The additional weight of our armed guards made the bus even slower. I felt I could walk faster. Eventually, I dozed. The bus juddering to a stop jolted me awake. From outside I could hear yelling – it didn’t sound friendly. I peered through the window, spotting the tail end of a jeep blocking the road. Convinced we’d been ambushed, I turned to seek advice and comfort from Hussain only to discover he’d disappeared.
Before total panic paralysed me I heard his voice calling from the back of the bus, ‘Oh, Mudder, beroon beyee.’ (‘Oh, Mother, come outside.’) As I started to climb over the seat in front, thumping an unfortunate woman round the head with my bag, he called again, telling me to head for the back of the bus.
Changing direction, stumbling and staggering over bundles, tripping over shins and trampling on feet, I fought the terribly British urge to apologise to everyone I inadvertently assaulted in my scramble to the rear door. I paused. There were no steps. My exit became even less dignified as I launched myself into the arms of Moh’dullah, who deposited me swiftly on the ground. Hussain was by now beside himself with impatience. ‘Zoot! Zoot!’ he ordered. (‘Quickly! Quickly!)
‘Chi shud?’ I stammered. (‘What’s happened?’) Without wasting time on further speech Hussain pulled me towards the back of the jeep, telling me to climb in and sit down. Surrounded by half a dozen grim faced mujahideen, bristling with Kalashnikovs, I sat, petrified. Hussain had vanished again, as had Moh’dullah. Were we all being kidnapped – or just me? One of the men asked his neighbour, ‘Dari mefahmad?’ (‘Does she understand Dari?’) They knew I was a foreigner. I knew this stupid disguise wouldn’t fool anyone. It was a kidnapping.
Hussain and Moh’dullah staggered over and crammed our baggage and themselves into the jeep. Immediately the driver sped off. Hussain turned to me, huge, happy grin lighting up his face, ‘Now we are safe. These people are our friends. They are taking us to Jaghoray, to Sangi Masha bazaar.’ For the first time in my life, I truly understood the cliché as relief flooded through me.
‘How did they know we were on the bus?’
‘They stopped the bus to collect money – a sort of road tax to provide security against bandits. Moh’dullah told them about you and they offered to take us to the bazaar.’ Grinning again, he added, ‘You can lift your veil now.’
Suddenly feeling ridiculously shy about uncovering my face in front of so many men, I reluctantly raised the veil to find all the mujahideen were staring fixedly at some point six inches above my head. Cool, fresh air blew on my face. I turned to smile at Hussain who remarked, ‘You’ve got dry skin hanging from your lips. It looks disgusting.’
It was dark when we reached the bazaar of Sangi Masha and, although the village was only another hour away, the driver would go no further. ‘They’re afraid Hisb-i-Islami might fire on them from the mountain,’ explained Hussain. I wasn’t going to argue with what seemed to me an eminently sensible reason for halting our journey. Hussain and I were ushered into a room above someone’s shop. I could barely stay awake long enough to drink the tea someone brought. The moment I stretched out on a mattress on the floor I was asleep.
It was already bright and sunny when I awoke the next morning to find Hussain pacing the floor. Tea and fresh nan had been brought to the room. He’d already organised a jeep to take us to Sangsuragh. ‘The driver is waiting,’ he said pointedly and I swallowed my tea, shoved the hated burqa, which I vowed never to wear again, into a bag and wrapped myself instead in a lightweight chaddar, which hid my hair but left my face uncovered.
The driver roared off through the bazaar. My first impression was of being in the middle of a set depicting the trading post in a Wild West film. The long, straight, dusty road was congested with heavily laden donkeys which skittered in alarm as our jeep careered recklessly through them. Outside the small shops ran a narrow raised pavement but the horses, which should have been fastened to a hitching rail, had been replaced by Russian jeeps, and instead of six shooters citizens toted Kalashnikovs.
Leaving the bazaar, passing the shell of a rusting Russian armoured personnel carrier, the jeep bounced along the worst road I had ever experienced. Huge boulders lay all around, interspersed with deep potholes and the occasional irrigation channel which ran across the road to the fields. The painful hammering my body was taking was, however, more than compensated by the spectacular scenery.
