Essence and flavour; memories of Grandma, by Amanda Zaldua
“She was born onto the floor of a blackhouse”, my mother would often say as she told tales of her own mother's life in a small crofting community on the Isle of Skye.
Mary McSwan was one of six children who survived the hardships to adulthood. She had a sister Margaret and a young brother Murdo who was lost without trace to the horrors of world war one as so many young men were and brothers Hector, Finlay and Donald all lost in their own way through migration. My mother spoke of the close relationship she had with her own Grandfather too, working the land alongside him as a child while he tilled the small croft, talking softly to her in a language she did not understand.
As a young woman Mary was courted by two young men, one a local lad, called up to serve his country and the other a sailor from Argyllshire who fished and transported cargo up and round the West Coast of Scotland, visiting the islands of the inner and outer Hebrides. He, too, called to serve. She received proposals of marriage by letter from both her young suitors, one of which she accepted and the other she turned down, only weeks later to receive word that this young man had been killed in action at the front. We shall never know if he ever received his rejection letter. It hardly matters now. These stories handed down to me by my mother, the traditional Scottish way of keeping our history alive. As I write they are taking on mythical qualities. How much is true, how much embellished?
The Grandma I knew was an elegant, buxom lady immaculately attired, a jewelled brooch clasped her blouse at her throat, enveloped in fur, her hands exquisitely gloved, an array of hat boxes stacked in the boot of the car and a bag of sweet pastel-coloured Oddfellows stashed away to secretly share amongst doting grandchildren. When she held you in the soft folds of her embrace she smelled of parma violets and rose petals. Her wit was legendary and often quoted throughout the years.
“Come leg or I'll leave you”, she would say as she struggled to extricate herself from a car on frequent family gatherings.
“Oh that this too, too solid flesh would melt”, as she eased her ample body into dresses and skirts. She may have come from a poor Hebridean crofting community but she was educated!
Mary married her Master Mariner when she was thirty-four. She had already left the island of her birth to make her home first in Glasgow where she worked in service before moving to the family home in Tarbert on the Mull of Kintyre; Islay House, overlooking Loch Fyne and a place we still consider home although it was lost to our family many years ago.
In the early 1900's Mary sailed with her new husband down to the Mediterranean, stopping off in exotic coastal towns of Italy, Spain and France. She is reported to have visited Pompeii and Venice on her travels. I can only imagine the feelings of a young wife exploring these historical treasures, the girl from the blackhouse. It was during this time she developed a taste for Tia Maria, a tipple that remained a lifelong favourite of hers at family Christmases and other celebrations. There were rumours of a dalliance with the first officer on board, whispers that suggested the ship had sailed from port without her or the first officer to whom she had been entrusted to explore the sights. If such rumours were true we shall never now know but there is no doubt that Mary was both mischievous and beautiful, an entirely seductive combination that saw her pursued by others including her own brother-in-law who lived in the cottage next to their home in Tarbert.
Grandma gave birth to four daughters, all at home. It was hard for a young mother far from her own family and whose husband spent days and weeks at sea, though the attraction of the sea over domesticity for Papa was wholly understandable. I never knew my Papa but tales would suggest he was a quiet, hard working and conscientious man, solid and dependable as he went on to Captain his own boat and face the daily dangers of his work. Grandma, at home, faced the arduous task of bringing up four wilful young daughters alone.
The daughters, themselves, speak of a childhood long lost; of freedom to roam the hills and shorelines, of wash days and coal fires, of strict school rules that resulted in caning for simply not knowing spelling words or times tables and of class mates lost tragically and frequently to common illnesses and drowning. It was a time of World War II terror, of evacuees from Glasgow and prisoner of war camps, a time when their own father was drafted to sweep the dangerous North Atlantic sea for German mines. Grandma, as so many mothers during this time, was stoical and determined that despite the hardships, her daughters would get an education and go on to better things. Grandma, I sense, may have been a bit of an outsider within this small fishing community and her determination to secure a better future for her daughters may have appeared snobbish in those days. However, it also shows something of her strong, feminist character, a reflection of the changes taking place in society as a whole.
“Your education is easy packed.” she would say to us all.
Grandma's airs and graces may have irked some within her community but one story must have irked my Papa rather more. After many years of scrimping and saving she was dispatched to buy a bath in Glasgow. In those days this was a tortuous journey by bus on treacherous roads that wound round the sea lochs, and up over the Rest and Be Thankful, hours of discomfort and a probable stopover before making the return journey. When she did return from her travels the family all eagerly and excitedly awaited the arrival of the long dreamt of bath.
“When is the bath coming?”, Papa would ask at regular intervals. Finally after weeks of questioning Grandma announced that the bath had arrived. She went to her wardrobe, retrieved a large package, boxed and wrapped with brown paper and string.
“Here it is,” she said as she carefully unwrapped the package and produced for all to see, not the bath at all, but a full length and very expensive fur coat!
The smell of Grandma's collection of furs was ever present in Islay House, a place where we spent many an idyllic holiday. The smell of fur, mothballs and coal dust permeated the air of the living room where the clock chimed the quarter hour without fail and a scattering of sepia photos lined the dark sideboard. At night the fresh white sheets were warmed with stone pigs and we were woken in the morning to the squawk and squeal of the sea gulls circling the fishing boats as they left harbour for a day at sea. We too fished with our nets on the shore in front of the house and walked to Shell Beach to pick up the pink pieces of precious shells that crunched under our feet. This magical place has always strangely felt like home although I have never lived there. It is typical of this close knit community that even as an adult on visits to Tarbert I would still be stopped in my tracks and asked if I was related to the Campbells of Islay House. This at least thirty years after the daughters had all left home and my Grandma had been buried for nearly a decade.
It was strokes that took her. Not suddenly and decisively that it can for some. But slowly, stroke by debilitating stroke that saw her reduced from the proud, vital woman to a frail dependent. Over many years there were hushed whispers of another of Grandma's 'funny turns'. It is only now with the benefit of hindsight that we can piece together the true nature of these turns. But even during these periods of ill health her sharp wit never left her. I remember a story when the family had once again all been called to her 'deathbed' only to discover she had once again rallied and was sitting up in bed cheerful and entertaining. My uncle good humouredly, on parting, said,
“Now, mum, no more false alarms please.”
Shooting him a withering look. as quick as a flash she replied,
“I'll make it the real thing next time shall I?”
I still clearly remember the day the phone rang to say she had passed away. My first encounter with the death of a loved one. I remember the sickness I felt at the sudden display of uncontrollable grief in a home where extreme emotions were not usually encouraged, were kept very much in check. It was all very short lived. The funeral came and went. I was not invited to attend. It was a different time then.
Tarbert and Islay House remain places of pilgrimage for our family. Children, grandchildren and now even great grandchildren make the visit. No statue exists there to this particular matriarch but it is a place to which we all still feel inextricably linked, a testament, in its own way, to the strength of family and the power of maternal love.