In a recent article in the “Talking about Fearnan” series, brief mention was made of the Tinkers who used to travel around the Fearnan area. This week we are delighted to publish another contribution from Alistair Barnett, writing from his home in Victoria, in which he paints a more detailed picture of the itinerant families and characters who were once so much a part of rural life.
Alistair’s memoir, Fearnan…a Refuge in the Storm was one of the most popular articles we have published on the web site.
Thistle Cottage: A Visit from Annabelle:
“The tinkers maybe have been unwashed rouges and vagabonds
but I miss them sorely.” (S.P.B Mais)
It’s an unusually grey autumn day here in Victoria and just after breakfast I reached for a book, any book that might lift the gloom on such a day. There it was: The Happiest Days of My Life, by SPB Mais, a prolific author and well-known broadcaster, particularly during WW2.
The delightfully eccentric Mr. Mais wrote the book in the spring of 1953 — the year of the Queen’s Coronation — at Fortingall Hotel. It was also the year I was privileged to work for the celebrated owner and gastronomic genius at the hotel, William (Bill) Heptinstall.
It was April, and I vividly recall the rotund Mr. Mais sweltering, red-cheeked under a deerstalker hat, Sherlock Holmes’ coat and seven waistcoats, each one a different bright colour, pressing on wearily toward the hotel, having spent the day hiking through Fearnan and around Glen Lyon gathering material for his book.
It became a ritual for me to watch for him from the front steps of the hotel every afternoon and, as he passed the last thatched cottage with his family straggling behind, he’d wave and his inimitable broadcasters’ voice would resonate throughout the village: “My Pimms Alastair, where is my Pimms please?” We had always to have cucumber and fresh mint on hand to garnish his favourite cooler. He was also known to frequently make a stopover at the Tigh-an-Loan Hotel for refreshment, after which he’d enjoy standing on the hotel pier watching Lucy Butters’ three white ducks bobbing about on a stormy loch.
Whilst thumbing through his book for the zillionth time this morning, I came across a passage in which S.P.B. (Stuart. Petre. Brodie.) expresses his disappointment at the disappearance of the local tinkers. (With respect for today’s “political correctness” now known as “Travelers.)” He writes :
”…In the old days there was always a camp of tinkers here, one of whom, a drunken old reprobate, used to parade up and down outside the hotel playing the pipes until he had collected enough money to slake – or partially slake – an almost insatiable thirst. The tinkers maybe have been unwashed rouges and vagabonds but I miss them sorely. Where are they now? All dressed up and washed by a robotic Welfare State? Perhaps. Less happy? Without a shadow of doubt. Let those whose heritage is nomadic remain nomads, say I. What matters a poached salmon here and there?” 
The passage brings back memories of days when I’d spend time with the tinkers on the shore between the school at Fearnan and Corriegorm. I remember as a very young boy trauchling home from the school; there was a grassy plateau on the loch shore where the tinkers pitched canvas tents over arched hazel branches while they prepared to spend a few days in the area selling assorted wares to the villagers out of old worn suitcases.
The “wares” consisted mostly of reels of thread, buttons and sewing needles and assorted combs and the like. Nowadays it would be considered silly but, in those dark days of war, a visit from anyone outside the village was an event and, to my eight-year-old eyes, when a tinker’s case was opened at the door, it was an ecstatic glimpse into Aladdin’s cave filled with an array of colourful treasures.
When a tinker knocked on the door of Thistle Cottage I would feverishly tug mother’s apron and whisper, “ask if she has any sweetie coupons.” It wasn’t unusual to exchange a tin can of brewed tea or some eggs for coupons. But I knew better than to ask when it was Nancy McGregor at the door, because Nancy was a tinker who seemed to be nursing a new baby every time she showed up. I soon learned as her brood grew, so did their appetite for sweets. She never did part with any of her coupons.
But I loved when Annabelle came hobbling round with the help of an old knobby walking stick. “Annie” was ancient, all wrapped up in a tattered tartan blanket with only her brown wrinkly face and some wisps of white hair showing. We could always rely on Annie to offer her sweetie coupons in exchange for some treat. Frail and exhausted she would collapse onto a chair inside the entrance where she would remain until mother brought her a cup of tea
Annabelle reminded me of a kindly old witchy character from one of my storybooks. I couldn’t take my eyes off her. Every time before she tottered off, she would struggle to her feet, reach down and with a toothless smile, pat my head.
Isn’t it remarkable that such a simple kind act is remembered with fondness over a lifetime?
It was later, when we moved briefly to Balnearn, I would have to pass the tinkers’ camp. I say, “have to” because initially these travelers and their dogs terrified me and I would run as fast as I could in the hopes they wouldn’t notice me passing along the road. Often they would spot me when the dogs barked and they’d call out and wave for me to climb down the slope to their smoke-shrouded encampment.
Eventually, once I realized they were friendly and had no intention of running off with me, I’d venture down the embankment to the loch. I’d pat the Shetland ponies tethered nearby and the tinkers would sit me down by the open wood-fire and demonstrate how they wove a whole range of willow baskets. Once completed the baskets would be dipped halfway into a cauldron of either boiled brambles or raspberries and emerge with the lower half tinted a brilliant blue or red. Ingenious.
It was autumn. I ran down the hill from Balnearn on my way to school. I trudged along the road eager to wave to my friends. I stopped and looked over the bank to the grassy plateau below; only a ring of charred stones remained. As if by magic everyone had disappeared.
I never knew where they went and I missed them.
Thank you for accompanying me on my little jaunt down Memory Lane. I hope Fearnan is bathed in all its brilliant and sunny autumn glory.
Note: Two books I’ve read (for those interested in the lives of long ago tinkers): Red Rowan & Wild Honey and The Yellow on the Broom – both written by real-life “Traveler” Betsy Whyte.
 Quotes from “Happiest Days” printed with permission from the Mais family.
Thank YOU, Alistair, for sharing your memories with us!