Great rocky, jagged peaked mountains soared skywards, small cultivated fields of wheat gleamed like gold behind hedges interwoven with tiny, white and pink wild roses. Enormous clumps of wild lavender growing on the rocky ground at the foot of the mountains added their perfume to air already scented by roses and sunshine and clover. As we drove past a large graveyard where stones leaning at crazy angles marked the resting places of past inhabitants of the village the driver slowed. He and Hussain indulged in a moment or two of somewhat theatrical “tss, tss, tss”, accompanied by much sorrowful head shaking. I thought perhaps someone close to them had recently been buried but learned, later, this was the usual performance of Jaghoray people when passing any graveyard. The cassette of love songs or dance music which was invariably played at full blast would be silenced the moment a graveyard was approached. The occupants of the vehicle would raise their hands, palm upwards in prayer – especially alarming when the driver removed both hands from the wheel.
A sharp incline brought us to the village of Sangsuragh.
A cheer from the passengers roused me from my reverie. Five hours after leaving Chirman we were finally stopping at a roadside chaikhana (tea house). Moh’dullah found us a secluded spot under a mulberry tree where we could drink our tea undisturbed, even allowing me to stretch my vocal chords a little although a cigarette was still out of the question. Apparently, so, too, was blowing my dust-clogged nose. As I raised a paper tissue Hussain hissed, ‘Not here, not in public! You must never blow your nose in public in Afghanistan.’ I sniffed and turned to watch what our fellow travellers were up to.
In a small, shallow stream running in front of the chaikhana, groups of men washed, preparing to pray. Women, their minds on more earthly concerns, washed their children, or rinsed out soiled baby clothes which they spread to dry on flat stones and branches of nearby trees. The realisation that I was actually in Afghanistan – without having been arrested on the border – caused such a sudden bubble of happiness I laughed aloud, earning a disapproving look from Moh’dullah.
When the signal came to move we learned that one of the trucks in our convoy had developed an irreparable mechanical fault, so its passengers with their belongings were divided between the remaining vehicles. Our bus protested loudly about its increased burden and, after barely an hour, ground to a shuddering halt. The driver disappeared under the bonnet. Loud banging issued forth, as though the poor bus were being severely beaten for its recalcitrant behaviour. Satisfied he had taught it a lesson the driver revved the engine and, triumphantly we lurched forward again. The bus, however, was elderly and, as the road became ever steeper, it faltered more frequently.
Each time it stalled on a gradient the driver reversed to the bottom and the men clambered out. The driver would rev the engine furiously and suddenly rush, full tilt, at the incline. The women grasped the backs of the seats in front of them, rocking themselves backwards and forwards in a rhythmic frenzy until, on the final forward thrust, as the driver accelerated they released a united chorus of ‘Y’Allah’. And it worked. The men re-joined us at the top of the slope and we limped on again. Evening approached and perhaps the women had grown tired from their exertions or perhaps the old bus had simply had enough for one day but it refused to tackle another hill. Despite desperate banging and tinkering under the bonnet it was clear that we were not going any further that day.
Hussain escorted me from the bus, far enough from the other passengers to allow us to talk. ‘I am sorry but what can I do?’ He looked pleadingly at me. I shrugged, assured him spending the night on the bus was no problem, nothing to it, like going on some sort of spiritual retreat with no dinner, no tea, no talking and no smoking – just the sort of adventure I enjoyed. He peered through my veil, trying to decide if I was going crazy or just cross. While I crouched behind him, puffing a surreptitious cigarette, he continued to make reassuring noises. ‘We should reach Angoori by lunchtime – this time tomorrow we shall be in Jaghoray.’ Once again he forgot to say Insha’Allah.
Back on the bus I fell asleep immediately and, surprisingly, slept deeply until shortly before dawn. Seemingly refreshed after its night’s rest the old bus fairly lurched along until we reached Maqoor, an untidy, straggling place, whose dismal appearance the bright morning sunshine could not improve. As I started to move, Hussain whispered urgently, ‘No, you better stay here for now. This place is dangerous. There are many Pushtoon and they are not friendly to Hazaras. I’ll bring your tea here.’
