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Extracts from Memories
I was born in the little town of Thurso before the First World War and grew up there. In those days it really was a little grey town on a little grey bay as John Horne, the Caithness historian, called it. We had to be self contained as we had very little contact with the south. We had the train of course, and the boat which went to Orkney; cars were few and more or less confined to doctors and gentry. By the time I went to school after the War, things had not changed very much.
I can remember horse drawn lorries met the train and the boat and distributed goods in the town. The railway then went via Halkirk and Georgemas to Thurso and the branch line went from Georgemas to Wick via Bower, Watten and Bilbster, so the goods were dropped off at these stations. There was also a railway line from Wick toLybster. My earliest memory of going to Wick would be in the middle of the twenties when we went from the school to compete in the Music Festival for the County. We went by train of course to begin with, but later on it was a ramshackle bus which I can remember as distinctly uncomfortable. The only journeys I remember were Sunday School picnics - either to Murkle, Castletown, Thurso East or Scrabster. We were taken to these in horse drawn lorries which had benches put on - a very slow, bumpy journey but we enjoyed every minute. When we got to the field someone was boiling an urn for tea - we had sugar cookies (a great treat - they came from Eliza’s bakery in Princes street). I think there was also an iced bun but that may have been on the night of the Sunday School soiree.
Holidays were very unlike today’s - if one had a grandfather who lived in the country - as we had - it was taken for granted that one would spend the summer there - we were dispatched to the Croft in Slickly . My grandfather had retired and Uncle Sandy was in the croft with a housekeeper, Liz. It was a bonnie wee croft house - typical of its time - no running water of course. The byre was at the back of the house and, I think, the barn or hen house was on the end. It was white- washed and had what was called a Binkie - a small flagstone table at the door which was handy for laying things down on. Inside the door there was a smaller one which held the pail of drinking water on top and the tin ladle and a jug for taking the water into the house. On the left was the kitchen with the open peat fire, the box bed on the opposite wall had curtains, later the bed was enclosed with wooden doors, there was the inevitable dresser with bowls and plates and any bonnie bits they had, on the mantelpiece were two china dogs and a tin caddie with Coronation pictures and beside the mantel hung a calendar which had a pocket in the front in which letters and bills were kept. It was an open peat fire with a ‘swey’ (an arm with a hook on it) for hanging the iron pots on and the big ‘lazy bed’ (hearth) underneath for the ashes which were emptied maybe three or four times a year. On the shelf over the bed was a big tin box in which my Uncle’s funeral suit and hat were kept and his best clothes for going to Wick. The walls were white-washed and the fireplace was beautifully polished with black lead as were the kettle and pots. Two fairly comfortable chairs were at the fireside and the other chairs and kitchen table were plain wood. I slept in the ‘ben’ room with Liz in a large brass bed. It had a round table with a plush cloth and a bonnie bowl in the middle - the fireplace had a brass rail round it - the kitchen also had one for drying socks. There were two large photographs framed of Grandma and Grandpa on the wall and an American clock in the centre of the mantel and a set of brass candlesticks. There was ‘wax-cloth’ (linoleum) on the floor and rag mats made by Liz. The curtains were made of lace and looped back. There was a pot of geraniums in the kitchen and the oil lamp was placed in the window. In the small garden they grew cabbages and some early tatties along with some Monkshood and an old fashioned white rose at the door.
Once or twice a week a van came and Liz used to go out with the eggs and butter which she swopped for messages - the van had a lovely warm baking smell and if you were lucky you got a sugar cookie or if you had a penny, a few striped black balls or pan drops. Liz was a wonderful baker - sometimes the scones were ‘bere’ scones made from bere meal and called bannocks and the white ones were called ‘floor’ scones. When she was baking she’d give you a ‘thoom’ piece - a fresh scone with fresh butter put on with her thumb. We went to the hill for peats, made hay, collected the eggs and for a treat, got a ride on the horse when it was taken to the quarry for water. Actually it was an enjoyable life but the lavatory in the byre was too much for me and I didn’t like work, so I didn’t stay too long.
