Strathblane Between the Wars by Helen Lillie


Extract from A New Kind of Life by Helen Lillie

(Argyll Publishing, 1999)

When they were first married, my parents lived on Cecil Street in the West End of Glasgow which I know my mother hated. I remember nothing of that period because as soon as she could, she bought, with Uncle Ned’s help, a modest house called Bluerisk in Strathblane, a country parish at the base of the beautiful Campsie Fells only twelve miles from town and so, even in those days, within commuting distance of my father’s office. Although it was never mentioned that the house belonged to his wife, my father was so proud of it, he delighted to show it off to guests.

Strathblane in 1916 was “real country” in contrast to Milngavie and Bearsden, and Bluerisk, though not large, was big enough to employ two maids and a chauffeur-gardener. In my novel Home to Strathblane, set in 1792-3, I described the original house, named Blaeresk, and in it I house a brilliant ornery young physician from Edinburgh, Doctor Douglas Elliot Stewart who becomes the hero of Strathblane and Away and its sequel The Rocky Island.

I grew up creating imaginary characters and devoted to dolls because, perforce, I was a rather lonely child. There were not many households close by with young families. Indeed, there were not many houses and whenever one went up, people worried about being “overlooked” and losing privacy. Then of course they became friendly with the newcomers who joined their ranks and feared about the effect on the neighbourhood of the next home to be built. ·

In the early decades of the twentieth century the Blane Valley had two churches with two ageing ministers. The Strathblane Parish Church was run by the Reverend William Begbie Moyes, a charming, cultivated man whose rich English wife didn’t fraternise with the villagers.

A few years after her death, when he was in his seventies, he had a heart attack while preaching, fell from the pulpit and broke his ankle. He was much loved but as a widower he had become a recluse, so instead of phoning him people went around asking each other in hushed tones, “And how is Poor Mr. Moyes?”

Then the astonishing news broke that he was doing so well he was getting married again! And to a pretty nurse ten years younger than his daughter. The agency which had sent her to care for him didn’t permit her to remain beyond a certain time. “And when that came, we couldn’t bear to part!” she told Mummy.

Catherine Moyes was tiny and fragile-looking with prematurely white hair and a delicate pink and white complexion. But behind this dainty exterior was a formidable personality. She made no secret of her professional disagreements with the local doctor and she also well knew the things being said about her marriage so she took the initiative and made herself known. With her husband’s guidance, she called on people throughout the parish and charmed them, even the sceptics. The day she had tea with Mummy and me, we all became friends.

She brought Mr. Moyes back into circulation and he gave me enormous help when I was researching the development of the parish for Scottish history assignments at Glasgow University. I won a prize for those essays even excluding some of his favourite stories.

He had come to Strathblane as a young man at the turn of the century and instituted the first Christmas Day service there. It was thinly attended and as he walked home afterwards, he encountered one of his elders, a roadman who was digging away as usual.

“Geordie,” said the young minister, bracing himself, “I didn’t see you at the Christmas Day worship.”

“Naw!” was the scornful reply. “Ye’ll be haein’ candles next.” “In other words,” Mr. Moyes explained to me, “Next step Popery!”

An elderly female parishioner remarked to him on his first pastoral visit, “I hear your sermons are never more than thirty minutes long. Your predecessor aye preached for an hour or more. It’s no’ worth puttin’ on ma Sunday clothes to come out and hear you.”

This lady was a relative of the celebrated writer Andrew Lang, and when he published a biography of Mary Queen of Scots, she asked him what he thought of her? “Read my book and find out,” he replied, author-like. “I’m no’ wastin’ my time on what you wrote, Andrew. I want you own honest opinion of Mary.”

Lang thought, then delivered judgement, “I think she was a bad one. But a good sort.”

The Moyes’ difference in age didn’t matter intellectually. Nursing had matured Catherine and “William Begbie” as she always called him was extremely youthful in his point of view. In Home to Strathblane I based my fictitious minister of Baldernock and his wife on this couple.

Mr. Moyes and the United Free Church minister, the Reverend Theodor Johnson, retired at the same time and their two congregations were united under the Reverend Frederick Kennedy, who was young and newly married to a university educated woman. The village wasn’t sure about her at first for she was seen in Glasgow lunching by herself in an Italian restaurant and ordering wine. But people eventually grew fond of her. This couple were good friends to me when I was in college. My parents, who had been attending a church in Milngavie, moved their “lines” to Strathblane and from then on we were all more involved in the life of the parish.

My father became Church Treasurer, my mother worked hard and without fanfare on many local projects, and when someone thought up a Girl Guide Troop, I became Tawny Owl of the Brownies. Our Brown Owl (or leader) was a pretty young married woman called Eba Haddow. Years later, when I revisited Strathblane in 1946, I asked her about our troop and was somewhat horrified to find that quite a number of them had strayed from virtue during World War II.

“What on earth did we teach these kids?” I asked. “You didn’t teach them enough,” said Eba’s handsome husband, Archie.


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