Babsie Tom’s memories. Barbara MacKay [nee Vass], born 1913.

I was the youngest of six girls and two boys, you can guess the rest. I remember one new dress for the school picnic and one for church.

Jessie and Tom Vass with Babs, 4 Bank Street, Balintore. 1918.

Two nephews were added to the family after the 1st War, their mother went off to look for her husband who was a soldier in the Canadian army, she came back alone and emigrated to Australia.

My mother was good with the sewing machine and, as my father was a tailor, she or my father could alter the bigger girls’ clothes for me. When one of my sisters went to the Academy in Tain I got her old gym tunic and navy blue nickers for school, we had long black handknitted stockings held up with elastic garters. I had button-boots, one time, fair posh, I still have the button hook. I wore guttaperka’s [trainers] in the summer, had handknitted jumpers, bonnets, rubber boots [wellies] and a coat.

My father was a tailor to trade, he was ‘Tom the Post’ the postman for 7 shillings and 6 pence a week [37 pence today], times were poor, for tailor work, he had to wait for payment till the old folks sold a pig or hogg at new year. James Johnstone’s grandfather took the pigs to market and sold them for the village folk, we were like one big family in the old days. My mother’s work was sewing, knitting, cooking and bossing her six daughters around, she was a good baker of scones and pancakes on the old girdle, but not much variety in the rest of her cooking.

In the morning I polished my father’s boots before going to school, I may have been older than ten when I had to go to Ross’s farm for milk. That was the worst job of the lot, for old Annie Ross, Easter Balintore Farm, milked all the cows before she would give me a drop of milk, school went in at 9am and she didn’t go to the byre until 8.20am. Later we got milk delivered to our door at 5am at 3 pennies [ 1 1/4 pence today]a pint and eggs at 6 pennies [2 1/2pence today] a dozen but now you have to go to the shop and it’s a terrible price. No parrafin lamps or candles now and with a flick of a switch electric light fills every corner, even out on the street. The only telephone was in the Post Office and a telegram boy hastened [he had a bike] with the coloured envelopes round the village, one old woman in Hilton was known to say “it’s from oor John, I recognise the writing”.

My father liked his garden, he also liked me to help him gather the tatties he dug up with a spade.

Thomas Vass.

He had his own way of coaxing me to help him to do the weeding ” come with me and I’ll show you the difference between the weeds and the plants”, I still love to pull out the weeds when I see them.

The tatties were buried in a pit and the ground on top was clapped firmly down with a spade to keep the air out except for a wee space to put our hands in and take out the amount of tatties needed, you needed twice as much on Saturday as you couldn’t go to the pit on the Sabbath. We had to clean and prepare all Sunday’s vegetables on Saturday [except leeks] and also polish all boots and shoes for church next day. He had a few hens too, I had to feed them and look for eggs. The ‘wee’ house at the bottom of the garden was near the hen house. My dear little auntie went into the ‘wee’ house one day while visiting us. I was feeding the hens and for fun I drew the bolt on the outside locking her in, never thinking my mother’s demanding voice would call me to do some other job. I forgot my dear aunt was bolted in but to this day I never forget the row I got.

Chores seemed to be endless, my mother was 44-45 when I was born. I was going on for eight when my brother [Finlay] lost his life at sea,my mother was broken hearted, we all were, he was so nice.

Finlay Vass [Tom]
My older brother tried to make us tough as he had been in the 1st War. I had to polish his shoes in the evening for him to go and see his girlfriend, I was promised a sweetie or two.

For the fires in the house, coal had to be taken by the pailfuls from the shed, but before the coal got into the shed it was taken by horse and cart from a shippie in the harbour and dumped by the ton or 1/2 ton beside the shed door. I remember putting a whole ton into the shed all by myself after my mother egged me on to put a ‘few bitties’ from the outside into the shed as it would help my father who was out delivering the post.

There were lamps to fill with parafin and lamp glasses to clean, I didn’t like cleaning the lamp glasses, I expect my hands were smaller for the job.When I got home from school I was the one who had to clean the tatties in a little tub of water outside the back door, swill them round and round with a brush handle until they were clean enough, then set them in the tattie pan on the fire and blow the fire with bellows to cook them quickly with not too much water and salt, about 20 minutes, I liked blowing the fire.

The weekends were the worst when the brasses had to be cleaned, the china ornaments washed, cutlery polished, my sister helped me. I cleaned the small cupboard where edibles were kept, she did the big dresser. I scrubbed the table top and she scrubbed the lino, we were good pals.

