gran

It is 25 years today since my Gran died.

Of all the women I have known, she has been the one who influenced me more than anyone else I know.

My Gran was born and brought up in Whitehills in Aberdeenshire.   The second oldest daughter of a large family.

She was a talented and clever woman, who wanted to be a teacher.   Her own teachers asked her father to allow her to train as one but he refused and sent her into service to work for a local landowner.

During this time she met George Laing, my grandfather.   George and his older brother traveled Scotland working on various farms.  Their family had emigrated to Canada but George as his brother had refused to board the ship.   The ship sailed without them and none of them every saw their family again.

After being banned from seeing George by her father, my Gran ran away.   She spent a year in Glasgow under the care of The Salvation Army.   We are not sure why, this was a period my Gran wouldn’t talk about, but we believe that perhaps there was a baby involved.  We will probably never know but every year my Gran insisted on giving a large donation to the Salvation Army.

Eventually my Gran and George married, her family disowning her, but the two of them took on Co-operative farms and although George was the named leaseholder, it was widely known my Gran was the brains and inspiration behind the pair of them.

Eventually my Uncle Davy was born and then my Mum.   Times were not easy, there was no family to help but they struggled on and made success of the farms they were put in charge of.

When my Mum was five years old there was a tragic accident.    My Grandfather had been working in a byre with a bull when the bull made a charge for the gate.    According to onlookers there were only 2 options for my Grandfather.   The first being to let the bull run out of the gate into an area where my Uncle Davy was playing or to slam the gate shut knowing he would be crushed by the bull.    My Grandfather chose the latter.   Saving his son, but being crushed to death by the charging bull.

The Co-operative farms then did something quite exceptional.  They made my Gran in charge of the farm, a very unusual thing to do in those days, resulting in my Gran being the first woman in Scotland to be put in charge of a Co-operative farm.

During the war my Gran was given Italian POW’s to work on the farm, along with rations to feed them.   The rations disgusted my Gran and she refused to feed “rubbish” to her workers.   Everyday she cooked breakfast and lunch for up to 30 men and gave the rations she had been given to the POW”s to take back to camp for their supper!

None of the prisoners ever tried to escape and when the war was over and for many years (including after she died) Christmas Cards used to arrive at her old farmhouse.  Sadly these have now all stopped.

My Gran continued to work the farm and raise her two children on her own, but eventually she did remarry to a Jimmy Macauley from South Uist.   His first language was Gaelic and he was a quiet, gentle soul with a huge heart.   He was a perfect step father to my Mum and my uncle and I remember his kindness and gentleness when I was a child.   He was adored by everyone and was happy to play second fiddle to my Gran!

The earliest memory I have of my Gran is walking into a byre to see her with a calf under each arm, trying to teach them to drink from a bucket.   For those who do not know about Dairy farms, the calf is taken away from it’s mother very soon after birth and have to be taught to drink milk from a bucket.    The amazing thing now is realising how strong calves are .. and how strong my Gran must have been to have one under each arm!

Jimmy MacAuley also died on the farm.   He died suddenly of a brain haemorrhage whilst milking cows. Soon after this my Gran decided to retire but couldn’t settle into village life so eventually moved in with my family.   She was a true Matriarch, ruling the family with her thoughts, her humour and her threats!     I was never allowed to eat a take away Chinese meal in the house as she was convinced that noodles were “rats tails”  (I kid you not!).

Eventually my Gran’s body began to let her down.  She had two strokes which effected her body badly.  Her mind was as clear as a bell and she hated being a patient.

I was living in Croydon at this time and was summoned home by my Mum to say my goodbyes to my Gran in hospital.

The day I walked into the ward is a day I will never forget.  I actually walked past my Gran, I didn’t recognise her.    It was her voice I heard and I realised that the strong, buxom woman, who always wore a pinny and headscarf,  I had known all my life had been replaced by a frail, curly haired old woman … but when you looked closely you could still see the glint of mischief in her eyes.

I spent an hour or so with her, holding her hand and laughing about my life and how I was a bit of a rebel, just like her.   It was a hard conversation, I knew she was saying goodbye to me and after I had to let my Mum and Dad into the ward to visit her, I knew I would never see her alive again.

I was sitting outside the ward, having a wee quiet cry to myself when a nurse came round the corner.   It turned out I knew her from school.  She sat down and she asked who I had been visiting and I explained it was my Gran, Mrs MacAuley.   She laughed then and said “it all makes sense now” .. seemingly my Gran had been regaling stories to the nurses about her grandchildren and about the one who had caused the most worry (me!)… she hadn’t put the names together since my surname is Johnson.

Elaine (the nurse) sat with me for wee while and was honest enough to say that my Gran probably wouldn’t have much longer as her body was failing quite quickly but that I should remember her not as the withered body in the bed but as the strong, buxom woman that I remembered.

A couple of weeks later my Gran did die.   She left very little behind apart from a small family who loved her and a suitcase under her bed that contained all the lovely gifts we had bought for her over the years that had been “too good to use”.

Margaret Jane Bremner/Laing/MacAuley… you were one formidable woman.  Tough, gentle, funny and with a heart as big as Scotland.   I love you and miss you.