We first lived in Castle Street, Thurso, and father was at the War. My mother had to bring us up on her own. She had a job to keep us in control and I often had ‘black marks’ for escapes with friends, disappearing to the beach and round the town. She had to cope with my brother having whooping cough which could be a deadly disease in those days and sent us to the croft to avoid a measles scare, but we caught it in the end. When we were in our teens we swam and joined the local tennis club and arranged picnics at Reay and Dunnet with many of the local families in the County. Several folk now had cars and we used to bundle in with rugs, food and a frying pan and build fires out of driftwood, cook sausages etc and lie round the fire for hours wrapped in rugs - happy and innocent days.
Later my father returned from the War and took the wood yard at Bridgend and we moved to the house beside it. Every year he used to have a ship come from Sweden with timber. We used watch for it coming into the bay, taking its sails down and coming up the Thurso river to the pier below what was then a polishing yard. The crew used to have black bread and fish for eels in the river. The horse drawn carts were lined up to take the wood to the yard - it came in battens marked with a blue keel/crayon. The smell of the wood was lovely. In the wood yard was a man ’Old Charlie’ who looked after the black horse which drew the hearse and every year he used to decorate the lorry and join in the Town procession which was then in aid of Lifeboat funds. It was led by Jock Miller of Scrabster on his white horse. - the Miller family being benefactors of the Miller Academy and many other assets in Thurso.
I had many relatives (told about in these Memories but not quoted in this extract) amongst them two aunts, Jessie and Teen. They first had what was the small Clett Hotel in Thurso. The Pentland Hotel came for sale and the elderly lawyer who was factor for the entire west end of the County offered it to the Aunts. Where could they get the money? ‘It is yours:’ he had arranged a loan from what was locally known as ‘Pattygony’ - a fund left by a person named Henderson who had gone to Patagonia and made a fortune and deposited it for the start up of businesses etc. locally. In 1963 these Aunts decided to retire and went to Edinburgh but found that the Standing Stones Hotel in Orkney was for sale and set up in business there again.
Now in 1938 I had joined the ATS and so was called up at the very beginning of World War II. I was sent to Orkney but as I hadn’t been well so I was allowed to stay with the aunts instead of the army quarters and that began the most exciting time of my life. The Aunts hotel had been threatened with being commandeered for service personnel but the aunts agreed to act as hospitality for top ranking service men and advisors. I was secretary to a Major General and the HQ was in Stromness Hotel. Naturally with living in the Standing Stones Hotel and working in the HQ , may interesting contacts and events took place.
On 16th October I came down to breakfast and a friend, Commander Bell said that during the night the Royal Oak had been sunk in the Flow. It didn’t seem possible - NOTHING could get into the Flow and also we had all been at a dance in Kirkwall the night before with several chaps from the Royal Oak - it was a very good dance and five of the boys said they would just carry on dancing and get the liberty boat in the morning - so they were saved. Alan Bell asked if I’d like to come to Kirkwall to see what could be seen and as I didn’t have to go on duty until 12 that day, I went. Ever since I have wished I hadn’t gone. We drove out towards Holm to find the geo full of wreckage and bodies.
Everyone was working busily to try to save what they could. Naturally we didn’t stay as he had to go on duty in Kirkwall Hotel and I went back to Stromness. Of course, no one would believe that it was a submarine - they just would not believe such a thing was possible. And much later at the court of enquiry several high ranking naval officers kept saying that it was not possible. But it happened. Many years later the submarine captain came back to Orkney for a Royal Oak reunion and indeed there were several such reunions - the last only a few years ago when it was decided that the survivors were getting too old to travel. A side line - the Royal Oak survivors were bundled over to Thurso to get them away from the scene and houses and rooms all over the town were gladly opened to receive them.
Just about Christmas, in view of the Royal Oak tragedy it was decided to more or less cover Orkney with barrage balloons and to instigate the building of barriers between the small islands at the Flow entrance. By March everything was ready and all the defences in position and General Kemp called us all into his office and pointing down the Flow where all he ships had come back - it had been empty since October - said "There, thanks to all your work and mine, the Flow is again safe for the Royal Navy" and we all drank a toast to them.
