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June 1994 Index

Bulletin Index Caithness Field Club

Caithness Field Club Bulletin
June 1994

MEMORIES OF HALKIRK FROM 1920
Jessie Paul

Bridge Street, Crescent Street and Sinclair Street had fairly good roads. Church Street and George Street had a yard wide pathway. The rest of the streets were overgrown with grass and weeds. Camilla Street, Church Lane, and Cow Park Lane were also overgrown with grass and weeds and were very uneven, difficult to walk on.

There were six shops selling groceries: Sinclairs at Southcote, Adam Macleod at the top of Camilla Street, W. MacPherson at the top of George Street, the Co-op grocery and drapery at the top of Sinclair Street, Dan Manson's which was in part of the Ulbster Arms Hotel (now Miss Kieth's flat), and the Post Office which also sold stationery, newspapers and drapery.

A Sinclair Woodcote had a hardware and ironmongery shop, A Coutts had a tailor's shop next door to the Bank of Scotland where the Barber, Mr. Chrystal lived. The Bank was open from Monday to Friday. D.Y.Forbes had a newsagents' and fancy goods shop (where Jackie Wares shop now is).

A Thurso butcher came out each Friday to the little shop in Sinclair Street (where Lorna makes fancy goods), and he had an excellent supply of beef and very special sausages.

There were very few cars in the village. Edward Sutherland's grandfather had a car for hire, which was often booked by young folk to go to "the pictures" in Thurso or Wick cinemas. The better-off farmers had horses and gigs for transport.

The village was owned by the Sinclairs of Ulbster. A few acres of land was rented to tenants who could have a house and byre, barn and stable built on it. The buildings belonged to the tenants and the land belonged to the Ulbster Estates for a hundred years or more, when each tenant was allowed to redeem it for a nominal sum. There was also an arrangement where the villagers had the use of the large Cows Park. The idea was that each tenant could keep a cow and horse. There were not many horses left by 1920, as many had been taken away for use in the 1914-18 war.

The houses built in the side-streets (from 1850 onwards) were all facing south and got the early morning sun, and they were built so that the backs on one side and the fronts on the other side both came towards the street.

Each person was expected to keep the distance from his house to the middle of the street in good repair. The ground was soft and many cart-loads of big stones were needed to make a firm base for the horse and cart traffic. Things began to change after the first world war.

The roads were well drained, after the drains bid been dug by the drainers, labourers lined them with small stones and placed two flat stones on top. Many years later when the first water supply was underway, the bulldozer came and choked the hand-made drains and caused pools of water on land and streets.

Barrels and tanks were at most houses to store rain water which was used for all household purposes except drinking and preparing food. There was spring water in Cows Park which had to be pumped up, and also a spout of sparkling water at the riverside across the bridge by the path leading to Gerston.

The three railway stations were all manned, Halkirk, Georgemas and Hoy. For a few hours in Thurso one could walk to Hoy to catch the train there and after returning, walk back to the village.

The shops and Post Office were open long hours. The Post Office was opened at 8am and closed at 8pm, with a hour spent daily doing the books, and on Sundays and New Year's Day it was opened from 9am to 10am for telegrams.

Christmas was not celebrated, it was just an ordinary day.

There were five postmen and a telegraph messenger, all of whom had to work long hours for low pay. The village postman walked the route and carried a load of letters and parcels weighing about 35 lbs. The country postmen were supplied with heavy duty red bicycles with large carriers in front, and their loads weighed about 56 lbs. Many years later motor cycles and sidecars were used and later still the mail vans.

The first bus company came to Halkirk in 1928, and was called the Pioneer Bus Company, the fare to Thurso was 1/- return and to Wick, 2/- return, which in today's money would be 50p and 1.

It was 1938 before electricity was introduced and in 1940 when a water supply was laid on, and large iron pumps were placed in each side of the street. I'm not sure about the date, we probably had the water pumps before electricity. Paraffin lamps were used earlier. They had to be filled with paraffin every few days, the glasses had to be cleaned and polished daily as they became dark with the smoke. Some lamps had frosted globes over the glass. There were a variety of lamps, small ones for the bedrooms and larger ones for the kitchens which were also used in the living room, and those with globes for the best room.

