but that she would, in addition to lavishing love and affection on her new pet, feed and perform the more unsavory task of cleaning out the cage. This arrangement, predictably, soon lapsed to just the giving of hugs while I, muttering curses, cleaned the hutch.



Snowball’s cage before being connected to the shed

After much thought I had the answer, a dazzling moment of design brilliance. Snowball could live in the lean-to shed that leaned on the precariously on the back of the garage. I would cut a round hole in the bottom of the shed door. From this hole would run a piece of flexible air conditioning tube connecting the shed to a large moveable cage made with a timber framed covered with chicken wire mesh. During the day, while I was at work and Laura at school the rabbit would hop happily through the tube to the cage to feed and poo on the grass. I would move the wire enclosure to a different patch of the lawn every morning before leaving for work. I assumed, wrongly, that Snowball would neatly crop a different area of the lawn thus reducing the number of times I would need to get the lawnmower out.
Unknown to me Snowball was a closeted member of a World War One historical re-enactment society. Possibly the UK’s only Lagomorphs member. Instead of neatly cropping the grass he proceeded to construct a scale model of the Somme battlefield complete with trenches and shell craters. Within a week he had a full set; Passchendaele, Vimy Ridge and Arras.

My scheme was not going to plan, the design was clearly flawed, before long I would have the complete Western Front. And, I certainly wouldn’t have any need of a lawnmower.

I was thinking about re-grassing the top of the lawn, probably with Snowball under the slabs of turf, when the problem resolved itself. Snowball’s re-enactment interests moved forward in history; to the Second World War. This time he enacted the Great Escape. Without the vaulting horse, the motorbike and forged papers, it lacked the historical accuracy of his First World War creations but he did have the tunnel. A big one.

It was rather unfortunate that, by coincidence, the local foxes Historical Re-enactment Society were re-enacting the German occupation of Europe 1939 – 45. Poor Snowball was never seen again.

Africa is where the heart is.

image A picture of one drowned child had brought home the human tragedy of the migration of Syrians and other people escaping from war and political persecution. For whatever reason of the human psyche, the working of our minds, it has somehow distressed us more than the news of 70 migrants suffocated in a sealed truck or 300 victims of people traffickers drowned in the Mediterranean. One child. But the solutions are not simple.

Driving test examiners have stock questions that they ask the pupil that they are testing to give the impression that they, the examiners, are human beings. During his test the examiner asked my pupil Yohannes “Well, Yohannes, what would you be doing if you weren’t on this test?” “I would be working” replies Yohannes. “So, Yohannes, what do you do for a living?” Continues the examiner. “I am a cleaner.” Yohannes replies. “That’s interesting,” as if it is, says the examiner flinching as Yohannes, distracted by this pointless conversation gambit narrowly misses a parked car.


Yohannes. Mathematician, teacher and ………cleaner.

I’m in the back of the car, a comfort blanket for Yohannes, listening to this exchange between the examiner and my pupil. I smile to myself; Yohannes may be a humble cleaner, here in the UK, but I know that in another life, in his own country of Eritrea, he was a teacher of maths and science. I discovered this during a discussion about tyre pressures and how you should check the pressures when the tyres are cold. I had no idea why, just that you should. But Yohannes knew why and proceeded to explain about molecules and stuff that flew over my head. I asked him why he didn’t take up teaching in Britain. He told me that he felt his command of English wasn’t good enough and that he couldn’t afford to stop work to improve his English or train to teach here. His sole priority is ensuring his children have a future, and to that end he will sacrifice his.

Unlike many commentators, through my work as a driving instructor, I meet many immigrants, get to know them personally. I have enjoyed their hospitality, shared meals with them in their homes, listened to sad, heartbreaking stories. Yonas a farmer, Yohannes a maths teacher, Yohan an aero engineer, Roben university lecturer and author, Bisrat a mechanical engineer. This is a small cross section of the Africans; Ethiopians, Eritreans, Zimbabweans and Nigerians that I teach to drive. They are all intelligent, educated people, but here in the UK they are all employed in warehouses, factories and kitchens. A shocking waste of talent here and a tragic loss for Africa.



