Summer Knickers – A Scottish Wartime Childhood by Sarah Paton Wiseman (edited extracts), with an addendum by Margie Mitchell

Reminiscences

Introduction

Sarah Paton Wiseman was born in 1938 to Helen Noel Paton and William Boyd Mitchell, who was the managing director of Dougal’s brickworks in Bonnybridge. The couple had married in Edinburgh in 1936 and rented Revoan, a villa on Old Mugdock Road in Strathblane that overlooks the Punchbowl Loch. Sister Vicky arrived in 1940, Alix in 1944 and finally Margie in 1946. [Punchbowl Loch was originally a mill dam. The Mitchells had a rowing boat on it, though it was also their water supply. Sometimes small fish swam out of their taps.]

Sarah Mitchell

In later life Sarah settled in Mexico with her husband and family and worked as a writer and editor, publishing a number of poems, short stories and children’s books. In 2005 a novel, The Gin Trap appeared, followed by Absence (2017) and Somewhere Else Instead (2021). Summer Knickers, published in 2013, is Sarah’s memoir of her eccentric childhood in Strathblane in the 1940s and 50s, with its irksome constraints and glorious freedoms. Some sections (printed in italics) are written as prose poems. Like the best children’s authors, she retains the ability to describe that world through the eyes of a child. The title comes from the contrast between the many layers of cumbersome garments she was buttoned into during the long cold Scottish winters – remember the ironically-named Liberty Bodice, anyone? – and the cartwheeling emancipation offered in summer by Aertex knickers.

Young Sarah’s observations of and interactions with the adult world offer plentiful opportunities for humour and insight. Though from a privileged background by any objective standards, it didn’t feel that way to young Sarah: punished for hiding the boots belonging to Brown, the unpleasant gardener who tried to make her wring a chicken’s neck; and begging Elsie the cook for a scrape of the cake bowl, during sugar-starved wartime. When Netty from her father’s office comes as a stand-in nanny, Sarah and her baby sister are left outside Annie Bone’s legendary Blanefield sweetshop in the rain, while Netty flirts with soldiers inside. [Annie began her business in a wooden hut beside Yarrow House before moving up the road to the premises now occupied by Coffee at the Wilsons. She carried an air of mystery and is rumoured to have sold goods other than confectionary.]

And though the adults do their best to hide the grim realities of war from the children, far more than sweetie rationing and the blackout get through to Sarah. Her previously undomesticated mother preserves their hens’ eggs in solutions of “waterglass” [sodium silicate] and churns out bottled fruit. Sarah has nightmares about Germans stealing her away after being taunted by an older boy and when she overhears talk of a local man who is “Missing”, asks her mother: “Is missing the same as lost?.” [In places Sarah changes people’s names, presumably to protect their privacy. Though she refers to the missing man as “Mr Turnbell”, it is probably Lieutenant Colonel Richard Pedder, the leader of No 11 (Scottish) Commando, one of six local men killed in WW2 and whose names were added to Strathblane war memorial. The Pedders lived next door to the Mitchells and had two small daughters. Dick Pedder was killed while leading a daring raid behind enemy lines near the Litani River in Syria in 1941. Though she was less than three when it happened, Sarah knew that a German bomber crash-landed near Strathblane in 1941 and visited the crash site on family walks. This incident is vividly described by amateur war historian Alisdair Fleming in our essay on World War Two.]

Sarah and her sisters were educated locally but not at the local school. Rather a very small private school was established at Strathblane’s Old Manse during the 1940s for what could be described broadly as the children of “those and such as those”. A governess was hired and a small group of local children were educated, first by the long-suffering Miss Campbell and then by the much-loved Mrs Frew. When Sarah was in attendance, the roll consisted of about eight little girls and one boy (simply referred to as Dennis), who suffered rough treatment at the hands of his merciless classmates. Two of the other girls were the elder sisters of current owner Alastair Wallace who says: “I still call that room the ‘schoolroom’. I was too young to attend but used to eavesdrop on the lessons. Apparently, that’s how I knew my times tables by the time I was two!”

The Old Manse

In 1948, after the birth of Sarah’s youngest sister Margie, the Mitchells outgrew Revoan and the family moved to the other end of the village and  to Gateside (now Blanefield House Care Home). The school moved with them, assuming the name Gateside Academy. [Gateside, built around 1880 and originally called Parklea, had been the home of Anthony Sykes Coubrough, owner of the Blanefield Printworks.]

Much to their parents’ disquiet, Sarah and Vicky become obsessed with the idea of owning a pony. The move to Gateside facilitates this as their new home comes with a field. Lightning (“Lighty”) duly arrives by train and the girls proudly walk him down the lane from Blanefield Station. For her secondary education Sarah was sent to an English boarding school.

Here we reproduce edited extracts that reflect life in Strathblane in the 1940s and 50s. An unabridged version of Summer Knickers is available at Strathblane Library.

The memoir is dedicated “In memory of my beloved sister Alix 1944-1965”. In 1965 Alix Mitchell, aged 21, a student and the third of the four sisters, disappeared during a cycling holiday in France. Six days later her body was found in the River Rhone near Arles. She had been murdered but no one was ever convicted. A sandstone pillar in her memory stands in Strathblane Cemetery. Margie, the youngest of the Mitchell sisters, has contributed a brief tribute to Alix by way of an addendum and is writing a memoir of Alix’s life and death.

