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A Grandmother's Tale: life in Gravir (I)
A Grandmother's Tale: life in Gravir (I)
Growing up in Gravir, by Margaret Ann Macaskill.
My name is Margaret Ann MacAskill (Carswell). I was born August 26th, 1901 in a village named Gravir, on the Isle of Lewis, Scotland. My father's name was Allan MacAskill and my mother, Johanna MacMillan (MacAskill). I don't know too much about my parents' early life, but I do know that my father was orphaned when he was only 14. Both his parents and his sister all died within a few weeks of each other, the victims of some kind of fever.
My mother had been to school for only two years. In her day, school was not free, and when her brother was drowned in a fishing accident, she had to leave school as she was needed for work at home. As a result, she could neither read not write and she spoke no English at all, only Gaelic. She could count a little - I can remember her counting out the eggs. She always said 3, 6, 9, dozen. For some reason, she never said 3, 6, 9, 12. At the time of his death, her brother was only 18. He was out in a boat with several men from the village when their boat started to fill up in heavy seas. He tried to swim ashore but his heavy boots weighed him down and he became entangled in the fishing nets. The men who stayed with the boat were saved.
My parents worked very hard. They raised 8 children - four sons and four daughters. I was the sixth of the family and the youngest girl. I was particularly close to my brothers Donald and John. They were younger that I was and I was expected keep them out of trouble.
My mother knitted all the socks that my father and brothers wore from wool, clipped from our own sheep. She washed the wool, dyed it, dried it, then carded it on a small card - spun it into thread on a spinning wheel. She had a treadle sewing machine and made a good many of our clothes. She made vast quantities of scones on a griddle over an open fire (we had no stove or oven). The scones were made with milk or whey, cream of tartar and flour. She scrubbed all of our laundry on a washboard. All the water was pumped from our well. In bad weather, the water would be heated over the fire in our kitchen - in summer, a fire was built outside, and when the water was hot, the laundry was done in the out-of-doors.
My father had a loom and during the winter months, he wove tweeds and blankets. We couldn't talk to him or jump around too much when he was weaving because he had a lot of counting to do. From April to October, he was busy working on the land and looking after sheep. He planted vegetables for our use and oats to feed the cattle. We had no horse or plough and all the digging was done with a spade. He also went fishing with long lines and with nets. He would bring home large fish, cod, ling, haddock also herring - all kinds of other fish. We hardly ever had to buy meat. We had lots of animal to kill. We also had eggs from our chickens and plenty of fresh milk. Father also served several weeks a year in the Volunteer Naval Reserve (this would have been during the first World War).
By today's standards, our diet was pretty limited. We ate the food we produced ourselves. We had only four vegetables that I can remember - potatoes, carrots, cabbage and turnips. There was almost no fruit - we saw apples and oranges only at Christmas. Bread came from Stornoway by boat. We would have it only on the weekends. The rest of the time, we ate homemade scones. All of the cooking was done in pots hanging over an open fire - hence we had no roasted or baked food - no pies or cakes. All meat was boiled and fish was either boiled or fried.
During my childhood, my parents shared a 7.5-acre croft. The croft had belonged to my mother's parents. There were two houses on it. My mother's cousins had their house at the seashore and ours was on the hill above them, about a half a mile away. Because we had no vehicles of any kind - no farm wagons, buggies etc, any of our supplies (such as sacks of flour or sugar) that would reach us by boat, would have to be slung over a shoulder and carried up the hill. All our water came from a well beside the house and in spite of our hilltop location, our well never went dry. Many of the wells down below us would dry up at times, but ours never did. Eventually, there was a dispute over who had the better right to this croft and it was decided that the cousins had the better claim - so in the early 1920s, after most of our family had moved away from home, my parents moved off the original croft, and built a house on a smaller piece of land (about 5 acres ) at Loch Cross Allan.
The house that I grew up in had four rooms - a clay floor and a thatched roof. In stormy weather, chains were stretched over the roof and fastened on either side with sea anchors to prevent parts of the roof blowing away in the gales. The only heat in the house was provided by the one fireplace in the kitchen. I don't remember being cold though because we always had plenty of blankets that my father had made.
The open fireplace could be very dangerous and I can remember a few accidents that happened when I was young. One day, my uncle's dog was swishing his tail in the kitchen and pulled down the teapot scalding my legs. Another time, my Grannie who was ill was lying on a mattress in front of the fire and I was sitting near her feet. A hot coal rolled out of the fireplace and burned me badly. Later on, after my sister Jessie was married, she was cooking a dumpling over the fire in her kitchen. From time to time, she would peak under the lid to see how it was progressing. Her young daughter, aged two or three who had been watching her, tried to the same thing. When Jessie saw what she was doing, she made the mistake of calling out and startled the child. The boiling pot spilled all over the little girl and she died the next day.
Getting help in any kind of emergency was not easy. The doctor lived on the other side of Loch Erisort. Someone would have to walk or run to the telephone in the Post Office. It might take the doctor several hours to get any message because he had a big district to cover and might be at the other end of it when we needed him. He would then have to take a boat across the Loch and bicycle from there. Many people died painful deaths from ailments that needed hospital or emergency treatment (ruptured appendix and difficult childbirth cases etc).