Another of my pupils, Luwam, a lovely Ethiopian mother of two children, said to me, “this is not my country, it is painful, too painful. I miss my country, my home.” But, like Yohannes she is resigned to accepting her lot to ensure a future for her children. This longing for their homeland is a common emotion amongst the immigrants I know.

I have listened to well off politicians, celebrities and actors, living isolated in the leafy suburbs of London, their children at nice schools, suggesting we accept thousands of immigrants, distribute them around the country. Ten families to each town has been suggested. A news reporter then interviewed a local resident of Wolverhampton who pointed out that ten families in her neighbourhood will mean less housing opportunities for her son or daughter, additional pressure for school places for her grandchildren and longer queues in her doctors surgery. I totally agree with the noble sentiments expressed by the politicians, luvvies and celebrities as they compete to wave their compassion credentials. But, but, I also share the constituent’s fears. An ordinary person, her life style was closer to mine; my life, my problems. After all, it is not so long ago, during the election campaign, that we were told that the NHS was in the grip of catastrophic crisis, there was a massive housing shortage and millions were queuing at food banks. An exaggeration, I suspect but nevertheless, there are problems here and now. So, while we must do something to help the migrants it must be planned, considered and pragmatic.

One of my father’s pithy pearls of wisdom was that ‘problems only require solutions’. The only real solution is to fix Africa: almost an insurmountable problem. After the Iraq debacle it is obvious that the migration crisis will not be sorted if we persist in trying to foist our political, cultural and social systems on the Africans. The long term solutions, lie in Africa, as for many Africans, like Luwam, home is where the heart is.

Twin Towers memory.

imageI recently read a short memoir by author Kirsty Grant about the September 11 attack on the Twin Towers. It was titled ‘Collapse’. She posted the memoir on her blog and Kirsty invited readers to reply with their own memories of that terrible day. This was my recollection.

Kirsty, I too watched the Twin Towers tragedy unfold on television. We stood in the reception of the serviced offices that we operated from. We were a group of designers that specialised in office design and planning, familiar with the anatomy of commercial buildings we watched the second plane slice into the South Tower with the same understanding that a doctor would have of a projectile smashing through the anatomy of the human body. The event had an unreal sensation about it, a block buster film quality. Like historical events such as Hiroshima or the holocaust, in terms of Man’s inhumanity to Man, it was off the mental Richter scale, difficult, almost impossible to grasp.

It was later in my car heading home in a traffic queue, that the personal, human dimension, was brought to me by wireless. On the Radio Four news the CEO of one of the companies that tenanted the Twin Towers was interviewed. He was in London, Hong Kong or an international business place somewhere. He had lost more than 700 employees. At first he was rational, then as the interview progressed he started crying. Talking and crying. About how the company must continue, must provide for the widows and the orphans of his dead workers. It was utterly, utterly heartbreaking.

Listening, I started to weep too. Taken aback at this unexpected loss of control, embarrassed, I looked sideways at the driver alongside me. She was in tears, dabbing her eyes with a tissue. The man behind had his head in his hands, the shoulders of the driver in front were shaking. I don’t think he was laughing. That day isolated in our cars, we were all in a state of shared collective grief.

Later, at home with my family, I watched, in numb horror; the jumpers, some making the long descent alone, others with companions, holding hands. Then the final collapse.
Kirsty Grant’s story stirred this ineffably sad memory.

Dancing with the devil

After attending Lasswade Parish Church Sunday School, I seem to remember the next stage in the church’s religious education programme was Bible Class, then in my teenage years I joined the Youth Fellowship. During a meeting, on a dark, driech, winters night we stepped over onto the dark side. 