Anne Balfour 2024

Alix’s Pillar. Strathblane Cemetery

Preface

I was a pre-war baby by eleven months, the first of four girls born to young Scottish parents. They lived in a country house on a small loch outside Glasgow. The Campsie Fells, running from Denny Muir to Dumgoyne, sheltered the valley we lived in on one side, while moorland, wild, wet and beautiful, dotted with sheep and remoter lochs, swept up to the stone walls that surrounded the safety of our garden.

Revoan

It seems unlikely that my parents anticipated anything but peace and pleasure. They had friends and relations within motoring reach for grouse shooting, tennis and parties. The fact that our mother was doubtful as to how to boil an egg was not considered a drawback. It was more important for a young wife to love paintings, porcelain and dogs and to be able to withstand the ferocious Scottish winters. A fondness for sherry was looked on favourably and, for mundane matters such as eating, there was a kind cook in the kitchen.

On 30 September 1938 Neville Chamberlain returned from Munich waving the infamous non-aggression pact signed by Hitler, promising “Peace for our time”. My father, having lost an eye in the First World War aged 18, was not reassured. My mother, delighting in a new life and awaiting the birth of her first child, was probably less aware of the threat on their doorstep.

William Boyd Mitchell. Sarah’s father lost an eye at the age of 18 in the First World War

It is unlikely she foresaw that she would soon be teaching herself to cook with wartime rations, urging her rain-bedraggled hens to lay and storing their precious eggs in pails of waterglass to preserve them for winter. She would have been surprised to know that she would take up bee-keeping to supplement the shortage of sugar and that, before long, the petrol which supported their comfortable lifestyle would become a rare commodity.

In fact, a more immediate threat lay ahead of her. My birth was an arduous affair and she nearly died. There was little child-bearing support in those days and I suspect our mother knew as much about her own body as she did about what existed under the bonnet of her Rover. Besides, she believed words like cervix and fallopian belonged in a dictionary and should stay there. Our consecutive births were all traumatic, although she greeted each new daughter – Sarah, Vicky, Alix, Margie – with pride and joy. Our father spent each birth playing billiards at his Glasgow club, where whisky may have softened the blow as his household of women grew large and voluble about him.

Sarah Mitchell, aged around one, with her father in the summerhouse at Revoan

Hitler invaded Poland on 1 September 1939, just before my first birthday, dismissing the Munich agreement as “just a scrap of paper”. Although WWII deeply affected the lives of urban children in Britain, country parents attempted to shield their offspring from the reality of war. While our father and mother were facing the death of friends, bombing on the Clyde and the ever-present threat of invasion, we children enjoyed a magical childhood in comparative innocence.

Even so, from beyond moor and mountain and the safe walls of my childhood, murmurs of confusion escaped. A father was missing, the government-provided Mickey Mouse gas mask did not feel like a real toy. Germans, in my dreams, crawled through the garden at night wearing knitted blue Balaclava helmets like the boy I feared at nursery school.

In writing Summer Knickers these murmurs appear unexpectedly, swimming into my memory like the brown minnows that would come through our house taps, tainting the pure loch water we drank. These stories and prose poems are written for grown-ups. I have tried to be faithful to the child’s view of events, tussled with adult euphemistic versions which invade children’s private fears and joys.

A memory hurtles into my mind, transporting me back to a childhood which strikes today’s children as surprising: cars that needed cranking and the non-existence of jeans intrigue them. Whereas the fact that television, computers and mobile phones didn’t exist at all simply baffles them. For some, Pooh Bear is a more believable character than four sisters in passed-down kilts brought up in rain, wind and snow with no machines, no boys (except Dennis), blackout and, most troubling of all, sweetie rationing.

Summer Knickers

There was all the difference in the world between winter and summer knickers. During the long Scottish winters the little girl (we were always and only ever “little girls”) would stand solemnly on the blue mat in front of the nursery fire to be dressed.

First came a thick white Viyella vest with sleeves. Sleeves were babyish, we hated sleeves. Then came under-knickers, thick white and Viyella also. Next you stepped your way into over- knickers, solid and navy blue, made of wool. After this came a curious object known as a liberty bodice. In fact, this garment achieved the opposite effect resembling, more precisely, a miniature strait-jacket. It buttoned firmly onto a kilt, a skirt or leggings . . . but wait, after the Liberty Bodice and before the skirt, came petticoats. Silly billy girlie things. We hated petticoats, they caught on trees.

After these preliminaries came the usual assortment of blouses, jumpers, pinafores and such. There were a great many buttons and smaller buttons and buttons covered with Viyella. There was never a zip. We’d seen a zip once in a magazine. It looked too gorgeous to fully encompass. Nanny said they were dangerous.

These clothes went on all winter. They went with dark, early evenings, nine times tables and no-jam-for-tea punishments. They went with the obligatory knitting of scarves for the wounded soldiers in World War II and suet puddings. This preponderance of garments and undergarments did not incline the girl to skip or slide or gallop like a horse. They inhibited the throwing of snowballs. Headstands were hardly feasible and cartwheels out of the question.

But then, sometime in May (or was it June?) came an enchanting, unprecedented change . . . summer knickers! You woke up one morning and there they were on your chair. White, light, holey, Aertex knickers which slipped neatly over the rosy curve of little girls’ bottoms and, by their side, a fleet, agile, sleeveless, buttonless vest. A Peter Pan of a vest, ready to fly. And, as if this weren’t enough, divided skirts, cotton shirts and rubber sand-shoes which could be slipped into with no tying.

