Friday, December 30, 2005

Memoirs of a Fisherman's Son - Part 1, Chapter 3

Chapter III
My Grand-parents

My mother's parents were John Ralph a Fisherman and Elspet Main who were married in Nairn on 20th October, 1876. Granddad died of consumption (tuberculosis) in August 1893 at the age, so far as I can gather, of 42 years. They had four children Isabella, Elspet, John and my mother Margaret Jane, who was born on 5th June 1885. The family home was No. 13 Park Street, Nairn which is still to the fore albeit in a very modernised form.

Granny Ralph had to make ends meet and bring up her family by selling fish. She had an arrangement (not a common one in Nairn) whereby she was able to buy the whole of the catch (of fish) brought in by one of the boats owned by one Alexander McIntosh. The catch was sold mostly in smoked form: she had her own smoking shed at the front of the house and like so many Nairn ladies produced the mouth-watering Nairn Speldings. (elsewhere known as smoked haddock or finnan haddock).

The Fishertown Museum in Nairn has on display a picture of 13 Park Street as it was in the late 19th Century and also of my grandmother and mother. Worth having a look out for them.

When smoked, this fish, with any fresh fish likely to be required by her customers, were placed in a creel and an arm basket. The creel containing almost one hundred-weight of fish (51kg), was carried on her back and the basket on her right arm. Laden like this she walked to neighbouring villages like Geddes, Auldearn and Cawdor - no small feat - for a lady who was no more than 4 foot 10 ins. tall. It has always astonished me to know that, in addition, she travelled by train once each month to each of Mulben (Banff-shire) and Ballinluig (Perth-shire). One who knew her well told me that she did not have to leave the stations at these destinations; the customers knowing when she would arrive, came to her I understand she had very good customers in the shops and farms, hotels, shooting lodges and the like. Never did she bring any fish back to Nairn. Any that were left over were given away to those in need such as railway porters and farm servants.

As soon as Auntie Bella and Elsie reached the age of 12 years they left school and joined their mother in the business of smoking and selling fish. Thus was the family maintained with no Parish or state financial support. On leaving school my mother was sent to be a childrens' nurse in one of the 'big houses'. at the north end of Seabank Road. These houses had been built in Nairn by patients of Doctor Grigor (his statue now stands in front of Viewfield House) a doctor having London connections who recommended those of his (private) patients who could afford to do so, to go and live in Nairn in order to benefit from the equable climate. So it was that Nairn came to have such splendid mansion houses as you can see in the West End to this day.

After my mother had been with the family for two years the lady of the house wanted to take her to Switzerland with the children for a prolonged holiday - But - old Granny would not hear of her youngest daughter going away to such foreign parts! And so my dear mother at the age of 16 years joined her contemporaries at 'the gutting'. In those days as soon as a fisher lassie in Nairn reached the age of sixteen she was expected to join the band of girls from the North East of Scotland who followed the herring fishing fleet and worked as gutters and packers of herring in ports from Northern Ireland round the 'top' of Scotland to Great Yarmouth and Gorleston in Norfolk. All three Ralph girls did that while their brother, my Uncle John, became first, the cook and then fireman, driver and 'engineer' on a herring drifter. This meant that they were all away from home in places like Castlebay, Stornoway, Lerwick, Fraserburgh, Peterhead in the months of April until September and down in England from September until the end of November. A photograph of my mother with her 'crew' is to be found in the Fishertown Museum; they are all dressed in their Sunday best (black and white) sitting outside their 'house' (a shed) above the door of which is the name 'Invernairne'. This board on which this name was printed was carried from one location to another as they moved around with the fleet. At that time the economy of the North East, if not of the whole of Scotland, depended to a large extent on the herring trade with Baltic Countries.

Although granny Ralph died at the age of 74 in 1922 I have vivid memories of her and of the home in which my mother was brought up. Everything within sparkled, the grate gleamed like silver, the brass fender like gold with its assuring words 'Home Sweet Home', emphasising the welcome bestowed on all Granny's visitors. The matching fire irons, tongs and poker, reflected in their mirror-like surfaces the glow of the coal fire. The walls of the living room were hung with pictures, texts from the bible including one which I still remember; 'Consider the lilies of the field' and 'Watch and Pray'. It was of course customary for fisher folk to decorate their houses with embroidered texts of that kind for they were a god-fearing community; not surprising when one considers the dangers with which fisher men were confronted on stormy seas.

