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Graham Donachie's Stories
The Tale of Twa Grannies

Once upon a tyme there were twa grannies. .................

From my first childhood memories, they appeared to me like twa ominous black bogles. Their mode of dress being what every granny wore at the tyme of my story. Black was the required colour for grannies. They had all the “glitz and glamour” of Mr Ford’s early Model T’s. Their visage, as black as any corbie, they could scare with a glare , the most boisterous of us bairns.

I never remember being cooed over or having my cheeks pinched the way grannies are supposed to do, or being fussed with, or being spoiled by having all manner of sweets crammed into my wee mouth. I don’t remember any “oohing or aaahing” as they vied for my infant attentions,.... on the contrary .... they both swept through my childhood with nary a passing glance.

So why do I remember their presences so vividly ?

What was the life tyme effect they had on me ?

On several occasions throughout my life, I have had cause to bring to mind something my granny would quote, some auld saying that would make complete sense of the turmoil going on in my life at
that particular moment. Oh, the sayings they could impart. ..I tried during various melodramatic stages in my life, when everything was toil and strife, there was nothing to live for .... I would end it all soon ... At these tymes, when self pity was the order of the day .... Granny Duncan would pop into my mind and give me the hardest crack over the lug I’d had, since Tam Haines hit me ower the nut wi’a cast iron colt 45 when we played cowboys and indians in my Ma’s back greenie in nineteen fifty three. So it is to these two women, that I write this wee story. Both very important in the shaping of the man I am today..

My Granny Donachie

Of Irish stock this one. Family names included Mulrooneys and McMorrows. From County Wexford I’ve been told. I have an old photograph of her. She would be about twenty odd years old. A rather serious young woman, with a determined no nonsense look and firm set to her chin. Not one to be tampered with, as I found out in later years. When she was a lass she met and married my grandfather, William Donachie. He was a private in the Gordon Highlanders. A tall and handsome figure. He saw service in South Africa fighting the Boers, and must have served under the famous Fighting “Mac”.. The Great War came and he was away with the regiment again. I heard a story from my father about the tyme my grandfather returned from the trenches........

.....Immediately after the armistice, the troops were shipped out of the fighting line as quickly as possible. They marched their way to the English Channel and then ferried to Dover. From there the train into London and then the long journey north. Across the Cheviots and through the Lothians. Through Perth ... ”Gateway to the Highlands” and then to Dundee before puffing it’s way up the long coast to Aberdeen ... it’s final destination.

The Dundee lads were formed up in column and then marched, pipes skirling, crowds waving and cheering from the railway station, to the Black Watch barracks in Bell Street. From here, they were to make their own way home ... So the men marched together, through the streets of Dundee, until they eventually parted, to find their own individual way home. The story goes that my gran got word of his coming by a breathless neighbourhood boy who had seen “Mr. Donachie the sojer” marching his way up Albert street. And so it was that my grandad returned from the war.

I’ve stood in the small back green area where he stood, fully uniformed, the slime and mud of France, dry now, on his apron and kilt and jacket. My dad said he would let no one touch him. He still had the lice of France on his body. His weapons ... he still carried ... they were not taken from him ...{ I find this most unusual, but I am relating the story as it was told to me.) So the neighbours gave them privacy in that back green and my granny stripped her man ... The womenfolk had previously brought out their washing tubs, filled them with water and lit fires below them. Then my gran proceeded to wash him over and over, shaving off his hair in an effort to rid him of the lice. His uniform went to feed the fire, everything was burnt. My dad says that his weapons mysteriously disappeared ...This was the
tyme of the Fenian troubles and in Dundee, there was no shortage of supporters for that cause.

So that was a story of happier days, when the man returned to a hero’s welcome and the publicans gave them free beer and they were toasted for being part of the victorious liberators of the fallen France.

Life seems to have returned to normality for a while. She bore him another child. That made one daughter and three sons, the second son being my father John.

The marriage however, ended after a number of years. The things my father would say in later years was that my granda used to beat her during his drunken rages. The three sons could only look on with mounting malice towards their father.

The years passed and she eventually left him. She moved out and the family with her. That was quite a gutsy thing to do in those days, but she was a strong willed woman. The tyme went on and the bairns became young adults. It was at this tyme that she made a strange decision.