The Youth Fellowship met one evening each week and discussed topical stuff, with a Christian twist. There was plenty to discuss, it was the mid 60s; Vietnam, Civil Rights, Kennedy had been assassinated, space travel, the Cold War, with the ever present threat of nuclear annihilation. Occasionally a local person of note would give a talk. But, for teenagers there was the distraction of Pop Music, fashion, television. The attendance at the meetings became sporadic. One dark, wet November night there was a gathering of only five members in the cold church hall. I have no recollection of who was there at the time, but there was at least one girl the rest boys.

As the large bunch of keys, collected from the Beadle, included the keys to the church we decided to use the vestry, a small room, off the church, where the Minister changed into his robes before a service, wedding or funeral. And so the draughty hall was abandoned and, braving the wind and drizzle, we sloped off down the path, illuminated for brief moments by the moon, through the church garden to the much cosier vestry.
This particular evening there was no enthusiasm for putting the world to rights. Bored, we chatted about the latest singles chart, examined the Reverend Kennedy’s garments and tasted a little from a bottle of wine, unfermented for the sober Scottish Protestant communion. What to do?

imageI, along with my brother and friends, had recently dabbled with a Ouija Board. On our kitchen table we had contacted amongst others, a dead miner and a distant relative. Of course, there was the lingering suspicion that someone was manipulating the glass, pushing it around the letters and numbers for a laugh. My fellow members of the Youth Fellowship listened to my description of all this and how anyone could set up a Ouija Board. Sat round a circular table it was all too tempting. A note pad was discovered in a desk drawer along with a felt tip pen, and soon the alphabet and numbers, a yes and no, written boldly on squares of paper, were arranged neatly around the table. A candle was lit and four fingers placed on top of an upturned glass. The fifth person was delegated to taking down the message, the possessors of the four digits would not look at the glass; this to avoid cheating. The imprudence of performing a séance in the Parish Church, a place of God, was disregarded in our excitement. We were about to dance with the devil.

“Is anyone there?” The observer asked tentatively.
A nervous finger twitched and the glass moved. Our collective breaths were held, the candle guttered.
“Is anyone there?”
The tumbler moved again, with a squeak it slid over the oak table top to the paper square with ‘Yes’ written in capital letter. In unison four suspicious pairs of eyes looked up, then back down at our feet.
“Are you a man?”
Squeak, squeak, the tumbler arrived at ‘Yes’.
“Who are you?”
“Who are you?”
No answer.
“Ask what happened to him!” Hissed one of the fingers.
“What happened to you?” Our observer enquired.
At this point the tumbler started to slide, squeaking and scraping across the polished top, to one letter, then to the middle, then to another letter. It was spelling something out. The tension was palpable. Rain spattered against the window pane, the door rattled in the wind.
K, squeak, squeak, I, scrape, L, squeak, scrape, L, squeak, E, scrape, D.
“What’s he saying?”
“Killed.” The observer, with a tremulous voice .” He says he was killed!”
At this point the glass starts to skid around, backwards and forwards: K.I.L.L.E.D, K.I.L.L.E.D, K.I.L.L.E.D. Then it squeaked to a stop. Probably at this point we should have stopped too. But of course, we were inquisitive, we needed to know more.
“How were you killed?”
Our Spirit visitor declined to answer. Our inquisitor tried another tack.
“Where were you killed?”
The glass, almost instantly set out across the table, backwards and forwards.
Y, squeak, U, scrape, G, squeak, squeak, O, scrape, S, scrape, squeak, L, squeak, A, scrape, V, I, sqeeeeeeeek, A.
“Yugoslavia……honestly,” said observer, uncomfortably aware that it sounded suspicious, far fetched, “it spelt out Yugoslavia. ‘m no kiddin’!”
“Four pairs of eyes stared in disbelief at our observer.”
“’am no jokin’.” He confirmed.
“Okay, who are you?” Demanded one of the ‘fingers’, speaking to the tumbler.
Squeak, squeak, squeak. The tumbler was on the move, we were about to receive an answer.
“Christ!” our observer said under his breath.

