The Foolishness of Grown-Ups

Eavesdropping on a hitherto dull, adult conversation – Voiced by the eight-year-old Janet, 1918

(Extracted from My Friends the Miss Boyds by Jane Duncan)


My grandmother said something which I could not hear and Miss Tulloch spoke again. “Och, the bairn is busy choosing the buns, Mrs Sandison, although I’ll give you that she’s a lively little clip.” They were talking about me, and I thought how foolish grown-up people were, for now that my granny had been to see the Miss Boyds I was not interested in them, or would not have been if they had not talked about me in between. But, now that they had brought me into it, where, before, I had been hearing without attending, I now began to listen hard to their low-pitched conversation.

The Dying Art of Good Stacking

The realisation that people in one’s family are mortal – Voiced by the eight-year-old Janet, 1918

(Extracted from My Friends the Miss Boyds by Jane Duncan)

Along the gable of the barn were nine front stacks and woven into the thatch of each stack in dark-green broom, which showed black in the moonlight, was a letter, so that the front row of stacks spelled “Poyntdale”.

“Who did it?” some man’s voice asked.

“Duncan Reachfar, the grieve,” said Sir Torquil. “He and his brother and Tom, their man, are the only men left about here that I know who can do it now. Old Reachfar taught them. But the very art of good stacking is dying out. That’s only the finishing touch to a high-class job, but it’s bonnie.”

I thought Sir Torquil’s voice was unduly sad when he said that only the men of my family, in our district, could thatch and mark his stacks like that, for what was he worrying about? Even if my father got sick (a thing I had never known to happen) at harvest-time, Tom or George would come down and thatch his stacks for him, for it was impossible that they could all be sick at once. “Dying out,” he had said. Dying. Did he mean that when my father, George and Tom died there would be nobody left who could –? But that was not possible! These men were not mortal! They had always been there, they were never sick, people like a person’s father and a person’s friends did not die! Only old, old people died – people like old Granny Macintosh, maybe….But everyone was getting older all the time. Even I was Big Enough now to come to the Harvest Home! And if I was a year older, my father was a year older, everybody was a year older than last year – a year more like old Granny Macintosh….


Emotional Intelligence

When people are not “in their usual” – Voiced by the eight-year-old Janet, 1918

(Extracted from My Friends the Miss Boyds by Jane Duncan)


Even at home, at supper, Tom went on being unusual until my uncle noticed it. Of course, my uncle would just be the one to notice a thing like that. The Big World outside Reachfar thought that my father was far cleverer that his brother, my uncle, but all of us in my family knew that this was not the case. My father was cleverer than my uncle at letter-writing and business – though not at farming of course – and my father was a year older which gave him a little more of that thing called experience, but my father would never be as good or as quick as my uncle at noticing when people were not “in their usual” as Tom was tonight.

Slow-Moving Chalk Dust

Memories of a North-East Education by Alyson


In Miss Margaret’s Primary One class, courtesy of the Tom and Ann books, we all became literate. For many Aberdeenshire children this was no mean feat since these books were written in English and not in our native Doric. At the same time, we were also becoming numerate, courtesy of wooden rods number one to ten (or was it twelve in those pre-decimal days?). These rods came in the full spectrum of colours and I’m pretty sure that the number three rod was quite an attractive lime green.

By the time we progressed next door to Miss Mabel’s Primary Two class, we were ready to pick up on the finer points of spelling and arithmetic. Miss Margaret and Miss Mabel frequently brought their classes together, sometimes for Music and Movement and sometimes to watch a film on the noisy school projector. This was always skilfully manned by Mr Anderson the headmaster, as women in those days were obviously not to be trusted with sophisticated pieces of machinery. The film invariably had a Commonwealth theme and might have been about children on sheep stations in Australia or perhaps in African villages. At the time however, I think I was more fascinated by the projector’s light beam picking up the slow moving mass of chalk dust that usually filled the air.

For Primary Three we veered round the corner to Mrs Scott’s classroom situated next to the staffroom. There we were introduced to the wonderful world of Work Cards which dealt heavily with Stone Age man and the Romans in Britain. At age seven we were all highly knowledgeable about Neanderthals and Centurions. Also at that time, it was very important for us to master the new metric system, which would soon take over completely from the old imperial system of measurement. Fifty years later and I still quote my height in feet and inches.

Primary Four, back in 1968, was housed in a hut to the right of the main school building. Mrs Fraser was the teacher and although most classes at that time still had milk monitors, Primary Four was the only class that had a wood-burning stove monitor. A major turning point for the school came that year when the old wooden desks, complete with inkwell, were abandoned in favour of new-fangled formica tables complete with plastic drawers on runners. Very much in keeping with the modern furniture design of the time.

