A few weeks ago, we asked former resident Alastair Barnett what Christmas was like in Fearnan when he was growing up during the war years.
The Blog likes to think of Alastair as its North American Correspondent, and this time he has conjured up a wonderful account of a 1940s Christmas, with the music of the time playing on the radio as ingenious solutions to the problems of rationing are developed in the kitchen.
He also gives us an account of a dramatic rescue by sledge during the bitter winter of 1946/47, when the village – and indeed the whole of the country – was engulfed in snow for very long periods.
When I was preparing to jot down a few recollections of Christmases past for the Fearnan Village Association blog, I asked my brother Jim if he had any particular memories of Christmas growing up in Fearnan during the war. “I remember mostly the village being very quiet both at Christmas and the New Year,” he replied.
As I sat down to write I realized not only do early childhood memories grow dim as the years drift away, but also celebrating the tradition of Christmas during the war years was difficult for everyone and especially hard on evacuees. Many children of school age who had to flee the city found themselves far from home without their parents. How lonely they must have been. My brother and I were very young therefore fortunate to have our mother with us at all times when we left Glasgow.
The sketchy recollections I have of living at Thistle Cottage as a child include snapshot images of Christmas when mother would make sure we hung a pillowcase over the bedpost on Christmas Eve, and jumping out of bed, bursting with excitement on Christmas morning to discover Santa had not forgotten us. I loved the Rupert Bear adventure books and comics he left, along with crayons and colouring books and the Roy Rogers six-gun that fired off little red caps with a loud cracking sound. Santa also had an uncanny knowledge of our size in jerseys and socks. (I suspect he conferred with our relatives in Glasgow to get this information.)
As our lives were inexorably intertwined with the Butters family next-door, memories emerge of Christmas when my brother and I clambered over the dike to Springbank cottage. The “front-room” was decorated with multicoloured crepe paper garlands, and we helped pin tissue paper honeycomb bells on the walls and ceiling, and gathered holly from the garden to place around pictures and between Christmas cards on the mantelpiece. While this was going on, the kitchen filled with the spicy aromas of suet dumpling and fruitcake, and savoury chicken and Lucy’s sweet Melting Moments, along with Sandy’s not so sweet-smelling pipe smoke as he nodded off in front of the blazing fire, with Rover the collie stretched out at his feet by the hearth.
On one occasion I remember Mother’s contribution was a home baked Victoria sponge cake. As fresh cream in winter was scarce, or perhaps non-existent, she became quite creative and piled the cake high with beaten egg white topped off with orange slices. It looked very grand but to this day I don’t know where she got the orange, as they too were in short supply. However, the uncooked egg white was sweet and satisfied my notorious (and lifelong) addiction to sugar.
Thinking of it now, our Grandmother lived in South Africa and once a year would send some tinned goods. Perhaps this solves the mystery of the orange slices if in fact, they canned oranges in those days.
During supper, Sandy who appeared never to enjoy music or singing of any kind must have surrendered and allowed the radio to be switched on in the background for the special Christmas occasion, otherwise I might never have heard of Bing Crosby or “White Christmas, ” or “Jingle Bells” for that matter.
After supper when the dishes were removed to the scullery, the only sound was the ticking of the Grandfather clock and the logs hissing in the fireplace. I sat at the table and in the glow of the paraffin lamp, opened my new box of crayons and drew elegant gentlemen in tall hats and tailcoats arm-in-arm with ladies in bonnets and colourful crinoline dresses. (Images I copied from Christmas cards.) Across the table, Jim maneuvered his toy soldiers through fierce imaginary battles. (By this time we had moved on from drawing camouflaged tanks and Spitfires.) My younger brother, Iain, was very young and in bed long before supper was over.
Once I sneaked out into the frosty night and spent a few minutes chatting with “Paddy” the cow in the byre behind the house. I felt she was being left out, cold and alone and I wanted to comfort her. She was very receptive and gave me an approving look with her big brown eyes when I patted her head. The byre, as it turned out, was surprisingly warmer than I expected.