Leaving the daughter and the two eldest boys she took the youngest, Alfred, and booked a passage on a ship bound for Australia. She stayed there for about seventeen years I’m told. She did various jobs and ended up on some remote sheep farm, where she cooked for the working shearers. I have an old picture of a young lad with his favourite border collie, on the steps of a farmhouse, somewhere in the outback. This is my uncle Alfred. She left for hame, but he stayed in Australia ....The family never heard from him again...

So here she was, back in Dundee. She worked in the Jute mills and kept very much to herself. She saw the passing of her daughter and her eldest son and my dad was all she had left. But she eventually had eight of us grandchildren to deal with ... She saw two die, but six of us grew to adulthood. By the tyme I came long and started being aware of her she was a good age. She was deeply religious and would attend Mass on a daily basis ... When we visited, which was not often, she would question me on my catechism and on the latin. She always insisted that I learn my lessons , be
attentive to my elders and always keep the faith living and never turn my back on it.

She kept huge jars of sugary sweets called Aromatics and these he would give to me in handfuls. She came to our house on Christmas day and stuffed and cooked for us, the first chicken I ever tasted ...... She lived in a tiny wee house in Eliza Street, slept in the front room and had a lovely altar to the Virgin Mary in the back room. An enormous picture of the Sacred Heart hung above her bed and an old wooden crucifix adorned the back of the living room door ... My sister Vicky still has it...

So this was my Granny Donachie .... I last remember her as a tiny woman with a full head of dark auburn hair, which she wore in a bun. It was braided and wrapped and full of large pins and always had the appearance of a cow pat stuck on the top of her head. She never, as I think back, had much to say, but when she did ... you paid attention.

In nineteen fifty five on a Sunday morning my fathers cousin appeared at our door. He had cause to visit my granny that morning, but could gain no answer when he knocked at her door .This was odd, as
she had pre arranged to be in when he and his family called. My father made his way to see what the situation was. He could get no answer to his repeated knockings.....In desperation he broke open the back window and could not smell, but could taste, the presence of gas.... He found her cold and dead tucked up in bed. The house still had the old gas mantles which served to light the place. The police
found a ruptured copper gas pipe under the mantle.

So we buried her in the Eastern Cemetery with her daughter and oldest son for company.. and there , they lie still.......

My father took me to her house. He had the job of cleaning the place before the new tenants moved in. We found lots of full jars of sweets .... they lasted for months .... and a few hundred hidden pounds, money , which she had saved and concealed in an old handbag ...

I never got to know my granny well, for I was too young to ask her the questions that I would ask now. She was a rather serious soul, although I am sure she must have laughed once, when she went walking out, with her handsome highland soldier.

Granny Duncan....

Sometyme in the years before the Great War a young Dundee fisherman came home from the sea to find that his wife was dead. He was the father of one son and three girls, the youngest of whom
would eventually become my mother. But that was many years in the future.

I suppose that he felt a great loss and a sense of helplessness at losing his wedded partner and the mother of his young family. How long he grieved for his departed spouse is not something I am privy to. The photograph I have of him, shows a rather young looking man surrounded by four wide eyed innocent children. It never ceases to fill me with a sense of wonder as I gaze at that picture and think that three of the children portrayed here would be a part of my life as I struggled with the difficult passage from infancy to manhood. The male child ,my uncle .went to Australia in the thirties to seek his fortune. I never knew him. Then one day, sometymee in the late seventies as I recall, I remember my dear mother crying quietly over a telegram she had received. Her brother had died. It had been about forty years since he had left and I remember no talk of him, where he was, how he was, or whether he had left any family......

So, the situation for my Granda Duncan was serious...He had, as a very young lad shipped aboard a Dundee whaler. Dundee at one tyme, boasted the largest whaling fleet in Britain and her ships could be found in all the worlds waters, in the hunt for the great leviathons... At the period of my story the whaling era in Dundee had passed and in place of it, the herring trawlers now occupied the port.. It was to these vessels my granda now made his living.. What was he to do? A young family to support and the only trade he knew...away in the deep sea fishing grounds.. He met a woman. Margaret Bruce was
her name. They wed. He went off once more to sea and she stayed, in his home, now hers and took care of his young brood, now, also hers.. It appears that the first decision she made, was to uplift the bairns from their catholic schooling and plank them firmly into the Cowgate school, a non-denominational institution but one firmly controlled by Presbyterian teachers.

