Just an Ordinary Woman

As a storyteller, I sometimes sing a song to accompany my story. I especially love when the chorus soars and the audience at our local folk club joins in. When I was asked to sing a ‘Celebration’ song at the club last year, I went searching and found a Scottish one I liked.

The Spinner’s Wedding by Mary Brooksbank from Dundee, hooked me in. It tells of a spontaneous celebration in a jute mill, when all the women in a section stop work to dance, sing and give gifts. Knowing very little of the Scottish Jute industry (I’d never seen raw jute or even been to Dundee.) I added ‘Jute mill’ to my up-coming travel plans and began learning more about the songwriter.

                                (Dundee’s Jute Trade Routes in its heyday)

Two months later, one cold Monday morning, I read aloud a green sign, ‘ Verdant Works Open Wed – Sat.’  My companion protested, “Oh no! When you wanted so much to come here. This place is the main reason we came to Dundee! Why did no-one tell us it doesn’t open on a Monday?”

Stepping away from the solid wooden gate onto the cobbles in that narrow lane, I looked up at the stone wall and sighed. I couldn’t see over it. What were we going to do now?

Suddenly, the big gates rattled and opened as a large industrial bin came trundling towards us. “Good Morning!” shouted the head behind it. The look on our faces stopped the man in his tracks. We lamented and pointed to the board. His eyebrows went up at this.

“Och! We’re open in 2 minutes! We’ve changed the times on the website but not that sign there yet! Just go in! The café’s already open.”

The Verdant Works, once a noisy jute mill built in 1853 in the Blackness area of Dundee, opened as a museum in 1996. The High Mill was revamped in 2015 and the whole site is now an award-winning, tourist attraction. When asked what had brought us to the mill site, I told our guide, “A folk song got me here!” and added that I wanted to know more about women working in mills.

They smiled and carried on with their spiel about the history of this place. The High Mill built in 1833 employed 500 workers by 1864. Their 3 steam engines ran 70 powered looms with total of 2800 spindles. At that time, there were 61 such steam-powered mills in Dundee, mostly built round the Scouring Burn as it flowed down to the sea.

By 1901, there were over 100 jute mills in Dundee and two-thirds of their 39,752 workers were women. With 3 times as many women as men working in the mills, Dundee was often referred to as ‘She-Town.’ By 1950 there were only 39 mills left.

 (Breadwinners of all ages)

We were invited to wander through the museum at our leisure and ask questions of any of the volunteers. I became totally engrossed in the history of mill work, the complex machinery and the noise! Some of the exhibits featured sound recordings retelling the worker’s tasks and experiences. I found out where the jute came from.

Up in the rafters of the High Mill, I heard Mary’s voice, as she sang one of her well-known songs.

Oh, dear me, I wish the day was done.

Running up and doon the Pass is no nae fun;

Shiftin’, piecin’, spinnin’ warp weft and twine,

Tae feed and cled my bairnie affen ten and nine.

                       

      ( Renovated High Mill with raw jute and end products)

Imagine a 12 year old starting a twelve-hour shift at six am. In 1909 Mary did just that. Her family’s poverty made her lie about her age. She was taken on as a bobbin ‘Shifter’ but was soon found out. It took another two years, staying home to look after her four younger brothers, before she got an official job. Mary later said that her wishes, desires, hopes, ambitions (were) dutifully suppressed in the interests of those I loved, my father, mother and (four) brothers.’

Five had already died in infancy and Mary had been born blind. At the time, the doctor gave her mother eye-drops, a torch and not much hope. Rose Soutar checked and attended to her baby’s eyes daily. She was so overjoyed that her 14 month-old girl was finally able to see that she ran down to the docks to tell her husband the news!

Mary’s father, Sandy Soutar had been a docker and Unionist, who was black-listed because he founded the Dock Workers Union in the port of Aberdeen. In search of work in 1905, he’d brought his family down to Dundee on a coal boat. Sandy was rarely employed even after that. He continued to be an active Unionist, attending meetings. In the main room of their home, Mary likely witnessed visits, talks, plans, songs and stories from many of the leading Scottish union activists of the day.

