Happier Days

Rosalind Mitchison

  • Scottish Voices 1745-1960 by T.C. Smout and Sydney Wood
    Collins, 334 pp, £16.95, August 1990, ISBN 0 00 215190 1

Here is an anthology of pieces drawn from published hooks on life in Scotland, mostly memoirs and mostly familiar to historians. Old friends include George Robertson, Joseph Mitchell, Thomas Somerville and Ramsay of Ochtertyre. The accounts are separated into themes, such as school, factory and mine, leisure, crime (though none of the memorialists claim active participation in this). The excerpts are long enough to carry the style and emphasis of the original, and they are well chosen and tactfully introduced. There is a short and skimpy glossary for those unfamiliar with the few Scottish words used and some good photographs.

The writers are well established because, for the most part, their statements have stood up to checking against other sources. The more modern ones will probably stay in use on the same grounds, though two of these statements can be faulted. The writers are thus held to be reliable, but are also valued as respectable. Aspects of life which were not praiseworthy are firmly placed in the past. The louse-ridden condition of World War One uniforms and the horrors of child labour in the early mills are shown definitively as ‘once upon a time’. But there are some immediate accounts of what was going on: for instance, the shocked description of the ‘unnatural’ activities in New Lanark schooling – in other words, the partnering of boys and girls in dancing practice without stockings or caps – which gives an insight into Cobbett’s hang-ups. There is an overwritten dramatic account by Charles Bristow of scenes from down a coal mine: unless he was carrying a tape-recorder, this is clearly fiction. The long description of Pryse Lockhead Gordon of Aberdeen University student life in the 1770s is enriched by a list of his expenditure there: supper luxuries, broadsword lessons, penknives, shuttlecocks, College balls and fines for throwing a snowball at the Sacrist.

Understandably, given the slanted educational opportunities of the first century covered, the writers for this period are mostly male. In this the compilers unwillingly co-operate with basic Scottish prejudices, not only of the distant past but extending into the 20th century, for here we have Hugh McDiarmid on Glasgow pubs where ‘no one’ wants to be distracted from drinking ‘by music or women’. We have John Boyd Orr describing how he propelled selected children – male, of course – from a poor school into scholarships: his achievement leads him to comment on the ‘many potential first-class leaders and scientists’ lost to the country in ‘the poorer ranks of society’. Well, there was more lost than he recognised. Of course, for mid to late-19th-century descriptions of organised leisure, life down the mine, the doctor’s round, the pursuit of criminals, the story has to be mostly of male experience. In contrast, we are given Janet Story on the gargantuan special dinners of the Edinburgh world of lawyers in the 1840s and Isabella Bird coolly investigating the spread of vice in a poor Edinburgh tenement in the 1860s. Georgina Robertson in 1890, with a remarkable lack of historical vision, condemns the condition of Fraserburgh lodgings, similar to those experienced by most of the population in earlier centuries, as ‘unfit for human habitation’. When women get in they make their mark. All the more of a pity that two very distinctive women, Christian Watt and Christian Miller, are out.

Perhaps the limitations on formal schooling for women were an advantage. It certainly seems that those chosen to be here did not express themselves in stiff school-taught English and standard phraseology. Such a form of expression casts a doubtless unjustified touch of insincerity on various male writers. For instance, James Myles of Dundee on the life of factory children: ‘balmy sleep had scarcely closed their infant eyelids and steeped their infant souls in blessed forgetfulness.’ The sympathy may be accepted, but in no way can the words be taken as a ‘voice’ from the past, for they can never have been spoken. Liz Lochhead on lodging with relatives has the rhythms of spoken speech. It is not the village Hampdens of Scottish life that we need from the more distant past but the township Liz Lochheads.

It is no criticism of the authors’ selection that it inevitably emphasises one side of the social and economic changes in the nature and experience of work since the mid-19th century. It is the male wage-earner in factory and mine, on fishing-boat or farm, who is recorded here. Yet rising standards of cleanliness, the key to respectability, with all that that involved, and of child and house care, at the same time transformed the work of wives. Labour-reducing aids were late comers on the home front. The sewing-machine was only for the middle class. By the mid-19th century the only significant consumer durable to which people could aspire was the mangle, followed late in the century by the copper. These washing aids still called for muscle. At the end of the Second World War, Political and Economic Planning, considered to be a forward-looking organisation, was suggesting that there might be an extended demand for improved coppers or for hand-worked washing-machines. It is held that the automatic washing-machine, when it burst upon post-war society, made life more lonely for housewives, and this may be true for the town, where the steamy, as Molly Weir shows here, made for a sociable if still energetic washing day, but Lavinia Derwent, commenting on the long-standing loneliness of wives on the farm, reminds us that for many it was not available.

There is still a story to be told, by voices as yet unheard, of the life experience and desires of ordinary women as well as of men in the 18th and early 19th centuries. This will not be found in memoirs but in more immediate texts, the records of church and lay courts, letters to lovers or families, petitions to authority. Such documentation is free of the backward look; it tells of life as it is being experienced, not as it was. It is free of nostalgia. Perhaps, some day, these authors who are capable of giving us this will do so. Meanwhile I will be captious and suggest that they might have done something in their connecting pieces to give a contrasting view to the outrageous nostalgia of Osgood Mackenzie about the Highlands. ‘What far happier times those good old days were than those we are living in now,’ he says. Well, for whom? And how much of the deterioration, if such it was, came from the way that Mackenzie and others like him were exterminating the wild life. In Mackenzie’s A Hundred Years in the Highlands we read of the disappearance by shooting of pine martens and polecats, and of badgers unintentionally caught in ‘vermin traps’. Certainly local society was the better when it had landowners present and concerned, but the unself-conscious acceptance of social difference which gives much of the charm of Mackenzie’s writing was bought at a price.