Fingers were snatched from the glass, the light quickly switched on, the candle extinguished, and the evidence: the paper squares, the letters and numbers, swept up and pocketed. The Vestry door locked, we hurriedly walked up the path to the Wee Brae, the actors in a horror movie, tacit partners in an unmentionable event. We hastily made our goodbyes, my four companions heading, I recall, down the brae to the well lit main road, leaving me to the lonely climb up the Wee Brae to Bonnyrigg. The brae, lined with trees, creating a claustrophobic, dark tunnel. The wind whistled through the high branches and the Moon, through the scudding windswept clouds, illuminated ghostly forms. I was Tam o’ Shanter, the subject of Robert Burn’s poem, chased by imagined witches and ghosts. But unlike Tam, I was sober. Cold sober.

imageThe wind blew as ‘twad blawn its last
The rattling showers rose on the blast
The speedy gleams the darkness swallow’d
Loud, deep, and lang the thunder bellow’d
That night, a child might understand
The Deil had business on his hand.

I arrived home, breathless, slightly disheveled, never so glad to be with my family. I don’t think we, the participants ever talked about that night again. It all started as a bit of teenage fun, adolescence bravado. But had we inadvertently danced with the devil or had one of us been a very clever joker?

Sunday, peaceful Sunday

2013-04-19_26Sunday, 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.


Lasswade Parish Church

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.


Lasswade Primary School

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.


View from the Brae Heads

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.

Willie & Sandy (2)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.


The Viaduct

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.

Willie & Sandy washing up

Washing up

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.


Home. 119 High Street Bonnyrigg

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.

The village cabinet maker

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.

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Lasswade in 1911. The Parish Church is on the right.

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.

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My grandfathers home and decorating business,10 Polton Road, Lasswade. Circa 1910.

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.

Mum as child at door

My mother at the door of 10 Polton Road around the time of her beloved grandfather’s death. Only 4 years before, her father had been killed at the Battle of Arras.

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!


Mum as child with flowers

My mum as a child.

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.


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My mother Nell Wilson around 1941

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



An English woman in Lasswade

This is a memoir written by my mother Ellen Wilson in 1991 when she was 76 years old. It is about the life of her Grandmother Ellen Lothian (nee Harris) who was born in 1862 and died in 1943 during the Second World War. It is an fascinating tale worth the telling.

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A sketch of Ellen Lothian by her son Alexander

My Grandmother, Ellen Harris was born in Bicester, Oxfordshire in 1862. She was the daughter of Miss Harris, a maid in a country house near that town; In fact my Grandmother was the offspring of a well-to-do man and his maid! The gentleman, whether from a real fondness for the girl he had seduced or from a feeling of obligation to the girl who was his illegitimate daughter made it plain to his family that he wished to honour that obligation, insisting upon providing for young Ellen’s proper education. In consequence, she was provided for to the extent of a place being found for her in a private boarding school, and she was suitably set up sartorially. According to my Grandmother, she was all packed up ready to embark upon this new life when the gentleman died suddenly.

His family did not cast her off as might have been expected. Instead they arranged for her to be settled in the household of friends who lived in a large country house near Bexley, Kent as under-nursemaid to their children. She would then have been fourteen years of age.

In the ensuing period of years she progressed from the lowly state of nursemaid to become a well thought of and much loved nanny to the family. Her employers were very well off and of some consequence, for the whole household down to the servants, the gardeners and the estate workers lived in some comfort. For instance, my Grandmother had at her disposal as the children’s nanny a dogcart with a groom to drive her and the children around on shopping expeditions to the nearby town or just simply to ‘take the air’ in the beautiful countryside around the estate.