Impossible not to race, canter, tear outside into the summer day. Impossible not to tussle, tug, tumble another summer-knickered girl into the bracken. Essential to be a fish, a horse, a bird, a Boy, to fall into the loch deliberately, to dare to cross the ram’s field. Impossible not to smell the grass and roll down banks and to shout out at the top of one’s lungs: FOUR! THREE! TWO! ONE! I’VE GOT SUMMER KNICKERS ON!

Sarah, Vicky & Alix with their mother

Netty from the Works

Old Nanny left, worn out and, for a while, we had Netty from the works. Netty wasn’t like ordinary nannies. She had a pink mac and unsuitable galoshes. She sang Tickle my fancy and I’ll tickle yours and Auf Wiedersehen and didn’t know ones like Baa, baa, black sheep. Our proper Edinburgh Nanny used to take us for healthy walks every afternoon – up the Minister’s Brae or round by Ebbie’s Loch. But with Netty we always went to the same place, Annie Bone’s shop. That was strange, because it was a short walk – right into the village.

The shop wasn’t like other shops and Annie Bone wasn’t like other shop ladies. Strathblane women have white, freckled arms, red hair and a cheery quick way. Annie Bone had bright yellow hair on a crinkled face and her cheeks were painted red. If you went into her shop she wasn’t waiting behind the counter with the Bull’s Eyes and Liquorice Allsorts; she arrived from behind a velvet curtain like a circus lady, and low, breathing music came out of her wireless, instead of Mr Churchill’s speeches.

With Netty we always headed straight for Annie Bone’s. She pushed Vicky’s pram at a great rate while I hung onto the handle, little boots galloping, sou’wester slipping over my face.

“But the ducks?” I panted.

“Och, the ducks’ll be away the noo.”

“But the wee horse at the farm?”

“Haud your wheesht,” said Netty crossly, “and I’ll give you a shot on the pram and a poke of crisps going home.”

The thought of these immense treats silenced me.

When we arrived, we were parked outside Annie’s in the blithering cold. I remember and don’t remember how it was. There were soldiers in there. I could hear their voices and Netty’s Saturday giggle, the one she’d give when she was getting poshed up for her day off. Are they being silly, I wondered? Are grown-ups ever silly? I held tightly onto the pram, unusually protective of my baby sister.

Netty stayed . . . and stayed. Suddenly the door of the shop opened and a man came out in a whoosh of smoke. He was walking zig-zag like the clown I’d seen at Christmas. He must be being funny. Perhaps I should laugh?

But I didn’t feel like laughing. I peeked in. Netty was sitting ON THE COUNTER! Her mac was unbuttoned. The door slammed shut. My sister started to cry. She pulled herself up as far as the straps would go. Her face bobbed up and down like a Hallowe’en apple. There was a steady drizzle wetting our coats.

“NETTY!”

Nobody came.

“NETTY!” I shouted again, at the top of my voice.

She was back at last, scooping me up onto the end of the pram, as pert and cheery as ever. She gave me a poke of crisps and we were off, whirling home through the rain.

“Mind and not tell your mummy, sweetheart, that’s Netty’s girl.”

“Not tell her what?”

“That we went to Annie’s.”

“Oh!”

A terrible feeling that going to Annie’s had been naughty came over me. My face was hot and pink. The crisps tasted soggy. My father had told me that not telling is a kind of lie.

Netty was burling us along singing I love a laddie. Her pink mac filled with air like a balloon as she clattered along in her high-heeled galoshes.

“I want my mummy.’ I said.

My sister was bawling. Netty didn’t stop to settle her like old Nanny used to.

“I want my mummy,” I said again, in the high-hurting voice which comes out of little girls just before they cry.

Brown’s Boots

He tried to make me wring a hen’s neck. The neck was bubbly loose red skin. The bird was a struggle of sodden feathers.

“I won’t,” I said.

“You’re a right wee softie,” he said.

It was raining. He had a greasy cap and no chin. I wanted to leave but stood there like a rabbit caught in a stoat’s gaze. Brown laughed and pulled the neck out of the hen slowly like someone unfurling a flag. Then jolt, twist, and the little head with its flappy red thing doubled back against its limp body.

I hated Brown.

Hiding his boots seemed the best way of annoying him. Sometimes I hid them in the rushes at the edge of the loch. It was fun letting water seep into the dry white part. At other times I buried them in my sand-pit. It seems that at five I was not a creative criminal but repeated this single act over and over again. There was never any doubt as to who had done it. The procedure was always the same; Brown storming into the kitchen:

“Where’s yon wee besom?”

My worn-out, ever-pregnant mother demanding I find them – accusation, confession, castigation. The evidence was incontestable: a trail of small Wellington boot prints followed by the dragged marks of two large boot-shaped objects. Sometimes a dropped hankie with an S embroidered in the corner was found near the scene of the crime. Besides, I always confessed. The fear of a very cross God was in me and I never told lies.

Never, that is, until one time when the lie slipped out of my mouth like a round bit of barley sugar. Everything else was as usual. Brown’s boots missing, his rage, the thrashing rain, my mother’s exhaustion . . . but somehow that time I said,

“I didn’t do it!”

There was silence. Mummy put the new baby into her pen and stared at me. She knew that I knew that naughtiness was one thing but telling lies was another and that no punishment on earth was as bad as God’s wrath. God could see me. God could see Brown. God could see the boots.

Punchbowl Loch

Wind, rain, moor – loch. Rushes tatter her edges. Midges blur the evening light. Punchbowl Loch lies in the palm of the moor, answers the sky, falls grey when it rains, drifts in the hair of the wind.

