A while back ah cam by a notice o an ‘open dayʼ for a gairden in East Lothian. It wis o particular interest acause it wis in a place ah haed kent weel whan ah wis a bairn. Bein mindit o it fairly brocht back a wheen o memories. For mair nor fifty year, his hale wirkin life, ma uncle wis the gairdener tae the big hoose belangin the estate.
Whan we war wee, me an ma twa brithers, toun bairns, wad tak fousome delicht in oor veesits tae him an ma auntie. We loʼed their hoose wi its twin reeks o ile lamps an oor uncleʼs pipe. It gied oor heids a wee dirl tae ken we wad be gaein tae sleep upby ablo the eaves in the dinkie chaumer wi the pentit widden fluir; an in the beds wi stairchit coonterpanes. No lang afore, oor aulder cousins haed sleepit in the same chaumer, evacuatit tae the kintrae lik sae mony bairns acause o the dangers fae the war.
Oor uncle haed gotten his place in 1929 strecht fae servin his time tae an auld gairdener in Fife. The position on the estate cam wi a tied hoose that alloued him tae mairy a big sister o oor mither wha he haed been winchin for aboot a year.
It micht be haurd tae pictur sic a job description nouadays but, forby keepin the gairdens in guid order, he wis required tae attend tae the needs o a dochter o the hoose. She wis o a consumptive habit; an illness o the lungs better kent as tuberculosis or TB. In thae days, afore they foond the richt medicine, TB wis a killer, an aabody wis feart o it. Spreid in the air throu coughin, it could rin throu faimilies lik a plague. Anent treatment, it wis for the maist pairt rest, confined in ane o the sanitariums got up by the government tae keep consumptives isolatit. Exposure tae fresh air an sunlicht ower months, eʼen years, wis thocht by some tae be a cure. Sae, whaur there wis siller eneuch, the afflictit micht traivel tae sanitariums in Switzerland in the howp that breathin the pure muntain air wad bring betterment.
The lassie o the hoose wis undergaein her fresh air treatment at hame sin the estate wis set in open fermland juist ablo the Lammermuir Hills. Oor uncle haed tae lift her up in his airms an cairy her back an forrit fae her chaumer at the tap o the big hoose throu the gairdens tae a bed in the simmerhoose whaur she wad lie oot in the air for oors o ivery day. For aa that TB wis sae smittle, he niver catcht it fae her.
The gairdener’s dwallin wis close by the hame ferm sae we bairns haed a rare time rinnin aboot the fields, playin in the hey loft or traipsin efter the hen wife, leukin for eggs in aa the neuks o the ferm yaird. We haed tae stey awa fae the tractors sin oor auntie thocht them unchancy contraptions. No lang afore, a lad fae the estate haed been killt whan his tractor rowed ower on the hill. Deiths in that wey war rife on ferms in thae days. But we bairns warnae fasht wi sic wirries whan we plowtert in the hauch or gaed alang the road sneddin the heids aff the deid man’s flourish. A skelpit dowp fae oor auntie for oor glaurie shuin, or oor uncle tellin us the sweeshin soond o oor sticks could bring a futrat oot fae its hideyhole in the dyke war mair lik tae mak us fearfu!
Ma big brither wis a dab haund at guddlin for troot. He wad lay doun aside the burn on his belly an hing ower the bankin at the deepest bit, airms danglin doun intae the watter. Whan a troot cam sweemin by he wad gie it a douce wee tickle afore wheechin it up ontae the gress!
Ah haed a fondness for the kye sae wad hing aboot the byre at feedin time howpin tae be invitit tae gie a haund. Ah mind ettlin tae fork the silage up intae the heichmaist trochs, an the ponky mell that wis compostit hey an treacle comin back doun aboot ma heid!