We had most of the famous stars come to the island to put on concerts and most of them stayed in the Hotel - which was very exciting. I remember one dreadfully stormy evening when Frances Day, a famous cabaret singer, had come to give two or three concerts - we all bundled into cars and went to the Garrison Theatre in Stromness and when she came on stage she was so glamorous in a wonderful black lace dress - great applause just for that effort but she was a superb artiste as well. When we got back to the Hotel and were having the inevitable good night drink, I said something about the cold. So she lifted up her skirts to show that underneath she wore a heavy grey woollen hand knitted coverall - under the lace and made the same shape for the neckline - she wore this because she said the troops deserved their bit of glamour. Brave lady.
We had George Fornby and Sybil Thorndike - Tommy Hadley and ITMA cast came one weekend when HM The King was in Hoy and gave a wonderful ‘men only’ show there - evidently it was much enjoyed by them all - but we weren’t allowed to attend. Gracie Fields came and gave the most woderful show I have ever attended. It was held in a huge hanger at Hatson - they put a sort of boxing ring in the centre and covered it with heather and the overflow audience just swarmed up the struts all round the building. I’m afraid the fire regulations were completely forgotten. Huge lights were all around the hanger and of course everyone had a wonderful view. Quite suddenly Gracie appeared on the stage - dressed in a wonderfully long fitted dress of heather coloured sequins - whether she knew about the heather I don’t know, but it was most effective. She sang and joked for ages it seemed - I’m sure she gave a three hour show - very generous and very friendly and of course that wonderful voice.
One day Italy went to War and we declared war against her - we, along with the other commands, had a telegram saying "Commence hostilities against Italy, repeat Italy, at 0100 hours! A little difficult in Scapa Flow - should we blow up the local ice cream shop - no fear, the ice cream was far too good - so we just did nothing.
At the beginning of the war, both army and navy officers were allowed to bring their families to Orkney and there is the classic tale of the English lady whose five year old daughter attended the local school and very quickly assimilated the local accent. Her distraught mother stopped someone in the street and said "Excuse me are you an " accordion"? Perhaps you could tell me what my daughter is talking about". But when the Royal Oak was sunk all the ladies were evacuated from the island - one very bonnie lass who was the daughter of the owner of Stromness Hotel decided to go also as she didn’t want to be stranded and had to get back to college - she had been having a lovely time with a Naval Officer and an Army Officer, turn about, so there was great excitement to see who would carry her luggage to the boat - and sure enough it was the Naval chap and it was him she married later.
Orkney and Shetland Defences were considered so important that they owed allegiance to GHQ and bypassed Scottish Command entirely. We were also considered to be "overseas" and had identity cards and green envelopes to write letters, and best of all one bar of chocolate per week. The green envelopes were all gathered into HQ and looked over in case there was anything incriminating in them - one day the little Corporal who was responsible for censorship came into my office to show me a letter. Early in the war hundreds of troops had been sent to Orkney, from Manchester, Liverpool and many more Midland towns, of course because of secrecy, no one told them where they were going - they were just given a railway warrant and sent off - you can imagine their horror when they arrived in Thurso and were put on a boat. They were very young and most of them hardly knew where Scotland was, let alone that there were islands - then when they crossed the Firth they were just dispersed to various islands which to say the last were primitive then. One wee chap had written in his letter "Dear Mum, I do not know where I am but where I am is bugger all, love Tom". Then there was the slightly strange case of the chap on Flotta who was seen with a sheep - as a precaution his CO had him arrested - when he was questioned his defence was that he thought it was a WREN in a duffle coat!
All the Naval aircraft and RAF ones were issued with a letter of the day each day so that they could be recognised as they went about their business. One day the GOC from Scottish Command was visiting and he and my boss decided to go to Shetland and maybe on to Iceland - off they set and near Fair Isle the guns loosed off at them - no damage done. My boss was so angry that the gunners did not recognise the letter of the day when it was flashed - and not very sure whether to be mad or not that the guns had not hit him! Anyway they flew to Iceland and when they returned brought me a special treat - a lemon! It was impossible to get them then! We used to depend on the Navy to bring us nylons from USA as they were unavailable here so one’s contacts were important. We also used to go to dances in Donibristle - heavily disguised as Naval officers - the thought terrifies me now! Once I went down in a submarine in the Flow and several times I dined aboard the Ark Royal where I was sensible enough to have a boyfriend. All very grand and good fun. We worked very hard also and it was an experience I’ll never forget.