Queenie Vass on bike with Babs Vass [born 1913] at the cycle repair shop 4 Bank Street, Balintore, 1923.
My other sisters were away from home working. My oldest sister was 20 when I was born so I didn’t know some of my sisters until I got older and they were married and needing help with babies.

Some houses had clay floors, no harm done if they got splashed with water as water got splashed on them anyway before they were swept to keep the dust down. The clay floor people never swept the dust right out their doors, that was bad luck [sweeping your luck away]. They brushed into a shovel and carefully emptied the dust in the vennel. I remember when I couldn’t find a slate pencil my older sister said ” Don’t worry you’ll find one in so and so’s vennel”. Sure enough she was right, big families lived on either side of the vennel and wee ends of slate pencils were amongst the dust sweepings.

We can use electric for light and heating and water from a tap but not in my day. I still use water with care as I remember when it had to be carried from the pump over at the well near where the new houses are built. I saw the well when it was uncovered during the housing schemes creation. What a beautiful well, what workmanship. When the pump beside the well broke, the water was piped nearer the village to the pump which is now on the modernised “greenie”. Through time the piping broke and we had to go back to the old broken pump which had to be primed before any water came, so you can imagine every drop of water was precious. By good luck we used rainwater, collected from the slate roof into big barrels, for the weekly wash. We had a huge pot above a fire in the garden for heating the water for boiling sheets and towels and a big tub for stamping blankets.

The old school was attached to the schoolhouse, older boys took it turns to pump water into the house and sometimes the school, but not for toilets, they were dry and we called them ‘peevries’, I hated them. There were coal fires in the school and the ash was empied everyday into the ashpit, I liked the ashpit for playing in, occasionally you could climb in one side and out the other, ideal for hide and seek. We had seven teachers and one visited for cookery for the older girls. The boys got gardening to help the schoolmaster, he got them to measure rainfall, they also were taught navigation and woodwork, the girls got sewing.

The School was called Hilton Public School, big bugs in the Ministry of Defence thought it was a private school so a number of boys were accepted for the RAF, some went to college to become ministers and school masters. We got prizes for merit, attendance and had a school picnic and sports day on the golfing green beside the cemetery.

We had slates in school, not paper jotters, until we got into Mr. Watt’s class, the Headmaster. He was very strict but a great English teacher, no bu”er for butter or wa”er for water with him. Sadly he helped stamp out the Gaelic especially in Balintore, Shandwick and Hilton have still got some Gaelic speakers. In Mr. Watt’s class we got pens and small inkwells which were set into our desks. We had copy books to copy copperplate writing from, also they had text’s like ” A Good Name is Better Than Gold”, “Procrastination is the Thief of Time”. I couldn’t understand that one at the time, but now everything is deferred as I am so slow.

The harbour was so busy they had a Harbour Trust. Small cargo boats 800-1000 tons came in with coal which was delivered by horse and cart to the various sheds 1/2 ton or 1 ton of the people that ordered it before hand. The rest was stored in the coal cellar on John Street, it belonged to J. Ross in the big shop on Main Street. The coal in the cellar was sold by the 1/2 hundredweight or 1 hundredweight and taken away in a barrow, later it was put into hessian bags but these soon wore out and it was back to barrows.

The tides must have been bigger, there were no gardens on the sea side, the tide used to come right up and my father said that during a big tide in his day, the water went in the front door of one house and out the back door, no.4 I think.

The Harbour Trustees had a office in a nice shed near the harbour with a weighing machine. When cargo boats came in for corn and potatoes from farms the produce was taken down to the harbour by horse and cart, the cart and potatoes, but not the horse, had to be weighed on the large rectangular grid and the weight recorded inside the office. The retangular grid is still visable so I hope they preserve it as an antique when the area is improved and not destroyed like they did to the lovely bakers ovens.

A lantern was hoisted on the high pole at the point of the harbour every night by the harbour master and chains were fixed on the harbour wall for him to hold onto on stormy nights.

Boats we saw in the harbour were fishing boats with sails [yawls],

Skinner crew of Togo.

I remember them holding regattas which caused great excitement if knew someone came 1st or 2nd [Togo won one year].

The yawls were followed by fishing boats with engines, salmon fishers used to row to the salmon nets until John Paterson bought a launch called ‘the Pearl’, it towed the cobles to the fishing stations.

Donald Vass, the Pearl.