‘Mi-Lady’, as Granny called the Lady of the House, was very beautiful. Granny remembered ‘Mi-Lady’ favouring Pond’s Face Cream and Pear’s soap for the care of her complexion.  There was a Lady’s maid who took charge of ‘Mi-Lady’s’ elegant gowns and clothes and a French hairdresser whose sole occupation was the care of Madame’s hair.

At this time my Grandmother would be in her 21st year and pretty enough for the French hairdresser to display romantic inclinations towards her. She was very petite, fair haired and blue eyed. They had been ‘walking out’ she and the Frenchman, for some time, when suddenly a tall well set up Scottish man arrived on the scene. He (my Grandfather-to-be) had been sent by his father (of Messrs Lothian & Kinross, Wallpaper Merchants of Edinburgh) to the School of Art in London to study Interior Design.

On this occasion he had travelled down from London as assistant to a senior Art Designer from the School who was advising on the decoration of several rooms in the house at Bexley. The arrival of Alexander Lothian at Bexley put paid to the romance between the French hairdresser and Ellen the children’s nanny. The handsome young man from Edinburgh swept my grandmother off her feet.

By the time Art School commission at Bexley was complete Alexander Lothian had proposed marriage to Ellen Harris and had been accepted; the wedding was to take place in Scotland, ‘Her Ladyship’ was quite enthralled with the whirlwind romance and set about arranging for the whole of the trousseau (six of everything!) and the wedding dress which was a marvellous gift. ‘Mi-lady’ and her husband also presented Ellen with a long gold chain and locket, and from the children who had been in her care, there was a gold brooch in the shape of a horse-shoe with the initials ‘B H’ engraved upon it. These two items are now in the possession of my cousin Jane.

So Ellen travelled to Edinburgh with her betrothed to be introduced to his family and to a very different way of life as the wife of Alexander Lothian, On 6th June 1884 they were married in the Lothian family home at 41 James Street, Pilrig, Edinburgh.

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No 10 Polton Road Lasswade

Having left the beautiful countryside of Kent Ellen Harris and her new husband Alexander Lothian set up house in the Bank Building in the little village of Lasswade, a far cry from the luxurious surroundings she had enjoyed in the country house near Bexley. In due course on 8th May 1885 my mother, Laura Ann was born in the house at Bank Buildings, but by the time the rest of their family arrived (Alexander John, William Graham, Harry Dickson and Jessie Alexandra) my Grandfather had bought the Decorating business with house above at Polton Road, Lasswade. He employed between 14 and 20 painters, journeymen and apprentices. The business flourished and as the years went by the services of Mr Lothian of Lasswade were much sought after by the folk who lived in the ‘Big Houses’ roundabout who required his expertise and advice on their interior decorating. He also had an eye for good watercolours and oil paintings, antique furniture and such like his advice on which was also sought by those people who were intent on investing in such things.

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The Lothian family circa 1900s

The sitting room upstairs in my Grandparent’s house was a world of wonders for me. I can see it yet in my mind’s eye with all the wonderful paintings on the wall, the elegant polished mahogany table and chairs, the Chippendale and Sheraton side tables with the collection of polished brass candlesticks and the brass samovar, The corner cupboard held a collection of beautiful Crown Derby and Spode china along with some antique ornaments. The floor boasted a lovely old Brussels carpet and the curtains of heavy jade brocade were tied back with embroidered ties. The mantelpiece was unique in that it had been fashioned from part of a four-poster bed of carved mahogany. On the hearth there were brightly polished brass fire irons and several large brightly coloured foreign sea shells. As children my cousins and I were allowed to hold one of these shells carefully to our ears to ‘hear the sea’. And we did hear the sea.

There was a good upright piano. When I was seven years old I was introduced to the intricacies of playing the instrument by Miss Muirhead of Broomieknowe; one hour’s practice every day but never on a Sunday The Sabbath was a day of rest; the pattern always was the Church Service in the morning followed by Sunday School and the Church Service again in the evening. Granny worked unstintingly for the Church and my Grandfather was an Elder. After the family Sunday dinner Granny would retire to the room upstairs for what she called her forty winks. I remember when I was very small sitting quietly at her knee I would count very slowly in my head up to forty then wait hopefully for her to wake up and talk to me.

