Women of their Time: The Blane Valley in the 1930s by Helen Lillie


Extract from A New Kind of Life by Helen Lillie (Argyll Publishing, 1999)

The older people living in the Blane Valley between the wars usually had unmarried daughters at home. And these middle class, middle-aged women spent their days taking care of their mothers’ households – i.e. managing the maid or maids, and for relaxation taking long country walks, sometimes accompanied by a dog or female relative.

At Milndavie House, along the road from Bluerisk, two talented spinsters, Minnie and Alice Young, lived with their mother and found an artistic outlet decorating their home and making beautiful, fashionable clothes for themselves. They had a married sister who lived in the Channel Islands.

When old Mrs. Young died the house was sold to a retired newspaperman, James Davidson, the first managing editor of a now defunct Glasgow tabloid called the Bulletin. A heavy-set elderly man with a voice throaty from smoking, he passed his time exercising two Scotty dogs, up and down past our house. He looked so lonely Mummy and I often went out and visited with him. I was then a teenager and he was very fond of me, talked to me about the newspaper business and writing in general, and I credit him with steering me towards journalism.

He had two daughters. One was married, and the other, Mary, a big stout woman, found an outlet exhibiting her pedigree wolfhound, Katinka. Once when in heat Katinka disappeared and Mary drove many miles around the valley before finding her. When the next dog show fell due, Katinka was found to be pregnant!

“And we’ve no idea what breed the father is,” Mr. Davidson told Mummy, adding darkly, “It’s probably that Ricky,” meaning an adored, adorable Dalmatian owned by the Kirsops, mother, son Jack, and unmarried daughter Violet, who lived next door.

Fortunately for community relations, the puppies were black Labradors obviously sired at an outlying farm, but this ended Katinka’s show career and soon after, Mary got rid of her to a family who wanted a pet for their children. When Mr. Davidson died some years later Mary left the Valley. She had shown no evidence of marketable skills or any desire to find an outlet in work.

The Kirsops were, as the saying goes, in trade. Jack managed the family business, a menswear store in Glasgow, but his real interest was fishing on Loch Lomond. Mrs. Kirsop was a dear gossipy old lady lovingly cared for by her nice, homely, capable daughter Violet who stayed on in the little house after her mother and brother died, and, I’m told, eventually had a male lodger! She did some volunteer work in later life; and was interested in the theatre. She’d have been a good career woman if she’d had to be one.

Up the Glasgow Road in Ardunan House lived Mrs. Moncrieff, another widow with two unmarried daughters. Their sister was a doctor in England and also single. These spinsters’ most visible occupation was walking purposefully around the Strathblane roads. One dabbled in the stock market and frequently phoned my father for tips, usually at our dinner hour. These two ladies were handsome and well-dressed and I don’t know why they never married….

Next door to Bluerisk, in Napier Lodge, lived two elderly maiden ladies. Their brother WP Ker was an Oxford professor, but I don’t if he was any cleverer than his elder sister Caroline, known as “Miss Carrie”. My dentist in Glasgow once asked me if I knew his patient “a Miss Ker from Strathblane”. When I asked “Which one?” he replied, “She describes herself as ‘the wicked one’.” “That,” said I, “is Miss Carrie.”

Though she lived a blameless life she called a spade a spade. The parish church had a dreadful organist, a woman with an invalid husband who held the job to pay for a car. Her voluntaries were so appalling, Mummy called them “Mendelsohn’s Songs Without Music.” One wintry Sunday the organ was frozen and inoperable. “So nice without the music, wasn’t it!” fluted Miss Carrie Ker as she emerged shivering, from her morning worship. She stated this fact entirely without malice.

Her sister Miss Penelope was a beautiful, fey, white-haired lady who always wore thin Madonna blue dresses with white organdy at the neck and matching wool capes that did little to protect her from cold winds. She devoted herself to Good Works and constantly fluttered past our house en route to a Children’s Hospital close by. Miss Penelope brought her neighbours flowers and little gifts but it was difficult to talk with her, she was so hard of hearing. She used an ear trumpet and I’m sure heard no evil through it. Once my mother borrowed a biography of the pioneer nurse Florence Nightingale from Miss Carrie and when she returned it, commented that “the ‘Angel of the Crimea’ must have been difficult to live with.”