Early in 1941 it was decided that women might go to Staff College - not of course to the sacred halls of Camberley but down to a large hotel in the New Forest. A directive was put out from the War Office asking for volunteers for this course - there would be 68 chosen - both men and women, roughly half and half and both other ranks and officers could apply. As Orkney was becoming dull by then - the centre of the war had moved to the south and the continent, I was wondering if I could get a posting. Colonel Tuck brought this notice one day and asked if I would be interested - after all I had been on the staff for two years and there were hardly any females doing that kind of job then. I was a Corporal and thought that I wouldn’t be considered but Tuck said he was sure it would work and put me up for it. In April 1941 word came that I was to go to the War Office for an interview. Out of the 3500 who had applied, 300 were chosen for interview and 68 were to be chosen from that.
Now all the Scottish ATS who had been Territorial Unit wore a tartan skirt as part of their uniform and the Caithness Co. were unique because instead of a regimental tartan we wore the ancient Sinclair tartan because Lady Sinclair from Barrock House started the Company and thought it would be a good thing. So from then on we wore this skirt, mostly when we were dressed up but we were not supposed to wear tartan if we were outside Scotland. Psychology was something I leaned early on - and one thing was that if you wanted to be noticed, you either wear something different or in some way manage to stand out from the crowd.. So I decided that I wouldn’t say anything to anyone but would wear my tartan skirt for the interview, after all it was early in April and there was snow in Orkney so I could cover it up with my great coat.
So I flew to Inverness and took the train to London - I’ve no recollection of where I stayed but I expect they put me up in one of the Army places. The next day was the interview but there was a little problem - it was HOT and the sun shone from a clear sky. Nothing daunted and not wanting to meet someone who would be officious and make me change my skirt, I went off to the War Office in the great coat.
As I discovered later the temperature in the War Office was high and even before I got to the 4th floor I was perspiring freely but I would not be parted from the coat - just sat in the corridor with some others and prayed. When I was called I took the coat off and left behind me gaping women and marched into the room. The panel was two Generals and two ATS generals or something high up, along with a civilian who was in the Chair. I never know why or who he was. Anyway as I came in one of the chaps said "Ah, here comes Scotland - how is the fishing this year?" and we were away - we talked fishing and shooting and weather while the formidable AT lady tried in vain to get in a word about what experience I had had with the "girls" - none of course, so I avoided that. After ten minutes when one General discovered that my boss had been to Staff College with him and that the Scottish GOC was one of his pals, I was dismissed with the parting words "Good morning young lady, I expect we’ll meet again!" And we did - I was one of the 68 and in early May I hitched a lift on a Naval aircraft to some airport near Brockenhurst and joined the first mixed Staff College course.
It was very hard work that course and no concessions were made to us - if the men did it so we did it. I liked that because it wouldn’t have been such a triumph if they had let us in at the back door. Anyway we slogged our way through it all - and of course I had a great advantage over the other females as I had done staff work in Orkney - they had mostly come from ordinary units. At the end of the coure I was sent to SE Command to General Montgomerie.
It was an exciting place to be and of course the war was around us - my boss, Brigadier Chilton was Monty’s No.2 and we were in on the planning of the Dieppe raid and later D Day. Every morning all the staff had to assemble in the Hall and when we were settled , in came Monty barking "if you want to cough, cough now" and then giving us his daily talk of about ten minutes. All his staff had to run and walk six or ten miles every morning before the lecture - luckily he let me and the one other woman on the staff off that.
