Tag Archives: McKay Grandparents

Foxed Mirrors and Fairytales: Part 2

My Scottish grandparents had a past – I knew that – but it was not one that I could readily imagine. It was as if they had been brought into the world solely to be Grandma and Grandad, and false teeth, glasses and greying hair had been their lot since the beginning. Even if the photograph box yielded up images of them as a young ‘courting couple’ in the 1920s or as thirty-something parents in the following decade, this was not the same people I knew. Something had happened along the way to separate them from their youth – irreversible split that I dreaded experiencing myself, and which I planned to do everything in my power to prevent. And often their memories were fleeting or muddled, or were of things about which they no longer spoke, as if they had become unmoored from the people they once were before they met and married and had my mother.  

My McKay grandparents as a young engaged couple

Read more of this post at my new family history blog: A Scottish Family Album

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The Incidental Genealogist, November 2021

The Evening with the Photograph Album

Exactly six years ago this month, my nascent blog was featured by The Gentle Author in the London blog, Spitalfields Life. As an alumnus from the Gentle Author’s writing course, I had been invited to send in a post from my blog to be considered for publication, and through this fortuitous event (see here) I gained my first core readership, as well as the confidence to promote my blog to friends and family. Since then, I have featured again in Spitalfields Life (see here), and also returned to the old weaver’s house in Fournier Street for an advanced writing workshop with The Gentle Author just before the pandemic hit the country (see Strange Times Indeed).

Now I find myself in the position of having to promote my new blog A Scottish Family Album. So if you have enjoyed A London Family (which will continue to remain online and accessible to readers and researchers), it would be an honour and a pleasure if you joined me in my new Scottish genealogical quest which is based on the old family albums that my mother inherited from her parents and maternal grandmother. Starting this fresh project has taken me back to the early days of my London-based research and the excitement that each new family find generated. This time I have the added bonus of my secret weapon: my Scottish mother, who herself undertook genealogical research into her family after I came back home full of tales about life in Thatcher’s London as an heir hunter.  

This month’s blog post in A Scottish Family Album is entitled Foxed Mirrors and Fairy Tales – and is focused on my own impressions of my Scottish grandparents and their home in Edinburgh. Having featured in last month’s A London Family, it is a link between my two strands of genealogical research.

With my McKay grandparents, Edinburgh 1964

My Scottish grandparents were ten years younger than my English ones (my father was ten years older than my mother) and thus my Scottish grandfather just missed serving in WW1, unlike Grandad Skelton (see Portrait of my Grandfather as a Soldier). Yet both my grandmothers worked as young women – Grandma Skelton as a telephonist at the Central Post Office in London (see Portrait of my Grandmother as a Young Woman) and my Scottish grandmother undertook an apprenticeship in an Edinburgh department store as a dressmaker, a skill she passed on to my mother. 

I always remember her making her own clothes, just as my own mother did, and in fact in the 1963 wedding photograph of my parents below, she is wearing her own ‘mother- of-the-bride’ outfit (second from left). In contrast to my rather stout and ungainly English grandmother, Grandma McKay was always neat and elegant and whippet-thin. It is hard for me to believe that on this day she is exactly the same age as I am now, although her grey permed hair seems to set her apart from today’s fifty-somethings (the outfit would still be a killer one!)

Poor grandma Skelton almost looks like the second-rate version in her similar get-up, and yet I loved them both dearly; and whereas my Scottish grandmother could be nippy and spiky at times, Grandma Skelton was more of an archetypal mothering grandmother (see Portrait of my Grandmother in Later Life). However, I had the chance to get to know my Scottish grandmother for a lot longer as she did not die until I was thirty-four. Up until that point, we had many a fascinating conversation, and a visit to Grandma’s was never just a chore for me. She was sharp as a tack and curious about the world, and I often thought that it was as if each grandparent had ended up with the other’s partner (in looks and temperament).

All my grandparents at my parents’ wedding (partners swapped!) 

Both my grandmothers had to give up work once they married, although my Scottish grandmother did not have her first and only child (my mother) for another seven years. Interestingly, this seven-year wait for a family also happened to my English grandmother’s mother, who then had three children when she was relatively mature. For that reason, my father barely knew his maternal grandmother, but had a vague memory of an old lady dressed in black who sat in a chair in a corner of the living room.

In my mother’s case, she was thirty before she lost her grandmother (who was born in 1874) and during the years when my great-grandmother lived with their family after the untimely and accidental death of her husband, my mother had ample opportunity to hear all her grandmother’s tales of growing up in the 19th century. It seems unfathomable to me now that I have my own memories of a woman who had come of age during the high Victorian time, and through the longevity in the Scottish family (at least on my grandmother’s side) I have been lucky to be the recipient of tales passed down from the generations. This is not least because of all those family photographs (see Messy Boxes) which were always the catalyst for stories and reminiscences round the fireside.

As T. S. Eliot says in East Coker (where we started out in 2015): There is a time for the evening under starlight, A time for the evening under lamplight (The evening with the photograph album).

Looking forward to you joining me on my new genealogical venture!

The Incidental Genealogist, October 2021

 

Foxed Mirrors and Fairy Tales

I have just published the introductory chapter on my my new blog A Scottish Family Album, where I’ll be delving into the lives of my Scottish ancestors through the boxes of photographs that my mother has amassed. This month’s post of A London Family not only provides a link to the new site, but offers up a preview of next month’s story about my Scottish grandparents.