At first, I enjoyed the luxury of stretching out on two whole seats but I was impatient for my tea and by the time Hussain reappeared, over an hour later I was irritable. As I gulped the tea he informed me I still could not leave the bus. ‘There was fighting near here yesterday and the Commanders say we cannot travel any further today. The drivers are meeting with them now to try to persuade them to let us continue, but, well, maybe we can’t go until tomorrow morning. I’ll come back when I know more.’
‘I can’t stay on this bus until tomorrow morning,’ I raged. Actually, it’s impossible to rage in a barely audible whisper. It came out as a petulant whine. Hussain made a hurried exit.
It was becoming unpleasantly hot and, under the burqa, I was sweaty and sticky. I dozed. I awoke, glanced at my watch. Another hour had passed. Where was Hussain? I tried to escape back to the oblivion of sleep but was too hot and thirsty. My head itched and I longed to tear off the burqa and scratch frantically but a couple of old men were stretched out, apparently asleep, behind me. I longed to blow my nose. My lips were dry and cracked. This, I decided was not much fun.
Hussain appeared. ‘Are you all right?’ With a big smile, he thrust half a cold nan at me. The smile did it. I exploded – quietly, of course. ‘No, I’m not all right,’ I hissed. ‘I’ve been stuck here for bloody hours, it’s like a furnace under this stupid burqa, and I’m thirsty and I…’ I stopped as I heard my voice rising and felt tears pricking my eyes.
Hussain poured a couple of inches of water from our precious water cooler – precious, not for the water, but for the clinic’s budget wrapped in plastic at the bottom. ‘Have a drink,’ he urged. ‘You’re dehydrating.’
I hissed, ‘Get me out of this bus or I’ll go mad!’ Hussain looked stricken. Scared as he was that someone might realise I was a foreigner if seen outside, he realised if I had hysterics the whole of Maqoor would soon know it anyway. Reluctantly, he agreed. ‘Come on, keep your head down, and don’t talk.’
Still snivelling, blinking back tears and feeling ridiculously guilty, as though the whole situation was somehow my fault, I kept my eyes dutifully downcast. We picked our way over piles of mud bricks, climbing over the low walls of various building projects until we reached the end of the bazaar. Glancing down, the piles of human turds around our feet reminded me of my own immediate problem. Hussain indicated a nearby wheat field, ‘Go over there, but be quick,’ he snapped. He was angry – with me, with the situation, with his own helplessness and fear and I trotted off, without further argument, through the waist high wheat.
Shortly after I was returned to my prison the drivers were given permission to continue the journey. As there was still some uncertainty as to whether or not we were about to drive into factional fighting on the road ahead we were provided with a group of armed guards some of whom perched on the roof while others squashed themselves in amongst the bags of sugar. Although not relishing the thought of running into fighting it seemed preferable to remaining in Maqoor and as we pulled out I longed to join in with the resounding chorus of ‘Y’Allah’, which burst from everyone’s lips.
Cocooned in my black nylon, slithery, stifling burqa I retreated into a review – it was certainly not planning – of what had brought me here. Adult life had begun in a dull, but safe job as a junior bank clerk in South West Scotland. Numerically dyslexic, it was highly improbable that I would have ever fulfilled my mother’s ambition to have a daughter become one of the first women bank managers and after a boring year I left to hitch hike around France and Italy with a boyfriend.
Back in Britain we settled in Blackburn, Lancashire where I tried a succession of jobs from being a nanny to making car components before landing a job with Oxfam. It was a job I loved and would probably never have left had not the mini-bus driver taking our pool team to a match in Blackpool not been going to Pakistan. Somehow during the course of the evening it was decided I should accompany the wife and sister of a friend of the mini-bus driver when they returned to Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city, to see their family.
While there, I visited the Marie Adelaide Leprosy centre and was deeply impressed by the work I saw being done there. In conversation with Dr Pfau, the dynamic German sister who had worked for over 25 years on the leprosy programme she suggested I stay on for three years to set up a health education department. ‘But,’ I pointed out, ‘I don’t have any medical qualifications.’