The south east of England housed thousands of troops from all over, all getting ready for D Day - we visited lots of them including the 51st Division and it was all very exciting. Pamela Frankau, who was a well known writer, was in our mess and she and I used to go to London to the theatre quite often - by this time the V1 bomb had started and one weekend when we were sharing a room in the Officers Club in Marble Arch, she was in the bed by the window and I was across the room - suddenly a V1 was dropped nearby, blew her out of bed onto my bed and me onto the floor. I was most annoyed at the discrimination - luckily no one was hurt. To my great sorrow in May 1944 I was posted to Edinburgh and so missed the real excitement of D Day but I was promoted to Staff Captqin - again I was lucky with my boss, General Joe Miller wa uterl;y delightful and we became friends.
After about a year later I was posted to Shrewsbury - and after about a week I rushed down to the War Office announcing it was awful - no air and I couldn’t breathe and no way was I staying there, so they posted me to Newmarket - no lack of air there! It was lovely - the war was obviously going over so we began to train folk for civilian life - after all many chaps had joined the Forces straight from school and had no training for anything. I was in charge of rehabilitation training and found it most interesting. Chaps would arrive or write to say how could they train for something or other - one man from Shetland wanted to have a lavender farm and make lavender perfume - we arranged the details for him - he started his farm near Banchory and today is one of the biggest growers in the country. Another chap wanted to learn how to embalm bodies and we discovered that the Co-op funeral department had a branch which did this so off he went and presumably learned all he wanted to know.
We were here when VE day came, we knew of course that it was imminent and on, I think, the Sunday, we were told it was to be signed on the Tuesday - strict orders were given that no one was to leave Newmarket and certainly no one was to go to London - come the Tuesday morning there was no one left in Newmarket, most of us had gone straight to London to join in the celebrations. It was wonderful.
We wandered around, dancing and singing and cheering - someone I knew had just been released from a POW camp and he and his brother and I had a great time. We spent hours at the Palace, at No. 10, at the War Office and in the Mall - periodically returning to Paddy’s house for sustenance and a spot of sleep - but not much - I got back to Newmarket on Friday morning and during the day most of us had drifted in - no one said a word about orders or anything else. I was sent to SHAEF HQ for the few months of the war remaining and from there we went to watch the Victory parade - again a never to be forgotten occasion.
I was discharged in 1946 (Spring) and like the rest of us was very careful to see that I was supplied with railway warrants to take me first to Edinburgh to see folks, then home - the grateful government had given me my discharge bounty of - wait for it - £65! That was for six years service - put one where one belonged! I stayed at home for about four weeks and, again on a slightly illegal warrant, went back to London to get a job - in those days I just knew that no one could live way from London and I had all the intentions of settling in and never living in Scotland again - let alone, Over the Ord.
I got a room in Earl’s Court and started to look for a job. During the first week I got an interview with the Head of Staff Training at the John Lewis Partnership who said she would let me know. Two days later she asked me to call again - and told me that I had the job - she said that there was really nothing to choose between me and someone else and she was sitting looking at the forms trying to decide when she realised that my birthday and hers were on the same day - so that decided her. Lucky, wasn’t it!
John Lewis had a music club for which you paid 5 shillings and then you could ask for what tickets you wanted at various theatres, the Albert Hall, Covent Garden etc. and these you could get at just less than half price as the firm paid the rest. Of course you might not get the ticket because there would be too many names in the draw but we knew the Chairman’s secretary very well and we were usually lucky. We got clothes at 10% off and of course managed to find out what was being marked down so we did rather well.
Now I had always wanted to go to the USA and during the war I was offered a job in Washington when I was at Reigate but as father had died early in November 1939, I didn’t think I could go so far away. Now my next chance came - John Lewis had some sort of agreement with Macy, the big store in New York - one or two of their staff would work in London for a year and we would do the same. I got the chance to go but just at that time Mother took ill so I had to go back over the border and back over the Ord. I cannot say that I was happy or pleased about it and for the first few years I rushed off to London when I could but eventually I forgot about it all and settled down here……….and in 1950 Alastair and I opened the Ship’s Wheel and that was that.
The full transcript of her dictation is available. This version has been edited only to the extent that topics such as her family details have been omitted where they do not impinge on the story. Some repetition has also been eliminated.