When she did, she told me tales of her childhood in Kent. I listened enthralled to her descriptions of the leafy lanes, the meadows full of wild flowers and the wonderful floral displays in the gardens of the thatched cottages. In spring there was the mossy dell where she and the other children gathered primroses and cowslips. Early summer carpeted the woods near her home with bluebells and soon the whole countryside was covered in a haze of pink and white apple, pear and plum blossom. Small wonder that Kent was known as the ‘Garden of England’ – and still is. Autumn came and everyone went picking blackberries for jam, crab apples for jelly and sloe berries which the cottagers made into sloe gin. Then the children plundered the woods and hedgerows gathering cobs, filberts and hazelnuts. The Great Meadow also yielded a harvest of mushrooms. Nothing in the countryside was ever wasted. During the summer too, many people were busily employed in the hop fields gathering hops ready for the brewers. The Harris family was engaged in market gardening near Wantage; probably that is why I inherited the passion for growing plants which has been with me all my life.

I can’t remember Granny talking about her mother. I never found out about her or what happened to her but she did talk at length about her Grandmother, Ann Cowley who could trace a slight connection far back with the writer and poet Abraham Cowley who as well as being a writer of some note in his day was a Government Agent in the reign of Charles II. I still have by me a leather bound copy of the ‘Works of Abraham Cowley’ handed down in the family as a very precious possession.

At the time of these tales told by my Grandmother on Sunday afternoons she would be over 60 years old. In 1920 when he was 61 my Grandfather Alexander Lothian had died suddenly of a stroke. Three years earlier the family had suffered the loss of my Father, Clem Walter who was killed at the 3rd Battle of Arras on 9th April 1917. He had gone off to the war in the first flush of patriotism, leaving my Mother to return to her family home in Lasswade where I was born on 7 May 1915. These two blows must have shaken the family badly but as happens in the scheme of things people pick up the pieces and carry on. The Painting and Decorating business was taken over by Granny’s second son William (my Uncle Bill).

When my Grandfather died my Grandmother went into mourning and like Queen Victoria never came out of her ‘widow’s weeds’. I can’t remember her ever wearing any other colour than black. I recollect strongly her deep love of her Grandmother; it was a reciprocal adoration, and like my Grandmother I was brought up by my Grandmother. She was a very gifted needlewoman and she taught me all I know about that craft, her fine sewing, feather-stitching and embroidery were exquisite. She was also adept at tatting; to my regret I was never able to master that art!

My Mother on her return to her old home applied herself to the household duties, the day to day chores for a fairly large family but Granny saw to all the cooking and baking. She never seemed to work with recipes; it was all in her head. She was an excellent cook providing good and nourishing meals for all her family. I shall never forget Christmas preparations in our house; the delicious tangy smell of orange and lemon peel and the sharp warm smell of rum and brandy when we gathered round to stir the plum pudding mixture for luck. What a busy household ours was! Hands were never idle.

The one complaint about me was that I always had my nose in a book. Reading books was looked upon askance by all the family except Granny. Books were my other great passion and she encouraged me to read all kinds of books and she bought me Arthur Mee’s Children Encyclopaedia for my seventh birthday. That certainly furthered my education! Granny was the one person in my life I was in terror of losing. I worried about that for some time after my Grandfather’s death but as the years went by Granny seemed to go on forever and I stopped holding my breath. She never went back to Kent