I started school at five years of age. There was no kindergarten. Our work was done on slates. We got little books for reading and arithmetic. We took our slates home every night to do our homework and we had to scrub their wooden frames. Each child had to carry a small peat to school every day in the winter to heat the schoolrooms. Every child eight years old and over had to carry two peats. There was no central heating or electric light - just coal-oil lamps. When we graduated out of primary (about 8 years old) we were given pens and ink and pencils and jotters. The girls got sewing every Friday afternoon and the boys got navigation instructions.
Our schoolmaster was Angus Macdonald and he lived in a house next door to the school. Some mornings, he would sleep in and we would be left playing outside until he came to ring the bell. Quite often we would get hungry and would eat up our lunchtime pieces before the bell rang and then we would have to go all day without anything else to eat until we went back home after four in the afternoon. Sometimes in the good weather, if he were very late opening up, all the boys would go off swimming and there would be great rush for them to get dressed and dried off when the bell started to ring. Mr Macdonald was very strict and would not allow us to speak Gaelic on school property. We all spoke Gaelic at home and most of us did not ever speak English until we started school.
We didn't get Christmas holidays, just a half-day off. We got all a day off for New Year. Every year, one of our schoolteachers, a Miss Matheson from Ullapool originally, would arrange a Christmas party for us. It was held in the evening in the Church Hall and we really looked forward to this. We entertained ourselves by singing songs and doing recitations. Miss Matheson always bought candy for us out of her own money so that we would each have a little something to take home with us. We never had a Christmas tree. At home we used to hang up stockings at Christmas Eve and Santa filled them mostly with oranges, apples and candy. I remember one very stormy Christmas when the boat from town couldn't get down to our village. All my stocking contained on Christmas morning was a very shined up teaspoon from our kitchen and some oatcakes.
We got three weeks holidays in April and four weeks starting mid August. Our holidays were arranged so that we could help our parents with their work - the April holidays, so that we could help with the spring work on the land, and the August holiday, so that we would be able to help with the harvest. By 1910, however, that was changed and we were given seven weeks holiday at the end of June, the same as the city children.
I finished public school work when I was 12 years of age, but I couldn't go to High School until I was 14 years old because there was only the one high school in Stornoway and there wasn't enough room for all the children from the country schools. I was made a Monitor (sort of a teacher's helper) and I had to teach infants (primary children) half days, five days a week: the other half days, I was in a supplementary class, getting some of the work from the first two years of high school. I was paid five pounds sterling for a six-month term as monitor. When the time finally came that I could go to High School, I was nervous about leaving home and about living alone in the hostel in town, so I decided to leave school at that time. I was fourteen and a half. I stayed at home and helped my mother until I was seventeen and old enough to go to the mainland and look for a job.
By the time, I left for Canada in 1923, electricity had come to the Isle of Lewis and life started to change for the better. My Gravir school eventually had a canteen added to it with a big electric stove. The children then received hot cooked dinners at noon for a few pennies. Life for the next generation was much easier. The children had more time to play.
During my childhood, the two social events that I looked forward to were Miss Matheson's school Christmas party, and an all-girls Halloween party that we arranged ourselves. I earned the money for these Halloween parties by going messages for two old neighbours. No one went 'shelling out', but the boys in the district would be out in the evening looking for some mischief to get into. Our party would be held in a different home each year, and they would usually find out where we were going to be and come and bother us. There were about six girls all my age and who lived quite close - there were the three Nicholson girls, Marion (who made the trip to Canada with me when I emigrated and who is the mother of Kitty - Mrs Jim MacLean), her sister Marybelle who later married Donald Murray and lived in Detroit and their sister Chrissie who now lives in Aberdeen. My two cousins, Mary Kennedy and Mary MacAskill would come and some friends, Margaret Macleod and Joan Campbell. We didn't dress up in costumes. We would spend the evening bobbing for apples and making candy.
There wasn't much social activity for the adults. Life was almost all work. There were weddings and funerals of course, but the main get-together was at the time of the communion at church. This was held twice a year in the spring and the fall. Gravir had the biggest church in the district. It had a big gallery and could hold 1,000 people. The communion would last four days. People would arrive on Thursday, coming home from all the surrounding villages, for an afternoon and an evening service. They would stay with friends and relatives for the weekend. There would be an evening service on Friday and again on Saturday and the communion service itself would be held on Sunday.
We always had lots of visitors at Communion time. My Aunt Mary would come from Achmore and my Aunt Catherine from Marvig. I remember one time, when we had a lot of visitors, mother made mattresses from bran sacks and we children gave up our beds to the visitors and we slept on the mattresses in the barn. We thought it was great fun. Children didn't often go to the communion -it was too long - each service about two hours. If we did go, we sat up in the gallery. Before the communion weekend and all the visitors arrived, my father would go to town for a big bag of loaves of bread. My mother would make scones and oatcakes. There was always lots of jam. The main meals would be soups and stews.