What we experienced in Fearnan, not only at Christmas but also throughout those memorable years, was a spirit of camaraderie and the willingness to “mend, make do, and help each other out.” Evidence of this was illustrated vividly when we had to leave Thistle Cottage and move to Balnearn.
The war had ended and we as a family were coming to terms with the fact that father was not coming home. It’s a mother’s instinct to protect her children, and our mother put on a brave face but I sensed her heartbreak and occasionally came across her in tears. I know she was lonely and I’m sure moving out of the village to Balnearn increased her feelings of isolation.
Soon after arriving at Balnearn, Jim and I both came down with whooping cough. It’s possible Doctor Swanson from Aberfeldy administered some care but I have no memory of it. I remember only mother giving us medicine which presumably was prescribed by the Kenmore nurse or the doctor. To make matters worse, the fierce blizzard of 1946/47 that brought Britain to a standstill, struck our hillside home in January and suddenly we were cut off from the village,
How miserable winter was in that remote cottage. The pipes were frozen solid which meant we had to fill buckets with snow to melt over the fire for water. And while waking up to a vista of fresh snow every morning can be magical ― especially through the eyes of a child ― when viewed through a thick layer of ice that covers the inside of all the windows, it loses some of its magic. But our most demanding chore was digging logs out of the woodpile, which was buried day after day beneath freshly fallen deep snow. With one solitary fireplace in the kitchen, the other rooms were freezing cold. Only when we huddled in bed at night under a pile of blankets with a hot water bottle did we experience some respite from winter’s wrath. It was on such a night when we prepared to go to bed early to escape the cold that an angel arrived out of the darkness holding a lantern and pulling a sledge. Chrissie Butters had climbed the hill to rescue us!
Alarmed at the treacherous conditions, her parents Lucy and Sandy had sent Chrissie out into the storm in an attempt to bring us back to the village. Being transported on a sledge in a freezing winter storm in the night was a bit scary but also an exciting adventure and something no child could forget. Wrapped in blankets I crouched on the sledge with Chrissie and Jim pulling hard against the blinding snow, while mother in a heavy coat, headscarf and Wellington boots, trudged alongside steadying the personal belongings she had balanced precariously on the sledge beside me. I believe I’m correct in thinking my younger brother Iain had been moved to Springbank some time earlier before the storm hit. But in any case I have no memory of him during our departure from Balnearn that night.
Is there any feeling experienced by a child comparable to that of being loved? How difficult it is to fully express the warm, loving sensation I experienced that night, finally safe in the village with my brothers, my mother and the Butters family sitting close, beside a crackling fire after our ordeal on the hill.
In so many ways Chrissie holds a very special place in my heart. When I was five, it was Chrissie — then a teenager — who lay on my bed, comforting me throughout the night while Mother was in the Aberfeldy Cottage hospital giving birth to my brother Iain. When I was with Chrissie I felt secure. A child doesn’t evaluate such feelings but simply accepts what is. Thinking of her now, I recognize she possessed an intangible aura of quiet comforting serenity and a heart full of compassion and understanding and later on I discovered, someone with whom I could safely share any confidence. Chrissie was well loved, well respected and is deeply missed.
Of all the memories I have of Fearnan, the winter of 1946/47 stands out clearly in my mind. Regardless of the torturous weather, one must have the soul of a poet to describe the beauty of Fearnan as it was then.
I’m not a poet but I cannot stem the emotion that springs from my heart when I think of the crisp winter nights when I stood alone in the perfect silence outside Springbank Cottage and marvelled at the pale winter-white moon and the stars sparkling over the snow-laden hills and the loch; wood-scented smoke drifting from cottage chimneys and the occasional yellow light ― blinking through wind stripped branches ― from across the loch at Ardeonaig, and Lawers and Killin.
There is something wonderful about the quietness of Christmas. It is a reminder to grow still…and listen to the silence.
Merry Christmas, Fearnan — I miss you.
Thank you, Alastair, and a very Happy Christmas to you and all our contributors, followers and readers ……………