a family story

John Roxborogh

MARY McKENZIE (1837- )

Mary was the firstborn in the family and as the eldest daughter was named for her maternal grandmother, Margaret McKenzie. In the early summer of 1841 when the census was taken she was four years old and her brother John was two. Her home was the two-roomed cottage on her grandfather’s croft and her early playground the immediate environment of the croft.

          Life was hard for anyone growing up in Coigach in the 1840s but Mary’s parents and grandparents and others before them had proved they could survive. They had withstood the almost continual state of poverty that had been the loft of the Northwest highlanders for generations, and in spite of hardship reaching new levels of severity in this period, life went on with people displaying a characteristically stoic attitude.

          There was no lack of playmates for Mary as there were 29 other children in Achindrean in 1841, 10 of whom were of an age to be her friends. Some may even have been her cousins and members of John and Helen’s extended family. Child ren had to accept the transitory nature of many friendships as families moved in and out of the village. Ten years later only two other girls from the 1841 group remained. A century and a half later story books were being written to help children deal with social issues, but not so when Mary was a child.

          Play was part of life for children even in impoverished times. Her favourite games were no doubt the universal ones based on movement and rhythm, ancient chants and singing, and the imitation of adults’ daily and seasonal tasks. She would have absorbed Gaelic prayers and poetry that tied in to so many household activities including food preparation, spinning, weaving, keeping the fire and the protection of the home at night.


The dwelling, O God, by thee be blest,
And each one who here this night doth rest;
My dear ones, O God, bless thou and keep
In every place where they are asleep; 

In the evening that doth fall tonight,
And in every single evening-light;
In the daylight that doth make today,
And in every single daylight day.

There were no brightly-coloured factory produced toys, but common everyday objects. Corks washed ashore from herring nets were just the thing. There were old horse-shoes, stones from river or beach. All were fine for imaginative play for younger children, while those who were older used them in games of skill – peevers, put-the-shot, cork-release, football, fingers and catty-doggy.

          Peevers was a form of hopscotch, the peever being a flat stone shunted from square to square while hopping on one foot. Squares were drawn on the ground in the overall shape of a crucifix. Put-the-shot required a special stone called a dornag which had to be weigh about six or seven pounds, and be a round shape washed in the sea. What thoughts of prowess came to the minds of young lads holding them at arms length and twirling round to release it?

Both boys and girls played cork-release, a simple bat and ball game using a cork instead of a ball, or catty-doggy, a similar game which used a wooden bat to hit a notched four inch piece of wood as far as possible. And there was also ringers where a horseshoe was tossed over a stake. Football was just a simple game of kick the cork.

By the time Mary was seven or eight she could play a good game of peevers and didn’t need a friend to practise. Games were only part of the growing up process. From the time she was a toddler at her mother’s side she had started to learn about food preparation, spinning wool and weaving. It was a matter of survival for the family that children quickly learnt to perform daily and seasonal tasks needed for life on a croft. For some this often meant schooling was part-time. The realities of life, sickness, birth and death were part of their lives long before adulthood. Mary’s grandfather John died before she was ten, and then her grandmother Helen a few yeas later. During this time other siblings were born.

          The school in Achindrean was not far from the village, but there is no record of Mary having ever attended, even although her brothers Donald and Roderick did so. It is likely she had little if any formal education and probably Gaelic was her only language.

          As she reached teenage years she was expected to share even more in the daily routine of the household. She had been fetching water from the well for some time, but now she helped make bannocks and porridge, nettle soup and kail dishes. She spun fleece and wove cloth, learnt about herbs and simple remedies for sickness. While the three boys were at school, she worked at home just as any adult.

          When she was old enough she spent summers in the sheiling watching over the cows, doing the milking and making butter and cheese. This was a splendid time of the year when poets were moved to write of the beauty of nature and the harshness of the other seasons were forgotten for a while. These periods in the summer milk-house in the comparatively lush hill pasture was probably the closest experience to a holiday she ever had.

          Because of the economic circumstances the time came however when Mary, like other young women in Coigach, had to leave home and look for work elsewhere. A well-educated girl might find openings as a governess or a children’s nurse, but most were, if not glad, at least relieved to find a position as housemaid or dairymaid, of a house-servant or farm-servant. There were few such opportunities in Ullapool and surrounding districts, so most girls from the crofts went to the towns or cities, perhaps Dingwall, Inverness or further afield to Glasgow, Aberdeen or Edinburgh. In the 1860s, perhaps in another parish, Mary found work as a housemaid. By 1869 she had returned to Achindrean and on 12 November gave birth to a daughter, Johana.

          Mary and Johana remained on the croft until 1873 when Johana left Achindrean to travel to New Zealand with her grandparents and several of her aunts and uncles. No explanation about the reasons for Mary’s decision to stay in Scotland survives in family memory or correspondence. At least it could be said she had the courage to part with her child in the hope of Johana’s having a better future. Twenty years later Johanna married her cousin William, eldest son of her uncle Roderick. They had a family of ten children and thus Mary and her borther Roderick came to have a line of descendants in common.

          In March 1890 when Ann, Mary’s mother, died, Mary herself was still living, presumably in Scotland. There her trail ends. That she was remembered with fondness and respect is attested to by the naming of several second-generation babies in other branches of the family; Catherine and Isabella, along with Johana herself, each naming a daughter for her.