You are here
Reminiscences of Donald Macphail, Gravir
Reminiscences of Donald Macphail, Gravir
by Donald Macphail, 19 Gravir.
For a lot of people the early thirties produced unemployment, scarcity and want. We were fortunate that Lever Brothers, being an international company, managed to keep going ensuring that there was a regular wage coming in to sustain the family. Around us the deprivation caused by unemployment was all too evident in the shuffling, hopeless masses wandering aimlessly on the street and the men and women on the march trying to draw the attention and compassion of the nation's leaders to their plight. As if they cared!
Those of us who had served in the war had emerged from its horror with relief that it was over and grasped the banner of hope unfurled by our leaders, celebrating the end of war to end all wars and a better future for mankind. It did not take many years for disillusion to replace hope, for pledges to turn into betrayal and for many fathers unable to provide daily bread for their children to realise that while life in the trenches was always dangerous, at best they had their dignity and pride and three meals a day.
For Annie and I time flew by at 84 Parkside Road and with our daughter, Catherine healthy and happy, life seemed complete. We had good friends all around and that in itself contributed to our happiness as much as anything. Dark clouds came our way as they do with most people, but they passed away and dissolved in time as they are bound to do when two people see eye to eye.Catherine was content at home and in school and made a lot of friends. If the house sounded like a bear garden at times, no matter, so long as the children enjoyed themselves.
But, all good things come to an end, they say and one day in autumn 1937 I received a telegram to say that my father had passed away and would I come home to see him buried. I set off without delay and the journey this time seemed dreary and endless. My sister, Joan joined me at Perth and we made our long, sombre way to Kyle and Stornoway together.We had no eyes for the scenery that used to enchant us on our travels north, the purple haze softly encircling the hills had become darkening stormclouds and the magnificent grandeur of the mountains loomed sullen and forbidding adding to our desolation and despair.
I thought about my father. Friend and counsellor that was no more. It seemed very sad indeed to think that we could no longer roam the Minch together or go for a sail or ramble as we used to. He had not lived long in the new house we had taken so much trouble to build for him. Old men do not like to be rooted up from old familiar places and even though he had asked for the change and got it, his heart remained in that old, derelict cottage by the shore where the sound of the surf and the cry of the seagulls lulled him to sleep at the close of day and roused him from his slumber at each day's beginning.
I had sweated and toiled on my holiday in 1935 to lay the foundation of the new house. Spent quite a lot of money too before it was finished, although I could ill afford it at the time. We managed, and the new house gave him comfort and pleasure and that was my reward.
When we arrived home, Joan and I went into his room to have a look at him.There was no change in death, except that the weatherbeaten face was smooth now, all the furrows ironed out by the great leveller. He just looked as if the load of his 76 years had been lifted and he was happy with it. He died of pneumonia following a fall and he died quickly as he would have wished.
A couple of days afterwards I said goodbye to his earthly remains for the last time. The morning of the funeral was wild and stormy, symbolic of the life he had led. The wind blew in fearful gusts from the north west with cold lashing rain driven before it soaking the pallbearers to the skin. Most of the villagers were in the procession for he was loved by all. What were a few drops of rain and a bit wind to people like them who were used to it.
I felt very lonely returning from that far away churchyard where I had left the best pal in the world. Friend and father who had lived out his life in humble circumstances, endowed with an unlimited measure of faith, patience and fortitude which enabled him to meet and overcome the harsh challenges that life had oftimes presented him with. Devoted too, to his family and to his faith and wise and gentle in his dealings with everybody. "Remember thy Creator in the days of thy youth", he used to say and "do not be afraid". He was never afraid of anything.
I spent fourteen days at Gravir before returning to Bebington. There was quite a lot to be seen to and affairs put into order. As the poet, Emily Dickinson wrote: "The bustle in a house, the morning after death; is solemnest of industries, enacted upon earth". My sister Effie was to continue in residence, the last of a family of eight remaining in Gravir to carry on and I felt extremely sad leaving her. I strolled down to Gob a Rudha to look at the old cottage and found everything as I had left it two years before. Outside, like sentinels on the rocks rested the gulls in their spotless attire as usual. Not so many of them now, there was no one to throw them titbits of fish, bread and potatoes. They were quiet too, nothing at all to scream about, the stir and the bustle of days gone by had vanished before their eyes, the herring baskets they used to dive into, broken and scattered like fragments of precious jewels in the lee of the rocks. We shared the quiet beauty of its lonliness knowing we had reached the end of a long journey.
That was my last visit for eleven years. It would be 1948 before I made the long trip home again. These were dark years. Out of the cesspool of Europe, Hitler burst upon the world with his blitzkreig in 1939 and another World War began. Twenty five years earlier with hearts astir with patriotism we had abandoned our education our parents and our way of life to rally to our country's aid in its hour of need and to fight for a better future. The peace we had gained at such a high cost in human suffering was wasted and the people who had secured the victory betrayed. However, the threat to our country was real enough to persuade every able bodied person to do their bit - so I became an Air Raid Warden.
"Carry your gas mask" was the cry. No business house would allow you to work unless you had your gas mask. At home the first thing we had to do was create a gas proof room and blacken out all the windows and doors to prevent the lights being seen at night. It was hard work trying to convince some people that the blackout was an obligation enforceable in law. As Senior Warden I had to know how many people lived in each house in my division, where they sheltered and even where they worked. Some of them thought I was a bit of a nosey parker at first, but as the war progressed they came to me for advice on shelters and sometimes trusted me with private problems as well. Later on I joined the Home Guard and carried out both jobs to the best of my abilities.
Although it was hard work and we did not have much spare time we had a lot of fun as well. Old people and those who lived on their own were visited during raids and we all became comrades and friends. In the intervals between raids the wardens used to pass the time away by spinning yarns and singing. We gathered in an archway between 75 and 76 Parkside Road and sang and harmonised to our hearts content. Quite a number of us had narrow escapes during the bombing, but we did'nt dwell on that. We had a duty to perform and keep our spirits high. One evening we had a practice firing down at New Brighton. The Major had ten rocket guns and a team of active service gunners lined up to show us how to fire. When the drill was complete and the Major gave the order to FIRE not a burp issued forth from the gun barrels. He was livid and called on two electricians, former Cammell Laird men, to examine the circuits. They found that all the small batteries used for firing the triggers had been removed. The Home Guard exploded into a fit of giggles and got the blame for sabotaging the exercise. Rightfully so, as it turned out.
Between normal work, the Home Guard and Warden duties my garden was getting neglected. Gardening was my favourite recreation, growing my own flowers and vegetables. One night we were so tired that we slept through an air raid upstairs in our beds. Sometimes my wife, Annie would sit by a corner of the fireplace with a cushion on her head to soften the blow from any falling bricks should the house be blown up. Forget that a bricks weighs nine pounds, even without the force of gelignite driving it! Still, where ignorance is bliss........
I was walking down the garden path one night when all of a sudden I heard the whine of a bomb and instinctively fell flat on the ground. My tin hat rolled out of the garden gate along the pavement while the bomb fell in the corner of my allotment. Fortunately, it did'nt explode. On the whole we led a charmed life and apart from having my tin hat dented by a shell fragment we came through without injury.
Eventually Catherine joined the WAAFS and we were left on our own. We missed her very much and made up for it by much letter writing. I kept all her letters until after the war was over and handed them over to her. Finally we burnt them all, which was a pity because I could have written quite an autobiography of her stay in the forces, her hopes, dreams, fears and dissappointments. That was one of the things I liked about my Catherine, there were never any secrets witheld and all her troubles were discussed between us.