On washday, clean water had to be carried in and heated in a large pot. A heavy tub was put on a large box and the clothes had to be scrubbed on a washing board, one side of which had corrugated zinc; or the better ones had corrugated thick glass. Yellow soap was bought in foot-long bars, cut up and left to harden. Sheets, towels and dish-towels were all white and for the last rinsing water we had a blue bag (a small cylinder of some blue stuff, about an inch high and tied with cotton). This bag did for a number of washings, and gave the water a blue tinge which helped to make the articles white. If any stains were left, things were bleached on the green and left outside for a day or two.

Blanket washing was a special day for our families. My sister-in-law and I carried both sets of blankets and other odds and ends with a tub, large kettle to boil water, soap and wash boards down to the burn at the bottom of Cows Park. There we built a fire of peat and sticks and set the fish kettle on it to boil. Soft soap was used for the blankets, and this soap was jellied and bought in a large tin and made nice soapy suds. The burn supplied all the cold water which was needed. As many blankets as the tub could hold were put in, then one of us, bare-footed, went in and tramped the blankets until they were clean. They were then rinsed and wrung as well as possible. The wet blanket was folded length-ways until it was about 12 in. wide. It was then folded over a broom handle: one of us twisted the broom handle and the other held onto the blanket and twisted in the other direction until most of the water was gone and the blanket was spread on the bushes to dry.

In the 1920's instead of mattresses we had feather beds for the best room and chaff beds for the others. Both were very warm and comfortable. The chaff was husks of oats: the threshing mill came to each place in turn at a certain time of the year and those wanting chaff collected it. The beds had to be well shaken up daily and were lovely to sink into after a hard days work. Blankets were made in the wool mill. When the sheep were clipped, fleeces were kept aside for the mill: if blankets were needed, they would last for years.

Sinclair Bremner was the village blacksmith, and the smiddy was situated across from the Post-Office house in the lane running down to the river. The smiddy was always busy at work on the farms and small holdings. When the blacksmith retired the smiddy was converted to a joiners shop and remained so for many years. The Harpsdale Campbells, who were the blacksmiths for generations built a smiddy in Bridge Street (where the antique shop now is). There was another joiners shop at Aulds, where many young lads learned their trade as joiners.

The Commercial Inn as it was called then, was run by an elderly couple called Mary and Danny Bain: they had a good bar trade but did not cater for guests or much food. The Ulbster Arms was run by a Mr and Mrs Dower and their three daughters, catering for the fishing and shooting guests, much as they do today. Mr Dower was a cousin of Gander Dower who brought the first planes north in the early 1920's. I had my first flight - a few minuted circular tour of the district in a plane which landed in Cows Park. The trips cost 5/- per person.

In the 1920s, ironing was done with flat irons or box irons. The flat irons were heated on the top of the kitchen stove and the box irons had heater (usually made in the smiddy). The heaters were pushed into the heart of the fire until they were red hot, and were taken out and slipped into the iron and used until they got cool, when it was then put back into the fire and the hot one taken out. For a big ironing there were many changes of heaters. In the 1930's petrol irons were used. There was a round container at the back of the iron filled with petrol, and one fill did a lot of clothes. By the 1940's electric irons were in use. The electricity and the water in the houses were great boons and took a lot of hard work out of the daily chores.

Braal Castle was open for guests in the Spring, Summer and Autumn. It was well kept and there was a big indoor staff as well as ghillies and chauffeurs. The gardener's cottage was across the wall and the gardens were beautiful and supplied all the flowers and vegetables for the castle.

Sir Archibald and Lady Sinclair and their young family came to Thurso Castle during the summer. It was a lovely building and they and their guests also went to the lodges at Altnabraec (Lochdhu, Dalnawillan and Glutt) were all in use. Some guests took their own staff with them but there were many local staff employed as well.

Braal Castle's rooms were carpeted in Sinclair Tartan and the furniture was upholstered to match. The water bailiff's house was the only one in the avenue. There were three houses occupied in the farm square at the back of the castle.

Most of the villagers had peat banks up at Strathmore and others at various other peat mosses. Usually a few neighbours got together to make a squad for the peat cutting. There were special tools - a turfing spade to take the top layer of turf off the bank; then a tusker for the actual cutting. The tusker had a sharp metal blade at the bottom and a small step about 2 inches up the shaft to apply pressure to cut through the soft peat. The squad was made up of a cutter, a banker (who was down in the trench and put the cut peat up on the bank), where the three spreaders got them and put them out on the heather in long lines to dry for two or three weeks. After that time, each family set up their own bank of peat, with everyone helping, including wives and children.

