morning post, I'm on the rant.
That was the address on a letter which once was safely delivered by the postman in the days when there were fewer letters and postmen had time to puzzle out such riddle-me-ree addresses. It was clear enough instruction in fact for Minishant lies half way between Ayr and Maybole on the Low Road, the further inland and busier of the two main roads which link the towns.
To most people Minishant is a long row of houses with a speed restriction which delays their rush from Glasgow or the industrial parts of Ayrshire to Stranraer, a village with a kirk at one end, a school at the other and two distinct sets of houses in between - the original village and the new 20th century village. Minishant is all of these things, but it's much more: to those of us who know the place, Minishant is warm-hearted and couthy, perhaps not as pretty as remoter villages of Carrick such as Straiton or Kirkmichael but with every bit as much character. It is a comparatively new village, with a name far older than more ancient places: it's a place which was created by the Industrial Revolution, yet it never let black industry spoil its looks. And in the 80 years I've known it, Minishant has grown from maybe 80 folk to about 200 without destroying its original character in the process. It's a village which could teach a lot of bigger and grander places a thing or two about coping with life's changes.
I say I've known Minishant for 80 years, but my first real memory of the village goes back only to September 1910, when I came to live there permanently. I must have visited the district often before that, for Monkwood Mains farm, just outside the village, was my father's home, and I had been taken there many times from the day I was born - 6th December 1899. However, when I was four my parents moved south to Kent and I was brought up in England until I was 10, and it is only after that that I can picture the village. I didn't come to Monkwood Mains in the happiest of circumstances, and my journey there was a strange, uneasy one through a kind of limbo between a miserable situation in my father's house and deep mourning at Granny Orr's.
In September 1910, home (if I can call it "home" since I had spent only three months there) was the Park of Barnaigh, a farm at Lochwinnich in Renfrewshire, to which we had returned from Kent. My mother had died in the South when I was six and my sister, Mary, seven, then, quite unexpectedly to us children, my father remarried in the early part of 1910, took a lease of the Park of Barnaigh, and brought his new wife and Mary and me to stay there.
A second upheaval followed at the beginning of September a cousin who lived with Granny Orr was drowned in tragic circumstances and I was sent for to be company for Granny. I was never favoured or loved as my cousin had been, but the tragedy brought me to the part of the country which was to be my home for more than half a century and which was to grow to be the dearest place to me.
I made the fateful journey alone, put in the care of the guard of the Glasgow and South Western Railway tram at Lochside by my father, who tipped the man in his usual overgenerous manner with a shilling to see that I got off at Cassillis, the station for Minishant.
Beside other children I was wee - so very wee that the family knew me as The Tot or simply Tot instead of by my proper name, Henrietta Craig Orr. So I perched on the soft plush of the old G & S W R carriage seat and my legs dangled in mid air while my back was quite unable to reach the padded seatback. I sat and stared miserably at the pictures of strange Scottish places which decorated the carriage walls, or looked through the window suspiciously at the equally unfamiliar country through which we were travelling. The Kilbirnie hills soon gave way to barren, boggy land at the estuary of the river Irvine, but suddenly a splendid vista opened up, stretching across the Firth of Clyde as far away as Arran and Ailsa Craig. That cheered me up. When we stopped at stations, the guard peered in at the window and gave me a reassuring smile, then at Ayr he opened the door and shouted, "Get yer bit duds gethered thegither, lass, it'll no' be lang tae ye're there". I had only one small suitcase with all my "duds" in it, so my "luggage" was set beside the door long before the last warm red sandstone house of Ayr had been left behind and we were pulling wearily up the incline to Dalrymple Junction.
After leaving Dalrymple a beautiful river lay in the valley below the railway embankment. I was unaware that these were the banks and braes o' Bonnie Doon about which Robert Burns had written or that the fields on its opposite bank were part of Monkwood Mains farm which was to be my future home. We crossed the river over a high, solid viaduct of red sandstone and almost immediately stopped on a platform which bore the name CASSILLIS. My father had called the station at which I was to get off CASTLES, but hadn't told me about the strange way in which it was spelt, so I was taken aback when the guard opened the door and deposited me and my suitcase on the platform, then leapt aboard and the train steamed away towards Maybole.
