Chapter 6
Visitors to the Village

 

As usual, the annual Dundee Holiday Week took place during 'Berry Picking' time. The visitors were always welcome, they were a happy lot of people, glad to live in the fresh country air. They lived in rented rooms, in tents and garden sheds. They came by ferry to Newport and walked the six miles. What they earned for a few days' work they took in berries instead of money and made jam to take home and to sell. At nights they made merry, dancing in the street to music from pipes, squeeze box, fiddle and singing. Many villagers joined in. One week in one year was all too short for such fun.

It was Dundee Holiday Week, 1908. Several of we village boys had finished our berry picking in a market garden in Balmullo at three p.m. so the rest of the day was our own. After a meal we told our parents we were going to Southfield to Mrs Gray's cottage. Our object was to guddle for trout in the Montray burn. We did not get any. The fish slithered through our hands, but it was good fun. One of the Gray boys told us there were a dozen elderly folk at St Michael's Hotel, dead beat after walking from Newport Ferry, their destination being Balmullo. We soon had our stockings and boots on and running to St Michael's. Sure enough at the railway bridge there were very tired looking elderly folk, beside them parcels, two cooking pots, a bird cage with a canary inside, a sack of blankets and a scratched-looking bike with hard-rimmed tyres. We told the old folk we would carry the baggage. I took the bike, put a sack over it, also the cooking pots across the handle bars. We set out, five young boys, only too willing to help the elderly without any thought of reward. We reached Balmullo tired and happy, the old folk very happy indeed. We saw them to their cottages in the Stable Row. We each got a penny and to my great surprise I was told, 'Keep the bike laddie, it's no more use to me.' I could hardly believe it for it was a dream come true!

Between berry picking my chums helped me to scrape off all the old paint and then apply two coats of black enamel. The bike had no brakes and had a fixed wheel. I cycled hundreds of miles on my bike all over Fife and beyond without mishap. For six years at Dundee holiday time I cycled to Newport ferry, met the man who gave me the bike and carried his luggage to Balmullo without recompense.

There were many genuine travellers. The 'Specky Man', who had a box of steel rimmed glasses and who would shout, 'Try them on until a pair fits.' The dentist usually had a good trade and audience! The packmen all carried a superior article of clothing. The Arbroath fish women, with mouth-watering smokies and kippers. The photographers and sketchers all had a very good trade. The shears and hedgebill grinders and others had a welcome into homes.

I have recollections about several well-known hawkers who were regular visitors to the villages in the north of the Fife. 'Red Sandy' hawked clean carrots at a shilling a stone. He sold Edzell Blue potatoes and leeks as thick as your wrist, beetroot as big as your fist and swedes like footballs. Andra pushed a barrow with apples, pears and plums in season and any odd thing he could sell when fruit was unobtainable. He had a stock expression.

'Tach, damn you, tak' double or anither tuppence and let me hame!'

Willie was a quiet trader in china and sundries. He too had a stock introduction: 'Good day, ma'am. A've pots and pans and jelly cans, cups and saucers, plates big and small, brooms and brushes short and tall, lots o'ting-a-lings for the bairns and a drawie full o'sweets for the family.' He would tap articles of china and remark, 'Soond as a bell. If it breaks with fair handling A'll replace it free. Mind ye, A canna' replace wild smashin'.' He had a rival in the trade. Geordie by name. Geordie did not carry the high-class goods Willie offered. Customers would say, 'You are dear, Willie. Geordie sells such an article tuppence cheaper!' Willie would bend his head in silent thought, then reply with something witty like, 'My high-class china has on it the Potteries hallmark. Geordie's is stamped with a navvy's tackety boot!'

'Packie Joe' had a firm grip in every home. Children liked him, bigger boys would carry his shoulder pack or his case. Once he confided that he carried: 'One hundred assorted articles, including pins, needles, reels, studs, laces, braces, buttons, hooks and eyes and hairpins.'

He knew the families in each home, from the baby to the oldest, the school they attended, the jobs they were in, who they were married to, wherever they were. He remembered the size of boots, length of leg, neckbands and colour tastes of all. We all gathered round him as he took out his wares and announced them one by one in a questioning sort of presentation as if hoping to be stopped by someone wanting to buy an item.

'Caps, hankies, blouses, scarves, shirts, underwear, knickers, stockings, nappies, bibs, mutches, ribbons, shawls, gloves... ?' Halting for a little breather for he had lung trouble, he would soon continue.