A large amount of sandwiches were made, a kettle to boil water for tea, dry peat to make a fire were all taken along for this venture. The peats were set up in threes and fives so that the air got to dry them. The work was very hard on the back and fresh air gave one an excellent appetite. Peats are clean to handle compared to coal and make a lovely warm fire.

The majority of Caithness farm servants had a very hard life; they had to feed and clean out the castle and houses, then work a long day in the fields, then feed the animals again before bed-time. Part of their wages was given in milk and potatoes, and so they got very little in money. There were no family allowances or free health service until 1948. The farm animals were often better housed than the servants and their families, and so many families moved to Sutherland or Ross-shire where conditions were better.

Before the First World War the Halkirk Games were held in a park at Hoy. In the early 1920's Sir Archibald Sinclair granted the Recreation Park to the villagers for a nominal rent. Games Day usually signified the end of summer, and a noted pipe band was hired to come from the south for the day.

Prize money for the various events was good, so athletes, cyclists and dancers came from near and far. The road cycle race was the first event and consisted of a circular run of approximately 14 miles from the Park Gate, then by Skinnet, Glengolly, through Thurso and back by Shalmstry, Carsegoe, Sordale, Hoy and through the village to the Recreation Park. There were also different cycle races in the ring. The heavy events included tossing a 56 lb weight over a high bar, tossing the caber and teams for the tug-of-war competition: dancing went on during the afternoon as did the clay pigeon shooting. There were pillow fights, a grease pole and children's races. Relatives of the committee members attended to the teas which were sold in the pavilion and included sandwiches and cakes. Stoves were hired by a variety of stall holders, and the variety of stalls included ornaments, fancy goods, candy floss, coconut shells and there was also a shooting gallery. There was also a "Bonny Baby" competition.

Prizes were presented about 6pm by a VIP - Lady Marigold Sinclair at first, and later by Lady Thurso. The pipe band paraded up and down Bridge Street and a very well attended dance until well after midnight, rounded off the day.

Another annual event was the Halkirk Gala Week. This was run by the village council members and consisted of fund-raising functions to provide money for village amenities. The main street was decked with bunting for the week and locals got together with holiday folk for the daily events such as Whist Drive, Football Match, Veteran Football Match in fancy dress. Childrens races, pony rides finished off the week which also included the crowning of the queen by the previous year's winner. The Queen and Princesses and Page Boy then led the procession of decorated floats round the Village.

Halloween night the young folk had a lot of fun carrying out practical jokes on friends and neighbours. Gates would disappear and be found next day on top of a corn screw. Wheels would be taken off carts and hidden, and a favourite trick was to rig something up at a window and attach it to a reel of cotton thread. Someone would reel the thread out to a safe distance opposite, and hide behind a dyke, where by jerking it, there was a tapping on the window. The fastest member of the gang was given a piece of glass to drop noisily on the pavement as soon as the tapping began, then he would quickly run out of sight before the irate householder came out (making the air a bit blue with his language and threats), and as soon as he went back in, the irritating tapping began again, yet the culprits were never seen.

Another prank that was not such fun was placing a large thick divot on the chimney of the living room of a family, so that the room very quickly filled with smoke and nothing could be done until the divot was removed.

One very nasty one I remember was perpetrated on an old couple on a very cold October night: their nearly full water barrel was manoeuvred to the door and tilted inwards, so that when the door was opened, the barrel fell and the contents spilt. A loud knock was made on the door and the lads fled to a safe distance to watch the reaction.

Biography of Jessie Paul (nee Mackay), author of "Memories of Halkirk from 1920".

Born at Naver, Bettyhill 19(02?). (Original Bulletin has "1920" which is clearly wrong)

Attended Farr primary school, then two years at Golspie High School during the First World War.

From the age of 15 to 18 taught shepherds' children at Naver, who lived too far from a school (wages 10/- a week, lodgings 7/- a week).

Came to Halkirk in 1920 as a Post Office clerk (wages 15/- a week plus lodgings). Post Office open from 8am to 8pm plus half an hour to do the daily accounts, six days a week with one hour, 9am to 10am on Sunday for telegrams. Closed only on New Years' Day except for one hour for telegrams.

Married a local postman. Family of three sons. Widowed at 54; back to work at the Post Office, Halkirk and latterly at Bettyhill.

Retired two weeks before 70th birthday.

Jessie Paul celebrated her 100th birthday in 2002