“Oh, saints are like that,” said Miss Carrie. “I live with one myself.”

Penelope Ker

Rumour had it that the money these ladies had inherited originated in the slave trade and Miss Penelope’s preoccupation with charities came from a sense of guilt. Both sisters lived to a great age. The saintly Miss Pen died of agonising cancer. The “wicked” Miss Carrie, who loved her flowers, sat down in her garden one sunny morning and Hannah the housemaid found her there peacefully dead when she came to tell her lunch was ready.

I doubt if either of them seriously considered either marriage or a career. Miss Carrie once told me how some man in the parish had expressed curiosity as to why she hadn’t a husband. “If he ever asks me directly,” said she, “I’m going to burst into tears and sob that my fiancee was ‘Drowned Before My Eyes!’”

They would have felt at home in Jane Austen’s society. They had many friends, and entertained intellectual, academic people I was always invited to meet. They were happy and well-occupied, Miss Carrie with reading and elegant embroidery, and Miss Penelope through her interest in the Children’s Hospital.*

The younger generation of spinsters were different. In my teenage opinion, they hadn’t much fun other than going to plays or concerts with their parents, as I did too. Their uniform was a raincoat over a good tweed suit, usually brown, with a woolly twinset which they had probably knitted while listening to the wireless in the long evenings. They wore solid footwear, felt hats, and if their walking sticks were for protection, I doubt if they were needed to fend off predatory males.

This apparently was how women lived if they didn’t get away from home, and I could see myself stepping into their sensible shoes. I already took long walks with my dog Sandy and was involved with the Brownies on Saturdays. I also grew up close to my brilliant mother with no outlet for her abilities other than the house and garden, which she was constantly re-arranging. This meant workmen and mess underfoot, which I hated but presumably it gave her an interest besides reading interminably.

On a small estate called Ardoch, farther up the Valley, lived a lively old couple called James and Ruby McClellan. They had turned to landscape gardening for income after losing James’s family fortune, made in whisky which, the Scots claim, never lasts through the third generation.

In palmier days, the McClellans had lived in Europe and known celebrities like Anna Pavlova. James reminded me of Beatrix Potter’s foxy Mr. Todd. He had a reddish moustache, wore brown tweedy jackets, plusfours, leggings and a beret, and was redolent of Gaulois cigarettes. White-haired Ruby wore voluminous blue denim skirts to grub around in rock gardens since ladies didn’t wear pants in those days.

The McClellans were popular, and when they opened their own spectacular garden to the public each spring, Ruby’s women friends served tea while their husbands directed the traffic. As a teenager, I escorted guided tours up to the top of a hillside covered with flowering shrubs.

Worn out by hard work, the McClellans retired to Hyere in France in the 1930s. When World War II began to wind down, my mother got a letter from James who was hard pressed to keep his now bedridden wife warm and nourished. Mummy forwarded this sad communication to me in New York and I sent them a “Care” package. I also met James in the winter of 1947 when he brought Ruby’s ashes to the Blane Valley. He still wore his beret and stylishly shabby clothes smelling of French tobacco.

Ruby McClellan, who in poverty teamed up with her husband and maintained their lifestyle through work they both loved, ie creating beautiful gardens, stands out on my memory as much happier than the aimless though better-heeled spinsters who were her neighbours. ..

So growing up, I absorbed the information that to work outside one’s home led to a more satisfying life.

[*Spinster sisters Penelope and Caroline Ker are fondly remembered by their great niece, Anne Morrison of Croftamie: “I was still quite young when they died but I remember them well as we often visited them at Napier Lodge. They were very kind and were always organising children’s parties, which I was required to join in. They always wore the same colours: blue for Aunt Penelope and brown for Aunt Caroline.”]


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