‘We can teach you what you need to know about leprosy. If you are not a doctor, that’s all to the good. You won’t use incomprehensible jargon when you tell people leprosy is curable.’
‘I have a job in England,’ I ventured. Dr Pfau shrugged. She’d made the offer and saw no reason to discuss things further. I came home but couldn’t settle back into my previously much-enjoyed life and a few months later returned to Karachi, armed with a three-year contract, wondering what I’d let myself in for.
While I was working to establish the health education department Dr Pfau, galvanised by the number of leprosy patients coming from Afghanistan seeking treatment, was encouraging young Afghans, mainly from the central region of Hazara Jat to train as leprosy paramedics with the aim of setting up a sister organisation across the border. A number of the students, such as my ‘son’ Hussain, came to me for help with their English. Our lessons continued outside the classroom as we, all foreigners in Pakistan, explored the city, took camel rides on the beach at weekends, ate Baloch ice creams at Clifton, rode the bumper cars at the fairground and haggled for bargains in the bazaar.
When my three-year contract came to an end I signed on again, this time to work for the new project in Afghanistan. Hussain, newly qualified as a leprosy/tuberculosis technician had already returned to his district to start the process of opening a clinic. I’d been delighted to learn he was to meet me in Quetta to accompany me across the border. I hadn’t bargained on Moh’dullah being a second escort.
A slight, wiry little man, whose sharp-faced features reminded me of a weasel, he worked as a driver for a small field hospital close to the site of Hussain’s clinic. When the French doctors, and people who funded them, pulled out because of security issues the men who had worked as translators decided to continue and, through Dr Pfau, had received some interim funding. Moh’dullah had come to Pakistan with a list of medical supplies the hospital needed.
In the meantime, I kept meeting other foreigners who wanted to talk about cross border travel and work in Afghanistan. This was a big mistake. All expatriates in Quetta – regardless of how remotely connected with Afghanistan some of them were – had a compulsion to dwell on dangers and disasters. Talk, conducted in conspiratorial whispers, was of arrests at the border, robbers on the road, kidnappings, spy charges, inter-Party fighting and bombing raids. Discussion of departure dates, routes and destinations was taboo, which made me wonder just how anyone could ever organise a trip. Keeping the upper lip suitably stiff was not helped by Moh’dullah’s attitude. ‘Hussain,’ he informed me, ‘is too young for this work. He does not understand the dangers.’ He handed me the burqa. ‘You will need to wear this for the journey. It is better if no one knows you are a foreigner.’
‘But,’ I protested, ‘Hussain says the same driver took Jon and Dr Pfau to the border earlier this year. Why do I have to pretend to be an Afghan woman? He knew Dr Pfau was a foreigner.’
‘The situation is different now,’ he replied. ’It’s more dangerous.’
Why had I been so feeble, not protested more strongly? The simple truth was that after listening to so many horror stories from other foreigners I was scared of what might be ahead. Once we left Quetta I would have to rely on this man I barely knew to escort me safely to my destination inside Afghanistan. Deciding it was better not to antagonise him I’d sulkily donned the odious garment. Instead of swirling to my ankles it stopped short mid-calf, the headpiece was too tight, constantly sliding round so that the net visor was inevitably around my ear. I did not look remotely like an Afghan woman.
We had left Quetta at four o’clock in the morning. Moh’dullah, as befitted his self-determined status, sitting in the front passenger seat of a Toyota pick-up while Hussain and I bounced around like rag dolls in the back. We were soon coated in thick, greyish white dust, which clung everywhere. ‘Are the roads in Afghanistan like this?’ I asked.
‘Oh, no, they are much worse,’ he replied, rolling his eyes expressively as his head collided with the roof. By the time the driver stopped to allow me to emerge for a much needed trip behind a bush I was able to play the part of Hussain’s old mother to perfection – cramped limbs refusing to straighten, forced me to adopt a shuffling gait.
