Stornoway in the thirties was a much smaller town than it is today and for children it was stratified by where they lived. By virtue of having my home down town on Bank Street and a Grannie living in Bayhead I had a foot in both camps. We had tremendous freedom as children. I can remember walking up Cromwell Street quay by myself to my Grannie’s house long before I went to school; there was little or no traffic in those days, haulage was, in the main, by horse drawn carts, with the notable exception of Calum Soda’s lorry! Passenger transport was either by bus or by foot, and those people who had cars used them for expeditions to “the country” and never to run around town. Shopping was done in small local shops dotted all over town.
When I was a child in the thirties, there were four small shops between the site of Mitchell’s Garage (corner of Matheson Road and Bayhead) which was then a small triangular shrubbery with hawthorn bushes, and Mackenzie Street, the bottom end of which was known as Craig’s Close. We called them goody-shops because the fact that they sold other things was completely irrelevant to us and was therefore dismissed as being of no importance.
The first shop was Annabella Captain’s; it was dark and mysterious and rather bare. It also smelt very strongly of paraffin. (The Stornoway Electric Company had just set up in business and most houses were still lit by oil lamps). In my memory she had a smaller selection than the others, but had the advantage that if you wanted goodies on Wednesday half-day you could knock on her door and she would bring you a tray like a cinema usherette so that you could make your choice. Physically she was tall and dark and I was in awe of her.
On the corner of Stag Road was Johanna Kay’s shop, (the irreverent denizens of the Stag called her Joo-joo-lala but my Grannie called her Johanna Kay and as far as I was concerned that was her name!). She was a plump cheerful lady with greying hair caught in a loose bun at the nape of her neck and her hands busy with her knitting. Her stock of sweets was set out on a tilted board in her window, and you made your choice outside, debating the merits of lucky bags, blacksugar straps, ogo-pogo-eyes, tallygasset, hikers picnics (a superior kind of lucky-bag), lollipops, mixtures (an assortment of soft sweets, fondants, jubejubes, coconut ice). Mixtures are still on sale, and my granddaughter loves them, but they are considerably more expensive than one old penny for a bagful!
Next door to Johanna Kay was Maggie Grant who was a small spare woman, fanatical about cleanliness and tidiness. She was a close friend of my Grannie so that I was sent to her shop often, but I knew better than to waste her time while I chose what to buy. She was kind and pleasant to us children but we never took liberties with her.
The last shop, Alan Craig’s was the most fascinating of all. It was tiny and crammed full of every conceivable kind of object. While the others were mainly grocery shops, Alan Craig sold everything from a needle to an anchor. I must admit that I never saw an anchor in his shop but that’s not to say there wasn’t one somewhere!
In those days there was hardly any pre-packaging, butter came in tubs, flour, sugar and grain came in sacks, and it all had to be weighed and put into greaseproof paper or different sizes of brown bags, according to what, or how much, you were buying. As a result shopkeepers were incredibly deft in their handling of such goods. Butter was taken out of the tub with a wooden butter pat, one side plain and side ridged, it was patted into shape and the ridged side was used to make a pattern on the butter before it was wrapped in greaseproof paper and put into a paper bag.
Dry goods were put into a thicker paper bag and tied with string.
Alan Craig himself was a small man, slightly stooping, with a bald head fringed with white hair. He was kind and gentle and very fond of children. Most of my Grannie’s shopping was done in Maggie Grant’s but occasionally I would be sent to Alan Craig’s for a message. I was always pleased when this happened because there was always a bonus in the form of a little poke twisted by Alan from a wee scrap of paper and filled with mixtures. I could never understand why my Grannie didn’t get all her shopping from this kind man.
It was quite usual to have to wait to be served, but in Alan Craig’s that was no hardship as there was plenty to look at. Outside the counter, which was at right angles to the door, stood the bags of grain, and above them were shelves, which held an incredible number of dishes, pans, and cooking utensils of all sorts. Every inch of ceiling had something dangling from it – brushes, girdles (for pancake-making), spades, garden tools, zinc and enamel pails and basins of all sizes, shovels, frying-pans, all in a welter of confusion. The goodies were laid out in the front window, which they shared with a large grey cat, and in the summer-time, several wasps. I suppose we all developed antibodies and survived!!
At noon every day, Alan would come out from behind the counter, take a handful of corn from a sack and scatter it on the pavement outside, and out of the sky would materialise a couple of dozen pigeons of all colours, mainly grey with iridescent, rainbow feathers along their backs, but some dusty pink with white markings and pink feet and, very rarely, a bird that was pure white. They were quite tame, and would peck at the grain while we watched them.
Around my home on Bank Street there were also four goody-shops. The closest was just next door to our shop on North Beach (T. B. MacAulay’s) and was run by Mr and Mrs Cabrelli. They were a cheerful Italian couple very popular in the town. We went to their shop for ice-cream, penny-sliders mostly. I remember when ninety-nines were invented, tuppeny sliders with a milk flake in the middle. They were a rare treat, presented by a benevolent adult in a generous mood! Ice-cream cones were a later development, and I never really took to them, even yet I would rather have a slider! I don’t remember the cheaper sweets being sold by Mr Cabrelli, his stock was mostly chocolate bars and bottles of sweets, and lemonade used for making ice drinks with a dollop of ice-cream, a straw, and a long-handled spoon.
At the end of Kenneth Street where the Coffee Pot is now was Maggie-Jean’s. She came into her own on Saturday afternoon at two o’ clock, when we all went to the Matinee in the Picture House (the former Playhouse Cinema, now the British Legion), 3d for the front and 6d for the back and a serial which ended on a cliffhanger to entice us back the following week. Before we went we stocked up in Maggie-Jean’s. Chewing gum was popular and lasted a long time, but there was an undercurrent of unease connected with it because we didn’t know what it was made of, and unkind elders who disapproved of it, suggested that it might be herring guts or other unsavoury items.
The other time we went to Maggie-Jean’s was before the Band of Hope which was held once a week in Martin’s Memorial Church Hall, conducted by Miss Grainger and consisting of a Magic Lantern Show. The Band of Hope was a temperance organisation although mostly the message passed over our heads as we sat, cheeks bulging, watching the slides of mission work in Africa and other improving subjects. In this television age it seems incredible that we should have been so easily entertained.
Along South Beach on the corner of Castle Street was Bella Bovril’s shop. She sold the same selection of sweets the Bayhead shops did, but you had to choose from the window, and not waste time dithering inside. Again, looking back from today’s perspective, I am amazed how docile and obedient we were. I sometimes reflect bitterly that my generation lost out badly; we were bossed by our parents, and then in turn we were bossed by our children.
Down the road and round the corner was Maggie York’s over which an aura of wickedness hung, mainly because it was known that she would open on Sundays. I did not go to her shop often, not, I regret to say, on moral grounds, but because the choice of sweets in her shop was very limited.
In the mid-thirties Americanisation hit Stornoway in a big way with the opening of F.W. Woolworth’s 3d and 6d store. There were only these two prices and it was like a Fairyland to us. The store employed a large number of local girls, and two of them, both good friends of mine are still known as Annie the Goodie and Annie Jewellery because these were the two counters they ruled over. My youngest sister aged three used to toddle up “to school in Woolies” every morning after Kirsty and I had gone to the real school. There she had the run of the place and was petted and made much of by all the staff, from the Manager down, which just goes to show what a relaxed attitude there was to commerce in those days.
I have thoroughly enjoyed my trip into the past and I hope my readers enjoy it too. May it recall happy times to my own generation and give a picture of what life was like in these pre-war days to young people today.
M. Dierdre Macdonald