Wednesday, 19 December 2018

An obscure centenary (continued)

A little more about
Margaret Isobel Smith/ Peggy Flett 19-12-1918 - 7-7-2015
as promised, although more briefly than planned.

Slightly rose-tinted
From the heyday of the fishing industry, as she described it, to the strategic importance of Lewis in the Second World War, Peggy's early life can be seen as reflecting in several ways the changing fortunes of the town of Stornoway more generally.
"In those days Stornoway in the summer months was a busy bustling town.  The harbour was crammed with herring drifters, the sea front lined with curers’ yards, and the smoke from the kippering sheds sending its aromatic presence far out to sea.  The population must have increased four fold at least with the influx of curers, coopers and fishworkers."

For a time her upbringing and that of her older sister and younger brother was, by her account:
'somewhat Edwardian with a nursemaid in attendance and a constant insistence on “manners” and decorum.  We wore “best clothes” for Sunday and paraded solemnly to Sunday School in flannel coats button boots, and black velour hats in winter and patent leather shoes and Panama hats in summer – and always our “collections” tucked into our gloves.'
Featuring John Maclean, towards bottom right
This was not the 'Sabbath School'of the Free Church, and the three children, decorous or not, would have escaped the worst excesses of repressive religion, at least as far as their home environment was concerned. Their late grandfather John Maclean, a well-known local shopkeeper and self-made man in his day, is on record as subscribing to the appeal for funds to construct a spire on Martin's Memorial Church of Scotland, just down the road from the family home in Francis Street.
Stornoway from the air 1932
A few years later, after a temporary sojourn in north-east Scotland (Buckie and Findochty, the stronghold of the Fletts), the now growing family returned to Stornoway. With the depression, money was scarcer and the living less gracious. The town was still lively in its way, especially for youngsters with the freedom to roam the streets. Peggy's brother won renown as a leader of one of the street 'gangs' of boys, his exploits recalled by at least one of his henchmen 80 years later.

Although her intelligence enabled her to benefit from her education in the prestigious Nicolson Institute, schooldays were not always happy at a time when most teachers still ruled by terror. Peggy's own 80+-year-old memories included still-resented incidents of bullying, unfairness, and victimisation, not usually of herself but of more vulnerable and worse-off pupils.

There were always compensations, and she was good at making the most of them. Membership of the recently re-formed Stornoway Girl Guides meant a lot to her, providing an escape from the chores and child-minding she was expected to spend so much of her time on at home.

Stornoway Guides, 1930s.
Peggy is the middle one of the three on the extreme right.
Unlike her older sister, who left school to work in the Post Office, Peggy stayed on and completed her secondary education with some success. She did not proceed to a university; it was not felt by the family that it would be financially viable for her to do so.

Instead her first employment was with the local Labour Exchange, the Burroo (Bureau of Employment), something of a growth sector in the 1930s. The story of how she heard about the job is told by Calum Smith in 'Around the Peat-Fire'.
Late  1930s 
The story of  how that job was ended and her subsequent work obtained is told by Peggy herself in a short memoir about Stornoway aerodrome in wartime.
On 19 November 1942 Peggy and Calum were married, quietly, in wartime Stornoway, after a courtship that featured many long walks in the Castle Grounds.
A path in the Castle \Grounds
Of course she continued to be very much an independent-minded individual in her own right, but their subsequent stories are intertwined.

Looking back at Stornoway from Holm, 2017
The present-day town: sites of change and continuity.

Tuesday, 11 December 2018

Looking Back at 1920s Stornoway from 60 years on.

In a rare return to exercising her writing talents (apart from letters to family and friends), Peggy (Flett) Smith once penned a short account of how she had perceived Stornoway as a child.

Other Times, Other Places
Recollections of Life in Stornoway iin the 1920s

A view of old Stornoway
   My earliest memories of Stornoway are seen, not through a glass darkly, but through rose-tinted spectacles.The herring fleet had not yet declined, the summers were always sunny, and for the duration of the Minch fishing which was primarily the months of June July and August the town was a lively bustling place to live. Far out to sea the smell of kippering was borne on the winds - a sure sign to the exiles returning home from the city tenements for their annual holiday that they were nearing their longed-for ancestral homes.

   The town was quiet at night through the week when the boats were at sea but morning brought their return, success or failure indicated by the number of screeching herring gulls in attendance and then the scene rapidly changed. Sample baskets of fish were swung ashore and taken to the Fish Mart where the buyers with much deliberation and solemnity made their bids. Then the waiting carters came into their own, transporting each ship's catch to the curers' yards. These yards or "stations" were leased by a host of curers - Woodgers, Stephens, Fletts and McConnochies, alien names at one time but now [in the 1920s] as familiar as the local Macivers, Mackenzies and Macleods.

Written probably in the mid-1980s.

The fishing industry remembered in modern Stornoway.
From Timeline in SY Gone By, Stornoway Historical Society Journal
Winter/Spring 2018/2019, pp.4-5

1917  75,000 barrels of cured herring lying on the piers at Stornoway with the Government refusing to issue a permit for their export. They were eventually exported to Russia but were landed at the same time as the Revolution and were never paid for.

1922  3000 barrels of cured herring exported to Hamburg, Germany.

1923  Russian agreement to buy 250,000 barrels of cured herring.

1927 Stornoway's greatest year as a herring port. Estimated 30 million herring taken from Loch Erisort alone in a 6-week period.
"By 1876, the demand for fishing stations in Stornoway harbour was so great that they were let out to the highest bidders... Before long, the town was recognised as the major herring port of Britain – if not of Europe."