The view had been mostly of desert and scrub, bleached colourless by the fierce sun. Climbing mountain passes we had gazed down corkscrew bends to dusty valleys where herds of sheep and goats grazed on goodness knows what. Apart from the small boys who herded the flocks we’d seen no other signs of life, except at the occasional police checkpoints. Each stop was a nightmare. I had no passport, no papers, and no permission to be roaming around so close to the Afghan border. Only once did the officials give more than a cursory glance into the back of the Toyota. I felt my heart stop as he indicated that Hussain and I should get out. In a flash Moh’dullah had leapt out of the passenger door, beckoning the policeman to one side. I had no idea what was being said but moments later I heard the door slam and the welcome sound of the engine start up. Hussain had shrugged. ‘Probably just wanted some money,’ he explained. ‘Don’t worry, that was the last checkpoint before Chirman.’
It was already dark when we reached the border. I was too exhausted to care our hotel room was a vegetable store and flopped thankfully onto a thin mattress on the mud floor amongst the sacks of potatoes. ‘Tomorrow night,’ Hussain assured me, ‘you will sleep comfortably in Jaghoray.’ If I had not been so tired I might have reminded him he’d forgotten to add the essential Insha’Allah – God willing – to his statement.
As some of you already know I spent a number of years in Afghanistan and have written extensively about my experiences in both prose and poetry. No More Mulberries is a novel set there and Drunk Chickens and Burnt Macaroni is a memoir based on the final three years I spent in Afghanistan.
I have come across the diaries I kept and bits of writing I’d started so this and future posts is by way of a prequel to Drunk Chickens. It begins back in 1986 when I first crossed the border from Pakistan to Afghanistan.
It felt like I had been asleep for only minutes when an insistent hand on my shoulder shook me awake. Hussain was discernible only as a dark shape, denser than the surrounding blackness. There was urgency in the whisper that accompanied the shaking, ‘Time to go. The bus is leaving. Be quick – and don’t talk.’
‘What time is it?’
‘Three o’clock. Come on.’
Rummaging under the blanket I retrieved my burqa, a tortuous garment that Robert Byron, in Road to Oxiana described succinctly as “a beehive with a slit on top.” Still befuddled with sleep I tried to pull it into place, Hussain’s impatient sighs making me fumble more than usual. Now was clearly not the time to mention he’d told me we’d be leaving at six o’clock, not three. Snatching my travel bag and an armful of bedding he hurried out, leaving me to stumble along behind him in the dark.
We were catching a bus to Afghanistan – from a place called Chirman, somewhere on the Pakistan/Afghanistan border. Hussain muttered something about Moh’dullah, our travelling companion, having reserved “one whole seat” for me in the ladies’ section. I was still pondering the implications of one whole seat – were half seats for children or perhaps for really small people? – when we came within sight and sound of the bus. An ancient, dilapidated vehicle, which couldn’t possibly take us more than fifty yards, was surrounded by a very vocal mob rioting outside the front door. Staring stupidly at the seething mass, my footsteps slowed – I’d seen buses set ablaze by more restrained crowds in Karachi. With a helpful shove Hussain propelled me into the midst of the mob, which instantly closed around me, preventing any escape other than by moving forward. Seizing the handrail I began to haul myself up the steps. The weight of bodies pressing from behind sent me sprawling in an ungainly heap across the laps of several women already seated.
From somewhere towards the back of the bus Hussain’s voice called out in Dari, ‘Oh, mudder, inja beyee.’ (‘Oh, mother, come here.’) Where? I peered in the direction of the voice but as usual the burqa’s net visor had slipped round my left ear and I could see nothing. With ferocious determination I gracelessly clambered over several women, trampling a great many children underfoot until I reached my “son” – and my one whole seat.
I was still trying to pull my veil straight when a large woman clutching a small child and an enormous basket forcibly jammed me against the window. It was a remarkable manoeuvre for I had sincerely believed the seat to be barely big enough for me – now we were three. When Hussain noticed the problem he took immediate action, haranguing the woman who, with admirable aplomb, totally ignored him. He next turned his wrath on the woman’s husband who yelled back vociferously, as did various observers and the driver, all clearly on the side of the trespasser. Finally Moh’dullah entered the fray demanding to know why the driver had sold half of my seat twice when he knew the whole seat had already been paid for. The driver looked sheepish as everyone began to shout at him, the woman was evicted and squashed elsewhere and I sat, cringing with embarrassment, for once grateful for the burqa hiding my blushes.