Our loch gives birth to birds, flushes them up in a scatter of wings. Herons fly strips across the glass. Their delicate legs draw stutters of light. Three angry swans live on an island of twigs. They flap close over our heads, stretch long ropey necks, hiss warnings and spread their wings like feathered kites.

At night the rim of the loch darkens first, the bay where the dinghy glucks, the moorhens’ secret nest and the Grange’s disabled jetty. The middle waits for the moon, absorbs her ashen kiss, tightens and slackens beneath it her night-bleached watery tide.

Rowing on Punchbowl Loch

Ridge of you under my ribs, loch. Stomach marshy. Through my forelock of fringe I watch water, watch dark shapes dart over thrush-brown mud. In my hand a string, at the end of the string a jar, in the jar soggy crumbs. The minnows almost swim in, then fleet together in curlicues, in ha’penny clusters, swerve and are gone.

I yearn to tug. To churn the jar joyfully upwards through shifting mud, to have my minnow trapped with a slither of frog-green weed.

The Germans will get you

I’d just moved on to S’s. Last week it was O’s. Mrs Frew arranged the pencil in my hand for the fifth time. I looked at my beautiful snake letters, transfixed. How could I have loved tracing? Tracing was babyish. I sucked the end of my pencil into a woody pulp and added an extra curl onto each of the tails. Then the elevenses bell rang and we raced to the end of the garden.

Cameron McAlpine was one of the big ones. He had a rat face and eyes like washing-up water. He wore a blue Balaclava helmet even in summer. His lot didn’t talk to the little ones but that day, brimful with S’s, I broke into a heady skip which caught Cameron’s attention. He signalled to his mate, Angus, and the two boys caught me mid-skip and pinned me against the wall of Mr Frew’s tool shed. The letters shot out of my mind and a deadly fear set in.

“The Germans will get you, Sarah Mitchell . . .”

“What?” I faltered. “Why?”

“They’ll creep up,” said Cameron.

“They’ll pounce,” said his friend. “They’ll know you’ve been bad!”

“The Germans will get you,” Cameron repeated ominously, “they’ll steal you away.”

Then he grabbed my elevenses apple and threw it into the cows’ field.

I broke loose and ran away faintly chanting:

Cameron’s a liar, a liar, a liar

But inside I was sick with fright. It could be true. I’d heard German voices on the wireless. They spoke in spit, not words. They’d killed Mrs Robertson’s Davy and two of the Mitchell uncles. They’d bombed the Clyde. It was because of them we had sweetie rationing.

“Cameron McAlpine said that the Germans would get me,” I told my mother at lunch.

“Cameron McAlpine is just a silly little boy,” she replied. “Eat up your nice rabbit stew.” This was clearly wrong. Anyone could see that Cameron wasn’t little. He’d been moved on to sh at the end of words like fish and dish. Soon he’d be doing joined-up writing.

That very night they came. I lay awake in my father’s dressing room, the quilt tightly tucked under my chin. It was a frightening room in any case as his trouser press sometimes turned into a bear. But this was worse, I could hear the Germans splashing out of the loch and creeping through the long grass. They had rat faces and big guns. They were all wearing blue Balaclava helmets. They swarmed forward and started squashing in through the downstairs windows, growling like farm dogs . . .

“Mummy,” I shrieked.

“MUMMY!”

I heard her trudging upstairs, pregnant heavy.

“Now, what is it?”

“The Germans, the Germans,” I sobbed.

“What nonsense!”

“Put on the light,” I implored. She did and the Germans retreated.

“Now settle down, Sarah, and be a sensible girl.”

“But they’ll be back . . .”

“You know very well there are no Germans in Scotland.”

“But Cameron said . . .”

“Cameron McAlpine deserves a good spanking”

“But he . . .”

“That’s enough silliness. Go to sleep now, like a good girl.”

“Please, oh, please don’t turn off the light.”

She sat on my bed and put her hand on my forehead.

“I’ll leave the one in the passage on,” she said gently.

This was a rare concession. Even when Wallace died the light was turned off. A light in the passage should be enough to keep those Germans away.

Summer

Anyone who doubts that there are summers in Scotland which go on forever has never tried being a child there.

Inside the garden it all starts with the drowsy sound of the mower. Up-down, up-down it drones, like a giant bee, leaving behind the hot green smell of cut grass which comes in at every window.

Beyond the garden, in fields and lanes, the long grasses grow so tall you have to wade through them like a swimmer. Pollen brushes against your shorts and turns your bare legs yellow. Cows stand in the shade, as puffs of teeny black biting things land on their wet eyes and billow into the inside part of their big ears.

The heaviness of plums is another summer sign, they grow so round a mouth cannot stretch wide enough to bite into them. And there’s the abandoned way that other fruits behave. Strawberries, greedy for cream and a bowl, push their way through the nets and pull up their tidy stakes. Raspberries, with a fuzz of pleasure the colour of port-wine, pick themselves. Simply plop onto the napkin in your basket when you touch them. Red and black currants, which live in a cage, surge up and up and out of the torn top, so that in a short time delighted birds arrive. They tell other birds and soon all you can see above the netting is a flurry of wings.

And this is surprising because Scottish gardens are rather prim. Strict paths divide lawns from gravel and gravel from flowers and tall vegetables from short vegetables. Flowers which love to wander are cut back till they look like prisoners, knobbly and cold. Even the sweet briar rose must learn to leave her hedge and cross an arch. My father trimmed the grass around his clock golf numbers with nail scissors because the machine was too clumsy, and our only cherub boy had moss scraped off his stone curls once a year.

