Chirsty Hamish

Chirsty Hamish was a cousin of my mother’s, fierce but funny, a fount of all family knowledge.  Cousin Mairi and I first went for a summer holiday stay with her when I was 16 and Mairi just a few months younger; we were welcomed back so many times over the following years though I’m sure we were a trial to her at times.

She was the oldest of seven children, born on a tiny west coast island which had only one house.  Her mother told Chirsty that on the day she was born, she had spent the morning scrubbing the floor so she came of hardy stock.  Some 60 years later, Chirsty, one of her brothers and one of her various cousins, along with Mairi and I walked very many miles on a hot July day before we crossed over to this island at low tide.  Chirsty then had angina and had been putting pills under her tongue at several points on the walk; she was purple in the face when she lay down on the heather just below the ruin of her old home and I firmly believed she was a goner, though I was thinking there was something fitting in her dying so close to where she had been born.  Not a bit of it: she ordered Mairi to go to the well to get her a drink, remembering exactly where it was in relation to the house.  After a few moments, she announced that nothing in her life had ever done her as much good as had that drink of well water and she rallied for the return journey.  She lived for another 30 years.

On the long walk north to the island, we had discussed whether it was possible to be a soldier and a Christian; Mairi and I were against the motion and what we lacked in theological knowledge we made up with in passionate politics and half-remembered bible verses.  We’d long been labelled “Reds”.  I remember how the verve of this discussion fair got me up the hills on the long path heading north.  No quarter was given and no minds were changed as we sweated and toiled along.

Chirsty was a Free Presbyterian and the Sabbath was strictly observed with two outings to the kirk, no wireless on and approved reading matter only; hats were enforced and briogais were absolutely forbidden as that was “putting on man’s apparel” – I was once sent to take off a pair of leggings which I was wearing under my skirt on a cold day, and in vain did I argue that they were really just thickish tights.  Her family pew was five rows from the front so we had an excellent view of the minister, the precentor and the elders but no chance of passing time by observing the rest of the congregation.  The highlight for us was the warm pandrop passed along the row at the start of the sermon.

She had a wonderful singing voice – rich and deep – and I could tell it was her instantly when she joined in the psalm singing, her flourishes were a thing of beauty.  Through the week, she’d listen to Gaelic singing on Radio  nan Gaidheal and I can remember her appreciation of Mairi Mhor’s Nuair a bha mi og.  Although Gaelic would have been her first language and she spoke it with certain folk – including her grandchildren – she had an ambivalent attitude to it, no doubt inculcated by her schoolteachers, and firmly believed it was of no use in the wider world.

Her knowledge of the extended family and of the sloinneadh (family tree or lineage maybe) was rivalled only possibly by her brother Johnnie, and she kept it in her head so when I started to write it down, they were the sources.  Many’s a fun evening we had, along with another cousin of theirs – Cathie – as Johnnie and Chirsty Hamish told stories and argued with each other about the details, and the long-dead became alive again.  Of course some folk in the family scoffed, as some still do, not understanding the importance of being able to answer the question Co as a tha thu?  (Not Where are you from? but Who are you from?)

She had a great fund of stories and even into her nineties, could remember all the details.  The one I remember best concerned a neighbouring family on the island who for a while were disturbed by the sound of a loud thud from upstairs; someone would go to investigate but they couldn’t find the source of the noise.  One of the sons worked in a local sawmill and from there, after a fatal accident, his body was brought back to the house.  His mother, wanting to cover him up, sent the dead lad’s brother upstairs to get a blanket from the wooden kist at the top of the stairs; when he took out the blanket, the wooden lid came down with a bang and after that, they heard the noise no more.

She knew about the tides, the phases of the moon, the direction of the wind and that too bright sunshine after a period of rain meant that the sun would not last and we’d soon have cloud and rain again.  She was right of course though initially I thought she was havering and would head outside, only to be driven back indoors by the next squally shower.  She had very firm opinions, not just on politics and religion but on such matters as the correct way to hang out washing (similar items together to make sorting it later much easier).  I think I’ve written before of walking with her while she pointed with her stick at things that displeased her but she also taught me to appreciate the backbreaking work that had gone into making features such as stone walls and culverts in the roughest of countryside.  (See also The Ancestors’ Voices – March 2018)

She was an excellent cook and baker, turning out scones, shortbread and oatcakes from her clar-fuine or kneading board; I never saw her weigh or measure ingredients for these but she worked by sight and by feel for the rightness of the mixture.  She habitually wore a nylon overall over her clothes and before serving the evening meal, she’d invariably go “to tidy myself”.  Her nickname, bestowed by a local worthy, was “The Hostess” as not only did she have extended family to stay in the summer but she’d take in stray ministers at communion times.  During the long winter nights, she was never idle and thought nothing of taking on a commission to crochet a bedcover.  She tried to teach me the basics once but I was incapable of getting all the loops of my starting chain the same size and was a great disappointment to her.

She loved her garden and was a great user of Jeyes Fluid for cleaning and disinfecting stuff outdoors.  She was unsentimental about animals, telling me she disposed of trapped rats in the Raeburn and laughing at my squeamishness but she was fond of her dogs, including a Jack Russell which she had for a few years.  The first time I took him out for a walk, he disappeared down a hole at the side of the road and I had to go back to the house without him.  My report of his being missing was met with a peal of laughter and the assurance that he’d come home himself; sure enough, it wasn’t long before he was being hosed down at the outside tap, after a diluted skoosh of the aforementioned J F.  Her faithful companion for many years was Roy, her son’s golden Labrador whom he’d rescued from early mistreatment.  One summer late in her life, she was feeding fish to a young heron who seemed to have learning difficulties, wandering along the road and into her garden, appearing to be quite unable to fend for itself.

Born in 1915, she worked hard all her days, starting off in the kitchen of the Portree Hotel where she gave herself such a terrible cut to her thumb that she was sent on the bus – by herself – to Inverness to get it stitched up.  She was also a servant in Milngavie for a time where she got the hanging-out-the-washing instruction; she then did psychiatric nursing, training at the Crichton Royal Hospital in Dumfries.  She likely knew more than a lot of her doctors; I vividly remember how she laughed when told by a consultant in Raigmore Hospital that her aorta was in such a bad state that she “could fall down dead at any moment”.  Doctors in her day would never have said such a thing to a patient!  However, it was to be cancer and not her dodgy aorta that carried her off in her mid-nineties.

A book was once written about the Great Men of her island home; Chirsty Hamish was one of its great but unsung women.

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3 thoughts on “Chirsty Hamish

  1. Pingback: A mixter-maxter – Splendid, Bella!

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