In a real storm at sea in a tossing boat, as on the battlefield in my own experience, there is only one source from which one can draw peace of mind; the creator of the universe who is the Father of all his creation.

My Cameron grand-parents Alexander Cameron and Jessie Ralph his cousin (aged 29 years) were married in Ardersier on 12th November 1875. Jessie died shortly before the Great War and I'm afraid I know nothing of her life and character except that she was born in 1845 and died at the age of 67 years on 27th April 1912. Her mother was Janet Main (nee Ralph) sister of Helen Main who was married to Donald Cameron. Helen and Donald had a family of six boys (two of them twins) and one girl Harriet. My grandfather was the eldest child. According to my dad Granny Cameron was cast in the same mould as my mother.

My father was born at Stuarton Petty on 13th November 1879 having an older brother Donald born two years earlier.

Of my paternal Grandfather I know a great deal as he was part of our household until he died in 1939. He was born before compulsory requistration of births was introduced in 1856 and really did not know his 'real' age. When the war broke out in August 1914 he proceeded to Invergordon to 'sign on' (enlist) in the Royal Navy. The death of his wife my granny Cameron had been a severe blow to him and he wanted to get-away from Ardersier and to serve his country in the only way he could. When he appeared before the recruiting officer he was able to answer all the questions put to him except that when asked for his age he said 'Oh, I'll be about 60 next birthday' The recruiting officer told him that he was too old, the Navy could not take volunteers unless they were under 40 at the date of enlistment. So! the old rascal went across the road to a well known pub and sat drinking his usual Whisky and porter (a heavy beer) until the watch changed. The Navy as he well knew, having been a seafarer all his life, changed the watch every four hours - they still do! As soon as the new recruiting officer was settled the old boy again entered the office but this time when asked about his age replied 'Forty next birthday, Sir'. Two days later he was taking a pinnace out of Rosyth on a journey which took him and his crew to Dover where they were to assist the Mine-sweeper facilities as a sort of 'message boat' for the next five years.
On discharge from the Navy in 1919 my grandfather's papers showed his age as 45. He maintained he was twenty years older so five years later claimed the old age Pension of 10 shillings (50p) per week. However he could not prove that he was 70, the qualifying age, because as I have mentioned above, his birth had not been 'registered'. The only record of his arrival on this earth was in the Baptismal Roll of Petty Church, but sadly, that Roll had been lost when the vestry of the Church was destroyed by fire! His only hope of ever getting the pension was to find his twin brothers Tom and William who had been born after 1856 but had emigrated to America many years before 1924. None of them could write. They could certainly read the printed word having had as their only text book, the Bible. My father set out to find his Uncles and after twelve years he was successful. With the help of the Y.M.C.A. the Salvation Army the British Legion, the Masons and others they were traced to Masonic Homes in New Jersey and Los Angles. I still remember how thrilling it was for me to hold in my hand an American affidavit complete with wax seal and wide ribbon in one case green in colour, in the other blue.

In the Affidavits the brothers Tom and Bill certified that they had a brother with the name Alexander Cameron and that he was at least five years older than they were: The Commissioner for Oaths had in each case certified that he had seen the relevant certificates of Birth and included the age of each twin at the date of signing. The Affidavits were submitted to the Pension Authority which immediately intimated to Grandfather that he would have his 10/- per week pension 'as from next Friday'. These were the words used - and not one penny of 'back pay'. For a good many years his sole income had been £10 per annum from Inverness County Council as Harbour master in charge of Ardersier jetty! He was entitled to keep any harbour dues he could collect from visiting boats but they were few and far between. I remember that when I was treasurer of our Scout Troop I had to pay him 5/- when the Chanory ferry boat called to take the troop across to the light-house for our annual camp. This happened, I think, only a few times in my experience!

During the whole of my childhood and youth the jetty was one of the most important features of the village: it had been erected by the County Council about 1880 and was about 100 yards long. Preserved by a bi-annual coating of tar it remained in being until the nineteen fifties when it was demolished because of its unsafe condition. The jetty had two stairways one about 40 yards out from the shore and the other 60 yards farther out near the 'point;' (as we youngsters called it) When the jetty was nearing the end of its life I was able to secure a step which had fallen off and from it to make a garden table, (still in use in 1995).

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