But when one of these never-ending summers comes along, everything is a little maddened, a little overjoyed. Gardeners and fathers lose control. Mothers can’t bottle fruit fast enough so they make puddings which taste as if you are biting into a July day. Children’s mouths are smudged musky pink. Lawns thrum with the pad of bare feet and the shoulders of smooth banks say ‘roll down me’ So you do, again and again, in whirls of blue and white checked cotton dress and matching knickers.

Alix, Vicky & Margie

But the proof, the real proof that it is one of these neverending summers, are the daisies. Billions of daisies blink shaggy white in the grass, each with a drop of golden butter in its centre.

* * *

I’m back, I’m home again! I’m sitting on the summerhouse lawn while a beautiful girl with an oval face teaches me how to make a daisy chain. I don’t remember who she is, but I do remember exactly how she sits, facing me with her legs crossed. Her eyes are grave and she frowns a little as she threads the flowers together. This girl is wearing many daisy chains. She has long ones around her neck which reach right down to her shorts and two little ones round one of her thin ankles. She has a crown of daisies sitting in her hair.

She shows me how to pinch through the green oozing stem of the first daisy with my fingernail pushing against my thumb. Then we choose the next daisy, looking for a plump, pinchable stem. Then the girl with the oval face and falling hair shows me how to draw the second daisy through the slit in the stem of the first one, pulling it up tight against it. I try, and I can do it, too! It’s all I want to do for the rest of the day. And tomorrow there will be more daisies and more hours and obviously, as anyone can see, this summer will go on forever.

The only sad parts for children are the evenings because the day doesn’t just stop as it does in winter. Yet children are bathed and brushed and put to bed at the same old seven o’clock. On summer evenings mothers and fathers don’t curl up in front of the fire like moles, as they do in winter. No! They go on living. They laugh and slam doors and wander through the garden with long drinks in their hands. Plock! Now they are playing a summer game called croquet. The gravel crunches as other grown-ups arrive and the evening air lifts their voices up to my window. My curtains can’t keep out the liquid light and spoonfuls of honey slide in through the cracks and cross the floor.

And I do so want to go out again. But my eyelids are heavy, as heavy as plums, and my fingers are weaving me into sleep. They push a third daisy through the stem of the second one, and a fourth through the stem – of the third . . . and now my daisy chain is stretching out into my dream and on, and on, forever.

Missing

Margaret Turnbell is a grown-up. Her husband is missing. We hear the grown-ups talking about it and we hear them not talking about it. They pretend they were saying something else when we come into a room.

Mrs Turnbell is a mother.

“How can a person be missing, Mummy?”

“It happens in war.”

“Is missing the same as lost?”

“No.”

Master Bun the Baker’s Son is missing from our Happy Families pack. We play without him. Daddy says the Buns still count as a family.

“How is missing different from lost, Mummy?”

“I’ll explain when you are older, dear.”

The Turnbell children are babies. They are strapped into prams and pushed up the Mugdock Road like we were. They are taken out of their prams and fed and put back in again. They are tucked into cots at night.

When Mr Turnbell was here, he was like an ordinary daddy. He drank sherry and smoked a pipe and went out in the boat.

“Mummy! A lady at Mrs. Wood’s shop says Mr Turnbell hasn’t come home yet.”

“No, I’m afraid he hasn’t.”

“But he’s a daddy . . .”

“Yes.”

“But . . .”

“You’re too young to understand, dear. Would you like your elevenses apple now?”

“But, what if . . .”

“. . . with the core out and brown sugar in the hole? Run! Run to the kitchen.”

I am too young to understand. I stop thinking about it and run as fast as I can to the kitchen. I love apples with a spoonful of brown sugar pushed in tight where the core used to be.

Wind

The laundry girl’s sleeves are rolled up for work. Her arms are red from the rubbing and rinsing, her fingers are chapped. The sink is stone, the soap is coarse, the water’s cold. She feeds each garment through the mangle, turning the heavy handle with her right hand. Dirty water gurgles into the gutter. She catches the clothes before they fall off the table, heaves the wrung out washing into her basket and gets the first load out.

April wind fills its cheeks and puffs at the clothes on the washing line. Bloomers bloom into sudden flowers, a shirt tugs at the rope like a frightened horse. Alice’s petticoat dances alone, worn out woollen vests develop lungs. The wind sucks in its breath and blows again. It whirls along a row of nappies and steals the ribbon from the laundry girl’s hair.

With a mouthful of pegs the young girl grapples with the last sheet. A playful gust grabs it and twists it round her body, but she’s strong for sixteen and used to trouble. She untangles herself, tosses it over the rope, battens it down with two strong pegs and laughs in the face of the wind.

She’s back in the washhouse again. There’s a mound to go and no time for tea. She’s back at the rubbing and rinsing again. She’s back at the squashing and squeezing. She’s feeding things into the mangle . . . it sticks on a clump of wet clothes, then spits out two shirts with their buttons in bits.

Fickle April sun teases the day, livens faded stripes and flirts with a pink pinafore. It appears, then disappears like a broken promise. Clouds march across the sky in shades of forbidding grey. A sudden shower of freezing rain soaks the clothes. Then the sun is back – radiant, beaming, frolicking with nighties, kissing the baby’s booties dry.

She’s to get the last lot out.