Having had a great deal more contact with my Scottish relatives (and a still very much alive mother) I hope to approach this project in a different way from my London family, and I’m excited about the possibilities this will generate. Research trips to Edinburgh can now (hopefully) be combined with visits to my mother and with some careful planning we can still go out ‘into the field’, the way we used to do when we went on our yearly week-long September visits to the English capital.

Not only will it give us both a new lease of life after the recent stultifying lockdowns, but the pandemic has shown us we cannot take the continued existence of our elderly family members for granted. I must confess, I feel rather guilty about having neglected my Scottish family so long for the glamour of the unknown London one. But isn’t that just human nature: to be interested in the unattainable while dismissing the near at hand? We live our lives full of contradictions but often only when something comes along to rip the lid of things do we start to see in new ways.

*My Scottish (McKay) Grandparents, 1920s

Grandma and Grandad were plastic milk tokens and sealing wax, Valentino and Houdini, foxed mirrors and fairy tales. Their interwar four-in-a-block house in Edinburgh had things we did not possess in our modern sixties’ bungalow – a wireless and a kitchenette, a lobby and a press – and every drawer and cupboard and bookcase held remnants of the last fifty years. I was fascinated by the scraps of rich velvet containing rustling dry lavender, the ornate hat pins in the button tin, the old books with their in-plates commemorating regular attendance of school and Sunday school in the earlier part of the old century. And if those dark and sombre books were opened, the strange and alluring perfume of the past slipped out like a genie from a bottle. Then it was possible to imagine the house spinning back through time until the garish red and yellow carpets were replaced with rugs and linoleum and the ugly electric bar fires spirited away to allow the empty fireplaces to return to the more glamorous task (to my mind) of burning coals.

I don’t possess any specific memory of my grandparents and their house until sometime in the late sixties, when I was around three or four and they were knocking on the door of early old age. The first concrete image I have is of sitting on the sofa with my grandmother’s mother and of using a long-handled brush as an oar in a pretend boat in which we were sailing away. I remember, too, that I had no idea of the purpose of this brush which lived in the bathroom and was presumably a back scrubber; but I loved its transparent turquoise colour, and this was what had possibly put me in mind of boats and the sea.

Four Female Generations in my Grandparents’ Garden, 1964

Perhaps more interesting now is the memory of Great Grandma, who was born in 1874, and who I remember vaguely as small and stout, and often dressed in dark shapeless clothes, her grey hair in a bun. By the 1960s she’d already had numerous grandchildren and great-grandchildren, so I was possibly nothing to get excited about, although I still retain a feeling of love and safety emanating from her solid frame and the knowledge that she was enjoying being part of my boat fantasy that day.

Although I loved the watery look of the turquoise brush, which looked like something Neptune might possess, I hated the rest of my grandparents’ spartan bathroom with the tiny, frosted glass window set up high in the outside wall, and the cold enamel bath which dominated the narrow space. But to be fair, as an indoor bathroom had been luxurious in 1935, they had possibly not wanted to tempt fate by making it any more appealing than it had to be. This might explain why they both still washed daily in the kitchen, scrubbing their armpits with flannels over the large Belfast sink, bathing only weekly, as if they were still in the wartime business of conserving water.

As a relatively spoilt child of parents who’d benefitted from the post-war economic boom, I also could not understand how my grandparents were able to happily share their garden with the family upstairs, and never felt truly comfortable playing outside in this space, watched by the elderly couple from their back windows. However, I did love the fact that I could just jump over the low fence and play with the children next door – and jump over their fence to reach the next set of children, as well as the fact that we could then all play out together in the quiet streets. This was mainly because at that time so few of the neighbours owned cars, but also that there was a large cul-de-sac at the top of the road where we could set up elaborate skipping games. In the quiet neighbourhood in Ayr where I grew up, everyone lived more sedately behind their hedges and fences and there was not the shared feeling of community that I sensed in the suburb of West Edinburgh where my grandparents lived.

My McKay Grandparents in early old age

Today my mother lives a ten-minute walk away in a  ‘posher’ suburb. Yet when I visit her we rarely walk to the house where my grandparents lived for half a century and where my mother grew up and spent all her pre-married life. When we occasionally do go, we always end up noticing what has remained and what has changed in the neighbourhood. Front gardens have been swept away and superseded by utilitarian car parks; the original thirties doors and windows have been replaced with a hotchpotch of modern equivalents ; the shared gardens are now divided into distinct halves by boundary markers.

Whenever I happen to pass my grandparent’s old house, I look for the botch-job tarmacked stones on the front path which used to fascinate me as a child. Just one strange ugly section of lumpen molten tar over rocks, but to me it is a link with the days when I used to strut from the house to the street in my grandmother’s old-fashioned court shoes, or when I used to drag out the old turkey rugs from the lobby press to play on. Laying them over the misshapen path I used to pretend they were magical flying carpets, transporting me back through the years rather than to distant lands, and I could almost see my mother sitting on the outside coal bunker (which by then held only wood scraps) on the day she tore her dress jumping off for a dare.

I knew this story because I’d been told it many times whenever I asked about the naughty things my mother had done when young. I felt sure there must have been much worse, perhaps kept hidden from me, and one day I would find out the truth. But it seems in the naughtiness stakes, my sister and I were the outright winners, not having endured the same kind of strict 1940s upbringing of my mother (despite her being a long-waited for, only child).

To be continued . . .

The Incidental Genealogist, September 2021