 (9 mill-workers pose – from bobbins to bales of sacking)

Alongside her mother, Mary was officially taken on at Kydd’s Mill aged 14. Her (male) gaffer (boss) saw her as quick to learn – ‘ a richt wee smerter.’ Their jobs were sporadic and they both worked in any mill they could. If not, they might be lucky to get piece work and sew sacks – five pence for 25. Her four brothers might have been employed in a mill from the age of 8, cleaning up under the looms as they clattered. In 1900 there were 5000 children still working in this industry. Only 2800 of them had been granted an exemption from full-time schooling. Even if her brothers had unskilled work, they’d be sacked at 18. Women workers were cheaper in the mills – paid half men’s wages.

For many years, houses for mill workers in Dundee were said to be some of the worst slums in Europe. Most workers wanted to live close to the mill and rented in tall tenements – usually two rooms with an average of 7 occupants. There were middens in the streets. One privy served the tenants in a four level block. Outbreaks of Cholera, Typhus and Scarlet Fever were not uncommon. Many children didn’t live past infancy. Despite many reports about that rundown, insanitary housing, the mainly private investors took no action because ‘improving working class housing just did not pay.’ When Mary married Ernest Brooksbank in 1924 and saw their first home near the mill, she wept, saying it was ‘no better than a large dog kennel.’ Decisive slum clearing didn’t start till the late 1920’s. Yet some families were loath to leave their close, tenement community.

When the Soutars moved to Dundee, Mary had quickly learned to play the violin. Across the landing on their stair lived a family of Scots Travellers who would often sing and play music at night and invite everyone in. She liked to say that even at the hardest times “There’s naething that can daunt me long, Gin I have the power tae sing a sang.”

Some months after Mary began work in 1911, the carters went on strike for better pay. They refused to bring the bales of raw Indian jute up from the docks. Fourteen year old Mary joined the other women in her section to successfully demand fairer pay. They got a rise of 15%. This was the beginning of more than a hundred protests by Dundee workers between 1889 -1914.

As she grew more politically active, Mary also became anti-war. As a 21 year old at the 1918 Armistice Day celebration, she led a protest against the shoddy treatment of returned veterans . She was arrested with 20 others, charged with Breach of the Peace and sentenced to 3 weeks in Perth Prison. This was the same year she gave up Roman Catholicism, became an atheist and joined the Communist Party (C.P.) to fight for women’s rights, equality and the demise of capitalism.

Once out of prison, Mary was unable to get mill-work and so went into domestic service at her mother’s insistence. However, working in an opulent ‘Jute Baron’s’ mansion made her all the more determined to follow her strong feelings against inequality. On her days off, during a third domestic post, she attended lectures at The Scottish Labour College given by a famous socialist organiser and orator, John McLean.

 At the age of 23 in 1920 (when The Great Depression began), she was involved in more protests and represented jobless, rental defaulters at Rent Tribunals. She lobbied for Unemployment Benefits for those out of work. Her next arrest was for heckling at a meeting about the unreasonable amount of money workers had to contribute as part of the new Unemployment Insurance Act. Authorities at the time tried to question her sanity – a charge later ‘not proven’ by a judge who found her ‘utterly sound’ in health and judgment.

Within the C.P. Mary established the Working Women’s Guild of Dundee in 1930 which focused on improving public health and social housing. They lobbied successfully for significant improvements to the city’s poorhouse, as well as other housing. A lasting legacy was this group’s commitment to help their 300+ members develop public speaking skills, as well as how to chair and organize, productive meetings.

When she was 34 in 1931, following another demonstration, Mary was arrested for sedition and sentenced this time to 3 months. Crowds gathered outside the Perth Prison gates to sing in protest. The petition for her release had 10,000 signatures. Members of the Railway Women’s Guild in Perth brought her food daily. She wrote poems.

On her release, Mary found out the success of the Women’s Guild in the local branch of the C.P. had caused dissent She publicly expressed doubts about Stalin’s leadership and questioned the allocation of the money they’d raised. In 1932 she was thrown out of the C.P.  From then on, she called herself an Independent Socialist.                      