Whan the grieve wisnae aboot, the cattleman lat me shaw neeps wi a sickle an caa the haundle whan they got champit in the graith; he learnt me hou tae feed a mitherless cauf wi a mell o watter an a pouder cried ‘milk equivalentʼ. Gaein doun on ma hunkers, taein the wee beast’s heid ablo ma oxter, an wi a haund wagglin in the pail while tryin no tae cowp it, makkin it pit its heid in tae slabber an souk the milk fae ma fingers. It wis a richt slaister, but hou ah loʼed daein it!
Oor auntie wis a toun wumman at hert an wisnae ower keen on haein the waffs o the fermyaird in her hoose, sae whan we cam back in, it wisnae eneuch tae gie oor haunds an faces a dicht. She wad harrie us intae the scullery an screenge us wi soap an a coorse cloot gin aa oor skins haed a glent! For aa that, we niver got onywhaur near as clerty as we did in the toun, playin oot in the sooty streets.
We gaithert sheep’s purlies for oor uncle; dreepin the dykes intae the fields, an spearin them up intae a pail wi pyntit sticks. He telt us they war guid for makkin his tatties growe! His ain gairden wis fou o the bonniest flouers as weel as a muckle bit laid doun tae vegetables an fruit busses. Tae us bairns it wis lik a sweetie shop! He kent fine we war pauchlin a puckle o his peapods, straeberries, goosegogs an the lik, but he wis a couthie man an didnae clype on us tae oor auntie!
Ilka berry growed in the gairden wis pickit sae oor auntie could mak it intae jeely; she steert it in a muckle pot hingin fae the swee ower the fire afore poorin it intae jaurs tae jyne umpteen ithers aside the pickelt eggs in her pantry. Aabody veesitin the hoose gaed awa wi a jaur o jeely! It tastit braw slaithert on a piece but the wark o reddin up the berries, the toppin an tailin, wis pernicketie an takkit ower lang for bairns deein tae be ootside playin — eʼen wi a rewaird o a bittie rhuburb dippit in sugar! Ah mind whan oor uncle wis left for a meenit tae steer the jeely, a clump o soot fell doun the lum an intae the pot. He juist steert it in, an wi a twinkle in his ee telt us tae haud oor wheesht sin oor auntie wad niver ken onywey!
Whiles, o a simmer’s nicht, he wad tak us throu the yett aside his pottin shed tae gie us a keek at the big hoose gairdens. We haed tae be awfu quiet sae as no tae disturb onybody. Twa things ar thirlt tae ma mind: the busses whittelt intae the shape of peacocks an the lang harlt paths rinnin alang tae a muckle swaird o green furth o the hoose for aa the warld lik a weel-pressed claith. Whan ah think on it nou, it maun hae taen oor uncle a pouer o wark tae keep the gairdens in sic guid order.
Oor destination wis aye tae the kitchie gairden ahint the hoose an the hothooses, stappit fou wi tomataes. Ilka year the big hoose haudit a ‘gairden pairtyʼ an oor uncle, forby makkin shuir the groonds an flouer beds war leukin their best, haed tae uise aa his gairdener’s skeels tae hae the tomataes an ither simmer vegetables ready for pickin on the day. The maister an mistress likit tae serve their guests wi hame growed produce. Ower the years he niver luit them doun. In his hale wirkin life ah dinnae think he wis iver awa fae hame ony mair than twa days thegither, sic wis his sense o whit wis due tae his wark an his gairdens.
As we growed up oorsels, we still went aboot the place, anely nou it wis tae meet oor freends or gae tae the dances in the village haas at Saltoun an Humbie. Ah hae a pictur in ma mind o oor uncle staundin in the gairden, giein a wave, bunnet on the back o his heid an pipe, as aye, clampit atween his teeth.
Spikkin at his buirial, the mistress o the big hoose, the sel-same lassie he haed cairied back an forrit, readit oot a poyem aboot bein nearer God’s hert in a gairden than onywhaur else on earth.
It wis fittin.
coonterpane bedspread; smittle infectious; deid man’s flourish cow parsley; shaw tae sned aff the coorse thick stalk o a neep; ponky smelly; screenge scrub, scoor; purlies drappins