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June 5th 1896

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A Glen Lyon childhood

Roadside cattle in Glen Lyon. Picture by Chas Webb
Roadside cattle in Glen Lyon. Picture by Chas Webb
Alexandra Stewart was born in 1896 at Woodend in Glenlyon, one of a family of eight girls and a boy. Their father was Alexander Stewart, a shoemaker, a Gaelic scholar and the author of ‘A Highland Parish’ (the parish being the parish of Fortingall which included the whole of Glen Lyon and also Rannoch.)

In her book ‘Daughters of the Glen’ Alexandra paints a loving, but quite unsentimental, picture of Glen Lyon as she remembered it as a child.

“Although my father was a shoemaker we went to school barefoot from late spring to early autumn. The road was good to walk on. It was not tarmac but a soft, dusty surface, easy for horse traffic and kind to the feet. Many a time we were sent to school with boots on and hid them in a convenient hole in the wall, to be collected on our way home. It was three miles to the school. We always met other children on our way and groups of us trooped together. Most of us went barefoot.

From the woods and banks there was much for us to cull - plants and herbs whose use is now largely forgotten. My mother used for rennet a plant that grew in the ditches. The leaf was like a leek, straplike but smaller. There was also a tiny yellow plant that grew in the bank, on any dry part. She gathered that and used it to cure dysentery in lambs, using the whole plant. For firelighters she dug fir roots; they are full of resin and give a fire an excellent start.

We children used to dig up earth nuts and eat them raw. They tasted almost like beech mast. It was my father who taught me how to dig them up and scrape them with a knife. We also gathered the young shoots of the sweet briar coming up from the root; we took the skin off and ate the centre, which was sweetish sour. Rose-hips too we picked and ate.

Sometimes as well as what we picked for ourselves we would get a turnip from a farmer when we were going home at night. We used to take the top off and munch it; it was crisp and moist with a distinctive flavour. But we felt about munching it in public the way children used to be taught about eating sweets in the street; it wasn’t proper. Once Alastair and I were enjoying a turnip when the young minister overtook us on his bicycle and hopped off to walk with us. We were so embarrassed we hid our turnip under our coats and still had most of it when we got home. Mother was pleased. It was in the soup next day.

Looking back we seemed to have been active in a way that is less common now, when the same diversion seems to pass the time for millions of people, sitting in front of television sets. We also experienced simple things more intensely because there were fewer distractions. There was a debating society in the Glen which compared well with some of the comment you hear broadcast now, curling matches in the winter on the ice, shooting competitions at New Year - the ‘glass ball shooting’ on Fortingall glebe - and ploughing matches in the spring. There would be four or five teams from Glen Lyon alone, with polished harness and bells.

For the children winter had its own special quality: snowballing, skating and slides in the bitter weather, the mystery and beauty of moonlit nights when trees and boulders threw strange shadows and the nails in your boots struck sparks from stones in the road, and the queer feeling of the pitch dark if you somehow got away from the others. Winter also made indoors seem all the cosier. Sometimes Father Stewart would let us come to watch in the workshop, where a lamp with a polished reflector hung from the middle of the roof and there was always a mellow smell of burning leather; Jamie MacEwan swept the parings into a heap every now and then and threw them on the fire. In the kitchen Mother Stewart was always busy with cooking, baking, cleaning and washing things, and sometimes we had the run of the ‘verandah’, a little extension with its own fireplace which was the domain of one of our aunts when not working as housekeepers in the manse or one of the big houses.

Mother Stewart had been housekeeper to the minister of the parish church before her marriage. After tending her own large family, she still found time and energy to help a neighbour, and many a tinker baby she helped into the world and clothed with scraps from her own store before the advent of the district nurse and the welfare state. She was a wonderful mother and an endlessly patient wife. The hardships of winter for grown-ups we learned later, although of course , we noticed the leanness of the cows when they went out for the spring rise of grass and we knew that a lot of winter eating was autumn storing. At the worst of times there was plenty of company. A few years later, as the Glen emptied of its people, winter seemed to grow longer every time.

In the spring there were heather fires on the hillsides, the screeching of pheasants in the park, bonfires in the garden and the search for the first daisy and primrose - and later the search for bird’s nests. Gradually came the long days and the abundance of summer, and then the autumn again with the glut of apples and brambles. How far away it seems from a society where most people have never seen pickled eggs or salt herrings in the barrel or bacon on the rafter, or made their own soup, and where even farmer’s wives buy frozen chips. All the technological improvements are supposed to reduce labour and increase leisure, and of course they do. But often it seems to be leisure to be bored. I suppose we were bored sometimes, and there is no merit in drudgery. Maybe we compare the recollections of childhood, with its intensity and long moments, with an adult world that is bound to be different. But why so different? There is no measuring human happiness or individuality. There does not seem to be more of either with the emptying of the glens.

We were no children of the wilderness, although we were close to natural things. The point of view of the town dweller who talks about ‘protecting the wilderness’ must always be a little insulting to a Highlander. The original name of Glen Lyon, long centuries ago before it was settled by the Fionn, the builders of forts and masters of cattle, was Gleinn Fasach, ‘Wilderness Glen’. But the modern wilderness in the Highlands is man made - not, mostly, by the Highlanders but by outsiders who bought whole forests and clean-felled them as if they were mining rock, or were interested in making money from sheep or deer (or, if they did not need the money, simply in the thrill of killing a big animal). Everywhere was wilderness once. Seventy years ago the notion of so miscalling Glen Lyon, where people had lived since history took over from myth, would have seemed without sense. Our childhood happiness was not in the wilderness, although we were always conscious of natural beauty and grandeur, At the end of long lives, we do not look back on a world of wilderness, but on a cheerful, busy and companionable little community that was more fragile than we could know.” 

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