The Simple Folk

We hear much nowadays of the affluent society and at no time is this more evident than during the annual Christmas shopping spree. The larger stores are stocked with goods of all kinds and lavish amounts are spent on gifts which the buyer is not really able to afford but which are bought nevertheless. I don’t mind children or grown ups having luxuries, I enjoy comforts myself, however I often wish that more appreciation was shown for them.

In contrast, I was brought up in an age of austerity when small things brought pleasure. If Christmas stockings contained an apple, an orange and a penny tucked into the toe my brothers, sisters and I were well pleased. Necessary items of new clothing such as stockings, gloves or scarves were an extra bonus and a new jumper was something of value. It would then proudly be worn on New Year’s day. We learned to appreciate little things and I think that is why I remember many of the everyday happenings which influenced my early years.

There were big families with many mouths to feed and little enough money for necessities. The housewife welcomed any extras which eased the budget even a tiny bit. A bearer of good things at that time was a hard working and intrepid lady called Maggie Gillanders. Maggie tramped the two miles to the village, Winter or Summer, several times a week, carrying a basket of farm produce on each arm. She’d have a couple of turnips or cabbages slung over her shoulders and perhaps a couple of chickens as well. Mother was one of her regular customers and her crowdie which could be bought for four pence, a pound (old money) was simply scrumptious on oatcakes. Few people were able to afford the fresh country butter every week, on the rare occasion when mother had enough for the butter it was a treat to be remembered for a long time. Maggie had no lack of customers, meaning she was always well fortified by many cups of tea. She would always return to the farm with her baskets empty.

Another welcome caller was the man from Shandwick who caught rabbits on the cliffside below Geanies. He usually had a dozen or more pairs slung over the handlebars of his bicycle. At one shilling or one and sixpence a pair, the rabbits made a satisfying, tasty and inexpensive meal. The skins were hung up and dried. Three pence or four pence could be recovered from each skin, as many travelling folk were eager to buy them. No housewife threw them away.

There was no radio or television then so children had to rely on their own initiative for amusement. For them it was a red letter day when Happy Sandy visited the school. Partitions were taken up and two or more classes combined to watch, with rapt attention, his acts of magic. For weeks afterwards pupils argued as to how he pulled this or that out of his hat or sleeve. Today those simple things might be scoffed at but we all loved them.

“Tipperary” was another person who was greeted with pleasure. He was a dapper gentleman, clad in light coloured trousers, a dark jacket and a top hat. He had a stick resembling a porridge spurtle which he twisted expertly on the tips of his fingers. From the minute of his arrival until his departure he was assured a following of both young and old. Occasionally he had a monkey on his shoulder which was a great attraction. I think he probably got his nickname from the popular song “It’s a long way to Tipperary”.

The Woolens Man usually made The Corner his headquarters. Children would produce old stockings, jerseys and anything they could lay their hands on which they swapped for a windmill on a stick or a little blue bird. If they were lucky enough to have a large garment they might acquire two items. Sometimes housewives had to quickly rescue any socks on the washing line lest they too would be exchanged for those gaily coloured birds and windmills.

I wonder if there is anyone in the village of my age who doesn’t remember “Nellie the Toggles”. Her arrival quickly attracted most of the youngsters in the area, as she walked, her long unkept hair fell almost to her waist, a queue followed on either side of the road. Strapped to her shoulders were umpteen cans and kettles of various shapes and sizes. She had a pipe in her mouth and a melodeon dangled at her side. If she was in a good mood all went well but woe betide anyone who upset her in any way. Her language frightened even the bravest and after a few outbursts every child scurried for home. Nellie then carried on through the village to The Cove, a cave below the cliffs at Tarrel, frequented by tinkers at other times. The cave is still there but no longer used by travelling folk. The travelling folk have their own transport nowadays and some live in council houses with other members of the community.

As I grew older, vans laden with commodities made their appearance and shopping became that little bit easier for the hard pressed housewives, whose work baiting lines never seemed to end. One enterprising couple arrived on a motorcycle, the sidecar stocked with all kinds of articles, such as could be found in Woolworths. From the first of their many visits they were called “The Woolies”. Such was the demand for their wares that the sidecar had to be replaced by a trailer. Trade at their mobile “shop” was always brisk.

I was twelve before I sampled the delights of ice cream and about the same age when I first visited a cinema in Inverness. The silent films had just been replaced by “Talkies” and how thrilled I was that evening. A year or two later wireless sets appeared in our homes and what a difference they made! Programmes such as The MacFlannels, Scottish Dance Music and Just William could not be missed. Gradually we began to relinquish the simple things and long for what was still just a little bit beyond our grasp. After many trials and tribulations better times did come, however with war intervening the cost was high. Those childhood days seem far off now and I sometimes wonder if, in many years to come, the youth of today will remember the ordinary folk, or will their recollections be of film stars or sports idols seen on television.


Katie Ross