It saved the energy of the rowers [ my brother was in charge of ‘the Pearl’ before he went to Australia] it towed a few cobles at a time and the fish were ashore quicker to catch the train at Fearn and go south. The furthest fishing station was ‘Kynacka’ [Gaelic name] near Castlecraig, before ‘the Pearl’ the men stayed in a bothy all week, then walked over the hill to be home for the weekend. Then they walked to Chapelhill Church on Sunday, so did we until we got bikes.

There were small cargo boats, one I remember was ‘Argentum’, it may have come in for grain or potatoes, we were allowed on board to explore [ no fear of strangers in those days]. No pleasure boats except the ‘Alisa Craig’, she used to, now and again, take us on trips to Invergordon or Cromarty. The biggest boat in the harbour these days was ‘Betsy Patience’, we had a trip on her to the Nairn games, the next biggest I remember was ‘the Gleaner’.

Balintore Harbour, circa 1920’s. Picture courtesy of Tain and District Museum.

Apart from boats in the harbour, the Royal Navy Fleet or some of it used to anchor in the firth, it was very exciting when, at night, they practised shooting at targets, we were allowed out of bed to watch, the firth would be all lit up with flares and searchlights. During the day small boats came in with sailors to play football etc. We got to sail round one of the aircraft carriers, I think ‘Furious’ was her name. The boys would know the names of all the ships and what kind of ship it was. One morning a landing craft came into Shandwick Bay with troops for a sham battle, not one boy in our class turned up for school that day. Mr Watt was not amused and they all got the strap, just one each and not very hard, the boys later hid the strap up the chimney, which made school harder than ever.

Rannoch is Gaelic for bracken, Parkland place was the parkie behind Park Street where the schoolboys practised their football, thus saving the grass on Rovers Crescent pitch. When I was in school we supported ‘the Swifts’. They were exciting times, for Captain Dewar from Glasgow took a great interest in the villages. He provided a cup and organised buses for the team to compete elsewhere. I wonder where ‘the Captain Dewar cup’ now reposes, red we wore when supporting ‘the Swifts’. Vindie, living in Shandwick now, is the only one I remember of that exciting team who is still alive [ poor George MacKenzie [Vindie] died lately, formally of 7 John Street]. Lochslin Place named after the councillor ‘ Ross Lochslin’ from Lochslin Farm, Fearn. How the schemers’ got away with cramming all these houses into such a small space is a mystery. Owning to the increase in population, we daren’t walk on the road for the many cars, vans, buses, huge lorries, tractors and transporters for boats and not forgetting bikes rushing along, for safety’s sake we are provided with pavements of tarmac and concrete.

When I was at school it’s not traffic we had to watch out for but livestock. McRae’s in the Commercial Hotel had hens, geese, ducks and Dickie the horse, he was a menace, if Dickie was half a mile away grazing in Park and saw anyone running he was sure to join in the fun, he jumped over my shoulder once to catch up with my sister who was in front of me going for water, we got behind a fence until Dickie got fed up and turned tail back to Park. The geese hissed and ran after us, one got as far as pulling the hem of my dress, a hen did the same when she had chicks, once was enough to make sure you kept clear of them when going to the harbour. The McRae’s also had a pony and trap in one of their outhouses and the hens used to lay their eggs in it.

Murdo McRae, Commercial Hotel.

When Murdo McRae went in one day to look for eggs, the eleven eggs he had collected from the other nests were left outside the door in a skillet. Along came two little boys, they saw the skillet with the eggs and went off with them and smashed every one on the bank beside the fisherman’s bothy. When asked why they did that “we was wondering what was inside”, they were only inquisitive wee lads, but eleven eggs, alas Murdo was not amused.

The other livestock we had to avoid belonged to Johnstone the butchers. The billy goat often got off his tether, by good luck his tether was a chain so we could hear him coming. The pet lamb butted me once, I never thought a pet lamb would do such a thing so it had to be avoided. The turkey, bubbley jock or pulley cock, I was really scared of him, when we got out of school at dinner time he would hear us coming down the cemetery brae and be ready for action with his long red bubbly jock hanging down, wings scraping the ground and him bubbling for all he was worth, I kept well clear. Daisy the cow was always scrounging for food. The nanny goats seemed to like being around the sheds near our house, there was one special corner they used to have their baby kids, seems it was really warm there, they were lovely. Sometimes we would hear the cry “goats are in the garden” and cabbages would have their tops off, but we heard that cry when no goats were in the garden, because my father discovered when my mother got a fit of hiccups all he had to do was look out the window to the garden and shout ” goats are in the garden” and her hiccups disappeared like magic as she got ready to chase them off. That was the byword in our house for many years to cure the hiccups.