By this time, Mary could only find occasional work – picking berries, working in canning factories or sewing sacks. When her younger brother died, she took in his son. When her husband of 20 years fell ill in 1943, Mary felt her only option was to catch the ferry across to Tayport, in Fife and play her violin in the streets to get money. Ernest died later that year. She took her parents in to live with her.

By 1948 Mary was no longer employed. While nursing her dying mother, she wrote more poems and songs like The Spinner’s Wedding, full of the ordinary details of her working life, and shared them with her.

Oh, ye’ll no make muckle siller
Nae maitter hoo ye try
But hoard your love an loyalty,
That’s what money canna buy.

IIn the 1960’s and 7o’s Mary began singing in Old Folks Homes. She was Chairperson of the Old Age Pensioners Association for some these years. After a chance meeting at a concert, the popular folk-singer Ewan McColl sang some of her songs and championed her song writing. She sang then at the Dundee Folk Club, at the Blairgowrie Music Festivals and on TV & Radio. Her poems and songs were published in Sidlaw Breezes as well as in her autobiography, Nae Sae Lang Syne; a tale of this city.

She was always willing to speak out, step up and help wherever it was needed. In 1970 during the war in Vietnam she went to Hanoi to help the wounded and to rebuild the ruined city. She was 73.

Mary never gave up her Dundee/Scots dialect. She was 5 foot tall, ordinary on the outside and a powerhouse inside. She poured her energy into making life better for others – actively making her city a fairer, more just community. She died in a Dundee hospital in 1978 aged 82.

Hamish Henderson, founding member of the School of Scottish Studies at the University of Edinburgh, called Mary

 a heroine of the working class movement in Dundee, and a free – spoken, free – thinking, old rebel who got thrown out of the C.P. for denouncing Stalin in the early Thirties!

In 2009, four lines from her song about jute work ‘Oh Dear Me’ were carved into granite in the new Scottish Parliament’s Wall of Quotations in Edinburgh – the only woman quoted in the 26 selected quotes thus far.

           “Oh, dear me, the warld’s ill-divided

          Them that works the hardest are aye wi’ least provided.

          But I maun bide contented, dark, deep or fine

          But there’s no much pleasure livin’ affen ten and nine.”

Mary’s actions show her life-long commitment to social justice and caring for others in need. Just an ordinary woman to look up to … and not forget.

OOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO

Some of the many Sources I used. (There’s lots more)

BROOKSBANK, Mary. The Spinner’s Wedding (Lyrics) and singing this song

INNES, Ewan. et al. (ed) Biographical Dictionary of Scottish Women. Edinburgh. E.U.P. 2006: 46-7.

HENDERSON, Mary. Dundee Women’s Trail: Twenty-five footsteps over four centuries. Dundee. Dundee Women’s Trail. 2008: 46-48. http://www.dundeewomenstrail.org.uk/

POLWART, Karine. “The Other Mary” in A. J. TAUDEVIN. Mrs Balfour’s Daughters. Oberon Press. 2015. (This post took a while. Finding this essay really helped me pull my writing together. I commend Karine’s work to you – a well-known Scots folksinger, she sings and talks about Mary on YouTube ‘The Jute Song’ with The Shee.)

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                               All text and photos by Meg

Story Twigs the Imagination! by Meg Philp. Copyright © under Australian Law.

Story 1 ? It’s Dun Telve

Yes, it’s certainly ancient and abandoned, but not quite as old as Newgrange in Ireland or Stonehenge, in England.

This is the remains of a broch just down the road from the village of Glenelg, Inverness-shire, Scotland.

This was not a ceremonial site. It’s an Iron-age fortified house with dry-stone walls built to protect a family group and their animals 2000+ years ago. It predates the Roman invasion of Britain.

You can see the walls have a space between. This allowed stairs and passageways to reach upper floors. There’s a possibility these brochs were built by itinerant craftsmen given such skilled work found in various parts of the country. This broch is one of the better preserved examples on the mainland – the best is on the island of Mousa in Shetland.

The wooden frame also supported a thatched roof.

This stone lintel would have been man-handled into position. There was a cubby in the wall on the right … for dogs.

We were the only visitors.

Here’s the gap above the entrance way showing the location of passageways.

The drive into Glenelg is well worth the view from the top of the Mam Rattagan Pass. Here’s the The Five Sisters of Kintail, popular with hill-walkers.

