Low Shells

In Kilmacolm we lived in the property called Low Shells – I believe there had been a High Shells farm up the hill in the past. Low Shells had been a school and a hotel before being divided into six dwellings. The walls were white and the sash widows had small panes of glass which would suggest it was Victorian or earlier. We shared the outside stair with a neighbour who had the end flat while ours was the centre of the building. The stairs led to a door which took you into a small vestibule where there were two lavatories. Our door was straight ahead and it was a wide, heavy wooden door with a very big key to open it with, probably one of the original doors. Inside was a wide hall where all our hats and coats hung. Straight ahead was the kitchen which was T-shaped. The window was in line with the door and the range was to the right of it. The right side of the T would have been a set-in bed in times gone by but our table was there. The sink was under the window and supplied cold water. The leg of the T had low and high cupboards and worktops although not as we know them now! There was a gas cooker and the lighting was also gas, a gas lamp high on the wall in each room. The gas mantle was a fragile object about three inches long with a metal ring which screwed on to the gas supply with a glass shade over it. When we came in at night Dad would turn the gas on and hold a match to the mantle and it would light up with a popping noise. A good supply of mantles had to be kept as they disintegrated sometimes. It was a nice soft light. I can’t remember what year we got electric light, but I remember the men working on it. The light shades were supplied, all the same white opaque glass. Slowly the 20th century was taking effect. By then, Dad had given up making wireless sets and we had a bought one. Like Grandad’s it had an accumulator which had to be charged at Laird’s Garage. I often took it and also bought a gallon of paraffin for our Valor heater, but not at the same time.

Mum and Dad met with a group which moved around to play cards and have supper, but after I arrived they all came to Kilmacolm more often to enable the routine to be kept up. So Mary and Tom, Annie and Bob, Dolly (Tom’s sister), Winnie (Dad’s sister) and Fred and other friends would enjoy an evening together. When I was about five I was able to play with the bag of farthings Mum kept to be the stakes in the game called Newmarket and soon learned how many for a penny, ‘thrupnybit’, etc. Farthings were still currency then, a loaf of bread cost fourpence farthing for a while. All the bread, teabread and cakes were made at the bakery behind the shops. Scottish plain loaves, square pan loaves, brown loaves, fruit loaves – all came straight from the ovens and were wrapped in white tissue paper when they were bought. It wasn’t easy to cut nice even slices from a new loaf so sometimes I’d be sent off to ask for a ‘cutting’ loaf which was yesterday’s bake. My cousin Eleanor was born in 1931 and Winnie and Fred stopped coming to the card parties.

There were two rooms downstairs. The living-room, I first remember having armchairs with green padded velvety arms, backs and seats. From pictures I’ve seen since they were probably made near the beginning of the century. They were replaced with a brown rexine three-piece suite which was very comfortable. There were some wee tables for the wireless and books and so on, and a long writing-table with drawers at the front. It was by the window which looked on to the back green where the washings hung. Each tenant had their own day for the green but nobody minded leaving some space for babies’ washing. There were two very old ladies in two of the bottom flats and the others would give them a hand to carry the basket and hang things. Winters were colder then, and it was quite usual for all the washing to freeze and it was very funny to see it all hanging like boards. Most people had one or sometimes two ‘pulleys’ in the kitchen. An arrangement of ropes let them down from the ceiling to hang things and pull them up again and on the wall below was a hook to put the rope loop on. Each pulley had five wooden slats as wide as the kitchen allowed, so a lot could be hung and dried overnight. I’m sure some houses must still have them.

The living room had the piano opposite the fireplace. Fireplaces had moveable fenders and this one had a wee seat at each end just right for small children to toast their cold toes. The other room, pre-Annabel, was a bedroom we could sit in during the summer. The bed was in an alcove, there was a bedroom suite, and also chairs. It looked onto the park. The stairs to the upper floor were enclosed and went up from beside the piano. There was a room which was the whole width of the house with a dormer window which faced the back green. The wee room was at the front end and had a skylight window where you could see the stars at night. Mum and Dad slept in the room and the wee room was mine. All my toys were there except the ones at the Toll. When Annabel was about a year old, Mum and Dad moved downstairs. If Annabel cried Mum, would come up and settle her again. I usually wakened when she cried and one night I got up and did what Mum usually did, patted her and said baby talk and off she went to sleep. I heard her telling Granny and Annie about it and they said “leave it to the wee mother then!” Before long we were both sleeping in the big bed together, and we shared a room amicably until the day we both married.