Two hours later, during which time the engine had kept up a headache-inducing thrumming, the last of the passengers squeezed in. With a terrific yelling of ‘Y’Allah’ and ‘Bismillah’ the bus shuddered into action. I sneaked a look behind to check where Hussain was sitting. With the exception of the four benches for women at the front, most of the seating had been removed to allow the entire rear portion of the bus to be loaded with sacks of sugar and salt. On top of these, surrounded by their personal belongings, sprawled the men, in considerably more comfort than the women herded together in front. The narrow bench seats, apparently designed for pygmies, contained ten women, their children and a great many bags and baskets. Hussain winked encouragingly at me.
As the sky brightened I peered through the grimy piece of windowpane, anxious for my first glimpse of Afghanistan – foolishly surprised that the scenery was exactly as it had been in Pakistan. The road was a dirt track through a desert wasteland. In the distance a line of mountains, barren and bleak, broke the skyline. An occasional herd of donkeys looked up curiously before continuing to graze amongst the few straggly shrubs in the desert.
Being the only woman wearing a burqa made me the object of curiosity. As I was soon to discover, very few Hazara women ever do wear it, preferring to preserve their modesty with the chaddar – a large piece of printed fabric about the size of a bed sheet draped around the head and shoulders. With a judicious flick, born of long practise, a woman can conceal her face just as effectively as with a burqa. A single eye peeps out from within the folds so she resembles some sort of benign cyclops gazing at the world. In the privacy of the bus, ignored by the men behind them, none of the women bothered even to cover their faces.
It was obviously considered strange I was not joining in as the women shared out bread and fruit, keeping up a continuous flow of chatter. An attempt was made to break the ice with the offer of a banana at which point Hussain, sitting immediately behind me, intervened explaining I was very ill and they shouldn’t disturb me as I needed to sleep. I squirmed beneath the burqa, ashamed of the deception while one woman stared hard at me. Finally, she nodded, nudging her neighbour and shaking her head as she made some remark I didn’t follow. Later, Hussain whispered, ‘She said it’s true you’re very sick because she can see you are wearing eye glasses.’
Unable, despite wearing my eyeglasses, to see much of the passing scenery, forbidden to talk, read – or smoke a much-needed cigarette – I dutifully closed my eyes. Sleep would have been welcome but every jolt of the bus slammed my knees hard against the wooden seat back in front of me and bounced my head off the window. Inwardly I swore at Moh’dullah and his insistence on my ridiculous disguise – and at my own spinelessness at accepting his strictures. A journey, which would have been uncomfortable but nevertheless fascinating and exciting, had I been able to join in and talk openly with the women, was turning into some kind of grim endurance test.
In a previous post about my summer as a museum attendant in the Old Bridge House, Dumfries, I showed our Victorian dentist’s surgery, which you can read here. This time, let me introduce you to Granny Black who was a resident for over forty years.
In the early 1900s, the council divided the building into two, three-roomed flats. The three rooms consisted of a bedroom, kitchen and parlour. There was no electricity, running water or sanitation. The latter was probably dealt with by emptying the contents of chamber pots into the river. Fresh water was certainly being piped into the town by then so drinking water would have been available, possibly from a nearby standpipe or a well.
Annie Black (nee Lind) and her husband, John, moved into the first floor flat around 1910. Annie was illegitimate and worked as a farm hand before she married. They had six children, including one set of twin girls.
We know very little about John Black. He’s been described as earning his living as a ‘jobbing painter’ – guessing this means painting houses rather than pictures. The only other things we know about him is that he liked to drink – his grandson James Murray said it was his greatest talent – and that he died after an accident when drunk. Outside the building are large sandstone ‘skite’ stones, put in place when the house was built to protect it from being struck by wagon wheels. John Black fell down drunk and cracked his head on the skite stone. This may be why the couple only had six children at a time when families of ten were not uncommon.
Annie, or Granny Black as she became known, worked as the local midwife. She also laid out the dead. A number of visitors of the museum told us their grandmothers or great aunts did the same job, attending to both the beginning and end of life.