That's how Uncle Willie Orr, my father's brother, found me. I always liked my Uncle Willie - he was a cheerful man with a joke in him, although I'm sure he must often have felt miserable in that house where my Granny mourned my cousin for ever and he was dominated by his sister, Bella, who ruled her mother, her brother, me and every man and maid about the farm. Bella worked hard, driving herself on mercilessly and she expected everybody else to do the same. Very occasionally Uncle Willie turned and in his mild way silenced her. I remember one day when he returned home from the market later than Bella thought he ought to have done - and no doubt with a dram in him - she rushed out of the house and berated him before he even had time to dismount from the pony trap. He stood quietly and listened until she paused. Then he took the parcel he was holding and dropped it neatly at her feet. As it touched the ground with a resounding shattering of glass he said quietly, "An' there's yer lamp globes, Bella". She stamped into the house and never referred to the incident ever again.
Uncle Willie was always friendly and reassuring and on the morning I arrived at Cassiliis he perched me on the front seat of the gig alongside him and we set off at a trot for Monkwood Mains. It was about a mile to the village and on the way he pointed places out to me - Kewnston farm on the roadside, Midton half way up the hill to our right and the School perched on top of the hill on the left. The School stood by itself, the best part of a mile from the village and without so much as a farm steading near it. Even then it seemed a strange place to build a school, and perhaps I looked puzzled for Uncle Willie explained that it had been put there to be convenient to Minishant and the farms on the low road between Ayr and Maybole, and to Culroy and the farms on the high road which ran along the foot of Brown Carrick Hill. Later, as I laboured up that hill to the School day by day it seemed to me that Minishant School was built to be convenient to nobody, a lonely place on a windswept hill top. But that thought came later: when Uncle Willie told me about it I accepted his explanation as perfectly logical.
Today the first buildings of the village begin almost at Kewnston, but in 1910 there were three fields between the farm and the Heid o' the Village. Before the "new" village was built Minishant consisted of a single row of cottages along the west side of the main Glasgow-Stranraer road - a line of thatched but and ben cottages broken here and there by a few larger or grander houses. Second from end at the Heid o' the Village stood a yellow brick house called Peru Cottage because it had been built by Peter Tweedily, a Maybole man, when he returned from South America after (we were all convinced) making a vast fortune. In fact Peter Tweedily was an engineer who "lit" the first gas lamps in Iquiqui in 1873 and then returned home to run the family butchers' business in Maybole. Almost at the opposite end of the village, standing suitably elevated above road level was a house known as "the Castle", one of the oldest houses in the village and the first to have outshot dormer windows added, hence its ironic nickname "the Castle". It belonged to the Limond family who had one of the two woollen mills which operated in the village at one time. By my day one mill was derelict and only the other, belonging to the Limonds of "the Castle", was left in operation. This mill, which stood on the Knowe directly behind "the Castle" hummed with activity six days a week, belching dark smoke from its high chimney and curls of steam from its boiler house. A little tramway with a wagon on a rope carried coal up the steep incline from the main road to the mill. We called this the Bogey Line, and the place at which it collected the coal on the roadside was the Bogey End. When we counted out who was to be "het" at games we chanted
engine number nine
And as we sang we were quite convinced that the bogey line of the chant was our one at Minishant.
The woollen mill looked a real thriving concern employing dozens of folk, I was sure - maybe even a hundred. Imagine my surprise to discover much later that the entire staff was the millowner, his son, a single spinner and a solitary weaver. For forty of the fifty-odd years that Minishant was my home, these four continued to turn out beautiful blankets, tweed and travelling rugs. Although thirty years have passed since the last blanket came off the looms of Minishant mill, I still have some Minishant blankets on the beds in my house.
