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Caithness Field Club

Caithness Field Club Bulletin
2004

Mey Pictures

Mey Personified
Tommy Geddes

Proceeding eastwards along the Thurso-John O'Groats road (A836) and having reached the Moss of Mey most travellers would be looking to their left hoping to get a glance at the Castle of Mey probably passing the village without a second glance. During the next ten minutes or so let us return and have that second glance at Mey and some of its inhabitants.

Had Mey been in England it would have been classified as a hamlet just losing out on the village status by not having a church. Canisbay had seemingly cornered the church market, acquiring no less than three within a quarter of a mile radius - probably their need was greater than that of Mey!

Churches aside, Mey was well endowed with most 20th century amenities associated with a village, having within its boundaries or immediate proximity a hotel, school, post office, police station, hall, petrol pump, bakery, joiner shop, agricultural engineers, gamekeeper, laird, football pitch and team, youth club, rifle club, swimming club, shop, coach and bus depot, plantation and last but by no means least a Royal Residence. The bakery was situated in one of the outbuildings of the then Berriedale Arms hotel, now renamed the Castle Arms. Sadly the school, agricultural contractors, (Wildly Allan), joiner shop (Alfred Moir), haulage and cattle transport businesses (Sandy Grant and James Simpson), laird (Capt. Inbert Terry), petrol pump, police station, gamekeeper, original football pitch, youth club and swimming club are no longer with us.  No, Mey never had a swimming pool but a band of enthusiastic and intrepid men and women utilised the spartan facilities offered by Philips Harbour, often referred to by the older generation as "Westerhaven" no doubt in reference to its sheltered position from the west wind.  Had you visited Philips harbour during the later part of the nineteenth century you would have observed a thriving flagstone dressing yard and the boats arriving for the flagstones discharging coal, lime and various other agricultural aids including land drainage tiles.  Salmon fishing was also pursued from this harbour, leaving behind a perfect example of an icehouse of that era. It all indicated that it was a very busy anchorage in its day.

Although there was a bus service to Wick/Thurso in the twenties, Peter Gunn's bus was the first one I can recall.   On Herring Queen or Gala Day I can still see the bus passing, all seats taken, and passengers clinging to the ladder, draped over the mudguards and grasping on to any part that would give anchorage.  The bus would stop about Westerseat farm and disgorge its exterior cargo before entering town thus not provoking the law.  My elder brothers often cycled to Wick or Thurso but I'll readily admit to never accomplishing this feat.

The new school in Mey was built in 1907 at a cost of 700 and I often wonder why, since there was a perfectly good school 300 yards up the road. Maybe it was just too small as the attendance figures at the turn of the century were about 80.  The old school was used as a gym and for the partaking of cocoa brewed and served by Miss Dunnet from the hall house.  Badminton was also played in the premises, the hall not being suitable due to the low valley beam in its roof structure.  Later on the youth club took it over, it finally being converted to a dwelling in the seventies.

The police station appeared in the thirties, Smiths of Markethill being the contractors. This superseded the old station on the high road now known as East Lodge.  The old football pitch is no longer used but it was in this field that Pindar's Circus used to pitch their big top before the last war.  Mey's first council housing appeared in the sixties acquiring the name of Royal Crescent due to the proximity of the Royal residence.  A mile to the East lies East Mey the place of my birth and home for over 20 years. During my stay the community of about 30 houses and 100 inhabitants boasted a shop (Mackenzie, later Forsyth), a blacksmith (Mackay) employing three smiths, and a joiner shop (Banks) employing five joiners.  The Banks' also held the Sunday School and all who attended will hold happy memories of that talented and respected family. George Sinclair, "Fairview" had a mason's business and when he left for Reay my father took over as estate mason employing about three men.

Mey was one of the few places in Caithness that could boast of a tree plantation in the nineteenth century. The new plantation appeared about 1930 and has been harvested in 1996.  The East Mey school children (including myself) were very glad of the shelter provided on our daily trek of the mile and a half to school.

The hall with attached house, a very substantial stone building, was built in 1875 for the training of local volunteers and artillery unit.  The cannon, and later the breech-loading gun, stood on the specially reinforced square in the middle of the dance floor.  This square took on a great sheen when Slipperene was applied prior to dancing, so much so that any slightly inebriated dancer avoided it like the plague as he was very likely to go 'heels abeen' if not careful.

The hall opened in a blaze of glory with dignitaries from various parts of the county in attendance plus a brass band from Thurso.  The dinner and proceedings in general were overseen by the castle staff who supplied the food and dishes etc. with the butler as barman.  The builders must have been struggling to meet the opening deadline (some things don't change) as my Uncle David Banks from Gills, then a 14 year old, was trying to get a vantage point to view the proceedings from outside when he got his clothes covered in wet red lead paint from the woodwork of a window.