But the wind’s the very devil now. There’s one pole up and another to go. She has it tight in her hands, but the groove misses the rope and the pole falls. She catches her balance, levers it up and chases the line with the heavy stick.

It’s up! The last lot’s up! The line is a tightrope now, stretching from oak to oak, as high as leaves, higher than nests. The clothes are trapeze artists, acrobats, dancing bears, circus surprises. They are cavorting parrots, balloons let loose, kites, butterflies, Catherine wheels turning in a daytime sky,

The laundry girl rights her hair and picks up the empty basket. If the rain holds off it’ll be dry by three.

She’ll be back to get the washing in.

Dennis

“Let’s play undressing Dennis!”

It’s elevenses at Miss Campbell’s. Miss Campbell is a shared governess who lasts us from the age of five till nine. Our school is not a real school. It takes place in The Old Manse, which is really the Wallaces’ house. The schoolroom has a big table for older children and a felt card table for little ones. I’m at the card table. We each have an inkwell, a blotting pad, two pens with good nibs, a mapping pen, pencils, coloured pencils, a ruler and a rubber.

We are all girls, as usual – except for Dennis.

Dennis, “the only boy we knew”

Miss Campbell often tells us about when she was a proper governess for the Montague-Duffs. She had a lovely, comfy room in a wing of the castle and joined the family for lunch. She says she didn’t have to suffer any cheek there and she’s not about to suffer any here. I heard her say to Mrs Wallace’s sister that she’d been reduced to teaching us because of the war. I heard my mother say to my aunt that we’d been reduced to having Miss Campbell because of the war. I’m not sure what “reduced” means.

Daddy says there’s been a lot of blood spilled in the Montague-Duff family. Miss Campbell didn’t mention blood.

At the Old Manse Miss Campbell doesn’t join anyone for lunch. She has her elevenses served in the schoolroom. She takes forty-five minutes to gather herself. She likes her tea strong with a scone on the side and won’t say no to a biscuit. Mrs Wallace told my mother that she sends her tray back if the tea isn’t just right.

Miss Campbell is a big lady with a prim voice. She never says “Oh, hell!” like our mother does. She never wears wellingtons and she doesn’t like horses. What she does like is adages. She says: “Manners maketh man!” and “Handsome is as handsome does!” and “Time and tide wait for no man!” She’s full to the brim with adages. Some of them come from William Shakespeare and some of them come from Glasgow.

Miss Campbell has absolutely enormous bosoms. She wears a brown tweed suit in all weathers. Underneath her suit there’s a pale blue cardigan and underneath the cardigan there’s a blouse then, underneath that, there’s a silk ruffle that crosses over the bosoms.

We think bosoms are dreadfully funny.

As soon as the bell goes for elevenses we dash outside. We storm round the house pretending to be a herd of wild horses. In summer we play rounders and sneak into the Wallaces’ walled garden to steal fruit. But by miles our favourite game is trying to catch Dennis.

We want to undress him. I know it’s rude but we really, really want to know what bare boys look like as we don’t have any at home.

As soon as Dennis hears the words “Let’s play undressing Dennis” he takes off like a stag. He’s a fast runner and good at dodging. He climbs trees faster than we do and knows how to camouflage himself under wet leaves. He can jump the burn at its widest point – the rest of us have to go round. We catch glimpses of his flying curls and brown corduroy shorts and tear after him.

Dennis trips! He falls and we are onto him. “Pin him down! Pin him down!” the biggest girl shouts. “Pin him down!” we all shout back. I grab an arm and kneel on it. Someone drags his shorts off. The others get hold of his pants and pull.

Dennis’s mother is dead. He just has Uncle Ronald and an older sister called Evelyn. Uncle Ronald is Daddy’s best friend. We sometimes play Swallows and Amazons while they are playing chess. Dennis pretends the dinghy is a cutter. He lets me be second mate.

Uncle Ronald is terribly decent. He has fireworks parties for Dennis. He builds a massive bonfire for the Guy on the 5th of November.

Dennis lashes out. He bites and kicks.

The after-elevenses bell rings – and rings.

We’ve made it – we’ve undressed Dennis, but . . . but somehow, I don’t want to look. I won’t. I let go of his arm, get up and race back to the house. I’m first in my place. Dennis is last back in his. His cheeks are very pink. He has that nearly-crying look.

Miss Campbell gives him a black mark for being late and another for having two shirt buttons missing.

It isn’t fair . . .

Nobody says a thing.

Dennis doesn’t come to Miss Campbell’s any more. He’s being coached for boarding school. Uncle Ronald thinks it will be better for him having boys his own age to play with.

It might be safer.

We are all girls again.

Nothing to do

It’s raining. It’s the sad sort of rain with a moan in it. It’s been raining for days. The river’s edges falter. Lakes appear where no lakes are. Streams hurtle down the Campsies, delirious with so much water. Grey sky has blotted up the fields and blotted out the day.

It’s my mother’s war effort day. I used to think she went fighting but she only rolls bandages. There’s a dead German and his Messerschmitt plane in a hole on the moor above our house. He was shot down over the Clyde and somehow got as far as Strathblane. You can’t see anything except water, but it’s our favourite walk. Before our mother left this morning she said “No going out!” We are getting over chicken pox. This means malt and extra fruit.

I’m bored. I’ve done all the nothing-left-to-do things in my house.

In the kitchen Elsie is making a cake. She’s rolling out pastry. Squash, roll. Squash, roll. It starts in a ball and stretches. When I put my head through the neck of my jersey the hole seems too small at first but you push and your mother pulls and suddenly it’s through. Jerseys and pastry know how to make themselves bigger.