Granny Black and her downstairs neighbour went together every week to the public laundry where she always had the use of the best tub. She could also have a bath as above the laundry was the public bathhouse where people could pay for soap, towel and half an hour’s soak in a hot bath. She also liked to sit in the doorway to the flat and knit while watching the world go by – she would have known everyone and everything that went on in the area.
She died around 1955 at the age of eighty-six. After Annie passed away the council made the decision to turn the building into the museum it is today.
Her grandson, whose mother was one of Granny Black’s twin girls, James Murray remembers going to stay with his grandmother in the Old Bridge House. He is professor emeritus of applied mathematics at University of Washington and University of Oxford, known for his authoritative and extensive work entitled Mathematical Biology. What a leap in two generations. I am pretty sure Annie Black made sure her children did their homework!
Today a friend and I went to Neverland, that magical island which was home to Peter Pan and the Lost Boys. We were visiting Moat Brae in Dumfries the garden of which J M Barrie maintained was his inspiration for Neverland. As it was Doors Open this weekend, entrance to the house and garden was free and we were amongst hundreds, if not thousands, of visitors taking advantage of this. Normal entrance fees are £6.50 for adults, £5.00 for children aged five and over and £2.50 for toddlers.
In 2009, owner of the historic building, Loreburn Housing Association planned to demolish it and build affordable housing on the site. An action group was formed to save and restore the building and garden and it has now opened as a visitor attraction and a National Centre for Children’s Literature and Storytelling.
Moat Brae, which takes its name from the motte or earthwork castle which once stood on the site, was designed in 1823 by local architect Walter Newall for Robert Threshie, a local solicitor. He lived in Moat Brae with his family until 1841 when it was bought by Mrs Babbington, a minister’s widow followed by, on her death in 1863, by Henry Gordon. This is where the J M Barrie connection comes in for Henry Gordon’s two sons, Henry and Stewart, attended Dumfries Academy where they became friendly with James who was living with his older brother Alexander, a schools inspector.
The boys spent many hours playing in the gardens by the river. Barrie wrote later: “When shades of light began to fall, certain young mathematicians shed their triangles and crept up trees and down walls in an odyssey which would long after become the play of Peter Pan. For our escapades in a certain Dumfries garden, which is enchanted land to me, were certainly the genesis of that nefarious work.”
The house passed out of private ownership and was for many years a private hospital and nursing home. In 1914 it was purchased by the Royal Scottish Nursing Institution and was given the title Moat Brae Nursing Home providing a private facility for surgery and medicine and also respite care for the elderly. Later, a businessman from Paisley bought it but was unable to secure the funding he needed to turn it into a themed hotel and sold it to Loreburn Housing Association.
It is a beautiful house, possibly better appreciated when it is not full to overflowing with excited children and harassed parents. Plenty of activities are available for children in the various rooms including staging a play with scripts available, creative spaces, and lots of things to see and do. The garden is lovely but I have to admit I didn’t feel the magic. Children were obviously having a great time playing on the Jolly Roger. Part of me couldn’t help thinking (grumpy old woman coming to the fore) J M Barrie didn’t need a whacking great pirate ship to feed his imagination.
In A-Z of Dumfries: Places-People-History, each letter of the alphabet has its own chapter and O is for Old Bridge House in Dumfries, where I have been working as a seasonal museum attendant this summer.
Dating back to 1660, and built into the structure of the 15th century Devorgilla Bridge, it is the town’s oldest domestic building. James Birkmyre, a cooper (barrel maker) built the sandstone house as both his family home and workshop. The town council of the day, worried about his house blocking the bridge insisted the front of the house did not protrude beyond the line of the bridge parapet. He doesn’t seem to have taken much notice of such planning restrictions.
Seen from the bridge, the building looks as though it is only one storey but from the back it can be seen there are two and in fact, when it was built, there was a lower floor which is now beneath the level of the ground. Over the years the house has been an inn, possibly a secret meeting place for Covenanters (using the principle of hiding in plain sight?), a family house and two council flats (more about that in another post) before eventually being turned into a folk museum. Most of the six rooms are crammed with artefacts depicting every-day life from the last couple of centuries.