This eye witness account of the opening night was conveyed to me by my Uncle David when I was about 14 years old. Dinner over, dancing commenced to the music of the Thurso Territorial Dance Band with a local man from East Mey master of ceremonies, or floormaster as they were then known All dances had MCs in those days, their duty being to announce dances and see that set dances had the right numbers and steward-ing the proceedings generally. This post of MC petered out in the sixties when the band struck up a tune and the dancers took the floor spontaneously.  Set dances - Edinburgh Quadrilles, Strip the Willow, Eightsome Reel (to name but a few), were very popular; of these the Eightsome Reel and Strip the Willow are about the only ones that now sometimes get an airing.  It was now 11 p.m. and the dance was in full swing with drinks plentiful when a verbal altercation took place between the MC and the band leader who was objecting to all these set dances and making derogatory remarks about their country cousins and their old-fangled methods.  The pot finally boiled over when yet another set dance was called prompting another sarcastic remark from the violinist.  The MC could stand it no longer; he snatched the violin from his hand, ripped off the strings and smashed the instrument over the unfortunate musician's head. From that point utter bedlam reigned.  The band members were assaulted and relieved of their instruments, the stringed objects were smashed, the bent brass items were straightened and the straight items were bent.

The following morning passers-by were amazed to see the iron gates adorned with twisted and battered instruments.  Many of the band, hid in the hill behind the hall, making their way back to Thurso in the morning.  When the fracas started the Butler closed the bar but the dancers objected to this and he too was similarly ejected so presumably it was freebies for the rest of the evening. The grieve (foreman) from Philips Mains was dispatched the following morning to take the dishes and utensils back to Barrogill Castle.  The loading of what was left of dishes was proceeding favourably when the grieve came across a bottle of whisky planted from the previous evening.  This unexpected bounty was hastily despatched and soon the participant lapsed into a drunken stupor.  The horse got bored waiting and set off himself to Philips Mains causing considerable consternation arriving minus his groom.  A search party was being instigated when this figure was observed heading in a zigzag course in the general direction of the farm. A servant was despatched to investigate and later stated that the grieve was "blazan", had a wumman's hat on his heid and a boiled hen under each oxter".  His misfortune might have ended there if he had not insisted on stabling his horse.  Unfortunately he collapsed in the stall and his gold Waltham watch fell from his pocket and was trampled underfoot by the Clydesdale.  This watch was equivalent to about six months wages.

Fortunately this event was not the norm for Mey hall and I can recall many happy hours spent there at concerts, dances and rifle club.  The most indelible memories would be of the Christmas Treats when the school put on a concert for their parents and friends.  About 8 p.m. word went around that Santa was on his way and an expectant hush fell on the children, then a loud knocking at the door heralded the arrival of that famous man (usually in the person of Wildy Allan).  Only on one occasion can I recall Santa being upstaged: Wildy and Engine Donal (Gunn) had contrived to rig up a pony as a reindeer, complete with antlers and accessories.  Sadly the occasion was too much for the poor equine who completely disgraced himself by depositing on the floor a generous heap of the fertiliser much sought after by rhubarb and rose growers.

In the forties the hall adopted a military role with the formation of the Local Defence Volunteers, later renamed the Home Guard by Churchill.  Jamie Miller, the local post from Mey, a veteran of the Great War, was sergeant in charge. Later the Black Watch took over the hall along with the Castle and old school, the latter being used as the NAAFI, oft-times manned by local (female) volunteers.  The AMPS (Pioneer Corps) erected the Nissen hutting mostly to the West of the Castle drive with the cookhouse and ablution block situated in the corner of a Barrogill field, now used for the Dog Trials.  Later on, about 1942, the Royal Scots arrived and, though both were essentially Scottish regiments, they embraced men from over the border and it must have been quite a culture shock when they viewed their new surroundings.  As a school boy I well remember listening to the strange accents as they shopped at Geordie Begg's.  One particular day - it must have been after a long route march - there was a hectic run on the talc and not surprisingly the shop soon ran out of this commodity and later on some of the suffering soldiers were seen leaving the store clutching tins of baby powder. I wonder if, later on, some of the locals introduced them to the wonderful therapeutic qualities of the Caithness dockan.