Remind me to tell you my version of ‘The Five Sister’s of Kintail ” sometime. I’d tell it differently from the Secret Scotland Tour guide.

Information from other sources

Local area info – Secret Scotland Tour guide to Glenelg

Undiscovered Scotland: Dun Telve

All text (other sources listed) and photos by Meg

Story Twigs the Imagination! by Meg Philp Copyright © under Australian Law.

The Palace of Bird Beaks

Lovely friend, Naomi, posted this recently. It’s a story I’ve told … but not as well as this.  I really appreciate her Solomon. Thank you, Naomi.

 

Writing Between the Lines

The Queen of Sheba visited King Solomon, bearing opulent gifts, and hoping to see if he was as wise as the stories claimed.

“What can I offer in return?” asked Solomon. “Only ask, and it shall be yours.”

The queen had also heard that Solomon spoke the language of the birds, but didn’t believe it. Here was her chance to kill two birds with one stone.  “Build me a palace made entirely of bird beaks,” she said, “if you can.”

“Oh, I can, ” boasted Solomon.  “You shall have it.”

To her amazement, Solomon summoned the birds, from every corner of the earth.

They heeded his call…

….from the tiniest hummingbird…

…to the majestic eagle.

“We’re going to make our nation the envy of the world,” he told his gathered flock, to the cheering of the birds.

 “But I need your beaks to build a palace.”  And the birds bowed their heads and…

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Float like a Butterfly

Over these last few weeks I’ve marvelled at how many butterflies have been around. They flit about the garden like wayward petals. Caper Whites are common here. They tend to tango intensely. (You’ve surely seen them spin together.) While this Common Crow just hovers dreamily … floats along till it finds another resting place.

           Some, like the Blue Triangle, are hectic fliers and hard to capture on camera.

        The other day, as I waited in the queue at the garden centre, this Meadow Argus sat                      here so long I began to wonder if it was real. What a beauty!

        Out walking in the park just before sunset, this ‘odd leaf’ caught my eye. I’ve since                     learned it’s an Evening Brown butterfly that prefers to be out at dusk. 

          When I showed a friend my butterfly photos thus far, she sent this one of a Lemon              Migrant in her backyard. They’re found all over Tropical Australia and known for                  their regular large migrations down the east coast. In February this year there was a                                            butterfly boom after the drought.

             I’ve discovered too that North American Monarchs arrived here later than other                  butterflies, in the 1870’s. Some migrate to warmer areas before winter while many                adults stay. Great clusters of them festoon the same trees each year, till the                                                       weather warms up in September.

         I’ve long thought that a visiting butterfly was a spirit on its way to the next world.              The Ancient Egyptians thought so.They also believed caterpillars died (in the chrysalis)                                              and were reborn as butterflies. 

Egypt, Middle Kingdom – Butterfly Amulet . The Met Museum Copyright free.

There’s an old Irish story which Kevin Crossley-Holland reworked and called “Butterfly Soul.” It goes something like this –

Two farm boys, Tom and Declan have been out in the hills all morning, searching for missing sheep. They give up in the heat of the day and stretch out in the shade of a rock wall. Declan falls asleep while Tom sits, watching the valley and farm below. Declan’s snores get Tom to his feet and just as he bends to shake him awake, a pale butterfly flits out of Declan’s mouth.

Tom stands rooted to the spot, while the butterfly floats down the sleeper’s left side and off down the slope. Curious, the lad follows. He watches it approach the gate, drift upwards past each wooden spar and down the other side.

On it goes, down the track. Tom runs down and climbs the gate. When he lands on the other side, there’s suddenly no sign of the butterfly. Looking around, he notices the long grass by the track. He wades in and swishes through. Yes! He spies it down in the ditch, hovering over a the white skull of a ram. There it lands and teeters the horns.

Tom scrambles closer to get a better look and sees the butterfly fly in one eye socket. Feet in the ditch Tom sits. A couple of crows fly past, cawing. A breeze shakes the grass heads. After a while, he’s rewarded. That same butterfly clambers out of the other empty hole. Flying faster than before, the insect quickly gains height and catching the wind heads  back uphill, over the gate and towards the wall.