“Can I have a shot?”

“What? Wi’ they dirty fingers?”

“Please!”

“No!”

Now she’s got the beater out. She’s beating real eggs, not the reserve ones which live in a limey pail in the pantry. There’s sugar in it and cocoa. My finger twitches in my pinafore pocket with a long, longing to scrape the bowl.

“Can I scrape?”

“You’ll get to scrape when I’m good and ready and not before.”

“Can I lick the spoon?”

“Not yet y’ canna.”

So there’s nothing to do again. I stretch my eyes. Pull the skin up with one finger and down with the other.’

“One day the wind’ll change and they’ll stay that way.”

“Don’t care.”

Don’t care was made to care

Don’t care was done.

Don’t care was put in a pot

And stewed till it was done.

I do care really. Imagine myself with stuck open eyes cooking in the hen’s pot on the Esse. I look at Elsie hoping to see a smile. There’s a wee one. She pushes the empty bowl towards me and lets my finger rove round the edges and scoop the frilly taste into my mouth.

The Coming of Lighty

Lighty arrived by train. She was 13 hands 2 inches and had cost £40, a sum beyond our imagining. Doreen at the Pony Club told us she was a dark bay with black points. I had trouble focusing on this information since from her hairy muzzle to her endearing, uneven yellow teeth I loved her wholly and blindly.

She had taken three years of hard praying for. In matters pertaining to ponies, Vicky, my nearest sister, and I were in complete accord. The praying started when she was five and I was seven. It was when we were having our first riding lessons with a man called Merrick that we came to understand that ponies were more important than picnics, holidays, sweets and most of our relations.

The prayers were intensified a year later when our neighbours, the Pearsons, got Prince. This event was clearly a miracle as impressive as the loaves and fishes and more so than the withering of the barren fig tree. Neither our house nor the Pearsons’ had a field. Saddles, we’d been told, were an unthinkable extravagance. But suddenly there was Prince, mysteriously allowed to live with the sheep on Ardunan moor. And Mrs Pearson, who had hitherto only been seen being a mother and making jam, turned out to have a saddle in her attic and to know about hoof picks, dandy brushes and other sacred objects.

Vicky and I looked over the moor wall at Prince with a mixture of adoration and dark, helpless envy.

By the time I was nine and Vicky was seven our prayers had taken on an Islamic frequency. Ponies were all we thought about. We drew them. We cut them out. We read about them. Little Women and What Katy Did at School were replaced by a series of books with titles like: Jean’s First Pony, Jean’s Second Pony and My Pony and I Go A-galloping. In these stories the protagonists were never troubled with doubting parents or the want of a field. The fortunate Pamelas and Jennifers would wake up at 6 a.m., slip into their jodhpurs, dash lightly across lush, dewy clover to where a Thunder or a Star would gallop up to them, inevitably giving a soft, welcoming nicker.

Imperceptibly at first, our own behaviour changed. We didn’t run but broke from a walk into a canter. Thud! Thud! We’d circle and whinny, tossing out our mane/hair and shying at intrusive man-made objects like bikes. We put my bear and Vicky’s doll onto our father’s springer spaniels and tried to make them jump over logs, but they’d only clamber.

Our parents were perturbed. They were not horsy people. They found it unsettling to see their daughters jump their way home from school with spoons representing bits in their mouths and trailing strings that served as reins.

But it was our impending loss of faith which caused them the most concern.

“What about the part in the Bible where it says: Ask and it shall be given you,” we’d say.

“What does Thou shalt grant . . . mean?”

“What’s a request?”

“Maybe there really isn’t a Jesus, like Cameron McAlpine says there isn’t?”

The dream was so big now it seeped over into daytime and schooltime, violet and white and as gold as pansies, as painful as the peewit’s cry up on the moor where we lived.

Then one day everything changed. We got Margie, another new baby sister. And, because that made six of us, our mother and father decided we needed a larger house. I couldn’t imagine leaving the loch and my minnow jars. I couldn’t visualize life away from the moor and the proximity of the Pearson’s Prince.

Gateside, the house the Mitchells moved into in 1946. Formerly known as Parklea, it was once the home of Anthony Sykes Coubrough, owner of Blanefield Printworks. It is now Blanefield House Care Home.

It was raining the day they took us to see the new house. At first we didn’t notice anything special. We tore around the big rooms and bagged to sleep in the attic. But suddenly, and together, we saw it from an upstairs window, not part of the garden and yet part of the land, a wrought iron fence surrounding it . . . a field! A real field, with nothing in it but a few expendable sheep. This was clear indication of surrender on our parents’ part. It was capitulation! Like the day of victory at Stirling Bridge when William Wallace won and the English turned their backs and fled.

I don’t remember how many months passed before the evening Vicky and I found ourselves waiting on the platform of Blanefield Station. We’d cleaned out the trough, we’d stacked and restacked five bales of hay and loosened a sixth with a pitchfork. We’d torn up the stinking willie, which could give a pony colic, and saddle-soaped the beautiful saddle we’d been given by a friend until it was as soft as a shammy duster.

Now we waited, in stern breathless silence.

The train was a slow one. It took Uncle Moncrieff home to the next stop on the line. You could hear it huffing and puffing all the way down the valley. When it arrived it looked just like it always did. We could see our uncle in his usual seat, reading The Glasgow Herald. The train moved on. Fearful disappointment was hovering, on the edge of overwhelming us, when we noticed a carriage that had been shunted off to one side . . .