Water was carted from the Mey fountain for the cooking and ablution needs by means of a couple of water bowsers driven by Harry Hendry (a Scot) and George Young an Englishman who also assisted Donald Mackay on his farm.  Harry Hendry returned on several occasions and often sung at concerts in Mey and Canisbay - his song appears at the end of my writings.  Harry lost an arm in action and stayed with Mr. & Mrs. Manson, P.O., Canisbay.

The " peedie" room at the school was commandeered by the army and used as an officers' mess. Private John Nicolson (Nicky) was their batman and was gifted with a great tenor voice and our teacher, Mrs. McPherson (a music fanatic) would halt all lessons so we could listen to Nicky's renderings. Corporal, later sergeant, Taylor was an accomplished baritone.  The Road to the Isles was his signature song.  Dave Arnott was the star accordionist and could fairly set feet a-tapping. Occasionally ENSA travelling concert parties would appear and to us locals starved of such entertainment it seemed out of this world. Some of these groups stayed together and toured the North after the war, always performing to packed halls.  On one occasion "Camilla" - straight from the Windmill Theatre - was performing an erotic dance routine, scantily clad in ostrich feathers much to the astonishment and embarrassment of some of the more mature local ladies.  As the dance reached its climax with Camilla bending over backwards, one of the ladies could no longer contain herself and shouted out "Loade she's got no back bonn!" Some concert parties had their own band and would run a dance after the concert, the dance no doubt to maximise their takings for the evening.  On this occasion the band had a very modern huge set of drums, the like of which never before graced the Mey hall platform.  A local wag was closely observing the assembly of the various drum segments and on completion approached the drummer and suggested "A doot boy eel need a shiv till get at started".

During the late forties and through the fifties Friday night dances were the norm with Canisbay, Bower, Mey, and Barrock the "in" places and when cars came on the scene our radius increased to Wick and Thurso for Saturday nights.  We never seemed to get drawn into the Thurso - Wick friction - probably coming from half-way between helped.  On reflection I often feel lucky mixing with such a wonderful bunch of contemporaries during my youth - no drugs, no gangs, no knives, seldom fisticuffs though we did sometimes get merry at weekends.  Bars closed at 9.00 p.m. in the forties, gradually increasing opening hours to 10 and 10.30 p.m. in the fifties and sixties, till the present 11 p.m.  Up to the sixties you had the ridiculous situation of people travelling 3 miles to get a refreshment on a Sunday to qualify as a "bona fide" traveller and looking back it's hard to imagine just how such ridiculous licensing laws lasted so long.

During the war the Mey area completely escaped direct enemy action, but from the high vantage point of East Mey we had a grandstand view of the air raids on Scapa Flow early in the war.  We country folk came out of the rationing era fairly good, usually plenty of eggs, milk, butter and vegetables with the occasional fowl or pig being dispatched if the meat ration failed to satisfy.  Sugar was our family's worst handicap, 3/4 Ib. and later 1/2 Ib. per week per person severely restricted baking and jam making etc., but the arrival of saccharine later on somewhat alleviated the situation.

Mey hall, in common with most other halls of that era did not enjoy toilet facilities, but being surrounded by trees it faired better than most places.  From memory the ladies went West and the gents went East and usually never the twain did meet!  Over the years the hall had various types of lighting, paraffin lamps, Tilly lamps, gas, and finally electricity.  At one time the shooting target area was lit with a huge pressure lamp salvaged from the wreck of the Lucknow and presented to the hall by a Mr. Bracewell, a salvage contractor who worked from Philips harbour for a short time pre-war.

Petrol was almost non-existent for the private motorist during the war and dancers travelled by bicycles to the various halls.  The cycles were deposited along the outer walls of the building sometimes two or three deep causing chaos at the end of the dance when in the blackout it proved difficult to find the right bike and often finding your pedal stuck in someone's spokes.  However, with much scratching of matches and some swearing the dancers would set off on their several ways, some in silence contemplating the long haul home, some rendering snatches of the popular songs of the day like "The garden where the praties grow", "A Gordon for me" or "Maggie May", the latter indicating a sailor who had just tied up at Liverpool and had actually walked down Lime Street. However the lights went on again in 1945 and the Barrock Band was the first band I can remember dancing to, though they had been formed some years earlier.  In 1945 it was Willie Jack, Hugh Simpson on accordion and James Simpson on drums.  The Simpsons (sadly no longer with us) were brothers from Barrock.  Willie Jack (a man of many talents) still lives and works in Scarfskerry.  The going rate at this time was 30/- (1.50) plus 10/- (50p) for transport.

