In May 2014, I was contacted by Blantyre Project reader Linda Robertson who lives in Western Australia. Her grandmother Elizabeth McGregor Whitelaw (nee Stirling) was born on 19th February 1910. Although Elizabeth was born in Burnbank, the family moved to Blantyre shortly after when she was young child. Later in life, Elizabeth had the foresight to record all her Blantyre memories in writing, recalling some happy times. Linda has given me permission to share these memories with you. (Note, a few details relating to Elizabeth’s experiences in New Zealand are left out to keep the detail concisely relevant to Blantyre.)
The words below are in Elizabeth’s own narrative and I’ve recently investigated and added some photos to assist her story. The end result is a wonderful and interesting recollection of Blantyre in days gone by, by an incredible woman whose abundant love for her family shines through. Sadly Elizabeth who wrote the following words passed away in 1994.
“The Stirling Story – Written by Elizabeth (Bessie) Whitelaw (nee Stirling)
This is the story of my family; their history, their lives and many happy and a few sad memories. My parents were Margaret Royal McFarlane who married my father Thomas Stirling in 1905.
My grandparents were James Stirling, an Engineer who worked for the British Railways and Janet Pender, whose family farmed at Fernigair, Newmains. They had 4 children, 2 sons and 2 daughters, Thomas being my father. My mother’s parents were Alexander McFarlane and Elizabeth Bruce.
My mother was Margaret Royal McFarlane (pictured) who was born (in 1885) on board the “SS Royal” on a voyage back from America. When they arrived back in England, my mother was christened in Liverpool Cathedral on St Patrick’s day. Her marriage in 1905 to Thomas Stirling and then the birth of their 5 children (writer included!) was the start of our immediate family. The 5 children were James, Hugh, Elizabeth, Thomas and Alexander or as we were called, Jim, Hugh, Bess, Tom and Alex (Sandy). The three oldest children were born in Burnbank and the youngest two were born in High Blantyre.
My mother was a hard working woman who kept our home spotlessly clean in condition, which although common at that time, would seem terribly harsh by today’s standards. She had all her children at home and was up and working at all her chores a few days after their births. Luckily my mother was very fit, a strong woman who made sure we were all cared for, educated and brought up to her own set of high standards.
My father was a very kind and interesting man who worked hard to make sure we had a better life than he had experienced. When Jim and Hugh were quite small children, dad went to South Africa to take up a position in Gold mining. The main part of his equipment was a whip and a lamp. When he realised he was expected to use the whip on the coloured workers, he went straight to the Superintendent’s office and put the whip, etc on the desk with the remark that he was not a man to treat human beings that way.
Hence he arrived back in Scotland after a very brief stay. He also went to Australia in 1913, but came home again when the first world war broke out in 1914. His next migration was when he , mum and all five of us went to New Zealand.
Out and About in Blantyre
As children dad took us walking a great deal. One walk took us though Low Blantyre Village. We passed David Livingstone’s home just before crossing the River Clyde on a long swing bridge then on to Bothwell Castle where Mary Queen of Scots was imprisoned. Always having an interest in birds, we would walk about 6 miles to the moors where a great variety of wild birds would gather to breed. The moors to me, always looked like a great sea of purple.
Jim, Hugh and I had ice skates which we used a great deal during Winter. There was a very steep hill called “Auchentibber hill” on which we used to skate from the top to the bottom. Halfway down, railway lines crossed the road (Sydes Brae) and were frozen over during the Winter. When we went over the crossing and on to the next part of the hill, we seemed to be airborne before continuing. We also had quite a large sledge which Jim and Hugh made. It held about 8 of us aboard and was terrific fun although hard work dragging it back up the hill before we could make another trip down. Most of the boys about Jim and Hugh’s age skated to school in the Winter.
In the Summer, my friend Jess and I used to continue on after getting to the top of the hill to visit her grandparents who lived in Auchentibber village. There were six lovely little stone cottages, one of which her grandparents lived in. Her grandfather was the caretaker of a lot of really lovely gardens which originally had been a large quarry and when it had been worked out, they had turned it into this garden complex. At one end, they had excavated a lot deeper and there was quite a deep pool. I don’t know what they did with the fish during the Winter, but in the Summer there was quite a variety of fish in the pool. There were paths which had been made along the face of the cliff where tourists could walk along and view the fish below. I was rather privileged as Jess and I were allowed to go into the complex at any time with her granddad. In the complex, there was a lovely Cottage Tea room where they served a variety of Scottish home cooking. This area (Craigneith) was listed in the guide books as one of Scotland’s tourist attractions.
On the 1st May we celebrated the first day of Summer, although sometimes it was colder than some fine Winter days here in New Zealand. The girls all had sashes around their waists on which they hung drinking mugs. The boys hung their mugs on their belts. There would be a gathering of over 100 children and we all followed the pipe band in groups of 4. We walked to this great big paddock, where all the Clydesdale horses and drays were lined up. There was Highland dancing, racing for all the different age groups and lots of nice sandwiches and cakes to eat. We had milk in our mugs as often as we liked. The horses and drays were all decorated and were very colourful. If we won any of the races, we had a ribbon pinned on the front of our dresses.
Education and Celebration
As children, we all went to Sunday School in the morning and again in the afternoon. In the evening, i had to accompany my grandmother to the evening service. The Church was very, very old and was built from Granite. The interior had all the framework done in Mahogany and it was a very beautiful old church. The entrance was just off Blantyre (Top) Cross and there were five roads going from the cross, one of which was School Lane where we lived.
In Scotland, we celebrated Halloween. We had no pumpkins, but my brother used to hollow out a huge swede turnip and we would place a lighted candle in it. We would dress up in an assortment of clothes including a hat of some kind. If we were not lucky enough to have a mask, we would blacken our faces. This was supposed to make us unrecognisable , but thinking back to those times, i am quite sure they knew us in spite of all our attempts to disguise ourselves. We went around calling on most of our friends and relatives and after singing and dancing for them, we would always be given some small titbit.
At Christmas time our mother had a very secret hiding place for our gifts. An elderly neighbour had some huge barrels on her back porch and this we found out many year later, was where our presents were hidden until xmas. We always hung our stockings from the mantel piece above the fireplace. Every Christmas there was always an orange, a handful of nuts, and the other gifts were placed on top of these. New Year was our next celebration. At New Year Eve or Hogmanay, as we called it, the children were always given a small glass of ginger wine and a piece of shortbread and i don’t think i have ever tasted shortbread quite like that which my grandmother made. The custom of “first footing” was always kept – only the adults took part in this. The first visitor to call into a home, had to be dark haired and carry a small piece of coal which was supposed to bring good luck to each house. The adults of course had something stronger than ginger wine, usually a wee dram of whisky.