Suddenly we saw her! Her large, curious head was looking out over a half door. The station master went in and untied her halter rope. She clattered out down a ramp out onto the platform, just like an ordinary passenger.

I think we rushed at her, we must have. I think we wept for joy. Her mane felt like tooth-brushes. The curve of her back was warm, my cheek fitted in somewhere close to her withers. She had her summer coat smell, a little dusty, a little like sun and grass mixed. Vicky and I walked her home, abiding by the first of many strictly regulated turns.

She’ll roll on our own green grass.

She’ll drink from our trough making that lovely rude sucking-up sound.

She’ll be Lightning Mitchell now.

In the morning she’ll still be here!

Exile

Banished! I’m being banished. I’m being sent to a boarding school in England miles and miles from home.

“But why?”

“It will broaden your horizons. England is a new country.”

The Campsies are striped with evening light. They stretch as far as Kippen, further even. Up the hill, on the other side of the Blane Valley, there’s the tufty track we ride along. I can’t see where it starts from here but Lighty breaks into a canter as soon as she feels the moor beneath her hooves. A green tide of bracken washes up to the path and washes back again. Some parts are tough and heathery, others are bog. I love the boggy bits. I love the spongy islands with teeny marsh flowers and sucking mud around the edges. I love the wild wet smell.

“I’ll hate England. This is my country. I’ll die for it! My blood is . . .”

“Don’t be ridiculous! Nobody is asking you to die for anything. It’s a great chance. There will be lots of lovely girls and games you’ve never played before, like lacrosse.’

“What’s lacrosse?”

“Running around in a team, catching a ball in a net at the end of a long stick. You’ll learn Latin and French, you’ll see London. Daddy and I want the best for you.”

“What’s best about catching a ball in a net at the end of a long stick?”

“How can you be so ungrateful? It’s a chance for a better education, not to mention a bit of well-needed polish.”

“Polish?”

“Knowing how to behave.”

“I’ll learn, I promise. I’ll never spill tea in Aunt Al’s club again. I won’t argue. I’ll try not to be mean to Vicky . . .”

“That’s enough.”

“But Mummy, I won’t see Lighty and Tippy and the dogs for months and months. I’ll be severed from my sisters.”

“That’s just it. Stop using melodramatic words like severed. Boarding school is perfectly normal. You’ll see your sisters and the animals in the holidays.”

“Please, please, please don’t make me go . . .”

© Sarah Paton Wiseman 2013

A Tribute to Sarah’s sister Alix Mitchell (1944-1965) by Margie Mitchell

Alix Mitchell’s baptism, Strathblane Church, 1944

Dear Residents of Strathblane and Blanefield,

How honoured and delighted am I to bring you word of our adored Alix. Sarah, Vicky and I have missed her so much throughout all of our lives and sometimes we have been at a loss to process the horror of her death which was never much spoken about.

Grown up Alix

Mum and Dad brought her ashes back from France, but it was hard to hold on to the spirit of Alix. During the pandemic, with more time to reflect on my life, I acknowledged my compelling urge to resurrect her memory.  I am about 45,000 words in and it’s going well.

Margie & Alix with Old Nanny

If you are in Strathblane Parish Church you might be able to imagine the Mitchell girls in their hideous Sunday best, each one clutching their own bible with tissue thin pages whilst wriggling and giggling as Dad handed out copious amounts of barley sugars to try and hush us up. Mr McCardle, we sisters remember, shouting from the pulpit, “Sinners! Sinners! Sinners! you and you and you,” jabbing an angry finger at all of us. It was funny and boring and slightly terrifying. Alix once said, as we piled into the Rover 90: “If God is love, why is Mr McCardle in such a bait.” Mum and Dad put an end to that conversation pretty quickly.

If you are on the Gowkstane, think of a chubby little blond girl who went by the name of Alix, sliding down that stone with her eyes screwed shut, wishing for God knows what. We really had everything. I’m told the fence has been removed and it is much trickier to get onto the stone now. If you are too old or too scared to scramble up the smooth surface, just give it a gentle pat and think of our Alix.

The Gowkstane

Further along the path, down through the woods to the kissing gate, you can imagine that same naughty little girl, with me trailing behind and Lighty our pony stuck, neither in nor out of the kissing gate, me pushing from behind, Alix dragging from the front. We weren’t meant to be there. A furious mother panting up the hill to rescue Lighty and tell us we would have no pocket money for the rest of our lives.

Alix’s early life was dominated by a fluffle of domesticated rabbits for whom she was the caretaker; I wasn’t really interested in her rabbits; I only liked the fun bits when they would be let out for their run on the lawn under the flapping sheets and occasionally, our three-legged cat Snooky would appear and get chased away by one of the grown up rabbits.  This would leave us in stitches of laughter. 

In later years, Alix became an activist, campaigning on behalf of those less fortunate than herself, but at that stage she was a rabbit activist. With only a modicum of success, she tried to raise the status of the domesticated rabbit. They were intelligent animals, she insisted, they needed toys and exercise and social interaction just as much as the dogs and cats in our household. They afforded at least the same individual rights, level of care and opportunity for longevity.

Hhhmph! Thought the sisters. Not if we have to clean out the cages.

You might be able to visualise her racing around our field with a rabbit in each pocket of her baggy grey shorts. Give a little twirl, open your arms when you think of that dear child and tell her that she is welcome home.

God Bless you all.

Margie Mitchell with Sarah and Vicky’s blessing.

© Margie Mitchell 2024

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