One room is filled with Victorian dental equipment. I really hate going to the dentist. When I was five or six years old I was thrown out of the school dentist’s caravan because I wouldn’t stop screaming. The fear has remained ever since, exacerbated by being given gas before having teeth removed because the dentist said my jaw was too small to accommodate all my second teeth. I still remember the horrible smell of the gas and coming round thinking I still had to endure the ordeal, despite spitting blood everywhere.
You can imagine how I felt about having to show visitors the Victorian dentist’s surgery in the museum. All the equipment, including the dentist’s foot-operated drill, the stand for the gas canister, the cabinets full of false teeth, the pliers and the chair, were donated by the son of a dentist – Dr Dykes – who had a practice in Dumfries.
The smell of dentistry assails you as you enter the room. One visitor asked if we had a special spray to make it smell that way but, no, we don’t. The odour has seeped into the fabric of the red velvet chair – red velvet, I heard my colleague inform a tourist, disguised the blood stains.
Countless people have stood in that room over the summer telling me their personal horror stories of the dentist. School dentists in the 1950s have a lot to answer for with regard to the state of population’s (of a certain age) teeth. Jane was treated to the story of a woman who even remembered Dr Dykes. One Christmas Eve, aged twenty-one, pregnant and suffering from toothache she called on him. She remembers him putting the gas mask over her face and when she came round it was to find he had removed not only the troublesome one, but all her teeth. She said she went home and cried all night. He probably believed he was doing her a favour.
At one time, people were given the removal of all their teeth as a wedding gift or a twenty-first present. At one time, children were paid to have healthy teeth extracted. At one time, soldiers lying dead on the battlefield had their teeth extracted for use in dentures. We often shake our heads and mutter that the ‘progress’ we make in many areas of life does not always make things better but in dentistry things have definitely improved.
I still hate going to the dentist – have an appointment today for a check-up so didn’t sleep well last night and the horror stories I’ve heard over the summer are not helping. Does anyone else remember the school dentist coming round in his caravan? Or the smell of gas?
The title sounds a bit like those essays we were set in school on ‘How I spent my summer holidays’ except this isn’t about holidays. I had to take a blogging break this summer to focus on writing a local history book for Amberley Publishing: A-Z of Dumfries- Places-People-History, in collaboration again with photographer Keith Kirk. Also, because I am once again working as a seasonal museum attendant, this time at the Old Bridge House museum.
The deadline for the book was August 01 and I’d really hoped to finish it before then as I started my museum job on July 01 and I didn’t want to be coming home from working one job to spend the evening working on another job. Of course, I didn’t succeed in finishing it early – but did make the publisher’s deadline.
Each letter of the alphabet has its own chapter and some letters have more than one entry. While most A–Z guides are designed as route finders, this one invites readers on an alphabetical tour of discovery of some of the places and people, past and present, which have contributed to creating the Queen of the South, the town of which Doonhamers are, rightly, so proud.
Many of the town’s streets were named after the topography; others were named in tribute to worthy citizens whose names probably mean little to younger people nowadays. Work on the book has been enlightening, on occasions frustrating – street names change for no apparent reason; Doonhamers have an endearing way of giving directions that take in landmarks long since knocked down such as the swimming pool (‘you know where the swimming pool was?’), or have been under a different name for many years – such as Young’s Corner (‘We always met at Young’s Corner’). It will be interesting to see if future generations continue with this practice or if one day the site of the old swimming pool will no longer be a referral point.
Some letters provided an abundance of place names and names of famous people or landmarks (we could have filled the entire book with Bs and Cs) while others, X and Z were a bit thin on the ground. We think we’ve come up with really good entries for both of those!
As always, the research has been fascinating and we made some exciting finds – a medieval sandstone carving of a bagpipe playing pig above a fish and chip shop being the most exciting.
Publishing date is November 15 – perfect for Christmas sales. It’s already on Amazon for pre-order even though the publisher hasn’t yet put up the cover. Keith and I think we know how it will look as he sent in some cracking images for it. I’ll provide more info nearer the time with some more sneak peeks into the book.
Credit for all photos in this post to Keith Kirk.