Although I was born in Glasgow, my earliest recollections are of the Manse of Oa, Islay. It was there that I became aware that I was Ena, Beana, Biddy, and, horror of horrors, Ina-May which was papa's name for me.
Ina is often pronounced Ena; this is an adaptation of male Scottish names. If one Ina is introduced to another Ina, one – if not both – will quickly say 'Ha ha! What are you hiding?' There's Angusina, Davina, Donaldina, Hughina ad infinitum
. My papa's name was Murdoch, so I was christened (in February 1912) Murdina in St Columba's Church, Glasgow, where papa was minister.
I suspect it was my big sister Kitty who did away with Ina-May, and called me Ena. She had for years been hiding Katy-Belle, which, she vowed, sounded like the name you might give to a favourite cow. Murdina didn't sound like a cow; it just didn't sound like me
. It now survives solely on the pale, yellow book I slide across Prestwick Post Office counter once a week.
Incidentally, I have only once met another Murdina outside the pages of a book. She was a cross-eyed servant. The Scottish Highlands, I suspect, will be the last bastion of male dominance.
As I say, my earliest memory is of the Manse of Oa. David, the youngest of my brothers, would be getting on for five, and already aware of his male superiority. We were in a long, narrow room off the kitchen, intended for a maid. The walls had been prepared for papering, and papa had just come back from Port Ellen on his bicycle – five miles or so from Oa, with a load that contained a box of watercolour paints for David, complete with brushes. A supply of papa's sermon paper was rushed in and David set to work with a look that said: 'Ha ha! I've got something you
When I demanded to know why I had not got paints, papa gave me a gentle sigh and foolishly tried to fob me off with the painter's colour card. The difference between colours that could, when laid on with a loaded brush, become a bright red box-like house with brown smoke coming from a squint chimney, and a mere piece of coloured card, was an unbelievable insult. I let out my first remembered scream of rage and scorn.
But of course papa had brought something for me. My present was a little brown cardboard case with a handle and two locks that clicked when opened and shut. I trotted happily about the manse with my little bag containing all my treasures, and politely asked God to look after them while I slept.
Outside the window of this room there was a fuchsia bush. I called it 'the dancing ladies tree'; I have loved fuchsia ever since. I remember children running noisily through the house, climbing in and out of this window; I was too small to climb out of windows; I couldn't run like they could. I was always left, far behind, wailing: 'Wait for me! Wait for me!'
We went for walks. The older ones took me along with them (reluctantly, I dare say) to give mama a rest. We walked past a stretch of peat water, black and possibly dangerous; David told me that if I fell in there I would never, ever get out. I would be pulled down and down until there was nothing to be seen of me but a little bit of hair. I believed every word of whatever David said. He knew everything
. This black, black water carried little white, fluttering flames, as if they were real candles; but they carried them nowhere. So what?
a modern child would say; but I held on to things that puzzled me, and those candle-flames are still vivid and menacing. We passed ditches bright with pink flowers that were called ragged robin
Another memory: I was sitting on the hearth-rug before the cosy, crackling fire. I was wearing my best white frilly frock, enchanted by pictures in a new story-book. Suddenly I became aware of a huge pair of feet in highly-polished black shoes. I saw socks and trouser-legs; up, up, up went my eyes until I got to a face I had never seen before; this giant had a collar just like the one papa wore. I let out a scream of terror and fled to mama who was busy as usual preparing food for hungry men. Comforting cuddles were rare: they made a child soft
. This Victorian dictum deprived me when still very young of the feeling that I was loved. I pressed my kisses on the china cheeks of my dolls.
I sat on papa's knees a lot. He sang to me in Gaelic. Mama would say, 'Oh, leave papa in peace!' Papa would rebuke her. She wasn't pleased. Was she jealous, I wonder?
Mama was always busy; when she sat down it wasn't to relax. She took up her knitting; the needles flashed as she listened happily while papa read to her from the British Weekly or the Glasgow Herald, stopping now and again to raise his eyes to the ceiling and say 'St.st.st.st.st! Scandalous!
Shocking!' Papa was a man of infinite patience with children, but not, I think, with something called parliament
– whatever that could be.
I didn't like sitting on men's knees. (Nobody thought to tell me that in time, that would change). I particularly disliked clerical knees, but mama would frown and shake her head.
I was a very timid child. This was a time when the word 'love' was seldom heard except from the pulpit. Strange, because they deeply loved one another and their children.
In general, my memories are happy; but fear loomed large for me, a nervous, highly-strung child. There were the turkeys at a nearby house owned by an old man called Sinclair. It was by no means a farm, but they owned what we called turkey gobblers. It wasn't what they gobbled; it was the noise they made as they walked about the yard, talking to themselves.
When we boarded the steamer to take us back to Glasgow the older members of the family went steerage; mama, papa, David and I went cabin. Oh, how I loved that big, pink room with its pink curtains edged with little bobbles and the pink seats. Against one wall there was a neat writing-desk. I didn't know it was a real
desk until David lifted the lid and showed me writing paper you could draw on if only mama would let you. 'And that
,' he pointed, 'is an ink well. You dip your pen in it and write. You
can't write yet, but I
But mama, ever watchful, summoned us back with a quiet but severe, 'Don't touch!' When mama smiled she was quite a different mama; two dimples appeared, one in each cheek. One of the boys – I don't remember which one – told me that mama's dimples were little holes made by mice bites when she was asleep. And, of course, I believed him.
My very earliest memory of Islay, I think, was being put to bed in the schoolhouse. I was popped in under a down quilt, blue with small white flowers. This turned out to be the school-mistress's house. The manse was by no means ready to receive us. I think we stayed in the schoolhouse while the manse was being made habitable. But that's another story.
This article was first published in SR in 1995