The Harris relations came north from time to time; Granny’s nieces Nell and Kathy Harris and a nephew Harry Harris, Then we saw a lot of my Grandmother’s cousin Auntie Laura (Harris) who was already in Edinburgh in charge of the kitchen in the house of the Younger family the well-known brewers. There, as was the custom of the time she was referred to as ‘Mrs’ Harris holding quite an exalted position in the household. We all loved Auntie Laura and visited her often. She was such a jolly plump amusing person so full of wit and humour, She was a first rate cook and we looked forward to her coming to stay with us at Lasswade for a wee holiday. We often visited her in Edinburgh and enjoyed her really sumptuous teas in her vast kitchen while all her staff scurried about getting everything ready for the Family’s meal ‘upstairs’. My cousins and I were allowed to take turnabout standing on a chair to grind the coffee beans; that was the high point of the visit for us — that delicious aroma of freshly ground coffee beans!

Our house at Lasswade had an ever open door. It would not be unusual for someone like Viscount Melville to wander in unannounced, through the shop, right into the kitchen even into the scullery looking for Granny or my Mother or my Grandfather whom His Lordship had really come to see. Then there were all the children going up and down to the school. All the cuts, bumps and bruises were brought to our door for immediate first aid by Granny. She never applied disinfectant or ointment; rather it was “We’ll just anoint this with something to make it better”. The bandaged casualty would then go away, tears dried and happy. She loved and cared about any children who came her way.

Granny also had frequent visits from people collecting for various good causes – The Grass Market Mission, The Salvation Army, The Red Cross, and The RNLI – they all received a donation. There was one lady who came without fail once a year collecting for ‘The Boozers League’; in my childish innocence I thought she was collecting for a handout of intoxicating beverages! Then there was Old Tage the tramp who called almost weekly. The look of the tall unkempt shambling man nearly scared the wits out of me but he was harmless enough. Granny filled his old syrup tin with tea and sent him on his way with a large ‘doorstep’ of bread and jam. One winter he failed to appear and we heard that he had been found dead in a secluded part of the Braeheads. I had always wondered why he walked so funny; it was discovered that he had hidden all his worldly wealth in his boots, winding hundreds of pounds in notes round and round with strips of old cloth like army puttees.


Ellen with her daughter, my mother, Laura.

Granny never turned anyone away; help was always given when it was needed. In fact it was the way of Lasswade folk; they always rallied round and helped each other when the necessity arose. There was no such thing as the Department of Health and Social Security, only the Parochial Board and Poor Relief and folk lived in fear of that happening to them especially when old and perhaps senile or ‘wandered in the head’ and being taken to Rosslynlee Asylum or the Poor House in Dalkeith.

When war broke out in 1939 Granny was the driving force where our family was concerned and idle hands were frowned upon. Everyone got busy with knitting needles and wool making ‘comforts for the troops’. We made quite a pile of navy socks, scarves, gloves and mittens to send to the men of HMS Edinburgh which not long afterwards was torpedoed while on convoy duty to Murmansk. Then we would switch to ‘comforts’ for the Army or the RAF; it was a busy, busy time.

By the time I was in uniform myself in the ATS serving away from home Granny had suffered a slight stroke, collapsing in Church one Sunday. A year or so later she suffered another massive stroke from which she never recovered, confined to bed, unable to move and in a coma. Her last words to me were: ‘Remind them, Nell to order plenty of boiled ham for your wedding’. That must sound laughable, but village weddings were often held at home or in the village hall and the usual centrepiece of the Wedding Breakfast was a large boiled ham. Generally everyone joined in, cooking and baking to provide a long, long table groaning with food and village weddings were certainly joyous occasions for everyone to enjoy until rationing and other wartime circumstances brought many changes to the old ways of doing things.

When Granny suffered her last illness I was engaged to be married but because of the war it was over two years before my happy wedding day arrived. Sadly she did not live to see that great day. She died on 21st September 1943 and I was given special leave from the Army to attend her funeral.

Ellen Harris was a small woman in stature but she had a great big heart. The whole village grieved at her passing. I shall never forget her, a much loved and loving Granny whose memory lives on in my heart.

Today (1991) I am a grandmother myself in the seventy-sixth year of my age. I hope my grandchildren in their turn will look back in the years to come and remember me too with love.