'Printed dresses, satin slips, tea cloths, towels, table covers, lace curtains, flannel sheets, pillow cases, ties, night shirts and valances?'

Balmullo had to depend on vans for various foodstuffs; they were travelling horse vans, with bread and cakes, butchers with every choice cut, fishmongers, paraffin sellers - all house lighting was by lamp and candle - china merchants with pots and pans and jeely cans, dishes all stamped; handsome chambers or po's, lots of ting-a-lings for the bairns; shingle sellers, shingle from the seashore, threepence a half pailfull, to help hens lay eggs with firm shells and although Balmullo had about a score of the finest market gardens and gardeners in Scotland - no one could grow carrots and rhubarb like Sandy Bell of Leuchars. Two other excellent traders gave first class service. The carriers between Dundee and Cupar, lorry loads, drawn by two horses, conveying all kinds of produce and the miller who delivered superfine flour and meal, to every farm and home.

Regular annual invasions came to Balmullo and all other villages in the good weather. Punch and Judy shows, barrel organ players, fiddlers, melodeon players, trumpeters, pipers, jugglers, groups of singers, strong arm men, bending iron and smashing wood with their bare hands. Acrobats, showmen with tents and placards promising wondrous sights, a sheep with six legs, calf with three, giant owls, only a halfpenny to get in and see the trick-stuffed exhibits.

A horse drawn lorry would unexpectedly arrive. Out came men who attempted to sell linoleum, carpet squares, paint, remnants and other goods. Some proved to be 'Cheap-Jacks' who cheated then quickly moved on.

There were travelling variety stage shows. They were a great treat, so clean, tuneful, cheerful and professional. The party numbered a dozen. They travelled in a horse drawn wagonette. They played in Dairsie Hall about six thirty p.m., a quick drive to Balmullo just after eight o'clock for a late performance followed by packing-up and moving to lodgings in Leuchars and so on around the county of Fife. I got in free at the Balmullo shows because I stuck up bills in the village and collected tickets at the entrance. They would recite new funny poems and songs which we children would memorise and use in our games. Some that I remember went as follows.

 

My father's a farmer on yonder green
He's plenty of money to keep me aye braw
An' there's nae bonnie laddie'll tak' me awa.
I said to myself as I looked in the glass,
I'm a gie bonnie lass and a handsome young lass.
Wi' my hat an' my feathers I'll give a Ha! Ha!
An' there's nae bonnie laddie'll tak' me awa.

 Alice Fair is very ill, what shall we send her?
A     piece of cake, a piece and jam, a piece of apple dumpling.
Who shall we send it with, who shall we send it with?
Mrs Brown's daughter.
She came downstairs dressed in silk,
A rose in her hair as white as milk,
She took off her glove and showed me her ring,

Tomorrow, tomorrow the wedding shall begin.

 My Mother's a queen
And my father's a king,
And I'm a little princess.
But you're a nasty thing.
It's not because you're dirty
It's not because you're clean;
It's because you've got the whooping cough
And that's a nasty thing.
If my mother knew
That I played with you,
She'd take me over her knee
And give me, one, two, three a leerie.

 Eh'm gaen awa' in the train
And you're not coming wi' me.
Eh've got a lad o' ma am
And his name is kiltie Jeemie.
Jeemie wears a kilt,
He wears it in the fashion,
And every time he twirls aroond
Ye canna help fae laughin'!

 Summer was also the time for tramps, beggars, tinkers and gypsies. All had a distinctive role in our order of things. A tramp to us was a type of man who would leave Dundee, cross to Newport by ferry boat and walk to Balmullo. He would be well known to farmers where he sought bed and breakfast in return for a little work. About six miles was usually enough walking for one day to a tramp. At the nearest farm he would hand over his matches and pipe - to avoid the danger of causing a fire - be given a big scone, have his 'billy-can' filled with skimmed milk and be allowed to sleep in the straw barn. At six o'clock next morning he would willingly help in the stables, byre or garden for a few hours. Then he would wash in a pail of cold water in the farmyard, go back to the farmhouse, have a good meal, his pitcher filled with tea and take to the road again. In his next few days he would try to travel eight miles per day, the next few up to ten miles, then to a steady daily twelve miles - going mainly to his usual farms getting meals for a little work and sometimes a coin or two for a bottle of beer. Tramps normally 'wintered' in cities.