Johnstone the butcher was a great attraction for us. As I set off from Bank Street in the morning my mother always said “come straight home now B”, I never did. On the way to school we had to pass the pig-sty, if there were any ‘coolans’, young ones, in the sty we couldn’t pass. The sty was made of rough strong wood palings with the bark still on them, the bark soon came off the top row, and became highly polished, with us hanging over it trying to count the number of ‘coolans’, they were very elusive running round the old sow, talk about hygiene! if our mothers only new! The new cemetery wasn’t there then, so it’s by the left side of the old cemetery the road went through the field to the school. Snails with shells on their backs were a great attraction, we always greeted them with ” snail, snail, put out your horns and you’ll get porridge and milk in the morn”, spiders webs were spectacular on the dewy whins, so lovely. There was a nice area of grass in the field where the ‘elite’, like teachers, played golf, we had our school picnics and sports there. We scrounged around the whins looking for golf balls and at nesting time for birds nests. We had a teacher who encouraged us to look for wild flowers and she would tell us their names or we’d look for four leaf clovers. The boys looked for wild bees honey and climbed around the old quarry looking for birds nests [the quarry has now got houses built in it]. During the right season of the year the boys were allowed to burn the whins which kept the whins under control for the golfers, nowadays the whins are so huge you would need a fire engine in attendence if they were set alight. Coming home from school at dinner time, down the cemetery brae and safely past the dreaded pulley-cock, we’d go around to Johnstone’s shop, but first we’d have a peep over the dyke at the backyard to see if there was ‘a lamb for the slaughter’, for they had a small slaughter house. Then it was into the shop to help Davie [Johnstone] swat the big blue bottles on the carcases. He was always pleased to see us and he had more than one swat. He was a nice man who was honoured with the initials J.P.[ Justice of the Peace] after his name.

I remember a contraption Davie had, we called it a ‘charabang’, it was wooden and horsedrawn, it had seats, rather like a tourist coach in the Isle of Man. He also had a spring-cart, it was smaller.

James Johnstone, David’s son, with butcher’s cart in Shandwick, circa 1930’s

I remember my father telling me he hired the spring-cart to go to a meeting at Nigg, there was a ‘Revival’ in the area. My father was the postie and he met one of the ‘Elders’ from Nigg church who asked could they have a ‘delegation’ from our meetings. My father said “what’s a ‘delegation’ “, “two other fellows and yourself” came the reply. My father said ” I can get more than that”.”No, three is enough” came the reply. On the specified day off they went in the spring-cart, on their way they met a man coming from Nigg, they hailed him in the passing “who’s speaking at the meeting tonight”, they were fairly taken aback when the reply came “who do you think but yourselves”. My father didn’t know the ‘delegation’ meant the speakers. The others wanted to turn back, so did my father, but as he was responsible for the outing, hired the spring-cart and all, he coaxed them to carry on. “You’ll have to speak first” his companions said. When they got to the hall the folks were singing a hymn ” where he leads me I will follow”. When my father got up to speak he put on his glasses and they steamed up, so he couldn’t read anything from the bible, he just had to take a text from hymn they were just singing “where he leads me I will follow”. The man who invited the ‘delegation’ said ” are the other two as good as you”. ” Oh far better” said my father. My father said to an old friend who loved to hear the story of the ‘delegation’ and the spring-cart and pony ” the Lord led us out of the predicament”.

Davie’s son James followed his father and runs a successful business with the help of Uisdean Ross [Buzz] from Hilton, they keep the customers happy with their patter and good humour. William, James’s son works quietely in the background or out in the van, he’s more interested in his ‘library books’ than joking with customers. They don’t need children to swat the flies anymore as some kind of invention lures the flies of the meat.

Now in 1998, Johnstone’s the butcher is now closed owing to some disease amongst cattle called B.S.E., short for a long official name nobody can pronounce, with all the supermarkets springing up all the small shops in the villages will be closed, where am I to go at the age of 85.

Once upon a time there was ten or eleven shops in Balintore and similar in Hilton. Davage [an Englishman] even provided a small library in his newsagents shop. I remember one sailor boasting that Zane Grey was his girlfriend’s name. Zane Grey was one the favourite authors from Davage’s shop, with a name like that it could have been a man or a woman, but what did the sailor care! Davage was a good business man, he delivered newspapers round the village on his bike while his wife and later his daughter kept the shop.

Babsie MacKay [Tom], 13 Main Street, Balintore, aged 98. Died 8th April 2012, aged 99.