Ellen Wilson. January 1991.

Out of Africa

imageYesterday, one of my Ethiopian pupils, to celebrate failing his driving test, took me to an authentic Ethiopian restaurant. The Melkem Megeb Restaurant stands on a corner of Roundhay Road and Gathorne Street in the Harehills area of Leeds. It is obviously a popular venue for the community.

We sat a table by the window and I looked around the simple interior, taking in the other, predominantly, African diners, admired the ethnic artwork on the walls, wondered at the wash hand basin, predominant in the corner and noted the absence of cutlery.

The tall proprietor approached and welcomed us and handed us the menus, while a boy, obviously his son, set the table. To my dismay, all the dishes on the menu contained lamb. Why was I dismayed about lamb? Well, much to the annoyance of my wife Val, who rather likes lamb, I have a psychological problem with lamb; I can’t rid myself of the idea that lambs are baby sheep, kittens of the farming world. I see the word LAMB on a menu and a voice in my head says, shouts: NO, NO, NO! I see them, in my head, gambolling, playing in lush green fields under blue Spring skies. I have a similar difficulty with duck, and of course with Val, who likes duck. Most people see meat, I see Donald.

However, my good manners trumped my abhorrence of eating the children of sheep. I ate what Yosef had ordered, ate what was put in front of me. I was determined to enjoy this unique experience in a far flung outpost of one of the cradles of human civilisation.

imageWe shared two meat dishes which were served, not in dishes, but on top of a flexible, rubbery pancake called an Injera. This is folded up on a platter and looks as though, if it was unfolded, would cover the entire table. It has a sort of sour taste, which, if I was a food critic, I would say contrasts beautifully with the fiery sauces of the meat course. But, as my family and friends would testify, gourmet, I am not! The way the meal is eaten is that a piece of the injera is torn off using the right hand and is used to pick or scoop up the meat and the sauces. This explained the necessity of the wash hand basin in the corner of the restaurant and the absence of cutlery.

I may not have fully appreciated the meal, but, I thoroughly enjoyed the experience, the conversation and the exposure to another culture. I learned that there are 75 languages in Ethiopia, that it is the most populated landlocked country on Earth with a population of over 90 million. Yosef tried to explain the Ethiopian calendar, a solar calendar, that the current year is 2007 and started on September 11th 2014 AD. He told me that Ethiopia is the only African country never to have been colonised, although Mussolini did have a go. I was informed that it is one of the oldest centres of Christian and Muslim faith and, according, to Yosef they all live in peace. But the politics are far from peaceful.

imageEritrea, which was a part of Ethiopia, the coastal part, had a referendum in 1993 and became an independent country with a population of just over 6 million. Both countries fell out, went to war, over where the border should be drawn. “At least your country will not have such problems, they have a wall do they not?” Said Yosef, who has the opinion that the Scots are stupid to, but will, leave the UK. “Your country, Scotland, it should think very carefully,” counselled Yosef. “Ethiopia has never been wealthy, it is African, but now Eritrea, it is the fifth poorest country in the World. It has a very small population, you understand.” And, it is true that Ethiopia is one of the fastest growing economies in Africa, whereas Eritrea, a single party presidential state, is in the economic doldrums. I thought, as I listened, that life and politics are complicated. I thought of the tragedy of the wars, the poverty, driving these people to risk everything to seek a better life.

Yosef has dual nationality. His mother is Eritrean and his father Ethiopian. After the referendum and when the war kicked off his family lived in Ethiopia. Yosef and his mother were told they could remain in Ethiopia only if they signed a document promising they would not cause any trouble.
Yosef laughed when he told me this. “You will have to sign such a document, to remain in England when the time comes, after the next referendum!”

Coffee was served. Ethiopian coffee is pretty strong stuff and is served in small cups on saucers with the only piece of cutlery in the place: a tea spoon.