Between Peru Cottage and "the Castle" three other buildings stood out because they were two storeys high and each housed four or more families. They were called Woodlea, the Barracks and the Brick House, and I suppose they were the nearest Minishant had to tenements. The Barracks was aptly named since it housed seven families who added up to nearly a quarter of the village population.
All the way through the village Uncle Willie was greeted by people at their doors - old John Garry, to whom the rhyming letter was addressed, sat outside as he always did on fine days with a big black umbrella shielding him from the autumn sun, Mrs. Harrison was at the door of her shop looking for customers, and Maggie Halbert was out spiering after all the news. She eyed me curiously and called, "This'll be Rab's dochter". On being assured that I was indeed "Rab's dochter" she dismissed me as "a kind o' shilpit wee thing" and hurried on with her bucket to collect water from the pump which stood beside the Stank, the stream on the opposite side of the road.
Just past the shop, Maggie Halbert's house and the big oak tree, the village suddenly petered out and a derelict woollen mill a hundred yards further on was the only other building on that side of the road. But where the gap came on the left hand side of the road there was a sudden flurry of activity on the right, for here were the blacksmith's, the joiner's shop and the post office. Uncle Willie told me about the postmistress, Mrs. Limond, who was 94, and the oldest postmistress in Britain, and about the smith and the joiner, Jimmy Harvey and John Douglas.
The joiner's shop, and even more, the blacksmith's, were the hub of village life much more than the shop or pub ever were. At any time of the day and far into the evening, two or three farmers' carts were to be seen outside Jimmy Harvey's while their owners cracked together for hours. On some days there was more work done with tongues in the smiddy than with hands in the fields, but of course, as a girl, I was barred from the fun there. The smiddy was totally a man's world, and Uncle Willie's visits were a source of irritation to Aunt Bella as much because she was barred from it as because she grudged him his enjoyment.
Monkwood Mains roadend lay just beyond the post office, opposite the disused mill (later to become the village hail) and we turned off the main road here, much to my disappointment for I could see a fine church a bit further along the road on the other side of the Culroy burn. I was to see plenty of the inside of the kirk in years to come, but for the time being I was denied even a proper look at its outside.
Although I sat beside Uncle Willie on the journey from the station our means of transport was a front and back gig on which the driver and one passenger sat back to back with the other passengers. I usually had to sit in the seat which faced backwards. To someone as small as I was it was terrifying to travel in the gig facing backwards towards the road, and I was always certain that I was going to be shot out as we bounced over the rough roads. Monkwood Mains road was the worst part of every journey for it was pitted with deep puddles into which the cartwheels dropped with a terrible jar.
The old school, abandoned after the new school on the hill was built in 1872 and the master's house, stood beside the farmroad, perched so precariously on the edge of the burn that I expected to pass by one day and find them gone, slithered over the edge and carried away stone by stone to the river Doon which the burn joined a mile away. It was called - appropriately - Burnside, and today every stone has been demolished and taken away and you wonder how there ever could have been space for a house there let alone a school.
Past the schoolroom Uncle Willie gave the pony a couple of whacks on the buttocks and exhorted him to get up speed for the hill ahead. It was a deceptively sharp incline curving through 90 degrees and even starting at a good trot at the bottom the pony was tired by the time he reached the top. In the rear-facing seat this was the most terrifying part of the journey and I was never able to enjoy the beautiful view across the whole of Minishant and away to the top of Brown Carrick hill. With relief we crested the hill at last and were trotting down the last hundred yards to Monkwood Mains where Granny sat at the kitchen window watching and waiting for us.
Granny was a sweet rosy-cheeked wee body, dressed in sober black but with a freshly crimped white linen bonnet on each afternoon, just like the Mazawattee tea advertisement lady, if you're old enough to remember her. I think she must have put her new mutch on early that day, she looked so smart as she turned towards me. I hadn't seen her since before I left for England six years earlier, so I didn't really remember her, but I warmed to Granny as she looked me up and down, then smiled and said, "Ye're welcome, Tot. Come tae I take a look at you". I suddenly felt that this place was home.