My first sure memory is of one cold and stormy February day in 1862. I was not quite four years old and was seated in the manse nursery beside my sister Lucy, who was seventeen months younger. I was aware that something strange and momentous was happening all around in the house but what it was all about I couldn’t begin to guess. At length the maid came in and, taking each of us by the hand, led us gently into our parents’ big bedroom where by the flickering firelight I saw our mother lying.
“Sit you down on the floor, both of you,” was all she said; then all at once a small white bundle was placed in my lap.
“Hold him just for a minute,” said Mother in a weak voice. “That’s your new wee brother, my dears.”
This then was Herbert – Bertie as we all called him afterwards – who was to be the very last of my parents’ eleven children. Father was minister of the Free Church at Keig, a small village in Aberdeenshire, and it was to prove quite a struggle for him to bring up that large brood on his small stipend, though he always remarked philosophically, “If the Lord blesses us wi’ bairns, He surely will provide for them.” And so it seemed to happen.
Soon the big wooden cradle where we had all lain, one after the other, was brought back into the nursery. It was broad but low and we would all take turns to rock it gently with our feet. A strong knitted band attached to wooden knobs at each side made quite sure that Bertie couldn’t fall out and so I was set to rock the new baby in his cradle. That was great fun at first but the rest of the family seemed to be kept so busy at their work that I quickly grew bored and came to feel that “minding Bertie” was a chore that came my way all too often. There were so many other more interesting things to do.
Herbert’s christening in Father’s little church where we had all in turn been baptised was naturally a great event for the whole Free Kirk congregation, who turned out in force for the occasion, all eager to know what the Doctor’s latest bairn was to be called. The visiting preacher, however, so mumbled the poor child’s name that most of the folk in the pews failed to make it out at all, especially as it was so completely unfamiliar to people more accustomed to respectable Old Testament names. Father used to say later that the name Herbert was looked on with great disapproval by many of his small flock. He was sure they would have been much better pleased if Bertie had been named Amos, Elijah or Daniel.
I have only scattered memories from around that time – sharp little images of us younger children playing in the field at the front of the kirk and my brother Charlie running round and round in circles, still dressed in a striped pinafore though almost four years my senior. By then the two oldest boys, Will and George, were already students at Aberdeen University while Mary Jane, the oldest of us all, was housekeeping for them and Bella was at school in the city. So, apart from Charlie and baby Herbert, we were all girls at that time in the manse – myself, Lucy and Ellen, whom we all called Nellie. One little brother was stillborn a year before my own birth and another sister, Eliza, had died just six months later at the age of four. Lizzie had been a beautiful and kind-hearted little child and Mother found it very hard to accept her death, blaming the doctor at first for failing to treat her illness properly. But Lizzie had in fact suffered from hydrocephalus and nothing could have saved her. So there had already been much illness and bereavement in the home; perhaps that is why I cannot remember a time when either of my parents was not grey-haired……