By the time Tom gets back up the hill, his friend is sitting up, stretching his arms and grins when he sees Tom, “Had an amazing dream!” 

“So,,,  what did you dream, Declan? ” replies Tom, scraping one foot on a stone.

“I was all by myself and walked for a long, long way hunting for you, Tom,  I came upon a railway track. So I jumped along fast from one sleeper to the next.  I didn’t know where the line was heading. I kept looking for a place I knew.

At the end of the line, I came to a tall, waving forest where a strong wind bent the trees this way and that. Suddenly, the wind lifted me up and I was blown along a river shining below me. I was flying straight on, the cold wind in my face.

There, on the banks of the shining river was a big, white palace. I flew down to it. It’s big round entrance was without a door, so I stepped inside. There was not a soul around, only the wind roaring through. I moved on through the place and wandered marble halls, one after another. They were all bare. It was like nothing I’ve ever seen before! 

Then I began to think I was being watched, so I got out of there as quickly as I could and got away,  back along the shining river, through the forest, along the the rail line. Then I woke up”

“The dream was wonderful. I felt so good. I saw so much. Everything glowed bright and big. And I was flying!”

“Ah… ” mused Tom. “You felt you were flying, eh? Well, you should have seen what I saw. I saw. I saw a butterfly fly out of your mouth.”

Declan’s jaw dropped, as he stared hard at his friend.

“And … I followed that butterfly as it  flew away from you. I watched where it went. Come on, I’ll show you!” pulling Declan to his feet. “This way!”

Tom showed him the bars of the gate, the tall forest of grass, the shining river that was the running ditch and then he pointed at the skull of a long dead sheep.

Declan got up close to it and began to mutter “Holy … Dooley! Oh my…! again and again. Slowly, the two them climbed of the ditch and back up on the track.  

“So Declan, ” Tom declared, looking him in the eye. “You might have seen wonders … but what I saw was an even bigger wonder! Do you think anyone will believe us?”

Butterfly You © M.Philp. Adapted from K. Crossley-Holland’s tale “Butterfly Soul’

PS. I’m can’t help chasing butterfies –

Sources
CARR, Richard Vaughan. illus. Ann James. The Butterfly: from tiny wingbeat to a tornado. Newtown, NSW, Walker Books Australia. 1996. 

‘The Butterfly Soul’ in CROSSLEY-HOLLAND, Kevin. (1987) British Folk Tales; New versions. Cambridge, C.U.P.

Queensland Museum. Garden butterflies

Thanks to local Butterfly Expert Helen Schwenke for help with identification

Recent articles in local papers

Lemon Migrant butterfly migration underway

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All text and photos in this blog created by Meg

(Unless labelled otherwise)

Story Twigs the Imagination! by Meg Philp. Copyright © under Australian Law.

Walk in Autumn Rain

It had rained steadily all morning – so we went for a walk. It was still raining when we got to Millbuies Country Park.

To be among old trees again, of all shapes and sizes! Taking in the odour of leaf mould, the vistas of bark columns and all the colours heralding the change of season! Sweet Chestnut (introduced from the Balkans in the 16th. C) contrasts with the still green Sycamore (another non-native).

Beeches hummed.They dappled the darker woods, shining golden or copper.

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Huddled under umbrellas, we missed the dripping canopy.

The good earth yielded underfoot, oozed at the bends and was carpeted with leaf litter. We listened to the patter of rain on leaf, land and us.

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Rain-dappled twigs hung from shivery boughs. Ducks kept their distance.

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Clear dark water harboured brown trout, all the way to the dam wall in this man-made fishing loch.

Leaves in a back-water eddied like golden scales from a magic fish.

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A robin piped and flickered through the bare branches. I’d missed the red squirrel.

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Golden, fairie birches flickered under the rain as we trudged down and up and around the water.

Gothic larches studded the hillside,while bracken, like feathers from a phoenix, fringed the track.

With lungs full of fresh, soft air, our body warm and feet dry, we headed home refreshed.

I look forward to walks like this.

Forests in the future?