Beggars were simply tramps who demanded 'something for nothing,' an attitude quite foreign to that which was acceptable in our small community. Beggars did not like work, were always scrounging after a 'penny' which would be spent on strong drink, sometimes they would grudgingly accept the crust of bread they pretended to want. Unlike tramps most beggars were unkempt, untidy, dirty and smelly men with nasty tongues, quick to make sinister threats towards anyone who would not meet their demands. Therefore beggars were discouraged from remaining in or near to the farms or the village as bitter experiences had taught that they usually meant trouble for someone. Stories were told of barns or hayricks that caught fire. In my young mind I could understand the appeal of the tramps' lifestyle, but I felt uneasy about beggars and wanted to know what had made them become unsociable, resentful, impoverished and unhappy outcasts. My parents warned me not to mix with them and told that they were not to be trusted. I bowed to their better judgement - and went on wondering how such people could be helped.

Tinkers were women with a small child and a basket on her arm - needles, pins, clothes pegs, hat pins, buttons, laces, studs and other trifling odds and ends.

'Buy something and I'll read your "Palm lines" for three pence. This is my lassie's child. Have you an old pair of shoes, stockings, a dress, something to "hap" her at night, maybe a "jeelie piece" or biscuit. A'm hungry ma'sel.'

They were not beyond swearing terribly at, or putting curses' on householders who would neither buy their wares nor give them the clothes, food or drink they said they needed. In stark contrast their husbands or partners, the men tinkers, were usually very different. They worked long and hard to produce the good willow baskets, heather pot scourers, brushes, 'beesoms', clothes pegs and the neat bundles of kindling the womenfolks and children tried to sell door-to-door and also at curing mole skins. It was a pleasure to watch them work at their makeshift roadside shelters and to attempt copying their skills with wood. Again I was exhorted not to fraternize.

Most gypsies were splendid workmen. Out of old tins, they made tin mugs, graters, metal spoons, wire toasting forks and some very fine horn ornaments and trinkets in wood. They spent most of the winter in the old blue-stone quarry. They had quite good tents. Not far away was the wood, so they had lots of fuel. They ate well, all from Nature's produce. Tea was made from various leaves, sweetened with honey; spreads for the bread was made from preserved wild rose hips syrup, brambles, raspberries and hedge gooseberries. From stream banks and burn beds, they gathered and dried many kinds of herbs, fungi and molluscs. After harvests they were allowed to glean wheat, barley and oat fields and from the grain they made tasty wholemeal breads. From 'tattie howkin' work for farmers they earned an ample winter's supply of 'broke' (small) potatoes. Rabbits wandered into the quarry and made fine smelling stews or roasts, as did pigeons. Both of these were always in good supply and any turnips that fell off carts also went into the suspended iron cooking pots. The gypsies had a way of storing everything, even the necessary roots, barks, berries and dried insects as medicines. They were a class on their own, never mixing with the tramps, beggars or tinkers. As a boy I loved to watch the people in the Blue Quarry, to talk with them and learn. They were clean and polite and were an accepted part of the rural scene.

From the Balmullo Reservoir, belonging to Guard Bridge Paper Mill, a new pipeline was being dug by a firm who used navvy gangs. One day, a grubby-looking man stopped John, my eldest brother and an undergraduate at St Andrews University, and said to him, 'I see you passing every day. Where do you work?' When told he was a student he offered, 'If you have any difficulty with languages or any other subject just let me know and I will help you - for the price of a drink.'

That evening the man came in response to an invitation from John. He looked much cleaner but would not come into our house. John showed the man a lesson in Greek which he read correctly, then one in Latin with a similar result. Next an English lesson was translated into Hebrew within a few minutes. We were all astonished at the navvie' s learning. Later, my father heard from the navvy himself that he was at one time the Principal of a large Public School and previously a university lecturer in England. His downfall was alcohol, he had become a compulsive drinker, lost job after job, finally his family disowned him - hence his current plight. Father decided to help. After many sessions and just when we all thought the man was reforming - he got clothes etc. - he disappeared. It was so difficult to understand that man, even when we discovered that in the same navvy squad there were also a business man, an accountant and a solicitor to mention only a few who had fallen so low because of their common compulsive desire for alcohol. I pledged myself in church never to drink.

 

 

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This work, Going With God, is copywrited by Ronald R. Caseby, 1993.   All rights reserved.  Used here by express permission.