WAITING ON THE BELLS, 1940-1980’s
The custom of saying goodbye to the year that is drawing to its end and the traditional celebrations to welcome the arrival of the New Year is inextricably embedded in the soul of the Scot. As the old year departs taking with it with all our hopes and dreams, some of which have come to fruition and others perhaps not so successful, the optimists among us will once again start the yearly cycle filled with the eternal certainty that this is the year when life will take a turn for the better. Every generation is different and I can’t help noticing that today many men reduce the stress and pressure of the festive frenzy on their wives by sharing the cooking and cleaning chores. This welcome change is perhaps due to the fact that many women work.
The impending arrival of the New Year heaped more responsibilities on the shoulders of women, for until the modern world liberated us with labour saving devices such as Hoovers, washing machines and tumble dryers, women were slaves to cooking and cleaning. Fridges were almost unheard of. We lived in a prefab in Mill Road and it had a gas one which came with the house and we also had our own bathroom. Most tenement buildings had outside toilets which were shared with neighbours. Hogmanay was a frantically busy time and women worked their fingers to the bone preparing for the arrival of New Year. There were no supermarkets then and women baked and cooked for hours to feed their families over the festive season. Plum puddings would have been made a few days before, but soup and steak pies were made on Hogmanay. The smell of cooking and baking which permeated throughout the house for most of the day bore witness to their hard work.
Tradition dictated that both the inside and outside of the home had to be shining from top to bottom. Windows had to be cleaned, brass letterboxes were polished with Brasso until they shone and all ornaments were washed. Fitted carpets were still in the future and instead there was a large carpet square in the middle of the floor, the edge of which stopped about eighteen inches from the wall and between its edge and the skirting board there was linoleum to be dusted and polished. Smaller carpet runners had to be taken outside and beaten with a cane carpet beater until all the dust had been removed. All bed linen had to be changed and there had to be no dirty clothes or linen waiting to be washed and all the ironing had to be done and put away.
The cleaning of outside stairs was sacrosanct and not just any old cleaning. The stairs had first to be swept clean and then down on your knees you went with a metal pail (no plastic then) containing bleach and water and you scrubbed away with a hard bristle scrubbing brush. After every mark and piece of dirt had been removed by sheer brute force, the stairs were rinsed with clean water and then dried down with an old rag. There were no rubber gloves then either and a great many women suffered pain and itch from dermatitis due to the exposure their hands got to cleaning products; my mother among them.
Not a scrap of household rubbish was allowed to remain inside the home. It would either be burned on the coal fire or removed to the metal dustbin out the back. Vegetable peelings and scraps were deposited into the brock bin to be collected by Andrew Ballantyne who boiled them in a massive cauldron hanging inside the fireplace of the Leigh Bent farm which stood just across from the gates of the Bent Cemetery. As the brock boiled it smelled like soup and the pigs loved it.
THE HANDS OF THE CLOCK. As the dying embers of the old year were fast fading away, the door of the house would be opened to let the old year out “then locked not to be opened again until “after the bells.” My mother Peggy Russell would by this time have laid out two trays covered with her lovely hand-embroidered cloths. The first tray would hold my dad’s bottle of whisky, ginger cordial for my sister and myself and for my mother, the same bottle of Bertola Cream sherry would make its New Year guest appearance and she would half fill a sherry glass and toast the health and wealth of our small family and then back into the cupboard went the bottle for another twelve months. My mother was 29 when she married and she had quite a good bank book which her sister my aunt Ella Lang kept for her and my father never knew of its existence, although he was a good husband and father. She used to say “never tell your right haun whit your left haun is daein.” She used the money to keep the wolf from the door when the pits were out on strike. She was really good at managing money and we had a secure and happy home life.
The second tray paid tribute to Peggy’s excellent baking skills with her home made shortbread and slices of sultana and cherry cakes. My sister and I could barely conceal our excitement waiting for the “bells.” On the stroke of midnight my father Jimmy Russell would open the kitchen window to let in the New Year and then he would hold me up to the window whispering “can you hear it?” and away in the distance through the still night air, came the unmistakable sound of the pit horn at Blantyre’s Dixon’s Colliery welcoming the New Year. In turn he would kiss my mother, my sister and myself and solemnly shake our hands wishing us a “Happy New Year” and my mum Peggy with her thick Aberdeen accent would hold up her glass of sherry and say “I wish ye all I wish myself and I couldna wish ye better.” The door was opened with the arrival of our first foot.
Now Jimmy was partial to a wee hauf of whisky and Peggy I must say, tried to make sure that was all he got for the bottle was destined to be drunk at the large family gathering at my Grandpa Lang’s house in Russell Street. If a man had a bottle of whisky at the New Year, then he was a happy man and if he had two, he was worth a few pounds or knew somebody with connections. My father knew everybody and occasionally managed to obtain a second bottle. Alcohol was expensive to buy and a bottle of whisky was a rare sight in our house except for very special occasions and the New Year came into that category.
In the early afternoon we would walk from 133 Mill Road to 73 Russell Street to join with our relatives in a lovely happy New Year’s day party. The women had all discussed what food they would bring with them and my mother’s job was to supply the plum puddings and some pies. The kitchen at Russell Street was tiny and I am sure that the table only sat four at the most, so we were fed in relays; adults first of course.
There would be much singing and telling of tales, reminiscing of old times and planning for the future. We kids had a ball and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. At the end of the night my Grandpa, Guy Lang lined all of us up and gave each and every one a 10/- note; a fortune in those days. By the time we had to go home my father of course like the rest of the men was quite merry. I can say however that despite the large numbers of people there, I never remember a cross word between any of them. It was always a big happy family party.
It wasn’t until I was an adult and had family of my own that I realised that most of my Lang cousins were in were in actual fact no blood relation, not that it made any difference. My father had been brought up across the road from them and my Granny Lang, a lovely woman had felt sorry for this family of five boys and one girl who had lost their mother while they were living in America and she was really good to them. My Grandpa Russell had brought them all back to Scotland on a troop ship in 1916 and my Granny Lang had played a hugely important part in their lives. Eventually my Uncle Guy Lang married my mother’s sister Eleanor Stewart, so Gavin, Stewart and Eleanor Lang were my full cousins and the others would have disagreed with anyone who said we were not theirs. Happy days…… Wilma S. Bolton. 2016. Ⓒ