Last Autumn in Scotland, I saw many more Oak trees have been planted in public places. You notice them easily for they hang on to their golden-yellowed leaves the longest. Many were cut down for ship-building in the 17th and 18th century. Ubiquitous mono-cultural fir plantations were established by the Forestry Commission in Scotland after WWI. The British war effort had almost run out of timber! I remember these dense monocultural woods, where nothing grows below and no birds sing among, which are now being cleared and replanted. This time, with trees native to the original Caledonian forest that once covered much of Scotland. For more info see Trees for Life founder Alan Watson- Featherstone’s talk on Youtube

This post is linked to Ann-Christine’s Photo Challenge #83 Future

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All text and photos by Meg

Story Twigs the Imagination! blog by Meg Philp. Copyright © under Australian Law.

 

Let Me Show You the World — Longreads

Quote

It’s New Year’s Day, Story Lovers.

Perhaps you have some time to consider this marvellous article about the art of storytelling. It takes 16 mins to read. Author Iman Sultan explains why and how

The time has come to reclaim Shahrazad’s voice, resonating through centuries, and experience once again the power of a good story..

Almost everything you think you know about Aladdin is wrong.

via Let Me Show You the World — Longreads

My own hard copy set of The Book of the Thousand Nights and One Night Volumes I – IV. is rendered into English from the literal and complete French translation of Dr. J.C. Mardrus by Pwys Mathers , 2nd edition. London, Routledge, 1964.

 

 

Some of What Caught My Eye in 2019

On Auld Year’s Day it’s good to look back on the year. What strikes me is that I spend a lot of time looking up!

I’ve been told this is a classic Queensland sky.

Yes, someone out there in Oz still does Topiary. Kangaroo and Emu (2 of Australia’s national symbols) chat at the front gate.

A lovely walk in the Pukekura Park.

WOMAD Pigtails.

Spot the Cloud Rider!

Wrought iron work (Scottish) in Dundee’s heritage-listed Malmaison Hotel, formerly Mathers Hotel, built 1860, refurbished and re-opened in 2014.

Two entwine. Great wedding.

 The high dome in Mount Stuart’s private chapel, Island of Bute.

Snow above Loch Tay, with loch-side ruins of the  original Ben Lawers village.

Thank you, dear reader. May 2020 bring you and I more adventures and stories to tell.

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This post is part of the LENS-ARTISTS photo challenge #77

All text and photos by Meg

Story Twigs the Imagination! by Meg Philp, Copyright © under Australian Law.

Tobermory: Lens Artists Challenge #65 – Pick a Place and Catch its Spirit

The British Fisheries Society established Tobermory as a fishing port on the island of Mull, Scotland in 1788. The cliffs around its natural harbour were scoured back to make room for a road and houses along to a deep water pier.

High tide October 2016 ©MegPhilp

Tobermory comes from the Gaelic “Tobar Mhoire” meaning ‘Mary’s Well.’ One dedicated to St Mary is located at the top end of the cliff. When I got there in 2016 the well had been long capped. The tap didn’t work so I couldn’t try the waters’ healing power.

No matter what, water rushes down from the cliff tops towards the sea. Everywhere you walk you can hear, and find, running, clear water. They make whisky in Tobermory.

When the nearby Strathearn Waterworks were completed in 1883, this Cherub Fountain was presented to the Burgh of Tobermory by Robert Strathearn. It no longer spouts water but there’s still a basin at the foot for thirsty canines.

The An Tobar Art Centre, once a primary school, is now a collective, community-run gallery (since 1998). This statue high up on the cafe wall caught my eye. I’d hazard a guess that this is St Mungo, Patron Saint and Founder of the city of Glasgow. There’s the bell from the legend, though the bird on his shoulder is too big to be the robin.

Addendum – This statue depicts St Columba, who founded the first Christian monastery on the nearby island of Iona in 563AD . The piece was made in 2007 by sculptor/mechanic Eduard Bersudsky of the Sharmanka Theatre group, who are based in Glasgow. Made of oak from the island, it’s an automated sculpture, with the small shoulder-perched bird ringing the bell on cue. [Thanks to Ester Morrison (Front of House Manager) who answered my emailed query.]

