The Villages Shops

When I was ten to twelve years old I must have been the most sought after message girl on our street. There were several girls in neighbouring families but none of my own age, some were older, others younger. As well as doing most of our own household shopping and that of old Kate Urquhart who lived next door, I also ran errands for Granny, auntie Dolly, Jessie Jeanah and Jessie Beelie. I had to call on each of them several times a week to see if anything was needed.

We had four shops in the village at that time, another lady sold bread from her house. There was Maggie Uisdean’s, Bell’s, the post office and Willie Vass’s (more often called Willie Kenny’s). Later George Davage opened a store but by then I think old Bell had closed down. Phemie didn’t have a shop but she took in bread and buns which she resold to neighbours round about. The shops were all kept reasonably busy, Maggie Uisdean getting most of the trade from the west end and Willie Kenny securing trade from the Eastern half of the village, but others got a fair share too.

Maggie Uisdean lived in a thatched cottage which she shared with her sister. Their living quarters were in one end of the cottage and the shop in the other. One door served both shop and house. Maggie and her sister Nan were both kindly folk but Nan left the running of the store entirely to her sister. It was to this shop that I went for most of the family groceries. On entering through the main door you turned right, when through the inner shop door you were confronted by a small counter on top of which were a set of scales with many brass weights. I was always fascinated by the different measurements of the smaller scales: a half ounce, one ounce, two ounces, and four ounces (half a pound). The larger ones went up in similar stages, to seven pounds I think. Also on that counter there was a round wooden board on which stood large segments of cheese with a sharp knife close by. If the cheese was crumbly pieces shot off as the cheese was being cut but they never got very far, there was always someone ready to snap them up and indeed when Maggie’s back was turned any loose bits were sometimes snaffled too. At the far end of the counter stood a barrel which contained soda crystals, more commonly known as washing soda. On top of this barrel was also, a board and a sharp knife. There was no such thing as a meat cutter then, so Maggie had to slice the bacon herself. As she cut it with saw-like movements, each round would come away and the board moved a little bit. When her concentration wasn’t fully on the job in hand, distracted by the behaviour of her younger customers, the inevitable happened, board and ham nose diving into the soda. Quite unperturbed, Maggie lifted them out, wiped them down with a clean cloth and restarted the operation, this time taking more care.

On the far end wall there was a rack which held bread, Maggie occasionally asked me to go and fetch my own. Sometimes she said “There’s a sole loaf at the top end. Take it to your mother.”

“But,” I’d remonstrate, “mother didn’t ask me to get another loaf.”

“Take it just the same,” she’d reply, and when I got home mother would explain that Maggie didn’t want payment for that one, it was a gift.

Very often, as young children arrived with message lists which Maggie found difficult to read, she’d search everywhere for her glasses. If she couldn’t find them she’d start to panic, ‘till suddenly she or someone else would discover them sitting on top of her head and calm was restored.

Twice weekly Maggie got a supply of hard biscuits which were very popular with most village folk. They were the size of saucers, about half an inch thick and they cost a halfpenny each. The biscuits had a texture and flavour all of their own. I had to race home from school at lunch time with all the bags to get into the queue. I knew there would be none left by four o’clock. The amounts asked for varied from one shillings worth to nine pence, six pence or even three pence worth depending on the number of people in the household. Granny was very fond of them and quite often when I was at her house she would ask me to bring one of the “thieves”. That was her name for them because when she dunked one in her bowl of tea it absorbed most of the liquid leaving her very little tea. It was then, quite customary to take tea in a bowl as it wasn’t at a main meal. More often than not it was boiled in a pan and as strong as bark. Maggie’s biscuits had quite a long spell of popularity, when that spell finished we got a new kind from a visiting van, “Fochabers Biscuits” we called them.

Very few commodities were packaged at that time, consequently there was a lot of weighing to be done. The shopkeepers had a lot of trotting back and forth to do, getting to where things were stored. Maggie coped wonderfully without complaint.

Mrs Fraser in the post office ran a grocery business to, as a sideline. When you had to purchase stamps or post a parcel you’d find it handy to get necessary household items there. It was only a small sub post office and therefore didn’t issue pensions. Every week I had to trot over to Balintore to collect Granny’s ten shilling allowance. I’d get odds and ends for Mother and Dolly as well.

Most children were familiar with Bell’s shop, not because of the groceries she kept but because of the sweets they’d buy with any pocket money they were lucky enough to have. Bell had a good selection of sweets and I can still visualise her taking a page from a jotter or a piece of newspaper and rolling it into a cone-shaped bag to hold brandy balls or acid drops. Almost every week Kate Urquhart sent me to Bell’s for one particular purchase, Snuff! Kate didn’t use it herself. It was for one of her friends in the nearby farmhouse.

Willie Vass’s shop was at the far end of the village so I didn’t go there as often as I went to Maggie’s. It was a slightly bigger store and was always busy. It to, had a marvellous variety of sweets, youngsters would gaze longingly at all the good things in the window display. The irony was that there was very little money for buying sweets. As well as groceries, Willie sold smaller items of children’s clothing and footwear, handy for hard pressed mothers who couldn’t travel further afield.

Phemie lived in a thatched cottage at the foot of the brae, just a short distance from my own home. Just inside the doorway was a large kist in which she stored some of her supply of bread. The rest of her bread was kept in a wee room off the living room. Mother would sometimes send me there for a loaf. Prior to entering the cottage you had to contend with Phemie’s hens, there was no need to knock, for the hens soon announced your arrival. They were all round the door and usually one or two of them fluttered down squawking from the top of the kist in which the bread was stored. On one occasion I’d seen one flying on to the table in the living room before being chased outside. The room always seemed dark as the light from the wee window was somewhat obscured by shrubs and trees in the garden. Phemie was a quiet lady who lived on her own, I think she was glad to chat with anyone who came along. Sometimes she‘d ask me to sit down while she went to fetch the loaf and a bun or a biscuit for myself.

There were other occasions when I was sent to Phemie’s for a more macabre reason. Mother also kept hens and when one was destined for the pot or for sending as a gift to a distant relative, it had to be killed first. Although this was a task which my father and brothers refused to perform, Phemie did it without turning a hair. She caught the bird by its two legs, put her staff over the neck and pulled. With one short squawk it was all over, it was hard to believe that such a gentle lady could do such a thing. I’d walk home down the vennel, sometimes with my eyes closed and arms fully outstretched holding the dead bird, hoping when I did open my eyes that I wouldn’t see any drips of blood from its mouth. How I hated being sent on those missions! Granny didn’t spare me either. When she wanted a chicken disposed of she’d make me wait for Billy Gray the milkman. He used the same method as Phemie, again I couldn’t bear to look.

Another tradesman was popular in the village at the time, Andrew Ross the baker, best known as “Andrew the Van”. He came two or three times a week with bread-pan loaves, sole loaves, tummies and a variety of scones – soda, treacle and plain. He sold wine biscuits, caraway biscuits and ginger cake too. Sometimes he was on the go at ten o’clock on a Saturday night. We all liked Andrew.

These were some of the folk who catered for the village’s needs around eighty years ago. All are long since gone but some who remember them remain. Now in this age of progress we have no post office in the village, no baker calling and no sign of a shop. We wonder if we’re going forwards or backwards and what changes a few more years may bring.

Katie Ross