In 1948 the Northern Star dance band was formed. Most of the years until its demise in 1956 the band comprised Sandy Allan and Jock Shearer, accordion, James Simpson, trumpet, and Don Shearer, drums, and violin. The going rate by now was 4 plus an extra fee for fixtures well outwith the parish.  The nice thing about bands in those times was that the bands played to you not at you which seems to be the modern trend. I often wonder do the bands of today know just how many of the over-50 group they alienate due to their excess decibels.

The other focal point of "Roadside Mey" was the Hotel or rather the bar element, as the hotel seldom kept guests. The entrance was at the front porch door or "under the cock's tail" as locals termed it in reference to the bronze cockerel above the entrance.  On the outside wall to the left of the entrance are metal rings used in bygone days to secure the horse as the groom went inside to do some lip bathing. The bar used in the eighties as the cocktail bar was the original bar - quite inadequate on very busy nights and especially when the troops were stationed locally.  On very busy nights the window would be opened and the person delegated to buy the drinks would pass the glasses out to his mates on the pavement outside. Whisky glasses were at a premium during the forties and I can recall nip measures being served in Shippham meat paste jars. These jars stood about three and a half inches high with vertical ribbing and a large projecting flange for a rim.  This design meant you couldn't sip your drink, you had to toss it into your mouth in suitable gulps and it was surprising with practice just how efficient you became! I well remember my first dram in the Berriedale Arms when, on being spotted by this local worthy, he immediately came over and enquired if I was "finnan taste on him" and about an hour later returning to enquire "are ee commencing ta feel him yet" In both instances I suspected that "him" meant whisky.  The hotel had limited toilet facilities and these did not embrace the bar, which would boast of having the biggest toilet in Caithness.  This was very obvious on a busy night such as Sheep Dog Trial day or Hogmanay night when the effluent would flow across the main road. In the fifties proper toilet facilities were added and the establishment has changed hands several times since then.

Those smaller crofts in the area whose acreage could not sustain a pair of horses paired up with a neighbour and this system seemed to work well.  Some of the more expensive implements that had a very limited use, like a back delivery turnip sower, grubber and drill plough were also shared saving a considerable outlay in that era of tight budget margins.  However, every crofter possessed an ordinary plough, harrows, roller, cart and a scuffler.

A few of the crofters would pair off and procure a fishing boat to supplement the meagre income from their crofts. Engines overtook oars in the late forties but by that time age had caught up the men of that era and the rising generation evidently felt it was no longer viable. The last boat to fish commercially from the Bought (Mey harbour) was owned by Ebin Dundas and Jock Begg in 1948; then they left for the more secure harbour at Harrow. Ebin brought his fishing expertise with him from Stroma in 1947. Lobsters and crabs were their main targets with cod and herring occasionally fished.

Sheep dipping was a communal undertaking; the sheep were rounded up from the common grazing by the younger element - no dogs allowed as the sheep were not used to canine supervision. The dip arrived in solid form in a 3 gal. galvanised pail and had to be dissolved with hot water.  The lady across the road from the dipping tank (Jess Banks) provided the hot water and at the end of the day was presented with the now empty bucket.
Mey Youth Club was formed in the forties; as far as I can recall it must have been the first such club in rural Caithness. Mrs.C.McPherson from Gairloch, the local school teacher, was the moving factor behind this club which convened in the old school, now a dwelling.  The club was very well equipped for this period, having joiner benches and tools, table tennis, bagatelle, cribbage, dart board, dominoes and boxing gloves. We cut our own peats for heating in the winter months, while Aladdin lamps provided the light.

The "Welcome Home" evenings were also held in the club rooms - this was a social evening organised when a 10 gift was presented to the local servicemen on their demob. That amount would be equivalent to over two weeks' wages in that period. Servicemen saw little change in the area when they returned in 1945-46 but let us suppose they had returned in 1996 what would they have noticed? No stack-yards, no peat stacks, no water tanks and barrels, few animals or fowls, and a deserted Bought (Mey harbour). However, they would have been pleased to note their houses extended, offering all mod. cons. therein, sprouting T.V. aerials and telephone wires and many catering for the tourist trade. What would probably surprise them even more was that over half of the parishioners no longer spoke with a Caithness accent due to the influx of people from various parts of the British Isles.

On the occasion of a death in the local community, the neighbours would be "warned" as to the place and time of the burial. Usually this was done by a young male who had a bicycle. Relatives from outwith the immediate area would be notified by letter, the envelope bearing a black edge indicating its contents. I can just recall the horse drawn hearse, but most of them disappeared in the mid-forties.  As a mark of respect for the bereaved, the cortege usually walked the extent of the deceased's land, then the mourners would board whatever transport was available and proceeded to the cemetery at normal pace. Banks, East Mey, were the local undertakers but did not possess a hearse. This was usually supplied by Mr Dunnet, (Hike), from Canisbay.