It seems unbelievable but before Annabel could walk I was allowed to take her in the big pram over to the park where I would meet a schoolmate called Anna who also had a wee sister the same age. Mum always said “don’t take her out of the pram”. But as soon as we got to the park shed, which was open fronted with a seat all round, we would take them both out and sit them on the seat and play at being housewives. The babies never cried, and fortunately we never dropped them! We pretended nappy changing and tickled them to make them laugh and they were happy. We had great fun and knew it was time to go home if the babies got a bit crabbit, although quite often when we pushed them around the Park they had a sleep. The Park Keeper, Mr Campbell, was always around and kept an eye on everyone. He was old (probably about 50!) and had a beard. Once Annabel could walk she wanted to be out with me all the time, and since I always thought of her as mine anyway it wasn’t a problem. My dollies and pram lost their charm. Mum would put on Annabel’s reins which had bells on the front panel and jingled when she ran along beside me. Some of the swings had bars round them, we called them the baby swings. I would sit her in one, tie the reins to the chain and push the swing gently till I was tired of it! Then we’d have a slow round or two on the Joywheel. We had boats to sail on the pond too, yachts with white sails. But not when we were on our own. My school friends would be there too, the Park was always busy and it would be hard to get a swing sometimes. Looking back I wonder that I was trusted to take good care of the baby as young as seven onwards but she never came to any harm. Of course, there was practically no road traffic and the dangers that parents fear nowadays weren’t there. We would walk to the Birkmyre Park where Mr. Stewart was the Park Keeper and meet up with people from school and play Tig and Hide and Seek and Annabel stayed by me all the time. Not once did I lose her!

We had several dogs over the years and always had the current one with us. Jock was the first, a Scottie. Dad and I went to Lewis’ Pets Corner in Glasgow and bought him. Then we had a Cairn, Mack. Neither of them lived long. Dandy, a lovely Springer Spaniel which followed us around and never left us or ran after other dogs, was our next companion. Unfortunately when the war came and the sirens sounded, he howled and the neighbours complained so Mum said he’d have to go. He was sent to a farmer in Carluke to be trained as a gundog. We were sad. However one of my friends, Matty, had a pedigree Cocker Spaniel called Dinah. She was white with liver markings and was beautiful. Sometime later she got out at the wrong time and had some crossbred pups. They had to find good homes for them. Annabel and I wore our Mum down and we were allowed to bring one home. She was black with tan marks and we called her Heather. She had a long tail and Annabel still remembers the day she and I took her to the vet to have it docked. The puppy didn’t even squeal and it healed quickly. We had her for years. We loved all our dogs and Annabel and I shed a lot of tears over them.

Brothers and sisters, I bid you beware, Of giving your heart, to a dog to tear. (Rudyard Kipling)

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14 thoughts on “Low Shells

  1. Hi Chris,
    I have finally caught up with your blogs,which I always find so interesting..Your life & mine seem to have had a lot in common..I too caught Scarlet Fever at age 14..My dad was away in the desert,fighting for king & country…Mum was left at home with 3 children to care for..I was sent to an Isolation Hospital,,for 6 weeks..Mum came to see me but was only able to look through a window..I remember the long walk about 2 miles each way for her to come & see me..She brought my sister who was 12,& my brother who was 7..It was out of Barnard Castle in the country.. it was all up hill going but coming home was easier as it was downhill..She never missed a visit..It was hard to see them just through the window..No cuddles etc..Then when I came home,my sister ended up there,Then my brother caught it..So I was doing the trek..I remember on Fridays we were given Sausage,beans,& Chips for lunch..
    Love & prayers..Marion xx

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  2. Hi Chris,
    Really enjoy your blog, but especially the one on Low Shells. MY great grandmother lived there with my Granda and the rest of their large family. She was Nellie McKee.
    Regards,
    Lisa Martin

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    • Hello Lisa. The Nellie McKee I remember was a widow. She had one daughter living with her also called Nellie who was probably in her twenties when I was a small child. She was tall and slim and very beautiful. She came to have a cup of tea with my Mum now and then and once with her boy friend whose name I can’t remember. Pleased to hear from you and thanks for reading my blog. That would be in the early 30’s by the way. Regards, Chris.

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      • Good evening Christina, I have been finding out about Kilmacolm where my grandfather’s family lived. What a surprise to find someone from my family responding to your wonderful story about Low Shells. Nellie’s husband is my first cousin, once removed! I’d love to be able to make contact with Lisa Martin.

        Many thanks,
        Margaret
        New Zealand

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  3. Hello, Lisa, Great to hear from someone in N.Z. My daughter is trying to connect you so I hope it works out. Kilmacolm was a great place to grow up in, everybody knew everyone else among the village folk!! Good wishes from Chris.

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    • Good afternoon Christine and Anabel,

      Yes, your blog has put our families in touch on the other side of the world! My grandfather left Kilmacolm in 1890 when he came to New Zealand. Thank you!

      May I ask a couple of questions? I have also found the story Memories of Kilmacolm by Brown McMinn and he mentions Low Shells. I can’t find it on any map of the town so are you able to give me some idea of the location?

      Grandfather James McKee was a champion curler and from information I’ve been given I know his brother William was a grocer in Market Place and his brother Thomas was a park keeper.

      It is exciting finding all these stories and being able to visualise what everyday life was like for our family. I’ll continue to read your stories as they come up.

      Grateful thanks for your wonderful writing.

      Kind regards,

      Margaret

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