Time spent at the Toll was never boring. I was a good walker and could walk the mile from home but sometimes, especially on the way back, I would ask for a wee carry. When we reached the bottom of the hill near the house I would run ahead shouting to tell them we were coming. Often there were around twelve of us on a Sunday, along with Aunt Annie’s friends. Occasionally Uncle John would appear at the gate when I’d run to tell everybody: it was a red-letter day when he came. He was always kilted and was big and jolly, and the talk and laughter flowed.
I had a ragdoll called Belinda and wee Teddy who both stayed at the Toll and kept Grandaddy’s feet warm at night, so he said, and a red trike. The hens and bantams were always entertaining, there were daisy chains to make, and gooseberries to eat as well as the stick of rhubarb and sugar, so I was never girning to go home. Somebody was sure to take me down to the burn to see the minnows and pick watercress. There was a gramophone in the room, a cabinet taller than me, with a cupboard full of records which could break so I could look but not touch. I remember a boy soprano singing Oh, for the Wings of a Dove and The Muckin’ o’ Geordie’s Byre. It was one to dance about to. Years later, when I was able to put on records for myself, it suddenly dawned on me it was the “making” of the byre! I still have some of the Will Fyfe, Harry Gordon and Harry Lauder records with a wee wind-up gramophone to play them on. Now and then I get them out and have a sing-along. One of my favourites is I’m 94 this morning, aye I’m 94 today. I’m not as young as I used to be, I’m getting auld and grey. But my heart is young and I’m full o’ fun, and I’m very proud to say, that I’m getting married on Tuesday, though – I’m 94 today.
My Dad made his own wireless sets and he could get stations like Luxembourg and other places in Europe. There were always bits lying about – coils, valves and so on. It was like a miracle hearing foreign voices and lovely music coming out of the air. Grandad’s first language was Gaelic and he learned English at school. There were no Gaelic speakers he could talk with except when Wattie (his nephew) came from Islay to visit, so the young ones thought of getting a wireless set for them so that he could listen to Gaelic songs and Annie bought one. There had to be an aerial put up and I think that day would be remembered by all as long as they lived! It was decided to string it from the kitchen chimney to the rowan tree which was tall and slender. Percy, Tom and Bob had no experience of climbing long ladders and scrambling about roofs. To the onlookers it was funny and I remember lots of laughter as they made their plan of action. The three girls were to be the ladder holders. They started in the morning and we’d had dinner and tea before it was finished. The lads were exhausted with the ordeal and the rest of us from the jollity due, I think now, to the nervous tension. The wireless worked! It was the only piece of technology they ever had. No gas or electricity, Granny cooked and baked on the range.
Every day, the steel edges and the letter-box were cleaned with steel wool and shone. Oil lamps, some brass and some porcelain, were lit at night. The tall glass was washed every day and the brass was polished. The wicks had to be trimmed or they smoked. Being farm people all their lives, they were early to bed and early to rise even in old age. Grandad always sat on his chair beside the side window, and on the broad sill would be his white clay pipes with wee perforated lids, his tobacco tin and a bowl of Co-operative Health Salts. He was a great believer in its properties and encouraged us to drink it, too. After the raising of the aerial, the wireless sat there also and they often listened to it. By then he was quite bald except for a fringe round his ears and always wore his cap. Granny sat across from him, and behind her was the front window with shamrock plants on the sill. Her chair had wooden arms and structure and was called the bedchair. She always wore an overall that crossed over the back and tied, usually a flowery pattern on black. Her white hair was drawn straight back and had a very neat bun at the back. She always had sock wires on the go, and would talk away and never look at her hands except when turning the heel which was a tricky bit. Always at Christmas all the men got socks, grey or black. Everybody learned to darn at school and never threw a sock away because it got a hole. Granny would take a holey sock and rip it back to the ankle and refoot it. Make do and mend was their way of life, it wasn’t a 1939 invention!
She used butter spades to make rolls, curls or flat rounds of butter for teatime. By then she wasn’t buying flour in large amounts, but on the farms it came in white cotton bags the size of pillow cases which were hemmed, washed and bleached and put on the beds. Recycling is not new! She had large bins for sugar and salt and a white enamel bread bin with a lid and “Bread” written in black letters on the side. On the table was a big circular cheese dish made of china with raised, flowered decoration. The lid was very tall and heavy and there was always red cheese under it. Their diet was simple: good wholesome soup every day after porridge for breakfast. Stewart Cook, the butcher from Bridge of Weir, called every week and provided the mince, stewing steak, dripping and suet. I don’t remember puddings. The range had a high mantelshelf with two “wally” sheep and wee brass ornaments. There was a brass rail along the edge for clothes to be aired on. The steel fender was high with a wee seat at each end, and shone.
The cupboard in the room had games, Ludo, Snakes and Ladders, a dartboard, a board with hooks to throw rubber rings on to, (for children till they could be trusted with darts), tennis “bats” and balls, jigsaws, children’s card games, playing cards and a bagatelle board. It was actually all quite educational and a painless way of learning words and numbers. The grown-ups played with the children. French Cricket was a favourite, one person stood with the bat against their legs and batted the ball till it was caught by another. When the field was fallow, we’d play among the wild flowers with more space to run about. Occasionally we would stay overnight, and I slept at the bottom of Granny and Grandad’s bed and, like Belinda and Teddy, kept their feet warm. That was till I could be trusted not to fall out of the bedchair!
When I look back now I realise how little in the material sense John and Janet had. Their few ornaments were valued more for the giver than for their intrinsic value. That said, they had what I think were probably Wemyss Jugs but were just jugs to us. They had essentials not luxuries, no labour saving gadgets, the greens were cut with a scythe, washing was a day’s work, as was the ironing with irons heated on the fire. They never had a bank account. Their only concession to modernity was the wireless set. They were simple country folk who, in fact, between them were fountains of knowledge about country life in all its aspects. The Toll was on Lord Maclay’s Estate, and some time in December Lady MacLay would visit with a small gift, sometimes accompanied by her daughters. On the occasion I was there I was tongue tied, unlike Granny who chatted away with the visitor just as freely as she chatted with the lad who brought in her groceries. And that was just as it should be.