The Banks' family also ran the Sunday School and this was a must for all the local children on a Sunday afternoon. This family had a great way with children and I'll assure you that no child had to be press-ganged to attend. All the Banks' were accomplished singers and could play various instruments. My particular remit at Sunday School was to read out the Missionary letter, usually from some obscure comer of Africa.  The letter would be full of tongue twisting place and personal names which I would try to pronounce confidently, knowing full well that few in the class knew much better! The Sunday school summer picnic and Christmas party were the highlights of the year and not until later years did I appreciate the amount of time and work spent on the youth of Mey by that kind and caring family.  Sadly advancing years and failing health meant that Mr. and Mrs. Banks had to retire from the scene in 1945 and their family found it impossible to follow on as often they found themselves working away from home.

I was bom at just about the highest point in East Mey in the house now called "Glenearn" where my eldest sister and her husband now reside. The view from here is quite stunning, especially the Northern exposure which embraces the Orkneys, Swona, Stroma, and most breathtaking of all, the Men of Mey where the raging tides of the Pentland meet and do battle.  On a clear day you can see the spire of St. Magnus Cathedral from the East end of my birthplace, and looking Southwards Morven and Ben Loyal. As a youth one of my pastimes was to mount my bicycle and push myself off by hand and it was surprising the distance you could travel in any direction without pedalling.  Like most places that enjoy panoramic views, you paid for it dearly when the weather turned nasty and believe me East Mey was no exception; even on a good day the air still seems to be in a hurry!  I lived in the house now called "Glenearn " for over twenty years along with my parents, three brothers and two sisters and on my frequent return visits I still enjoy that view from my former homestead.

Since the 1930s our educational needs in Mey were mainly supplied by Mr.Towers, Miss Lilly Banks, Mr. Donald McAlpine, Miss Margaret (Magsy) Robertson, Mr.Cuthbert, Mrs. Christina Macpherson and finally Mrs. Ethel Jack who saw us into the amalgamation with Crossroads School in 1969.  Mr. Towers was an Orcadian, Miss Banks came from East Mey, Mr. McAlpine came from Onich, Magsy came from Stroma, Mrs. Macpherson came from Gairloch and Mrs. Jack nee Ethel Allan was born just up the road from the school.

Mey was always a law-abiding place, so much so that the Police Station was closed and sold off in the mid-nineties, but just in case the following constables were available from 1930 onwards! Murdo Rosie, William Gunn, Sanny Gunn, Jonnie Robertson, Harry Barret, Geordie Harper, Donald Bruce, Jimmy Scott, Robert Mackay, Davie Mathieson, Donald Cameron and finally David McRae. The policemen and teachers almost without exception mixed well and shared their particular talents with the locals making it a very homogeneous community.  Most of the population of Mey up to the sixties were indigenous of Canisbay parish which included various "immigrants" from Stroma from 1920 onwards. As we fast approach the millennium the population basis has completely changed with over 50% of the housing in East Mey owned or lived in by people from outwith the county.  Crofts are no longer worked on the rotational method though some still operate a potato/vegetable patch with the rest let out to grazing mostly to the three small farms still ongoing in the district.

Though no longer a hive of activity I don't suppose Mey has a higher than average unemployment figure and houses seldom stay empty for long.  To potential buyers from the more prosperous part of Britain the price tags must look like a dripping roast and many a couple tired of the hassles of urban life has capitalised on this, making a very good retirement nest egg from the difference of the property values.  As a point of interest the rent on my parents' croft was 6.00 and the rates 0.50p per year (circ.1940).

While you are working out the percentage rise in the Council Tax I will take my leave, hoping that this backward glance at Mey and its Merry Men will maybe be of some interest to somebody who comes across it when well into the next century.


Song sung by Harry Hendry when he appeared at a concert in Canisbay Hall in 1946
That night in the desert was calm and serene
Our troops moving up in unending stream
Watches were set for 4 a.m.
Down by El Alamein

The guns open fire again and again
Objectives were taken by 5 a.m.
And the Africa Corps will reign no more
Down by El Alamein.

The Highland Divisions they fought and they fell
Though they were dive bombed and shattered by shell
And to some of our lads it was a fond farewell
Down by El Alamein.

When this war is over and victory is won
And gunners are gunners no more
We'll think of the desert for many a day
Of the Black Watch, the Gordons, with them in the fray
Of the 8th Army's divisions who chased Rommel away
Away from El Alamein.

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