Years later, the youngest daughter would meet a young tough, curly, black headed man. He was not tall, but had the looks, at that tyme, that were considered handsome. He had a strange lop sided smile, that obviously charmed her and eventually he won her heart. When I look at my son now, I can see that same lop sided smile beaming back at me....They were married and in their years together, gave life to eight children. Two boys sadly died in infancy. I was born at the end of the war. And so, into history I took my place and met with the woman I now know as Granny Duncan.

I have a very vague memory of being in an old house in Charles lane and being aware of an old white haired man. He was, I believe to be, my granda. I was taken down to the bottom of this lane and had my first glimpse of a working ‘smiddy’. I remember the smell of the horses and the snorting and the farting and the dung on the cobbled floor. The heat was intense and the hammering of hooves being shod and the snickering of the nervous animals. Their size seemed immense to me ,but they were working animals and were used to pull heavily laden carts stacked with bales of raw jute from the docks to the many warehouses in the town.

My granda died in the forties. I was never aware of his passing. My granny moved house and she now lived in the same street as us. As the years went on, I became more aware of her and these few
years she had left, is the subject of my tale.

Where my granny Donachie is a sombre memory, granny Duncan is the opposite. To my knowledge the two were never friends. Many years earlier on the occasion of my parents approaching nuptials, my mother decided she would convert to my father’s faith. Well this put the cat amongst the pigeons...It was then discovered that my mother was already a baptized catholic and this ignited yet another holy war, with my grannies giving each other verbal broadsides at any occasion when they met, on the troubled waters of the family feud......My gran Duncan, although a ‘Kirkist’, never to my knowledge attended the church.. So here I stood, a young innocent lad in the middle of two opposing doctrines.

The wee house which granny occupied was modest to say the least. It had a small front room, which contained her bed and two armchairs and a sideboard. Above the sideboard, where she said she could always look upon him, was a large framed picture of granda. This had been taken during the Great War years, when he had left the fishing and gone into service with the Merchant Marine. He looked rather dashing, sporting a collar and tie and a braided peaked cap, denoting officer status. There was also
another large picture hung over her bed, For years, as a child, I thought it to be a painting of a butcher, never realising that it was in fact “The Immortal Bard”. Mr Robert Burns ... well known drinker, fornicator, poetic penman, lover of all things ribald and altogether a genius. He gave life, in the pages which he filled, to the broad rich earthiness of the land which he had been born into and in his passing, left a wonderful legacy for all to share. Here he was, in full masonic paraphernalia.

My gran was a great lover of the works of Burns. She could quote these at great length, and bringing to them her own brand of the dramatic. To the listener, she unfolded the scenarios of a bygone age in Scottish rural life.....

She was once given a blue budgie in a gold cage for her birthday or whatever and that bird became a great source of joy and laughter to her. By this tyme she was no longer able to get out of the house and had to rely on the bairns to run errands and such for her. The budgie, being her constant companion was aptly named “Rabbie:. She taught that bird words and to our constant delight, when we visited her, it would screech away in Broad Scots. She would sit by her cozy coal fire, day after day and talk to that wee bird, as if he were an apt pupil, hungry for knowledge.

During the old days, when the celebration of the old ways were still in evidence, we would visit gran on early hogmany night and was then we received our yearly treat..I now say “we” for by this tyme I now
had a wee sister, Veronica is her given name, although she has always been known as Vicky. My gran always bought, for us younger ones, raspberry, strawberry and blackcurrant cordials, so we too could drink our childish toasts to “A Guid New Year”. It was then that my gran would come into her own. She would blast forth with all the old ballads and songs of the sea, some of which she had learned as a lass and others learned later from her fisher lad. At these tymes her eyes would grow misty and many a tyme my small self would be embraced by her, and I would all but disappear into the mighty surge of her bosoms. She would rock me back and forth, ever oblivious to my struggles and
vain gasps for breath...Then she would cry and we with her, but always she would regain composure and laugh again and launch, once more into her songs. My gran was a woman of ample proportions and giving, that she could no longer go for walks or even hang her washing in the back green, she seemed to grow wider and wider and larger with every new visit.

