This photograph of my great grandmother Mary Murray, nee Morison, was sent to me by a cousin in France whom I have never met. Brother 1 knew her from his visits to France in his youth and has kept in touch, for which I have cause to be very thankful. This connection has revealed an astonishing coincidence regarding my parents’ families, of which I am sure they were unaware, as they never mentioned it.
My maternal grandmother Peggy Murray (just like my paternal grandmother Alice Grant), came from a family of 8 siblings, 4 girls and 4 boys. Annie, Kate, Angus, Donald, Kenny, Peggy, Jessie and John Murray were born between 1876 and 1888 in the Post House at Ness, on the Isle of Lewis, where their father Kenneth Murray was the post master. Annie, the eldest, was a nurse who never married; Jessie, also unmarried, stayed at home and worked the croft for most of her life until Annie returned to live there, when she left as the two did not get on (Annie was quite a fierce character, by all accounts; she lived in the house until her death in 1961, the last of the family to do so). Angus graduated from Aberdeen University and became a schoolmaster at Oban on the mainland; Peggy, whose story features elsewhere on this blog, was his housekeeper before he married. Kenneth junior took over from his father as the mail contractor. Donald emigrated to a place called Swift Current in Saskatchewan, Canada, but his fiance refused to join him there (when I visited the Post House in my youth I read the letters he wrote home of the hard life he lived out there). Donald returned to Ness to run the mail service while Kenneth served in the First World War, married his fiance and stayed for good. John, a shipwright, emigrated to Australia; as a child I met him once, when he made a final visit to Britain with his daughter Christine shortly before he died, but he already had dementia and hardly knew anyone. Kate, born in 1877, went to work at the laird’s castle on the Isle of Rum, where she met her husband Jack Stewart from Gartmore, Aberfoyle. They moved to Glasgow where they were married in 1902 and had 4 daughters: Katie, Mary, Jean and Anne. Anne Stewart (later Thomas) was my mother’s cousin, and her daughter – my cousin in France – has sent me Anne’s memoirs, including these photographs: our mutual great grandmother (above), and Kate Murray (below):
I found the photograph below in my family archives; written on the back, in my Mum’s writing, is “Auntie Kate Stewart, Jean, Anne & Mary”.
Anne is Anne Stewart Thomas. Her memoirs make fascinating reading for me, for two reasons. Firstly, they are rich with detail of the childhood holidays she spent, as my mother did, at Ness. She also throws some light on some of my mother’s family history. Then as an added bonus, I find that she was born (in 1918) and raised in Glasgow at the same time as my Dad, and the coincidences don’t stop there. The family lived in Riccarton Street which is just around the corner from my Dad’s family in Calder Street, and, most astonishing of all, her father Jack Stewart was, like my grandfather, a tram driver!
My jaw dropped when I read this. Given the proximity of the two families, and the fact that the 2 men, roughly the same age, were both tram drivers, it seems impossible that they didn’t know each other. It’s a shame that my parents never discovered their Glasgow family connections.
I loved reading Anne’s stories and I am grateful to my cousin, also named Anne, for permitting me to reproduce some passages here. Her descriptions of her early life in a Glasgow tenement mirror those of my Dad:
“There were six of us in one room and kitchen. Lucky to be all girls. Much bigger mixed families lived in the same houses, some with the lavatory on the stairs’ landing sharing with the neighbours. The stairs were kept swept and washed every week with water and pipe clay to make them look nice and white.
Mary, Jean and Katie slept in the room bed which was like a cupboard in the wall with a door…I slept in a folding bed which was kept under the bed in the kitchen. The kitchen bed was recessed into the wall as well but it had curtains to draw across, not a door. Lots of things were kept under the beds which were quite high. The bed was on the left, going through the kitchen door, and the opposite wall had the window and the sink, just one cold tap, no hot water…
The boys climbed up on the walls (dykes) – they were flat on the top – and would run along them, sometimes the whole length of the street. To get down, they would hang down from the top by their hands and then drop. That was called dreeping the dykes.”
I wonder if my Dad, who used to tell us tales of playing in the backyards of the closes as a boy, was one of the “dreepers”?
Anne’s version of our Hebridean family history confirms what I already knew, and adds some further fascinating details:
“Donald Morrison [my great great grandfather], was the Post Runner. He walked from Ness to Stornoway and back, at first once a week and then twice a week, with the mails. I think the previous runner got the sack for stealing.
His daughter, Mary Morrison, married Kenneth Murray and he took over the mail run but with a horse and buggy. Then his son, Uncle Kenny, took over and took the first motor vehicle to Ness. A woman, when she saw it, ran back into the house shouting “The Postman’s coach is running wild and there is no sign of the horses”. They had built a big house and shed and the lads from the village tended to gather there. In 1926 or maybe 1928, the Royal Mail took over the post; Uncle Kenny could have stayed on and worked for them but, after being independent for so long, decided not to and left.”
Anne recalls some fascinating stories of life on Lewis back then, when most people still lived in black houses with their livestock. I remember some of the people she writes about, such as Mary (McDonald?) next door whose Gaelic family nickname was Lastic. Mary and her seafaring brother, known as Shevuc, were old when I knew them; Mary was very kind to myself and my teenage friends when we visited the house. Anne knew them when they were younger, and recalls Shevuc saying when asked his real name “I’m not sure, some calls me Donald, some calls me Kenneth, but I think my name is Norman”. When I visited Lewis with my boyfriend in 1985, we drank with Norman, a real old salt full of tales of the seven seas, in the Cross Inn bar (the only drinking establishment in the whole of Ness).
Anne also recalls a chilling episode of “second sight” when her mother and grandmother were out walking on the Barvas moor and saw two funeral processions disappearing mysteriously in the distance. No-one in the area knew of any recent deaths, and no such funerals had taken place. In Glasgow some years later, her mother had a visitor from home who told her that “A man had subsequently built a house out there and the woman in the house had fallen in the river and drowned and her little girl died of tuberculosis”. Kate Murray and her mother had shared a premonition of this double funeral.
For me, of course, Anne’s references to my own family history are the most poignant. She has this to say about my grandparents, and I can’t help smiling at the pure Glasgow directness in her summing up of my maternal grandfather’s dodgy character:
“Auntie Peggy… married Charles Lane, who wasn’t much use. He had good connections. She had a son, Murray and a daughter, Eleanor. They lived in England – Leeds and London. Charles was twice left a considerable sum of money but squandered it each time. Murray was drowned swimming during the war off the coast of Africa. Eleanor married Jim R. from Glasgow and they lived in London. She had two boys and a girl: M., A. and S. S. and a friend had a holiday in Lewis and S. walked from Stornoway to Ness with a letter in her hand like her great great grandfather. Auntie Peggy threw Charles out in the end.”
That was me! I was always enchanted with the empty house at Ness and went there for several holidays with friends (or boyfriend). The holiday Anne refers to was in 1979, when I went with my close friend Eleanor (no relation!) and we did indeed re-enact my great great grandfather’s epic 30 mile walk from Swainbost to Stornoway. We were offered many lifts along the long straight road but turned them down, much to the bemusement of the drivers; and we arrived in Stornoway to find that the news of our walk had preceded us! The story was spread around the Murray diaspora and I am delighted to read about it here, along with Anne Stewart’s other stories of Lewis mails and Glasgow trams: the two Scottish sides of my family drawn together, full circle.