Is this St Mungo?©2016MegPhilp

And you can’t go past a local hero – The Tobermory Cat. A picture book about him by Debi Gliori was published in 2012. Here’s a second generation cat who carries on the tradition and patrols the main street and houses in town.

We came upon this little West Highland Terrier in a corner one of the craft shops. The woman behind the counter said she was keeping an watchful eye on him. Her neighbour had recently passed away and this had been his dog.

What kind folk there are in the world!

There’s only a few fishing boats in the harbour these days but its still a peaceful haven for locals, visitors and furry friends.

OOOOOOOOOOO

All text and photos by Meg

Story Twigs the Imagination! by Meg Philp Copyright © under Australian Law.

Linked to Tina’s Lens Artists Challenge #65

More Sources at

Balamory children’s TV program. https://www.wikiwand.com/en/Balamory. Downloaded 5 October 2019.

St Columba. https://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryUK/HistoryofScotland/St-Columba-the-Isle-of-Iona/. Downloaded 21 October 2019.

The Tobermory Cat https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z8gLztkXwbc. Downloaded 5 October 2019

Remember That Coat

 

That coat was the colour of the sea on a sunny day, all green-blue with sand and seaweed tossed together … or was it darker … the colour I saw from the old bridge at Lossiemouth beach.

 

I loved the colour of it. I don’t know who had worn it before me. In our small family, children’s clothes were passed on to cousins. I was surprised when my mother produced it one day and made me put it on. Here was a ‘good’ coat. It was so heavy it flapped when I walked or walloped my legs if I ran. The label inside proclaimed ‘Harris Tweed.’ On the outside were brown, shiny leather buttons, a pocket each side with a silky soft, slippery lining and a staunch belt with a buckle I found hard to handle. The fabric felt the same as my dad’s good jacket, but his was mostly grey, with purple-pink bits when you looked really closely.

Dad explained how the cloth was woven on a loom and then dyed with all sorts of things, but mostly plants. Peering at my sleeve, I fingered the threads looking for a pattern. Sunday School was the perfect place to study the weaving, scratch at the different colours, pull off straggly fine hairs and fluff, all while humming softly. How were those buttons made? I wobbled one so much it had to be sewn back on again, tightly, while I stood watching.

The collar against my neck made me itchy so I had to put one of my Mum’s headscarves between coat and skin. Looking back, I think wearing that coat marked the beginning of my fashion sense, something that I did not share with my mother.

It all came out when we were getting ready to go to a summer wedding in town. Billy McTavish, who used to dandle me on his knee as a toddler, was getting married to a big girl I’d only met once. I adored this tall, young man and had been hoping he’d wait for me to grow up but here, now, he wasn’t.

My summer dress I liked. It was soft, white cotton scattered with little purple roses. It had two pockets. My white, hand-knitted cardigan had been taken out from under the carpet, peeled from its paper wrapping and held up beautifully pressed. This year’s Clark’s sandals had been freshly whitened. My white ankle socks were new.

I baulked as my mother approached bearing that tweed coat. I cried, which was as much of a tantrum I could ever muster then. I got worse when Mum got our straw hats down from the top of the wardrobe. How to explain what I felt? How could I explain why a straw hat does not go with a tweed coat? My younger sister was always more outspoken than I and surprised me some weeks later with retorts like “I’m not wearing that!” even on school days.

 

I cried more … unlucky before a wedding. My mother bargained. If I wore the coat I could carry the white basket (shaped like a flower pot with two life-like cherries on the side) that my aunty gave me when she came back from her big holiday. My sister beamed at this news. She’d get hers if I got mine! These two treasures had been locked in the china cabinet since the day Aunty went home, ages ago.

With my coat on, my precious basket was placed into my hands. My straw hat was straightened again. It looked like a flying saucer after an unsuccessful landing and was held in place by elastic which always left a red mark under my chin. There is a B&W photo somewhere in one of our family albums to prove all this. There we stood before the ceremony, holding the pose on the steps outside the kirk. Despite the basket,  you could tell how I was feeling by the look on my face, under that hat, in that coat.

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That Coat – Text, Drawings and photo from Lossiemouth Bridge by Meg Philp©2019

Story Twigs the Imagination! by Meg Philp Copyright © under Australian Law.