Because of her inability to leave the house, she had to rely on me at tymes to go out on secret errands.. One errand in particular that I had to run, was for her two bottles of Bass and a quart gill of Haigs whisky....The Clep Bar was only two minutes of running and jumping over two fences and a brick wall for me.....The Snug was a tiny room in the pub, usually the haunt of old women, who at that tyme were still not allowed in the bar....The bar being the domain of the menfolk, who for awhile could lose restraint and argue swear and curse in the way that men do....This pub was owned by the FitzGerald brothers and they allowed me my trespass into the world of adults, only for the reason that they knew my gran from old and also my father was a regular .. So I would get the whisky and the Bass, put them in a paper poke and start the long slow trail back ..You see ....for a Bass drinker, there was a secret in the pouring of the drink.. In that day and age, that particular bottled beer still contained sediment in the bottom.. so if I shuggled the bottles on the return trip to gran’s, the sediment would be disturbed and the beer undrinkable. If she had to wait until it resettled , I would get a raging from her and also in turn, from Rabbie the budgie.

I used to think that my gran was the best and loudest sneezer in our street. She could sneeze up a storm at tymes. I used to imagine that if she aimed her sneezes in the right direction, she could easily have blown out the fire in the grate and cleaned the chimney at the same tyme....With my own childish eyes, I once witnessed a sneeze so seismic that it blew poor Rabbie clean off his perch.

Now you may wonder why my gran was blessed with such a wondrous and fearful ability. Well , I will tell that secret to you.......Snuff.....powdered tobacco....gunpowder for nasals.....Every tuesday I would go to the Post Office at the top of Arkley street and get gran’s old age pension. Whilst there, I asked for a shillings worth of Kendal Brown, this was her favourite brand...I watched as the tin was opened and a special small brass spoon scooped up the snuff into a little diamond shaped poke and weighted on a set of brass scales, a half ounce or maybe an ounce perhaps. Then run all the way to gran’s, pension in one hand, snuff in the other...... The ritual of my gran’s snuff taking, was as solemn and devout as any communion I have ever received.....The religious act of transference, of the holy snuff ..... careful now..... to the inner temple of the sacred snuff box.....Gran would then work herself into a state of readiness for the act....Delving deep into secret hidden pockets within the folds of her ample skirts, she would bring forth, an assortment of snuff stained handkercheifs....And now....taking the tiniest pinch of the powder from her tin, she would lay it lovingly between her thumb and index finger. Making sure the lid was back on the tin, she would cover one nostril and with a mighty sniff, inhale the snuff. Her flaring nostril was like a miniature vacuum you see you do’nt... But the fun was only starting.... Her head knocked back by the sheer power of the inhalation, the tension would build slowly at first ... this allowed me enough tyme to take cover behind the opposite armchair....The storm brewed in the clouds of my granny’s sinus.. Forming into a tempest it sought an avenue of release ... I never had long to wait... With a thunderous roar, gran would sneeze herself a homemade hurricane and once again poor Rabbie would land arse up in the bottom of his cage...It is this single act that I remember gran most clearly...and dearly...

Now tyme marched on and I grew up and became a young man.. My first son was born in nineteen sixty four.. Proud I was, and after visiting them in hospital I decided to visit with gran and give her the
good news. On the way I bought a bottle of Haigs .. and so it was that I had my first “grown up” drink. I did not enjoy it half so much as the fruity cordials she had for us at Christmasstide. When my wife and son were out of hospital, I took him on a visit to see gran...He was only a babe and has no memory of the meeting......

She died awhile after that........

She also lies in the Eastern Cemetery......a few paths away from granny Donachie..

So that is the stories of my Grannies...two special different and yet so alike.....

In spite of their difference of opinions and their immovable beliefs and lack of tolerance of each others dogmas, they at least left behind something positive......I think I saw both sides of the opposing faiths.....both working towards the same end, but both, because of the traditions that history will impose, unable to accept each others pathway to the same heaven.....

Read other stories from Graham Donachie


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