As we come to Primary Five, my memories get more vivid. We were back in the main body of the school and our teacher was Miss Reid who impressed the girls at any rate, with her on-trend crocheted waistcoats and mini skirts. She also had amazing high hair, usually adorned with elaborate accessories. It was now 1969 and great advances were being made in the world of Science and Technology. We were lucky enough to have Mr Bruce take us for Science and he even invited everyone to his lab to witness one of the first Apollo moon landings. To my eternal shame, not realising the significance of what we were to watch on the grainy black and white TV, I was so busy chattering that I think I missed the whole thing.

Christmas time always was and still is an exciting time in the school year. At the annual Christmas party, the boys would line up on one side of the gym and the girls on the other as if about to go into battle. Nine-year-old boys and girls are not known for being socially at ease with each other but somehow we manfully made it round the hall on an annual basis, mastering the finer points of the Gay Gordons, the St Bernard’s Waltz and the Bluebell Polka. To this day, every time I attend a Wedding or Dinner Dance, I thank my primary school for having taught me the rudiments of Scottish Country Dancing.

Primary Six was Mrs McPhee’s class in the room next to the Higher Grade girls’ cloakroom. At age ten we were in awe of these “women” of 14 and 15 in their white wetlook coats and boots, long sleek hair and chokers. Full decimalisation came about in 1970 and I remember the excitement of paying for our lunch tokens with the already circulated 50p and anticipating the change in shiny new pence. On receiving these new pence, we hotfooted it to the local shop at break time where we regularly went to buy our sweets. Soon a dilemma was to be faced – Apparently during the transition period one new pence was to equate to both the old tuppence and thrupence. It was important to remember to buy a penny chew along with your tuppenny ice-pole or else you lost out bigtime.

And so we come to Primary Seven, our last year in junior school. We were right along the corridor beyond the art room and the janitor’s cupboard. Our teacher was Miss Ross and I remember this being a really enjoyable year, despite having to endure the dreaded 11 Plus examination. Coming up to Christmas we feverishly collected for the Blue Peter Annual Appeal and were rewarded with a personal thank you note from Pete, John and Val. Someone snuck in a copy of their big sister’s T. Rex LP to the Christmas party and things were never quite the same after that. Feather cut hairstyles became the norm for most of the boys in the class and so ended the era of the short back and sides.

In the summer of 1972 Alice Cooper was topping the charts with School’s Out and our class went their separate ways. There were choices to be made and some of us went to one nearby academy, some went to another and some stayed at the junior/secondary. We never forget our school days and if you are lucky like me, the memories will be happy ones. I will also never forget that slow-moving mass of chalk dust.

The Freedom of the Individual

Secret admiration for Pearl, the big grey mare owned by Hughie Paterson of Seamuir – Voiced by Janet, 1947

(Extracted from My Friends the Miss Boyds by Jane Duncan)


Pearl had been bought “for half-nothing” as Tom put it, because she had been badly broken to harness and was not “guaranteed for work”. She was a handsome animal but a character to be reckoned with. Pearl was in no way vicious – she never thought of rearing, kicking, bolting or biting. No. When it came into Pearl’s head that she had had enough of work for the present she simply refused to move. All those men who prided themselves on their horsemanship tried all their tricks on Pearl. They would cajole and flatter her and the hatful of oats would be held a foot from her nose. Pearl would not move. Eventually in the middle of some man’s speech to her, she would give him a scornful, disgusted look and march away with her load, leaving him looking a fool for she made it obvious to all that she had moved merely because she felt like it and not because of anything that had been said to her.

In a contrary sort of way, all of us, who were so proud of our intelligent, hard-working, “guaranteed” horses, had a special pride in Pearl. She was a symbol of the freedom of the individual to entertain his own views and indulge his own whims. She was not mischievous like our big mare from Reachfar. Pearl lived unto herself and would pull a load to oblige when she felt like it, but when she did not feel like it, no power in heaven or on earth would make her do it. Secretly everyone admired her for her stolid independence of spirit, although at times, it could be the limit of exasperation for everyone involved.

Setting the Scene

A selection of images

  • The now derelict Black Isle croft which was home to Jane Duncan’s father and grandparents
  • Her headstone in the graveyard at Kirkmichael
  • The view from her own house in Jemimaville overlooking Udale Bay

And, a map of the Black Isle in the Scottish Highlands, bordered on the north side by the Cromarty Firth. You should just make out Jemimaville, marked to the right of centre.