Summer in Cairndhu
Well do I remember that summer of 1910 in Cairndhu. They spell it Cairndow these days, but for me it will always be Cairndhu. It was the year after Father’s fatal heart attack, and the month of my tenth birthday, that the family took a house near that village at the head of Loch Fyne for a long summer holiday. I hardly remember the house itself; it seemed as though we spent all our time out of doors. It must have been large, or maybe we had more than one, as there were as many as eighteen of us there at times. Of course that included us children, who could be fitted into any wee nook, or several to a room. Besides Mother and Grandma there were my three aunts and my older cousins. They were mostly men and women in their twenties, except for Ernest who was only two or three years older than me, and Mary who was my own age. My brother Tom was two years younger. We had visitors, also, other relatives, and friends of the young women – in retrospect I can see that the men enjoyed their company too!
All the women (except Grandma) helped with the housework. The men did only the heavy work, chopping firewood, collecting logs and carrying coal. Both clothes and bodies were washed in a burn, no doubt well away from the outside lavatory and its cesspit.
The four male cousins worked in Glasgow during the week. On Fridays, they caught the last steamer to Lochgoilhead, and tramped the seven miles to the house, with the steep climb through Hell’s Glen, catching the first steamer back on the Monday morning. They had rowed together for years for one of the Rowing Clubs on the Clyde, and could generally beat any other Clyde crew. We had the use of two large rowing boats. It was nothing to them to row the six miles to Strachur, back up the loch, crossing to Inverary, and then home to Cairndhu.
One warm and sunny day we rowed across the Loch for a picnic at Dundarave Castle, ancient seat of the McNachtans, perched on its rock at the loch side. It was the eponymous Castle Doom of Neil Munro’s novel, but just a ruin in 1910. We crossed in a flat calm. I can still see Aunt Mary and Grandma sitting upright in the boat in all their widows’ weeds and with their black ‘mutch’ hats on. Strange garb for a picnic even then!
It must have been a fine summer, for Loch Fyne is not the warmest of places to swim; yet all the children and young folk were in the water most days. We children had a fine time, with freedom to roam the fields and woods. Much of our time was spent on the loch in the rowing boats. What a contrast from our life in Paisley! There, we were mostly confined to the house and garden, with occasional visits to friends and relatives, and outings to the park when an adult had both time and inclination. There was fishing on the Loch too, and fresh mackerel for breakfast, always best when ‘straight out of the water and into the frying pan’. Besides the sea fishing the grown-ups went fishing with rod and line in the local rivers. There was trout for supper on those days.
That fishing was very different from two years before when Tom and I were taken out from Tarbert in one of the herring boats. The herring in Loch Fyne seemed inexhaustible in those days, and Tarbert was the hub of the fishing fleet. By sail and oar we and the other boats worked out of the harbour soon after dark. Once on the loch the crews searched for the shoals. No echo sounder then; the technique was for a man to take a hammer into the bows to strike the anchor. Once over a shoal this would cause a sudden flurry amongst the fish which showed up as phosphorescence, and the crew could cast the nets. Throughout the night fried fresh herring sustained the men (and us boys) till the fleet worked back into the harbour in the dawn light.
We had at least two photographers among us at Cairndhu, for there are photographs of photographers at work. At least one camera was used tripod mounted, the kind you focused on a ground glass screen (head under black cloth) before the plate was inserted. There would be no darkroom in Cairndhu, so the fragile plates must have been taken to Glasgow. I don’t know whether my cousins could develop their own plates or whether they were professionally done. Their photography was quite ambitious too. We played a kind of golf in the fields nearby, and there is a photograph of someone hitting the ball. It is taken just at the bottom of the swing with the club head just behind the ball, and the club’s movement very evident. Even if it was ‘set up’ with the club moving slowly, it was quite an achievement for those days.
By the following year, Mother had symptoms of diabetes. No insulin treatment then; only cutting down on sugar and other carbohydrates in the hopes of slowing its inexorable progress. The knowledge that she was dying affected the whole family. Even though this was kept from us children we knew something was wrong, and inevitably missed the outings and activities for which she was no longer fit. After her death in 1912 Tom and I were sent to board in St Andrews. Holidays thereafter, spent in the homes of our Aunts, were very quiet and unexciting.
Looking back after these many summers, that one in Cairndhu was the happiest, the most carefree of my childhood and the one with the richest memories.
© Copyright Inglis Lamont, November 2004